Mark was not afraid when he did not talk. His weekly tradition of sitting down with his neighbor and playing backgammon for quarters was supposed to be a quiet time free from fear. But lately with all the dying overseas there had been a lot of talk about security at home. It had seemed ironclad before.
His neighbor’s name was Harry and he had fat red fists that grasped the rattling dice cup to his ear. He said before I turned in my badge I knew a guy in dispatch who drove around to O’Hare to work security. Nice people maybe but the TSA doesn’t do shit. Only person ever tried to shoe bomb a plane was 2001 and the passengers stopped him themselves. A young guy like you knows how fast technology moves. They add another hoop for all of us to jump through and the terrorists go on to the next thing.
Harry discharged the dice onto the board and they whacked a pillar of white chips out of position. Insult to injury he said reading the roll. He rearranged the stray pieces before jumping his farthest pair of chips halfway across the playing field.
Mark said I don’t think we should be afraid.
And those poor kids in Virginia. If my kids were still in college I’d pull them out pronto.
That one was an American citizen.
Harry said—nope! He was a foreigner. Where are you getting your facts Mark?
Mark blushed. It was embarrassing for him to be wrong in front of his neighbor. Mark was so much younger.
Harry asked isn’t your wife somewhere down there?
It’s your move.
Mark collected the dice from the felt board and shook them a few shakes. His own roll provided a limp counter to Harry’s setup. He said I must be the unluckiest guy in all of Michigan.
That’s all right. We’re only just getting started.
Mark passed the dice across the table. Do you want a pop or something?
You don’t have any beer in the house?
Still dry Mark said.
I was only testing. You can’t put out a blaze with booze. I’ll have a Coke.
It was still light in the summer late into the evening but when Mark returned to the kitchen with the cans of soda it was just dark enough to be difficult to see the board. He turned on the hanging lights above the kitchen table. Harry had rolled another double and was busy repositioning his pieces onto his home board. Mark put down the two cans and looked out the window toward the Lake.
I’m finally settling down Mark said. I never thought she’d take them but she did. And now I’m here betting against an old shark.
I’ll bet you miss the big old house.
You’re so encouraging.
Only an idiot would fly down south. Talk about a shithole. It’s better to stay just where you are.
Or this apartment at least.
Another bad roll. Harry was setting up a wall that Mark’s back pieces would be trapped behind. All Mark could do was rearrange his home six.
You know Harry said I heard there are a lot of Islamics moving down there. Iraqis and Iranians. Getting to be there isn’t any safe place left in this country.
Be careful. You don’t want to sound unamerican.
O I’m a born patriot and everybody knows it.
Because you know they hear everything we say.
I don’t carry a cell phone.
Mark reached into his pocket and put his own on the table. Harry shrugged.
I’m not worried about our government. It’s jihadis that scare me.
Now they’re listening.
You exercise your rights Mark?
I give money to Al Qaeda. There. First Amendment.
I’m serious. I’m talking about the one after that.
I have an old piece my pop gave me when I turned eighteen.
Good thing Harry said. The plain fact is you don’t have to be afraid of anything you see down the sight of your firearm.
They played the rest of their game their quarters occupying the center rail alone. Late in the game Harry locked him behind a prime and started bearing off.
I think I’m going to backgammon you he said. That’ll be a first for me.
Even when presented with the opportunity to escape Mark turned up ones and twos. He chucked the dice across the board.
You’re funding the wash and dry this week.
Harry sat up and collected his things. He said my son’s coming into town tomorrow and we’ll watch the fireworks from the bluff. If you’re going to be alone.
Mark sulked to the sliding glass door that opened on the stairs down to Harry’s apartment. He reached for the handle and that’s when he saw the ghost. The night had collapsed on the bright kitchen and showed the residue of two hands against the outside of the window. The impression of a face smeared the glass. Mark’s mouth went dry.
Have you seen this already?
Mark said he hadn’t.
Looks to me like you’ve got a peeping tom Harry said.
Even though it got stuffy in his room that night Mark locked his windows and left his air conditioner off so he could hear. The normal sounds of summer nights in town the cars flying down Main Street waves brushing over the sandy beach his refrigerator’s compressor sparking held his eyes open like they were loaded with springs. At one moment in the night a crowd of teenagers erupted in shouting on the bluff and Mark squeezed the grip of the pistol beneath the corner of his mattress. The night was a place of fear and the days were so dark they were no lighter. He thought on it until his nerves calmed down and allowed him to fall asleep.
Mark got himself up at six as he always had since his kids had started going to school. He kept their picture framed on the wall of his kitchen. They were handsome kids who gave him a hot feeling of pride. He ate plain cereal in milk he had thinned with water and looked out his back door onto the Lake. An invigorating chill swept in from the water. Down the bluff he could see where they had set up the old roller coaster and the red spindle that splayed out thin leather saddles. It had been a good place to live once.
An intermediate smudge on the glass interrupted his looking and he rediscovered the forgotten vestiges of the looker. He left the room. He bathed dressed and straightened the bedsheets then used a bottle of window cleaner beneath the sink to mist the entirety of the sliding glass door. He scrubbed the image on the glass into pale veins which dispersed with sweeping vertical strokes of papertowel.
He was in the living room and his phone was on the couch cushion when it rang. He reached up from the ground to answer.
The phone told Mark his kids wanted to go to Venetian Festival that weekend it was time for him to see his children they had heard on the cell phones all about the festival. He would need to meet his wife halfway from wherever she was staying.
Are you with your parents?
You’re slurring your words she said. It isn’t even ten o’clock.
I’m not drunk.
It shouldn’t even take you five or six hours to get to St. Louis.
Are you safe? Where are you?
You obviously can’t drive. Have you taken your medication?
I think I can.
I’ll have to tell the children that their father doesn’t want to see them. That he needs to know weeks in advance. Is that right?
I do not.
Go to bed. She hung up.
It was better too when he was not thinking. He sat down at the kitchen table in the seat across from where he had eaten breakfast. Yes he had sat right there in full view of the ghost in his sliding glass door and didn’t even notice. Now he sat with his back to the glass and he could not scrub it from his memory. He could feel the ghost’s smudgy eyes bearing into his back. Outside people were starting to move in packs toward the beach. By afternoon the streets were crammed with cars that wailed their horns and distant screams of people riding the rides. He turned to look at the door and humidity had settled on the outside glass in a sheet disrupted only in places where oils from the face had not washed away. The ghost could not be dispelled. It kept on watching and watching.
A police siren yipped outside and Mark nearly fell down. Enough standing about thinking. He had light enough to bring to these people slithering along the street. He cinched a concealed holster beneath his baggy shirt and took his father’s pistol from beneath the mattress. He was nearly out the front door when his neighbor plodded to the top of the steps. Mark waved for him to let himself in. They stood under the archway connecting the kitchen to the living room. From there Mark could see out the windows in the back and the living room and the kitchen granting him vantage in three directions at once.
Looks real tidy up here Harry said. But hot as hades. The light really shines in the window doesn’t it? Shouldn’t you have a glass of water?
Harry took a glass down from the cabinet with the medicine bottles and sluiced it full from the tap. Mark felt the cold water through the glass when it came into his hand but when he drank it it felt like he was swallowing air.
Did she call today?
What does she want?
Me driving to St. Louis to pick up the kids.
She can’t expect you make it down there today with all the traffic in town.
Sounds just like a woman to call you up unannounced. She told you where she’s staying?
You really ought to meet my son. He got here half hour ago. Seeing him would be like looking in a mirror. Are you comfortable?
Then come with me. He’s just downstairs.
Harry never invited Mark down to his apartment. When they met for backgammon they played upstairs. Mark had only seen the lower unit once before when signing the lease at the start of the year. Then the near constant darkness of winter had made the dark rooms appear natural. Now in the summer he saw it more clearly—velvet curtains were drawn across the windows. Dark fabric upholstered the furniture. Even the coffeetable was spread with a black tablecloth. On the couch sat a young man about Mark’s age but whose face appeared younger freshlyshaven without a wrinkle. He smiled a white smile that sucked in a portion of the darkness.
Harry was already talking. The crowd outside could look right in if we didn’t cover the windows.
The son said Dad told me lots of good things about you.
Mark sat down carefully across from the son. He could think of nothing to say to the smiling man so he only smiled back.
My son married an old battleax too Harry said. She called herself a feminist. But we got through it.
She seized threequarters of my assets the son said. It didn’t seem to bother him. He said she sued me up and down for custody. She got whatever she wanted. She’s the mother. It wasn’t until she married him that we found out she’d been cheating on me the whole time.
Just rotten stuff Harry said.
I thought I could die. One man can only take so much you understand?
Mark said yes.
Isn’t your wife trying to screw you?
Now now Harry said. You don’t have to be bashful. We’re your friends here.
The son asked are you all right? Do you need anything?
Maybe another glass of water.
Everything can be a step forward. Listen to me Mark. I was drunk a whole month. I had a neighbor who was cooking crystal and I didn’t sleep two or three nights in a row. I still get goosebumps when I hear that word. Crystal. I don’t want you feeling sorry for me that isn’t the point of this. I want you to know I’ve seen it. It was five years ago this August.
Harry said I almost lost hope. He had come back with Mark’s water. But there’s always hope he said.
I understand if you don’t have anything to say right now. We’re down here. You need to get some rest.
But I got a good night’s sleep Mark said.
There will always be hope because you can always forgive. First the others and when you’re ready yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong.
Harry said you haven’t tried to go outside through those crowds today have you?
Will you come down with us for the fireworks tonight?
The father said good. Why don’t you go lay down for a while? I might even do the same. All this festival excitement is too much for me.
Always remember the son said. Forgive.
It was warm but not stifling upstairs. Mark went in through the sliding glass door and did not even notice the ghost. He opened the window and lay down on his stomach on the bed. The symphony was tuning up in the band shell and soon they were striking a precipitous march. Mark listened to the music until the band on the main stage began on guitars and the kickdrum. One band played and then another and the chatter of the crowd below his window never ceased. While he was lying there listening and not thinking he felt peaceful and his hand even wandered from its resting place on the holster on the small of his back. The light billowing in from his window reddened. The keystone of the festival was the display of fireworks over Lake Michigan at the end of the first day and the people outside clambered closer in anticipation. A headache like a freezing needle behind Mark’s right eye came on. The pain was a relief.
Harry came upstairs as soon as the sun rimmed the horizon. Mark was rested and even felt a bit jittery from all his time in bed. A rank moisture between his legs made him uncomfortable in his clothes.
Harry said we have a place beside the cannon we go to every year. Nobody sets their chairs on concrete.
They met his son at the foot of the stairs and almost immediately they were enveloped in the melee everybody swirling around them having traded their beach costumes for casual dresses and shorts and white teeshirts slathered with advertisement. A breeze moved in off the Lake and swayed the skinny trees along the sidewalk but the air was still jelly. Harry had been right—they reached the cannon after ten minutes of pushing and the son who carried three folding chairs propped them up on the concrete so each of them could sit down. Blankets covered all the grass. The sun had gone down beneath the water but it was still light.
They’ll never catch on to this one Harry said. Everybody wants to sit on the grass. There’s not enough grass for everyone.
The son asked does anybody want something to eat?
Mark had not eaten since breakfast but his stomach had no room for food. His legs jumped against his will. His destiny was happening tonight. He said I don’t need.
The father said I owe you for the robbery last night.
Let’s settle in before we go anywhere Harry said. Maybe you’ll change your mind.
Over the water little pontoon boats streamed from the river to fill the horizon. Those in the distance lit by single lanterns looked like small points on a wide array. Little figures resting on their decks faded away as the light diminished. Below them the beach rides drew red and blue threads through the sky. Then in the time they sat there looking the day vanished entirely. Mark looked into what should have been a dark palette but was instead kindled by an innumerable field of lights. Hundreds of boats and a stab of lamps brightening the pier walk and the roving eye of the lighthouse.
It’s only a matter of time now the father said. How about those elephant ears?
The son said I’ll get them. He stood up and stepped carefully between people reclining all around them on the grass. The father smiled watching him go but his lips pinched when he caught sight of one family sitting beneath the oak tree.
I never thought I’d live to see the day Harry said. Look at all that space.
They were a family of Muslims spread out over a large bedsheet. The father wore a white robe and his wife had wrapped her head in a bright leopardprint scarf. The children giggled crawling around their parents’ laps.
I pray I see an end to all this. What’s that they say in the Bible? This too shall end. It’s reassurance.
The words left Mark’s mouth without his having to say them. —The remedy perhaps more valid arms weapons more violent may serve to better us and worse our foes.
That’s good Mark the father said. Is that the Book?
Look at this crooked old cop from the county!
The shout came from behind them and they both cocked their bodies around. Harry pushed up from his seat and guffawed when he saw who had called him.
Excuse me for a moment he said. I have to set this son of a bitch straight.
Harry disappeared behind the cannon. Mark sat there alone in the darkness and the murmur of the crowd crept in. It saturated his hearing. He stood up. Then he glanced back to the family of Muslims and there she was. The third. The most holy ghost from the glass. She held her hands around her eyes as if she were looking at him through a pair of glasses but there were only her eyes showing through her scarf. Mark was scared he looked around to find Harry. The air where he had been was empty. His gracious son was missing as well. Mark had to arm against heaven alone.
A silver streamer jumped into the air from the end of the pier and all the people on the bluff erupted into cheers and applause. A green snake spread out in the sky and let out its delayed hiss. Mark grasped beneath his shirt for the lightning he had stolen. He drew the pistol on the ghost in the grass but then all the bright sky came crashing down. Colors boomed in the sky and crackled down a deluge of gold. The weapon singed his hand—clattered to the concrete. The battery of heaven opened up against him.