Stories & Novels

King’s Corner

Dave’s wife took off in the rented RV, Dave’s youngest boy waving to him half-heartedly through the back window. If Dave had been behind the wheel on this leg of their Scandinavian excursion—instead of abandoned here at a gas station—he and Laurie would probably be leveling out the RV at a campground. The boys would be skipping rocks down at a lake, then returning in soaked shoes to whine about the other’s vicious competitiveness. Still, he’d have preferred that. Instead, Laurie had yelled for him to get out of the RV. She told him she was taking the boys to an amusement park south of Oslo. She wanted, she said, to scream. “Take the goddamn train,” she’d said before driving off, the passenger door not yet shut but closing on its own as the RV left the traffic circle, like a bird tucking its wings to gather speed.

The intensity of their fighting still had a crisp newness; Dave had hoped she was bluffing and might return to give him a chance to pack an overnight bag. But she didn’t. He consoled himself with what he did have: his wallet, his phone, and the speech he would deliver that afternoon at the college where he’d spent a sophomore year. He stroked the cold drizzle from his beard and began walking into town. Why couldn’t he remember that family vacations almost never lived up to his expectations? What he needed—he and Laurie needed—was one of those pampered resort affairs, mild drunkenness painting peace and muting squabbles and topping off his relaxation. But…hadn’t it been “fun” last summer? He thought the Arizona RV trip had been a success, though perhaps that was solely because that RV had been roomy as a house, and it’d been the summer of cheap gas and national parks that never let you down. His mind, in its culling, had discarded all the squabbles and dreariness in time to consider another trip, this one.

As Dave walked through the tidy neighborhood toward the college, he attempted to reinterpret abandonment as freedom: after ten days in cramped familial quarters he could do whatever he wished. The thought was arrested by a soft gentle hum. He looked behind a low hedge and saw a robotic mower traverse the neat green plain of a house’s lawn. The robot was ankle-high and orange and moved in straight lines, turning away whenever it came to an obstacle: a tree trunk, a row of currant bushes, or the legs of a trampoline rising from overgrown clumps of Queen Anne’s lace, which his oldest son had informed him yesterday was actually wild carrot. Dave wished his sons were here to see the robot. The machine mowed over clover and bees alike as it ricocheted slowly against the edges of its confinement. Dave had never seen a robotic lawn mower before, nor known they existed. What prevented a thief from merely picking it up and hauling it away? Here: the social glue of social-democratic goodness. At home: nothing. He stood, transfixed. There was something soothing and tranquil about the machine. It was indefatigable and nearly silent as it rolled slowly and lumpily over the lawns perturbations. It was, thanks to an ignorance of its endless toil, perfect. He walked on.

The fight that had left him alone by the side of the road was a cock fight that began a month earlier, then faded, then become a cage fight in the RV through Denmark then into northern Sweden and across into Norway where there were fewer roads then it seemed there should be. They had just come south from the Arctic Circle, the parallel of latitude at which the sun dawdles in the sky during the summer’s apex. He had told the family it would be amazing. But in September the reality was a closed gift shop, an empty parking lot, and a cold wind blasting across a landscape of endless cairns contributed to by others for whom being here had been a more moving experience.

He’d begun breaking promises even earlier, like telling the boys they would be able to see icebergs off Greenland on the flight over—that assurance had been thwarted by a film of clouds. Those long, sunny days?—interminable sleety rain had dribbled down the windshield, the nights saved for lightning and thunder’s full sleep-depriving histrionics. RV trouble had stranded them for twenty-four hours in a Norwegian town appropriately named Hell, in which they overnighted in the RV while it sat in the mechanic’s yard. The promise of interesting foreign television (the promises decreasing in scope, dramatically) was broken when he, while on the roof of the RV trying to pick up a signal, accidentally broke the base assembly of the satellite dish. Even the smallest gesture soured. The video game magazines he’d bought for the boys during a grocery run had to be taken away because of all the topless women in the advertisements. The assurance that quitting smoking would be easier on Laurie thanks to all the fresh air?—her hands were red from shuffling the same deck of cards over and over. At a rest stop he’d watched her in the side mirror buying a cigarette off a stranger with the change in her pocket. That was an impossible view now: in an alley in an old town in Sweden, Laurie had scraped the RV against a house wall and kept driving, the mirror rendered useless, the bit of wire that had once lent power to the mirror’s servo dangling down and whipping against the side at any speed over thirty kilometers an hour. Normally Laurie would have been contrite about the mishap in the alley and made amends. But she was angry with him for reasons innumerable, and what compassion her heart’s chambers held were now, he felt, filled with unfriendly plasma. The boys were also growing tired and untrustworthy in their appointed duty as driver’s lookouts. There had been that close call with a Fiat during a lane change, for example. The drive was beautiful—sure, absolutely. They’d seen fjords and quaint towns with parades, and gained five pounds apiece on giant bars of milk chocolate and buttery soft-serve ice cream. Every new vista was gorgeous, but somehow less so with each day, until, inexplicably, it felt like baseline beauty. Look kids, a waterfall! no longer making its way to Dave’s lips at every new discovery.

Dave, recognizing where he was, stopped. Here, a larger, fancier lawn-mowing robot was hard at work. Dave liked this machine better than the first. Someone had attached two stiff metal wires to the front, each terminating in an inked Ping-Pong ball, for eyes. Dave watched the machine turn leaves into shreds of orange and yellow confetti. But then he looked back up at the house on the corner, the one he recognized because he’d spent his sophomore year there as a student, back when a year abroad felt like the height of daring. His landlords had been a well-known painter whose atelier was the entire second floor, and his wife, a gifted ceramicist who worked in the garage/studio and for whom Dave had had a fondness back then, twenty years ago.

He heard a bicycle coming down the incline and turned, startled by the sight of the woman fast approaching. It couldn’t be, but it was: the ceramicist, the painter’s wife. He had just a few seconds to take her in as she passed him. She was dressed stylishly in autumnal colors, eyes large and slightly frightened, but which, he knew, could also sparkle mischievously or nearly vanish in moments of frustration. Now he took in the perfect upturned nose, the wide lips which hid a full smile, and the tongue that sometimes draped her upper lip when she was in deep concentration, revealing to him the privacy of her tongue’s underside.

“Hi,” Dave said, a moment too late, the fenders of her bicycle clanking as she went off the low stone curb, the shopping bag in the front basket giving a startled hop. A pair of sunglasses that were nestled in her dark brown hair fell down to mask her eyes from him. Impossibly, she didn’t look older than twenty. She glanced at him for a moment before rounding the corner and gliding onto the spit of driveway gravel. He could hear the crunch of her footsteps. A door opened, then shut. The collapse of time dizzied him until he managed to sweep aside impossibilities. The bicyclist could only be the ceramicist’s daughter, a girl of only three or four when he’d lived under the same roof. Even then, she’d looked very much like her mother; now the likeness was a near-facsimile.

The robot in the neighboring yard was heading toward one wall of the house. Like a sentry, it turned one-hundred and eighty degrees and backed itself into a roofed charging station, the pair of affixed Ping-Pong eyes looking at him until the wires hit the edge of the sheltering overhang and the eyes pitched down, as though ashamed. He was, he knew, projecting.

Hungry, Dave found a kiosk and bought a hot dog in a potato tortilla. He was proud that he still possessed enough residual Norwegian competency to manage the small transaction, even though he’d been tripped up by the names for condiments and acquiesced to having everything on it, including the onions.

Dave, when not Dad, when not Laurie’s worse half, taught economics. Just before this semester’s sabbatical, he’d probed some of the underlying conditions leading to Norway’s high standard of living, specifically the correlations between the oil boom, social homogeny, and gross national happiness. There were plenty of studies on happiness—the Danish one was the most Facebook-shareable—but those broad surveys lacked the vigor he’d lent to his analysis. Because he’d drawn on data from this very town, he’d been invited by the college to discuss his findings. He knew it would also be an opportunity for the college’s economics department—and likely the local town politicians—to revel in a relative outsider’s praise. A weakness of all small towns. But they’d underwritten the cost of his plane ticket, though he’d turned down a hotel room owing to the RV. Which, by now, was halfway to Oslo.

As Dave drew closer to the college he did not succumb to nostalgia—he couldn’t. Though the roads were still more or less where he remembered them, the concrete and old wooden buildings had been augmented by new construction: a curved library, a cantilevered city hall, both ensconced in weathered woods and great quantities of glass. Arab oil money turned desert into conspicuous gleam and strut. Here, in Norway, it manifested in careful design and bloom-packed flowerbeds. He admired the Norwegian’s conservative approach, though there was some wanton flashing: the robotic lawn mowers for one, or the fleets of Teslas on the highway, passing, always passing, their RV.

Dave licked the last vestiges of spicy mustard from his fingers as he set foot on the college campus. He recognized nothing here. Ahead was an entrance with a bicycle keeping the glass vestibule’s doors open. He felt the faint stirrings of expectation build within him. He removed the napkin he’d tucked into his shirt and gave his beard a crumb check. He felt the paper with the outline of his speech in his front pocket. The plan all along had been for his boys to be in the audience, listening to his speech; not because he wanted them to look up to him, not entirely, but because he wanted them to witness what hard work could help one achieve.

Dave entered the building and found himself in a large covered atrium. Furniture worthy of a Design Within Reach showroom lay in the center around a colorful welded sculpture. The place was deserted. In the process of hunting for a front desk he found a janitor.

“Excuse me,” Dave said. “I’m trying to find Dr. Jens. In economics?”

“He’s not here,” the janitor said.

“They’re expecting me,” Dave said. “I’m giving a talk. I think there’s a luncheon after?”

The janitor shook his head. “Strike,” he said. “No one’s coming in.”

“Are you sure?”

The man held out his pale hands at the desolation around them.

“When did it start, the strike?”

“Midnight,” the janitor said.

“How long is it going to go for?”

The janitor shrugged. “They’re saying it could be weeks.”

Dave sat down in one of the firm but fashionable chairs and laughed a little, madly. The janitor smiled. All the haste to make it here on time—for naught. And the only audience, now, the janitor, a tall gangly Somalian.

“Let me make a call,” the janitor said, unholstering his phone.

That suited Dave just fine. He leaned back and was met with a headrest. The only chair with a headrest back at his college was the ratty old Eames in the dean’s office upon which it was rumored a grad student had been impregnated by the previous dean. Or maybe that had been on the ottoman. Dave, discovering that the chair in which he sat also reclined, felt jealous and uncharacteristically defensive. Unlike this college’s oil-flush riches, his school relied on stiff wooden chairs held together with animal glue, carved graffito, and academic moxie.

The janitor ended his cell phone conversation. “Follow me,” he said.

Dave followed him past a few more sculptures, up some stairs, and down another glass wing. The janitor held a card near a door and the door unlocked, revealing a large office. There, on a deep white windowsill sat a few items with Dave’s name on a sticky note.

“A book,” the janitor said, glancing at the cover, “On the history of Norwegian economics. You’re English?” he asked, handing the book to Dave.

“American.”

“You read Norwegian, too?”

“Occasionally,” Dave said, true in the same way that he could run a marathon, or bake a three-layered cake: slowly, and unevenly.

“It’s hard to read, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Dave said, bonding with another poor polyglot.

“And some Aquavit,” the janitor continued, laughing, handing over a bottle of light yellow liquor. He looked at a few of the other things on the windowsill, glanced about the room, and said, “I think that’s it.”

“Thank you,” Dave said. It’s an honor to be invited here. The economic growth of Norway and its relation to… Dave balled the outline of his speech and threw it in a trashcan and followed the janitor back to the exit.

A few minutes away from the college, a bicycle bell rang behind him and he turned, full of expectation that it would be the ceramicist’s daughter. But it was only the janitor passing him, giving Dave a wave. Dave forgot to ask whether the janitor was on strike or not.

Dave watched hooded crows hop in the clover-rich grass that dithered with the last generation of summer bees. He was startled by the depth of his disconsolation at not being able to give his talk. It wasn’t like he’d lost a position or a prize. Just a little speech to some professors and graduate students and then a lunch of flatbreads with cheese or shrimp with too much mayonnaise. Maybe waffles. But he’d been honing the speech for days in the RV, placing parts of it in his memory palace so that it would come off naturally and fluidly, all while his kids fought him on everything, and he and Laurie sabered with silence and, outside the RV, with heavier metals. At least some people want to see me, he’d thought then. Perhaps said.

The boys’ now years-long animosity toward him was the kind of thing he didn’t expect until they were teenagers, in a couple more years. Ditto his disappointment about life, work, and marriage that swelled through him like uncertain tides. The boys weren’t shaping up to become the creatures Dave had envisioned back when planting those first seeds, wiping those asses, praising and encouraging them through their brief years of innocence and vulnerability. Now he simply watched them grow, grow, grow as he and Laurie aged—a word never kind except to cheese and spirits, and then only up to a point. For instance: the boys’ delight in skipping school while on this trip had quickly turned into red-hot accusations of treachery and trickery when they discovered they’d still have to do the schoolwork he’d procured from their teacher. He might have let it slide, but the boys were already on the cusp of needing tutoring. His sons were coasting on the intelligence of their inherited genes, coupled with the frail lashings of parental nagging. Dave saw before him a teeming mass of others’ youngsters hitting the books until midnight, ready to snatch his boys down from their relative heights and crush them under their march-strengthened, tightly knotted shoes.

“Your problem,” Laurie often said, “Is you always expect the worst. You have a deadly imagination.”

The short of it though, the crux of the fight with Laurie, was that she shouldn’t have cheated, though his was an oblique view, admittedly, of something not physically sexual or even stemming from any current indiscretion. He’d never have known anything either if the boys, interrupted in mid-Minecraft, hadn’t brought him her iPad with a message from a number he didn’t recognize. Spam, he’d thought, naively, until another message popped onto the screen. The attached photo, luckily unseen by his boys, was of Laurie from years ago, perhaps in high school or college. Cigarette in her lips, a rifle leaning against her clavicle, her body entirely naked and with a tightness that had already expired by the time he’d met her. The sight of this younger Laurie that had never been his planted an angry seed of jealousy within him. He vowed to say nothing to her, but then he saw her response appear on the screen. A winking emoji. And the sender’s: a banana followed by a pair of cherries. And hers, another winking emoji and those words: best night ever. A hot fire made him want to lay waste to every yellow fragment of that smug Pac-man.

Laurie, pressed, called the photographer and brief freshman fling a moron. And when Dave wouldn’t let it drop, went on to classify him with the same nomenclature. Dave wondered if old-fashioned, cleanly defined infidelity, with its tongue- and cock-wrapped clarity, was better. Laurie let Dave have it when he expressed his doubt that she still cared for him, let alone loved him, a fury not found in any emoticon. He couldn’t help but feel that she protested far too much, a statement which had, illuminatingly, left him deposed at the gas station, although that expulsion was also because of his other great marital sin: arguing in front of their sons. Treacherous waters. Until that moment they’d only argued near shoals.

Dave walked back the way he’d come, carrying the book and bottle of aquavit, the liquor that required a trip across the equator before returning to disgust all but its most accustomed drinkers. He cracked the seal and took a swig. It wasn’t as horrible as he remembered. He headed toward the town center, went into a cafe and bought a sandwich, then a piece of almond cake, then walked along the lake for a few hours to burn off the combination. God, it was beautiful here. Beautiful and empty. Truly empty. When he hit the tracks and the quarry he turned around, the lake dull and dark gray below clouds rotten with the bruise of evening. There were only a couple boats out on the water. The bottle of Aquavit was down by a third, the book heavier than before. Dave found a market that was open and bought a bag of chips and a bottle of water and sat at a playground table. He opened the book and found that Dr. Jens had inscribed it to him, thanking him for his visit and illuminating talk; past, present and future all illusions. A restlessness grew in him and he drank to keep it down.

He wondered if Laurie had managed the RV okay. If there’d be any mirrors left—no, that was being cruel. He hoped the three of them were on a roller coaster, screaming down hills and around bends, bellies sweet with ice cream, everyone, like him, up far past their bedtimes. Their reunion tomorrow would be good, he told himself. This break is what they all needed. Breathing room. The past is the past. There’d be another couple days of driving to Copenhagen, settling up with the rental company, then the flight home. Followed by four months of sabbatical to research something. Maybe the economics of light. Maybe the anatomy of disappointment. The ceramicist’s daughter bicycled through his head and the vision brought the bottle of aquavit to Dave’s lips again. As he neared town, he saw two choices before him: he could either seek out a hotel and get some much-needed sleep, or he could pay his respects first.

He headed the few blocks to the cemetery which held the artist. He found the church without too much trouble, but the cemetery was on a different side of the chapel than he remembered. He opened the iron gate and went inside. All the watering cans stood in a neat row by the spigots. There wasn’t a soul here but his. Hadn’t the mourners all stood somewhere over here—that large crowd of friends and family, admirers and students, and one tenant without a suit or proper winter boots and with his knee wrapped up from a sprain? Dave remembered the silver twirl of an auger parked in the distance and the perfect circle in the ground for the artist’s urn, such a small, dark hole for a giant of a man. Dave remembered the artist’s young daughter weaving in giddy circles around the frozen legs of the crowd. She was chasing a barking dog. Back then, Dave had played himself a little fantasy of corralling both the dog and the daughter and feeding them the jellybeans he’d received from home, for Christmas. Later, the new widow would thank him for watching her daughter and quieting the dog. But he’d done nothing, of course. No one had. It was all too morbid. The crying, the cold, the little girl laughing, oblivious to the world’s minor buckle.

Now, with summer’s interminable light long since departed, Dave knew he had no chance of finding the grave. He headed back downhill. The streets were empty except for a gang of kids grinding against the edge of a fountain, their skateboards clattering as they came unglued from their sneakers. Gulls flew like marionettes under clouds bereft of light.

Dave was happy to see his old friend, the robotic lawn mower, freshly charged and back on duty. He gave those bobbing eyes a salute and walked on to the three-story swiss-style house on the corner. Dave saw his old window high up on the third floor, just under the deep white eaves pooling with a purple, crepuscular light. From up there he’d spent many an hour at his sketchbooks, looking out over the small vegetable garden, the fruit orchard, the low blackberry-entwined fence, and beyond, to a deep line of birches. It had seemed, back then, that his future was like that miniature wood. Something not quite real, but sweet and unexplored. The birches had, at some point, been cut to stumps.

He climbed over the low dark fence. As he rounded the house, Dave saw its bare windows aglow with the same ceaseless light of all Norwegian homes. Hallway lights, kitchen lights, living room lights, all deep and warm despite the hour, left on to keep at bay memories of winter’s darkness or its imminent return, even if the occupants had gone to bed. He took a seat at the far end of the yard in one of two chairs, giving the economics book the benefit of the other. He unscrewed the aquavit and sipped to keep the chill away. The trees overhead were fat with cherries. He plucked them from where he sat. He wished he had a place like this at home, a distant corner of a yard, an open sky, the only sound the scintillating shimmy of an approaching electric train which, when it went into the station, was replaced by the screech of swallows, the chirp of bats. But even here, in the unaccustomed quiet, that unsettling feeling crept over him again, that aloneness. Would he be reduced to a boy to say the word abandonment? He felt that if he were to enter any home he might find only lifeless living rooms, vacant kitchens, beds still made, pillows cool. He focused on something kind to his mind: the ceramist’s daughter’s face, or rather, her mother’s face, as it had been when he’d lived here. Dave remembered now the abrupt swirly sound of her potter’s wheel as the motor kicked in. He could smell the fires she set and remembered the charred circles on the lawn where malleable pieces of clay had been made hard and fragile. He saw her looking up at him from where she worked, hair unkempt and dusty, itched cheeks mottled with clay.

As a student, he’d occasionally babysit his landlords’ daughter in the evening, usually after the little girl was already asleep. He’d sit in the kitchen studying until the ceramicist and her husband came in tipsy and laughing, reeking from an evening thick with discussions and smoke. Sometimes, when her husband was gone, the ceramicist would invite Dave down for dinner, especially if she’d made too much food for just her and her daughter. They’d talk about his studies or U.S. politics. She had the inexplicable ability to look both delighted and forlorn at the same time. Dave, sipping again at his aquavit, remembered how he’d spent many a night as a student dipping into the wet well of his imagination, pretending he went down to her bedroom while her cuckolded husband was away, teaching, in France, Portugal, Argentina. She loved Dave with tremendous passion in those fantasies. In reality, he wondered if he’d spent even a total of fifty hours on that first floor. She was married, after all, and most importantly, had a renowned artist as a husband, one whose work made Dave’s feel so without promise that economics (via a stint in statistics) became his eventual profession. His only decent emulation had been in facial hair, but even that had fallen short of the artist’s grand beard.

Dave spit out a cherry pit then took a long strong swallow of the aquavit. He remembered the bicyclist’s look of alarm when he’d said hello—or was he imagining this memory, now? As he pinched his beard, the thought struck him that he might have, in some small way, been mistaken for the daughter’s late father. And then Dave knew that this was also just another fantasy.

He should leave and get some sleep, he told himself. But the town’s center felt far away, and it had become, somehow, two in the morning. Laurie and the boys would be asleep now in the RV. He should have called them. Not having called was another mark against him. Now, with the whole point of the trip gone, its only proof almost entirely consumed and queued up at his liver, Dave felt ashamed for all the arguments with Laurie, for his hastiness, for treating the boys like they were greater than the raw lumps from which eventual maturity would arise, on its own time. He should go to them, take a night train and forgo a hotel room completely. Yes.

Still. Dave eyed the windows. It would be so good to see the ceramicist again, just a glimpse, from afar. Just to see what it was that he had wished for; the life of which she had been an imaginary part. Or maybe something in the cemetery had crept into him, a bit of her husband snuck up a pant leg, a ghost wanting to see what he was missing. Had that drawn him back here to the house and kept him from leaving? Dave wondered how painful it was for the ghost to see what twenty years had done to his home. The ghost would surely notice the house’s disrepair. The windows hadn’t been changed out, despite a crack in more than one pane. The paint was peeling and missing in places. The intricately carved facias were buckled by exposure. The trees sat unpruned, the slates of the garage roof sloughed toward the gutters. It would be best, perhaps, for the ghost to close his eyes again.

Dave also wondered whether it was painful for the ceramicist to see, mirrored in her daughter, the woman she had once been. He wondered, too, how often she visited her late husband’s grave—if ever. If she was remarried, and, as impossible as it had seemed at the time of her husband’s death, if she was happy again. And, finally, if she could tell him what spell of illness and despondency had led her husband to relinquish his art, abandon his wife, disappear from his daughter. To have had everything lined up so perfectly from top to bottom and then end it.

Four days after the artist had gone missing, during a search of dense wood at the other end of town near the quarry, Dave had heard the startled shout of another volunteer. In his rush, Dave fell and hurt his knee, but hobbled to a clearing, where, on a slab of bedrock, the artist lay frozen stiff, blood at his slit wrists solid, an empty container of sleeping pills resting in the rot of wintered moss. What Dave remembered most was how the artist’s beard had been turned white by frost, as though he’d aged twenty years.

In those weeks after the funeral, Dave had no longer found himself attracted to the ceramicist, and not merely because she was distraught and overwhelmed, or he, guilt-ridden for the still-innocent things he had done to her in dream’s consummation. He helped out around the house. He watched her daughter more often, teaching the girl how to play simple card games like War and King’s Corner. He chopped wood and shopped for groceries. He made the three meals he could make for company. He had come, in those domestic actions, to realize that his desire for the ceramicist had really been fantasies of himself as her husband, of himself as the artist, the man with the imposing beard and the loud laughter, the man running around the yard with his daughter in his arms, the man unafraid of heights or hard labor, the one who cast spells on his brushes with a power Dave had never coaxed from his own tools. The man who was gone. What hope for mortals and coveters?

Now, in the late artist’s yard, with the concoction of aquavit, overripe fruit and memory making him queasy, Dave spat up a thicket of cherries. If only he had come upon the ceramicist sitting on the steps earlier that afternoon, he thought. Then there’d have been no trespass. It could have been a simple hello and an invitation in for coffee. He would have stayed no more than an hour, during which time they could have relived those happy times before her husband had gone missing. He’d mention his family, his work, the speech he had to leave her to go deliver. They could even share a cigarette like the time a week or so after her husband’s death, his lips where hers had been. But there were only empty pots on the steps, now. Some wilting tomato plants. An ashtray maybe, but that was as much Dave’s imagination as sight.

A strange guilt awoke: a sense that his fantasies of the ceramicist, or, rather, their cessation, delivered a great disservice to her. For she was a talented, attractive woman (likely still) and he wished, in retrospect, he had made his feelings known to her twenty years ago, if only for her to rebuff him and enjoy the compliment of his immature attention. He wished he could have felt the sharpness of her husband’s words at the discovery of his desire, or—a fantasy again—the throb of pain from the master’s turpentine-laced blow landing across his face, back when her husband was alive. Back when he was king.

Dave cried. He cried for the artist in a filled cemetery hole. But mostly he cried for himself and the ever-rough sketch of his life. He felt ashamed of his inability to transmute his love for his family into something that shone with even a little luster. It all came out wrong. Because he loved them! All of them!

He finished the bottle of aquavit, pocketed it carefully, and stood in the far corner of the yard, pissing and cursing himself for getting this drunk and emotional. He could hear the robot next door and see its twin Ping-Pong orbs gazing at him a moment before turning away.

“Wait!” Dave said.

He climbed over the low fence, the blackberry vines pricking his hands and ankles, but what little price for what he had in mind. He wrestled the robot before it could escape—it was heavier than he imagined—and heaved it carefully into the ceramicist’s yard. He introduced it to the tall uncut grass and smiled contentedly as the robot turned back on and began its quiet mowing toward the house that had been Dave’s home for a year, but never his. How clean and trim the robot’s wake! How perfect its work! When the mower stopped at the steps and did not turn around—perhaps perplexed and unaccustomed to its surroundings, or simply shy—Dave went to it and fell to his knees and coaxed it in a new direction. And in this manner the two of them trimmed the yard haphazardly, patiently, poorly. He wished he could take the robot to some endless and unencumbered landscape, like The Great Plains or the Steppes. There, despite a new understanding of its smallness set against those endless seas of uncut green, he could help it attain fulfillment.

Taking the first morning train out, Dave watched the sky lighten. The train leaned into curves and showed him the lake, still, slate, and then the sky, gray-white and drizzling. It was too early in the morning to call Laurie and apologize for arguing; he would wait at least an hour. Dave swept grass clippings from his phone, then gently rubbed the eyeballs of the robot laying expectantly there between his feet. He wondered what the boys would name it.