MILES INTERRUPTS HIS BROTHER once more, this time with a photograph.
“Cool it,” Gabriel says, putting down his girlfriend’s letter. “No more.”
Gabriel pinches the Polaroid off his chest and hurls it into the room with a flick of his wrist. The photo hits the far wall like a June bug and drops onto Miles’ suitcase, a second-hand Samsonite plastered with enough stickers to make Miles seem the world’s most travelled thirteen-year-old.
Miles retrieves the Polaroid. He doesn’t expect his brother to have a last-minute change of heart, but still, how can Gabriel choose to work through the summer instead of take what’s being offered to him, what Miles, in his head, has been calling Summer of Tits II? Miles pins the Polaroid to his side of the corkboard above their shared metal desk and stares at it awhile. He remembers watching the photo develop the summer before: first the cloud-dolloped sky and the silhouette of a cove, then women with skin flawless as new modeling clay, sunbathing in the nude. In the photo’s foreground, Gabriel poses in yellow swimming trunks, a rock in one hand and a once-visible grin on a face that Miles covers with his thumb whenever he masturbates to the women standing just behind his brother. A year of thumb-holds have made Gabriel’s face unrecognizable, but even so, Miles can’t shake the feeling he’s in for a stoning.
Rather than pack shorts and t-shirts for a summer at their father’s farmhouse in Norway, Gabriel lies in his jumpsuit, his name stitched in gold thread that sparkles from newness, the gray fabric still creased and giving off a chemical sheen. Unfamiliar work boots sit under Gabriel’s terrarium, the tank now hosting an assortment of nightclub matchbooks. Miles doesn’t understand why his brother needs a uniform to sweep. If Gabriel wasn’t getting some sugar from his girlfriend he would be on the plane with him tomorrow. Miles stares at the back of the letter Gabriel has resumed reading. He can see typed words through the onion paper, single-spaced dense-as-night lines visited every few sentences by the ghosts of correction tape. The tail of the y in Gabriel’s girlfriend’s signature curves up into a smile with tiny stars for eyes.
“Spooky,” Miles says.
“Now what?” Gabriel says.
Love comes to mind first, but Miles he says, “You.”
He wants to call his brother pussy-whipped, but his brother would pummel him. So he says it in his head: you’re pussy-whipped. Gabriel doesn’t reply. Still reading and staying put; sacrificing a summer abroad for snatch. Miles hums the melody to Batman aloud, while in his head he sings: Nana-nana-nana-nana, Snatchman. Snatchman. SNATCHMAN! What a word. Snatch. Like a latch, or something taken. He can’t get his mind around the lack of it, nothing but creases, a closed book. His brother knows a chapter or two, but won’t share the plot, instead smiling at him whenever he asks in a way that makes Miles feel doomed with virginity. Miles guesses snatch is something he won’t fall for until he tries it, and then be hooked. He’s heard that about heroin, too.
He watches Gabriel refold the letter into thirds then put it aside and begin undressing. Gabriel pulls down a long loud zipper and steps from his work skin. Only four years separate the two of them but it might as well be ten, his brother’s adult body so unlike Miles’ hesitant musculature. Veins thick as pencils draw down to Gabriel’s wide ropey wrists, to his hand, a man’s hand now, that pulls the light’s chain and drops them into darkness with a click.
Miles’ neurons punch through the darkness like an enormous Lite-Brite and the memory of an afternoon from last summer phosphoresces, as it has nearly every night for the past three hundred. He is back in Norway, scaling the granite peninsula that spills into the sea, searching for more remnant German bunkers from World War II. He sees a cove just beyond filled with sunbathers and the unexpected sight of topless women. From far-off, their nipples are like eyes that don’t yet see him approach. And though he’s shocked by the women already there—he feigns shell-collecting as he makes his way closer—it’s the still-clothed arrivals who force him into a crouch to hide his erection. The women appear from forest trails, their backpacks slung neatly over their shoulders, their shoes stepping over the flotsam of the last high tide as they find their own patch of beach and begin to undress. And it’s this, the reveal more than the revealed, that trips up Miles’ heart-rate and makes him nauseous. Needing distance, he turns and makes for the sea, his feet protesting as he leads them across the unhinged masses of mussel shells littering this area of the cove. Once submerged to his neck, he turns around and takes in a sight both unimaginable and seemingly illegal to view as a spectator. Breathless cleavage relaxes with quick mirrored bounces to reveal breasts like giant bowls of ice cream, nipples—some like pale limpets, some like sand dollars. For Miles, this cove, this nude beach, these women, are an unbelievable revelation. It’s like finding the Titanic. Every desire he’s ever felt drops away, humiliated by what he now has before him. He drinks in the gentle anatomy of women standing in the dancing shallows, their long hair like curtains, their body-hair frosted against sun-browned skin. He’s never before felt this thing that wags in him, that growls and slobbers as it extends into every limb. His hands are in his shorts when he sees a woman strip to tan lines, smooth skin marred only by the stubborn wrinkles left by elastic undergarments. The woman’s breasts sway perceptively with each step she takes into the sea, her bush his first sighting. He suddenly understands sinning. She’s in to her knees, then to her thighs, then embraces the sea as she eases into the unhurried rhythm of a breaststroke. She is mature, he thinks—hearing the word in his head like his history teacher says it, ma-tour—perhaps thirty, and headed for him. She dives and is gone for the longest of seconds, then surfaces only a body’s length away. His blood burns. Rocket fuel. Even the sight of a woman’s wet hair does it for him. She spits twice, then says something which his weeks of Norwegian fail to grasp. Here, where voyeurism gives way to interaction, he has no words. They are both caught in the wake of a long-gone motor boat—she disappears behind a small wave, emerges, disappears, then stays. He wants to say ja, but she doesn’t seem to be asking a question. Water empties from the hand she holds out to him, leaving behind a sea urchin searching the bed of her palm. She is giving it to him, but his hands are occupied.
Here, lying in bed seasons later, Miles pauses the memory, even rewinds it a bit. Sensing what is to come he detours into fantasy—an imagined scene repeated so often it feels as true as the prologue. In it, he watches women as they help each other undress, or apply suntan oil, or catch a Frisbee. And just before sleep lures him and makes his thoughts crooked and thwarts his intentions, the women call him over and he walks to them, no longer twelve-years-old, but thirteen, a man and the only man there, fluent at whatever they might say or desire. He falls asleep then, safe from the memory of the woman rising before him.
What really happened was that he felt the impossibly thin margin of safety at the cusp of an ejaculation. The woman moved closer, water dripping from her eyebrows, her eyelashes clumped like daggers, her body rising to where Miles could make out the buoyancy of her breasts and where the proximity of her nakedness was something he could feel, like the cold bands of water that swept around his ankles. He ejaculated into his swimming trunks. And might have enjoyed the ecstasy had his brain not shut down, his unguided feet forgetting how to stand, his hands shackled in his shorts, his body sinking, lungs naïvely filling until bottled tight with gulps of brine. And then someone was there, the woman, pushing him up through the sea’s membrane into that enormous breathable sky-full of air that hesitated in reentering him, a reprimand. The woman carried him out of the sea in a thick, water-slowed run, cradling him like he hadn’t been held since a young boy. She put him down on the hot pebbles that singed his back in a million places. She pinched his nose and began leaning in as though to kiss him, and that’s when he turned to the side, coughing in a fit that ended with tears and a thin salty vomit. The woman crouched over him, water dripping from the tips of her hair, from her chin, from breasts with areolae seemingly inscribed in braille, the water holding on in long reluctant bands within the creases of her stomach where, with horror, he thought he spotted a bead of his cum. He rose to his feet and took off in panic. Or tried, every step laborious and the trees far off. But he made it into the forest’s thin beginnings and a ways in, where the temperature dropped with the sudden omnipresent shade of tall and tangly pines. He collapsed onto a blanket of moss beside a fallen tree and there he coughed until his teeth rung.
Her voice reached him first, then he saw her coming up the path, wrapped in a towel, her arms and legs so much whiter then out on the sun-drenched beach. Her footsteps were silent, but her voice was loud and worried. Gutt! she called out. He pissed himself. Gutt! He wanted her to stop worrying, to stop shouting for him. But mostly he wanted to sink into the wet moss and decompose.
At the end of that first summer, Miles and his brother returned to New York, Miles laden with chocolate and comic books and a Norwegian-English dictionary. Miles translated Donald Duck’s conniptions at bedtime. In the painfully seldom moments of privacy he jacked off to the Polaroid he’d taken the day they left, or to a few pages from a sun-bleached men’s magazine he’d found in the forest and smuggled home in the lining of his suitcase. There were pages and pages of text running like gospel around the faded photos, surely some advanced European sex techniques that would have to remain indecipherable to him as his pocket-sized Norwegian–English dictionary was useless at translating Dutch. And yet, just from the photos, he learned a few things he hadn’t known. There were more than two positions, for example. Two men could have simultaneous sex with one woman. And he possessed a really small penis.
His education broadened that winter. His friend CC’s older brother had an eight millimeter movie he’d spliced together from a bunch of worn blue films. Twice during Christmas break, when CC’s brother was at work, they fed the film through a small table-top editor. They hand-cranked the film, CC turning quickly for less flicker—which Miles thought made everything look too much like silent-movie action to be possible. Miles preferred to turn the handle more slowly. Watching the scenes, he wondered if all that repetitive in-out in-out in-out could be fun. Up until that moment, he’d thought sexual positions were something people held, for hours. This looked exceedingly monotonous and difficult.
“Crazy shit,” CC said.
“Yeah. Let’s watch it again,” Miles said.
With the filmstrip rasping against the metal reels, they laughed at the reversed action; the man jerking out his ass again and again, as though his dick were in something scalding. And yet he was compelled to try it again. And again. With the film fully rewound, there returned the awkward silence as they again watched the montage of scenes, each wishing the other were elsewhere, each wishing to be alone with the movie.
With the approach of another summer in Norway, and the 8mm film duplicated in his head, Miles found himself set off by the smallest things: a French curve in drafting class conjuring up cleavage, potato chips bearing libidinal sea salt. Girls surrounded him at school, but Miles’ thoughts turned only to the weight of real women.
Miles wakes. Gabriel is already at work. His mother has taken the morning off and waits as he eats, dresses, and double-checks the contents of his suitcase. She rides with him to JFK and tries to hold his hand on the bus, which he lets her do because they’re all the way in the back. At the gate, she waves to him as he drifts down the jetway’s easy red welcome. And then the jetway turns toward the plane and there is no New York behind him, no mother’s wave, just a cream-colored wall and more passengers, everyone headed forward. His mother’s teary goodbye hangs on him for a dozen steps then falls through the crack between the floor and the plane’s threshold. He flashes a smile at the stewardesses milling just inside the plane, their faces lit like they’ve been waiting for him to return since last summer. He carries their perfume all the way back into coach. He is intercontinental.
Two flights later, at the Oslo airport, Miles searches for his father.
This summer will mark only the third span of time he’s spent with Cornelius. The first occasion lasted one evening, back when Miles was five. In the city for the first time since leaving, Cornelius was there to open a show of his paintings. He’d lived in the city with Miles’ mother and Gabriel (and with Miles when Miles was still floating in embryonic fluid), but had moved back to Norway for reasons that were complicated and artistic and involved words—to repeat his mother’s telling—like stifling, claustrophobic, and mostly, crazy. Of his father’s visit, Miles remembers only a gallery space, mobiles made from mannequin limbs hanging from the ceiling and a man with long hair intertwined with peacock feathers. His father was someone else there, forgotten, without a holdfast in Miles’ gray matter. The next reunion was seven years later: the summer previous to this one. Their father hadn’t show up at the airport as arranged, so Miles and Gabriel rode taxis and trains into the countryside, Gabriel confident that their father’s interest in fatherhood was fleeting and half-hearted. Miles, fatherless since birth, was less interested in motivations and explanations and more obsessed with an entire landmass yet to be explored. They waited at their father’s farmhouse for the remainder of the day, sleeping off their jet-lag in the barn’s shade. Night came with an eerie slowness and they broke into the house to find food: frost-encrusted tubs of berries and ice cream at the bottom of a deep freeze. A neighbor came that evening and tried to communicate the obvious, that their father wasn’t there, but in Roma, where his flight had been cancelled, but that he would be leaving soon. They didn’t see Cornelius until late the next day, coming from afar in a black Volvo, alternating between waving at them through an open window and honking. Large flat packages were tied to the roof. At the farmhouse, their father climbed out of his car but kept the door between them, as though he didn’t know if he should run and embrace his sons, or casually reintroduce himself, or if he regretted inviting them to spend the summer with him now that he saw them close. For Miles, the man looked nothing like the few photos in the photo album at home, those pages filled mostly with baby pictures and pencil sketches of Gabriel. This man’s features felt like the foundation of his own, and with that recognition came a sense not so much of belonging but of his own lessened uniqueness. Their father closed the car door and stood before them.
“Tanks for combing,” he said.
Miles laughed at his accent until Gabriel’s elbow silenced him. Miles stood beside his brother and looked their father in the eyes.
“I’m sorry,” their father said.
Because they were happy for his invitation and to be somewhere new—their blood a tidal flow of sugar from three tubs of ice cream—it didn’t matter if he was apologizing for his delayed arrival or his delayed presence. They helped him untie the wrapped canvasses from the roof of his car, paintings of Italian beaches and Italian hillsides, and then more of nude Italian women. The women were all half-finished and Miles thought of them for the remainder of the day, especially as the three of them sat in Cornelius small outboard that evening, fish flopping in the bilge water it was Miles’ job to collect in a can and dump overboard.
On this second summer, Miles doesn’t need to wait long for his father. Two arms lift him from the airport’s tiles. Miles’ face fills with smoke-scented hair. A grizzly “Jaaaehrr!” reverberates into his chest. Cornelius puts him down, cradles Miles’ chin for a moment, then smiles.
“Hey,” Miles says, nervous.
Cornelius’ barbed-wire eyebrows protect the spooky pale-blues he passed to Gabriel but not Miles. New this year are giant scimitar-shaped mutton chops that thrust from his father’s wavy gray hair. Half-rim glasses cut across his face. A hand-rolled cigarette dangles from his lips.
“Yes!” Cornelius says, hitting Miles on the shoulder, as though to test his physicality. “Hungry?” He smiles with teeth too white for someone who seems to be letting everything else go, clothes stained and unpressed.
“Not really,” Miles says.
“Good! Let us go then, you and I,” he says, “when the evening is spread out against he sky.”
Miles struggles to follow his father, already three paces ahead of him, Miles’ suitcase swinging back and forth from his father’s arm as though it holds nothing but air. Once outside, they dive into Cornelius’ double-parked Volvo, an old model with a rear window like a porthole. Keys sit in the ignition. Miles’ suitcase falls on a roll of canvas and art books in the backseat.
“Careful with this,” Miles says, handing over his Pan Am tote bag.
“Jøss!” his father says, elated at seeing the haul of jazz albums inside.
Between Miles and his friends, to whom Miles promised any album of their choice for their help—Kay going with the latest Sly, CC sheepishly handing over some Led Zeppelin—they covered eight record stores, one as far away as the Village, to get everything on his father’s wish list. Five pounds of vinyl, jazz mostly. McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Stanley Turrentine, John McLaughlin, Weather Report, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Donald Byrd. They’re all sealed except for Turrentine’s Sugar, with the cover showing a woman licking someone’s toes. Before leaving, Miles played it over and over, trying to imagine a woman licking his toes and wondering whether he’d like this particular component of foreplay. He was half-relieved when Gabriel pointed out the album cover was of a mother licking her baby’s feet. Miles didn’t think he’d mind getting his toes licked, but he sure wasn’t going to do any licking.
Cornelius reaches into his shirt pocket and hands Miles a package of licorice.
“No thanks,” Miles, says.
“Of course,” Cornelius says, pulling a bar of marzipan from the same pocket. “You like the almonds. Eat.”
He waits until Miles has torn through the gold cellophane wrapper and taken a bite before pulling the Volvo away from the curb. Ten months collapse in on themselves, school and home evaporate, anticipation for this summer is replaced with GO! and the sweetness of almond paste. His father pops the licorice in his mouth and chews almost angrily, even though the two-lane highway is empty and the Volvo hums forward. After just a few overpasses, Oslo folds behind them, a pretend city compared to New York. The sky is a cast-iron lid of storm clouds. Miles can see bright sunshine peeking through on the southern horizon where they’re headed. But in the meantime the Volvo’s tires froth on the road and a sudden rain thrashes through the headlamps’ beams like a plague of insects. Cornelius doesn’t seem to notice the parking ticket on his windshield, wedged down below the wipers, half-gone, quarter-gone, dissolved. The speedometer sits like an enormous radio dial behind the steering wheel, a red needle hovering at 100, tuning in the rain’s white noise. The licorice, they both know, is Gabriel’s favorite.
Cornelius rolls a cigarette in the base of the steering wheel, dropping in a fat pinch of tobacco from a blue pouch illustrated with a fisherman. “How’s your mother?” he asks. “Still with the museum?”
“Yeah. She’s going on a cruise while I’m here.”
“The Panama Canal,” Miles says.
For two weeks every summer, while Miles and Gabriel stayed at their aunt and uncle’s place, their mother would take what she called a rest, coming back with trinkets: polished shells, a wooden flute, colored sand in glass vials. Miles thinks of Gabriel with the apartment to himself. Snatchman.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” Cornelius says, his smile sincere.
He’s not the same man, pausing behind his car door, staring at his sons. There’s an excitement in his eyes that Miles finds disconcerting.
“It’s going to be a very good summertime,” Cornelius says. “You know? Summertime? Summertime. And the living ith eathy.” He sings as he licks the edge of the rolling paper to seal his cigarette.
Miles laughs. Cornelius holds his smoke out to Miles but Miles can’t tell if he’s joking—or worse—testing him. Last summer, Cornelius offered to pay them five øre for each cigarette they rolled for him. In the course of a morning he and Gabriel used up their father’s pouches of tobacco and paper and created a pile of cigarettes two fists high, and he remembered seeing those twisted, angry-looking cigarettes dangling from Cornelius’ mouth for a month as he smoked the pile down to nothing. Then, as now, Cornelius seemed less a father and more like an uncle so removed from his own childhood he can’t remember its rites and rules. Miles hangs the cigarette between his lips. Cornelius stows away his tobacco pouch, digs through the pockets of his pants for his lighter and reclaims the cigarette for himself.
The rain continues to come down in such a volume that Miles doubts the mechanism of clouds can possibly hold such a flood. All that weight, just up in the air—it makes no sense to him, like so much else. He’s old enough now that he suspects a great many things will always remain obtuse and confusing to him, like weather, or geometry, or the in out in out in out. His father’s cigarette smoke swirls, smoke rings kissing the windshield, despite the wipers protests. Miles thinks that fisherman, out there in the gales and storms, must dip instead of smoke. Smoke wouldn’t have a chance. Smoke rings. Smokings. Smoke kings.
He wakes as the Volvo trades somnambulant asphalt for the assault of an unpaved one-lane near-road. He grabs the arm strap. Pebbles clank on the underside of the car as Cornelius speeds them between the crowd of forest on one side and dusky fields on the other. The rain has let up, the sky nearly clear with a salmon-colored sunset. The sun sits behind the hill like a carrot top. It’s nearly midnight. Miles rolls down his window and is splashed awake by the cool air. He opens his mouth and rinses his lungs of Cornelius’ cigarette smoke and the harder grime accumulated since last summer. He’s sure this is the place on earth where air is made, pumped out by forests that are green to the point of glowing. He leans out, both hands stretching to the yellow field of rape seed, now and again feeling the whip of a stalk on his fingertips. Just beyond is the sea, and the women. He feels Cornelius’ fingers holding onto one of his belt loops. There’s so much yellow out there, this could be the sun. So much oxygen in the air, the sky could combust. When they slow to turn onto an intersecting road, Miles sees that the air is milky with pollen and insects. He recognizes a neighbor’s barn, a tire swing hanging from the hay loft pulley, and feels the weirdness of recognizing things he hasn’t thought of since last summer. And then, a few minutes later, his father’s place emerges, the old farmhouse, the barn so massive it seems built for a task grander than once keeping hay and animals. Storing dirigibles, perhaps. The buildings are so weather-beaten it’s impossible to tell if either has ever worn a coat of paint. Cornelius pulls onto the gravel drive yellowed by dandelions and spotted with oil. He cuts the engine and the silence is so unlike home, where the constant honks and engine revs are like the sounds of geese and lions.
“Hjem,” Cornelius says. “Home.”
Miles can see the interior of the barn, newly whitewashed and illuminated by chandeliers that look like the kind you see in churches.
“Endelig,” a woman’s voice calls from inside.
Miles’ shaky Norwegian guesses impatience. “Who’s that?” he asks.
“You’ll like her,” Cornelius says, the her being Miles’ first indication that he’s not the only summer visitor.
Inside the barn, a woman sits in a rocking chair, knitting. She’s so extraordinarily beautiful, Miles has to look at her in glances; a direct look feels inappropriate.
“Eva,” Cornelius says. “La meg presentere, let me present my son Miles. Direct from the U. S. of A.” Cornelius bows and swoops his hand toward Miles with an anachronistic flourish that makes Miles smile.
“Hello,” Miles says.
“New York, New York,” she says, not getting up.
His father heads to the car. Miles collapses on the sheet-draped sofa. He glances at Eva. He’s never seen anyone with looks that pain him like this. Short dark hair, maybe in her late 20s, a tattoo of a G clef curled just above her left clavicle. There’s something there above her upper lip. Perhaps a scar, a long ago harelip. But everything else is so frighteningly perfect. And only then, watching as she puts aside her knitting and stands, does he notice that she’s not only tall, but pregnant and far along. She walks to a fridge in the corner of the barn and pulls out three bottles of beer. She pops off the caps and hands a bottle to Miles. The glass is so cold his skin sticks to the glass.
“You’re Miles because your father likes jazz?”
“Miles Cornelius Jørgenson,” Cornelius says, returning with a roll of canvas under one arm and the bag of records in the other.
“It’s not Miles Jørgenson,” Miles says. “Mom changed it back. Gabriel’s, too.”
“Ja, ja. Don’t need to bring that up. Anyway, you’re still a Jørgenson. Blood’s blood. Miles here is a musician.”
Miles winces. In a letter, he’d made the mistake of telling his father he was learning the trumpet. Spring came and he didn’t bother to join band again, and worse, wasn’t asked to. He was terrible. It sounded like his trumpet was dying. Miles Davis—Miles the Ungifted was certain—had sold his soul to the devil.
“You have a brother, too,” Eva says.
“He chose a girlfriend over us,” Cornelius says.
“He’s pussy-whipped,” Miles says. Eva laughs beer out her nose. He waits for her to recover, feeling both foolish for his comment and glorious for having made her laugh. “His girlfriend’s from Martinique,” he adds.
“What does your mother say?” Cornelius asks.
“That she’s a good girl.”
Eva dries her nose with the upper hem of her shirt. Her belly button is inside out and there are stretch marks on the sides of her belly, like shark gills. Miles wonders where all the hair on her belly comes from. There’s a strange stripe running up from the waist of her pants, like she’s splitting down the middle, some animal within on the verge of coming out.
“Is she a good girl?” Eva asks.
“She types him letters every day. She underlines the word love in red pen,” Miles says. “And she sounds French even when she’s talking English.”
“She’s not a good girl,” Eva says, her voice one of those voices that electrifies his scalp and the skin behind his ears, and now down his neck and across both shoulders.
“Pussy-whipped,” Cornelius says.
“And you?” Eva asks. The tingle recharges across his scalp.
“Still reading Donald Duck comics, right?” his father says, heading back to the car. “Watch out for women. They’re traps.”
“We catch the old and the weak,” Eva says. “Then we make them pussy-whipped.”
He wants her to say more. Anything.
“How do you know my father?” Miles asks, still staring at her stomach.
“I met him in one of his courses,” she says, then takes a long draw from her bottle. “I was modeling.” She points behind her where Miles can see the familiar rusting farm equipment hanging neglected from nails and hooks, and below, many rectangular canvases leaning against the walls. “But now,” she says, “as you can see I’m a balloon.”
Miles walks into the depths of the barn and finds the object of her gesture—a nude in oil, of Eva standing in front of the barn he’s in now. The roof is covered in snow. The ground is all white. But Eva stands in a rectangle of green grass resting a milk crate on her head, the crate inexplicably piled high with decapitated heads, every eye open and staring down at the tits he, too, can’t help but stare at. He looks up to the hay loft above him and sees the pyramid of milk crates he stacked the summer before. Headless.
“I need to piss,” Eva says, getting up.
Miles changes his mind about his future. He doesn’t want to become a record producer. He doesn’t want to become an engineer and design hi-fi speakers with his friend Kay. He wants to paint, like his father. He wanders through the barn. In a corner he finds the stilts his father built for him and his brother last summer, and then a painting of Miles and Gabriel standing on those stilts in a field. It feels strange to imagine Cornelius putting them to canvas as they sat in class, or slept, months after their stay. In the painting, an end-of-summer tan makes them nearly as dark as their mother. As though Cornelius were not their real father at all, as though no Norwegian blood ran, like cream, in Miles’ veins. He wanders back to the painting of Eva.
Cornelius comes up beside him. “Like it?”
“Yeah. The heads are cool.”
“Good. Most people don’t get it.”
Miles is afraid Cornelius will ask him, like a teacher, what he thinks the heads represent, so he changes the subject quickly. “She’s a model? Eva?”
“She’s been promoted. She answers my mail and gives me food and drink.”
“And flips your LPs,” Eva says, reentering the barn. “Snu platte!” she shouts, imitating Cornelius, her voice deepening into the heaviest register of mockery.
“Snu platte!” Cornelius shouts back and Eva turns around once while giving him the finger.
“I ruin too many records with paint,” he says, apologetically. “I can’t turn them over when I work.”
“I can do it for you,” Miles says, eagerly. “If you need an assistant.” He imagines himself seated beside the hi-fi, his father painting an endless succession of nude women.
“You’re on holiday.”
“I’d like to.” He sees the models waiting in line, dropping their robes as they step up and stand before his easel. Miles will borrow paper and a pencil and sit beside his father and try his hand at drawing. Perhaps he can only really know women if his hand can sketch their contours.
Cornelius picks up a dry brush, softens it against his rough knuckles, then dusts the bristles across Eva’s temple and down her nose. “I’ve already trained this one,” he says.
Eva snaps at the brush as it sweeps across her lips, holding the bristles in her teeth for a moment.
“Careful,” he says, looking at Miles as he retrieves his brush. “She’ll have your head.”
Eva turns to Miles and bites her teeth together a few times, then says something to Cornelius that doesn’t sound like Norwegian. Miles realizes she’s Danish, and can’t make out a word. His father answers her and they laugh and Miles is familiar with the feeling—he might as well be in the room with Gabriel and his girlfriend.
“If it’s okay, I think I’ll go to bed,” Miles says, picking up his untouched beer.
“You remember the room from last summer?” Cornelius asks. “It might be a bit dusty, but we’ll clean up there soon.”
He puts a hand on Miles’ shoulder, then hugs him for longer than Miles is used to. “I’m glad you’re here. Skål.” They clink beers.
“God natt,” Eva says.
Miles steps outside. The sky glows where the sun has stalled. He hears Eva say pussy-whipped. He walks. It’s bright enough to see the beer in his bottle, which, a swig later, his tongue discovers to be soda. He isn’t disappointed. On the flight from New York, Miles took a sleeping passenger’s untouched fourth bottle of gin into the bathroom, unscrewed the diminutive cap and took a swig, baring his teeth in the mirror for pure affect. He spat until his mouth was dry, disappointed not so much by the astringency of juniper but by experiencing yet another reminder that there’s so much taste he needs to acquire to bring manhood into his boy body. Does becoming a man necessitate the surrender of the boy who can’t wait for summer freedoms, clock-less days and nights, the swimming, the scrambling over granite, the waffles, the ice cream and the chocolate, the sun that only sets if you stay up all night to put it to the test? It feels like becoming a man means trading everything he loves for everything he has to trust he’ll enjoy. It means turning down a second summer.
The soda label is loose. He pulls it off, pinches it into a ball and throws it into the air to lure the bats. They dip across the gravel drive, one swooping close to consider the lure but then veering off. He remembers the bat net Gabriel made last summer. But Gabriel is so far from him now—they’re separated more by time than by distance. Miles is sure he’s closer to the brother that was here a year ago then the one he left the day before. He remembers, then, the bat with the wing torn by the net. The memory was resting there, upside down and good as forgotten, waiting to be brought down again—the ripped membrane, the blood, his brother killing it with a rock just to stop the shrieking.
The farmhouse is unlit, but he can make out the date 1775 engraved right there over the transom. Inside, Miles feels around for the narrow staircase. A year has allowed the house’s dimensions to loosen in his mind; the steep staircase is nearer inside than he expects and the second floor comes sooner. He finds his bedroom and sees the silhouette of his bag on the bed that, the year before, was occupied by Gabriel. He feels out of place in the dark, low-ceilinged room, the age-cracked paintings of ships and oceans, the drapes hand-embroidered and stained yellow, the room scented with old wood—until he hears the opening track from Turrentine’s Sugar playing on the hi-fi in the barn. He hears the crunch of gravel, then footsteps downstairs in the kitchen, a shout from the barn, then the crunch of gravel again. He tries to sleep. Blue orbs of light pulse past each closed eye for what seems like half an hour until he opens them and notices it’s getting lighter outside. There is no music now and he can hear the bright call of gulls and the ocean, too, the waves breaking at such long intervals it’s like someone breathing in their sleep. He tries to fall asleep by thinking about the day to come, imagining the beach path where it starts at the end of the road, taking it through the forest, thickets of blueberries and ferns at his feet, until the cove spreads out before him. But he can’t get there. The room fills with brighter and brighter light. His feet touch the floorboards.
Based on the sounds, he shouldn’t eavesdrop, but right and wrong are abstract when presented with opportunity. He crouches behind the Volvo and watches Cornelius standing in the barn, taking Eva from behind, there where she’s holding onto one arm of the couch. They’re both naked except for the flip-flops that slap the soles of Cornelius’ feet on each inward thrust. Cornelius’ hands are dark with paint and so are streaks on Eva’s back and on her breasts which he holds, his hands like shells. Miles can see all the places his father hasn’t touched her, and there aren’t many. It’s the first time he’s seen sex in person, and what strikes him is not so much that sex is something that can be done in that position, or has such a fast motion to it that CC’s guess at speed is right on, or, judging from the breathing, is as strenuous and unpleasant sounding as running laps, or that he is seeing a woman being fucked, or that it’s probably his father who’s made Eva pregnant, or that you could have sex when you were pregnant, or even that, there, in Eva, is his half-brother or half-sister. Instead what strikes him most at seeing Eva made nearly completely black by his father’s paint is whether Cornelius misses Miles’ mother. The record player crackles every second, caught in the inner grove.
“Snu,” Cornelius says.
Miles crouches behind the car, then backs away as they resume in a new position, the record player still a crackling metronome. He retreats to the house and sits on his bed for as long as he can stand it, then searches the rooms until he finds one with a view into the barn. From there, he tries to watch through the smeary window glass. Eva lies astride Cornelius now, moving herself back and forth, a little bit up and down, too, black everywhere below the neck. White face. Miles notices he’s in Cornelius’ parents’ old bedroom, those grandparents he never met, dead years before Miles was born. To the right of the window he sees a dozen pairs of eyes fix on him from within black oval frames, his white Norwegian relatives looking as though they’ve aged since their photo was taken, grown beards they can’t trim, their clothing starched with time. There’s a weary dust on every last one of them, regardless of their ages. The infants look soulless. These relatives seem to be wondering aloud: How could our lives of labor, Sunday services and daily Bible devotions, morning prayers and evenings thanks, our survival of plagues, floods, rainy summers, nine-month winters, invading armies, lead, in just a few generations, to you Miles, hard-dicked and not yet a dozen hours in the country? Who fucking dropped the fucking ball? Miles feels this in their stares and yet he can’t help but return to the window. He spots Eva walking toward the back of the farmhouse, where the outdoor shower is, his father behind her and walking much more slowly, an exhausted man, a funny limp to his legs. Miles can’t hear Eva’s laughter over the calls of the gulls, but she’s laughing. The rising sun sets the tops of the rape seed ablaze. It is 3:30 am and he has an erection.
“Har Miles kommet?”
Miles freezes, hears the rustle of a comforter and turns to see a girl his age standing beside a bed in the far corner of the room.
“Ja,” he says, his hands over his crotch.
She walks toward him, then reaches out and barely, just barely, touches the outermost curls on his head. She covers her own ears with her palms then, as though to block out a loud sound. She’s a head taller, with dull, dilated eyes that petrify him with their emptiness. She’s sleepwalking. He keeps from completely panicking by staring at her t-shirt, one he’d sent to his father last Christmas. I♥NY. She smells like bread. It feels like a half hour that she stands there, his own hands over his erection: that stupid, fear-alloyed thing that won’t go down no matter how much he disagrees with its position. Eventually she drops her hands to her sides and returns to the bed. She lies there, one arm above her head, her legs slightly splayed as though literally falling asleep. He heads for the door, fearing a creak with every step on the floorboards, his heart beating oh hell, oh hell, oh hell.
A mile away he collapses into his bed.
The next morning, when he emerges downstairs, famished and hung-over on a day without a name, he finds an empty house. A pitcher filled with fresh wildflowers is his only company at the long kitchen table. He makes himself a sandwich, the bread unsliced, the cheese white and buttery curling off the cheese knife. He makes another with honey that’s thick and nearly white. Another with a chocolate-hazelnut spread that clings dryly to the roof of his mouth. He drinks homemade raspberry juice with a slight tangy fermentation to it. There’s no homesickness in his gut. Just an indifferent haziness as to what day or hour it is. The clock reads nearly six but he has to go outside and locate the sun to see that it’s early evening and not morning. There’s a scythe leaning against the outside of the barn, and bands of felled grass and wildflowers underfoot. He finds Cornelius inside the barn, painting, and the girl from last night sitting on a stool before him. There’s a TV in the corner, the volume turned off, the screen showing the image of a clock counting down to the top of the hour.
“We thought you were hibernating,” Cornelius says. “Olivia thought you were dead.”
“Jet-lag,” Miles says, not mentioning he’s been up most of the night.
On the canvas, Olivia wears a military uniform and is standing on the shoulders of a nun, but in person she’s dressed in an orange bikini t-shirt and cut-off jeans. She looks a bit like Eva around the eyes, which are now bright blue and focused and without any of the hollowed-out emptiness from last night. Miles can almost feel the pain in her spine as she sits there for his father.
“Olivia had a dream about you,” Cornelius says. “Right Olivia?”
He doesn’t want to hear the dream. He wants to hear the dream.
“Put on some music,” Cornelius says.
Miles picks out a record—purposely not Miles Davis—and the needle scratches a moment until it finds the groove and a waiting drum kick. It’s loud and he turns down the volume.
“No, turn it back. More,” Cornelius says. “Up.”
Miles obliges, then sits down on the couch. It’s half-covered with art books and Miles finds one of nudes and slips it within a larger tome on Surrealism. The nudes are black and white photographs, like softest statues. He leafs through them, half-expecting to see Eva, but the women look like they’re from the ’50s: plain and bored and completely unconscious of their knock-out bodies. After them follow the unexpected images of men, hair oiled into turbulent seas, their bodies muscled like his brother’s, their penises like he’s never seen them in his magazine fragment or CC’s brother’s eight millimeter adult movie: flaccid, hanging uncut, and he closes the book of life studies quickly and finds himself looking at paintings by Dalí and Magritte instead, all the while wondering if women worldwide perhaps aren’t as attracted to penises as he’s heard told.
“Olivia’s going to be helping this summer with the baby,” Cornelius says. “So don’t get ideas.”
“I won’t,” Miles says and closes the art book. “Wait, what?” He knows what Cornelius means, yet feels a need to sound as though he doesn’t.
“You know,” Cornelius says.
Miles wonders if Cornelius is just messing with him, like on the drive here, giving him a cigarette. Maybe Cornelius finds humor in the idea that Miles would or could put the moves on Olivia. Miles hates parsing adult-speak. It’s like writing with his left hand.
“Okay. Done for today,” Cornelius says, then drops his brushes into a jar. He doesn’t look like an artist to Miles. An unbuttoned shirt, Bermuda shorts, those flip-flops that he probably wears to bed.
Olivia slides off the stool and walks to Miles and shakes his hand. “Olivia.” Her hand is warm and clammy.
“I’m Miles. He’s my dad.”
“I know. Eva’s my cousin. Come,” she says, pulling him by the wrist. “Dessert.”
Eva has decked out a table outside and everyone sits down to volumes of ice cream, black currants and raspberries. There are tiny bright green worms on enough of the raspberries that Miles rolls each one between his thumb and index finger before placing them on his tongue. Ever since last summer, raspberries have been the taste of Norway for Miles. Before helping himself to the black currants, he follows Cornelius’ lead and unwraps a double sugar-cube packet from the bowl and places a cube in each cheek. There must be a price to pay for all this, he thinks. The sunshine, the ice cream, the berries, the hours of doing nothing. Long cold winters, maybe, but there’s winter back home, too, and no summers like this.
“Trist,” Cornelius says, folding his newspaper in half.
The slate table shimmers like fish scales.
“Hva?” Eva asks.
“Louie died yesterday,” Cornelius says, his beard milky with melted ice cream.
When no one says anything, Miles asks, “Who?”
“Louie Armstrong,” Cornelius says and leaves the table, reading as he walks to the barn.
Miles looks at Olivia, but she shrugs. There’s a scalloped ashtray on the ground next to Cornelius’ empty chair, the plastic ringed by the name of an Italian cafe. Miles wonders what would be a good age to start smoking. He has to like it first, and he’s not there yet.
They hear music. A trumpet solos on the hi-fi as Cornelius walks back to them on the path of cleared grass, then a violin takes over for a few bars before the melody returns in a soft wash of old-timey-sounding horns. And then comes a voice Miles recognizes but didn’t have a name for, a voice all wet and hungry, even a bit retarded-sounding. But happy like it owns happy. No one to talk with, All by myself / No one to walk with / I’m happy on the shelf, babe / Ain’t misbehavin’ / I’m savin’ my love, ah baby, my love for you. And though Miles wants another helping of dessert, he puts down his bowl and spoon and together with the others listens as the music streams from the barn, a dead man singing and blowing. Miles picks at the husk-like calyx on a blackcurrant. The green smell of cut grass carries on the breeze. Miles doesn’t often think of death. He used to think death was the moon. Bone-white, quiet and remote. But now that he’s seen the pictures from that rock—seen a living Armstrong mess with gravity, the vacuum-starched flag with all that emptiness behind it—he has yet to find what else death could be. Sometimes he wonders if he should be pushing back a bit at what is drawing him onward—sex—because after sex comes marriage and then comes death.
Louie Armstrong makes the trumpet skip quickly upward and the song ends and there is silence for a long time until Cornelius claps his hands once and turns to him.
“You want to learn to drive? Your brother learned last summer.”
“Really?” Miles says, his elation stumbling down a few pegs when Cornelius invites Olivia along. Miles is frustrated while practicing shifting, his father calling out gear numbers as the Volvo sits in the gravel courtyard, dead quiet except for the rubbery mechanics of the stick. It’s harder to master than he expected.
“Watch Olivia,” Cornelius says, and hands her the keys. Miles scoots over and sits beside Olivia as she starts the car and takes them down the road.
“You learned this summer?” Miles asks.
Olivia looks over at him, her face proud but the knuckles of her hands white. “Cornelius taught me this morning.”
“You taught yourself,” Cornelius says from behind them. Miles sees his father taking the opportunity to collect stray paint tubes, magazines and other miscellany that’s accumulated in the backseat. When Cornelius ducks down to feel beneath the seats, it’s like they’re alone. Without him, the car seems even bulkier and unwieldy controlled by so thin and young a girl. As though it’s a car without brakes. He’s glad to see Cornelius sit upright again.
When they leave the farm road and glide onto smooth pavement, Cornelius asks Olivia to pull up to a roadside market. She almost hits an A-frame sign showing an illustration of an eskimo proffering an ice cream cone. Cornelius climbs out to pick up a few items: cigarette paper, a magazine for Eva, he says. Miles and Olivia sit in the car, waiting. She runs her fingertips over the steering wheel, rocks the gear shift in neutral. He wonders if that story CC told him about a woman doing the gear shift while on Spanish fly is true. He suspects CC’s source may be full of crap. She tries the radio but they can only pick up a soccer game. She turns it off. Miles wonders what to talk about.
Olivia whistles, imitating a bird they hear through the rolled-down windows.
“You like school?” he asks.
“No,” she says.
“Me either,” he lies. “You like jazz?”
“Me either,” he says, adding another lie. Last summer, Cornelius said it was Miles’ duty as an American to appreciate jazz. Miles tried, but it wasn’t until he returned home that the music held power, bringing to mind the sheen of vinyl, the smell of turpentine, summer in Norway. It rose up there to the enjoyment of stilt-walking, endless sunlight, and nude beaches. He looks over and catches Olivia picking her nose. She puts her hand down and turns away, then brings her hand up again. He checks his own nostrils. He wants them to agree on something, really agree. Men and women the world over are pairing up, voluntarily, and there has to be something that takes away the space between strangers, that tips the one into the other. He’s wasted a year trying to figure out the sex part. He’s skipped the conversational foreplay entirely and it’s a deficit he can feel with each passing second.
“He’s been in there a long time,” Miles says, the wrong thing to say entirely, throwing his words out to something external to the two of them. “Maybe they don’t have Eva’s magazine,” he adds.
“Have you a girlfriend in New York?” she asks him.
Man oh man, he thinks—those are the right words. “Not right now,” he says, hoping that’ll conjure up a plausible history of broken hearts.
She braids the long strands of denim trailing from her cut-off jeans. “Me, either,” she says, after an equally long pause.
A moment ago there was hope, but now he feels like they are losers. By this point in their lives they shouldn’t be just themselves. They both look up as a woman emerges from the store, deposits a bag in the basket mounted on her bicycle’s handlebars, then pedals down the road. The crosswalk sign shows the silhouette of a man in a hat with a definite attitude in his stride, as though to warn motorists that Frank Sinatra may cross here. Even the street sign is hipper than Miles feels he can ever be.
“Do you like stilts?” Miles asks.
“I don’t know.”
The woman on the bicycle swerves to avoid something on the road, then continues. He loves watching women on bicycles. “I can teach you,” he says.
After they return to the farmhouse—Cornelius driving and the two of them in the backseat down to the nubby ends of their ice creams cones—they play a game of Ludo, then two-language Scrabble, listening all the while to Cornelius’ Dixieland collection on his late-parents’ Victrola until the mosquitoes drive them inside, where Miles pretends to read Norwegian comics while observing how different daily life is here—quieter, neighborless, the air smelling faintly of pitch from walls basking in over twenty hours of northern sun. Wood as old as the institution of America. Olivia dog-ears pages of Eva’s magazine. Eva writes on thin airmail paper. Cornelius reads a book so slowly that Miles is startled awake with the crisp sweep of each turned page.
He wakes the next morning on the couch, a blanket over his legs, a pillow under his head. A sketch lies on the table showing himself, mouth agape, arm reaching nearly to the floor, as though sleep not just broke but killed him. In the drawing, Olivia sits on the floor beside him, studying a chessboard. The house is quiet. Outside, Miles takes a piss behind the barn, then enters and finds Gabriel’s stilts. He dusts off his own stilts for Olivia. He tries on Gabriel’s pair, first by walking around a tree a few times until the balance comes back to him, remembering the way each step is heavy and precarious at the same time. He doesn’t feel tall but giant instead, as though every organ and limb were larger. He attempts a walk around the barn. A forest of stinging nettle waits for him to fall but he does not fall. His piss, there at the base of the barn, looks like the mark of an animal.
Eva is in the courtyard when he comes back around.
“You can use those to pick the cherries when we get back,” she says. She wears a t-shirt over a bikini and looks explosive in her enormity. His father’s sunglasses rest in her hair.
Miles notices the folding chair and a beach umbrella in the back of the open Volvo. “Where we going?”
“The beach. They’ll come later,” she says, waving off the farmhouse dismissively. “Let them sleep. They played chess all night.”
“Olivia probably. Your father can’t think ahead.” She throws him the car keys.
He catches them and jumps down from the stilts, kicking them wide. He notices that the Volvo’s logo, ♂, is the astronomical symbol for Mars. For men. He knows he can do this. He waits until she’s comfortable, then starts the car and checks the mirrors. Miles lurches into first gear and stalls the engine, but is quickly forgiven by Eva’s laugh. He tries again and keeps it in first gear all the way to the grassy field marking the end of the farm road, the field already filled with a dozen cars. CC claims his uncle let him steer through the Lincoln Tunnel, but CC is a liar. This is driving. Parking comes naturally to Miles.
He insists on carrying nearly everything, taking items from Olivia and adding them to his load as they head through the forest.
“You and Olivia are getting along,” she says.
“Yeah,” Miles says. “Though she mostly poses for Cornelius.”
“She has a crush on your father.”
“Well, he’s handsome. And famous.”
“I know,” Miles says, though he doesn’t appreciate his father’s fame. He’s never heard of Cornelius back in New York. His friends have never heard of him. He’s not in any library card catalogs. As for handsome, Miles can’t say.
“I have a crush on him, too,” Eva says.
“No shit,” Miles says, wishing he sounded less abrasive.
Eva rubs her belly and smiles. “Yes shit.”
Eva intimating her romance with his father makes Miles uncomfortable, partly because it brings back to mind his indiscretion that first night, a gray paste of guilt sitting in his gut, and partly because he’s not sure he can sit beside a nude Olivia at the beach, not for fear of arousal but of plain unbearable awkwardness. He hopes the self-consciousness of pregnancy will keep her clothed. Miles notices flecks of purple-black paint on the nape of her neck where the hair begins to grow. He kicks a pine cone into a waist-high ant hill, wishing this were his first summer here, that he was headed to the beach alone, clothed among the nude. He remembers how, until he was five or six, he thought the word was mude. Nude has always seemed to him a naked version of that original truer word, one shoulder stripped off that leading m. The ants swarm the pine cone, their bodies shaking, from fear or fury, he’s not sure. Fury. If he had it to do over, he’d take the sea urchin.
“Oh,” Eva says, stopping. “Water.”
They aren’t close to the beach. Miles peers into the pack, past the suntan oil and the magazines, feeling for a Thermos. Perhaps he left it in the car. When he looks up he sees the shine on Eva’s legs. “Your water broke,” he says, the phrase rolling out naturally as if he knows all the details of child-bearing. Which he does, or thinks he does, the textbook illustrations from health class still vivid in his mind, the egg and the sperm—that weird mob that’s him and yet autonomous—the mitosis magic, the tiny tadpole, the transformation into a baby squeezed upside down and wanting out—at least in the cut-away illustrations of tissue and bone he’s seen. Eva turns and shuffles back to the car.
“Does it hurt,” he asks, watching her face. A stupid question, it obviously does.
When he sees the Volvo he runs ahead and piles the bags and beach chairs into the back, their volume seeming to have doubled. He returns to her, takes the towels and throws them in the back seat. He opens the passenger door for her.
“Takk,” she says, and sits. “Okay. Deep breath.”
As he starts the car, Miles is sure she’s said that for him. Overcompensating the weakness he feels with a lead foot, the car sideswipes a stand of nettle, the stems snapping to the ground, supplicant to the Volvo’s bumper. He corrects and the car jumps to the other side of the dirt road and half into a field, yellow blossoms whipping the windshield. More gas and they fishtail in the furrows.
“Stop!” Eva says. “Out.”
She slides behind the wheel as he fights the crop for access to the passenger door. He feels it immediately after sitting down, her water soaking into his shorts, warm and endless. He wonders if it’s salty, like tears. There are towels in the back, but instead he pulls himself up slightly with the strap as Eva drives, his back pressed against the seat, his feet pushing hard against the floorboard to arch himself off his ass. He feels a dog-low shame welling up from his gut that, a year or so ago, would have led to crying.
When they reach the house, Eva honks the Volvo’s horn repeatedly. “Get your father,” she says, when no one emerges.
At the door, Miles stumbles into Cornelius who exits the house in mid-shave, a towel around his neck.
“Her water broke,” Miles says over the rapid-fire Danish that trails him. Cornelius turns back into the house, then turns again as the car horn bleats. He wipes his face on the towel and hands it to Miles, then runs shirtless to the car, his flip-flops beating a rhythm of haste. He takes the wheel, guns the engine, and they are gone. Cornelius is looking down and Miles knows his father is discovering the wet seat.
There are white ridges of shaving foam on the towel Miles holds. He folds it and places it on the kitchen table on his way upstairs to tell Olivia. She rolls from bed at the news, then stands very still, thinking. And then she immediately goes to work, a bucket and sponge following her through room after room like dogs while music from a transistor radio plays in the kitchen, interrupted on the hour with news, as though Olivia is expecting word of the birth to be broadcast.
“Can I help?” Miles asks.
“You can vacuum the floor.”
He cleans every room, and in glimpses watches Olivia air the feather comforters over the window sills, watches her tuck fresh sheets over the mattresses. A bassinet materializes and is placed beside Eva’s bed. She then makes up a second bed in Miles’ room.
He turns off the vacuum cleaner. “Who’s coming?” He senses already that Gabriel has changed his mind, has broken free, is coming back. Those months of pestering his brother to come for another summer—out of fear of traveling alone, of being alone—those tactics feel like his past self undoing the present.
“This is for Cornelius,” she says.
“Good,” he says and smiles. “For how long?”
“When my little sister was born, my father slept on the couch for a year. Are you done with that?”
He looks down at the vacuum cleaner, shakes his head and flips it back on. In Olivia’s bedroom Miles can look his dead relatives in the eye as he runs the vacuum cleaner productively across the floorboards, hearing the clatter of dirt and sand sucked from between the gaps in the plank flooring. He makes Olivia’s bed and smells the pillow, a cool sweet smell. He fluffs it and imagines that tonight, seeing her bed made and falling exhausted into it, her head will rest on the unexpected softness of the pillow he is now holding, and she will think of him for a moment before falling asleep. Through the window he sees Olivia walking along the edges of the field, picking wildflowers from the edges of the shallow ditch. It’s then that he ruins his redemption, first by rooting through the journal on the dresser—blank—then by opening the dresser drawers. He finds them full of his late grandparents’ things: brushes still with snagged gray hair, tins of shoe polish, coppery hair pins, stockings and matchbooks. In a drawer under yellowed underwear he finds his grandfather’s heavy rubber prophylactic—nothing like the condoms in sidewalk gutters or in the forests of The Ramble in Central Park, where his friend Kay says people go at midnight to have orgies. This one is thick and substantive. The kind of protection he imagines a horse would wear if a horse were worried about catching the clap. He closes the drawer when he hears Olivia in the house again, humming to herself.
Olivia arranges a bouquet of flowers in a vase and takes it up to Eva’s room while Miles makes a dinner of melted cheese sandwiches heavy with mustard. The two of them sit at the kitchen table and eat. It’s early evening and the house smells of soap and preparation. They are both sweaty and conjuring flies through the open windows. They should be talking more, he thinks. The only noise comes from the crunch of peppery potato chips and the pumping of Olivia’s left leg.
She wipes her mouth on her sleeve. “Takk,” she says and leaves him to clean the kitchen, which he does.
He calls her name but there’s no answer. He hears the outdoor shower and heads upstairs to Eva’s bedroom and leans out an open window that is still holding an aired duvet. He can see Olivia directly below, her hair wet and dark, the knobs in her spine emerging when she reaches down to wash her legs. She stands on one foot, brings the other upward and washes the sole that’s dark as a sandal. He doesn’t get an erection, but there’s an equal swelling and tightness in his chest. He backs away. He is dirty from cleaning so he goes to his room, grabs a change of clothes and a towel and waits outside across from the shower. He sits atop the long wall of wood prepared for a winter that seems just a rumor. He catches vertical glimpses of Olivia through the crack between the door and the wood siding. Occasional sprays of water fly out the top of the shower like moths. When she comes out wrapped in a towel, she doesn’t see him.
He washes his hair for the first time since arriving, watching the way the soap seems to make the water move more slowly, down between the wet stones, the cold spray reaching as far as the moss-covered boards. He peers out the door’s crack and sees only the forest. As he dries off he notices the window above has been closed, the duvet drawn in.
He finds Olivia at the slate table outside, holding out his pair of shoes.
“Where we going?” he asks.
“The neighbor. They have a telephone.”
He forces his damp feet into the sneakers, then runs to catch up to Olivia. They walk quickly, but quietly. A sea breeze sweeps across the field changing the color of the wheat. Colors fade in the sky that darkens now with clouds. They don’t say anything and it’s long, that walk, at least a couple of miles, and cool by the time they reach the neighboring farm. There are kids out front on the tire swing, the circle of tractor tread twisting slowly from three chains, two kids perched within and screaming with enjoyment, another half-dozen kids on the periphery of the tire’s path pushing the tire higher, adding as much spin as they can muster against a hundred pounds of rubber inertia. A dog runs back and forth in the pit beneath the tire, barking. Miles yearns to join them but follows Olivia.
He sits on the wooden stairwell just inside while Olivia dials the hospital and talks. He can hear the farmer’s wife washing dishes in the kitchen. One of her sons parks his wheelchair at the foot of the spiral stairs and does a card trick for Miles. The trick is easy to see through—the boy’s hands are too small to hide the palmed card—but Miles feigns surprise. Olivia has to repeat everything she’s said into the phone until she speaks to someone who must be Cornelius or Eva. The farmer walks past them and outdoors, leaving a stream of pipe smoke. Olivia speaks in a hushed voice and he wonders if the news is bad, or if she’s merely being discreet. It’s then that he remembers having promised his mother that he’d call her when he got to Norway. He can picture her at work in the MET’s educational department. Perhaps Gabriel and his girlfriend are meeting her for lunch in the cafeteria, where his mother will buy them sandwiches and pudding and then, if there’s time, walk them through a collection. Some days she shows them abstract paintings, or medieval armor, or Egyptian hieroglyphics. Tonight she’ll be scraping out the last of the pudding and saying, Tsch! That Miles forget how to dial a phone? He doesn’t need but one finger. And Gabriel will be holding hands with his girlfriend under the table the way he always does. And then he remembers that his mother is likely on her cruise now, Panama-bound. And Gabriel is either working, sleeping, or fucking.
The farmer’s kids run into the house, a bundle of shoe-shedding laughter, and then pummel past him and upstairs, every one of them wet.
Olivia hangs up and steps into the kitchen to talk to the farmer’s wife, no longer a shy girl but a woman talking to another woman. At the door, the farmer’s wife points out that it’s raining. The tire swing is still. She gestures them back inside, but Eva answers and laughs and takes Miles’ hand. She pulls him into the rain through which they now run, down the sloping grass, down to the gravel road. Running and running like they’re dashing to a car parked just out of sight where they will be dry once inside.
“What did they say?” Miles asks.
“It’s a girl!” Eva kicks a forgotten soccer ball out from the road. “Three and a half kilos.”
“Is that good?”
“Yes!” she shouts and stops running, but doesn’t let go of his hand.
He’s relieved that she’s happy. He’s not sure they’re holding hands, really holding hands, until they’re each walking in their own wheel rut, the grass high between them, and their arms stretching uncomfortably but neither letting go. The rain falls on the field of wheat with a long loud hiss, the plants wet and bobbing. Olivia’s hair is wet. Miles notices her eyes more and her large ears, and of course her chest through her wet shirt, arcs where the water has stuck to the skin and left something like a blurry photograph of the breasts beneath.
“It’s not good to stare,” she says, though thankfully when she says it he is looking at her eyes again.
“You’re crazy happy,” he says, the feeling infectious.
Miles wonders if the generations who once worked these fields—before Cornelius traded in agriculture for art—were ever this happy. Their framed photographs certainly didn’t make this seem possible, but the ingredients for happiness must have been there: their summers as green as this summer, their roads composed of the same dirt. They must have been caught off guard in a rainstorm, too, crossing their fields, holding hands, the world as small as what they could see, the rest of it rumor and words in a weekly paper without photographs. Unlike Miles, they would have never known what a cloud looks like from above, the way water droplets split and split again while pushed against the outside of an aircraft’s window. They wouldn’t have known the sound of an electric guitar, or, really, known much of anything. Miles feels sorry for them and, as a counterweight, glee, as he and Olivia walk up to his father’ house, dark and unlocked. They stand dripping in the entrance. Their hand-holding feels awkward once inside the house, somehow even more noticeable without the wide expanse of the outdoors to make it feel innocent. Their hands drop to their sides.
As he is changing into dry clothes in his room, Miles hears the screech of a jet approaching, just above, coming closer and closer. And then drums—The Beatles on the hi-fi in the barn, loud as hell. He runs through a fresh curtain of rain and into the barn. Olivia is dancing on the couch. She’s still wearing her wet I♥NY t-shirt as she dances to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” They’re opening beers, real beers, at “Dear Prudence.” He chases her through the barn during “Glass Onion,” is forced to dance during “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and kisses her there, behind his father’s works-in-progress, the backsides of the stretched canvases unmarked and dun-colored, like the inside of animal hides. When he tries to French kiss her, she bites his tongue.
“Du,” she admonishes, then goes and does the same to him, her tongue searching for something he doesn’t have. The power goes out then in the middle of a song that dives straight into melancholy in three second, plunging into deep frequencies indistinguishable from the sound of thunder. The last lights are the fading glow from the hi-fi’s tubes.
They make out on the couch for ages, and as badly as he wants to enjoy what’s coming, trying to remember the positions he saw so recently, he hates himself for not stealing a condom from his brother. If she’s not on The Pill he may need to wear his grandfather’s condom. And then he thinks where that condom’s been, his grandmother with her grim center part of gray hair, those bushy eyebrows above dog-black eyes, and he feels relieved, almost, to see headlights rake through the barn, hear an engine rattle to a stop, the door slam. Olivia pushes up and off him and runs outside and he lies there and waits for his erection to go down.
“Miles,” Olivia shouts. He waits. “Miles.”
They are standing in the front door of the farmhouse behind a sheet of rain. Cornelius holds out a Polaroid to Miles as he runs to them.
“Your sister,” Cornelius says. “Märthe. I tried Sarah, I tried Ella, but Eva said no jazz names.”
Inside the farmhouse, by candlelight, he can better see Eva in the Polaroid, lying on the hospital bed with the baby suckling. Eva’s hair, which seemed short before, is long and puzzlingly unkempt. They sit at the kitchen table passing the single photo back and forth, as though a second look might reveal more than what’s there: a mouth, an exposed breast and blankets. Cornelius scarfs down food while talking to Olivia, telling her details he’s too hungry to translate for Miles, though Miles gets the gist: it was wild. Cornelius’ enthusiasm makes Miles realize Cornelius must have missed Gabriel’s birth in addition to Miles’ own. If Olivia weren’t sitting here, sending her fingers through the candle’s flame, back and forth, each digit daring the next, her face a broad smile, he would ask Cornelius how the birth was compared to Gabriel’s or his own, just to place a jab of guilt into his father. Instead he says, “Congratulations.”
“You, too,” Cornelius says. “You’ve got a sister.” He stands and places his hands on the two of them for a moment. “And now, I sleep.” They listen to him feel his way upstairs. The lights flicker back on then, the returning electricity goading the refrigerator back into starting and a moment later, growing louder and louder, Paul McCartney’s thundering call: Why don’t we d-d-do it in the road? Olivia bolts outdoors to the barn.
Alone, Miles looks again at the photograph. As though having a father in Norway wasn’t strange enough, now he also has a half-sister, one without any connection to his own mother, someone she and Gabriel have no knowledge of yet. He feels a turn in his association with the word brother. What had been more a classification now feels imbued with responsibility.
Upstairs, lying in bed across from the one in which Cornelius lies, still dressed and covered in snores, Miles realizes he has just as much family here as back home. And then, unlike every night for hundreds past, he begins to fall asleep by remembering Olivia on the couch in the barn, the way her tongue felt in his mouth, the smell of her wet-warm clothing, the way she held his face in her hands. She is sleeping in the room on the other side of this wall. Running his fingers against the panelling, he wishes he could reach through the rough varnish, through the wood, slinking his arm out past the photographs of his relatives and in their full view reach to Olivia’s bed and insert a single finger into her mouth, just so he can feel her tongue.
Miles finds Olivia outside the next morning. The Volvo is gone. He sees the mole above her bikini top that he felt last night and tried to avoid touching.
“Is Cornelius getting the baby?” he asks.
“Maybe,” she says. “I didn’t hear him leave. But when the baby comes home it’ll be the end of my holiday. Yours, too.”
“Let’s go to the beach,” Miles says.
“That’s what I was thinking.”
He initiates hand-holding on the walk there, though he regrets it with every awkward one-handed hiking up of his trunks, the bright yellow ones that belonged to his brother the summer before. The insects are already ticking in the heat of the steaming fields. The parking lot is packed—it must be the weekend—and they follow the well-worn path into the forest. He looks over his shoulder and sees a couple making out in a car. He wonders when he and Olivia will have sex. Somewhere in the forest on the way back? He knows it can be done standing up. Or maybe back at the house, this afternoon, tonight, in some safe hour before the house turns into a nursery and he’s replaced with Märthe, infant of infinite need. He wonders how much of last night was driven by Olivia’s elation at the birth, or from the beers, or the warm dry safety of the barn’s couch in the middle of a thunderstorm. He wonders why she likes him. But knowing what’s ahead, he doesn’t need more than a night to really become a man. Even an hour will do, just a few minutes. He has this down, he’s sure. Olivia, the other women—oh those other women. A stiff breeze could bring on an erection. He steps into a puddle of mud and feels the chill from last night’s rain.
“Have you been to this beach before?” Olivia asks.
“Yeah. I love it,” Miles says, then tempers his enthusiasm. “It’s pretty good.”
“Yeah. It’s pretty good,” Olivia says.
They are in the forest now. Here is where Eva’s water broke. There, he recognizes the slab of granite behind which he found the men’s magazine, and soon after they pass the depression where, last summer, he hugged moss while the woman who carried him from the sea called out to him, back when he was a child. They walk on to where the trail fans out onto a hard-packed delta, wedges of the ocean’s breeze slinking through the thinning forest, the air heavy with salt. A year’s worth of want lies ahead, just ahead. And there it is. The beach.
Its recognizable granite boulders are still half-submerged in the sea, but Miles has to take a moment to let his memory of this place tailor itself to the cove’s true scale and contours. A platform with a curved fiberglass slide floats a good swim out where there’d been only water, before. A water-skier flies behind a yellow speedboat chopping at the sea, its hull ka-thump ka-thumping across another boat’s wake. Closer, toddlers stumble with sandy buckets at the water line, their asses milk-white, hair like wisps of sun, voices screaming with joy at waves that break at their ankles. No one else is nude, or even topless. The kids’ parents sunbathe in a sunny stupor, the grandparents wilting in the shade of the forest’s edge. What’s happened to this place, Miles wonders. He follows Olivia past a freshly assembled kiosk sitting just above the beach, customers walking away from the shack with long hot dogs wrapped loosely in potato tortillas of lompe, others holding licorice ropes, newspapers, orange soda, pulling off the top paper covers from their cylinders of ice cream. Behind the kiosk sit a few shiny aluminum row boats, sloppy white numbers painted on their sterns.
Olivia spreads out her towel and Miles does the same. There are women here, true, but not the type of women from last summer. Olivia anchors her towel with her discarded sandals, smiles at him, then runs toward the water, dives and is gone. Miles unties his shoes and throws his shirt behind him and walks after her, faster once he sees her break the surface and continue swimming out. He runs past the woman lying under her beach umbrella, a C-section scar grabbing his eyes for a few strides, runs past the balding father helping his son build a castle from the rough sand, around the kids running with short-tethered kites that dart at the water’s edge until he, too, is submerged and swimming. The water is colder than last year, and then it feels the same. He tries to catch up to Olivia. Her head and shoulders move away with the lilting pace of the breaststroke. He breaks into a forward crawl, kicks hard at the water, reaches hand over hand, just like they teach at the Y, twelve winter weeks of practice to ensure he’ll never ever drown. It feels strange to be swimming out of doors. He opens his eyes and looks down and sees the mussel shells scattered like opened hearts, and he fights downward to the bottom and rakes his fingers across the mollusks’ remains looking for an unbroken pair among the pieces that resemble corroded metal shavings. He grabs at one and surfaces, sucks in the air and finds Olivia treading water in front of him. He rubs the sting from his eyes, then holds out the shell to her. She looks at it.
“Blåskjell,” she says.
“This one. Looks like. A heart though.”
“They all look like hearts,” Olivia says, and turns for the floating platform, packed with kids, the tan ones dry and blonde, the newcomers pale-skinned.
Miles doesn’t want her to swim toward them. “Olivia,” he shouts, but his voice is mangled under the gurgle of a slowing motorboat. The boat comes at them then curves away, a water skier emerging from behind who lets go of the tow and comes at Miles fast, then slow, then sinking, the skis bobbing awkwardly short of the distance he’d expected them to cover. “Olivia!” he shouts again. He’s waited a year to return to this beach, and now he would rather be elsewhere, anywhere, alone with Olivia. He doesn’t want her to be nearly to the platform. A gang of boys go down the slide all together, their weight raising the opposite, shore-facing end of the platform where Olivia reaches, then waits, then reaches up for again as the platform once more floats flat. He waits to see if she’s just going to go down the slide. That would be okay. He might do the same. On the other hand, want he really wants is for her to swim with him to other secluded coves that he hasn’t seen but trusts are there. She doesn’t go down the slide. She finds a spot on the platform and sits down. He can’t tread forever.
He rests next to Olivia on a dry spot on the platform, their feet facing toward the wide fjord-mouth, the open sea a bend or two beyond. He reclines after she does. His right arm touches down along her whole left arm and he feels her slide one leg so it touches his and they lie like that through the quick chill of the breeze drying their skin and into the first discomfort of too much sun. He wonders if she feels as uncertain to move as he does. He closes his eyes and his ears open suddenly, water displaced, one sense traded for another. He hears the sound of kids jumping into the water around them, their laughter, the insistent foxtrot of their footsteps all around them, even the diesel throb of a passing fishing boat. He senses a group of boys gathering around them and slits his eyes to peek. They’re holding a bucket and he knows they’re about to douse him and Olivia and yet he doesn’t move, sensing that its more adult to be pretending to be asleep, to let kids have their fun at his expense. It’s a good feeling, to know what’s coming and exhibit self-control.
“Brann!” a boy shouts, and he waits for the water, wondering how Olivia will react, if she’ll shriek or scold or, like him, just take a moment, then open his eyes and give the boys a grin. But no water falls and he opens his eyes and faces the same direction as all the other kids, at a graphite-colored plume that billows from a speedboat’s outboard motor with an unfriendly, intestinal anatomy. The kids trade comments as they watch the two adults on the boat: a woman searching down below the chrome wheel, and a man kicking at the Evinrude in back, now streaming more smoke than it seems an outboard can feed. The man steps back and kicks again, harder. The speedboat has drifted close enough to them that Miles can see the man isn’t angry. It’s a lovely boat, white with a gold stripe along its side catching the light and glittering almost electrically. Miles doesn’t realize the engine’s been running this whole time until it cuts out.
“He’s gonna ditch the motor,” Miles says, standing beside Olivia.
The man kicks again, flames now keeping his attempts to dislodge the outboard quick and infrequent. The outboard motor doesn’t budge. The woman leans over the opposite side, then draws a bucket from the sea and hands it to the man. The water leaps onto the outboard and the sticky black smoke—now rising steeper, now diving to hug the water—turns white for a moment, then gray as it dirties on its ascent. The couple are engulfed in smoke and steam and for the first time Miles is worried not for the boat, but for them. There’s a pop as the outer casing of the outboard’s powerhead flies off. It flaps once, like a bird, then settles on the water. The smoke seethes a moment then billows blacker, stronger and thicker, like giant knuckles around the entirety of the boat. Miles can’t figure out why they don’t swim away. The kids around him are shouting for the couple to jump. Miles can smell scorched fiberglass. Such a small fire and all that water around them. He joins in the shouts.
From the shore behind him he hears more yelling. He turns and sees parents pacing in the shallows as they call out the names of their kids, jockeying for dead air to make themselves heard. Two dozen names are called, insistently, until, one by one, all the boys and girls jump from the platform and swim for shore and are taken in hand by their fathers and mothers. He sees other men pushing their boats from shore, hears the wooden stumble of oars, a motorboats’ keel grating off of land and back to the silence of buoyancy, a drooping Norwegian flag hanging from the back. Nobody calls their names.
The burning boat drifts closer to them, maybe only fifty feet away now, the entire stern aflame. He can hear the faint pillowy sound of smoke. Quick waves of heat move invisibly across the water and slap his forehead. The wind shifts and Miles can now see the man casting a red tank of fuel far overboard, then the man crouches down, arm against his face, and heaves an anchor overboard. He crawls along the gunwale and joins the woman up front and together they stand for a moment, then dive. Miles waits for them to surface, and when they do, they’re swimming his way and he and Olivia are ready for them, already down on their knees, arms outstretched, helping the woman from the water first, the right side of her face oily and her hair curled up in strange heat-tempered wisps. Her broken top hangs from her neck and clings between her breasts. Then he helps Olivia with the man, his body dotted with the roots of melted hair. The two sit down beside Miles and Olivia at the edge of the platform. They are panting like animals. Miles can smell the smoke on their breath. The man puts his hand on the woman’s leg and she puts her hand over his, tucking her fingers in the space between his fingers, and they sit like this as the fiberglass continues to scorch and the smoke’s shade changes with the combustion of cushions and vinyl. The man looks over at Miles and Olivia to acknowledge them for the first time, but all he does is nod his head and Miles nods back and when they both look back out to the boat—the anchor line tugging at the drifting boat as though insisting it remain to burn—Miles is warmed by the way an adult has taken Miles’ own compassion as genuine, at how no fluency, no adult vocabulary, could do better than what he’s done in this situation, those two heartfelt nods of his head. The woman looks at him and he nods again, adding a slight pursing of his lips, but she looks like she’s about to cry, her eyelashes impossibly heat-curled. Miles instantly feels like shit. It’s like she’s reading his mind, not the compassionate adult mind, but the one where there’s no crowd behind them, no burning boat. Where it’s just him and the accidentally topless woman he’s rescued from certain death who wants him to touch her breasts. He looks away. Boats from the beach and from beyond the cove now hover a safe distance back, some owners holding fire extinguishers with the best of intentions.
He recognizes Louie Armstrong on a radio behind him on the beach. It’s the same song from the other night, but a newer version with a big band’s distance. But it’s still the same voice. The deejay talks over the last minute or so in which the trumpet rises in four-note climbs over a drum beat, and though Miles doesn’t understand what’s being said he understands the lilts and pauses and drawn out syllables in the announcer’s voice—the feigned sadness, a kind of disinterested sympathy at what’s lost and never to return.
Miles sees the red tank of fuel bobbing a short swim out from the platform and he wishes he could recover it for them, or at least keep it clear of the boat, to go back to that moment when he’s helping pull the couple up from the water. When he was last pure and good.
He slips into the water then, cold again, truly cold, and swims clear out to the tank and holds on to the slippery plastic sides for a moment to catch his breath before swimming back, pushing the heavy tank with both arms. It’s slow going. Miles can see the beach where a line of parents and children stand as though looking at him. There’s a mother out front with her hands cupped around her mouth. “Harold!” she shouts. She calls the name again and Miles then notices that they’re not alone on the platform. A young boy sits at the top of the slide. A gauzy outer arm of smoke drifts across his view for a moment, then clears. “Harold!” There’s no anger in the mother’s voice, now. “Harold!”
“Faen!” the boy mutters, disappointment in his curse. He scoots forward on the now-dry slide, thin lines of water pressing clear of his trunks and running down the baby blue fiberglass. The boy pinches his piggy nose, puts one hand up into the air, and slides down and into the water. Something in Miles, something new, reaches out instinctively. His tight grip on the handle of the spare fuel tank releases and he swims toward the splash. Harold surfaces, a completely different looking boy with wet hair. Miles swims with him until he’s close enough for Olivia to reach down and pull him back up onto the platform. He looks back and sees the tank has drifted back toward the boat, which seems closer now, the anchor rope burned through, gone. The man slips into the water behind him and begins to swim out to finish Miles’ intention, but Miles, leaner and younger, quickly turns and breaks into another crawl. The wind shifts solidly now and smoke throws a blanket over the sky and he dives deep to avoid the sudden stench of fumes and there, in the darkness of the smoke’s shadow, he sees the strange yellow glow of fire silhouetting the boat’s hull, the metallic-looking globules of air turning resin-colored as they dribble up along the closest side. He slows, but feels as though there’s a current pulling him toward the hull, as though the boat is there to wick everything beneath it up to burn, endlessly, even though he knows it’s just a fire and like all fires, it will eventually go out. He surfaces to breathe but the spook remains and he turns and kicks away, abandoning the fuel container he can now see, floating only feet from the boat. He parts the water with two free hands and understands that some fire will consume everything completely. That to be a man is not to be strong, but to know danger and to flee. He breaths in. The stink is overpowering. He dives once more and there is a soft light that fades on and then out from behind him and for a moment he can see clear to the bottom of the cove, at the mud and the sea grasses and the quick dart of a small octopus. There’s only one fish, a silver sliver with an ignorant eye. It’s all sucked back into darkness and he looks forward and sees the underside of the platform ahead, his breath tightening as he nears the man treading in the water. And then he sees Olivia jump in and then the woman and young Harold emerging from a lifting cloud of air bubbles. All those legs kicking in all that water.
After Harold swims to the furious hug of his mother, after the man and woman are taken away by boat for care, after a small motorboat tows away the still smoldering boat—the newcomer’s hull rising steeply out of the water to reveal barnacles, after the first iridescence of oil and gasoline passes them and washes onto the beach, after the crowd moves down to the western end, after the crowd thins—only the older kids left—and after those kids leave and the last of the cars can be seen driving back to town far off where one edge of the forest gives in to a clearing of wheat, and after the kiosk is shuttered and the side door padlocked and the owner walks off into the woods, and after the hooded crows descend and clear out the last of the crumbs, and after the breeze halts and the sounds of distant boats sound closer than they actually are, and after the sun has stalled allowing only enough darkness for a planet or two in the sky above, they kiss. Briefly.
Then Olivia sees it coming, and then Miles also spots the black roof of Cornelius’ Volvo riding over the field, slowly and carefully, as though driven by someone other than his father. When the car disappears behind the trees, Miles and Olivia dive, swim, and run, the forest brewing cold rooms of night, their towels like capes. They startle the man from the kiosk on the path ahead, his ring finger tapping a rhythm against an empty bottle. Miles turns and sees the man bend down and hold up Miles’ towel, but they cannot turn back now, he and Olivia are hand-in-hand, their matched strides sounding like one person at times, and then more than two. Miles turns once more and sees the man running behind them with Miles’ towel. Du! he shouts. Hei du! Miles and Olivia pull ahead and break through into the trampled grass of the parking area and they don’t stop running until they’ve rounded the field and see the Volvo parked and ticking off heat. Panting, they tiptoe around the outside of the farmhouse, peeking through the smeary glass looking for Eva and Cornelius, their breath fogging the glass and forcing them to move to new panes until they spot both of them and the baby in the sitting room. They watch them unobserved for long silent minutes until Miles and Olivia are shivering and have no choice but to go inside.