Will was staring at his best friend, who sat behind the wheel of his ’69 Impala, low in the tattered, foam-hemorrhaging bench seat, arm thrown over the windowsill, still in his jeans and white, shortsleeved, V-necked Sub Shop shirt: he’d come straight from work. The moment before, Joel had turned to Will and asked, casually: “So–you going to the reunion?”
A simple-enough-seeming question. Yet Will couldn’t help wondering–with scorn, with triumph, and even with a measure of sympathy–how had Joel come to this?
Sympathy was what Will ostensibly offered Joel on their drives, sympathy for the life that had gone so wrong, for all his friend could have been. Imagine–as Will sometimes liked to, imagining being one of his few legitimate hobbies anymore, though not one he’d have admitted to freely–what Joel could have been! If. If his father hadn’t gone, then his brother; if whatever had happened the year after high school hadn’t happened. The break. They called it. Such bad luck. Looks, brains, musical talent, athletic skill: Joel had had big possibilities. Broken.
Will, on the other hand, had had all these things in moderation, just a little bit of each, had capitalized on them … and went to work for your father, the familiar voice in his head, the carping one, said. All right, so he’d gone to work for his father. He could’ve blown it. Some would’ve. He hadn’t.
They were in Joel’s car, the big boat, turning right, from Longview onto, of all things, a street strange to Will. On the passenger side of the big bench seat, he stared at the white-on-green street sign as it wheeled by, said the name to himself. Heatherdell. He must have passed this street a million times, over forty years; yet he seemed never to have seen it before. Was this possible?
And why turn here? he wondered. But with Joel, you usually went right on wondering. With Joel, it was always best to go with the flow. “The reunion? I don’t know,” he said. “You?”
“Oh yeah. Sure thing. Wouldn’t miss it.”
Poor schmuck, Will couldn’t help thinking now, recalling the invitation he’d almost put out with the junk mail. Twenty-five years. Horrifying enough in itself, but silly too. All that remembering. All that reminiscing. Will, usually, went to a good deal of trouble to avoid thinking about the past, a place that, to his mind, was seductive but vastly overrated. The future was what interested him. That was where the money was.
And, anyway, who went to twenty-fifths? Twenty was the big one, the one everyone who could still bear themselves went to. And Will had missed it, standing in a delivery room, watching Danny cannonball out between Gail’s raised and spread legs, her usually sleek thighs chubby-looking and painted with brownish gold disinfectant stuff, Danny glistening blue, puffy-ridded and annoyed-looking. Of course Joel had attended the twentieth–and reported later, in his own way. And now he was up for another? Why wasn’t he embarrassed to go at all? He was funny about things like that, beyond embarrassment, in a way. Maybe it was one of the things that had broken in the break.
Will was not beyond embarrassment. Embarrassment was a big part of his life: remembering or avoiding it occupied much of his time. Fortunately, he’d been pretty successful at avoiding it lately. (He thought of his portfolio–a major embarrassment-antidote–and smiled. It always gave him a warm feeling to think about his portfolio.) So maybe, then, he should go? Did unembarrassed equal proud? He thought of the invitation again, the tickle of titillation he’d felt picking it up, followed by the horror–twenty-five years! best not to think about it–and the piping child’s voice that had interrupted. Always interrupting.
He looked at Heatherdell. A little leafy nothing street, a side street in the suburbs. Longview was something else. You drove down Longview for just that–the long view. That was the thing about the suburbs, Will thought. You could usually count on them to deliver just about precisely what they promised. Longview took you alongside the whateverth holes of Greenbrook’s golf course for an unremarkable half-mile, a couple of big ranch houses on the other side, sold no doubt on that basis–GOLF VU!–and then, just like that, there you were, on the edge of the precipice, with everything spread out underneath: the valley, and then, twenty miles off, the shimmering, spangling City. It always took his breath away, a little bit, the long view.
And then, just at that point, Longview plunged down the side of the mountain–like those mad prospectors in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, like Wile E. Coyote in a Warner Brothers cartoon–plunged at a San Franciscan angle down to the blue-collar flatlands far below, past Tudors and Dutch Colonials and ugly postwar boxes and big sprawling brick ranches (filled with the ghosts of 1962 ease: finished rec rooms and intercoms with gold grilles and bedrooms that had once belonged to children now grown, rooms long ago filled with white sunlight and expensive toys), all clinging like mad to the side of the hill, holding on to that good life for dear life. But there, back up at the crest, Longview earned its name. And the funny thing about Joel–poor Joel–was, one of his oddities (and there were quite a number) was, he hated that view.
“What do you want to look at the city for?” he’d sneer, whenever Will requested they come this way.
How many times had Joel even been to the city, over the past five or ten years (or twenty, or twenty-five)? Here was a subject of some interest Will had tried to draw him out on it. And while Joel was more than drawable-out on many subjects, this was not one of them. He actually seemed to have lived in Manhattan once, a long time ago, just after graduation. Joel in Manhattan: now there was a thought. But that had been another Joel. Ancient history: he didn’t like to talk about it. How many times have you been to the city lately? he’d say, if Will asked
Joel, I go all the time. My work takes me there once a week, minimum. Two or three times, more often.
Ah. And how do you like it? Going to the city all the time?
It’s not really about going to the city, Joel. It’s just my job.
I can live without it, Joel would shrug, staring off to that place he stared off to. End of discussion.
Take a little street like Heatherdell, though, and Joel could really get excited. The strangest things did it for him. His car, for example. The Impala, green originally, had oxidized to a grayish color, or, rather, collection of colors; this was one of the subjects you could draw Joel out on, or, rather, that he’d draw himself out on, especially with a little Scotch in him: color. Green in particular. There are at least four thousand greens, he’d say; then he’d start listing his own special spectrum: I’m in a Hurry Green; Sad on Sunday Green; Men at Work Green; and (Will’s favorite, because it was one of the few he thought he began to understand) Long Beach Island Refreshment Stand in the Fog Green.
What is color as an abstraction? Joel would ask, rhetorically but heatedly. One of the things that drove him crazy was wordy definitions of colors, and those dictionary illustrations of prisms and color wheels and the like. Color is personal, he’d say. Color is a moment. Jade is a shell of a word, a crappy convention to get a stupid conversation started, a way to get people to feel less by assuming they agree. What matters is my jade.
This was Joel.
Joel might not like looking at the view on Longview, but he could rhapsodize about the two side-by-side green traffic lights, disk and left arrow, at the intersection of Northfield and Cedar, that were two different greens–Nothing But Trouble Green and So What Green, respectively, to the best of Will’s recollection.
(And if there was anything Joel deplored, reviled, detested, it was burgundy-colored cars. Which, unfortunately, the suburbs were full of. They made his brain ache, he said. And Will’s car was burgundy-colored. Thus they rode in the Impala.)
“So what’s on Heatherdell?” Will asked, as casually as possible. Joel tended to react badly to direct interrogation.
“Ah,” Joel answered. And no more.
So they drove along Heatherdell, a nothing little suburban side street lined with postwar ticky-tack boxes, albeit boxes enjoying a certain amount of separation from each other. This, plus the houses’ tangential, down-the-block proximity to Greenbrook CC–even though there was no golf vu per se–would put their prices, Will guessed, in the mid to high threes. Amazing what ticky-tack cost these days. Real estate was much on his mind lately. Why? He could only guess. Was he becoming the person he had always dreaded? The carping voice again. Right now, he didn’t much care. He was staring, half-potted–the Chivas, in its brown bag, sat midway between them on the bench seat–out his open window, at Fisher-Price playhouses, at Little Tikes swing-sets, at those ubiquitous, orange-bodied, yellow-roofed Cozy Coupes, like Flintstone-mobiles, as common as toothpaste. Will thought of his own Cozy Coupe, parked by the back driveway; and, unavoidably, thought of Gail, and Danny and Rachel, waiting for him, and felt duly, dully guilty.
Joel was driving slowly, at his usual trolling speed, the Impala’s big engine thrumming like the engine in a fishing scow. Parents up and down the block were probably darting worried looks out their windows, thinking about dialing the cops, Will thought: big rusty car, going slow, two middle-aged guys in it casing the kid stuff. Perverts.
Only Will was casing the kid stuff, however. Joel was casing the leaves.
“Now, what would you call those colors?” Will asked him. Trying to get into the spirit of things.
“There.” Will pointed to a big red-yellow-and-blue plastic castle in the side yard of a gray box of a place with rust trim. He knew the product well. Big slabs of crenellated, nonrecyclable polystyrene–the little arrowed triangle on the bottom might as well have read FORGET ABOUT IT. Assemble it yourself, up-against-it dad, while the kids yowled around you. Three forty-nine ninety-five at Toys ‘R’ Us. A shitload of unbiodegradable trouble, it would outlast the Sphinx, the Great Wall, Machu Picchu. He looked at Joel. People without children, he thought, knew nothing.
“Red, yellow, and blue,” Joel said.
Suddenly Joel stamped on the brakes; Will slid forward. Bent his knees, extended his right forearm to the glove compartment. Sober or smashed, he was worthless, but when he was just a little drunk, it seemed to him, his grace was absolute. A tail-twitching squirrel, sex-addled, no doubt, paused and glanced up at the planet-sized Impala, its improbable savior. Scooted over the curb, ingrate. Home. Will replaced himself; Joel caressed the gas again.
“And the leaves?” Will asked.
Joel sighed. “Where do I start?” He was patient with Will most of the time, when he wasn’t being mildly, obscurely mocking. The mockery gave Will some trouble: he was never quite sure when he was being made fun of, for one thing. For another, part of him wondered whether Joel, as an object of sympathy, ought to be making fun of anybody in the first place.
But then, for an object of sympathy, he had a certain weird aplomb. Scraggly dark beard, noble goddamn nose, brown-black eyes. His eyes always reminded Will of the dark of the moon. Mooning at trees. A quick, clever glance over to Will. One black brow high. “Although this street, strictly speaking, is a cheat,” Joel said.
On two shots of Chivas, Will was in Joel-mode. He could almost keep up. “Where’s the Heather? Where’s the Dell?”
“You impress me, white man.”
The street dead-ended, the houses petered out among stands of birch, of aspen, of whatever-the-fuck. Quaking oval leaves, soon to die, in the tender orange light. The air hayey-sweet, with a cool menacing edge. September again. There was no stopping it. Purple in the shadows. White trunks and brown trunks. A developer’s dream back here, Will thought. And yet, strangely, still undeveloped. The street dead-ended, but in front of them, to the right, lay a weedy gravel drive jogging off under the pines. And Joel turned onto it.
“Are we supposed to be in here?” Will asked. Stones were banging the Impala’s undercarriage.
His only answer was the boom boom boom of the car’s engine, the squeak of its springs. Joel had slowed to walk-speed. The drive curved around, under the dark trees, for fifty yards: there, ahead, was a rusty mesh gate. Open. On the other side loomed the back side of a big, low, modern house. Joel stopped. There wasn’t much to the rear of this place, it was all facade. Expensive facade. Three-car garage, basketball hoop, brown cylindrical central-air vent. A little strip of lawn, some flagstones. Not even enough room for a pool. Will recognized the style. You could probably get it in the mid-sevens. And still have the address, the taxes–everything but a backyard. But wait–what was the address? Joel was smiling.
“My God,” Will said, taking a moment to get it. “Woodwick.”
Joel killed the engine. It died with a Donald-Duckish shudder; the wind blew. Will’s mind turned over as he tried to figure it out. They seemed to have come around some sort of back way. Longview was in Cedar Grove. The ticky-tack boxes of Heatherdell were in Cedar Grove. Woodwick was in Verona. Where, how, had they crossed the line? The gate? The route between the two towns had been etched in his brain always–you descended Longview, curved and curved down to Wyoming: a five-mile avenue that ran along the mountain’s side like a line on a topographical map, and named, no doubt, in some access of nineteenth-century town-planning grandiosity. “Streets named after places usually go there,” Joel liked to say. “Except Wyoming.” So–right on Wyoming, on into Verona, with the tender feeling crossing any sort of border always gave him. And then, too, Verona was home. Verona-alongside-the-Hill. Woodwick was another matter. Woodwick was Kike’s Peak, the Golden Ghetto. The plateau of postwar, overpriced houses was accessible by two ascents only, each perpendicular to Wyoming: Juniper, and, a mile south, Overlook. These were the ways to Woodwick, Verona, New Jersey.
And yet, here, under the pines and through the gate, was another way. Here was the secret border, hidden in the pine needles.
The hayey breeze rose up again. “A wrinkle in time. A dimensional fold,” Joel said.
“I never knew this was here.”
Joel stared at him, spooky-eyed. “Because they didn’t want you to.”
“Shit. I’m suddenly having this massive deja vu.” The light, the oval leaves, polystyrene castle, rusty gate. It seemed, for the moment, more certain than anything Will believed or knew.
“Acid flashback, man.”
“I never took acid.”
“I took enough for both of us.”
“I should probably be getting home, Joel.”
“Hey–what if we drove through there and it was 1974?” Joel said.
“Oh God. Anything but that.”
“Nixon resigning? The Captain and Tennille?”
“Please. Hey, Joel, really–I should get back. Gail and the kids’ll be–”
Joel wasn’t interested. “Now,” he said. “Look through there. You recognize that place?” He was bending down over the wheel, squinting, pointing, like some N. C. Wyeth Chingachgook, through the rhododendron, down the driveway, and across the Woodwick street to another long, low house, white stone and purplish gray wood. A dense dark blue lawn, a lawn like a breathing creature. A stunningly self-sufficient-looking house. Also stunningly familiar-looking. But how? Will wondered. The perspective was all off.
“No. I–” he began. The wave of deja vu had receded, leaving an empty swath of sand–empty except for a single silvery minnow, jumping, flickering.
“Cindy’s?” Will said.
“Bingo,” Joel all but whispered. He was staring reverently down the driveway.
Now Will knew what street that was. He’d had to think backward, in time and in place, turning the whole street map around in his head, driving in his mind up to Woodwick on Overlook, heading through the wide, quiet streets, up to Cindy Island’s house. And past. That was the thing: he had always driven past Cindy’s house. He sighed. “Hey, Joel,” he said. “She doesn’t live there anymore. She’s gone.”
“Maybe this way she’s not.” Joel turned the key and the car lurched forward, thrumming, down the driveway and onto the street, over the border and into Verona, in the magic evening light.
Copyright ” 1998 by James Kaplan. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.