Jessica Russell left work early, something she had rarely done until recently. She locked the mahogany file drawers by her desk and tucked the key into her sleek leather purse. She stepped outside her office door where her secretary, Elena, swiveled her armless chair to face her.
“I’ll cover for you,” said Elena.
“Thanks,” Jessica replied. “You know I depend on you.”
Nothing more needed to be said. Elena, organized and discreet, had filled Jessica’s online calendar with her ovulation days (marked “private” to protect that information from the many people who accessed Jessica’s calendar to schedule meetings). The marked days went out one year. Elena felt that any longer would show an unsisterly lack of optimism, and would be bad luck.
Jessica stepped into the rain-swept parking lot. The smart key in her purse pinged her car and its headlamps blinked as if it were startled. She put up an umbrella and trotted toward it. She opened the door, collapsed the umbrella, slid in, and wasted no time pulling into the street toward her home in O’Neill Estates, a few minutes north on the freeway.
She wasn’t sure about the car. John had reasoned that it was unlikely to attract the wrong kind of attention even though it was new. Usually she, not he, was the one to argue for spending money on new things, but her desires were for the house, which was protected by an alarm system that called an armed response. John said an electric car would send a socially positive message, but each time she got into it she thought the message it really sent was “wealthy occupant.” She also suspected it compensated for his involvement in the energy industry, as if he personally had something to apologize for. She couldn’t argue with the car’s environmental superiority, though. Recharged by the solar panels on the roof of their house, its carbon footprint was as small as it could possibly be. Still, she would have preferred the anonymity of a twenty-year-old Lexus.
Right now she wanted to get her six-year-old son Zephyr to her parents’ house before dinner so she could be home and relaxed before John arrived. Zephyr would spend the night with his grandparents even though he had school the next day. They loved to dote on the boy, the only child of their only child, and would happily take him to school in the morning even if it meant rising an hour and a half earlier than they customarily did. They had surmised why she had been asking them to take the boy each month and were eager co-conspirators. When they got the truth from Jessica, her mother had laid a warm hand on her daughter’s forearm; her father, though, had boomed out, “Is one night enough?” Jessica asked them not to talk about it, especially in front of Zephyr. She found the whole process humiliating. She pictured herself as a salmon hurdling rocks in a stream whose flow was dangerously shallow. The image sometimes included a warden affixing a band to herself, an obvious if not quite accurate symbol of her anxiety about the Citizen Identity Act, which had become law just after she had given birth to Zephyr. Doctors were now required to implant an identity chip into every newborn and newly naturalized citizen. She understood the law, even supported it. But the thought of her own flesh and blood being forced to have a permanent identifying implant beneath his or her skin provoked an instinctual unease that she could not rationalize away, no matter how bad terrorism or crime got. Despite a fear that bordered on dread for the safety of her son, she and John had never quite gotten around to having it performed on him.
She arrived at the school. Zephyr hunched over a coloring book at a blond play table in the daycare room, whipping a red crayon back and forth over the outline of a soldier from the Revolutionary War. She inhaled the sweet waxy aroma of Crayolas.
“Hi, honey,” she said.
He continued to scribble forcefully. Red lines looped everywhere on the page, with no respect to the simple black tracing of the figure.
Jessica suppressed her impulse to guide him inside the lines. It was too late for that, in any case.
“Is that a British soldier? Is that why you’re using red?”
“I don’t know,” said Zephyr. “He got shot.”
“Well, honey,” she said. “Look, why don’t you use some of the other colors.”
She lifted the yellow and green box of crayons an inch or so off the table. He ignored her.
“Okay,” said Jessica. “We have to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s now, anyway. So why don’t you put the coloring book in its cubby and let’s go.”
Zephyr applied a few red flourishes to the hapless soldier and turned the page. Before Jessica could stop him he began to give the group of riflemen on the next panel the same treatment.
“They got shot, too,” he said.
After a few vigorous passes of his forearm, Zephyr slapped the cover closed and ran the book to the back of the room where he jammed it into a cabinet.
Jessica signed out, said thank you to Maya, the young daycare provider who stood vigil at the door, and she and Zephyr hurried to the car, their heads bowed beneath the rain. Zephyr climbed into his booster seat and buckled himself in. Jessica smiled. Such a competent little boy.
She backtracked to Walnut Creek, down Ignacio Boulevard, past mile after mile of ranch houses, some in reasonable condition, others shabby, still others showing the weedy brown excrescence and slough of abandonment. Intermixed were defunct gas stations and empty lowrise office buildings surrounded by chainlink fences whose purpose seemed to be to strain trash and torn bits of plastic from the atmosphere. Some of the windows were blocked with newsprint, some had been replaced by plywood spray-painted with graffiti, and a few had crazes radiating to the margins. Ten years ago, this road was so crowded with traffic at five o’clock that it took several light changes to get through a single intersection. Now she hardly stopped.
They arrived at her parents’ place. Gary and Janet had remained together for forty-two tumultuous years in the house that Gary built during his days as a general contractor. They had converted to a fifteen-year mortgage when interest rates bottomed out twenty-five years ago, and had gotten out of the stock market and into Treasury bonds before the ice cap disappeared and agriculture started to fall apart in Europe, and salvaged almost ninety percent of their retirement assets. If they had waited two years, it would have been fifty percent. Just one year more, not even twenty. Jessica strongly suspected that if they hadn’t made those timely financial moves, the strain of poverty would have finished their marriage as it had so many others. Her mother, a former nurse, an antique lover and a bit of a homebody, seemed such a poor match for her father, who blustered through everything he did, from telephone conversations which were startlingly loud to the balancing of his checkbook online which he narrated with only marginally less force.
Her father answered the door.
“My beautiful baby,” he said, throwing his arms wide. “Come in, get out of the rain.”
He reached down and tousled Zephyr’s hair as he pulled his daughter close.
“Hey, Zephyr, just blow in?” he said, pleased with his joke.
Zephyr didn’t reply.
Jessica, her chin resting against her father’s shoulder, rolled her eyes to the ceiling. It didn’t matter how she tried to tell him not to tease the boy about his name. He simply denied that it was teasing. He said he just wanted to be sure the kid understood the meaning of his name because he himself found it to be vaguely Arabic-sounding, and if the other kids got that idea, then Zephyr could really be in for a tough time.
“Dad, this is the Bay Area. Nobody thinks like that,” she had said.
“Don’t fool yourself,” he had replied. “Look at your husband’s kid from his first marriage. And there’s plenty like him.”
She had blushed. He was so right it made her angry. Late at night, awake in bed, she occasionally wondered if it was too late to change her son’s name to something completely innocuous, like James or Thomas or Peter. Her stomach would knot up over the mistake she had imposed on her child, which he would carry throughout his life. In the dark, she could allow herself to become almost ill with recrimination. How could she and John have maneuvered themselves to such a dippy name? And at the thought of the word “dippy,” she could not stop the tears. They had wanted something unique. They liked the letter Z but the world was already replete with Zacharys, and Zebulon and Zedekiah carried the full odor of the Old Testament. Xavier and Xerxes had the initial Z sound, but were too self-consciously exotic (Z was unusual; X simply weird). And so it had been Zephyr, a fresh wind. In the morning after those midnight worries, though, Jessica would look up at the showerhead as she shaved her underarm and scold herself for letting insecurity eat at her. She hated being weak. Zephyr was a fine name. To hell with the world if it didn’t like it, including her father.
Jessica extracted herself from Gary’s embrace and hugged her mother.
“Thanks so much for taking him,” she said.
She bent her knees and lowered her face to Zephyr’s.
“Be a good boy for Grandma and Grandpa. I’ll pick you up from school tomorrow like always.”
She brought his slender little body to her and kissed him by the ear. He jerked his head.
“That’s loud,” he said.
“Thanks again,” she said to her parents, and was out the door and down the walk.
Before she backed out of the driveway, she pulled out her handheld and dialed John at the office.
“Hi, Nicole, it’s me. Can I have his voice mail?”
Jessica hoped her voice carried a convincing air of routine. She was confident that John had never mentioned anything about their fertility efforts to his secretary, but there was no sense lingering in an exchange of pleasantries and inviting the need to prevaricate.
She pressed the key to skip his greeting.
“Hi, I’m on my way to the house.”
In twenty minutes, a guard at the entrance to O’Neill Estates waved her through the wrought-iron gateway. Once inside her house, she breathed the aroma of chicken casserole that Juanita had left in the oven. The timer had just dimmed the heating element and the earthenware pot bubbled with tomato, peppers, cumin, and turmeric—American comfort food by way of Mexico. A stack of tortillas wrapped in a clean dishtowel waited to be warmed. She took the casserole out of the still-hot oven and slid the tortillas in.
There were no candles on the table, no clichéd mood-setters of any kind. A good meal, a sip of red wine, and the simple pleasure of being home was all that was needed.
Her phone rang. John.
“You’re not stuck at work, are you?” she said.
“No. I just need to take care of something before I get home. I’ll be there in an hour, maybe a little more.”
She looked at the clock. Five-twenty.
She said, “You know what night this is.”
“I know, I know. I wouldn’t do this if it weren’t critical. I’ll just be an hour. Promise.”
“Where are you now?”
A couple of heartbeats went by.
“John. I can’t believe you.”
“It’s about Josh.”
“No, John, it’s about us.”
“Being angry won’t help.”
“What is so urgent it can’t wait? Tonight is the night. Tomorrow may be too late. That’s biological reality.”
“I told you, I’ll only be an hour. Less if I can.”
Jessica let out a breath as if she had been holding it since she answered the phone.
“Please get home soon,” she said.
* * *
“I will,” John said to Jessica.
He hoped it was true.
He sat in the car on the street outside Claire’s condominium as the twilight deepened. Without the windshield wipers in motion, the intermittent raindrops spread downward around the leaves that fell from the trees. He had been right, he told himself, to put off calling Jessica until the last minute; otherwise, she would have been after him all day not to go.
John could not refuse any conversation with Claire about Josh. He had done that too many times in his life. The boy had needed a father, full-time, and John had not been there. Nevermind that it had been Claire who had taken Josh and Ash away with her. By then, it was too late. He’d already put in eight solid years of absence and neglect.
When Claire moved out, John and Jessica had known each other for a couple of months, though there had been no affair at the time. Still, it weighed on him that he had been drawn to her before Claire left. He had taken the job at Verdegen two years earlier, after a meteoric career at Empress Hydrocarbons in Calgary, Alberta, where he had been credited with the strategic breakthrough that allowed the Klondike natural gas pipeline to be constructed. He had overcome massive antipathy within the company’s power structure and negotiated “private payments” to the Deh Cho Nation to allow the line to cross their territory. The payments endowed a fund to deal with the social dislocations that the tribe elders claimed—correctly, as it turned out—would forever transform their way of life. Empress thought of it as a bribe and wanted the Canadian government to shoulder the social costs. But John had convinced them that such a position would be perceived as an unseemly subsidy to one of the most profitable companies in the world and fatal to the project. Empress made the payments, and the workforce of Thais, Filipinos, Serbs, and Greeks immediately swarmed the sub-Arctic landscape. They threw up the cinderblock buildings, built the pipeline, drilled the wells that petered out far earlier than the geologists predicted, abandoned the towns, and left a fragmented and broken society in their wake. If the endowment John had negotiated had not been there, the government—whose revenue depended on royalties from the dried-up wells—would have been hard-pressed to cope.
Jessica, the much-younger sister of Verdegen’s CFO, had been a marketing manager who showed up in meetings from time to time. She had flawless skin, long, confident legs, and a way of speaking that brought a person into singular intimacy, even though the subject might be market segmentation or cross-selling on the website. Jessica had given John’s eyes a place to rest when the meetings got slow.
Once Claire left him, he began to engineer reasons to talk to Jessica as they walked into the corridor after meetings. Her voice was coolly modulated yet had an undertone of enthusiasm. She liked politics and had well-thought-out opinions that, while to the right of John’s, didn’t seem to be based in anger, fear, or entitlement. When he veered into talk about the stock market, she not only kept up, she had insights. Even though she was just twenty-six, eleven years younger than he, she often struck him as the more mature. One day he confided to her that while her self-possession was genuine, he couldn’t shake the feeling that her brother was liable at any time to come into his office and say, okay, Russell, how long did you think you could keep up this ruse? She had laughed and touched the back of his hand. “I’ll never tell him that,” she had said. That put his heart on the downslope.
John knocked on the door of the condo. It opened and Claire’s upturned, ringlet-framed face materialized out of the darkness. The sight of her in the doorway, with no light discernable in the apartment, touched something in his chest he would rather had been left undisturbed. It wasn’t love or pity, but a combination of regret and tenderness which radiated into his arms and filled them with the urge to reach out and pull her to him. He fought it. He wanted neither the complication if she accepted him nor the rejection if she didn’t.
“Come in,” she said, turning her face away.
He said, “Can you see in this place?”
Claire flipped a wall switch. A single fluorescent bulb flickered to life above the Formica peninsula. She sat at the center of it. He took a stool at the end. He wanted to say something more about the absence of light, that she shouldn’t carry the idea of conservation to the point of martyrdom, but that seemed pointless, since she obviously wanted to be an energy martyr. Then he noticed the damp. All this rain and she didn’t have the furnace on, either. He detected the odor of mold.
“Is this about money? I mean, the light, the heat,” he said. “Because I can help if you need it.”
Claire ignored the question.
“I’ll make some tea,” she said.
She turned the knob on the range. Yellow-orange flame puffed beneath the kettle and turned blue. At the first sound of water vapor breathing, she twisted the knob off.
“Josh came by over the weekend,” she said. “Have you seen him lately? They’ve started wearing armbands. That Eagle and Cross thing. He looks like a Nazi.”
She poured the water into a teapot that contained a single fresh bag. John didn’t answer.
“Maybe I can get Father Baxter to talk to him,” she said, retuning the lid to the pot to keep the heat in.
John said, “An Episcopal? They ordain gays. Our boy isn’t going to listen to him.”
“Well, what do you suggest?”
“Remember me? I’m the non-believer.”
Claire had left John because, among other reasons, she had become more and more involved in her church, whose unique tenet was the sinfulness of fossil fuel use, now that its malign consequences were undeniable. People must atone for and rectify their failure as stewards of God’s Earth by rationing their carbon output to the point of asceticism. Joshua’s religiosity was even stronger than Claire’s, but the Eagle and Cross held exactly the opposite view. They were Dominionists. They believed that God put the Earth at man’s disposal, and that to reject the gift of God was a sin. They did deny, absolutely, that man could affect the climate, which was God’s domain. Anyone who said otherwise placed himself above the power of God. John thought the fact that each could proclaim belief in the same God and come to these diametrically opposed conclusions manifested the irrationality and destructiveness of believing in God at all.
“Well, what about Thad?” Claire said.
Thad had been Josh’s therapist during adolescence.
“That was a long time ago.”
“What about a deprogrammer?”
“Claire, we’re talking about the Eagle and Cross, not the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
“Well, what are we supposed to do, then?”
He shrugged. There is no “we” anymore, Claire, he thought to himself. But that was wrong—she was the mother of his first two children. That would bind her to him forever, no matter that they lived apart. And he did want to do something to help his son. He wished desperately that he could speak to Josh about the dangers of giving himself over to a cult, but he couldn’t imagine saying anything that wouldn’t sound like an attack on the foundations of his son’s beliefs and redouble Joshua’s commitment to them.
He said, “Whatever it is that you’re already doing. Get Valiente elected. Get the ideas out there. Counter all this end-times bullshit.” It sounded weak even to his own ears, but he had nothing else to offer.
“And what about you?” said Claire.
“I’m helping to keep it all from going completely to hell right now.”
Like his pledge to Jessica to only be an hour, he hoped that was true, too. But like his advice to Claire, it also sounded weak.
* * *
Jessica didn’t cry. She emptied her bladder and checked herself in the mirror. She wondered whether crying would relieve the tension that was forcing down the corners of her mouth. She hated the way her face hardened when she was angry, but she knew that the effects of crying would linger, and if John did arrive when he said he would, her eyes would be swollen, her eyeliner a mess, her cheeks splotchy, and the evening would be beyond salvage. Oh, she might finally get him to perform (he was a pushover when it came to sex), but her own mood mattered too, and if she had to manipulate him with guilt or anger she herself might not be able to relax. Besides, it felt wrong to try to conceive a baby in a foul mood, no matter what incited it. But she supposed she could do it if she had to. It was just one moment in a lifetime. She would have plenty of time to make up for a mood, while the opportunity to fill that lifetime with another child was just that much thinner each month.
She closed her eyes and tried to empty her mind. Her jaw stayed clenched. She wiggled it back and forth, up and down.
“Damn it,” she shouted.
She had to get on top of this, get busy, distract herself.
She went back into the bedroom and slipped out of her shoes. The carpet gave softly beneath her bare feet. She began to remove her white blouse but stopped. John would still be in his business clothes. She rebuttoned it from the bottom up, leaving the tail out and the top two buttons undone. Then she thought: pearls.
She got the velvet case he had given her on their honeymoon and lifted the strand out of it. She clasped it behind her neck. The beads draped coolly along either side of her throat. She returned to the bathroom to check herself. She looked a bit better, a bit more at ease. Yes, the pearls were obvious, but better to be obviously seductive than obviously pissed off.
Back in the kitchen, she ran a bit of water into an earthenware bowl, slid it onto the lower rack of the oven, and put the casserole back in on the top rack alongside the tortillas. Then she turned the oven on low and watched as the element heated to a dull red.
She padded into the entertainment room, sat on the couch, tucked one bare leg under the other, and stabbed the air with the remote. The broad video screen on the wall blinked and glowed. She tuned in the news.
The war in the Mideast. The lack of funds for levee repair, the rain. The price of oil and natural gas, the blackout schedule. The price of wheat. The endless negotiations with the European Union to restructure its international debt (now in the eighth year of default) and the unlikelihood of success due to the persistent failure of agriculture in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and Poland. The millions of itinerants from the exurbs of Paris, Hamburg, and Frankfurt—mostly Turks, Algerians, and other Muslims—invading the countryside and foraging for food, the ensuing riots. In short, nothing new. Then the report on the incident at the LNG plant in Alameda, a brief, two-line toss-away before a commercial. She sat up and her insides sank away from her ribs. Why were people so stupid, she thought. She knew that was callous, but she had no other way to react to it. The plant was going to happen, had to happen, or there would be even more power outages as time went on. People would die without gas to run the power plants. There would be riots in the streets, just as there were in Europe. Venal though it made her feel, she hoped the incident wouldn’t affect John’s mood.
She scanned the channels for a game show or a sitcom for diversion. She found a laugh track sandwiched between a pair of white-haired preachers, each prowling a stage and brandishing a black Bible.
After a while, she heard the door to the garage open, followed by footfall across the kitchen tile.
“I told you I’d only be an hour,” John said as he entered the room.
Jessica swiveled her head. Her hand lay against her neck, her elbow on the back of the couch.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
John waved the question off with a slight movement of his wrist.
“You held dinner,” he said.
He went to the other end of the couch and sat. He’d been trying the entire drive home to displace his conversation with Claire with anticipation for this evening’s performance. But the image of his son Joshua in a dark blue jacket with a wide black belt cinched high at the waist and an eagle-and-cross armband interposed itself between him and his wife’s expectations for tonight, even as he tried to focus on Jessica’s perfectly achieved state of barefoot dishabille, her fingers resting just below her delicate ear, above the pearls. Did she have any idea how that gesture stirred him? He had been careful never to mention it for fear that she would become self-conscious and withdraw it forever or, worse, use it deliberately. It was like the ephemeral bloom of a jungle plant that would not survive the introduction of the light it took to observe it. But whatever warm desire it brought forth at this moment was overshadowed by the anxiety that Claire had cultivated in his mind. His son, Josh, may have moved completely beyond all rational influence, certainly beyond his own influence. Then there was the shooting at the plant. That made him think of Ash, his daughter, whom he had failed in a completely different way, whom he continued to fail, at least in her eyes, every day he went to work. It was Ash more than Claire who caused him to doubt what he did to earn a living and to think that he simply lacked vision, courage, even basic morality, and had given himself over to the complicated and exculpatory delusion that he was doing the best he could under the circumstances, that he was part of what was keeping the country from violent revolution, even if it meant protecting the plant by deadly force. He didn’t believe his daughter had surrendered so completely to her idealism that she herself was capable of violence. She truly believed that she and her group could help change the world peacefully by combining technological innovation with civil action, and he admired her for it.
He laid his hand on Jessica’s small, cool foot and tried to will himself into the moment. She was thirty-eight. The time for motherhood was ebbing away. Crow’s feet etched the skin around her eyes and faint worry lines creased her forehead. Her hands and feet, though, were as smooth and creamy as an eighteen-year-old’s, and she kept them impeccably clean and manicured. He began to examine them now, to try to dope out from their graceful joints and rounded nails why such otherwise homely appendages should elicit anything from him except indifference. It wasn’t merely the absence of coarseness, or their cleanliness, which allayed thoughts of teeming microbes and sloughed keratin, it was the youthfulness of their proportions and the fine cushion of soft tissue just beneath the surface. It was the very idea that she would expend such effort to refine these utilitarian organs into objects of quiet attention. They expressed confidence, even a certain nobility, demonstrating that it was possible for humans to rise above the base particulars of life by dint of humble effort. They conveyed indulgence, too, a self-centeredness, a superiority, and a sense of individual worth, a vanity he found at once off-putting and endearing. Apart from the eyes and mouth, what other part of the body better captured the essence of being human than the hands?
He looked at his own hand against her ankle—thick, knuckly, hair sprouting as from the back of a housefly, ragged cuticles, ridged, uneven nails, almost chimp-like in comparison—and felt his soul drain through a porous wall in his chest.
They ate their dinner quietly and drank a glass of wine each, which was a bit of an extravagance even for them, since France’s vineyards had been decimated over the past ten years. The California wine industry had severely contracted, too. The incessant torrential rain of the past three springs had jacked the price of a good bottle from Napa or Sonoma into the stratosphere. After they finished, Jessica went to the back of the house while John collected the dishes and brought them to the sink. He ran the tap. He scraped the plates. He put the dishes in the dishwasher. He transferred the leftovers into plastic containers. He scrubbed the casserole pan.
Jessica reappeared in a short kimono-style robe loosely tied at the waist.
“Why don’t you leave that for Juanita?” she said.
John glanced over his shoulder. He glimpsed the pearls at her lovely smooth throat.
“It’ll just take a minute.”
He scrubbed the pan some more.
He rinsed it.
He put it in the rack.
He wrung the sponge and wiped down the counters. Then he went for the table.
“I’ll be in the bedroom,” Jessica said.
She stood there.
“Okay. I’ll be in.”
Jessica went back down the hall. Her bare heels landed emphatically on the hardwood.
John pulled the plug in the sink and watched the gray water spiral down until all that remained was a small flag of soapsuds that crept along the stainless steel like a monstrous amoeba and pulled itself down the drain by a single grasping pseudopod.
* * *
In the bedroom, one lamp glowed. The digital clock read ten-twelve. Jessica sat on the bed, hands clasped around her knees, Japanese-y robe riding up her thighs. The pearls were gone; her throat was bare. She stared with unfocused blue-gray eyes at the dresser. John stood by the closet taking his wife in, trying to spark his own desire, but saw in Jessica’s body language the reflection of his own ambivalence about this moment. He would do almost anything for her sexually, with passion, except the one thing she wanted above all: to bring another child into the world.
Down to his shorts. Debating in his mind about removing them. Slightly tumescent. Now on the bed, shorts in place. Hand on her knee. Jessica like a statue. The soft aroma of her body insinuating itself into his nostrils, earthy, faintly pungent, slightly perfumed.
Maybe it would be okay.
He moved his hand to the back of her thigh. She breathed audibly but did not stir.
The light went out. The numbers on the clock winked to blackness.
John got up and went to the window. Outside, nothing but darkness and the steady hiss of the rain. He could not even discern the outline of the unoccupied house next door.
Thirty seconds later, the distant wheedle of his handheld summoned him downstairs.