Read Ghost Lights Online

Authors: Lydia Millet

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

Ghost Lights

BOOK: Ghost Lights
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ALSO BY LYDIA MILLET

Love in Infant Monkeys

How the Dead Dream

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart

Everyone’s Pretty

My Happy Life

George Bush, Dark Prince of Love

Omnivores

W. W. Norton & Company

New York

London

1

T
he walls were kittens and puppies. Like other pet facilities he had seen—even the Humane Society, where he had taken Casey when she was six to pick out a kitten—the kennel trafficked in a brand of cuteness he could not endorse. He had nothing against pets; in theory, the more pets the better, although he personally did not own one. Not in the sense of unchecked proliferation, feral cats mating all over the place, etc., but in the sense that cats were good, dogs were good. No argument there.

But he did not see why this high regard for pets, his or anyone else’s, should be represented by photographs of puppies with word balloons emerging from their mouths—balloons that contained supposedly witty sayings that were, in fact, stupid. There was no call for dachshunds dressed up as the Blues Brothers.

Susan’s name had been on the list of emergency contacts for this particular dog. When its owner failed to pick it up after several weeks the kennel had finally called her. Instantly she felt guilty; she should have thought about the dog far sooner, she told Hal. She had forgotten the dog, forgotten all about it.

What was
wrong
with her? she asked him insistently.

Now here they were, come to pick up her missing boss’s dog—the dog of a man who had vanished many weeks ago into a tropical jungle—and the woman at the front desk was worried for the dog. Not for the absent owner, no. She was interested only in the dog’s situation.

Hal glanced over
—surreptitiously, he hoped. She was a heavy, lank person with bleached hair showing black at the roots and a kind of jowly gray pallor that bespoke ill health. Neither dog kennels nor the Humane Society were typically staffed by so-called beautiful people, in his experience. They were staffed by committed pet lovers, and frankly these committed pet lovers put less than average value on appealing physically to their fellow men.

Or maybe they sought out the company of pets in the first place because they did not enjoy the company of said fellow men. It was understandable—a form of relaxation, perhaps. Even if he himself was not a committed pet lover per se, a committed a.k.a. professional pet lover, he could appreciate that. As to the lank half-dyed hair, greasy pallor, etc., they were probably caused by a phi
losophy. Hygiene and style were aimed at winning the favor of others, after all, and the committed pet lovers already had the respect, or at least the gratitude—which might even be preferable, in the eyes of a committed pet lover—of peers and strangers alike. They were monks and nuns, in a sense. Monks and nuns of the pets.

The dog woman held up a rubber banana printed with a smiley face and squeezed it. It squeaked.

“She’s not eating well. I recommend a chew toy. It could ease the transition.”

Susan, on the other hand, was worried not about the dog but for the dog’s owner, her boss. She was fond of this employer far beyond the livelihood he provided, which might no longer be forthcoming since he was gone from the United States and possi
bly also dead.

She had confessed she was afraid of this. She had leaned over in bed and whispered her fear in the small hours of the morning. She was afraid her employer, to whom she had grown close—in the kind of unequal, crypto-friendship for which such relations occasionally allowed—would never return from the tropics, where he had disappeared some weeks ago while ostensibly conducting some routine business.

Hal was strongly ambivalent about the employer, known for some no-doubt-pretentious reason simply as T. For starters, he re
fused to refer to the guy using a single letter. He called him by his last name Stern, though seldom to his face. But Susan would brook no criticism. Ever since the boss guy’s girlfriend died—for which Hal had sympathy, of course, but which still did not sanctify him—he could do no wrong in her eyes. To her he had become almost a son surrogate.

“Just sign these and we’ll release her into your custody,” said the dog woman abruptly, and shuffled papers. Susan was shaky, emotional, and clearly the dog woman was uncomfortable with this display. She handed Susan a clipboard and a pen. “She’s all up to date on her shots, see? Two months ago, 08-05-94 it says here. And the leg’s healed pretty well where it was amputated. The name and number of the vet he uses are on the card here. Wait a minute and I’ll make you a copy.”

She turned and disappeared through a doorway.

“It’s a
three
-legged dog?” he asked Susan.

“She was run over.”

“I didn’t know it was a dog amputee.”

Susan seemed to be trembling. He pulled her closer and held her. First the man let his dog run around in the street till she was hit by a car, then he flew off to Central America and left her in a kennel.

Quite nice.

After a minute Susan pulled away. While she busied herself rummaging around in her purse he wandered over to a door marked
RESTROOM
. He often escaped to bathrooms when he was in public, stood at sinks and gazed into mirrors. Bathrooms were the respite. What would he do without them? From when he was a boy, gangly and shy, he had found comfort here.

Slowly he washed his hands, let the warm water run. On the wall behind him was a mural of clouds, with stylized dogs and cats jumping among them. In the mirror he saw himself with a flying poodle over his head.

The three-legged dog deserved to be happy, as did they all. But a three-legged dog was not a four-legged dog. A three-legged dog had to mean more upkeep, with the addition of pathos . . . of course, this right here was the kind of impulse Casey despised. She hated pity and railed against it, in particular the presumption that pity implied and the way it had of raising one person above another, subjugating the injured and then elevating them to make up for it. Injury is not a moral state, she had said to him once when she was angry. People think disability makes you a better person—on the inside you must be some kind of martyr, they figure, since on the outside you’re wrecked. But losing the use of your legs does not make you the Dalai Lama, she said. So the pity, which people usually reserve for things that don’t threaten them, is bullshit.

He accepted this, from her perspective, but pity was a fact of life when it came to dogs with amputations and when it came to the paraplegic. There was nothing in his life that had hurt him more than what happened to Casey, the shock of which would never fully recede; so he and Susan already had, occupying the central space in their lives, a victim—the only victim, the clo
sest victim possible. They did not need a canine victim too. They were decent people but they were not cut from the same cloth as the kennel employee. They were not caregivers first and foremost; they didn’t wake up in the morning and say, “Hey! Let’s go nurture something.”

They were only parents.

Other parents, whose children had not been hurt, could never know how parenthood could be extended infinitely on the heels of such an event and become a domed universe, a closed universe beneath the opaque dome of the accident. Even the stars were not visible anymore.

The Milky Way, he thought suddenly. The Milky Way was out there. Not only that—a hundred billion galaxies, some with a trillion stars.

Shifting away from the blurry spiral arms that could not be fathomed, he gazed at the tiles on the wall beside him, their creamy blandness. At a certain moment—oftentimes at the cross
roads between youth and adulthood—a change of position occurred between the self and the world. As a child and even a teenager he had felt small, looking up at the rest of it all as a monument, but then suddenly he was older and part of the architecture, its tangibility and the impulse behind it, its failings and its strengths. The heavy installations had lost their majesty and seemed temporary, even shoddy, with a propensity for decline.

At the same time he had felt himself fading in and out of the installations like patterns of sunlight or lines of insects; according to his mood he might be a partner in their solid
ity, a detractor or an opponent, but he had passed from outside to inside and become culpable for the world.

That was the price you paid for the feeling of inclusion: the buildings, the grids of cities with their roads and subways, their storefronts and systems turned approachable, even trivial. The two of you were locked in an interdependence in which you were both always decaying . . .

He had been bred to feel like an insider, no doubt—had grown up in an affluent Southern California suburb in the wake of the war, though the fifties and sixties were the time he remembered. It had been a pleasant blur of a youth. Sun on the lawns, his mother and father sitting at a thick pine table in the evening by lamplight. Braided placemats, soft butter in a dish and green beans in a bowl. The gentle sheen of the wood.

Time was like the table when he tried to recollect his childhood—vague but solid, fingerprinted and warm.

“Hal?”

It was Susan, on the other side of the door. She often lost him in bathrooms.

“Coming. Just a second,” he said, and dried his hands on a soft paper towel. He had read a pamphlet that said the softest and thickest towels and toilet rolls were made not from woodchips but from the ancient giants: you wiped your ass with the history of the world
. . . what was different for him and for Susan too, for anyone whose life had been interrupted, was that after that ascension to the citadel he had suddenly been ejected again. He’d been ejected from that communal life of achievers, the life of regularity. He had found himself there, in the span of the arches and the rise of the walls—that quick belonging, those years of lockstep—and then, with the accident, he was outside again forever. His own childhood and Casey’s merged in his recall, encased in a golden glow; at the moment of her paralysis the childhood turned into a lost paradise, and so it would remain
—for as long as he lived he would not be able to shrug off the sense of this loss. It left him with the sear of heartbreak and the pressure of resentment.

You worked, of course, to get clear of that resentment, to give it up like an offering. But it was a struggle that did not end. One day you felt it rise from you and disperse, you felt an upsurge of freedom, but the next day it settled on you again.

He existed, in fact, half in the moment of her childhood, suspended for all time. The memory dogged him with such persistence that he wished he could replace it with one that was less glowing, more tarnished and scuffed. The shine of her lost joy was blinding.

Of course the memory was not the childhood itself but a vision of it he had created without wishing or trying to—a memory as unchanging as the accident itself, formed almost at the same moment, or at least at the moment when he was told, in the hospital, that the damage was permanent. At that instant a barrier was thrown up between what was and what should have been, a future for his little girl that had never been permitted. The childhood memory was a bridge between them, between then and now, which had to stay separate to be bearable. But there it shimmered, with a deceitful, sly nostalgia.

The dog woman came out from the back office trailing the dog on a sturdy brown-leather lead. No cheap and functional nylon for Thomas Stern. But Hal had to admit he took to the animal right away. She walked gamely, hopping with her hindquarters; she wore an attentive expression and wagged her tail.

He glanced at Susan: her eyes were filling with tears.

“Let me,” he said softly, and reached out to hold the leash.

Susan knelt down and petted the dog, put her arms around it.

It was all Stern’s fault. Stern had been an imposition on the family from start to finish. First he was an imposition on Susan, demanding her full-time loyalty as the caretaker of all the most trivial details of his gainful enterprise; into their quiet home had come long discussions of his youth and conscientiousness, even his overpriced wardrobe and alleged charisma. The latter of which was a myth Hal saw no reason to be
lieve.

As a husband he had been forced to endure this intruder in his house constantly—not his physical presence but the daily, dull news of him. Many times he had wished that Susan was employed in an office with more personnel, for the sake of a little variation in her bulletins from the workplace. He himself was stationed in an office whose very size kept him from getting on oppressively intimate terms with any of his colleagues.

Then he had imposed himself on Casey—who knew how, Hal did not open his mind to the permutations, but he and Casey had been close, briefly—and now, missing, possibly even deceased, he was imposing on all of them.

• • • • •

T
he mutt sat in the back seat of the car, her ears forward, watching and listening. Hal drove.

“If she sheds a lot we can spread out a blanket back there,” he said.

Susan gazed out the windshield.

“Casey might want her,” she offered after a few minutes.

“Maybe she could have the dog some days but not all the time. That would be easier.”

But strangers might laugh at them. Someone might laugh to see the girl in the wheelchair, walking a tripod dog.

He did not say this, of course.

They lapsed into silence until he turned into the grocery-store parking lot. They had to buy dishes and dog food.

“I’ll stay with her,” said Susan, so he rolled down the windows, crossed the lake of pavement and went into the store alone.

In the dry-goods aisle, where he gazed at brands of dog food, hypnotized and vacant, he felt himself floating back. It was the chief pitfall of any time he spent alone, anywhere from minutes to long hours. At work he did not drift so easily, because work occupied him. It commandeered his attention in a way that offered relief.

Casey had picked out a white kitten at the Humane Society and that was the last time he remembered being in a pet food aisle—although he must have bought cat food in the succeeding years, of course, after the kitten had grown into a cat, but he did not recall this. The cat had finally died shortly before the accident, of a kidney infection. But the first day of the kitten, with his six-year-old Casey in her blond ponytail, he had walked up and down an aisle indistinguis
hable from this one—it might even have
been
this one; they might have walked here together—holding her small hand.

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