The Bunker

S. E. Smith

00:00 / 00:00

The bunker comes equipped with tinned nutritionals, home repair manuals, and a selection of musical works deemed by a committee to be those most intriguing upon repeated listening sessions. There are canned peaches and scratchy industrial paper products. Anything that can be dehydrated is. And there's a gun, maybe for keeping people out, but also maybe for keeping people in.

We are right now two hundred feet below the Greenbauer Golf Resort in West Virginia's eastern panhandle. Though I did not get to see much of the Greenbauer's magnanimous oaken paneling or florid wallpaper on the way in, they have thoughtfully provided the bunker with many full-color brochures so that we might better understand the rock under which we hide. Thanks to the brochures, I have learned that the Greenbauer's provincial-style kitchens are large enough to permit the simultaneous cooking of five hundred game hens, two thousand braised quail eggs, and eight hundred gallons of sauce béarnaise. I would love to have been here on the day they tallied those numbers.

There are, however, no quail eggs in the bunker. The president and I have experimented with powdered milk and powdered egg protein, but a passable hollandaise is not possible.

The president walks by in a bathrobe bearing the Greenbauer's teutonic crest: a bear scaling a mountain peak, reaching after a tiny red star that hangs in space above his paw. I rise to attention because it is important to continue observing the formalities.

"Take your seat, Davis," he says. He is chewing on a small nut, a pistachio maybe. We've already eaten all of the easily shelled pistachios. We are left with the more difficult ones, which have to be cracked between your teeth first, then divided into parts edible and un-. While it is tempting to see dark times prophesied by almost anything in a bunker, our pistachio situation arouses an insistent pang.

"Thank you sir," I say. "We might consider bowling later, sir."

"Only if you promise to let me win, Davis."

"Yes, sir."

The president is a charming man. I can see why most people voted for him. I don't mind at all being in the bunker with him. He pads away with a manual on toilet repair, which he has been avidly reading lately.

Around seven I check on the three of us holed up in the infirmary. Not everybody made it safely through the airlock as we ran from the lights and guns. Doris broke her hip as we disembarked from the helicopter. Stanley was shot in the shoulder. Arkady suffers from what he calls insulin-driven mood swings, and I fear him most of all.

Doris is singing a gay old song about May blossoms and embroidering bluebells on a dish towel. For her, there is little I can do but attempt to treat the pain. She glances at me over the rims of her reading glasses like an impetuous owl.

"Hello, young lovers," she says. Maybe she says it to me, but maybe she says it to the two codeine pills I have placed on her tray.

I check Stanley's bandages. A green seep rises through the cloth, which is I guess a pretty bad sign. Usually I'm the president's glorified bodyguard and ersatz golf caddy. I am permitted to write the occasional speech.

"What do you think, doc?" Stanley asks me.

"It's definitely headed somewhere," I say, pulling back the jellied layers of gauze. "Something is happening here." As the layers come off, the room smells more and more like rotted shingles. But Stanley is one of those built on the cowboy model of pain tolerance. During these interludes while I bend my face toward the floor so he won't catch some reflection from me of the pain he's in, Stanley talks about the Giants and whether they're having a good season up there, if they're playing football up there at all.

"It seemed like they were starting to get an offensive threat together. Statue of Liberty. Trick plays. Not a hell of a too bad secondary either."

"That's true," I say, even though I've always been more of a baseball guy. It's one of those litmus tests. But a not very useful one. It's the kind of affinity people like because they want it to say something important about their depths. I am of the mind that there really isn't anything to say about depths.

I cross to the supply cabinet. Inside there is a stack of cotton dressings tied up in little bales, a decanter half-full of yellow pills, and a sign tacked up reminding you to wash your hands in the infirmary. If the three of them could see this sorry panorama, they would hobble off into the apocalypse moonglow to fend for themselves rather than receive my limp ministrations. I get a little paranoid that Arkady can see inside the cabinet from his corner-view hospital bed and slam the door. I slam it so hard it pops back open, and then I do a double-dribble slam and hold it shut with my palm.

"What's with the tension, chief?" Arkady asks me.

"It's cabin fever," I say. "It's unavoidable."

"You got that right." Arkady pinches a little half-acre of beard on his chin, sucks his teeth. Arkady is the man we send into a room alone to convince somebody who doesn't want to do what the president wants to do to in fact do it. He is extremely convincing. I have never been permitted to enter the room with him. Neither has anyone else. Even the president prefers to let him work his angles alone.

Doris and Arkady breathe unobtrusively through their mouths until I have re-trussed Stanley's shoulder. I feel the relief of having done a thing the right way, a thing I did not want to do. For this reason I am permitted to leave their underworld for another day.

"What's going on out there?" Arkady asks me.

"The president and I will bowl some frames," I say.

"Cute story," says Arkady. "Tell me another."

The president's style of bowling is what I might call shot-put. His fingers don't fit in the holes of any of the balls provided by the Greenbauer, so he cradles the ball in his hand and hurls it directly, horizontally, at the pins. An impressive method, but inaccurate. He either gets strikes or nothing at all.

My method is more philosophical. Five steps up to the line, straight swing on the arm, and the right foot skirts behind the left like in a ballerina move. Good, it's good. If I let go of the ball at precisely the right moment it's a strike every time.

"Are you some kind of ringer, Davis?"

"No sir. I was on a bowling team as a child."

"Bowling teams for children? Who ever imagined such a thing?"

"Missouri, sir."

"Ah," he says, "Missouri. There is much I do not understand about that beautiful state."

The idea is that the president and his closest advisors will be safe in the event of inexplicable catastrophe, and that once catastrophe has been steered clear of, we will emerge once again to govern. The only trouble with the idea, as I see it now, is that we are not certain who will notify us once trouble has been steered clear of. There is a red telephone in the corner of each room with a green safety glass light hung over it in a cage. I walk cautiously around them, as if they were very recently domesticated wolfhounds.

The president steps up to the line with no particular showiness and hurls the ball. Strike, as if he had punched the bowling lane in the teeth.

I do not feel so bad about it. I do not miss my wife. I wake up at what seems like the middle of the night but it is seven in the morning, a respectable time to wake up. It is only daytime down here once we choose to turn on the UVA/UVB lights recessed into the faux windows. The president will drowse like a lazy dog until I turn on the lights and make some coffee. Sometimes I suspect he does this only to avoid the small chore of making the coffee. Across the room in his bunk he is a heaped-up mountain under blankets, but that might be the glint of an eye I catch peeping out, then shutting again.

I gather my suit and take it to the bathroom to change. Some symbolic reverie makes it impossible for me to strip to my drawers in a room where the president sleeps. This, more than intellect or savvy, might be the qualification for my job: the willingness to believe in a system of symbols.

The magazine stock in the bathroom was probably last replenished twenty years ago when Reagan inspected the site, but there are some older ones. One ancient Reader's Digest with foxed edges boasts a tell-all article called "I Had Psoriasis." One Time magazine with Cyd Charisse on the cover. I treat myself to a morning beat-off aided by the picture of her on page 47. She is sitting on the hood of a Bentley, her legs wrapped around each other in that posture well known to starlets of a certain vanished age. There is nothing really suggestive about the picture except her eyes. If I let my gaze go blank in a certain way, I can believe that she is looking at me that way. I am practiced in this method from the years and years I spent as a child trying to see up the skirt of the Indian girl on the Land-O-Lakes box.

Finished, I try to clean up a little. I refold the magazine and place it under a heavy trivia compendium to correct the page curl from my sweaty hand. Living with the president is not very different from being 13. What would he do if he noticed the wear and tear on page 47? Probably he would only tell me a story about how Cyd Charisse visited the White House wearing a cape and attended by a ferret on a leash and twelve Italian men, drank too much sherry at lunch, and took a nap on a chaise lounge in the Mural Room.

When I emerge, the president is seated at the kitchenette table drinking coffee and working a crossword from some old newspaper. What's a nine-letter word for permanent, he wants to know. With an L somewhere in the middle.

"Indelible," I tell him. The red telephone rings. For a blank moment we try to figure out who should answer. He points at me. I cross to the phone and pick up the receiver, but there is a fuzzy click and then a nothing hum before I can even say hello.

Two weeks in and the president and I have invented a system of chores and responsibilities designed to keep us from thinking. After breakfast, I attend to my colleagues in the infirmary while he mops down the whole place, whistling as if we were on a ship. We strategize our rations while he brains up a dinner menu nutritionally balanced and ideally lacking any unusual food combinations that might allude to the fact of our uncertain duration here. After lunch we slip off to our private reading areas and pretend to bone up on one of the Harvard Classics thoughtfully provided us, though falling asleep is often unavoidable, as if we were breathing air that is too thin or too thick. Then one of us wakes and wakes the other with gentle, unnecessary tinkering noises (we are as polite as old aunties) and we fix dinner as best we can, jawing about physical education reform or Seneca, that old favorite.

It is frankly delightful when something is broken so that we can lean over it purposefully, muttering the kind of handy Midwestern fixes we have picked up somewhere. Unfortunately, the bunker is quite well-maintained, and so we often must conjure up new useful tasks. Today I am taking a top-to-toe inventory of all of our supplies because it will soon be Christmas, and the president would like to prepare a real feast—as much of a feast is possible in our condition—if we can spare the extra food for a day.

The storage room is built like the back end of any high school cafeteria, and I feel a little truant being there. Industrial kitchens are not meant to be seen by those who will later eat what they turn out, but I ascend the grated ladder and begin counting bags of powdered egg and aspic mix and cans of white hominy nearly as large as overpass girders. We have already begun to run low on the least miserable foods, especially a kind of tinned pot roast so soggy and salty that it tastes just like home. There are fourteen whole hams, though, and five dozen cans whose austere white labels announce smoked oysters, which will please the president, who has a thorough northerner's belief in their nutritional superiority.

Occasionally as I turn my head to sight down a row of boxed instant rice, I hear a slight hissing which I am fully aware might emanate from nowhere more frightening than my own head. But the hiss becomes more and more distinct as I move down the row toward the red telephone in the corner, haloed like the rest of them by a caged light. I rationalize it to be a filament in the bulb buzzing, but the concept of being down here in a big concrete box so silent that you can hear the lights momentarily whites out my vision. As I step down the ladder my foot freezes for an instant as if it disbelieves the solid ground beneath it.

I pivot around to have a sit on the ladder while the last of this momentary dread washes out of me. Arkady is standing there against the opposite shelf in a casual lean, popping whole saltines into his mouth.

"Christ!" My nerves are strung so tight I hear an actual twang.

"What's the matter, Davis?"

"Cabin fever," I say. "It's acting up again."

"Cabin fever. Cuckoo fever. Ha."

"Ha." I put down my clipboard with a clatter. "What are you doing out of bed?"

"Just looking around for a snack. Feeling fine, thanks."

"Oh, that's good. Okay."

"I've been thinking, Davis, about Florida."

"Is that so?"

"Don't you think it's the most god-forsaken state in the fifty?"

"I confess I never thought of it that way."

"Look," he says, pointing at himself with a cracker, "I don't have any problem with the Cubans, except when they become wealthy."

I nod. Arkady's conversational fantasias are usually a continuation of his interior dialogues, and there is no point in arguing or asking him to clarify. I am of course patient with colloquial parries like these, given politics, given the age, given our few opportunities to agree with each other about matters of meanest simplicity. Serious people make me uncomfortable, though I am myself quite serious. I am ill at ease around Arkady, or those like him, because while they affect a breezy manner, I suspect they are all iron underneath, giddily skating around the void.

"And then of course there's the theme parks. But even worse, you get the teenagers who so disdain the theme parks and all their obvious late-capitalism excess, who rage and mewl so against an obvious societal blemish that their only significant form of protest is to not ride a roller coaster."

"That's true."

"They above all lack in subtlety."

"Who doesn't?"

"Idahoans. A fine-grained subtle people, they are. Michiganders. Ohioans, although they have a strange taste for excess, I find, camouflaged by the mediocrity of what they take excessive joy in."

"You're feeling philosophical, it sounds like."

"Nothing like a foxhole to bring out the atheist in a contrarian like me."

"That all sounds very complicated to me," I confess, and mean it.

Arkady laughs one round, perfect haw, suffusing the air in front of him with cracker crumbs. A sparkle of what could be salt shows on the lapel of his musty cloth blazer.

"What's to laugh about?" I ask him.

"Nothing, nothing. You are a subtle man, Davis. You are more subtle than an Idahoan sharpening a knife."

"It doesn't seem to be doing me much good."

"A retired Idahoan, even." For all my alleged subtlety I cannot figure out what Arkady means by this.

"Aw, leave me alone."

"Sure, sure." He backs away from me, patting the air with his hands.

After a moment of deliberation, I decide to hell with inventory at the moment and join the president in the kitchen, where he is tinkering with a modified peanut butter fudge recipe. There will soon be stockings to fill. Even after manifold advances in food preparation and infrastructure, we are plain little homesteaders at our cores and find a great satisfaction in making do.

"How's the candy-making?" I ask the president, who is pressing his thumb into a baking sheet of fudge.

"It won't set properly, damned thing. I am confounded, Davis, but I bet you my old mother could have turned a passable meringue out of this kitchen."

"People used to know how to do those things." I suppose I am trying to comfort him.

"Oh now, don't let yourself get romantic about it."

"The good old bad old days," I tell him. "When we really knew what was what."

"Any fool who can say that," he tells me, "has hardly eaten his share of hog knuckles." Like perfect punctuation, the red telephone rings.

"Davis, could you please?" The president holds up his hands, gummed up with confectioner's sugar.

I pick up the receiver and listen first before saying anything. A group of drunken voices sings "Hava Nagila," muffled and rowdy. I say hello a few times, but they don't hear me. I listen for a moment and hang up.

The infirmary has acquired a culture of its own. It is difficult to say when this happened. It might have happened overnight. I've noticed the same thing with other groups of people. Or with women. One day you're conversing in a way so natural to yourself and themselves that it's like water, almost not worth noticing, and the next day you're receiving a distant smoke signal. And on the third day the hills are quiet.

And the silence in the infirmary is conspicuous. A recently hushed conversation makes up most of the atmosphere in there. Doris is embroidering her bluebells, but I can tell that she has just an instant ago picked up her embroidery hoop, the way her hands adjust it. Stanley shuffles a deck of cards I have never seen before, with the logo of a defunct airline inscribed on their backs. Arkady lights a cigar, jawing it up and down in the lighter's flame.

"We heard the phone ring," he says, pointing at it, "just a minute ago."

"Yes," I say.

"Well what did they say?"

"What would keep me from thinking one of you dialed it?" I ask. I'm careful to say "one of you" instead of "Arkady," who I suddenly suspect so deeply and cleanly that it's like a new bone in my body, a new eye in my head.

"Do you know the number for this place?" he asks right back. A blue, smoky swan drifts up to the ceiling and is sucked whole into the air vent.

"I'm starting to think nobody knows the number for this place," I say, crossing to the cabinet. The pill decanter seems slightly—only slightly—more empty than it should be. I will have to find a way to transport it to my quarters for safekeeping without drawing their attention. Stanley's shoulder looks a lot better.

"This is going well, it looks like," I tell him.

"Yeah, Arkady put something on it," he says, "some moss. They used to cure sores on a horse's withers that way."

"Wait. Where did you get moss?"

"Found some. In the hydroponic garden. It's a hand-me-down cure from my old Russian granny," Arkady says.

"Oh, okay," I say. A fearing look is behind my face, trying to get out. I am not letting it out. I don't like the thought of Arkady walking around harvesting moss, or walking around at all. When we first got here he seemed genuinely unwell, swooning fevers, something like that. But maybe he's been playing possum.

I begin to pour out two pills for Doris, but she stops me, saying no no, I'm good good good. You guys seem to be doing fine, I say, to which Arkady says some food wouldn't be bad. Some peaches maybe, and I say okay, okay, I'll be right back with that.

In the kitchen I open a big can of peaches with the heavy hand-crank can opener mounted on the stainless steel counter's lip. The setup reminds me of an old summer job I had in high school as a caddy at a golf resort in western Missouri favored for some reason by state reps and a few senators. There were too many caddies. We had all been sent there by our acquisitive parents in the hopes that we would catch a politician's eye. Most days we sat around smoking and bluffing as we imagined old men might do. Most days at least a few of us worked a piece in the kitchen, scooping tinned fruit cocktail into monkey bowls for the lunch buffet. We teased the kitchen girls, trying to get one of them to laugh back at us, but they closed ranks seamlessly when we were around, members of a solemn sororal order of kitchen maids.

Howie Buck eventually infiltrated their number, and could by Independence Day be seen holding hands with Linda Paulsen, the most popular but also most marmish of the group. This seemed to soften their reserve, and after not too long they had a craze for us. While we attempted to keep our heads above water discussing Seneca with our assigned politicians, they negotiated our matching up based on the imagined differences in our personalities, which I am sure, at that point, were not really all that different. We were either football guys or baseball guys. Our uniforms either suited our slouches or didn't.

I had my chances with Tia Wyers, a sad, smart girl from Joplin whose father owned a roadside attraction called the Jesse James Hideout. She had chosen me because I kept a picture of my two sisters in my wallet and because I was one of the lucky ones who looked older, more compact, in a uniform, even a casual one. She would walk up to our dorm at night, arms crossed under her breasts, and plainly grab me by the wrist for a walk in the pines where she would hardly let me touch an ounce of her. Each night I would try again and she would wave me off while talking briskly about the cost of billboards on Highway 44, the old bucking Ozarks road which had once been Route 66. I remember none of the details except waiting for a break in her cadence to grab her by the shoulders and lay a groundwork for long kissing, which, as soon as we came up for air, would be replaced by more useless talk.

By the end of a night, after three or four iterations of this theme, we might be so lulled by each other that she would let me hook two fingers into her dazzling white sock and leave them there, feeling the warm arch of her foot. It is a gesture I have never felt compelled to repeat in other intimate circumstances, but even the thought of it can still make me blush. My chances to work this angle into some other inventive grab were cut short because by then the man who would be president, a Pennsylvanian state senator, had taken a liking to me and asked me to caddy for him on an exclusive basis. I had actually read some Seneca, for a start, and I managed in our discussions to disagree just often enough to seem wise for my age. The senator invited me around to drink a strong, reedy port with him some evenings, often enough to send Tia reaching for some other quiet sloucher's wrist, which was the beginning of my political career although I did not know it at the time.

I am about to drain off the syrup the peaches are packed in, but stop myself on account of not wanting to waste the sugar. In bunker scenarios it is unwise to waste anything, which I know from reading any number of survival narratives written by heroic mountain climbers and similar. It's an all-parts-of-the-buffalo situation, a gruff economy. This, like the pistachios, is not without a degree of pang.

The red telephone rings as I ready the peaches on a tray. I pick up on the third ring and a voice says, "Davis, is that you?"

"Yes," I say, "who is this?"

"It's the president," he says. "Gotcha."

I wake up in the infirmary, sealed by the tight sheets to what had been Arkady's bed. Stanley's bed is empty but Doris snoozes with her hands curled around a physician's desk reference. Some thoughtful someone has left the Cyd Charisse issue of Time magazine on my nightstand. Because it is dark, I examine myself by feel for injuries and find a dent on my forehead blotted by some taped-on gauze. Oh mama. I try to sleep but my thoughts will not quiet.

They're all dope fiends by now. They must be. I peel myself out of the sheets to take a look at the pill decanter in the cupboard, which is at low tide compared with yesterday. I rationalize for a moment the necessity of taking some pills myself, on account of the nasty fainting spell and the more generalized uncertainties, but rationality is not necessary and I have already dry-swallowed two capsules by the time I'm through with my thoughts.

The president himself visits me later to apologize.

"You had quite the fall, Davis. Hit your head on that crank in the kitchen."

"It's a can opener."

"That's what it was. Well, it got you."

"It got me."

"You just collapsed like a possum."


"We're very sorry. We played a trick on you."

"You all played a trick on me?"

"Each one of us had our part to play. We're sorry." He shifts his weight back and forth between his feet like a bear unaccustomed to standing fully upright.

"It wasn't very funny."

"No. But it was a little funny."

"What about the red telephones?"

"They're just intercoms. It says so in the informational pamphlet next to the john. You might have noticed it except you seem to be infatuated with a Miss Cyd Charisse."

"Huh. So how do we know when we're getting out of here?"

"Somebody shows up and lets us out."


"It's good to have a serious one like yourself around, Davis. It keeps the rest of us from worrying too much."

"Always glad to help," I say.

"Don't worry, Davis, and rest up. It's almost Christmas." The president stands in a sheet of light from the doorway looking back at me. He isn't sure if I am asleep, so I slacken my face. I let him go.

I wake up later, still in the dark. A hall light enters the room partway and I feel like a child, asleep while the adults stay up drinking and laughing. Someone is singing "Hava Nagila." They seem to have found an accordion. They are camped out in the hydroponic garden, the brightest part of the bunker on account of the grow lights. I stand in the doorway watching them a long time before they notice me. There is tea and scotch in blue deckled tin mugs and bright paper crowns placed at jaunty angles. Pretty soon everybody runs out of words to "Hava Nagila" so Arkady switches to something faster, vaguely Creole. The president leans back against a rack of turnip shoots growing in clear little ampoules of water and glass, his eyes in a teary squint. He is probably thinking, This is what America is all about. In spite of tremendous odds. The untrammeled spirit. He lights a big, walloping cigar.

Doris is the first to spot me. She places a tissue-paper crown on my head and kisses me on the cheek, a real smackeroo. I sit Indian-style next to the president while Doris and Stanley perform an adept little polka shuffle. There is nothing merry that we are not the very spitting image of, but I feel only nominally a part of the scene, as if I had poked my head through a painted plywood cutout at the state fair.

A swarm of dark-suited men stride in through the breezeway, guns held in front of them at efficient, impersonal angles. Men with boom mics and cameras follow right behind them and we are at once snared in camera flashes. One photographer dives on his knees to capture us mid-bonhomie.

This photograph will later appear on the cover of Time magazine.

Once we return to the world, we are evaluated psychologically. I am questioned by a mousy technician who seems to relish the possibility that I might have turned out scrambled in some way by the experience. Some of her questions have obvious right and wrong answers, but there are others—"Have you ever played drop the hanky?" "Do you enjoy the sensation of yawning?"—whose correct answers I can only guess at. The technician has a horrible poker face. I can tell when I have answered a question incorrectly because she wags her eyebrows and nods slowly, as if to say of course a fear of tent moths is totally normal, no problem buddy, I am right there with you on that one.

Once we are through with the questions, an orderly appears to escort me to the next room for more blood work, more vision tests. He has a transistor radio clipped to the broad, white waistband of his pants. We get in an elevator and head down. As the radio fades out, he spins the dial a little, looking for anything. It catches on a station broadcasting a town council meeting in which various zoning issues are approved. Everybody seems to agree. One by one they say yes.

The elevator opens on the ground floor. My wife is seated at the end of the corridor on an institutional yellow bench, legs crossed at the ankle, reading a magazine and biting her lip in confusion. When she sees us she leaps up, holding the magazine over her heart, and runs to meet us. We walk arm in arm out of the medical complex into a rare midwinter golden afternoon. The streets are bone-dry and edged with sparkling salt stains. She has had the car washed and polished to high gloss, certainly in honor of my homecoming because ordinarily Dory has no head for proper car maintenance. The air is so clear that the edges of objects seem to collapse against one another. I feel a little uncertain about where the ground is. I ask my wife to drive.

I order a sophisticated, thoughtfully paced meal for the two of us. It has become our habit for me to preside over dinners out of some imagined grace in my palate, though really I suspect it's the kind of thing my wife expects a husband to do well. In celebration we start with Scotch and finish with three glasses of port, each older than the last. I believe she has been counseled to avoid discussions about the last few weeks, but this leaves us only with last year's movies to discuss, none of which I remember watching. I keep glancing off over her shoulder.

"Is there somebody you know over there?" she asks me.

"No, no, I was just—the restroom is over there, isn't it?"

"Of course." She's annoyed. This is our place, anyway, and I know I am acting strangely.

"I'll be right back. Um," I say helpfully as I push in my chair.

On my way to the men's I run across the old carriage left there in the atrium. Dolfi's is one of those restaurants drawn to a fussy, imagined carriage-house past, one most likely fabricated entirely. The presence of an actual carriage is meant to make this seem more authentic even though it has always had the opposite effect on me. In spite of all that, I find it really very charming. It's the kind of thing you just know would thrill a kid.

I scan the hallway for the maitre'd or a waiter coming on shift. When all is clear I duck inside the carriage for a moment alone. It's pleasantly warm and airless. Without the twinkling hum of restaurant noise, I can hear the blood rushing in my ears again. We will have a child and bring her here on birthdays and special occasions. She will be a girl serious as a pastor, so earnest and calm as to seem almost unkind compared with other children. She will win a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest and be given countless American Heritage dictionaries as rewards.

Dory knocks twice on the carriage window then folds her arms under her breasts. I open the door for her and ask if she would care to sit with me for a minute. She tells me that I'm acting creepy and insists that I pay the bill at once.

"Come on, Dor, just for a minute."

"A minute of what exactly?"

"Just join me," I say. "It'll help."

"Davis, I won't pretend that I understand what happened to you down there." She shuffles to fold her legs into the short carriage seat. "But I don't like this."

"I think we should have a baby."

"Do you."

"Yes, a baby girl."

"Maybe we can talk about it soon, after you've been back at work for a while." It is difficult to place the look she gives me. She is not searching my eyes for some recognizable glow. She is appraising me from a rational distance, as if for years she has been watching a movie projected on my face, one with scenes of sensible Nantucket vacations (not that we've ever been), cozied up around a fire on the beach, running through narrow waves with lit sparklers, weekend crossword puzzles, the weight of water in a tin cup drawn up from the rustic pump at the Vermont farmhouse we eventually retire to once we have contributed our civic services and can fade honorably into congress with simple hobbies and repairs made with sturdy tools as old as we are, a movie that has slipped from the teeth of the projector and shows the blank screen behind it.

"Maybe. No, I'm sure you're right," I say.

I grab her foot. Her reflexes are dulled from listening but once I've grabbed it she tenses and tries to pull it away from me. I pull it back, fighting her with the magnetic force you sometimes need to reel in a fish. I slip my fingers into her shoe, against the arch of her stockinged foot. I expect the reanimation of Tia Wyers, the restarting of the movie, another set of more plausible scenes, a souvenir from the shores of an actual world where I once counted as a citizen.

"Stop it," she says, "honestly, Davis." She is calm as a statue of a queen.

Convinced that the barrier of her stockings is preventing the transformative magic from taking place, I bend over her foot and try to tear them with my teeth. She screams.

I drop her foot like a hypnotized man pulled from a trance. She bolts from the carriage, the door swings shut, and I sit in the swallowing silence for a moment, then rise, return to the table, toss back the rest of the port, both mine and hers, and pay the bill, leaving an absurdly generous tip. The car is gone from the parking lot.

Arkady arrives forty minutes later to find me seated at the bar over an empty rocks glass and an untouched coffee wordlessly offered by the bartender, a man who I'm sure is well-versed in antidotes. I wish right away I had called a cab instead, but Dolfi's is nooked in a sleepy corner of Bethesda. Only doctors live here. I might have been better off calling an ambulance instead.

Arkady scales the bar stool. He is wearing his only jacket, which, even hanging slack, shows stretches and divots from where the buttons pull over his paunch. He orders a gin sling, a fanciful drink given the scenario. We are ensconced in the hours of bourbon neat or warm vodka glugged from the bottle or at the very least humorless coffee, the hours when men deliberate and decide.

"Davis, I'm worried. Your cabin fever doesn't seem to be clearing up."

"Not at all."

"This is why I don't have a wife."

"What do you have instead?"

"I keep pigeons." The waiter, polishing glasses as a cover for keeping an eye on us, smirks. "They're exceptionally loyal animals."

"What about the rest of it?" I ask. "Do you see whores?"

"No. Very unsubtle of you, Davis. I see one whore."

"That's a cute story. Tell me another."

"Sofiya. She's from Kiev. Our families know each other, as a matter of fact."

"Sounds like a complicated arrangement."

"Not at all. I see her often enough that she doesn't have to bother with half the trash her coworkers entertain. Our families are certain we'll marry eventually, which keeps them from asking questions we'd rather not answer. I bring her the occasional gift, and we've become very affectionate." I struggle to picture an affectionate Arkady. Arkady with a bow tie and a bouquet of poppies dancing a dopey soft-shoe, Arkady seated at the opera with a well-built blonde before the lights go down, Arkady sending endearments crosstown via pigeon. This last idea, Arkady releasing a pigeon from his fire escape, arms thrown wide with hope, makes me laugh in open, graceless guffaws.

Arkady waits for me to finish, twiddles the cocktail straw. "You know they uncovered the terrorist cell that ambushed us."

"God, I had no idea."

"Yeah. Wow. I thought it was the wealthy Cubans for sure."

"You hoped it was."

"I did. But it was some white power group, Ohio River Valley guys."

"That was fast."

"They're not exactly conversant with Sun Tzu. They keep pythons. They shoot Drano."

"You sound disappointed."

"It's just so horribly boring. Issue a press statement, tra-la tra-la. Then it's back to breaking knuckles over the energy bill."

"Arkady, what do you do when you're in conference alone with senators?"

"I work my angles, Davis."

"You don't actually threaten people, do you?"

"Ah, my trade secret. Make no mistake, I am a stooge. I am a henchman. I'm just your garden-variety spooky duke. I act decisively and remain absolutely calm. Having a Russian name helps, of course."

"I'm a little surprised."

"Calm deliberation terrifies others. You should try it sometime." He pushes the dregs of his drink away and begins unfolding himself from the height of the barstool. "But take it easy on the big thoughts tonight, Davis. You've only been out a day."

The house is lit from inside when we come up on it. The car waits obediently in the driveway, and for some brief, tender interval I begin to hope that Dory might accept a quiet kitchen slow dance by way of apology, so I disinvite Arkady from partaking of the drink I had offered in thanks. At the least she will permit me to explain myself, though I know any real explanation is impossible, even if only to myself.

The kitchen radio is on, and half a cup of coffee has sat out long enough to leave a thin, brown ring. The DJ, some congenitally shy college kid, announces that we have been listening to a samba and will now listen to another. This is how I know at once that Dory has gone to bed. She has no patience for music without spasms of brio and trumpets, containing all the handsome rhetoric of a valedictory address. Once, I joked she'd be happy to listen to the wedding march for the rest of her life and did a week's penance sleeping on the couch. I slow dance through the rooms shutting off lights and closing the drawers she always leaves open. I spin the dial and, to my great delight, find the same town council meeting the orderly and I had listened to in the elevator that afternoon. I well up with civic pride to think of these fellow citizens, probably neighbors of mine, who have foregone their dinners, their football recaps, their small children's mystic questions to sit in a bright airless room to deliberate, coming to terms with whatever is best for us all.


ART: Jenn Brehm, Jason Polan,
Grant Willing

FICTION: Kirby Johnson, Anjali Sachdeva, Chad Simpson, S. E. Smith

NONFICTION: Laura E. Davis, Aaron Gilbreath, Alexandra Kimball, Elena Passarello, Alison Stine

POETRY:Samuel Amadon, Will Arbery, Elizabeth Arnold, Melissa Broder, Kara Candito, John Lee Clark, Graham Foust, Kit Frick, Paul Killebrew, Kyle McCord, Shane McCrae, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Sandra Simonds, Bruce Smith

ET CETERA: Flannery O'Connor Soundboard, Poetry Bingo

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