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The author would like to thank the
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
and the Whiting Writers’ Foundation
for their generous support.
500 Mosquitoes an Hour
Rho is at the kitchen sink, peeling furiously away at a carrot when she draws her first blood of the day, and, of course, it’s nonmetaphoric, and her own. A sudden blossoming of color in the drab plot of one ordinary afternoon. So she watches herself spilling out across a trembling forefinger as if in a hurry to be gone, a hollow red staccato in the brushed-steel bucket of her sink. For a time she is simply a wide pair of mesmerized eyes, lost in the facts of the moment and, strangely, no longer present to herself. But the spell breaks, the cut is plunged into the aerated stream of her Puraflo faucet, the finger wrapped in a floral blue paper towel. The show’s over.
It’s late Friday in late summer in Wakefield Estates, where the shadows are long and the light is perfect and the sky a photographer’s fantasy of absolute blue typically apprehended only on film, too blue to be arching in inhuman grandeur over this engineered community of pastel houses and big friendly trees.
Inside the polished kitchen soft northern light arranges itself evenly, democratically, among the fixtures and furnishings, the appliances and the apples, each discrete object contributing its own subdued reflection of snug solidity, charmed ease, tasteful harbor. It is a good place to be. The peeler is flashing again, metal blade in a whittler’s blur, strips of orange vegetable matter stuck to the window above the sink in random crisscross like an entire box of desperately affixed Band-Aids. Behind her the routine clunk of fresh ice cubes dropping in the Kelvinator, and on the Formica counter at her elbow the Sony portable coolly irradiating her body with the problems of today’s women: VIXENS BEHIND BARS: GIRLS WHO HAVE WILLED THEIR LOVERS. Rho barely notices, absorbed as she is in the physical task at hand and a mentally punishing recapitulation of the futile chase after self-respect which constitutes much of her so-called “working day.” She’d almost quit again. For the second time this month. What was happening here? Accumulation, she thinks, that’s all, just the dispiriting accretion of nine-to-fives, of petty betrayals, minor sarcasms, slights, injustices, and plain rudeness collecting like refuse under a rotting wharf until one blighted morning all the fish are dead, there’s no place left to swim, and if sweet alert Lou hadn’t recognized the sniperlike narrowing in her eyes and hustled her out past Mickey’s smirk and the confused management team, she just might have released a sampling of the words grown slow and secret as fungus behind the professional exterior she’d had to retouch almost hourly for the past nine months. These were the words of disclosure, the ones to prompt an awful unveiling of the second self. She and Lou had fled to a corner of the cafeteria behind the ailing ailanthus, the bad joke of the company. The tepid coffee tasted like chlorine and the abstract neo-avant lithograph on the opposite wall kept somehow reminding her in a distinctly unpleasant way of the physical baseness of the body. It wasn’t a thought she was supposed to have—she regretted the admission—but maybe she just did not like female bosses. And Lou, whose boyfriend’s most recent message to her machine had been “If I hated you any worse, I’d be doing something more than just leaving you,” had instantly agreed, saying me neither, they go completely Looney Tunes once a month. So at least there had been the release of laughter. The tears came later, alone in a stall in the women’s room, the only one, it turned out, with no paper.
Then the wit-gathering, the brave soldiering on to after five, the obligatory traffic jam, the polluted lungs and mind, hunting food supplies at the local supermarket, where amid the day’s carnage she actually experienced, while wheeling her wobbly cart down the broad buffed aisles, a small detonation of pure happiness. It came inexplicably out of nowhere and was gone by the time she got home, a psychic comet in elliptical orbit from that parallel universe her real emotional life, the good one, seemed to inhabit. Would she ever even begin to assemble the time and the will necessary to piece out the meanest portion of the puzzle that was her existence in this world? What was so damned difficult about comprehending middle income, middle of the road, middling middleness?
The vegetables are lined up like good little soldiers on the cutting board, though the peppers are slightly wrinkled, the lettuce browner than she remembered, and each time she tries to slice a tomato—injured finger held awkwardly aloft, away from spraying juices—her hair keeps falling forward into her face, obscuring her vision; she tucks it behind an ear, off it falls, the left side having been crudely chopped last Saturday by Sylvester himself of famous Sylvester’s, a reminder with each turn of the head of some basic asymmetry. On the Sony an X-ray tech from Bedford Falls is describing how her husband comes home from his plumbing job, packs away the flank steak and boiled potatoes, and settles down in front of the tube wearing a chiffon cocktail dress, black nylons, and a pair of stiletto heels. At the commercial Rho discovers the cucumbers in the back of the refrigerator are frozen solid. Is there time for a quick dash to the Feed ’n’ Fuel? The clock on the wall, a fanciful twist of wire and brass most visitors don’t even recognize as a timepiece, is telling her that if she leaves right this minute…but a famous actress confessing that her famous mother used to beat her repeatedly with an English riding crop sets Rho off on an unscheduled tour of the Mood Museum, guilt thick as dust on all the exhibits, even the newest wing, where the paint’s still wet and the descriptive plaques hopelessly inadequate and the curator the same creepy figure in black who liked to skulk underneath her crib and whisper horrors to her in a language no one else could understand…so there won’t be any cucumbers in the salad and she’s sure the Hannas won’t mind.
Rho glances up to check on the twins and there, just beyond the carrot-splattered pane, in remarkable close-up, is a large bright lemon-yellow bird perched in regal isolation atop the feeder, and she looks, she is looking dead on, she doesn’t blink, but the bird is gone, a trick of bad editing. Amazing. Too quick for the children to see and probably just as well. The inevitable round of questions about pets and cages, freedom and death. Brother and sister are squatting side by side in the sandbox Wylie hammered together the summer they all went to Nice, to the place like in the American Express commercial, the year of the big promotion, a fabled time in the family chronicle. Identical blond heads are bent in consultation over a serious arrangement of plastic blocks. Daphne sits watching from a nearby swing, youthfully lean body dawdling between the chains, the basketball shoes on her feet blindingly white and apparently several sizes too large. Her long black hair a hood of dark flame in the enfilading sun. She’s the Averys’ daughter from over on Termite Terrace, and despite the finger-scooped peanut butter jars, the bottle-cap ashtrays tucked discreetly under the couch, both Rho and Wylie like and trust her, they’ve known Daphy since she was six, and she’s even recently completed a two-week course in which the conscientious baby-sitter is taught such essential tasks as how to bathe an infant, prepare a simple meal without fire hazard, and find the numerals 911 on either a dial or push-button phone. And the girl is also, for Rho at least, a touching facsimile of her own mysterious adolescence, her distance from which seems to vary daily, those fierce piebald years she chooses, against all reflection, to preserve as singularly enchanted.
Now Chip, she sees, has found a cracked water pistol she could swear she’s already thrown out twice and is holding the pink gun to his head as if to hear a delicate ticking or the roar of the sea. His sister is banging the flat of her spread hand into the bottom of the box, mashing her sand dough into cookies the way Mommy does. A moment framed, even as it occurs, with the halo of future nostalgia.
She knows it’s Wylie an instant before the phone rings. She knows why he’s calling. The meeting ran late. The client didn’t show. The traffic’s bad. She wants to get ugly with him but the prospect of any further emotional expenditure deflates her, she can actually feel her body sagging into the wall. Pick up a cucumber, she tells him. Fresh. And limes, more limes. And don’t for once forget the charcoal. I love you.
Time to inspect the house. Well, the plants need watering and the three days’ growth of fuzz wiped from each of the several television screens. She throws the comforter over the unmade bed, replaces the towels in the bathroom, gathers up Wylie’s magazines—Easyriders, Forbes, On Our Backs—she can’t keep up with his interests, whatever they are. The living room is white with black furniture and she can’t decide if she likes it as much as she’s supposed to. The day the decorators left, Wylie lounged about on the cream couch the rest of the afternoon, wearing an evil pair of sunglasses. Even after she’d laughed—and longer than the gag required—and night had come on, he refused to take them off. He never knew when to stop. Baby pink and dripping from the shower, he’d once chased her, wet towel snapping, through the house, skidded on one of his own puddles, and knocked himself out on the oven door. What a struggle it had been pulling a pair of briefs on him before the paramedics got there.
When the phone rings again, Rho takes it in the spare bedroom, the air still faintly medicinal, faintly evocative of Mother herself. It’s Betty, who shared a cube with her at Fleischer and Fleischer until Rho left about a year ago for these fresh-looking pastures of now defoliated opportunity. As long as they’ve known each other Betty’s been in search of an identity beyond her famous silver earrings. Today she wants to alter the spelling of her name to Bette but is worried about embarrassing mispronouncements. Rho suggests she change the last e to an i. Betty says she’ll think about it. By the way, did Rho hear that Natasha finally quit, as promised, as rumored, with no savings, no parachute, the only safety net in that girl’s life the one she’ll be wearing over her chestnut bangs working the french fryer at McDonald’s. Beneath the jokey manner there’s a genuine chord of wonder and anxiety. Rho wants to tell Betty she nearly quit today, too, but she hesitates, the moment is gone, and Betty is rambling on through an intimate catalogue of Natasha’s other woes: the buck-toothed lover boy who sleeps around without even bothering to clean himself off before coming home to her, the blue bruises on Natasha’s arms and face, the not so subtle hints that Natasha herself has been testing other beds in other rooms. This is why Betty works. She gets up, drags herself to the office morning after grim morning just to keep up with her stories. Perhaps one day her colleagues in accounting will have a story to trade about her. Perhaps there’s already a story in play about Rho. She refuses to imagine details.
After she hangs up, she remains seated there on the edge of the high antique bed, the bed she was born in. Mother watches from the gold frame atop the peeling bureau, the eyes in every color photograph of her ever taken a set of burning red stones invisible to normal gaze, only the lifeless camera capable of revealing clearly and consistently her true demonic nature. On the scratched mahogany table beneath the window squats a crude peacock carved from cheap pine with an unsteady hand and, leaning against the burnt-out lamp, an unfinished paint-by-numbers canvas of a bug-eyed cow Mother bought at a Kmart in Mason, Kentucky, on her last and final visit to Cousin Dewey’s. “You know,” she complained, “I don’t believe they put all the right paints in this box.” The disorientation came on a week later. She grew frightened by the motion of her mind. In darkest night she clawed herself awake from suffocating visions of sweaty walls and iron doors. By the end she was eating Kleenex and twisting her dry colorless hair up into a headful of reptilian dreads. She looked like an old demented white Rastafarian.
But Rho isn’t supposed to have bad thoughts today. She’d promised herself. She wasn’t supposed to be the Wicked Witch of the West at work either, arriving with one too many cups of coffee riding her nerves and a vague crankiness she could best attribute to “VCR hangover.” The night before, she and Wylie had watched, for reasons hopelessly irreclaimable now, three rented films in a row, his choices of course, all fitting into the current shoot/chase/crash cycle of his rigorously limited viewing habits. In the first the good guys caught the bad guys but contaminated themselves horribly with badness in the catching, in the second the bad guys got clean away, and in the third the good guys were really the bad guys all along. This visual extravaganza was then capped by a dream that troubled her sleep and stuck to the bottom of her day like a wad of someone else’s stale gum. There is a house and in the house is a living room that looks exactly like theirs, furnishings, decor, the stark absence of color, unused ashtrays in all the right places, except the house seems to be located on a spectacular beach somewhere, melony light reminding her of California, although she’s never been there. She is upstairs lying between black satin sheets in a king-size bed, snoozing her way through a different dream…the one of this life, perhaps. Downstairs a tall shirtless man in white pants stands in dark silhouette at the glass door opening onto their redwood deck and, in this universe at least, a white deserted beach, an empty blue ocean. Is the man Wylie? She can’t tell. And her attention keeps tracking back to the glass table exactly like theirs and yet not, and the dark object placed there with such compositional skill: the inescapable, indispensable gun. It’s a loaded .45 caliber automatic of military issue, hardware expertise she did not possess in waking life. Nothing moves. This is the loneliest room in the world. Is a scene about to begin or has one just concluded? Who is the man turned indifferently away from our scrutiny? Whose gun? What’s happening here? Why do these questions disturb her? Her hair falls into her face. She decides to start the party early.
In the kitchen she mixes herself a customized daiquiri. She stands at the sink, one hand quietly gripping the counter, she savors her drink. Consciousness skips a beat, and mental space is instantly renovated, angles and edges begin to develop padding, thoughts wander off from the party to find themselves in dead-end corridors and musty rooms with no doors, popping peanuts one by one into their toothless mouths, muttering solecisms to the lifelike forms on the wallpaper. Spooky. Wylie would shrug it off, but she is, as he says, the nervous type. That’s what everyone said about Mother, too.
She brings the half-drained glass down hard on the counter as if summoning a bartender. The television screen frantic with the saturated belligerence of afternoon cartoons. She slides open the back door and it’s like stepping out into a greenhouse. Daph immediately begins stuffing something into the back pocket of her ridiculously tight jeans. The lawn damp and spongy from this afternoon’s tropical downpour. It has been a wet and irritating month. The summer is ending badly.
“Mommy!” Dale comes lunging across the yard on strong bandy legs, literally hurling herself into Rho’s arms. Her daughter has a special feel impossible to confuse even blindfolded with the equally unique touch of her twin brother. This is recognition of an old, old order. After sharing a good hug, Dale pulls back, all business now, to probe the serious deeps of her mother’s eyes, a required ritual, in her present phase, following each separation, no matter how brief. Rho enjoys submitting to this kiddie security check, this reexamination of credentials that says, let me see where you’ve been, let me see where you are now. ID confirmed, Dale pushes herself away, races back to rejoin her brother in whom the parent-child separation process is already producing visible fermentation, he’s busy conducting a rather involved and sandy funeral for G.I. Joe and several members of his team who got ambushed going for doughnuts in a bad area. His intrusive mother hugs him anyway.
“Hi, Mrs. Jones,” chirps Daphne in her best I-can-sound-just-as-stupid-as-any-adult voice.
“Hello, Daph, how’s it going?”
The girl shrugs. “Okay.” Her eyes are gray and green and unnervingly clear.
There’s an annoying wall of insulation defining this girl in all weather, transparent enough to recognize that she’s hiding something, opaque enough to obscure precisely what that something might be. The family is the scandal of the neighborhood, the parents unreconstructed hippies who drive a loud (visually and aurally) truck, refuse to mow their “natural” lawn under threat of numerous court injunctions, and parade about in unfashionable rags and long ratted hair (both mother and father). The rude sound of hammers and saws emanates from their lighted basement at odd hours of the night. Rho cannot begin to guess what they do for money. Daphne’s baby-sitting wages? She sincerely hopes that isn’t a packet of drugs in Daphy’s back pocket.
Rho settles onto the other swing, ventures a tiny movement or two. As a child she loved to soar as fast, as high as her pumping legs could propel her but she doubts her adult stomach could tolerate such action today; it’s enough for now simply to dangle from a brace of parallel chains, enjoying the sun on her face, her children at play, her deformed shadow squirming about in the worn pocket of ground beneath her feet. She questions Daphne persistently until the resultant grunts and monosyllables—none of this sullen really, she imagines Daph perceives herself as unfailingly polite and forthcoming—cohere into a mutually acceptable version of the day’s events. Then she and Daphne fall silent and just hang there side by side, sharing a space, not speaking, and no one too concerned about it. Daphne’s one of these New Age adolescents neither intimidated nor impressed by the proximity or strangeness of grownups. As an only child, she understands the terrain from years of direct study. Rho is grateful for occasions like this, openings in the day when one can believe that the woods are riddled with paths, untold ways out, but she can’t restrain for long her gnawing awareness of the other, larger space between Daphne and herself, the weighty accumulation of the unseen that’s largely responsible for the quality of this very interval and the turning of the next, the inside stuff that burbles on in dark privacy, surfacing if at all in an unguarded run of words, the anxious set of a face, the careless gestures of the body. Rho starts, grips the chains tight to keep from falling. So. Spooked again. Life is a haunting, Wylie often claims, and she as often agrees, though never really sure what he means.
Up above the diverging row of identically shaped and tiled roofs a trace of shade is working its way into the clean texture of the sky as if the soft tip of a dull pencil were being rubbed lightly but repeatedly across the rampant blue. Some evenings she wished the night would come on in a full rush, evenings when protracted twilight, this gray nibbling away at things, this shadowed sameness, is just not acceptable. She should have quit her job.
“Mommy!” her daughter demands in a particularly penetrating kid voice. “Mommy! Do snails eat people?”
No, she assures her, a sidelong glance at the cool mask of Daphne’s perfectly composed face. Snails are our friends. No, not like spiders. Snails do not bite.
Beyond her daughter’s head, two doors down, she notices, coming into fleeting view a fraction above the height of the chain link fences separating the yards, the bulb of a snout, a pair of black olive eyes, then a pause, then the eyes reappear, and on and on. This is Elmer, the Clampetts’ jumping dog, who’s only eager for a clear view of the fun. And half a block down, the solidarity of open chain link is broken by a twelve-foot wall of impenetrable redwood. The peculiar McKimson property. He, an Action News television producer; she, an ill-tempered recluse. Wylie pictures them sunbathing in the nude, fucking in the moonlight among croquet wickets. This, she realizes wistfully, is the first thought of sex (even several bodies removed) that she’s had in weeks. Well, she’s tired, she’s distracted, there’s always someone looking at her, in this case a supremely bored Daphne, who’s studying her face with anthropological interest. Rho hopes she isn’t about to lapse into one of her “episodes” out here in the unprotected pseudoprivacy of God knows how many prying eyes. In the suburbs the back yard is a stage. And sometimes so’s the kitchen, the living room, and the bedroom.
She sneaks a glance at her watch, a ladies’ Rolex acquired at cost through the agency of a former friend, but a Rolex nonetheless, and is amazed yet again by the tempo and elusiveness of time (a recent obsession she intends to bone up on as soon as she’s not so busy). She hops off the swing, instructs Daphne on tonight’s feeding and bedding schedule. She kisses each child on the cheek, her lips coming away powdered with sand.
She is marinating the organic beef and contemplating a second drink when the door chimes erupt into an off-key but recognizable rendering of the first four notes of the old Dragnet TV theme, an idiosyncrasy of the previous owner they haven’t gotten around to replacing because by now she and Wylie don’t even “hear” it. She hurries to answer the door. Though she’s known the Hannas longer than her own children, she can’t quite suppress, when standing before them again, a modest sense of bewilderment at the enduring nature of their relationship; she’s receiving signals without being able to locate source or meaning; it’s not any obvious incongruity in physical appearance or behavior, but something deeper, under the skin, ripplings, fluctuations, magnetic disturbances in the charged fields of personality. But she has to admit she’s never seen or heard a hint of serious argument.
“Hi hi,” she cries in the silly singsong she lapses into whenever she’s nervous.
“Nice hair,” comments Tommy.
Gerri leans in for a kiss. “I just love these absolutely gorgeous walls,” she raves, waving her plastic fingernails about. “I always feel in this room like a bug in a lab.” She looks directly into Rho’s eyes. “A very special bug.”
Tommy flashes a grin that could be favorably interpreted by either woman. He is merely marking time at his present copywriting job while stoically awaiting the arrival of his real career. What that is exactly he isn’t sure but claims he’ll know it when he sees it. His mustache, a thick oversized brush, comes and goes so frequently Rho is often nonplussed by his appearance without understanding why. This capricious facial hair is related to Tommy’s insecurity about his nose (he thinks it’s too big), which he keeps threatening to have surgically corrected. Tonight he is clean-shaven.
Gerri is a real estate agent and a co-owner of Just For You Catering and a professional fund-raiser and a member of the community board and she’s taken college night courses every semester for years and years. No degree. She’s on her third major, Oriental philosophy. Once over a lubricated lunch she tried to explain “emptiness” to Rho and the ensuing hilarity was so unrestrained Rho lost a contact. She and Gerri met working together at the mall duplicating center until Gerri discovered she was pregnant and quit. She lost the baby five weeks later and has since been informed by glum representatives of modern medicine she can’t have another. This is no problem. She tells everyone, this is no problem. Her eyebrows tend to slant upward toward an imaginary intersection at the center of her forehead, giving her a perpetually bemused look she employs to her benefit, coaxing empathy and contract signatures from wavering clients. When she laughs, her face comes apart and she no longer resembles herself. She is wearing a silver lobster pin on her lapel. She has a ring on her thumb. She and Tommy must be doing well. You never hear the least complaint about money.
Apologizing for Wylie’s tardiness, Rho ushers her guests through the house and onto the deck, where they settle into the new patio furniture and the first round of cold daiquiris. They look at the kids. They look at Daphne, who won’t look back. They look at the blank windows of the neighboring homes. Tommy notices the patch of dead grass out by the garage. Rho doesn’t have to turn around, that awful bleached spot is burned onto the inside of her head. Serious chemicals Wylie dumped there one strange night. He said it was gasoline. She thinks the ground itself has been totaled, as fertile now as a hole on the moon.
“Curious,” observes Tommy. “It’s practically a perfect circle.”
Gerri remarks she’s sick of hearing about chemicals. One day it’s the air, next day it’s the water, day after that it’s California broccoli or…or chewing gum. You’d think we were nothing more than diseased sponges soaking up poison day and night.
“Well?” asks Tommy.
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
Rho is remembering how Mother kept every uncovered dish in the living room stocked to the brim with Brach’s bridge mix no one ate until the chocolate coating bloomed and turned white. She excuses herself and returns to the kitchen to heat up the cheese for nachos. She is not supposed to have bad thoughts.
PRAISE FOR GOING NATIVE
"An astonishing novel." --Toni Morrison
PRAISE FOR STEPHEN WRIGHT
Meditations in Green (1983)
"Precisely that brutal hallucination we desperately wanted to end." --Don DeLillo
"The best that any fiction about this war has offered." --Newsweek
M31: A Family Romance (1988)
"Beautiful and terrifying. . . . M31 offers a big, bold look at the American family. It takes us far away and very close to home. . . . Stephen Wright is a . . . bright star in the literary sky." --San Francisco Chronicle
"M31 is a devastatingly forceful accomplishment and reestablishes its author as a star of the first magnitude." --The Washington Post Book World
"Mr. Wright's sentences buzz like high-tension wires. I enjoyed reading every word of M31, literally." --Russell Banks
The Amalgamation Polka (2007)
"An extravagantly talented novelist. . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads. " --Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review
"This dark and lyrical tale of madness and prophecy speaks uncannily from within its period, in the tradition of heartbroken humor, which America's lapses of faith in its own promise have always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place." --Thomas Pynchon
"Quite simply an astonishing novel, brilliantly executed and beautifully written. Stephen Wright deserves to be famous and feted for it."
--The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Praise for Processed Cheese
"Processed Cheese does for consumerism what Catch-22 did for war."—Stephen King, bestselling author of IT and The Shining
- "In novel after unsparing novel-each one gorgeous, too, and full of awe- Stephen Wright has emerged as a kind of modern-day Socrates hectoring a complacent citizenry to have a good hard look at its collective delusions. With Processed Cheese, he's written a novel so outrageous and diagnostic of our current ills, it will prove much stronger than hemlock. If you hope to keep up your venality, America, your cruelties, and your death wish, better string this court jester up by his toes."—Joshua Ferris, author of The Dinner Party
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Back Bay Books