All it takes is a quarter to change pediatric psychiatrist Dr. Owen Lerner’s life. When the coin he’s feeding into a parking meter is struck by lightning, Lerner survives, except that now all he wants to do is barbecue. What will happen to his patients, who rely on him to make sense of their world? More important, what will happen to his family? The bolt of lightning that lifts Lerner into the air sends the entire Lerner clan into free fall. Mary Kay Zuravleff depicts family-on-family pain with generosity and devastating humor as she explores how much we are each allowed to change within a family—and without. Man Alive! captures Owen and Toni Lerner and their nearly grown children so vividly you’ll be looking over your shoulder to make sure the author hasn’t been watching your own family in action.
Chapter 1: INSIDE THE FLASH
Everyone deserves a vacation from himself, Owen Lerner thinks, on the last day of his. He’s convinced that spending three weeks at their beach house each summer makes him a better doctor and a better parent, if not a snappier dresser. Early every morning, face flushed with a good night’s sleep, the sun lifts itself out of the ocean and travels across the summer sky, hanging out even as it warms the sand. Through such measured leisure, Owen catches up on his medical journals as well as his sleep, but he lets himself go, too, a year’s worth of bacon and booze packed into three weeks at the Delaware shore.
This evening he is sporting the baggy shorts and soft rubber sandals he only ever wears at Rehoboth. He’s missed a button on his lurid Hawaiian shirt, so that the excess shirttail hangs over his belly like a pennant, catching the wind the way a ship’s flag might. Reaching beneath this flap, he fishes in his pants pockets for meter change and comes up with an inch of quarters—Lucky strike!—as if he’s snagged a tuna from one of those monster fishing boats. First a parking place—on Reho Ave., in August, at dinnertime—and now quarters galore.
Nostalgia triggers the vertigo Owen has come to expect on the last day of vacation, when he’s looking to the past and the future. Hard to believe that the twins, who resemble surfers from old beach movies, will be juniors in college or that his baby girl is sixteen. Hard to believe it’s 2008. They’ve been coming here since the boys were born, back when the boardwalk was low-budget, greasy fun. Used to be, he could nickel-and-dime his way through August, springing for a waxed-paper bag of saltwater taffy if Will or Ricky had a loose tooth, or throwing pitches in the arcade (three for a quarter—is that possible?) to win Brooke a stuffed dolphin bigger than the dog. He remembers Toni as barely clothed. She wore gauze sundresses that were nearly as insubstantial as their house, which was a mere shack in the sand then, tar paper applauding the ocean breeze.
As Owen looks forward, his fistful of quarters brings to mind the patients waiting for him on the other side of vacation. Try as they may, his kids cannot play well with others, and the only rule they understand is that whatever they enjoy will inevitably be taken away. Owen’s pocket change could serve as a lesson in planning ahead. Unfortunately, his patients can’t anticipate what might happen in the course of a day; how can they prepare for a future that seems haphazard? Everything catches them by surprise, and predictably, they hate surprises.
His beach reading this summer has included a number of promising drug studies for his practice, and as he counts the meter fare, he’s also mentally mixing meds to alleviate anxiety and boost executive functioning. At the same time, he’s anticipating sliding into a varnished booth at Dogfish Head and having Axe mix him a drink with the house-made gin. He may even order onion rings. The cumulative effect of his thoughts is a moment of gratitude for the brain’s plasticity: onion rings, gin, kin, and meds, all considered within the time it takes to manipulate a handful of coins.
The face of the parking meter is bubbled like a gumball machine, with forty minutes from the last parker showing in the window. Owen still considers time on a meter to be found money, that little bit of grace his wife will never acknowledge. A hundred-dollar goof in their favor in the checking account—Toni can’t get excited about it, considering they have mortgages on two houses, two college tuitions, and two cars, as well as insurance out the wazoo. Spare change is all relative, he supposes. A hundred dollars buys thousands of meter minutes, not so many therapy minutes, not even thirty.
Malpractice insurance, therapy minutes. He’d felt the tide changing from vacation to vocation an hour or so earlier, while taking a shower to sluice off the day’s sand and sunscreen. Upstairs, between toweling off and getting dressed, he’d lunged for his blinking cell phone in spite of himself. Outgoing message be damned, mothers filled his voice mail with their requests, listing the vegetable soup of disorders ladled out to their children: ADD, ADHD, OCD, ODD, PDD, SID. He was still standing there naked except for his glasses and cell phone when Toni, lovely Toni, strolled in from her bath.
“Stripped to the essentials, I see.” She dropped her own towel to the floor and began dressing, unceremoniously stepping into plain cotton underpants as if they shared a locker room rather than an entire life. He admired her softening waist, alluringly belted with a thin stripe of tan, before it disappeared beneath drawstring pants and a crisp linen shirt. Her cheekbones glistened with some cucumber-scented mist she used only at the beach.
Although he clamshelled the phone, she waved him off. “Don’t let me get between you and new clients. We’re supposed to stay away from the boys’ college fund until the market has time to recover.”
“But they’re in college now,” he’d said.
“Them’s the breaks.” She shrugged. “As for us, it’s a good thing Dr. Lerner’s in demand.”
And so he keeps the parking meter credit to himself, pocketing a few quarters and then, What the hell, retrieving them, intending to feed the meter as if it were a slot machine, either spending the time out with his family or paying it forward to the next carload of beachgoers. Earlier in the vacation, they would have left the car at home and walked to the restaurant; the boys would have raced each other there. Owen drops a coin into the slot, which adds a paltry seven minutes, and a second coin gives them only another eight, returning him to summers when a quarter bought more.
This last day on the beach has been a pleasant one: overcast but no rain, which makes for easier reading and, in general, a less beaten-down feeling (as if beach life were an ordeal, which it isn’t, but after a bleached-white sunny day, occasionally riding the waves with the kids or shoveling sand, the first beer pulls him under). His itchy beard brings to mind the trim he’ll get once he’s home. Maybe he’ll ask for a goatee this time, aiming for the fleshy Freud look. More likely, he’ll be mistaken for a slender Santa.
“Behold, people.” Brooke points out the roiling clouds that have moved in since they left. “I’m glad we’re finished with our heliolatry.”
“Verily,” Will agrees. “And isn’t the thunder vociferous?”
Owen’s not sure if Will, the adoring big brother, is actually helping Brooke with her test prep or if he just enjoys releasing words, like viruses, into his little sister’s vocabulary.
“That language,” Toni complains, but she laughs when Will says, “Yeah, what the flux?” because that’s her line. She looks at Owen over the top of her sunglasses and then raises her eyes toward the greenish sky. “We should have made do at home. We threw away so much food.”
Ricky says, “We ran out of ketchup,” and the rest of them concur. No ketchup, no dinner. Truckloads of clouds flash their lights across the horizon before ramming into one another, and the resulting collision rumbles across the sky.
Brooke cups her hand around her ear. “It’s a total cacography.” When the boys don’t respond, she ventures, “Harsh, awful sound?”
“You mean cacophony.” Smugness deepens Ricky’s dimple. “Cacography is awful handwriting.”
Will says, “Like Dad’s. Right, old man?”
“Occupational hazard,” Owen says. Although he should feed the meter and get his family inside already, it’s worth spending a few of the minutes he’s bought listening to the kids. Maybe he and Will could take a week at the beach alone sometime.
Will says, “To remember cacography, think dadography. That’s your mnemonic, Brooksey.”
“Use it in a sentence,” Ricky is saying. “Dad’s cryptic scrivening, his crapulous scrawl, is cacographic.”
Brooke looks sideways to make sure he isn’t annoyed. He isn’t. Family dynamics fall in a light sprinkle around Owen, who considers it healthy that they’ve united to mock their father. His motto, which he inherited from his mentor, is “The art of family life is to not take it personally.”
Judging from his reading stack, the money these days is on brain imaging, which can pinpoint the very nerve cells that tackle the word cacography. He wonders what part of the brain recognizes sarcasm—what sector distinguishes laughing at from laughing with?
The sky spasms like a lightbulb on its way to burnout, and that also reminds him of brain scans. An able-bodied head has vivid flashes of yellow, orange, and red as different associations flare up. However, the scans of autistic subjects are remarkably dark. In their brains, the lights are on for a literal translation of what is heard; as for tone of voice or facial expressions, not a flicker. He should resurrect the ear-training therapy he tried to develop twenty years ago. He’ll have to ask Toni where she stowed the master tapes; he’d recorded hours of angry exchanges and excited chatter, friendly overtures and meddlesome inquisitions. In those days, the estimate of autism in the population was one in fifteen hundred. The newest numbers are one in one hundred kids—surely he can snag some funding with those burgeoning odds. He glances at Toni, who’s focused on their daughter.
“I wish you’d put on more clothes,” Toni says to Brooke, tapping her on the rump. Emblazoned across her tiny shorts, for some reason, is VIXEN.
“How about more glasses, Mom?”
“Don’t tempt me.” In addition to the shades Toni is wearing, her regular glasses squat on top of her head, and reading specs, suspended from a chain around her neck, rest on her chest, as if her breasts might be called upon to read fine print. Reaching into her bag, she tugs a fringed corner into an arm-length span of fabric. She pulls a second and third time until she has drawn out a shimmery red square that she wraps around Brooke’s slight hips as the wind tries to undo her work, lifting the fringe to reveal their daughter’s branded backside. The sarong Toni fashions takes Brooke past jaded teen to alluring island girl.
Owen says, “That’s worse. Now she looks like a Tahitian maiden.”
So Brooke leaves it on.
The attention she’s been attracting this summer is disconcerting. In truth she looks remarkably like the pictures of Toni as a teenager, a little smaller and with darker hair.
Toni is lassoing her own hair into a hybrid bun/ponytail. She says, “I hope it’s raining at home. Our yard is probably straw by now.”
“Tinder,” Brooke pitches.
“Kindling,” Will says.
And then Ricky: “Tender kindling. Locofoco.”
Owen is oddly satisfied when Will gives his brother’s shoulder a shove.
“You’re locofoco,” Will says.
“Locofoco is a safety match,” Ricky says. “Obviously, your test scores didn’t get you into Penn.”
“At least Mom likes me.” Will lifts one foot onto a tall bike rack and then effortlessly steps up, climbing the three-foot rise as if it were a single stair. He walks along the rack’s steel spine, which is slick and crisscrossed with handlebars, prompting Ricky to get on at the far end. They start horsing around, grown boys still trying to knock each other off-balance.
“Must we?” Toni asks.
Apparently we must. In the morning, they’ll close up the beach house, handing bundle after bundle like a fire brigade down the line to Owen, who’s in charge of fitting everything into or on top of the van, including what they don’t want to leave for renters or lock in the shed. Once home, they’ll repeat the drill twice more to return Ricky to Duke, Will to Penn. The scramble ends with all three children tucked in for the fall semester, he and Toni hunkering down to keep everyone in chicken feed.
But first, dinner. A moment ago, as Owen had slipped two quarters into the meter’s slot, his fingertips had touched the satiny metal, still sun-toasted despite coming under the thunderhead’s shadow. Now he deftly thumbs a coin from his palm to between his thumb and forefinger, a learned skill that has become almost autonomic. With pay phones being phased out or taking only phone cards, with jukeboxes demanding dollar bills, what is left but parking meters to oblige such dexterity? If he gave Brooke a few quarters, would she cup them in her palm, fishing around with her other hand to pluck out individual coins? Are there deft maneuvers she or the boys have developed via mousing or texting that have blazed neurological shortcuts in their brains? Has our internal wiring always been the same, or does the circuitry of playing Guitar Hero differ from that of playing marbles?
Knock off the shoptalk, Owen tells himself. If they’ve timed this right, families with little kids will be settling their checks about now, and they’ll have a twenty-minute wait at most. And if Will’s Kyra is their waitress, all the better. He fantasizes for a second how VIXEN could rightly be appended to Kyra and posts a mental note to encourage Will to visit her during the upcoming semester. Unless a father’s backing of a potential girlfriend scotches that possibility. As Owen thinks about the observer affecting the observed’s behavior, he hears a loud buzz, an intensifying hum zeroing in on him. He figures the noise for a beach plane trailing a happy-hour proclamation and questions the wisdom of flying one of those two-seaters through flashing clouds. All of this is happening as he touches serrated edge of quarter to smooth slot of parking meter, the barest of contact, and he is, literally, blown away.
His first reaction is, That parking meter packs a wallop! Of course he can’t understand, inside the flash, that he’s being struck by lightning. It’s more like stepping off the high dive—and then plummeting into a hot spotlight of water. Neither inhaling nor exhaling, Owen feels heavy pressure on his ribs and within his sinuses—both his heart and ears yearn to rupture—while his arms and legs flail spasmodically, not in a swimming groove. More like a believer shot full of god, some maniac at a revival compelled to twitch and moan in languages not yet discovered before plunging into the baptismal font. He is white-hot as well as deeply quenched by the singed, syrupy fluid of his surround.
Water magnifies, lubricates, cleanses, and conducts, all of which is the case here. Water flows, and Owen rides the torrent everywhere at once, having been granted infinite perspective: he is looking down at his body, which isn’t actually in water but is writhing on the sidewalk, his shirt ripped open and his white underbelly jiggling away; then he is eye to eye with his remaining quarters, which are suspended midair in the unlikely shape of a bell curve until one is picked off by a pair of sunglasses flying or flung through space; then he is somehow staring at his wife’s new tooth, her square jaw unhinged to reveal her crown. Next, he is looking to the horizon, across the parking lot, over the boardwalk to the beach, all the way to the surf, which has picked up height and mass since they broke camp an hour ago, lugging their umbrella and beach chairs as well as all the sodden, gritty towels back to the house, where he took his last outdoor shower of the season; then he is staring straight up into the sky from somewhere up in the sky, shimmering with the crackling clouds and bright static that have knocked him off his feet.
Up among the ether, everything is so fucking clear, as if he’s viewing his life through the Hubble telescope. He has never distinguished such vivid shades of gray, from the thundercloud to the sidewalks to the gum stains irregularly blotting the sidewalk beneath Toni’s flaking silver sandals. Her chipped red toenails are an eye-popping contrast. He clearly sees Will’s tenderness as well as his vulnerability, along with the long dent across the van’s sliding door from his run-in with the principal’s Prius. Brooke’s strawberry birthmark shines forth, as does her skeptical squint, and he can detect the gap returning to Ricky’s front teeth because he stopped wearing his retainer. How can there be a light in which his banal life is so complex and invigorating? They are but an urban suburban family who spend money like water—like water!—and who each go about doing mostly what is expected of them. And yet they are sublime, and he loves them to the point of pain.
Concern presses on Owen’s heart and then releases it like a clutch, so that he shifts into transcendence. From this vantage point he beholds his wife and children as they are, but even more so. Toni is intensely beautiful as well as shockingly old, nearly half a century, and she is fierce with the expectations she harbors for the five of them; Brooke has every reason to be confident, what with her gymnast’s poise and her mother’s profile, but when had the world begun to bore her so?
With any luck, they will exceed Toni’s high hopes as she lives to grow older still, and Brooke will be freshly amazed; such is the tolerance and optimism his height and warmth inspire. Seeing the twins from boys to men, Owen recognizes the danger in Will’s dark wit and the sexual ambivalence in Ricky’s neediness. He feels honored to know them all so intimately. Owen does not glimpse their future; however, to peer this intricately into the individual cogs, their teeth and their turnings, is to better understand how things might play out.
Time is as warped as space, because there is Will balancing atop the bike rack as Ricky prepares to leap off. Their flares of mutual resentment and competition burn bright, and yet the boys’ latest argument only deepens Owen’s contentment—don’t they have to grow apart to be individuals? On the verge of adulthood, wouldn’t an identical twin be the best and safest sparring partner for asserting your very self? He remembers the two of them wrestling in Toni’s womb. The obstetrician worried that they’d strangle each other before they were born.
Owen sees now, and he sees then. Distinct life segments have been tossed into a jumble like socks in his dresser drawer, and he lovingly draws them out, the threadbare as well as the warm, and matches them together. An unreachable patient stares at him from the cage of autism, which pairs up with her speaking intelligibly—“Dogs can bite”—a miracle assisted by his pharmacological know-how. He sees himself much earlier and trimmer, getting married in the university chapel and then signing divorce papers in the university’s legal clinic, memories set apart from most of the bundle and gingerly nudged aside to get at any segment starring Toni, whom he is eager to hold fast to through all other memories, including their own courthouse wedding.
Brooke bounces into the air off his knee and then back flips off a balance beam, fracturing her wrist in a botched landing. A twin birthday party goes south when the boys, having attacked Batman piñatas, turn the bats on each other; those same boys enter the world from between Toni’s legs. Lust stirs as voluptuous Kyra whispers in Will’s ear, which leads Owen back to a randy episode between himself and Toni.
Like the space telescope, Owen is privileged with a view of our very origins. He is especially riveted by the formation of his family planet. Their connection each to the other, his to them, and his to the universe is mystical and mind-blowing. That he and Toni merged in pleasure, their combined emanations carrying all that was required to make three sentient beings, blows his mind anew.
It is bliss, pure bliss, and though he’s aware that he isn’t breathing, he has the scent of barbecue in his nostrils—hickory-smoked, well-marbled meat with bourbon-and-mango-spiked sauce caramelized by intense heat.
Ricky brings him back. Ricky and Dogfish’s bartender, damn them both. Of course, Owen isn’t able to assure them that he is fine where he is. Strapping man-child lifeguard gets right to work, prying open Owen’s mouth and sweeping a finger through, then slamming the meaty part of his fist against Owen’s bared chest. Owen has had the wind knocked out of him, and Ricky huffs into his lungs, reciting “barbecue spareribs, barbecue spareribs” over Owen’s twitching body between breaths.
Brooke must have bolted into the restaurant for help because she is bolting out now, followed full tilt by the bartender with his brand-new defibrillator. Owen doesn’t think his heart ever stops; the bloody piston revs itself into the red zone, lurches, and then slams against its bony chassis, preparing to make a break for it. Ricky’s rhythmic pounding keeps his heart in its place and gives it something to keep time to until the muscle-bound, shaved-headed Axe, previously prized for titrating drinks, shocks Owen into resuming the lub-dub of the gravity-bound masses.
So much for expansiveness; ditto for infinite perspective. Owen’s torso does a little defibrillator dance, and his shoulder blades clatter against the sidewalk. The ecstasy of leaving his body is, in the first few seconds, equal to the excruciating, edifying pain he is beginning to fathom.
No amount of deduction can explain the hot beam that lifted him like a sheet off a clothesline, shook him out a few times, and dropped him near the restaurant in a wrinkled heap. His situation is beyond deduction, and yet he knows all sorts of things without having thought them through: Ricky’s touch, for example. Although he’s never felt Ricky’s palm against his heart, he has a muscle memory of hoisting the boy onto his shoulders and of squeezing his hand to quicken him across a busy street. Nothing remotely recent; even so, Ricky’s touch is instantly, and instinctively, familiar. Owen opens his eyes. His son is a silhouette to him, scrub-brush hair, square chin, and the neck muscles of a swimmer.
“I did not see that coming,” Owen says.
“Fucking A.” Ricky speaks with awe. “You are here.”
There is a boyish sincerity in his son’s voice that he hasn’t heard for years.
“Man alive!” Owen says. His body hurts in distinct layers, from his deepest tissue to the hair standing up on his arms. Meanwhile, a ravenous hunger overwhelms him. He is Rip Van Winkle starving. “A full rack sounds right for tonight.”
His son’s face clouds over in confusion. Where is Toni? One look at her, and Owen will know how to assess the situation. He longs for her direct gaze—Are we okay here?—but he’s lost his glasses. He tries slapping at his shirtfront pocket; however, he’s lost his shirtfront and slapping, too. You wouldn’t think that could inspire such glee. Squinting, he manages to see his wife’s willowy torso bend toward the ground like a weeping willow. He opens his mouth to warn her; all that comes out is laughter. “Ha ha,” he says. No, that isn’t remotely right. “Hee hee hee.”
Toni blurs convulsively before falling against the bartender, nearly taking them both down. Impossibly far away in pieces on the ground, Owen manages to think: My wife has fainted. He has been with her through natural childbirth (or what passes for natural childbirth) and the children’s stitched-up gashes, from Ricky’s hernia and Brooke’s ear-tube surgeries to the repositioning of Will’s elbow from a freakish angle to its rightful crook. He has never seen her faint.
He hears sirens on the left, slowly recognizing that he’s hearing everything on the left. He tries to snap his fingers on the right side of his face, but the operator refuses his call. He commands his arm to bend, his hand to make a fist, his thumb to push off his middle finger and click against his index finger. Nothing doing. Euphoria subsides to allow for his first actual moment of fear. Fortunately, the comforting smell of a pig pull lingers: fat on coals and the dusty odor of baking bricks. He can smell flesh tenderizing in the infinitely long cooking time.
Can he lift his head? There is a vast difference, he knows, between the brain being able to tell the body what to do and the body responding. In fact, he can lift his head!
“I think you should be still, Dad.” Ricky is grinning as well as scowling.
Owen is seeing double, or possibly past and present. But it’s Will and Ricky together looking down at him.
Despite Ricky’s admonition, Owen lifts his head, because he can. His shirt has been blown open, but not his shorts, whose metal snap has burned his gut. That would once have been proof of feeling below the waist. He must have feeling down there, because his right foot seems to be on fire. Now he lowers his heavy head, ear to the ground, as if to listen for a stampede; in fact, the siren sound grows louder, abruptly stopping at its highest pitch. A group of pallbearers surrounds him.
“Don’t touch his body,” the chief pallbearer orders. “Not yet.” Except for this one’s cap, they’re identically dressed in dark short-sleeved shirts, shorts, and rubber gloves.
“He’s not live, Harold.”
Owen’s heart tap-dances in his chest, and he sniffs another wave of burning flesh that he hopes isn’t his.
“Smell that, genius?” the first guy, Harold, says. “If your gloves touch him, they’re liable to stick—you’ll lift his skin right off.” He brings a sheet to Owen’s sternum and then under his chin. Owen puffs out air so they will not be tempted to pull the sheet over his head.
“Hyperventilating,” he hears, or maybe he thinks, or maybe he should have thought, because the next thing he knows, he’s in a flying bed with Toni at his side. He’s got his sheet, and she’s wrapped in a blanket.
Nasal as a siren, she whines, “His sandal is melted to his heel.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the pallbearer says. “He got singed something fierce. His other sandal is back there, fused to the sidewalk like grilled cheese.” So they’re all on a cooking wavelength.
Toni wheezes in and out—does she have to breathe so loudly? Owen is irritated by his pettiness, coming on the heels of his grand tour, until Toni lays her hands over his ears, allowing him to deduce that the siren sounds he’s been hearing are from a siren.
The pallbearer is a paramedic, and they are in an ambulance. He gets that now. Owen grins up at his wife, who is cradling his head. He wishes they were alone so he could tell her about the roasted meat that has opened up his sinuses. It seems incredibly personal and not for other people to hear. “The smell,” he moans. Then he says, “You fell.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Don’t apologize, he wants to tell her. “Everyone falls,” he says.
“His neck,” the paramedic warns.
“I’m sorry,” Toni repeats, and removes her hands. Without her grip, Owen’s head wobbles, coming to rest on his right cheek. He sees Toni cocooned in a white blanket, though he knows it to be a hot August night. He manages to ask, “Do you prefer pork or beef barbecue?”
“Owen,” she says, as if he’s forgotten who he is. She is raining.
“He’s got to be pretty scrambled, ma’am.”
But isn’t that a standard summer beach question? And the scent in his nostrils! As much as he’s always been a beef man, this is obviously pork. “The flavor’s in the fat,” he says.
He practices focusing on Toni. Most of her glasses are gone and her hair is trying to loosen up. Her eyes are the color of tinted windows, and although it’s not possible, he considers their reserve a result of her nomadic childhood. In his blurred vision she looks almost the way she did when he espied her in the grad-school library: her hair a haystack resting on her magnificent clavicles; her clavicles an elegant horizon beneath her pale oval face. He was recently divorced and beginning his first residency, and he’d arrive at the library after doing everything in his power to keep a dozen developmentally devastated kids from jumping out a window or digging holes in themselves with a pencil. All he ever wanted for his patients was a fraction of her self-possession. On the leather reading chair nearest her, he used to lean against the wing, pretending it was her clavicle. How he wishes he could join her inside her white blanket. He says, “You, you, you, you, you.”
“Me.” Toni points to herself. “What about you?”
A bright aura surrounds her face, its harsh intensity making dark shadows of the wrinkles he noticed in the flash of lightning. But the glow also renders her majestic, a treasure. “Antoinette.”
“Owen, I’m here.” She surges forward, melting toward him.
“My queen,” he says. “My Kyra.”
New wrinkles are brought to light. “Kyra? The boys’ Kyra?”
“Yes, yes,” he says. “We won’t have long to wait.”
The paramedic taps Toni with his latex glove. “He’s not going to make much sense for a while.”
“Oh, he’s making sense,” Toni says. She blows out a long sigh, like a flare from a blowtorch. His face tingles, and after that, the blaze spreads all the way down his body until his toes catch fire, the old hotfoot gag.
Before pain and confusion short him out, he says, “Please, if it’s not too late, make it a cheeseburger.”
He comes to among strangers in a room whose appliances are as familiar to him as those in his kitchen, yet he can’t place them. Dozens of people lift his eyelids to shine a light into his soul, which seems to be a form of greeting. Their word for hello is lucky. Everyone says it back and forth.
Owen berates himself for underestimating the beach traffic, because now they are stuck in a jam. Occasionally, the gridlock eases, and he and the jam are on the move. Someone takes his picture or his blood. They measure his impulses. And then a man in blue pajamas drives him and him alone through tunnels and over bridges to meet a young woman in a white hat, who tells him he’ll be prepped for surgery. “I don’t do surgery,” he says. She laughs at him, and then she says, “And I don’t do weekends, so what are you and I doing here?” That’s apparently as many servings as he’ll be getting out of this jar, because as she’s driving a spike into his arm, a tubby, scrubbed surgeon appears, wielding what looks to be an electric cheese slicer. He pokes Owen’s gut, but he’s not happy about it. “Anyone ever told you that you have thick skin?” he asks, and adjusts the impressed blade to cut a denser slice.
Owen awakens on a raft, tethered to a pier. As he floats, he watches drive-in movies projected on his eyelids. Rather than headphones, they’ve rigged up liquid sound, which hangs in a pouch and drips into his bloodstream. All the movies have the same music, a piercing wail that sounds uncannily like Toni crying. “Let’s not buy this sound track,” he says to a hologram of his wife. He asks Will to come closer and he is looking him in the face, but Brooke says Will isn’t here “right now,” whatever that means.
Sense and nonsense are interchangeable, and he has a hard time remembering what the world was like when they were separate. His love for Toni is boundless, but he is also the whole world and everything in it, and so Toni is simply the bed or his socks. Pain like at no other time in his life rips through him, simultaneous with a deep, abiding happiness that is impermeable to stab wounds or flaying or whatever the scrubs and whitecoats are doing to his swaddled body. He’s been melted down and half-assedly poured into a mold of his old self, which many are trying to patch, deburr, reanimate.
“Lucky,” a new one hails the crowded room. “Lucky,” the others respond.
MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF is the author of Man Alive!, as well as The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as “a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world’s bickering and scheming,” and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed “a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel.” Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.