The Stories I Do Not Know For Sure
When I first meet David, he’s wearing a NASCAR jacket, black with patches as bright as a carnival. I’ve just left a full-time job to live with my husband Tony, and I am an adjunct again. Even the copy machine suspects my credibility. I glance at the paper spilling into the feed tray. In Illinois I always feel as if I am in someone’s way.
“NASCAR fan?” I ask.
He’s a giant, with thick white hair, reserved blue eyes, a quiet dignity. Growing up, my next-door neighbors congregated every weekend for NASCAR. My mother cultivated the tree line, but I loved the distant roar of the cars, the gentle swish of beer cans opening. Why did no one ever gather on our porch? Why was my family so quiet and furtive?
“Thrift store,” David laughs. “Who knew Illinois would be so cold?”
The smell of the ink hovers ghostlike around us. It is cold here, and I nod.
David and I have both started teaching in the English department where my husband works. David is full-time, but on a temporary contract. We’re both new and confused and on trial.
“He founded MacWorld Magazine in Australia,” Tony says with the reverence he reserves for technology. “I think he believes teaching will be relaxing, like a working retirement.”
“He’ll change his mind on that pretty quickly,” I say, and we laugh.
But earlier that day I passed David’s classroom, recognized his slumped students, his anxious eyes. I could see myself in his posture, one foot canted toward the door. Who were these people: all staring and striving and wanting? The story of this town is that it started as a graveyard. The Illiniwek tribes refused to live here but traveled for miles to bury their dead. Then the settlers came and did the same. As a consequence, there are bones, human bones, buried deep below everything.
In February, David invites Tony and me over to watch the Oscars. He and his wife, Sandra, live on the edge of town in the conference center hotel, still thick with the smell of former bustle, the bank gatherings and agricultural forums. Now, when the rooms are full, they are full with the fringes: paranormal experts, psychics, faith healers. The mildewed pool is always dark and flat and empty. David and Sandra have two rooms and two massive dogs: a sweet black lab and a blue-eyed husky that growls perpetually. We don’t pet her. We don’t make sudden moves. Sandra is also a giant, with dyed maroon hair, smoky eye makeup, and an Australian accent that cuts through noise like a scythe. On television, James Franco and Anne Hathaway fish for laughter, and even Tony has to fight for his voice amid Sandra’s commentary. Wedged between them on the flimsy hotel couch, I sip my cosmopolitan in the barrage of their words. This is how it will always be when we visit them, a war of perspectives and sound that sometimes has us all talking at once, so loudly that afterwards my shoulders and throat ache with the effort of it, and it’s unclear if anyone has heard anything at all.
David and Sandra have just moved from California, and they’ve come with nothing because the storage unit containing their possessions burned to the ground. Sandra shows her new online purchases—a pink wicker elephant, a pair of Korean marionettes, a wine decanter embossed with occult symbols—while David tells the story of things that were lost—signed first editions, box sets of their favorite films, crystal dishes, a Marilyn Monroe issue of Playboy found tucked inside the wall of their San Francisco apartment. They’ve replaced the hotel television with their own giant screen, have filled the media cabinet with discount movies from Wal-Mart and the dollar store. With them, I am always admiring, always marveling, always nodding in sympathy, always drinking too many too-strong drinks until my head is thick with the ghosts from their past.
Afterwards, Tony and I sit in the car in the hotel parking lot and listen to our ears ring. Beyond the curtains we watch the shadows of David and Sandra shifting in their room, aware, maybe, of our headlights cutting in on them.
“That’s the funny thing about a destroyed storage unit.” Tony says.
I nod. It could contain anything.
We do not become best friends, or even good friends, but when they invite us we often accept. Sandra works from her hotel room at a nebulous technology job that has something to do with virus protection and the government, something classified and secret. Often she cannot leave the room because she’s on government alert, or else she’s working overtime to “give the guys a break.” She makes dinner for us in the hotel toaster oven: hamburgers on bagels instead of buns, baked potatoes, lamb. The dogs beg and whine.
“I bought these online,” Sandra says, holding up a garbage bag. “Would you like one?”
When I look inside, the bag is filled with stuffed Alf dolls. I’ve never seen so many Alfs in one place.
“We used to know the man who did the voice for Alf, when we lived in L.A. and knew people in the industry,” Sandra says. I choose an Alf and draw him into my lap.
Sandra has a habit of one-upping stories. She’s been a model, been an actress, known all kinds of famous people. She once had cancer and received a Siberian husky as a gift from the Starlight Foundation. If I mention a band, she will describe how she was once a singer. If Tony mentions a celebrity, she’s met that celebrity. Years later, my sister will draw me a comic in which Sandra makes outrageous claims. “You’re at the neurologist’s? I used to be a neurologist. You’re on the moon? I used to be the moon.”
“She might be a spy or she might be nothing,” Tony says when we’re home and I’m nestling Alf into our pantry. Tony’s losing patience with our evenings in their hotel room, with their fantastical stories, as rhythmic as incantations.
“We should keep a list of their stories,” I say. The truth is, I am never in my right mind when it comes to stories. I linger too long in unsavory places, call telephone numbers better thrown away. Alf looks worried next to the canned tomatoes. I smile at him as the pantry door squeaks closed.
If they are lying, they are skilled liars, confident, detailed, and quick, skilled at avoiding contradictions. Looking back, I’m sure they must have seen right through us, that people like that could look straight into the heart of a person like me. This isn’t to say that we never swapped sloppy anecdotes over margaritas at the Mexican restaurant or braved the Indian place that appeared briefly in connection with a dingy gas station. I imagine a gleam in David’s eye, an awareness. They are lying, and we know that they are lying, and they know that we know, and yet it all continues, raucous and loud. Even so, when we’re in Scotland, David asks Tony to make a copy of his dissertation, and it’s right where he says it will be, in an Edinburgh library. At a cèilidh in Culnacnoc, I remember Sandra’s advice and pull Tony up to dance, even though we’re clumsy and unfamiliar with the steps. I think of her as we twirl and tromp the hay in a barn made of corrugated metal, remember her stories of growing up in Scotland, bluffing her father at cards. I imagine her racing through thistle and gorse, laughing, fierce and loud. I’m sure she’d know the Gaelic words to the song that is playing, certain the patterns of the dance are lodged in her feet.
At the end of the summer, Sandra throws a barbecue on the lawn of the hotel. We’re all around the picnic table with the dean and the department chair and Sandra’s hairdresser. I have the sense that we have all been chosen for our potential for drama, like characters in a closed-room mystery. The following week it’s announced that David’s contract will not be renewed. They’re releasing him early, before even his scheduled review. An adjunct officemate corners me in the hallway, wants to know if I’ve been given classes for next semester, if the things they told her about low enrollment are true. I’m not sure what to tell her. I’ve been offered two classes and have turned down a third. When school begins, I have our shared office to myself.
In David’s case, we suspect it’s his business background, his unfamiliarity with teaching. But it takes time to adjust; why not mentor him? I pick at my fingernails and imagine them watching. How long will it be before they get rid of me?
Throughout the year, the other faculty drift away from David. No one wants to be close to a ship going down. When Tony agrees to look over David’s job materials, he shakes his head. “It’s like he’s never written a job letter before.” This leaves us to wonder, how did he get this job? But David listens and learns quickly. He’s thirty years older than us, but he’s as rapt as a student.
On some level, Tony and I are jealous of David and Sandra’s sudden, imposed freedom. Who wants to stay in a place so unsupportive and cagey? This school and this town feel flimsy and tenuous, and the smiles of our co-workers drift too quickly, the anxiety evident in their stories of previous budget problems and downsizing, their eyes always sliding away to consider something we can’t see.
When Tony is awarded a fellowship to teach in Germany for a year, it feels magical. We offer public reassurances, but at home, to one another, we vow never to come back. David and Sandra agree to sublet our house while we’re gone, and secretly we wonder if they will live in it forever. We box up everything, stack the cartons under a tarp in the basement. When we return, we believe it will be with the promise of a new beginning, some enchanted netherworld we can’t see clearly, but have faith in nonetheless. We will load up everything and go.
While we’re in Germany, David writes a novel, a fictionalized account of a real WWII spy, a man who pretended to be a whole network of spies, a whole cast of characters that helped orchestrate the D-Day invasion. Every few weeks, he sends me chapters he’s written.
On the train from Prague to Berlin, I read his Judith sections, where a female British spy is captured and forced to be a sex slave for Nazis. The train rocks and sways as the farmhouse lights flicker out in the fields, and we rush through the smaller towns without stopping. Judith is stripped and prodded, chained and beaten. The soldiers leer before offering blankets and cigarettes.
David knows I spent most of my childhood in West Germany, a complicated upbringing of camouflage, car bombs, nuclear fallout, and barbed wire. In our childhood games, we pretended to hide in attics and basements, wedged ourselves into boxes, imagined crossing the massive wall we saw evenings on the news. I am six when my family tours a former concentration camp, and I imagine thousands of people studying, thinking in rooms together as if preparing for a test. It sounds lovely, all that concentrating. Then my mother in one of the massive rooms: “Sometimes it was water, and sometimes it was gas.”
The bricks of those buildings were made of the same clay we had in our garden. We swallowed particles with the chives and watercress. The iron became our blood, knit itself into our skin cells. Sleeping at my best friend’s house, I was often given a pillowcase with flecks of rust from being buried. We wandered the musk of her grandfather’s pigeon coop, where he’d trained the birds to deliver messages in the event no other messages were possible. “The war,” we whispered to one another before falling asleep, and its essence slid into our dreams, its spirit a part of us, a dark thing we hefted without fully understanding its shadows.
In contrast, David’s war is cartoonish, as if villainy were as simple as a clumsily drawn swastika, were not always the villainy of our own hearts, as if a rape on paper were not still a rape. “There are consequences to the things we write,” I type to him. “The stories we tell matter.”
On the train, we near Dresden, and outside the stones and the hills are older and more complex than even the most terrible histories. I do not want to keep reading, but that is no excuse. David parades Judith naked through a roomful of men, kills her by slamming her head into a coat hook. In the pages between the two scenes, he describes the birdhouse outside my bedroom window, the one that makes me think of my grandmother. I imagine him bent over the desk with the drawer that sticks, his body cupped by the chair I brought from California. I imagine him staring out at the front oak tree, the one with the poison ivy snaking up the trunk, the vine we try unsuccessfully every summer to kill.
In the fall, when we return to Illinois, I will recognize David in the names of the strangers whose mail now comes to our house. Minnie Potts, the RN, who subscribes to the newspaper but does not pay the bill. Stanley Lester, whose credit card application has been denied. When I read the names on the envelopes, I hear David’s voice in my head, hear the rhythm and cadence of his writing, feel the glee of one man pretending to be many. In Germany, though, I only know that when I check my credit report, I have four credit cards for which I did not apply. On the phone to Sandra I tell her.
“Keep an eye on your mail,” I say, thinking of all the boxes in the basement, all the personal information in folders and files. What I mean is, “I am paying attention.” What I mean is, “We are pretending to be friends.” What I mean is I’ve noticed how there were four cards and not a single charge on any of them.
Tony and I do not want to come back, but in the end, we must come back. The day before our flight from Germany, the story breaks that one of our colleagues, a professor at our college, once murdered his entire family. This does not seem like a good omen. He’s been rehabilitated, is living under a pseudonym. He’s earned tenure, and the university stands by him. Isn’t this proof of the success of the system, how it can correct our most grievous mistakes? We should be able to ride alone with him in an elevator, to watch without shaking as his solid fingers press the buttons. We should be able to play with him at the monthly poker game, to inspect his face for tells and lies without flinching. His classes are packed, students hunkering in the aisles.
While we were gone, our ninety-six-year-old neighbor Harriet passed away. I once sat with her on the porch and looked at her Harvard medical school yearbook, hers the only female face in a sea of men. She left her house to her in-home care nurse, Evelyn, who has decided to rent it to David and Sandra: our new neighbors.
Our houses are almost identical, theirs with carpet, our front room marginally larger. When we return, everything in our house is slightly different. Area rugs have been switched, rubber bands wrapped around door handles, hinges oiled. Nothing sounds like it’s supposed to, and the closet doors close on their own when we step inside. They’ve broken one of the slats on our futon, bent the backdoor hinge, glued our Ikea chairs to keep them from falling apart. It’s what happens when giants live in a house that is not prepared for them.
Strangely, they’ve had the water turned off, and when we try to turn it back on again, we learn there’s money owed, an unusually large amount.
“They’ve raised the water rates,” David says when we give him a ride downtown to take care of it, “Almost doubled them.” And the dread in my stomach is only at the memory of the years we lived on peanut butter sandwiches, when every haircut was a luxury. No one wants to re-heft the yoke of the past.
David and Sandra have kept one key to our house, and though we strategize how to ask for it, within a week, Tony and I have locked ourselves out, stand shivering in our gym clothes on their porch.
“It’s lucky I still have this,” David says, opening the door for us. And, of course, he’s right.
We worry about having them as neighbors, worry that they’ll come over all the time, peer at us through our windows as we’re playing World of Warcraft. At first, they do stop by almost daily, inquiring about an undelivered package, wondering about a missing magazine. Of course, there is no proof of anything, and I wonder if I could see it as something lucky, to have people next door whose names I know. In our absence, they’ve gotten to know most of the town and promise to host parties with the most interesting people: the ghost hunter, the mayor, the loud man who runs our favorite movie theater. David’s novel is under review by many prominent agents, and he’s in touch with Antonio Banderas to see if he might be interested in producing the movie.
I should try to get to know them, I think. Really get to know them.
Under the posturing, they are real people, I’m certain, with difficult lives and complicated pasts. How does one grow to become these people? Sandra was once a singer, and I invite her to join the choral group I sing with, drive with her to the first practice. Afterwards, I listen as she tells the story of the pet kangaroo her family had when she was young, one they kept snuggled in a bag on the back of the kitchen door. The others are rapt, gleaming with fascination. I barely know them, and we have little in common. They are the mothers and wives of corn farmers and soy barons, twice my age, with Sunday schools and prayer circles and Republican bumper stickers, with knee problems and boats that they take out on the lake at Fourth of July. But I see their vulnerability in the way they lean forward, the way they laugh and touch Sandra’s arm. I love the secret of their talents, how their voices don’t match the twists of their bodies, love the stories they tell of our town, the old romances and high school cliques still so vivid, fifty-year old soap operas the world has forgotten. I laugh, too, as if I also believe the story completely, as if I weren’t suddenly concerned for everyone’s safety, as if I haven’t just realized that I’m vouching for these words, giving them a place here, offering them up with the potluck dishes, crumbled potato chips right on the top.
All fall, Sandra and I go to practice together, and one night in the parking lot, she tells me a story about a time when firefighters carried her up the steep hills of San Francisco. I’m laughing because I’m always happy after practice, because true or not it is still a good story.
“I can’t believe it,” I say, meaning, “Wow, that is crazy!” But Sandra stops, suddenly serious, turns to look down at me.
“Why don’t you believe it?” she says. “I used to be tiny, especially after I had cancer. And fire fighters are strong. Have you ever known a fire fighter? They were my best friends. They always carried me around like a baby.”
“Okay,” I say. “Of course.”
Just before the winter concert, their black lab becomes sick, must be put to sleep. Sandra quits the choir in grief. Tony drives with them back and forth to the vet.
“The vet said he’d never seen anyone so sad,” Sandra tells me. “In all his years, he’s never seen anyone love a dog so much.”
This doesn’t sound possible, doesn’t sound like something a vet could say, but I wipe my tears on my own dog’s fur while watching them carry the blanket in from the car, and I know how much I would want it to be true.
In winter, things begin to go really wrong. There are plumbing problems, which mean that David and Sandra have no water. We let them use our backyard spigot to fill jugs and buckets, shake our heads at Evelyn, the landlord, who seems so slow to fix the problem. One morning I’m in the shower when I hear the spigot squeak on the other side of the wall, feel the water pressure shift, the temperature rise. Water runs down my back as I imagine David inches from me, stooped over his buckets, separated only by wood and paint and drywall. This is the closest we’ve ever been.
One day we come home to find they’ve swept the snow from our porch and sidewalk.
“What are neighbors for?” David says, but it’s strange, I think later, how they’ve shoveled our walkway but not their own. Things in our house develop unusual auras, a hint of a fragrance in the bathroom, a deadbolt locked when I’ve left it unlocked, the mail on the table slightly askew. Sometimes I come home to find the dog sitting in a strange place, wagging his tail as if expecting an explanation.
One afternoon after a heavy snowfall, I go out to shovel out the cars. I have my iPod and headphones and a quiet, constant, smoldering anger. I want to shovel like a heathen, to heave and lift until my back burns and my shoulders ache, want to remember the chore for days after it’s done. But immediately David arrives with a shovel, an unexpected gesture of chivalry.
“You don’t have to,” I say, pulling off my headphones, but he’s already digging in. He’s a giant, but among the packed snow, he looks vulnerable and frail. Take advantage, I think to myself. What can you learn in this moment? I try to think of the smallest, simplest, most non-threatening question, something that requires no stories or lies. Who is this man? Who is he?
“I’ve been watching a lot of movies on the treadmill,” I say finally. “What are your top favorites? What would you most recommend?”