Chapter 7

Owen's earliest memories were of flying in the Cessna, his father piloting and Owen in the passenger seat craning his head to see out. He remembered the clouds, the bumpy ride, the worn upholstery, his father's hands. Marshall had married late and Owen had been born long after his sister and brother, so Marshall was old, and his hands on the controls had ropy veins and swollen knuckles. Owen was the last child, and when he arrived the old man cut back on his work. He hadn't done that with the first two children, who were thoroughly alienated from him even before their teen years. With the older children off at college Marshall combined his great pleasures: being with his young son, and flying. Off they'd go somewhere on Saturday, in any direction, as far as they could, camp at a little airstrip, and come back the next day. Flying had a grace and finality that were missing from the law. Marshall had been a lawyer all his adult life, mostly because his own father had expected it of him, and would have disowned him if he'd become a professional pilot.

When Owen was thirteen, after much pleading, Marshall gave in and let the boy sign up for karate. The instructor called Marshall two weeks later. He wanted Owen to leave; he'd hurt several students. Marshall told Owen he couldn't take any more lessons until he grew up a bit. He tried to explain: "You get what you earn. What you do to others, they will do to you. So treat them fairly. Whatever they do, you must always be polite. No one can fight politeness. And never, never take advantage." This was his philosophy.

Owen was nearing his fourteenth birthday when Marshall was broadsided by a tow truck. He died the same night. All of local society came to the funeral. The line of cars stretched for a mile. Admiring words were spoken. The man had been an example to everyone, in his honesty and hard work and generosity. Perhaps he had lacked imagination, though no one said this, perhaps he had been the soul of convention, though no one said this either, but those things scarcely mattered. Everyone had respected him, and many had loved him. The older children, still alienated but now feeling guilty, had flown in from Denver and Chicago. They tried to comfort their mother. She was incapacitated. Her family, especially her husband, had been her life. She wondered vaguely what she was to do with her youngest child, so anarchic.

The house emptied as the older children, children no more, went back to graduate school and to work. She woke up one morning alone, in the bed she had shared for thirty years of her life with a man who now existed only as a yearning in her empty heart, and she went downstairs and saw Owen off to school, and lingered in the kitchen for an hour talking to the maid. It occurred to her that she didn't know this person, who had been with the family for a decade. Nina stepped through the dining room into the front hall, which was strangely empty, and her shoes squeaked on the tile. In the library, Marshall's correspondence was lined up on the side table.

There was much to do. She would have to sell the airplane. She would have to find someone to take the bird dogs. She would have to manage the family money -- her money now -- alone. She had expected to live a long life together. She had expected him to live to a great age, like his parents; she had expected him even to outlive her: though she was younger, her parents and grandparents had been short-lived. It was unfair of him, to leave her alone.

She looked at the unopened mail on the table, at the leaded glass windows and the built-in bookshelves with their glass covers, at the family portrait above the mantel, at the antique rolltop desk Marshall had inherited from his grandfather the judge, the cloisonne vases, the heavy furniture and Oriental rugs, the diplomas on the wall, the locked case with the bird guns. She looked at his golf trophies, his Boy Scout memorabilia, the photographs of friends and ski trips to Europe... The house, the house she had always loved, had turned into nothing but a thing, a thing wrapped around her, a thing full of other things that now meant nothing. The beautiful place they had made together was gone, usurped by this facsimile. The light in the window, on the walls, was cold, the interiors vacant, the space too large and empty.

In the year it took her to wake from her grief, Owen found room to set his impulses free. He began to indulge himself in destructive tantrums, glorying in the sensation of letting go, of summoning up a flood of rage and getting caught up in it. When the police arrested him for smashing windows at a school, he knew he couldn't continue that way. Self-control was the road to mastery. There were practices to be honored in public. The forms mattered -- that, and the opinion of other people. No one existed alone, everyone existed in the eyes of the others. You had to please the others. Then they would give you what you wanted. What you could get away with in private was another matter, as long as you kept it hidden. He had to master himself and follow the forms, but anything he felt, and anything he did but could conceal, was permissible.

He excelled in his classes and lettered in golf, tennis, and basketball. He applied to the University of Chicago, his father's school, and was accepted. He attended for two years, until he changed his major from engineering to urban planning and business. He transferred to Lawrence, to enter the program there, and to be closer to home and the contacts he wanted to make.

In Lawrence he began seeing a black girl. The stigma attached to interracial dating, and the taboo of interracial sex, thrilled him, and the thrill was doubled by the thought that he was cheating on his girlfriend at the same time.

The black girl, Cheryl, had skin unlike any white woman. She was in a category by herself, there was no way to describe it, her skin was so soft it was as if she didn't have pores. Skin so flawlessly frictionless it was beyond anything he'd imagined. He could have run his hands over her for hours, but she hated that; she thought it was weird. So he had to make the foreplay last a long time. Then she didn't care how much he touched her. After they came, he'd stop touching her.

He couldn't figure out why she was fucking him. Maybe she got off on the idea of having a white society boy in secret. Maybe her motives were the same as his, the pleasure of the illicit. She had a boyfriend as black as she was. He spent half his time in northern California. Claude was going to flunk out soon if he kept this up, and this pleased Owen, who wouldn't have to fit his time with Cheryl around Claude's schedule, since the man could be expected to move to the Bay Area.

He bumped into her at a party, though they didn't have any friends in common. She said that Claude had just left, and wouldn't be back until Sunday night. She grinned.

"Baby," she said, and grabbed his elbow. "Let's play house for a couple of days."

Her head was cocked to the side and she was wearing mirrored sunglasses, although the party was indoors. She was probably tripping again. Sometimes when she was really wasted she would call him and they'd meet and have sex in his car, or anywhere convenient. Sometimes they drove out to the country and did it in the middle of a field -- wheat, corn, whatever. The sex was weird when she was fucked up, but at least she didn't care how much he touched her. She enjoyed it.

"Come here," she said, and pulled him toward the door. She laughed loudly. "Why do you care what they think? Come on." She led him away by the hand.

At the tiny bungalow where she lived with Claude they got naked and got in bed and smoked a joint. Owen lay on his right side and put his leg on top of hers and studied the contrast: snow and coal. He noticed from far off that he had an erection, but although he saw it, he scarcely felt it. He was split in half. His mind watched his body like a movie.

"Killer weed," he said.

"Too much," she agreed. "I'm hungry."

He rolled another joint, crumbling in some hash. His head was all -- what? All ideas at once, too many to see any. Simultaneous. Great word. What else? Unformed. Indistinct. A lot of words bumping together. Out of reach. Out of sight. The word was somewhere, among all the others, but at least it wasn't -- dissolved? no -- lost? -- the way it was in his brain. "Did you ever stop to think?" he asked, and laughed. Cheryl was asleep.

He was very, very hungry. The refrigerator was very, very far away. When he rolled sideways and put his feet on the floor, it took a long time, and he wondered how his body managed the trick, how the parts of his body coordinated what they did together at the right times with the right amounts of effort. Who was working the marionette? He was only the audience. His legs were long and rubbery, but they went on automatic. Now it was time to send the vehicle to the kitchen. In a moment he was there, surprised that somehow he had crossed the space and his movement hadn't registered. He stared at the refrigerator, its marvelous smoothness, the highlights in its unmarred white. When he opened the freezer door, it did its little trick -- the light switch stayed stuck for an eyeblink, then popped out with an audible click. The interior light came on like an announcement written in Sanskrit, illuminating all the different foods. They looked as unintelligible as the light. Encoded. Describing themselves in characters he didn't recognize -- Tibetan, Phoenician, ancient Icelandic? The inscriptions weren't really there, they were just implied, but he could write them down if he tried. If he imagined them. He wished he could understand their reports, but he didn't know the alphabets, or the vocabulary. Everything was unintelligible, but he didn't mind. The food was a set of advertisements for itself, richly and meaninglessly hilarious.

He took out a container of frozen strawberries. He couldn't figure out how to open it. It was one of those oval cardboard containers. Finally he cut the top off with a knife and dumped the strawberries in a bowl and took them back to the bedroom. Cheryl was asleep. He dumped the bowl on her snatch. She woke with a scream. She saw what he'd done, and said, "Eat them. Eat me. Both." He smeared the juice on her and licked it off. He put the strawberries in her vagina and sucked them back out, one after another. Hot pussy, cold strawberries. Cheryl moaned and grabbed his hair. She was tearing it, but the feeling wasn't painful, it was happening to someone else's head. In a while he stopped eating the strawberries and concentrated on eating her pussy. After she came, she rolled to the edge of the bed and sighed and fell asleep with one arm hanging off the edge. He ate the rest of the strawberries from the bed with his hand. His fingers were sticky with a mixture of strawberry juice and Cheryl juice. His face was sticky, too, like with some sort of soda fountain drink: "I'll have a black and red". He laughed. The mingled tastes were weird. He pulled a pubic hair out of his teeth. The sheets were a mess. The carpet next to the bed was spotted with the strawberry juice. Cheryl was asleep again, her mouth open. He stood with his erection an inch away and masturbated. When he came, the semen hit her face. Some went in her mouth. She woke and saw his penis in front of her eyes, dripping, and brushed her hand against her lips and felt his sperm. She spit.

"Here." Smiling, she beckoned. When he leaned down, she hit him in the eye. "You're a freak," she said.

She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep again. He laughed and got back in bed. Fun and games. There was always tomorrow morning. He looked forward to some Technicolor dreams in the meantime. His last thought before falling asleep was to hope she hadn't given him a black eye. Probably not. It had been a weak punch -- the angle was bad.