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The Coast of Akron
Wyatt's glasses were crooked again. Merit rinsed her hands in the kitchen sink, shook them, and took three long, resolute steps toward him. She removed his glasses. Wyatt had just come in from mowing the lawn. He smiled. She smiled. Merit and Wyatt had been married for five years.
Merit held the glasses up to the ceiling light. Somehow, every pair went immediately lopsided on Wyatt. These years of repositioning (on three different pairs of glasses) had led Merit to think—and she'd voiced this suspicion more than once, alas—that maybe his ears were crooked, just a little bit.
Wyatt wore long pants (mosquitoes), although it was August and, at 7:00 p.m., ninety degrees. This past week, he'd rigged up an ultraviolet light mosquito killer. A fan drew the mosquitoes into "the unit" (Wyatt's term) and into a tray of water. He'd cleverly added a few drops of liquid soap to the water, which, he'd explained, lowered the surface tension. The unit didn't work tremendously well, in Merit's opinion, so now Wyatt was, for reasons unclear to Merit, trying to create carbon dioxide. Merit wasn't sure how one created carbon dioxide exactly, or what it had to do with the mosquitoes; she didn't like the idea of killing animals, even insects, and didn't ask.
Wyatt leaned over the sink and washed his hands with dishwashing liquid. Merit got a good look at his backside. Was his ass actually clenched, or did it just appear to be? She had never known. Wyatt could whistle, which Merit could not, but he was, pound for pound, as dreadful a singer as Merit was. Unlike Merit, however, he was oblivious to his talentlessness. His two current around-the-house favorites were "Band on the Run" and "Lady." If Merit were ever to tell Wyatt how bad his singing voice was, he would certainly disappear into his study, probably for hours, and would possibly stop talking to her for the rest of the day. She knew she was capable of hurting Wyatt. She knew she could hurt him more than he could hurt her.
For Mother's Day this year, Wyatt had bought Merit a miniature Persian rug mouse pad (priced at a remarkable forty-five dollars on Merit's fact-finding journey to Alfredo & Me Gifts at the mall) and two packs of paper cocktail napkins decorated with a field full of rusty greenish triangles that were meant to be either sailboats or pine trees. Merit had been curious about why he'd bought her a Mother's Day gift at all. But she hadn't commented on it.
Wyatt fixed things. Wyatt built things. His motto (Merit's husband was a man with an actual motto) was "In God We Trust. All Others Must Use Data." One of Wyatt's "personal goals" (Wyatt was, unlike Merit, someone with personal goals) was to have, within two years, a house whose lights were entirely controlled by sensors. He called his dream the Smart House. Merit had no idea whether the term came from some magazine or what, but she did know the term irritated her the way the words condiment, slough, slacks, and doily did, too.
The overhead upstairs hallway light had been the first step Smart House-ward, although the motion sensors there weren't exactly what you'd call foolproof. Sometimes, at night, when Merit lay in bed, she'd hear Wyatt curse, "Goddamn it, Wyatt" (after he'd stubbed his toe) outside in the black hallway, and she couldn't help thinking sometimes that her husband's in-progress Smart House could maybe be just a little bit smarter.
Merit's home with Wyatt was very different from the house in which she herself had grown up. She liked that.
When Caroline, Wyatt's daughter, was small, Wyatt built her bedroom furniture (furniture that, much to Caroline's recent adolescent humiliation, was still in her room). He had also built her a dollhouse, a sandbox, and a jungle gym. Last year, Wyatt had made a wooden enclosure—Merit refused to call it a "pen"—for their pig, Arabella. (Their animals, Merit knew, made Wyatt nervous.) The enclosure was constructed of three-foot-high cedar planks, the same planks that were being used for the deck. Uniformity was one of Wyatt's watchwords. On one of the enclosure's walls, he had mounted a fan, a very large fan, four feet in diameter, which, even on calm days, even under optimal sanitary conditions, was unable to entirely overcome the … well, odor. To give him credit, though, Wyatt hadn't complained when, five years ago, just weeks after she'd moved in, Merit brought Arabella home unannounced. Arabella had been advertised in the paper as a Vietnamese potbellied pig. Only recently had Merit been able to admit to herself she'd been had. Arabella's present weight: approximately five hundred pounds. Wyatt had never once suggested he and Merit give Arabella away to a farm, where she'd surely be more comfortable and among her own kind, and had never made any "If we get nuked, at least we'll have Arabella to eat" jokes. Arabella was furry and piebald and wagged her tail like a dog. She had tusks.
There was a rabbit, too. Name: Tonya. Tonya wasn't allowed out of the bedroom. This was another of Wyatt's rules. In an effort to protect the bedroom walls from rabbit urine, Wyatt had taped up sheets of polyethylene film. Every quarter year he removed the previous quarter's rabbited plastic, measured each wall again, and cut four more pieces of premeasured polyethylene. Any occurrence of rabbit urine through plastic on any area of the bedroom walls (not to mention any occurrence of rabbit fecal matter anywhere other than in the bedroom's approved rabbit-fecal-matter receptacle) meant FAILURE in all caps and would require a redoubling on Wyatt's part of rabbit-containment efforts. The only mean thing Wyatt had ever said about Tonya was this: "It's like living with a goddamned squirrel." He'd said this through gritted teeth one night in bed. He'd awakened because Tonya was urinating on his face. Merit worried Tonya hadn't really ever liked Wyatt. Now she knew.
Merit's animal thing was entirely antithetical to Wyatt's nature. If it were up to Merit, the animals would just be allowed to run amok, but for Wyatt, who wished to organize that which was by definition unorganizable, the animals meant too much potential for unpredictable spontaneous interaction.
Wyatt owned a sweatshirt that said PERFECTION IS OUR GOAL and an older, pre-Merit one that said REËGINEERING! Caroline, Wyatt's daughter, had drawn in two dots over reëngineering's second e with a blue Magic Marker. Merit guessed Caroline had seen the umlaut usage in a magazine to which Merit subscribed but which she never read. Caroline was thirteen. Merit still didn't know if the kids in her class made fun of her.
"Maybe this side is a little bit bent or something," Merit said, even though she knew it wasn't. She held the glasses up for Wyatt to observe.
"Could be the nose pads," Wyatt said. "Jiggle the nose pads around."
"It's not the nose pads. Look."
"Here. Give it here."
"Just keep your pants on, mister," Merit said.
Merit slid the glasses back on his face, careful not to stab his ears. Oh, hopeless! They were even more crooked than before.
"Much better," Merit said.
"Hey, Caroline. Question for you," Wyatt said. "What do you think of when you hear the word extruder?"
Caroline was stuffing steaming potatoes into the opening of an appliance Merit referred to as the "that thingy—you know, the one that squishes potatoes." Wyatt called it, correctly, "the potato ricer." Caroline already was five eight. She would probably soon be as tall as Merit, although Caroline's real mother wasn't very tall.
"Extruder makes me think of … extrusion?"
"That's your answer?" Wyatt asked. "‘Extrusion'?"
"Why would I know anything about extruders?"
"An extruder, Caroline, an industrial extruder, extrudes some kind of rubber or plastic that's forced under pressure."
"Wyatt," Merit said. "Shhhhhh."
"This potato ricer is a kind of extruder. I mean, it's not technically an extruder, but it's extruderlike. Do you see this, sweetie? The opening is called a ‘die.' And it forms whatever cross-sectional shape you want. It could be weather stripping or tire tread. It could be hose. The reason I'm telling you this, Caroline, is that the potato skins are blocking up the extruder die."
"Wyatt," Merit said. "Shhhhhh."
"Honey, I'm just trying to help you guys be more efficient. Now the thing that gets me, and tell me whether I'm wrong, you guys, but my sense is that cooks don't want to do something that makes them feel as if they're following a process. That's why recipes are always so confusing. Think how much more efficient it would be if recipes were written as diagrams. But cooks would hate that, because then they'd feel like engineers, wouldn't they?"
Merit faced the window. Outside were the fence, the sky, a garden hose, Arabella's enclosure (Merit imagined Arabella's happy white tail whipping through the murky air), and a birch tree with hacked branches.
"And no one wants to be mistaken for an engineer. As we all know," Wyatt said.
The birch tree had previously been green and tree-looking, but post-Wyatt—pruning attempt, the tree was a nontree, a moon tree, a tree from a damaged planet, where children had overthrown their parents, the parents crawling on all fours, wheelbarrows chained to their backs.
Merit, without turning, said, "But a diagram would take up too much room in a cookbook, don't you think, Wyatt?"
Wyatt removed his glasses, took his special crazy zebra-patterned special ophthalmologist-bought eyeglass-wiping hankie from his front pocket. Kleenex was the stealth enemy, according to Wyatt—green Kryptonite to plastic nonglare coated lenses.
He wiped. He put the glasses back on.
Maybe it was the nose that was crooked.
"It'd be neat, actually, to interview you." Wyatt tidily folded his glasses hankie and tucked it back in his shirt pocket. "Then I could really get a sense of your process."
Caroline ran her finger along the end of the extruder, stuck her finger in her mouth, and sucked. Then the finger went right back in the bowl. Merit saw this little maneuver but said nothing.
"It'd be so interesting to do a flow chart of the whole process of meal preparation. Picture two columns: One is like things—stuff—formally it's called Data; the other side is called Actions."
Merit depressed the button on the top of her electric pepper grinder (birthday present last year from Wyatt) over a bowl of broccoli. How weakly it whirred, how pathetic, sort of like a dying version of Wyatt's Weed Whacker. A straight-to-the-madhouse sound.
"Actions are verbs. As an engineer, you have to sort of remind people of the difference between nouns and verbs."
Pepper was not forthcoming. Merit pressed harder, the whir more impotent. Wyatt talked passionately about how difficult it was to get people to think in "process terms." Merit had heard this lecture before. She banged the pepper mill on the side of the bowl. The batteries fell out of the grinder and onto the kitchen floor.
Merit's father had often told her that perhaps she needed to handle objects with "rather more finesse." Everything, he once said, must be thought of as a fabulous prop. Her father was a professional in matters of style.
Before the batteries rolled to a stop, the dog appeared, sucked them into her mouth, and then trotted off elsewhere. It was no mystery where Rosalita went, because the overhead Smart Light in the dining room clicked on.
Wyatt was still talking. Merit told Caroline to trade a treat for the batteries.
"Those things in the plastic tube that look like ham?" Caroline asked.
Merit answered that those would be them.
"You do know that ham is pig and pig is Arabella, don't you?" Caroline asked.
"Caroline honey," Wyatt said, "there are some things it's better not to think about too hard."
Caroline galloped down to the basement. The basement was where Rosalita's food was, and also the big freezer for stuff from the garden, canned goods, washing machine and dryer, and Caroline's childhood toys. A chalkboard was down there, too, a child's blue Fisher-Price chalkboard, on which Caroline had, at the age of about eight, roughly when Merit came into the picture, written the beautiful word whippersnapper. It was still there, beautiful whippersnapper, and Merit knew she would never erase it.
Merit thought she heard the dog chewing the batteries. She held her hands up for Wyatt to shush.
"But Merit, this is fun for me! All I'm saying is that you've got to understand how things work in terms of systems."
Caroline slammed the basement door.
The dog bounded into the kitchen and another light came on. Dog nails scrambling on linoleum: Merit loved that sound.
"Can I ask you a question, Wyatt?" Merit asked. "Don't the lights sort of bug you sometimes?"
"Oh, they don't bother me. They make me feel like royalty. I stand there, open my arms, and the lights go on. It must be how Jesus felt."
"Did Rosalita just burp?" That was Caroline. In her hand were two slimy-looking batteries.
"Caroline, Rosalita can hear you," Merit said. "You'll hurt her feelings."
Wyatt held the potato ricer aloft and dug into the device with a fork, scooped out the potato skins, and flung them into the sink. The potato skins clung brownly to the sink's side. He fed potatoes into the mouth of the ricer, pressed down on the handle. Both Merit and Caroline were there to watch the potatoes ooze into the big white ceramic bowl.
"See?" Wyatt said.
The light in the dining room clicked off, followed by the light in the living room.
"It's sad when the lights go off," Merit said.
"It's not sad," Wyatt replied.
"I think it's sad, too," Caroline said.
"No, it's not sad," Wyatt said. "All you have to do is wave your arms."
After all that, Wyatt didn't even take any potatoes, and Caroline only picked at hers. Merit was quite aware that Caroline was discreetly spitting her food into her napkin and feeding it to the dog when nobody was looking.
Caroline tilted back in her chair until the front two feet were off the floor. Merit used to do that, too, when she was little.
"Sweetie, how many times have I told you not to lean back in the chair?" Wyatt asked.
Caroline tilted back a little more, and then a little more still, holding on to the edge of the table, removing her grip for a second, then two, then grabbing hold of the table again.
"Hey," Caroline said. "Is Jarlsberg the same thing as Swiss cheese?"
"It's made in a similar process to Swiss," Wyatt said.
"It has all these little holes or whatever like Swiss," Caroline said.
Caroline lost her balance, grasped for the place mat. She was quick and got off the chair before it hit the floor. The dog barked, and the Smart Light in the eating area clicked on. That Caroline didn't go down with it seemed for a moment triumphant, as if she'd escaped from a car the second before it nose-dived off a cliff. She surveyed the situation—the upended chair, the potatoes, the broccoli, the tofu steak, the spilled soy milk, the glass—as if she'd accidentally killed something.
Wyatt chucked his paper napkin onto his plate and leapt from his chair. "Are you hurt?" he asked. "Tell me where it hurts. Are you hurt?"
"I'm not hurt, but the chair is, I think. Am I in big huge trouble?"
He crouched down, jiggled the chair leg.
Merit bent down next to him. Their eyes met. Little bits of grass clung to his lenses.
"Oh, Wyatt," Merit said, "it's only a chair."
When Merit was a kid, when she, her mother, and her father all lived together in "Uncle" Fergus's house, she'd fallen off a dining room chair one evening. Although that chair had been substantially sturdier and more expensive than the one now in question, it had broken, too. Fergus hadn't seemed to mind that she'd broken his chair, though. Weird, really, because he'd cared enough about his chairs to fold towels over the seat of Merit's chair, and his own, before every dinner. Although she hadn't hurt herself, Fergus had carried her up to bed, brought her an ice pack and a heating pad, and sat with her until morning. She had no memory of her mother or father that night.
Merit started collecting the mess into a napkin. If nobody else had been around, she probably would have just picked up the food from the floor and eaten it.
Caroline had already split the scene. She was on the floor in the family room now, watching TV at a low volume.
The dog licked the floor by the table.
"You're sure you're not hurt?" Wyatt asked.
"Caroline," Merit said, "dinner's not over yet."
Merit went back into the kitchen. Wyatt started unpeeling an orange.
"I'm just watching the news," Caroline said. "I mean, I'm not watching cartoons or QVC."
"She's right, Merit: There are many worse things to watch than the news," Wyatt said.
Caroline lay on the floor, bare feet kicked up in back of her. She was wearing an ankle bracelet made of red yarn. When you accepted the contract of adulthood, lying on the floor just never really presented itself as an option. Merit herself didn't really sit on the floor all that much anymore. Except for tonight, when she'd gotten home. Earlier tonight Merit had lain on the floor for one whole hour.
"Want a piece of orange?" Wyatt asked. Merit wasn't sure to whom he was speaking. "It's a strange color. Is it supposed to be this way?"
"Blood oranges," Merit said.
"I thought they tasted darker. Can something taste darker?"
"Caroline?" Merit said.
"It's a shame we can't grow them here," Wyatt said. "We can't really grow anything here in Akron."
Although Caroline wasn't technically Merit's daughter, Merit had very clear ideas about how she wanted to raise her. She wanted Caroline to be a freethinker. Merit had, for instance, been a militant recycler, until she got a flyer from the garbage company indicating a policy change. She'd then tried a compost heap, then tried (briefly) freezing their garbage. Aspirin was the only real drug allowed in their house. If they ever got mice, Merit would, naturally, never use mousetraps, being of the belief that the mice would just leave when they were ready to leave. As a parent—or "parent," as she thought of herself—Merit's philosophy was something along the lines of: Let Caroline do what she needs to do. Merit's parents had never really been very "parental," either, and Merit had turned out okay. You couldn't control people, not even your children. Especially not your children, even when they weren't really yours. You couldn't control your parents, either, Merit understood. Not that she'd really ever tried.
Just last year, Caroline was still playing with dolls. Caroline was twelve then, and Merit had been in their house for four years. Merit had made a sane life for herself, one without lies. So had she needed to manufacture something to worry about? She was good at creating problems for herself, she knew. Merit lost sleep over the question of Caroline and her dolls. Wasn't twelve sort of too old to be playing with Barbies? Caroline kept them in a boot box in the Wyatt-built cupboard in her room, and it required a strong woman indeed to be able to confront them, naked and wound around one another like bodies in an open grave.
But just as soon as Merit's doll worry was becoming something of an obsession, she found the lidless doll box in Caroline's trash can. Merit didn't look again at the contents of the box as she carried it out to the garage.
Dolls freaked Merit out. Always had. One of the only times her father ever scolded her happened when he found a doll whose face she had erased with nail polish remover. Her father told her a story about a bad little girl who erased her dolls' faces and how the bad little girl grew up without a face herself. Caroline had never erased anybody's face, but Merit knew Caroline was already more (oh, how to say?) emotionally stable than Merit was, or would ever be.
After Merit got home from work tonight, she'd lain on the living room's carpeted floor, which smelled of chemicals she didn't know the names of but that Wyatt surely did. She'd stared up at the ceiling, listening to, and understanding in some vague way, Mozart's Requiem, then Fauré's Requiem, then Mozart's Requiem again, concentrating on the Lachrymosa, track number seven, programmed on repeat. She'd cried, and conducted, and wiped her nose with her shirt sleeve, and felt it all. Was it like this for everyone? The longing, or whatever it was? Unfulfillable, unresolvable. Whenever she cried, she cried for the same thing, although she had never really been sure what that thing was. She liked to imagine music touched something deep in her. She loved to listen to Mozart or Fauré and to think about art, which she knew she didn't understand, and imagine herself as rare and alone, which she suspected might not be true, which she was so afraid was untrue that she couldn't tell anyone about it. Not her mother, father, nor Fergus knew she loved, for instance, Don Giovanni, a love that she knew seemed undergraduate and obvious in the extreme. Some evening maybe she would listen to it while she was in the kitchen, stirring the risotto or whatever, on her second bottle of wine, and wonder who there was to tell about all she knew. Wyatt didn't know the longing part of her and never would. And then there was Caroline in her bare feet, and her whippersnapper, and her childhood habit of hiding inside the cabinets Wyatt made for her. Merit had been a hider, too, when she was a kid. Her favorite place to hide had been a big tire stuck upright in the playground across the street from their house, the house she and her mother had moved to after they'd left Fergus's. Whatever Merit was feeling now, she relished, basking in the exquisiteness of its vague presence. But maybe she was rare and alone and total. Maybe she could love only things that were unreal, like her father.
It had been two summers since Merit had seen him or the house. He had wanted to give Caroline a drawing lesson. Merit had tried to dodge the invitation for months, having elected not even to mention it to Caroline. She got busted, though, when he called Caroline herself (something he'd never done before) and told her (according to Caroline) to "ask that gorgeous daughter of mine why she's keeping you away from On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul."
Caroline had even heartbreakingly attempted the name of the house, calling it "On Nee Puke Paw Veeve Soul."
Caroline didn't know the truth about who the real artist in the family was. Wyatt did.
So two years ago, the four of them—Merit, her father, Caroline, and Wyatt—had sat by the reflecting pond at On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul. A statue of a peeing boy was in the middle of the pond. Merit knew that pond; she used to wade in it and drink from the statue when she was a girl. Only Fergus knew this about her. Fergus orbited them that day, serving half-lemonade/half-iced tea drinks on a silver fish-shaped platter. Merit and Wyatt didn't do much of anything but sweat, tormented by the sunlight. Merit's father talked to Caroline about how to draw a peony bush; he did not show her how to draw. Caroline's peony bush ended up being pretty good.
Merit had always really respected how good her father was with words.
Merit got a letter from him once, after her mother took her away from him, that ended like this: "Dance well. Look both ways, but jump. Feel it all, beautiful Spider." He had enclosed a sketch of himself with the letter. He'd enclosed a goddamned picture of himself with the letter about her. He had not drawn it himself, although he didn't know Merit knew that.
The worlds he inhabited were ghostly, backlit, undefined. The places he moved through contained, in her imagination, no hard surfaces. When she was eight, he told her he'd written a song for her. Had Merit understood more about music, had she understood more about him (and herself), she would have known Lowell wasn't really the composer of "The Ash Grove," nor was he a composer at all.
When she cried, did she cry for the same thing? And was she always crying for her father, the painter Lowell Haven?
Copyright © 2005 by Adrienne Miller