Here was the deal: William’s mother would pay for him to go to law school if he enrolled no later than the fall of next year. She would give him an apartment in one of her buildings in Bucktown. Carol knew from being in real estate that all the hip young people wanted Bucktown. They wanted Logan Square if they were broke, but William was not, not with her patronage.
Free tuition, free rent, and a negotiable monthly allowance, on the condition that he complete his degree by age twenty-six. Carol didn’t tell William her real feelings about this deal—that it was ridiculously generous, that at his age she’d have killed for an opportunity like this. When he told her he’d have to think about it, she told him to take his time. She was a businesswoman. She was even a little proud of him for playing coy.
Built into the deal were fifteen straight months, between William’s graduation from undergrad and the start of law school, during which he would study for and take the admission test, fill out and mail the applications, and wait. Nothing else would be expected of him during this time. If he liked, he could work for Carol, get some experience, save some cash. If he’d rather, he could go to Yellowstone where his friend Daniel was a park ranger. He could live with Dan, work odd jobs, write songs for the guitar, take his skis to the Tetons on weekends. The year off was an incentive. Carol believed in incentives.
The summer after graduation, he moved home for a few weeks and slept in his old bedroom but did not unpack his boxes. He left his duffel bag open on the bedroom floor and took clothes out only as he wore them. He did his own laundry, as he always had growing up. One morning, as Carol stood at the kitchen window smoking a joint with her coffee, a young woman in a sundress came tiptoeing down the front stairs and slipped out the door.
“Was that Katie Murphy up in your bedroom last night?” she asked him that evening at the restaurant.
William gave a guilty smile. He said he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“That’s funny. I could’ve sworn a girl came down while I was on my way out to work. Maybe I was hallucinating.”
“It wasn’t Katie,” he said. “At this point, you can rest assured that Katie won’t be coming over.”
“But it’s someone I know?”
The waitress put down their plates, filet for Carol, the vegetarian option for William. She asked if he wanted another Jack and Coke and he said yes.
“I don’t think I want to tell you,” he said. “It’s not a serious thing.”
Carol was amused. She was in love with her son, and this sort of conversation made her want to flirt with him, which embarrassed him and propelled him away from her. So instead she gave a theatrical shrug.
“It’s your business,” she said.
Then she asked, “Whatever happened to Katie, anyway?”
“Why does it matter?” he asked.
But after a minute he told her that Katie was in Uganda with the Peace Corps and had a serious boyfriend from Chapel Hill. William didn’t really talk to her anymore. She wanted to be friends but he didn’t.
“Well, that’s too bad.”
“It isn’t too bad,” he said. “That’s the part that’s so hard for you to understand. People go where they’re going to go. Life is unpredictable. That’s what I love about it.”
“I see your point,” she said.
I see your point—magic words Carol had learned much too late. With William’s father and in the relationships that followed, at work and during the years William was a teenager, these words could have brought so many better outcomes. But she had not known how to be strategic back then. She had relied on a lot of wrong assumptions about how people worked.
In July, William packed his car for Yellowstone. Carol sat on the front steps in a blazer and skirt, bare legged and wearing point-toe pumps that showed cleavage between her toes. She fanned herself with a folder of listings. Her clients were picking her up today because their four-year-old needed a child seat and Carol’s car didn’t have one. She had come close to telling the clients that a four-year-old didn’t need a child seat. But not too close. Air conditioning streamed out the open door of the house, keeping her from sweating too much in her suit. William disapproved of this, but Carol insisted. She couldn’t be sweaty when her clients arrived, and she wasn’t going to watch through glass while he drove away and left her.
“You’re right,” he said. “Since this is the last time I’ll see you for the rest of my life, I guess we can make an exception.”
“Don’t joke,” she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Two days earlier, Carol had transferred five thousand dollars into William’s account. That was to last him the summer. She told him if he couldn’t make it last the summer, she would know he was on drugs. He said it would last much longer than summer, and that once he got a job he would send her a check for whatever was left. He refrained from getting touchy about the implied accusation, which was groundless and Carol knew it. He refrained because six months earlier Carol’s friend’s son had taken too much ecstasy in Cancun and died of dehydration. Now that woman’s life was ruined. Ruined. Fucked, Carol had said, and William had said, “I know,” and she said, “No, you don’t.”
Now he clamped his skis to the rack on top of his car.
“There won’t be snow till November,” she said. “Oh. Which reminds me.”
She went in the house, and while she was inside, William ceased his work and stared at the open door. Through it he could see only the most generic details of his home—foot of some worn-out wood stairs, leash of an old, dead dog still hung on a hook by the coats. He felt young as a kid off to camp and at the same time old as a man leaving his wife. It was sad to think of his mother here alone, though really the situation wasn’t tragic, or even new. He would come home for holidays just like he had in college. But he knew that his mother perceived tragedy. And she didn’t understand that it was possible to change one’s perception, because she had not studied philosophy.
“Here,” she said, reappearing in the doorway. “Some of these are due in November.”
She had ordered a ridiculous number of applications. Among them were two bottom-tier schools in Chicago, which hurt William’s pride. Also among them were Harvard and University of Michigan, which made him laugh. His mother said you never knew. She meant this in both directions. So the whole thing was a test—she wanted to know whether he was above average or below. Earlier in the summer, they had fought about this.
Carol came around to the car’s passenger side, opened the door, and placed the pile of envelopes on the seat.
“Shouldn’t they wear a seatbelt?” he asked.
“It’s up to you,” she said. “I’ve said from the beginning, this is entirely up to you.”
A silver SUV had turned down their street and was lumbering over the speed bumps.
“There they are,” she said. She looked away from William, smiled hugely, and waved at the SUV. As he approached, the driver lowered his window. He was bald, faintly sunburned, wearing a bicycling shirt. He pushed back his sunglasses.
“Hayden wants to know if we can toot the horn,” he said. “I told him we’d ask you.”
“Sure!” Carol called.
“Not now,” said the child, whom William could not see. “It’s too late.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man said. “It’s too late.”
“I wanted,” the boy began, but didn’t finish.
There was something mildly sexual about her stride as she approached the SUV. She would have denied it and acted offended if William ever pointed this out, but he was pretty sure she knew. Either way, he understood. It was part of the work. He had worked in her office the previous summer and had flirted, on instinct, with most of the women they dealt with. Even ones older than Carol.
“Can you say hi?” the man said to his kid.
“Hi, Hayden,” Carol said. “Where’s your mommy?”
“Mommy’s feeling tired,” the man said.
“Well, this is my baby,” she said, opening her arm toward William. “I’m his mommy.”
William came over and shook hands with the man through the open window. He ducked his head and waved at the kid, who stared at him for a second and then turned away, as if he’d seen too much.
Goodbye was stagy. Carol said the things she would have said regardless—drive safely, call from the road, you should be fine for money. She said she loved him, hugged him, let her brow crinkle up in sudden pain.
“Safe, okay?” she said. “That’s all I ask.”
“Mom,” he said.
“I know, I know.”
But it felt like an act with the client sitting there, with Hayden behind the tinted window, watching.
In Yellowstone, he got a bartending job at one of the lodges. But he’d arrived late in the season and was given the worst shifts, so he didn’t send back any of his mother’s money. His friend Dan was extremely cheap, and William tried to live like him. Nights William was off, which were most nights, they’d drive twenty or thirty miles out to drink in the townie bars.
Dan liked to pick up women in these places. The first time William saw this happen he thought Dan was joking. The woman’s hair was teased and sprayed, and she had pink stripes of makeup on her cheeks. William remembered a drunk, sickened moment of sympathy for the woman, when he thought Dan was making a fool of her. He watched Dan smoke the woman’s menthol cigarettes and pluck one of her spaghetti straps as if it were part of a stringed instrument. He remembered wanting to say, “She is a human being.”
Then Dan went back to the woman’s house and slept with her. Too drunk to drive, William slept in his car in the bar lot. Dan didn’t have a cell phone, so in the morning William drove home and waited for him in their rented house. Even after he ate and brushed his teeth, he could still taste Jack and Coke. And in a similar way, he kept seeing the woman Dan had picked up, her bony sternum, her small, bobbing, wall-eyed breasts.
When the phone finally rang, he was in the middle of jerking off. He thought about ignoring it, but no, he should talk to Dan before another day and night passed. He followed the sound of the ringer till he found the cordless phone, wedged between the cushions of the couch.
“Did I wake you?”
His mother’s voice confused him.
“You didn’t pick up your cell,” she said. “Did you lose it again?”
“Why?” he asked. “Because one time I didn’t pick it up?”
“Did you lend it to Dan?”
He walked to the kitchen, poured himself some water, studied the stains on the side of the filter pitcher. He gulped and let out a loud breath.
“Long night?” she asked.
“Not really,” he said. “Did you call for a reason?”
She’d called to tell him he was scheduled for the October LSAT. The prep course, if he wanted to do it, began the last week of August. She thought he should, but it was up to him.
“I don’t think I can take that much time off work,” he said.
“Well, talk to them and let me know.”
He knew she was only pretending to take him seriously, though she probably liked the idea of him having obligations. She had trouble respecting people who didn’t have a schedule to consider.
“It’s almost August already,” he said.
“Don’t I know it,” she said. “The older you get, the faster time passes.”
“So I guess I can’t take the class,” he said.
“Talk to your boss. Do you want me to talk to him?”
“No. I’ll study here.”
“We had a deal,” she said.
“You’re right,” he said. “Which part are you unhappy about? I want us both to hang up happy.”
Far away in Chicago, his mother started laughing. He could see her face now, submitting to all its creases. He had told woman after woman that they were prettier when they laughed.
“Oh,” she said. “I cannot wait until you have kids.”
Dan did not return that evening, so William took his paperback copy of Light in August down to the lodge where he worked. He’d meant to read more this summer, to get through the classics he had missed in undergrad. The bar was not busy, and the bartender on shift seemed to recognize him, though he didn’t say hello. William ordered a beer using a shortened, familiar form of the brand name, which felt in his mouth like a code, a password that allowed him to be there.
Was it pretentious to read a book in a bar? His eyes kept shifting to the bartender. He was an older guy, twenty-seven or eight, and he had some kind of nickname—Hecky, Henny, William could not recall. There was something hard and contemptuous in the way he stood, feet apart, white bar towel wound around one hand, eyes trained on the televised tennis match as if it were trying to swindle him. William put his book away, watched tennis, tried not to look at the man again.
When he closed his tab William saw that his two beers had been rung at full price. I work here, he imagined himself saying, or hey, I—by the way, I—. But did it matter? He had money.
Where the fuck was Dan? He drove badly on his way home, not drunk but with weakened instincts. The setting sun lustered the yellow-green foothills—but was this all finally a cheap fairy tale? The West? Nature and beauty, wildness?
A filthy truck tapped its horn at him as he changed lanes. Yes, he gestured, it was his fault. He’d nearly missed his exit.
When he returned to Chicago, he’d missed the first session of his LSAT prep class. But it was no problem, the teacher said. He could take the first diagnostic at home. He did better than he expected—quite a bit better, in fact, and though his mother tried not to overreact, he knew she was impressed.
“Who am I to say,” she said at dinner. “It seems like a waste of potential, but I don’t know Dan. Maybe what he’s doing is right for him.”
Dan had gotten engaged. The woman was thirty-three, worked at a cheap chain restaurant, and had two kids.
“He’s having an experience,” she said. “Every experience shapes a person.”
It was raining. Leaves clogged the grates and water pooled against the curb. William looked out the restaurant window, through the white reflection of the tablecloth. The LSAT teacher said an argument was like a table. The conclusion was the top, the premises were the legs. The screws that held the top and legs together were called assumptions.
“You can’t be a complete relativist,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say you shouldn’t marry someone you’ve only known for six weeks.”
“You’re right,” she said.
“There are all kinds of decisions you can make. Some are better than others.”
“But you shouldn’t be closed-minded.”
It was not until after he took the LSAT, the real test, that he fully understood she was seeing a married man. Her client, the father of the little boy named Hayden. William was amazed at how easily he’d avoided the knowledge, and how, beginning with the moment he put down his pencil, the truth became obvious. The proctor collected the Scantron forms, and William acknowledged that Carol was dating someone. He collected his coat and bag from the locker outside the testing room and recognized that she’d been unusually cagey about the relationship. Behind the wheel of his new car—she’d given him her three-series Beemer when she bought herself the five—he recalled another dinner conversation, during which she had said how much she liked children, and how she missed William being young. At the time, he had thought this was just nostalgia. Or manipulation, a way of addressing his wish to apply to schools in California.
She might even like to do it again, she had said. She wasn’t too old.
“You’re forty-five,” he’d said.
“Yes,” she’d said, “thank you for reminding me.”
She had gotten him an apartment right away. Just down the street from the Bucktown Pub, parking included. But after the LSAT he drove to her house to see if the silver SUV was in the driveway.
It wasn’t. Carol wasn’t home, either.
It was only one in the afternoon, but the day had been dark with storms, and inside the house was humid and dim. William turned on the kitchen light. From the drawer under the telephone, he took a pad of her stationery. Her name was printed across the top in thick capital letters.
Hey Mom, he wrote, Just finished the test.
He put down the pen, went to the refrigerator, and helped himself to a beer. Six green bottles lined the shelf inside the door, one of her brands. Not her only brand, but not definitively someone else’s. There was a magnet bottle opener stuck to the outside of the fridge, between photos of William at different ages and photos of her as a young mother. Nothing had changed.
He used the bottle opener and replaced it with superstitious care at the angle he’d found it. Then he sat back down at the kitchen table. Wondered if, he wrote, but stopped. The page tore off easily. The glue on these pads had always been weak.
Her ashtray on the windowsill gave off the faintest smell of resin. She’d closed the window against the rain, forcing the edge of the ashtray slightly inward, off the sill.
This is where she would have been, if she had been home, if he’d caught her at the end of her workday, impenetrable in her tiredness. At the sound of the front door opening, she would have flicked the roach she was smoking—a portion William had always thought too petite to affect her much. She would have laid her lighter next to the ashtray. There it was now, opaque red plastic, the type she purchased in four-packs at the gas station. For gift-giving occasions over the years he had considered a better lighter. Something silver, engraved. But he’d never bought one. It might have seemed insolent, too meaningful. Besides, if she’d wanted something like that she’d have bought it for herself.
Dear Mom, he wrote. I just finished the test. I think it went well. I’m having a beer to celebrate. Where are you?
He tore off this page also. There was thunder outside, long and muted. He felt himself at crossroads—crossroads in a good way, in a way that he should savor. The test had gone well. It had been easier than any of the practice tests. Soon he would be in law school. He would go to California, and from there would be pulled into an adult life in which he would eventually do whatever he wanted, just as his mother now did whatever she wanted. What did it matter that she was sleeping with Hayden’s father? What did it matter that Dan got married, or Katie?
Hey Mom, he wrote. Stopped by but missed you. Hope you are well. W.
Missed you, as in did not cross your path. Not missed you, as in longed to see you. That was clear from the context, wasn’t it?
He tore off the page, folded it up with the other two drafts, and put them in his jeans pocket. Wind thumped the window glass but no rain fell. He finished his beer a little too fast, put the bottle in the recycling, and pledging that this note would be the last, that no matter what it said he would leave it and leave the house, he wrote, Mom, I’m feeling lucky. Call me later. W.
Carol had just left a late breakfast. He’d dropped her at her office, driving his other car, sans child seat. Her parting words had been, “You do whatever you need to do,” her parting gesture to kiss him quickly on the cheek, like a friend. Then she hurried from the curb to her office door, ducking slightly against the threat of rain.
“Fuck you,” she said softly, chuckling as she unlocked the door.
Oh, things were so much better now, in this phase of her life. She could read the leaves now, she had become almost psychic. She’d read somewhere that being psychic was nothing supernatural. It was just an extreme form of getting it. She got it now. She actually got it.
“Focus,” she said aloud. No one was in the office today, a Saturday. She turned on the overhead lights, which were warm and flattered the room. Up front the receptionist’s desk was chic and immaculate, and Carol’s own desk, which was much less organized, was concealed by a Japanese screen. William’s workstation was just a laptop at an oblong, Danish-design table—the exact right tone for the room, fashionable, casual, productive.
Near his laptop was a white paper coffee cup, left behind the last time he came in. Even that seemed somehow perfect.
She carried the cup to the kitchenette, opened the cupboard under the sink, and as a reflex took a last sip before throwing it away. Right away she recognized her mistake, but not soon enough to stop from swallowing. She winced and held the cup away from her face, eyeing the pale brown stain that crept along its seam. It actually hadn’t tasted so awful. She would have to tease him about how much sugar he used.
Six weeks later, the results of William’s test came back.
“This is my son,” Carol said to the hostess at the restaurant. She put her arm around his back and pressed her cheek against the shoulder of his wool coat. “He doesn’t want me to tell you this, but.” She looked at him, and he grinned at her, and she pursed her own smile, as if to keep it from flying off her face.
“He’s a very, very intelligent young man,” she said. “That’s all.”
“Two for dinner,” William said.
“We’re celebrating,” Carol added.
“Congratulations,” the hostess said, and looked genuine about it. How could she not be genuinely happy for them? A mother and son who were good friends, in love, mother-son love, sharing a triumph. How could that not beam out to everyone and make them want a part of it?
“She’s cute,” Carol said when they were seated. “You should ask for her number.”
“Maybe I will,” William said. He and Carol had had the same cocktail before dinner.
“Do you want me to do it for you?”
“Do you really think that’s the best approach?”
Carol chuckled. “What on earth could you mean?”
They went through two bottles of wine. Hundred-dollar bottles, and everything they wanted to eat, dessert, free limoncello from the owner. The night was charmed so that neither of them could get too drunk, no matter how much they had. But William took the keys from the valet and helped her into the passenger seat of her car. It was December now, a fragile snow falling and melting instantly on the roads. Christmas lights downtown, streets full of theatergoers.
“Let’s go somewhere else,” she said. “The Tavern on Rush.”
“Why, so we can score some coke?”
“So we can marry you off to a day trader?”
“You don’t do cocaine, do you William?”
“I don’t. Do you?”
“Good lord, no,” she said. “Not in ages.”
“I don’t know how I feel about Rush Street,” he said.
“I know where,” she said, and reached for the steering wheel.
“Easy, easy,” he said. “Just tell me.”
“Press that button,” she said. “On the side of the wheel.”
He did. The Bluetooth lit up and the computer’s voice said, “Name, please.”
“The Peninsula Hotel,” Carol shouted.
It was one o’clock in the morning when they got back to her house. They went through the back door, and William stood in the kitchen watching as she got her cigarettes out of the honey-bear cookie jar on top of the fridge. “I swear I hardly ever smoke,” she said, handing him one. On the back porch, under the lip of the roof, she bent over the flame of her lighter, and William reached forward to shield the wind. He saw her face in profile, in the glow of that little flame, high cheekbones and slightly upturned nose, faint scowl as she concentrated on her cigarette. The pleasure of seeing her, her beauty and familiarity, crested and dissolved into something almost sickening. But then the light went out, and they stood in the sparkling cold, mother and son again, and she said, “I am so fucking proud of you.”
“I swear, sometimes I think about Jesus,” she said. “And I get it. It’s like, it took forty thousand years for me to put it together, that it’s not about faith and saving the poor and all that condescending hypocritical shit.”
He listened. He smoked. This was hilarious.
“It’s about the baby,” she went on. “It’s like—Christmas Day. The child is born.”
She paused for a long time.
“You die for your baby. You die for the rest of your life so your baby can live, and your baby lives so you can die.”
“Whoa, Mom,” he said.
“What am I talking about?” she said, and she looked at him and gave a slack smile. “I should go to bed.”
The only word she said after that was, “Night.” They went in. She unzipped her boots with surprising grace and went upstairs. But alone in the dark downstairs the starwhite alcohol halo stayed around his body. He wheeled into the kitchen, for water, for dark and a window with winter behind it. It had not been always so safe in this house. Tonight was the future.
Then water, an hour. Television, and things flattened again. She was upstairs on top of the duvet in her dress. He drove himself back to his place.
His test score was not enough to get him into the schools in California. He spent eight excruciating weeks on the waitlist at the last of them, before being encouraged to reapply next year.
The deal was not that he would reapply next year.
He enrolled at a school in Chicago. Carol didn’t know why he was so negative about it. It was a perfectly good school, and this way he didn’t have the hassle of packing and moving.
Just before school started, he stood up in Dan’s wedding, and after the party he slept with one of the bridesmaids. She was ten years older than he was. She was a little rough with him, so he was a little rough with her. In the morning he apologized, and she said, “Sorry for what?”
Then it was December.
He asked Carol not to call him during the week before final exams, and she obeyed with theatrical seriousness. She rarely saw him these days, she told her friends, he was just so busy. Halfway through the week, she left him a voicemail, shaming herself for calling, then asking what he wanted for Christmas.
In the beginning he was earnest about studying. He covered his desk and coffee table with books spread open, decorated them liberally with pencil and highlighter. The work was not uninteresting and he was not incapable. He took breaks only to shower, to eat, and at night he had textureless dreams about the Socratic method. He had impulses to call her but refrained.
The morning of his first exam he woke to his cell phone alarm, an absurd reggae ringtone he’d chosen as a sort of joke back in college. He no longer understood the joke. Head still down, he silenced the noise and looked at the screen, where a cartoon clock icon danced foolishly. Four more minutes he slept, phone under his pillow, till the alarm went off again.
This time he turned the power off and let the phone slip into the crack between the bed and wall.
He stayed in bed for several hours, studying the snow as it thickened on the ledge outside his window. Somewhere an analog clock snipped away the minutes of a test on civil procedure. During that time, William became acquainted with the unforetold vividness of his apartment—ecosystem of radiator rust, hive-song of the refrigerator. His phone remained where he’d dropped it, somewhere under the bed. He could go only so long without answering, she would worry, come knocking. He would have to explain.
Perhaps he’d begin by showing her the tessellated pattern of dust motes trapped inside the window screen. How air currents conspired with inertia to order them, shimmering and useless, into their own obscure and oracular meanings. She wouldn’t see this, not at first, but he knew he could show her. He had so much to show her in this place.