Joyce Carol Oates

   It’s a weekday, Thursday in September. Early morning following (yet another) insomniac night. Bright sunshine hurting his eyes, his pupils shrink to the size of carraway seeds. Tracy has promised to drive a friend to her colonoscopy exam and feels obliged to wait at the clinic to drive the (anxious, exasperating) woman home again and so it falls to Howard to drop the baby at Lilliput Day Care on his way to the lab, that’s to say it falls to Howard to drive approximately five miles out of his way to drop Krissie at day care, plus two or three other stops at Tracy’s request, not that he minds, he doesn’t, freely acknowledging it’s the least he can do considering that Tracy is the adult who stumbles from their bed in the night if/when Krissie frets in the room next to theirs needing (no doubt) her night-diaper changed.    Except (mildly) resenting Tracy’s rapid-fire instructions to him as she secures Krissie in the baby-seat in the rear of the Subaru Outback, Howard nodding in the affable-husband way he has cultivated, half-listening, half-distracted in the dull-headache aftermath of a long twitchy sweaty night riddled like buckshot with flashes of dreams in which he’s at his computer in the lab scrolling through endless databases dreading to think how close he’d come to a colossal blunder the other day collating six-month research reports to send to his supervisor late at night when his eyesight had begun to fade, only just thought to double-check before clicking send; as Tracy is re-reminding him to stop at the ATM at the Wells Fargo on his way home, they need cash badly, five hundred dollars in fifty- and twenty-dollar bills, is he listening?—as Howard stifles a jaw-wrenching yawn, nodding Yes! I am. Of course Tracy has an additional penciled list to hand him at which he won’t glance confident he’ll remember: ATM, Walgreens (prescription refill, mouthwash, toilet paper), the Italian grocer (Sichuan pepper, half-pound of Pecorino, parsley, watercress, garlic, that special “special virgin” Italian olive oil), no need to pick up Krissie since she will do that on her way home at four PM, as usual. Howard prides himself on his particular sort of photographic memory, a high point of his academic career (about which Tracy has been hearing for the entirety of their life together), a perfect score on a final exam in organic chemistry at Penn when he was a junior, pre med at the time, nothing like such a feat before or after in his life which (he acknowledges, nonjudgmentally) is still in the process of developing, far from complete. Tracy repeats: ATM, Walgreens, grocer, and remember the mouthwash she wants is Scope not Listerine and “original” not “mint” and if Howard makes that mistake again he’ll have to use up the mint mouthwash himself, plus remember also: the toilet paper should be the thicker kind not the thinner, that’s practically tissue-paper and useless.    In yoga tights and ancient faded Dartmouth T-shirt Tracy stands in the driveway waving at Krissie, making funny-mommy faces barefoot on the asphalt as Howard backs out with a salute-wave he isn’t sure Tracy has seen, or has acknowledged, a stab of frank relief, elation just to press down on the gas pedal, feel the sturdy vehicle accelerate, stitched-smile on his face fading as Tracy disappears in the rear view mirror and he’s thinking how grating his wife’s once velvety voice has become, more Velcro now, scratchy-rough, but this feels disloyal, this is misrepresenting Howard’s exasperated affection for his wife and he feels guilty at the thought, certainly a petty thought, trivial and inconsequential, unworthy, fact is he’s jealous of Tracy and Krissie, knowing how Tracy wouldn’t hesitate for a nanosecond if she had to choose between her husband and their daughter; the mother-baby bond is so strong, nine months in the belly, all that nursing, noisy swooning smacking sucking, sure he’s just a little jealous, what man isn’t, even as he understands how stupid it is, how stupid he is, he’s thirty-six years old for Chrissake not an immature kid and so distracted by such thoughts he realizes that he has turned left on Ventnor, should’ve turned right (he realizes immediately) since he isn’t going south to the Nichols Labs campus just yet but north to Drummond Road, Lilliput Day Care at the intersection with Seven Mile Road, and having turned left he has the option of an (illegal) U-turn on Ventnor which he doesn’t want to risk, this hour of morning, traffic cops are out in their white cruisers like bloated albino ticks amid the blood-stream of traffic, and so much traffic at rush hour and Krissie’s in the back seat chattering excitedly, can’t take a chance on something happening with his daughter in the vehicle, Jesus!—certainly not. That would be the end of his life, absolutely.    So continuing at precisely the speed limit south to Tyndale Road where he can make a left safely onto Meridian, intending to circle the block (in fact: two blocks) back to northbound Ventnor but at this hour of morning there is no left turn allowed which he should’ve remembered, no left turn onto Meridian between 7 AM and 9 AM weekdays, one of those local traffic regulations you’d know if you’ve driven this route 10,000 times which Howard has, more or less, yet: he forgot.    “Asshole!”    And the sun rising over the skyline, blurred and blinding. Another scary-hot day promised, one in a succession of unspeakably depressing record-breaking mid-September days (and nights) with a promise of a high of ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit by two PM and the AC in the Subaru slow to kick in, Howard is reluctant to turn it up higher because the fierce cold drafts will make Krissie shudder with cold trapped in the kiddy-seat in the back, just shorts and a light cotton T-shirt and no sleeves for her, what was Tracy thinking?—but better for him to suffer than Krissie whose chattering is a source of delight to her parents, like a bright-feathered bird somehow snatching language out of the air, at an age to be asking questions which Daddy answers in his affable-distracted Daddy way (half)-hoping Krissie will lose interest and doze off as she does sometimes in such circumstances, secured in a kiddy-seat, he and Tracy marvel at how quickly their daughter can fall asleep at three years even when there’s noise and commotion around her. His brain is a sort of ravaged sponge impervious to tiredness, normal exhaustion not enough to guarantee anything like a full night of sleep, a few beers before bed make him woozy but if he falls asleep he wakes up with a jolt within an hour or so, now he’s feeling dazed, dazzled from sleep or rather the rude awakening from sleep, another area in which he’s jealous of Tracy, too. In this hung-over state his eyes feel more than usually opaque, there’s a scummy scrim over most things giving the world a faint sepia cast like a faded Polaroid. Or is it exhaust from a diesel rig just ahead?—still on Ventnor headed south he sights a Wells Fargo ATM in the next block, on the right, not their branch bank but another, more convenient actually since he can make the withdrawal now instead of on the way home, seeing a vehicle just pulling out of a parking space, time on the meter, always a good omen, he leaves the motor running, AC on low, tells Krissie that Daddy will be right back and sprints to the ATM thirty feet away, withdraws—how much did Tracy ask for? five hundred? three hundred?—cash flowing through their fingers like water, Jesus. His brain is actually aching, his eyes, he’d had (maybe) two hours sleep in total the night before, broken into fragments like froth on a polluted river, recalls Tracy twitching and sighing in her sleep, sudden coughing fit (hers) waking him just when he’d finally gotten to sleep, which Tracy won’t recall. Sleeping with another person is so weirdly horizontal. He’d wrestled in high school, not too seriously. Instead of a gym mat, a bed mattress. Not natural to be horizontal in combat. But of course you aren’t horizontal wrestling, you start off vertical. Oldest competitive sport, originated with the Greeks, not for Howie, you have to be mildly crazy, obsessed with diet: fasting, binging, bile threatening to rise into his mouth, the abuse of the body by the mind, his back breaking out in red pustules, no thanks. If he’d done better maybe, but he hadn’t. Face flaring with heat, recalling. And recalling Tracy leaning into the rear of the station wagon to buckle Krissie into the kiddy-seat, swath of a thick thigh inside black spandex pants, the startling heft of his wife, daunting to him, the husband; during the pregnancy she’d steadily gained weight, swelling, ballooning, rubbery-spongey flesh always warm to the touch, arousing to him, intimidating, he’d teased her initially at becoming “chubby” but soon ceased, overcome, outdone. Not one of those husbands to comment dryly on their wives’ bodies, masking dismay with good-natured humor, his wife’s body is hers and no damn business of his.    She’d been the one to bear the child, he isn’t going to forget, not that she’d be likely to let him forget, anyway he isn’t.

   Back in the Subaru careful to ease out into traffic on Ventnor. Vaguely he recalls he’s looking for a U-turn, left turn, a part of his brain tugging at him reminding him he should be headed north, not south, at a traffic light the cell phone rings, he feels a frisson of something like dread when Tracy calls him, God damn she knows better than to call him when he’s driving, what is so fucking urgent, so soon after he has seen her but this is typical of his wife, impulsive without thinking, the emergency can’t involve the baby, instinctively his eyes move to the rear view mirror, seeing Krissie in the back, looks like she’s asleep, shouldn’t answer the phone but answers it, cleverly keeping the device out of sight if a traffic cop should happen to glance into the Subaru, talking on a cell phone while driving is illegal in the state, could mean points on his driver’s license but he manages to answer unobtrusively and Tracy is telling him she’d forgotten batteries for the remote, get them at the drugstore, AA8. Howard grunts, makes a mental note: AA8.    Sunshine glaring off the hood of the station wagon, his damned sun glasses are in the door pocket beside him, awkward to get them out and onto his face. But this he manages, too. Switches on the radio, it’s NPR, barrage of upsetting news, politics, like filth-pellets flung against his face yet fascinating, hard to resist. Passing a Walgreens he wonders if he should stop now—before he forgets: AA8—otherwise he’ll have to wait until he drives home, not sure when that will be, could be after 6 PM, he’ll have to exit on the east side, traveling south; if he stops here (he thinks) he might not be able to get Tracy’s prescription filled, this isn’t their Walgreens, but possibly since it’s a Walgreens their computers must be all connected, he has never tried but that makes sense, then he realizes that he doesn’t know if Tracy has called in the refill or if she has forgotten, possibly she has forgotten for this has happened in the past when she’d asked him to stop at the drugstore, he’d wound up waiting forty minutes once, pissed as hell and feeling now a twinge of mild anxiety, apprehension, Tracy’s carelessness will put him in a rotten mood, already he’s feeling like shit about the NIH proposal, has avoided telling Tracy about the layoffs among the lab techs, if she asks about his friend Tarek, his friend Anushka he will make up some excuse, temporary leave of absence, the double-blind coagulant trial postponed, which is more or less true. There’s a nagging doubt about the NIH grant, he’d spent so much time already on it like throwing money down a rathole, an expression his Maine grandfather used to utter with grim glee, his brain feels clogged with cobwebs, he’ll need a couple of espressos to wake the hell up. How close he’d come to a blunder of the kind that would torpedo his slow-ascending career. Conflating two databases filed under near-identical titles. Or maybe he’d been the one to mistitle the second. Or maybe (maybe!) it was a glitch in the software. Or in the computer. No need to tell Tracy. Cold sweat oozing in his armpits. No intention of telling Tracy how he’d vetted the proposal but totally missed this crucial blunder except (reminds himself) he’d caught it in time, he had not clicked send. Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, more educated than most lab technicians but now most lab technicians are female post-docs, young Asian women, he’s one of the few “straight white males” remaining, a grim joke. But it’s no joke. But it is a joke, Howard has a Ph.D., from Rensselaer, his supervisor tells him not to worry. Rejected for Harvard Med he’d reacted in anger deciding to continue in graduate school for a Ph.D., he’d do research science at a top university, top research labs like Nichols, clinical medicine was a dead-end anyway. His brain has prompted him to take the expressway ramp at Merrimack Avenue, he’s been in the right lane as if dragged by gravity and this way he can exit at Van Buren and drive west on Five Mile, to State Road and the Nichols campus, good luck that traffic is lighter here, he’s feeling better already, elated, as if he has made a decision, vaguely he’d have said it was the decision not to stop at the Walgreens now but wait for their Walgreens, on his way home, so he will have time to check about the prescription, also the Italian grocer, recalling the first time he’d ground Sichuan pepper onto a meal Tracy had prepared, the strange acrid heat flaring up into his nostrils. A throb of panic at Van Buren when it looks as if there’s construction blocking the roadway but it’s O.K., there’s a lane open, STOP and then SLOW, crawling along in a slow procession of vehicles, good he’d managed to get the sunglasses adjusted, God-damned sun is so bright. He isn’t running too late (yet) but doesn’t have time to spare daring to pass slower-moving vehicles on the right, on Five Mile, probably this is illegal but he’s a skilled driver, hasn’t had a “moving violation” in years.    Approaching the sprawling Nichols campus he begins to feel a cloudscape lowering over him like a concrete ceiling, obsessive thoughts like returning to a cave, crawling into a cave, familiar, sickening-familiar, sees himself in the Subaru glinting in bright-morning sun like the armor of a beetle scuttling into a cave but the immediate worry, as Tracy would say the “existential” worry, enunciating the pretentious word so that you could (almost) hear the quotation marks, as if affixing quotation marks to pretension is a way of nullifying it, the worry is finding a God-damned parking space amid a sea of vehicles, should know better by now than to arrive after eight-thirty AM, of course Howard has a lot assignment but the lot is over-subscribed, can’t find a space large enough for the Subaru, some of the spaces reserved for compacts, an entire row reserved for handicapped, feels a stab of fury, most of the row is empty but at last he finds a space a quarter-mile (at least) from his building, muttering to himself, pulses beating hotly in his head but he’s grateful for the space, yanks out the ignition key and already on the run locks the Subaru with the remote, sickish-smoggy air in his lungs like frayed tungsten wires but as soon as he steps into the cool-conditioned air he’s feels reprieved, in place; the air is a balm to his abraded soul, his skin smarting like sunburn, like mortified pride but anyway it’s his secret, no one else knows. Sends his assistant for two espressos, already he’s feeling hopeful, this will be O.K.: promises himself. He will work through the day, he has worked through similar days in the past, an undertow you just step into, take a deep breath and step through, no reason for panic or alarm, telling himself You have been here before. Which is true. Rejected at Harvard, also at Penn (graduate school), but acceptances at Drexel, Rutgers (New Brunswick), Rennselaer Polytech. Eventually you are OK, you find a parking space, your application is accepted, the grant proposal will be completed in time for the NIH deadline. Grateful for the first hot swallow of espresso, quick jolt of caffeine in his veins, he’s anxious to log back into the project, his fingers type in the password without the (evident) intervention of his brain, suddenly opening before his eyes like one of those gigantic tropical flowers that effloresce at rare intervals, of a beauty and intricacy unfathomable at which you stare and stare enthralled and in dread you will be sucked inside, devoured. But no: he’s comfortable at the computer, in the swivel chair shaped to his buttocks. Immersed in numbers and the frank elemental pleasure of typing on the ergonomic keyboard that feels shaped to his hands in IMAK smart gloves, only rarely feeling twinges of pain, carpal tunnel syndrome so-called. Hours passing in an oblivion of concentration interrupted only by a hastily devoured late lunch at the work-table, his assistant brings the usual Asian salad, also two Diet Cokes, at the edge of his brain there’s something nagging for (probably) he has forgotten something, batteries for the TV remote, AA8, or is it AAA8?—he has purchased both, he knows. Or is it to call the drugstore, to check on Tracy’s prescription?—though he has (he thinks) the little plastic container that contains the pills, small white anti-inflammatory pills he can show the pharmacist, if needed; or is it the Italian grocery but (he thinks) he has a list for that, Tracy gave him the list, it’s in his pocket, probably the shirt pocket, he’s making a mental note to check even as his cell phone rings, annoyed to be interrupted at this crucial time, by late-mid-afternoon after a headachy-lethargic start he has acquired a certain momentum of energy, purpose, concentration, surprised / vexed to see it’s Tracy (again!) and there’s a voice in his ear he has never heard before raw and frightened—Where is Krissie? I’m at the day care, she isn’t here, Howard?—where is Krissie?