Excerpt from 'Guess Again'

book.jpgGuess Again
Short Stories

By Bernard Cooper

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2000 Bernard Cooper. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-684-86586-6

Guess Again Contents


Night Sky
Intro to Acting
What to Name the Baby
Hunters and Gatherers
A Man in the Making
Exterior Decoration
Between the Sheets
Old Birds


Night Sky

As Kay shouted instructions in the background, I angled the telescope down the mountain toward the home of her ex-husband, but no matter how carefully I focused the lens or adjusted the tripod, I couldn't make out much more than a tile roof surrounded by trees. Each time I blinked, my eyelashes splayed against the glass.

"It's the wall to the left of the front door," she yelled. "Just below his driveway. See any damage?"

What little I could see of Warren's house looked fine to me, no gaping hole or trace of rubble. When I turned around and shrugged at Kay, she shrugged, too. She stood above me on the patio, lit by the blaze of an orange afternoon, her bathrobe flapping. The fierce wind blew her hair to one side, where it whipped from her head like a wind sock. The patio was as far as she could stray from the house before her electronic ankle bracelet set off an alarm at the Bel Air Police Department. Whenever this happened, a concerned officer phoned within a minute and interrogated whoever answered in order to verify Kay's whereabouts. Even if she answered the phone herself, which was usually the case, they had a way of quizzing her to make sure the voice didn't belong to some kind of Kay impersonator.

According to Kay, the main problem with house arrest was the fact that her swimming pool, embedded in a flagstone terrace several steps below the patio, was now off-limits. She loved nothing more than drifting on an inflatable raft and dangling her hands in the tepid water, a mindless hydrotherapy that helped her forget a vindictive divorce. Now that she couldn't bob across it, the water flaunted its soothing blue. The only thing that made exile from her own swimming pool tolerable was Kay's fear that the ankle bracelet would electrocute her if she dove in, even though Our Lady of Corrections, as she called her probation officer, assured her the device was waterproof. Still, Kay swore she dangled one leg outside the tub when she took a bath, largely, it seemed to me, to add yet another inconvenience to an already long list — all, she claimed, because Warren had the gall to report her.

The telescope stood on a small promontory just beyond the pool, a vantage point from which, on a day as windy as this, the city beneath us stretched in unexpected directions, the world more vivid and unfamiliar than it had been for several smoggy months. Skyscrapers jutted from downtown on one end of the horizon, and Century City on the other. A silver ribbon of sea glittered in the distance. I worked a crimp from my lower back and promised Kay I'd spy again later.

"'Investigate,'" she corrected.

I climbed back toward the patio. "You'd be a lot better off if you learned to control your temper."

She shot me the look of stunned betrayal she usually reserved for Warren. "Don't tell me you don't believe me, either?" Kay settled onto a chaise longue, tapped a cigarette from the pack, and tried unsuccessfully to light it against the wind. Only when I bent to cup the flame did she realize the steps had left me out of breath. She patted the chaise.

"I believe you," I said, squeezing beside her, "but I also believe some accidents happen on purpose."

"It was a strange car, Sam, a make I've never driven before."

"Every car has an emergency brake. To keep the thing from rolling downhill."

"I put it in Park!" She flicked an ash into the wind. "I'm almost certain."

When my laughter turned into hacking, I had to sit upright. Each cough felt like pumice in my lungs. Lights exploded when I closed my eyes. Kay stubbed out her cigarette and pounded me between the shoulder blades, firm the way I liked it, until the coughing stopped.

"All right," she conceded. "Maybe it was subconscious..."


"Don't correct me when I'm venting!" She cinched her robe, then tied the belt in a big angry bow. "Maybe it was unconscious. But I don't care about that bastard enough to back a rental car into his living room. Besides, I wouldn't have had to rent the car in the first place if he hadn't completely cleaned me out." She threw an arm behind her head, pointing in the general direction of her huge French Regency house, now vacant except for a box spring and mattress, a television set propped on a stack of phone books, and a checkered picnic blanket where the dining room table used to seat fourteen. I lay back beside her, and we listened to shuddering palm fronds and the distant clatter of what must have been a trash bin overturning. If you let yourself, it was easy to imagine the Santa Ana turning doorknobs and peeling paint. After a while, Kay raised a lotion-polished leg — I used to love to run my cheek along those legs — and gazed at the contraption strapped to her ankle. "It's really no different from a ball and chain," she said, pointing her toes and flexing her foot to emphasize the shapely calf.

"Or one of those tracking devices they attach to wild animals."

Kay turned to face me, and touched my arm. In the ten years I'd known her, I'd never been able to second-guess what little remark would make her grateful.

When I awoke, I saw that Kay still lay beside me, nursing a tumbler of scotch. The sun was dousing itself inch by inch in the Pacific, the dying light reflected in her Ray-Bans. She gazed toward the sunset in steely contemplation, like someone prepared for the next grim surprise. When I first met Kay she'd been a student, the kind of young woman who pronounced "chaise longue" with a sarcastic French accent, and didn't care about the difference between cheap whiskey and single-malt scotch. But all of that changed when she married Warren. "Sam," she'd told me shortly after they met, holding my hand to buffer the blow, "Warren can give me the things I need most." I knew it was true. A successful lawyer, Warren offered Kay the constancy I couldn't, not to mention a six-figure salary and a mansion in Bel Air. And, if Warren was even half as horny as Kay implied, the guy could provide her with sex on tap. In short, Warren was a man with plenty of extras, and no one deserved them more than my wife.

Kay and I had been married — a quick civil ceremony after breakfast at Denny's — while attending graduate school at Caltech. Our Pasadena apartment, furnished with orange crates and cinder-block shelves, held the sum of our possessions, mostly books for classes on calculus, astrophysics, and a seminar devoted to the hypothesis that black holes swallowed their own light. Kay was a brilliant student, vocal in class, asking the professors challenging questions. I felt proud of Kay, safe in her presence, as though her rigorous powers of reason could protect me from harm.

Soon enough, though, Kay's scholastic daring showed its dark side. She turned in long, argumentative essays for exams she could have aced. She offered a group of physics majors the unsolicited opinion that their model of cold fusion, with its Styrofoam balls and plastic tubing, looked like a kid's project for a science fair. She filed her nails during peer reviews. All this happened in the second year of our marriage, and I couldn't help but see myself as the cause. Kay's brazenness existed in direct proportion to my secrecy. The more I suppressed my desire for men, the more keenly Kay seemed to sense its strength. Even if this conviction — that the changes in her behavior hinged on my inner life — arose from youthful egotism, her alertness to my moods was real, and precisely the trait that made leaving her so difficult.

Then along came Warren Scofield for a graduate lecture on scientific patents. Kay returned from his lecture all hopped up about the ethical and legal ramifications of a bioengineered bacterium that was supposed to eat oil spills, though no one was certain what else it might feast on when thrown in the ocean. She paced back and forth and recounted the lecture point by point, calling Warren by his first name once too often. I knew right then they would sleep together, and this freed me to flirt with the handsome guy in Financial Aid who filed my paperwork. After the split, Kay and I were amazed at how quickly we shifted into friendship — though we still can't talk about those old infidelities without a fight — as if divorce had been the prelude to a far more doable union.

That night on her patio, moments from our marriage reached me like starlight, their origins a long way off. I lay there as Kay sipped liquor, wind ruffling the collar of her robe. She chewed an ice cube, huffing at thoughts, I supposed, of Warren. While I'd slept, she'd covered me with a blanket, and now the idea of trying to untangle myself was exhausting. Those were the days before protease inhibitors, when I thought the virus was going to destroy me sooner rather than later, and sleep was the only antidote to my fearful, finite point of view: last visit with Kay; last windy night; last glance through a telescope — the litany would begin the instant I opened my eyes. When Kay felt me stirring she reached over and, without shifting her gaze from the view, yanked at the blanket, setting me free. I yawned and stretched, clenched the feeling back into my fingers. While I waited for wakefulness to take hold, the avenues below us ignited with lights. Underneath a darkening sky, the city looked sad and dazzling, like a picture postcard someone never sent.

And then I saw, or thought I saw, a surge of light. An electrical charge was sucked from the air, leaving an indescribable void as every refrigerator, power tool, garage door opener, and chandelier in the neighborhood went dead. Houses all around us were suddenly extinguished. A new moon, still low in the east, cast a faint glow.

"Say it's not me," said Kay. She grabbed my hand — we both winced at a shock of static — and peered into her dark yard. Lit from within only seconds ago, the swimming pool had disappeared. Wind stripped the leaves from trees, the air alive with grit and friction. Below us, the only lights left in the city belonged to traffic that had no doubt come to a halt at dim intersections. In the vicinity of West Hollywood, a hospital with its own generator twinkled like a sequin on a bolt of black fabric.

Kay's shadowy figure rose from the chaise, ice cubes clinking. "I'm making a break," she said, gulping the dregs of her scotch.


"I'm returning to the scene of the crime. Bet the damage isn't half as bad as he claimed in the police report."

"You're not going to Warren's."

"Why not?

"You're under house arrest, remember?"

"Oh, honey. You're too good for your own...good."

"What'll I tell Our Lady?"

Kay raised her leg and dangled her ankle. "I'm sure this thing won't work during a blackout."

"It runs on batteries, Kay. And the phones work during a power outage."

She stepped into a pair of sandals. "What I'm saying is, the precinct will be swamped with calls, and no one's going to go chasing after a first offender. Or nouveau offender, as they say in these parts." Before I could stop her, she dashed inside the house. I followed the scent of Bain de Soleil. It was a good thing Warren had taken all the furniture, because the place was pitch dark, and I would have caused a fortune in damage or broken my neck. In her white robe, Kay made a spectral exit out the front door. "Stay here, Sam," she called over her shoulder. "I'll be back in no time."

The phone began to ring. "See, Kay?" I shouted, but she kept on padding down the street.

I didn't relish the idea of having to talk to Kay's probation officer; in previous conversations, she'd been far too canny to fall for a lie. Still, I ran to get it because I hate the ring of an unanswered phone — a sound close to hopeless. I plucked the phone off the living room floor. "Hi," I panted. "Kay's indisposed..."

"This is an important message from the Brokerage Firm of Hansen and Wong. Are you one of the thousands of Americans who's put off preparing for retirement?" I would have hung up — the message, after all, was prerecorded — but I needed a moment to catch my breath. "Whether you're looking for the security of low-risk bonds or the adventure of high-growth stocks, it's never too late to invest in the future." The male voice was without inflection, like a robot's admonishment. It gave the night a futuristic tinge. I stood in the empty living room, with its panoramic view of the missing city, and wondered why I'd studied science.

It was foolish to try and catch up with Kay. Even if my lungs could get me downhill, there was uphill to contend with. But anything was better than being alone in Kay's empty house, waiting for the phone to echo through its rooms.

I set off from the front porch with an unusual burst of energy, but soon found that the best way to make progress was to take small, methodical steps. It was one thing for me to walk haltingly at my supermarket in West Hollywood, where the shoppers had seen so many failing bodies that no one gawked at the sight of lesions, Hickman catheters, or gaunt young men shuffling down the aisles. But a lone man lurching down Copa de Oro was another matter, especially since there aren't any sidewalks in Bel Air and the residents tend to panic at the sight of foot traffic. Several houses had motion detectors bolted to their fences and stone walls; anyone so much as sneezing within a thirty-foot radius would set off a floodlight worthy of San Quentin. But now, of course, none of them worked, the gloom a kind of protective cloak. Without electricity, perhaps the rules of etiquette relaxed. Even Kay's wandering about the neighborhood in her bathrobe might strike the ordinarily wary onlooker as a neighbor's endearing response to the crisis. Under cover of darkness, I said to myself, forging ahead.

Each house I passed — at least the ones I could see behind high walls and extravagant foliage — was another brand of fantasy: rustic Tudor, low-slung ranch, boxy modern. Here and there, windows flickered with the beams of flashlights or the mild, floating corona of candles. In one house I heard the cries of children, lost it seemed in a labyrinth of rooms. I passed enormous monogrammed gates, a birdbath shaped like a giant champagne glass, and a formerly Negroid lawn jockey who hoisted a plaster lantern, his face repainted to look Caucasian. Under a tunnel of jacaranda, I tramped through a blizzard of lavender petals, the hot wind ballooning inside my shirt.

Once I'd been a jogger. Sure of my body. I used to lift my lover off his feet and make him yelp like a gleeful child, and even later, when he grew too weak to walk on his own, I carried him to and from the bed. Now every exertion, every gesture, no matter how brief or easy or routine, exacted a price.

When I turned the corner onto Bellagio, I spotted Kay sitting on the manicured lawn across the street from Warren's. The night was sweltering, but she hugged her knees as though she were cold. I buckled beside her and tried to speak, a wheeze at the crest of every breath.

"You sound awful," she said. "I told you not to follow me."

"He's not worth it, Kay. He wants some demure little flower for a wife."

"A woman who knows when to set her emergency brake."

"Exactly. Besides, you'll get a huge chunk of money when you sell the house."

Kay sighed. "And live the life to which I've grown accustomed." She rubbed her skin where the ankle bracelet chafed.

"I hate to say it, Kay, but I wouldn't mind having problems like yours."

"I know," she said, turning to face me. Even in the dark, I could see her moist, red-rimmed eyes. "Why do you think I go on and on about Warren when you're around? I hate hearing myself, but I'm afraid if I stop, there's only one topic. Your health, I mean. Your T-cells dropping. It scares me to death. And there's nothing I can do." Dogs around us began to bark at some disruption only they could hear.

Save me, I wanted to say. Ever since my diagnosis I'd said it silently, again and again, to no one in particular. I heard the words in my head like a pulse, blurted them to strangers in dreams. And there I was, fighting the urge to say it to Kay, a plea so unequivocal and blunt, resisting it took the rest of my strength.

I lay back on the grass and, gazing overhead, saw a swath of night sky. Stars congested the deep regions of space, a spectacle I'd missed while watching my steps on the leaf-strewn roads. "Kay," I said, tugging her down. Hard-pressed to take her eyes off Warren's house, she lowered her head slowly, long hair coiling beneath her like rope. Kay ran her hands through the brittle grass and her robe fell open, revealing the yellow bikini underneath. I pointed at the sky. "It's like floating on a raft."

"It is," she whispered. Some people might have searched for constellations — Ram, Hunter, Charioteer — but Kay bristled when earthly forms were imposed on the cosmos, which we'd dubbed in school the Big Abstraction. The two of us squinted at a quadrant of sky where Kay had once located the misty hint of a nebula through her telescope. Its cosmic debris and clouds of dust sailed outward at fantastic speeds, though the nebula would look, from this vast a distance, completely still for the next billion years. In a few minutes, the power around us would sputter back to life, and we'd sit up and see, through a hole Kay had made in the house across the street, Warren peering toward us, just as a patrol car screeched around the curve. But for now we lay back on a stranger's lawn, pointing to what we guessed were red dwarfs, stars formed long before the earth, their matter decaying so slowly it defies all measure of time.

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