Traffic and Laughter
On a certain day in Southern California, beneath a sky that held nothing of emergency or love, a lilac-eyed woman in the middle of life’s youth dragged a garden hose across her lawn by its sprinkler; dropped it, without breaking stride, squarely in front of her house; and as she threw the spigot open, shaking her hair impatiently back from her face to see the trajectory of the teeming droplets, she cleared her throat, grimaced, and helplessly reinvented, while the whole shimmering world revolved, everything.
Without answering, she hurried into the house. There was a four-speaker stereo system in the living room, and passing distractedly by, she flicked on the radio component. A trickle of sweat ran from her armpit to her waist. She thought: I must remember not to leave anything open.
“Sylvie, is there another hose for the back?”
The kitchen’s sliding glass door was open, and the man who had brought her here was standing by the artichoke garden, looking at her. She had not till now noticed the unusual length of his hands, even though, in a sense, it was their ingenuity that had been the subject of her questions for the past four hours.
“In the garage, Michael. Thanks.”
A hummingbird shot into the air between them, but Michael had already turned toward the garage, and she went back into the house.
The suitcases were stored on the top shelf of a walk-in closet off the hall, and Sylvia had to stand on her toes to reach them, levering them off the shelf one by one with her fingertips. This gesture reminded her of her marriage, which, along with many other things, had begun and ended in this house. She had lived here half as many years as there were suitcases, and of the latter she now found it impossible to say if six was too many or too few. Hurrying down the hall with a pair of them, she remembered once kissing her husband’s fingertips. Her heart had been racing, racing, racing, exactly as now, but regret of any kind—this is all true—was alien to her. She laid the two suitcases open on the bed and abandoned them at once.
In the garage, Michael hoisted a coil of garden hose onto one shoulder and looked around for a suitable nozzle or sprinkler attachment. He himself, he recalled, already had a suitable attachment: he was getting married, in the fall, to a carbon-haired of unswerving self-, absorption. And he was here, in Sylvia’s garage, breathing in the mixed scents of cut grass and gasoline, purely by happenstance. When he located the second sprinkler, wedged behind a birdbath pedestal, he caught sight of something else, a clear point of light sparkling amid the cobwebs and cicada husks.
He hesitated, then reached gingerly down for it.
Sylvia carried a third suitcase into the study. Opening the bottom drawer of her desk, she began tossing packets of letters into the suitcase, each packet bound with a rubber band inn a primary color. But I know all this, she thought upon opening the second drawer of letters. Without closing either drawer she abandoned the desk too.
The radio said: “Take me to the river; drop me in the water.” Sylvia threw three photograph albums into the suitcase.
When the splatter of droplets on the roof grew suddenly louder, shifting from a shower to a torrent, Sylvia glanced automatically out the window, as if to see the effect of rain on her universe, but there was no rain, nothing to consider—only her ardent cypresses and cedars, tossing like sleepers in the heat.
“Tell me what I can do,” said Michael from the study. “It’s time to cut corners.”
“How long do we have?” she said, sorting folders, avoiding his gaze.
“They’re saying two hours, but I’d say less. The fire has already crested the next canyon.”
“Two hours,” she repeated, rising slowly, an armload of folded manila pressed against her chest. The quality of her voice, full yet slightly raspy, had the unsettling effect, purely physical in origin, of suggesting both deep emotion and barely contained amusement. While half a million cars in supernatural colors shot up and down the surrounding freeways, Michael remembered listening to Sylvia’s voice at a stoplight, in a convertible, next to another convertible. He saw now, though, by the way she had of raising her face a little as she spoke, that he had been wrong about her. She was anything but the slave of effect.
“You know what?” she said, meeting his gaze. “I’m not ready for this.”
“Well, of course not,” he replied. In the context, the notion of preparedness made him indignant. “Who’s ready to see their world go up in a cloud of smoke?”
It seemed to Michael that she was smiling at him. “I wasn’t talking,” she said, “about the world.”