Getting past the mastodon took planning. The great plated skull was wedged between the fireplace and the credenza, leaving the two ivory tusks splayed across the carpet where a coffee table belonged. To exit the wedding party, guests either stepped over one tusk, then the other—a choice that required skillful footwork and a certain level of sobriety—or jumped over both with an awkward, last-minute leap.
This late in the evening, the leaping had become more frequent. And more flamboyant. Guest after guest soared over the mastodon tusks—feet first, faces joyful, landing in the foyer without the slightest injury to their ankles. At which point they hugged Carter. And asked him how he had met the bride. Or what he loved about her. Or if the two of them had considered . . . well . . . little Carters and Katrinas!
Carter improvised a light, evasive laugh, handed them a bag of candied almonds, and thanked them for coming. Though no one seemed to notice, Katrina had not spoken to or even looked at him since the start of the party. Save during the cake-cutting ceremony, when she had fed him a forkful of frosting that had the same cold, white, dead-flavored consistency as her smile.
At this point, she was no longer in the living room. Or anywhere in sight. Carter had said so many things he now regretted, things he would go back and change if only that were possible. Which it wasn’t. Time slogged on, as the mastodon well knew. Both its empty sockets were as expressive as eyes—huge, soulful,slightly depressed. No doubt due to the elephant lurking in its genetics. You never saw an upbeat elephant. They were like donkeys: charismatically morose.
The idea of owning such an animal had never occurred to Carter, and his failure of imagination felt more and more as it should have—like a failure. What did a three-piece sectional really say about your understanding of the universe? He and Katrina had a three-piece sectional, plus a matching ottoman that she called a “poof.”
“Carter!” said Neil by the fireplace, holding up an empty glass.
Carter held up a bag of almonds. Cheers!
Several times, he had been tempted to tell Neil about his argument with Katrina. Neil was her oldest friend from childhood. He would know what to do. Or how to make her less upset. He had a swashbuckling kind of generosity, a way of walking through the crowd that inspired laughter or a fresh round of clinking glasses in every group of guests he passed. It was Neil who had dug the mastodon out of the permafrost with a pick and shovel. And Neil who had built his log-cabin mansion—by himself, after work and on the weekends. When he found out that Katrina and Carter had been married in New York—at city hall—he insisted they let him throw a party. In Alaska. With all of Katrina’s hometown friends and neighbors.
Now he was heading in Carter’s direction. Carter gave the mastodon a little pat. The skull was polished and warm to the touch. Except where a few chunks of missing bone had been patched with soldered bronze.
“Buddy,” said Neil. “Let’s blow the stink off.”
“I’m good,” said Carter. “I’m saying our goodbyes.”
“Katrina’s ice-skating,” said Neil. “Right in back.”
Carter smiled, as if he knew this already. Then followed Neil across the living room, trying to keep up with his discussion about his stepdaughters: Both were towheads. Twins. Competitive figure skaters.
Neil stopped at a glass door, slid it open, ushered Carter out to a snowy deck. The cold was soul blasting, fantastical, a gasp of winter in each breath. Neither of them were wearing shoes. Not that Carter mentioned this.
“The two of you need to move up here!” said Neil. “We could be neighbors!”
Carter nodded—and, for a moment, almost agreed. The lake at the back of the house was glazed with moonlight, the sky a dream astronomy of stars.
“Lake ice is too bumpy to skate on,” said Neil. “Even if you flood it and refreeze. Plus you have the air traffic.” He pointed to the tiny planes on skis that were parked along the shoreline, their noses wrapped in padded blankets. “I put in a practice rink for the girls. Moved the helicopter into a hangar.” Which was pricey. Inconvenient. But better vis-à-vis the homeowners’ association. Landing pads in the backyard always upset the neighbors.
Carter’s feet were finally numb enough to move. He inched closer to the railing—and could not believe for a moment what he was seeing. Katrina was down on the rink. But skating the way that someone from the tropics might, someone who had never seen a snowflake.
Around the wall she went, shuffling and hunched and hesitant, her arms outstretched. The look on her face was unmistakable. Carter knew it well: she hated ice-skating and hated being awful at it but hated quitting more. She would go around and around that rink, miserable and forcing herself on for reasons he could only assume had to do with marching up mountains as a child, and conquering foreign equity markets, and believing, above all else, in pointless personal accomplishment. A belief that he did not share, but did make him feel so tenderly toward her. She was unlike anyone he had ever met. And he had ruined their wedding party. “Katrina?” he said.
She looked up, squinting through the floodlights.
“Katrina!” said Carter. “I’m . . . ” But before he could apologize for what he had said and how he had said it—her eyes widened, her skates suddenly kicking out in front of her. Down she went, in a flurry of cocktail dress and flailing limbs.
“Are you okay?” said Neil. The way Carter should have, if only he had moved faster, if he could think when his wife was lying on the ice like a blond broken puppet.
She sat up. She rubbed the back of her head. “Who makes ice this slippery?” she shouted. “I demand a hot toddy.”
Alaska had been Carter’s idea from the start. He had never met Katrina’s father or seen where she’d grown up. Anchorage had sounded exotic—a city with five mountain ranges and a reindeer named Star who lived in a pen downtown. Her father owned a floatplane! Which she knew how to fly!
“Let’s wait for summer,” she said, “when we can go fishing. This late in winter, all anybody does is ski and watch TV.”
He might have agreed. Except for his job. Back in New York, Carter taught sixth-grade social studies at an all-boys prep school. He loved his co-workers. He loved his kids. And yet, one too many Monday mornings, they had revealed the stunning number of Styrofoam ammo packets they had purchased for their Nerf-gun arsenals over the weekend—a total that when researched and multiplied by unit cost (in secret, on Amazon) surpassed his monthly paycheck.
They were clumsy to the point of falling off their stools, these boys—goofy and entitled and egotistical, yet despite the smartphone porn, astonishingly naïve. When Carter had told them he was taking a few weeks off for his honeymoon, they had whacked each other on the arms and rolled their eyes, unable to imagine a future that did not involve marrying your best friend from kindergarten and moving to the desert to invent rocket launchers out of tinfoil and string cheese.
On such dreams hydrogen bombs are built—and tested. Thinking back, he might have tried to teach the boys something useful, for once, and explained what had made him fall so thunderously in love. Except he couldn’t. Nobody could. Love was dumbifying. It had no articulation except sex, happiness, and befuddlement. If he had been forced to tell his kids anything, he would have said that Katrina smelled of blackberries from his grandmother’s long-sold house in Connecticut, which wasn’t possible. And yet she did smell of blackberries, dark and heady and warm. He knew the smell, and he couldn’t stop smelling her, touching her, doing things like poking her in the ribs when she was trying to brush her teeth.
Add to this: She ate fast-food chicken from the bucket, and flung her drumstick bones on the bedroom floor. She made fantastical amounts of money trading futures for cuntbag asstoys whom she called cuntbag asstoys on the phone, and to their faces. Then turned around and wept over obscure Italian cinema. Or bought him a bunch of violets—violets!—and left them on his pillow while he slept.
“Jesus,” said his friends when they found out about the wedding. Carter’s previous girlfriend of five years had been a yoga teacher. A vegan.
Katrina, on the other hand, had shot into his life like a blond, carnivorous meteor, and he had married her two months later. She was eleven years older. A few days after they met, she took him swimming at her club, a place with failed teenage models as doormen and a rooftop pool like a chip of fallen sky. She sat on the edge and watched him do laps. When he got out, she said, “You passed.”
“Of course I did,” he said. “I graduated summa from Williams.” Then he laughed. But she was serious. She had wanted to see if he put his face in the water. She could not sleep with a man who didn’t, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t explain why.
The outrageousness, the bravado—he had thought this was the Alaskan in her. But her father, who actually lived there, was not this way, not at all. They had spent the past three days in Anchorage with him. He lived in a ranch house that had not been updated—as he had mentioned more than once—since 1983. Each morning at 6 am, he ironed his jeans in the kitchen. Each night at 6 pm, he barbecued a chicken on the deck wearing a parka patched with duct tape on the elbows.
He served the chicken at the kitchen counter, the only vegetable a bottle of chardonnay. The wine was creamy, French, expensive. The meat was slightly pink with fire-blasted skin. Her father bought both at Costco, which he seemed to frequent hourly. They ate on stools with paper towels for napkins—two half glasses of wine per person and as much chicken as he could load onto your plate.
Dinner conversation followed certain rules. They didn’t talk about the ministroke he had had two years earlier, which had cost him his pilot’s license. They didn’t talk about how he continued to fly in secret. Most of all, they didn’t talk about Katrina’s mother and whether or not he had tried to contact her to inform her of her daughter’s marriage.
Once or twice, Carter had considered bringing up the subject himself. Katrina’s mother had had a coke problem. She had not solved it. Which was how Katrina had phrased it to Carter in her carefully gray apartment. Her mother had been in and out of the house for most of her childhood. There—and then not. A week, a year, an occasional Christmas. The words came out of Katrina in a monotone, the voice of a government form. And for a minute, Carter thought there might be something wrong with her, until suddenly, as if against her will, a small, terrible smile had flitted across her face—a butterfly of heartbreak.
He had waited a few moments, then held her, knowing in that instant that he was going to ask her—fragile and teetering—to marry him, though right then had not been the right time. He asked anyway. While still on his feet, his arms around her, no ring.
Tonight, just before Neil’s party, the two topics at dinner had been her father’s use of soy sauce as a marinade and his need to put in a beach. Diamond Lake was a man-made lake, basically a liquid runway, and yet the EPA guys were sniffing around now, requiring homeowners to create “natural habitats” for the salmon, to the tune of ten grand in gravel and plants. “I tell you what,” said her father. “It’s enough to make you want to leave the state.” He shook his head.
“Move to New York,” said Katrina, her adoration radiating across the kitchen. “I’ll buy the condo next door, break down the wall.”
“We could do that,” he said, shaking his head. “We sure could.” Then he laughed and she laughed and Carter got it: the idea of leaving Alaska was preposterous. Talk like this was just a way of painting the air with the last thing you wanted to do on earth, to ward it off. He served himself another blackened thigh. He thought about the comfort of articulating those kinds of scarecrows—and the danger of them rebelling against your intentions and coming to life. He pictured his father-in-law in a sad, velvet bathrobe, looking out their apartment window at the streets of TriBeCa. It was spring. Dogs in raincoats paraded down the sidewalks, followed by women speaking to invisible cell phones with such intimacy you almost hoped they were talking to themselves.
“We should get going,” Carter said. “Right? The party.”
Katrina glanced at him. Her father started scraping plates into the compactor. The metal teeth crunched through bottles and bones. Katrina hopped off her stool. Her father wiped his hands on a dish towel—slowly.
“Aren’t you coming?” she said, in a shy voice, almost hopeful.
Her father looked up, startled. “Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know I was supposed to.”
She looked confused. Then Carter was confused. Neil’s party wasn’t a reception, but it was in their honor. An ice sculpture of a leaping king salmon had been ordered. As well as some kind of punch made with blueberries or birch sap. All of which promised to be more exciting, if not more joy filled, than the lunch in Manhattan they had had with Carter’s parents. Both of whom had been too stunned to touch their Cobb salads. His mother had a thing for family weddings, family Christmas cards, family aprons embroidered with each person’s name.
“Don’t you want to come?” said Katrina.
“It’s just with Neil,” said her father. “And his . . . however you call them . . . extravaganzas. I wasn’t planning on it.” The expression on his face was kind, but vague, almost presidential, as if they were talking about parking the car or buying groceries, things he didn’t do anymore and had trouble understanding.
Katrina picked up a spoon. She picked up a saltshaker. Carter winced. She could be spectacularly articulate when angry—and inventive. Once, when her boss had failed to back her on the purchase of some unorthodox Russian bonds, she had stapled his suit pants to his chair while he napped off a hangover. An act for which she had been rewarded with the title “vindictive fucktard” and a promotion of two bonus levels.
“Here’s what I think,” she said. And then she just stopped, mid-sentence, as if chopping off the idea behind it. She hugged her father. “It’s not like it’s a wedding wedding. It’s just some people getting together to celebrate.”
Carter looked at her, but there was nothing in her eyes that conflicted with her expression. He sat for a minute. Then said, at a loud volume, “I think you should come.”
There was a long, disconcerting silence—save for the grinding of the trash compactor. He washed it away with a gulp of chardonnay. Neither Katrina nor her father looked in his direction.
“It’s fine, Dad,” she finally said. “Besides, isn’t the girl from Nebraska singing Phantom?”
“ ‘Angel of Music,’ ” her father said, his eyes whisking over to the television. “She came in second place last week.” Carter could not prove it, but if he had to guess, Katrina’s father spent every night just how they left him—sitting at his desk, watching America’s Got Talent and tying flies for trout he was going to catch when they weren’t there. Big ones. Rainbows. Monsters.
Enter the log-cabin mansion, a five-minute walk down the shoreline through the snow. Just past the mastodon, people lingered by the fireplace with sushi hand rolls and one-bite spoons of risotto, people Carter didn’t know. He always reacted a beat too slowly, and tonight was no exception. “About the girl from Nebraska,” he said.
“Ugh,” said Katrina. “I hate a preteen prodigy.”
“I’m so proud of you.”
She looked at him. “For what?”
“For not reacting when your father blew us off.” And yes, he could see by her suddenly cool face, her calm, flat stare, that he should just stop talking. Still he went on, announcing with such easy outrage: Katrina’s father was a grown man. So his own marriage had imploded. Was he afraid that Katrina’s would, too? His staying home from their wedding party—the only one they would ever have—was, if you thought about it, manipulative, selfish. A less-than-obvious control tactic.
“Or maybe,” she said, “he’s an introvert who doesn’t like parties.” Then she zipped off her boots—with a sound as brisk and dismissive as her expression—and strode off to the kitchen.
Long ago, Carter had understood that some people grasped the power of timing better than others. One of those people was Neil, who swept in at that exact moment, bearing a pint glass filled with single-malt Scotch. “On the house,” he said. “Felicitations.”
Carter examined his drink. Three maraschino cherries floated in the potent-smelling liquor—baubles in amber. “My father-in-law has a tab started. Let’s put it on that.”
“An amazing man,” said Neil. “A giant outdoorsman. Though slightly rigid.” He was studying Carter, though more smoothly than Katrina’s Manhattan friends, all of whom seemed to flip through his possible ages before speaking: Forty? Thirty-five? Thirty-three? No, no, (no way!), younger.
Neil held up his glass, clinked. “He’s still a little emotional with me, I suspect. About last New Year’s.” This past January, he continued, he had been feeling a little down, a little existential. He had buzzed over to Houston, Alaska, in his helicopter and loaded up on cherry bombs and mortars. Then buzzed back home and set them up in a hole on the lake ice, a tad too close to Katrina’s dad’s backyard. Regrettable. As was the single fuse he had used.
“What happened?” said Carter.
He shook his head, as if implying police, a lost eyeball, a forest fire. Then grabbed Carter by the shoulder, and whispered, “It went boom.”
Carter laughed. But Neil only sighed with contentment, the way you might after eating a slice of warm pie. His features were crooked, almost misshapen, his nose a kind of farm potato in the middle of his face. He was not a handsome man, not at all, but you wanted him to be; you were rooting for him in some cosmic way—the cause of which was probably his expression, each freckle a bedazzled star that seemed to convey that he too was knocked out daily by his own good fortune.
Carter had a hard time connecting this Neil with the Neil that Katrina had described on their walk to the party. Neil sometimes got wound up, she said. Too wound up.
“Like a toddler?” said Carter.
“Like someone on an ass-ton of mood stabilizers.”
Ten years earlier, Neil’s dad—her dad’s closest friend—had shot himself. In the face. At his fifty-fifth birthday party. It was Neil who found him in the laundry room. And Neil who had tried to clean it up, by himself, to keep his mom from seeing.
She had a theory about this, a theory that seemed to apply to everyone except herself and her father: Your average happy person didn’t last in Alaska. It was too much work not to die all the time.
About this, Carter only nodded. The Anchorage that he had seen was mostly strip malls and bowling alleys, Denny’s diners and icy boulevards—the mountains looming in the distance, but not exactly putting anyone in the position where they had to crawl around looking for food and a warm cave.
And regarding happy people, there were bipolar twelve-year-olds in his classes, billionaire parents on crack, a fellow teacher who had spent six months at Bellevue because he thought a brown recluse lived in his back molar. It was almost relieving that Alaska was similar, that spruce forests and sunsets that looked as if the entire solar system was melting didn’t quite fix the human condition—the way he had believed that nature might during certain, darker periods of his life. Periods he had also not mentioned to Katrina.
Ta-da! Neil had made him yet another Scotch with maraschino cherries. “Next time, buddy,” he said, “you’ll come up and stay with us.” He waved to a woman sitting in a leather armchair, knitting a striped, soft-looking blue blanket. “Right, Janice?” he said. “We love to host young lovers. We’ll take you out to the Wrangells. Go scout some wild sheep.”
A giddy feeling was swelling in Carter, one that dated back to second grade, when you wanted to ask somebody in your class to be your friend—but knew that to do so would destroy any chance of it happening—and so spent your lonesome, sleepless nights nursing that tender balloon of happiness, trying to figure out how to place yourself in the other boy’s general vicinity, where if you were standoffish enough, he’d pick you to be on his team at recess. This was the secret to Neil, maybe; you didn’t have to feel any of this. He put you on his team the moment he met you.
His wife perhaps did not. She smiled—warm but with the guarded eyes Carter often saw in his fellow teachers, who understood that children waltzed off to the next grade and never came back. She was older than Neil, or looked it, her face weathered, her hair a chopped blondish-grayish afterthought. Neil, he had assumed, would be married to someone else, someone tan and ripe and plastic. It was relieving that he wasn’t. Carter raised his pint glass. Janice nodded. It occurred to Carter that she had knitted her way through a lot of parties like this, including ones that went boom.
By the time Katrina had pulled off her skates and hobbled inside, all the guests had left—a course that Carter and she could have also followed but didn’t, for reasons they would puzzle over for years to come. At that moment, however, Neil was back behind the log bar. He was serious about Katrina and Carter moving up to Alaska. Intellectually speaking, the state was underemployed. There was a need for people like themselves, go-getters. Now, while the price of oil was high.
Carter sat down on the sofa beside his wife. She didn’t move. He put his hand over hers. She let him. Was their fight finally over? Or was she just distracted by the idea of moving back home? An image floated through his mind: him with a bow and arrow, a sheepskin slung over one shoulder, a glacier in the background, a whole bubble life that would melt into nothing, he realized, when he woke up in the morning with a Scotch-and-cherry hangover.
Neil continued: He had some ventures on the horizon, some opportunities. His first thought for Carter? Central AC. Sure, it was negative three outside, but you had to understand, he said: in the summers, Alaska now saw eighty-plus temps. He had been working with a young engineer in town on an eco-friendly cooling system that was powered by biofuel made from the byproducts of commercial fishing. Salmon guts, crab shells, etc.
“Uh,” Carter said. “I’m not sure that dovetails with my résumé.”
Neil filled more pint glasses. “Stem cells, then. I have a doc in town regrowing cartilage for blown knees. Not quite legal, as of now. But promising.” He had other ideas: his chain of adult-care facilities, his IT operation, his health-club franchise, the small-dog grooming business. The profit in small dogs was not to be believed.
Carter lay back on the sofa and looked up. Heads and antlers staggered up the log walls to the ceiling, each identified with a brass trophy tag: Dall sheep, mountain goat, gazelle, blesbok. What was a blesbok? And if Carter had been back in New York, wouldn’t he have found it upsetting to see one slapped up on a wall? He couldn’t say. There was something unicorn in all this carnage, something silvery and make-believe and authentic all at the same time.
What would Carter have been like if he had grown up with the belief that it was natural—and enjoyable—to go after what he wanted, however off-putting or seemingly impossible? “Stem cells?” he said. “I thought you were a hunting guide.”
“The lodge?” said Neil. “Strictly a hobby.” He guided one or two guys a summer—tech kids, mostly, who paid five grand a day to pop a black bear. “It’s a dying industry. But it does cull the numbers in terms of overpopulation.”
“Right,” said Carter.
“Gross,” said Katrina. “You know how I feel about trophy hunting.”
Neil balled up a cocktail napkin, threw it at her. “And yet you still eat chicken. Do you know what goes on in a poultry death camp? I’ve got the YouTube videos.”
“Honey,” said Janice. “How many cherries did you just put in that drink?”
He looked down. “Nine,” he said, and laughed. “I like them.”
“Neil,” said Katrina. “Carter teaches social studies. Like politics. Like government.”
“I think of it more as a course in historical-cultural ethics,” said Carter. “What the past can teach us about who we are—and who we want to be.” He paused. “By now most public school curriculums have cut it.” The bitterness in his tone was there, but he was unable to remove it.
“Well,” said Janice, back to her knitting. “Both our girls know all the state capitals.”
“You can always go back to teaching that mud class,” said Katrina. She slid down the sofa, turned to Janice. “Carter makes a mean coil pot.”
He willed himself to look calm, unaffected. The mud class referred to a steaming, impoverished summer three years ago when, out of desperation, he had stooped to working at a day care, crafting projects for toddlers out of a chemical substitute for clay called “magic mud.” Apparently, she was still mad and needed an apology. Which Carter now had zero desire to give her.
Then again, the only helpful point he made about her father was that you had to do things for love that you didn’t want to do. So he would then. At the very least, he would earn himself a few minutes of smug moral superiority. “Look,” he whispered, “I was out of line about your dad.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “He doesn’t like you either.”
The next thing to say was that he didn’t give a crap what her father thought; her father was self-centered and dogmatic and would not let anybody touch his trash compactor buttons; her mother probably did coke just to escape his god-on-high complex. A complex that, by the way, his daughter had not escaped, huddled down on the ground as she was, in daughterly worship.
Neil, however, was presenting their drinks on a tray lined with twinkling white doilies. Carter wondered how he would handle this. But Carter knew. He held himself back for a moment. Then flung himself onto the floor at Katrina’s feet and cried out loudly, with great theatrical anguish. “I’m sorry. I was a cuntbag asstoy! Your dad’s a giant.”
They all looked at him. Even Janice ceased knitting for a few stitches.
“How much exactly,” said Katrina, “did you and Neil drink?” But the fight was over. She had folded. He sat up and kissed her on one bare, waxed, blackberry-smelling knee; her knee always made him think of the inside of her elbow, which always made him think of the inside of her thigh—the soft downy upper reaches.
“Now that’s how you run a marriage,” said Neil. “Minus the language. We have growing girls upstairs. This house is strictly rated G.”
“It’s Katrina’s expression. She uses it on clients.”
“I should have known,” said Neil, shaking his head.
And then it happened—Carter saw it happen while still nestled on the lush, creamy wall-to-wall carpet, thinking how wonderful wall-to-wall carpet was, so comfortable on the knees, so cozy, why did no one in New York have it? Neil looked at Katrina and his face went soft and dazed, as if his brain had turned to maple syrup. “You remember that time when you snuck out of the house and jumped off the roof and my brother caught you?” said Neil.
“You were supposed to catch me.”
“He was older. He pushed me out of the way.”
Janice knitted on, briskly, efficiently.
“I was fourteen,” said Katrina. “What an arrogant shit I was. My poor old dad.”
“You were wearing that skirt,” he said. “With the flowers.” The flowers drifted through his eyes, even Carter could see them—light springtime blooms, pink petals, her feet bare in the grass.
All night, Neil had hardly talked to Katrina, save to give the congratulatory toast. He had stayed by Carter. He had introduced him. He had hugged him. He had showed him his archery range in the basement. Which, Carter realized, is exactly what you do when you plan on sleeping with someone else’s wife. You seduce her husband.
“I don’t remember,” she said, but in a way that implied she did.
Something—the skirt? a summer? a night? a lifetime?—was glistening in the air between them. They were both looking at it, together, the rest of the world on mute.
“Oh shoot,” said Janice. “I need more blue. It’s in the basket. Will you?”
Neil got up to get the yarn, but Carter was on the floor, closer. He reached in, cutting Neil off. Then he held up the ball and rolled it slowly to Janice’s feet. She had toenails that did not go with the rest of her—a glossy black, chipped.
“Did I ever tell you how Janice and I met?” said Neil.
“Neil,” she pretend-frowned.
“I pulled her out of a ditch. No exaggeration. There she was stuck in the mud in a Ford Fiesta. Her two girls in back. I just happened to be the one lucky guy at Fred Meyer’s. I towed them out. Escorted them home.”
“I made you lemonade,” she said.
“The lemonade,” he said, his eyes turning to her. Then to Katrina. “I remember standing in that tiny kitchen, thinking how if I could marry a kind, loving woman like her, everything else would be all right.” His voice was husky with feeling.
Carter could not believe it. Did she not see that Neil was showing her his tender side? Heroic, sensitive Neil, so emotionally in touch. “You know how we met?” asked Carter. “At a party. We left in a taxi. Ten minutes later we went at it, right in the back seat.”
The silence that resulted was majestic, velvety, absolute.
“Well,” said Janice, coming to the rescue. “Sex can bring two people together.” Carter was not sure if she was dumb or simply possessed an almost inhuman ability to forgive anyone, himself included.
“It’s not like it’s a secret, I guess,” said Katrina. “I’ve always been easy.”
“No,” said Neil, with gravitas. “You’ve never been that.”
A light came down from on high, a light that Katrina basked in like a Dutch girl from the seventeenth century with a basket of apples. Everything was quiet, except for the pleasant clicking of knitting needles, the soft creak of the house as it shifted against the cold outside. Carter sat there carefully. His hands looked odd to him, as if they belonged to somebody else.
“I’ll tell you what we didn’t do,” said Neil. “Give you two a wedding present.”
“Absolutely not,” said Katrina, still aglow. “That was the rule, no gifts.”
Carter looked back down at his hands. He wondered what his face was doing. He felt as if he were sitting on the rink while they raced around him on diamond ice skates, faster and faster. Going home was not an option. Should Carter suggest it, Katrina might just tell him to go ahead, she’d meet him, later. Ditto to Janice. She had surrendered to her knitting coma years ago. An understandable decision. She had been a single mom with two kids and a compact car to get her through Alaskan winters, a life that was long behind her.
“I bet,” said Neil, “you don’t have one Alaskan thing in that fancy New York apartment.”
“I bet,” said Katrina, “my apartment is tasteful and understated.”
He pointed to a fluffy white skin on the back of the sofa.
“It’s yours,” she said.
“Correct. And it’s still mine to give.”
“Don’t be silly. Besides, they shed.”
“I already ordered them something,” said Janice. “Williams Sonoma.”
“A waffle maker,” said Neil. He threw back his Scotch. He pulled a leather armchair over to his trophy wall. He took down some antlers—thin, crooked ones. He looked at them as if they were cheap, diseased. He set them on the top of a bookcase. Then pushed the chair over to a set of horns, twisted into thick, lavish curls. They were too high up on the wall. He jumped, as if to swat them down with one hand.
“Stop!” said Janice. “Please?”
“A waffle maker,” said Neil. But his face was red, his voice agitated.
Janice looked over at Carter. There was nothing in her expression. Not a plea for help, not an acknowledgment of their crappy circumstances. “It’s heart-shaped,” she said to the whole room. “Nonstick.”
Carter walked over to the mastodon, ran his hand over the front plate of the skull. It was comforting almost, how bone warmed under your fingers, as if a vestige of life still beat inside. “What about the mastodon?” he said.
All three of them swiveled their heads—and burst out laughing.
“Just a tusk, then,” he said. “The left one maybe. It’s shorter.”
“And there I was thinking you were relaxed,” said Neil. “You’re a go-getter, Carter. An alpha where it counts.”
Carter smiled—kind of—and started picking up plates. Katrina followed, targeting napkins. It was strange how suddenly a moment could bloom, then just as quickly shrivel up and vanish, poof. So Neil and his wife had possibly screwed their heads off for a teenage summer. Or for a year after college. So it hadn’t washed off. Everyone had their young misguided loves, bronzed by the memory of sex on the family sofa. Every now and then, sometimes even while he was with Katrina, he slipped back in time to Jennifer Larchmont from sophomore year and the hand she used to keep in her lap when she drove him to band practice, the slender possibilities of those fingers, so fluent in clarinet.
The kitchen was a blinding arrangement of stainless steel and granite. He placed the dishes on the counter, then stopped at a window over the sink that opened onto the living room. Katrina had a garbage bag out. She tossed in a plastic glass, a smashed bit of cake. Neil bumped into her. Obviously not by accident.
“Cut it out,” she said.
“Katrina brought a boy home,” he said, in a teasing voice.
“Shut up,” she said. Then paused—for a beat too long. “It’s not like he’s a teenager,” she said, finally. “He’s almost twenty-nine.”
“He’s an odd one. Dark. I like him.”
“I want you to.”
Neil tossed in a handful of used napkins. And stopped. “He’ll never leave you, Trina,” he said. “You know that, right?”
Katrina nodded, as if not only did she know this, but she also thought it was a wondrous thing, even when she also knew—or should have known, as Neil so clearly did—that there was no love between anyone without the slight, unspoken fear that that love might vanish, or be snatched away by someone else.
Carter was younger. He was taller. And stronger. All of which would only work against him if he gave in to the impulse to punch Neil in his supportive, caring face.
A door stood next to the refrigerator. It did not look as if it led to the pantry. Carter yanked it open. He walked down a long hallway, opening door after door until he found a bathroom. He sat down on the toilet. He didn’t have to go, but just sitting there with his pants down, cold porcelain on skin, was calming. Underneath every toilet was an invisible river. You just had to focus on it and float away.
He reached over for the toilet paper. A baboon stood in his way. It was stuffed and upright and dressed in a loincloth—holding the roll in its leathery, humanish fingers. Of course Neil shot monkeys. He flew over African savannas in his death chopper, lions running from him like deer.
The door opened. Carter jerked and clapped his thighs shut. It was Janice. His pants were on the floor. “I’m in here!” he said. But she already knew that. She was in the bathroom. She slid up on the edge of the sink. In the opening of her blouse, the bones on her chest were visible, the skin flecked with sunspots.
“Carter?” she said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m on the toilet?”
She cocked her head. She might not recognize his identifiers: prep-school hair, thrift-store sweater, scholarship parents, younger (anorexic) sister enrolled in grad school for life—but she suddenly seemed well equipped at flicking off a person’s packaging with her eyes. “Neil isn’t well,” she said. “And Katrina isn’t helping.”
“He’s trying to fuck her.”
“He doesn’t know what fucking is,” she said. She said this without emotion, as if reading a prescription bottle. She got down on her knees. She wedged her hands between his thighs and pried them open. She looked at him—clinically, expressionless—and moved closer. He almost shoved her back into the baboon, but worried about the noise, Katrina hearing, how to explain. Her hands were cold and she was cold and there was something horrible in her, something musky and calculated and mesmerizing and authoritarian. His hard-on arrived without his desire—or consent. He pulled her hands off his legs, held her by the wrists. “I feel sorry for you,” he said. “What you’ve had to do to survive.”
“Please,” she said. “Don’t play grown-up.” She whisked his hands away. He let her. She turned and looked at herself in the mirror, fluffed her dull, practical hair. “You know the sad thing about weak people?” she said. “They fall in love with strong ones, thinking they’ll get stronger.”
“Get out,” he said. “I mean it.”
“But it’s weakness that rubs off,” she said. “On everybody.” Then she smiled—not at him, but at herself, in the mirror, with such hatred. From her pocket, she pulled out a tube of lipstick and smoothed it over the contours of her lips.
“Get out, I said. Get out right fucking now.”
Janice however, was already at the door. “I guess you’ve already looked underneath the loincloth.” She slid into the hall with a quiet click of the knob. Carter stood up, zipped, tucked in his shirt. Then went over to the baboon, lifted the loincloth. There was nothing there, whatever had been there—male or female—had been chopped off or patched up and you’d have to dig around to tell.
“See?” said her voice from the other side of the door. “It’s just that easy.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” he shouted. The vomit slid out of him softly into the toilet. When it was over, he rubbed soap on his finger and brushed his tongue. It tasted both awful—blackened chicken—and better.
Carter stopped in the doorway to the living room. In the vast cathedral of windows that led up to the log ceiling, the mountains slept on—contented giants, their faces slashed with ice and moonlight. Katrina sat on the sofa, her feet stuck in a bowl of water. Neil held up a mask. It was leather of some kind, with two round eyeholes and a circular trim of feathery white fur. The mouth, however, gave it all its sadness—curved downward with the sucked-in look that old people have when they’ve lost their teeth. “It’s Yupik,” said Neil. “Old school. Dad got it from a Native buddy.”
He knelt, actually knelt, at her feet. “Here,” he said. “You take it.”
Carter willed himself not to charge into the room. Was this weakness? Or strength? Or some cockroach longing to see how far Katrina would go when she thought he wasn’t there to see?
“I’m fucking married,” she said. “I’m fucking happy.”
Neil stared up at her, his expression softening until it looked strange, molded, as if smeared across his skin. “It’s a son-of-a-bitch world,” he said, in a quiet voice, a broken voice. “And nobody gets out alive.”
She shook her head. “Your dad was sick. He didn’t mean it.”
“I think about that night,” said Neil. “That’s what he said, in his toast. Remember?” He picked up the mask from the sofa, tucked it under his arm. “You could have stayed to help me clean up.”
Neil was crying by now. Carter didn’t exactly want her to comfort him. Then again, he didn’t expect her to do what she did next. Which was to stare past him, out the window, her face a blank, as if Neil no longer existed. And she were far, far away.
Carter stood there, so very aware that he should not move. He had never seen her afraid before. If this was fear as she knew it—or something more terrible. He gave himself a minute. Then another. Though perhaps it was his stillness that caused Katrina to finally glance over.
“Carter?” she said.
“Buddy!” said Neil, his voice snapping back to jovial. “Your wife has blisters. The ice skates. We made her an oatmeal bath.”
His wife, the woman he had married in less time than it took to learn to drive or recover from mono as a teenager, looked down at the carpet so as not to meet his eyes.
“You don’t have to go,” said Neil. “Unless you want to.”
“Not without our gift,” said Carter. He walked over to the mastodon, slowly, and yanked on the closest tusk. It didn’t move. It was soldered on, perhaps with bronze.
“Carter!” said Katrina. “Stop.”
“Buddy,” said Neil. “If you want a tusk, take one.” He flung open a door beside the bar. There was a long walk-in closet behind it, piled high with ivory. “What’s mine is yours,” said Neil. “Take any one you like.”
“Carter?” said Katrina.
“Most are mammoths,” said Neil. “Bigger. Easier to find.” He gestured to a tusk at the back—deeply curved and thick as a human thigh. Carter picked it up. It was lighter than expected. Slick with polish. He dragged it across the carpet. Stopping only at the mastodon. There was no way around it, not alone.
He waited. Then waited a little longer—not looking back, even when Katrina finally grabbed the other end of their wedding present and lifted it up. They cleared the first tusk. Then the second. Gracefully. As if they had planned their steps. Was this marriage, he wondered, how well the worst in you worked with the worst in the other person? Or was it something else? He and Katrina had years to find out, a lifetime, once they staggered home through the snow together. There was no stopping for boots, no time to grab coats. Even as Neil called out from the doorway that they could take another tusk, a better one. They could have as many as they wanted. The glaciers were melting, buddy, bones and ivory surfacing. It was almost a little too easy. Everything was right there, lying on the ice. Exposed. Ready for the taking. You didn’t need a shovel. You didn’t need a pickaxe. You didn’t even need to dig.