Rounding the last corner on I-95, we both gasp—there is no sign of Baltimore City. Where there should be factories, the harbor, and the high-rise projects there is only white. “Where’d the city go?” says Greg. Taillights ahead of us flash once and then disappear, swallowed up. We are headed in the same direction, towards the void. We can’t even see the lines on the road, let alone the other vehicle.
By the time we climb out of the wreckage, the police and ambulance come and gone, we’re in a gauzy cocoon of fog. We shift our weight back and forth as we wait for triple-A. My neck got snapped back from the impact, but it’s my heart that’s hurting.
“You should call Guy, Mary,” Greg reminds me again. And I know I should. I should call my son. He’s right: it would be strange to come all the way up here for Greg’s testicular exam and not at least call.
I pull out my phone from my purse, the screen now cracked. I’m expecting the default Verizon voicemail greeting so I falter when my son actually answers. For a second I consider how easy it would be to just get done with our business and go home. He’s twenty-two after all, and living his own adulthood. But Greg can hear his voice on the phone and raises his eyebrows at me.
“Hi, Guy,” I say finally, “It’s Mom. I’m in Baltimore.”
“Oh?” He pauses. “With Greg?”
“Yeah, with Greg.” As if it will evoke his sympathy, I say, “You know, he has an exam tomorrow, and we thought we’d book a hotel room and…”
“That sucks,” he says.
“That we’re getting a hotel?”
“No, that he’s got ball cancer.”
“Oh. Yes…thank you. What are you doing tonight?”
“You want me to meet you guys or something?”
He’s really picked up his late father, Frank’s autistic mode of social interaction: blunt and unsentimental. Maybe sending him to the school for special needs did him a disservice not even his normal college experience could make up for. Before I can make the arrangements, he hangs up on me, another habit he inherited from his father, forgetting that a proper end to a conversation makes the listener feel good.
The triple-A truck drops us off at a basement tavern near the warehouse where Guy’s been living. It’s a bar full of regulars already on their fourth or fifth drinks, judging from their grins. The bartender is wearing a yellow-blonde mullet wig, and her makeup job was probably last applied in 1979. She asks where we’re from. “Up from D.C.,” Greg says.
“I’m surprised you found us,” she says, clearing our empty glasses. “In this fog, I mean.”
“Crazy, isn’t it?” says Greg. “So thick we had an accident.” He reaches over and rubs the back of my neck absently. The heat from his hand warms my whole back.
“You’re joking. Why didn’t you say nothin’?” She slams down three shot glasses, then grabs the Jameson and swings it back and forth over them. Whiskey sloshes on the counter. I hesitate for only a second before tossing it down my throat. I recognize the fire-burn from my youth, that little taste of death to make you feel a little more alive. We stack the glasses, still grimacing. I touch his back as I whisper, “I’m going to hit the can” in his ear.
“Don’t let it hit you back,” he tells me with a smirk.
A woman with a smelly perm job is half-perched on my husband’s lap when I come out of the bathroom. Greg’s laughing, his cheeks red the way they still get as if he can still be embarrassed after having been married to a fifty year-old woman seven years, but he’s trying to swivel his leg back under the bar. She’s clinging to the bar to prevent this, but he’s stronger. She slides off with a sloppy grin and clops past me to the jukebox. Greg is fifteen years my junior, very handsome, and dresses like James Dean so this happens to him a lot. I used to be quite beautiful.
“Making new friends?” I ask lightly, resuming my place beside him. He clutches my hand and says, “Don’t ever leave me again.”
An old man and what looks to be his prostitute date at the other end of the bar have been eating each other’s faces for the last fifteen minutes. So we stare at the fuzzy television screen above the bar, which is showing a montage of news from Occupy Wall Street. A young man in Ray-Bans tries to yank his arms out of the hold of two police officers. The wall of protestors meets the wall of riot-control cops, the protestors attempting to convince them that they are on the same side. Something ignites and suddenly people are running, the police squatting down to shoot crowd-control pepper bombs, or jabbing back a body into the mob like a rag doll. I look down the bar and see all eyes on the screen, no expressions on the faces. It’s nice sometimes just to see color and movement.
The woman who had been on Greg’s lap earlier put on a Creedence Clearwater Revival song on the jukebox. The man to my right says, “Everyone’s trying to resurrect the Sixties. Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Maybe it’s the last time anyone felt so fired up,” I offer, wishing immediately I’d stayed silent.
“Was that the last time you felt fired up?” the man asks then, and there are two questions in there.
“Mary wasn’t even ten years old during Vietnam, isn’t that right?” Greg says, defending me. But the man won’t stop. “What year were you born?”
Greg frowns but I’m not bothered by the question so I say, “Sixty-one.”
The man reflects, saying with a register of surprise, “Oh, yeah, I guess you’re too young.”
But he’s wrong, and Greg knows it too. I watched the footage with my parents, listening to them complain about the young people with too much body hair hanging around the Walgreens begging for smokes, the sudden abundance of acoustic guitars and thick, flowery smoke in the parks downtown. But the students on T.V. didn’t look stoned and idle to me. They looked like I felt in dreams when I was running away from a cresting tidal wave, running on instinct, knowing it doesn’t make much difference either way if you run or stand still. I wonder how many of those kids are dead now, how many work for the government, and how many have children in Zuccotti Park now.
“Times certainly come back around, don’t they?” says the bartender, pulling on her spider lashes. “Feels like a silent movie out there today. We could be livin’ in the nineteen-thirties, what with the economy busted and everyone lining up for jobs.”
When my son enters the bar, I think it’s Frank. His jet black hair hangs over his face, making his nose all the more prominent and Frank-like, and he’s lost at least ten pounds he didn’t have to lose in the first place. His skin hasn’t seen sun in a while. It looks translucent and wired with angry red and blue veins, all operations struggling with the effort of keeping him upright, it seems. His gray eyes peer out through the black tendrils, all intelligence and pain, the look I fell for in Frank. I fall for my son all over again, spooked as I am by his weight loss.
He sits down next to me like a stranger. He says, “Natty Boh,” and puts it on our tab. Only once he takes a long, bubbling sip from the can does he turn and ask, “How long have you been here?”
“About two hours now.”
“Oh,” he says as Greg reaches over to clasp hands.
“How you doin’, buddy?” Greg says, and Guy merely nods back. I know this is just Greg’s way of being friendly, but it sounds like a greeting for a much younger person. I cringe in anticipation of Guy’s response. He’s never put much effort into getting to know him, as if he doesn’t have energy for another father. I don’t blame him.
“We got in an accident,” I tell him.
“Really?” He turns and looks us up and down as if looking for injury as proof.
“We’re fine,” I answer, “Except for a couple sore necks. Have you ever seen fog like this before?”
“Yes,” he says, “At my father’s funeral.”
I try to penetrate his expression, but even though he has about sixty percent more emotive display than his father did, I get no clues facially. I don’t remember there having been fog at the funeral, but then I myself had been in a fog. Maybe this is what he means.
Guy tells us he moved out of the warehouse he was sharing with his college roommate, and that he’s in a room uptown now. So we start walking in that direction, rattled as Greg and I are from riding in vehicles, and since Guy says he prefers to walk anyway.
We have to walk along with our arms outstretched like zombies so we don’t collide with street light poles or people walking the opposite direction. The whiteout seems only to be getting thicker. “It started over the cemetery, you know,” says Guy. “It just started rising and forming above the tombstones until it spread out over everything. They’re calling it ‘ghost fog.’”
“Just in time for Halloween!” says Greg, and Guy regards him coolly. It doesn’t occur to him that the holiday marks the seventh anniversary of my first husband’s death. Frank had always taken the holiday a little too literally. Ours was the house on the block that got angry calls from the parents of terrified Trick-Or-Treaters. Sometimes I wonder if he had weird, horror-writer premonitions, like an anniversary celebration of his own future death. And I wonder if he thought he’d go out a little more romantically than a tractor-trailer swinging into his Volvo on the Bay Bridge on his way to a book signing.
“How’s the writing?” I ask with forced cheerfulness. He has been slated to surpass his father’s talent since grade school.
“Rabid fits and false starts,” he says, echoing a direct phrase of his father’s. His Adam’ apple is like a hanging fruit from a dying tree.
“We should have gotten you some food at the bar,” I say. “You look like you haven’t eaten in weeks.”
He says, “More like months.”
“What?” Greg cries. “In crab country? That’s it, let’s go down to the water and crack some Maryland blues.”
“What about that place in the harbor we went last time with you and Olivia? How is she, by the way?” I ask, meaning the last girl I’d heard him talk about.
“We broke up,” he says, touching his stomach.
“Aw, man,” says Greg gently. “How long ago?”
“Several months,” he says, which explains his loss of appetite. Even though Frank and I had been divorced several months prior, I lost about twenty pounds after I heard about the accident.
So instead, we stop by the grocery store and pick up packs of frozen steaks, whole wheat bread, peanut butter and cold cuts for sandwiches, protein bars, and beef jerky. His skin looks pretty bad, so I throw in some face wash that he scowls at until he opens the top and sniffs.
Loaded down with groceries now, we break down and pay for a cab to take us up the rest of the way to Guy’s new neighborhood, nearly getting into another accident in the fog. Everyone seems to be making more contact when we can’t see each other coming.
Though the house is almost entirely shrouded, I can see multiple paint jobs have cracked, revealing splintered timber beneath. Still, there’s something more hopeful and alive about it than the cold concrete of the warehouse. I wrap an arm around Guy’s shoulders and say, “What a cute place!” He shrugs, either to what I’ve said, or to remove my arm.
Two kids in cutoffs and boots are on the slouching porch, fixing a bike. They look up when we arrive, and Guy says, “Jen, Cage, this is Mary and Greg.”
They look at us and the girl says, “Are they your parents or something?”
I hate that I don’t feel as old as I must look to her. “I am,” I say. “Greg’s my husband.”
“Cool,” she says. “Guy, you’ve…got a nice family there.”
“Thanks,” he says dismissively.
We walk away and I say, “What was that all about out there?”
“Everyone else here…Jen lived in foster homes until she got married, and Cage used to ride trains after he got kicked out of his house.”
“So you’d rather not let it be known that you are loved and taken care of. Got it,” I say, trying not to feel insulted. Greg squeezes my hand and winks at me as we walk into the house. I crack a smile, remembering band practices with my gutter punk friends, held in my garage because I had two parents who worked and had a car, and my whining when my mother would come out with Cokes and chips on a paisley serving tray. It was hard to find anything to scream about after that.
Guy’s refrigerator is nearly empty except for some homegrown radishes, a bowl full of beans, and a gallon of Hi-C. “Wow,” I say, “I haven’t seen Hi-C in years.” Frank used Hi-C and prune juice for his special “demon blood” cocktail at Halloween. I look up at Guy, looking for the hint of a pink moustache.
“This whole place is a nostalgia trip,” Greg remarks, looking around at the old movie posters, Steve Martin in The Jerk and Bill Murray in Caddyshack, even though he would have only been about four when they came out, but I make him forget how young he is.
There’s a shelf tumbling over with cassette tapes, and there’s a My Little Pony castle. Inside, beheaded Barbie’s are sitting around a table. On plates in front of each one is a head. Someone has draped black gauze over the whole scene, affixed to the pink castle with silver studs. Jen says behind me, “That was an installation I did sophomore year. I was thinking about the ruins of adolescence, loss of innocence and that sort of thing.”
“Did you play with these as a child?” I ask, touching the castle spire.
“The actual kids of my foster parents did. I got these at a yard sale.”
“Sic transit gloria adulescens,” I murmur, and Greg says, “What’s that?”
“Frank used to inscribe that on the cardboard tombstones in the front yard on Halloween. It means, ‘Thus passes the glory of youth,’ roughly.”
Fruit flies swarm around our heads. “You know, Guy,” Greg says, waving his hand back and forth in front of his face, “I think for the money you’re paying you could do a bit better.”
We sent him five hundred dollars to cover the three hundred dollar rent he was splitting with his roommate. Obviously the rest did not go to groceries or clothing.
“It’s a lot better than that warehouse he was in, though, wasn’t it?” I say. “What was that place called?”
“The Tin Man.”
“Right,” I say chuckling. “What a clever name for a former canning company.”
“Why’d you move?” Greg asks, with a joke in mind. “Didn’t it have much heart?”
“We got evicted so they can turn it into more dorms for Brexton,” he says, meaning the art college in town. “For the real artists,” he adds, elbowing Jen who rolls her eyes. “But I’m paying less to live here.”
I glance up at Greg who says then, “How’d you spend the rest we sent you?” It was really his money, after all, since he makes more behind his computer than I do behind mine. And besides, it was his idea to send it.
In a rare break of expression, Guy grins and leads us upstairs to his room. He has a bare twin mattress on the floor and a desk cluttered with his laptop, notebooks, and four empty bottles of merlot holding half-melted red candles. There’s a strange smell, musty and thick like old things, but then sawdusty like new things.
I step over heaps of clothes and take a look at the notebooks on his desk. There is one that catches my eye. It’s a leather-bound antique tied with a string, the horned image of Pan burned into the leather.
I look up when he says, “Check it out.” He’s standing beside a wooden closet that I think is his armoire. I have a second of worry that it’s where he’s growing pot now, and wonder why on earth he’s showing this to his mother until he opens the door. The inside is lined with metal like a deep-freezer, and attached to the side is a hose with a funnel at the end. A little bench makes it look like a solo sauna.
“It’s an accumulator,” Guy explains. His grin reminds me of when he was five and he so proudly showed his father and me a time machine he made out of cardboard boxes, our computer keyboard, and jumper cables. “It collects and stores all the creative energy in the atmosphere. And since this fog rolled in, the atmosphere is closer than ever. You sit here…” he climbs in the box and sits on the wooden bench. “…And then you hold this funnel to your solar plexus to receive a concentrated stream of molecules.”
“And what happens when you receive those molecules?” asks Greg, and I wish he would cut out his facetious tone. Guy picks up on it and glares at him.
“You get a high, concentrated dose of creative energy. Supposed to beat the blues, sexual frustration, hangovers, and some believe cancer. It’s theoretical science, Greg. You don’t have to believe it. But just remember: the soft sciences of today are the hard sciences of tomorrow.”
“I’ve heard of these things,” I say. “It was invented by a student of Freud’s in the Thirties. A lot of artists in the Fifties and Sixties used them.”
“Sounds like it had plenty of time to become a hard science,” says Greg. Guy scowls and I try to redirect. “How’d you learn how to make this?” I ask.
“From my father,” he says, and now I recognize that journal.
As he picks it up and flips through it, I hold onto the desk for support because that smell, dragon’s blood and sage, was the smell of Frank’s study in our old house. For one object, the smell—or maybe the memory—is overwhelming, and Greg places a hand on the small of my back, sensing my vertigo.
“See?” Guy’s shows us a page on which Frank drew a detailed diagram of the strange machine. He used wisps of his pen to indicate fog around the box. “He was writing about how the accumulator’s effects might be heightened by the nearness of suspended water particles, water being a sympathetic agent of psychic intention. So, Greg, to address your skepticism, placebo it may be, but as intention is the fundamental element of change, transformation, metamorphosis, it is at worst a powerful placebo.”
As he talks, I realize he is discovering how to do something I never could: break Frank’s code. When I first met his father in college, he was struggling with this himself, and had visited the Writing Center on campus where I worked to get help with a short story he was writing. That inky black hair, those cool, grey eyes. He told me then about his autism, which explained his abruptness and mask-like expression. But as he talked, in short spurts and long rambles, I saw the intelligence behind his eyes. I got him to unfurl his thoughts, and wrote them all down in scattered order. I showed him how to group related concepts, and then his writing took off. He won awards from school and contests in town. We started dating, and he dedicated each story to me. After college, we married and had Guy. He published his first collection of horror stories, and they were a hit with all the goth kids. The Times called him the new H.P. Lovecraft. But by then the code had changed, and with the added stress of motherhood and his demanding writing schedule, we never cracked it again. Even before we separated, I already felt as if I were a single mother.
“He was using these ideas for a new short story when he died,” Guy continues. “I was out of ideas when the fog rolled in, then I found this page when I was going through the box of books from his library.” I’d tossed that box in the car with his college things. He’s never mentioned it until now.
“I’d say,” Greg says, with a soft smile, “You’ve made good use of your time, Guy.”
Guy shrugs and looks out the window. Like the rest in the house, it’s caked in grime, but with the fog just outside there is an illusion of light. In fact, if we never checked the time, it could all be as if everything were suspended just like millions of tiny water drops hovering just above the ground.
“You said it could cure cancer, right?” I ask Guy. He shrugs. “Greg, honey, why don’t you give it a whirl?”
I see Guy’s eyes ignite and he says, “Of course! I need to test it on a skeptic.”
Greg gives me a gee, thanks a lot look, but I smile and nod my head encouragingly. “Oooh-kee-doke,” he says, climbing into the box. Guy gives him instructions and then closes the door.
I get the tour of the rest of the house and their little vegetable garden. “Well,” Guy says, “Better go check on the patient.”
When we come back to Guy’s room, Greg is climbing out with a wide grin. “Well, all those orgones got my stomach rumbling. Is it crab time yet?”
“Hey,” says Guy, holding out a hand, “Good luck on your test tomorrow, Greg,” and my husband takes the hand and replies, “Thanks, I was up all night studying.”
We leave Guy’s and take another cab back down to the water. Greg still hasn’t forgotten about the crabs. We tear apart the fat sea spiders, our fingers becoming red and gritty with Old Bay. We stare at a few different games on a few different TV’s behind the bar. Greg orders us a banana split, and I groan when it comes with two spoons.
“Come on, Greg,” I say, dropping my head on his shoulder. “I’m never going to drop five pounds this month.”
“You never needed to,” he says, meaning to grab my butt but only grabbing a bit of back fat. I take the spoon and dip it in the boat dish, making sure to grab enough banana along with the ice cream and strawberry sauce. I bring it to my lips, close my mouth over it, feeling the cool sweetness rush along my tongue. It’s not exactly ice cream weather, but the fruity sauces make me feel a little less like I could float away any second.
I look up into Greg’s eyes, so blue they look almost wet. “Listen, Mary,” he says, taking my hand, “About tomorrow. This is no death sentence. It’s highly treatable, and if it hasn’t spread further they can just go in and remove it. I’m going to be with you a long time.” He brings my hand to his lips and closes his eyes. The kiss travels from my hand up my arm, through my sore neck to my throat and down to my belly where it rests. I close my eyes and think about Guy climbing into his box, closing the door, bringing the funnel to his belly button, that stamp from my own body, so that all the life in this dead ghost city pours into him while outside the fog breathes quiet phosphenes on the windows, asking to be let in.