novel excerpt

"The Summer of Driving Naked"
Chapter from Suburban Guerrillas
by Joseph Freda
W.W. Norton

The same summer the purple finches nested on the front porch, Ray and Marisse Vann started driving around town naked. It started over dinner one Friday evening. As they spoke of the small events of the day—Ray had gotten a new graphics program for his computer, Marisse had lunched with Tina—Ray told Marisse of something unusual he had seen on his way to work.

“It’s just getting light,” he said. “Cars still have their lights on, and I’m cruising down Route 3 in the passing lane. Doing about seventy. I see this pair of lights moving up on the right—not too fast, but steady. It’s not a cop; the lights are too close together. It gets up next to me—some kind of American compact—and it’s a man and a woman, the man driving. But something looks funny. Just something. The guy doesn’t have a shirt on. No big deal—it’s summer, a lot of guys drive around without shirts. But this is six o’clock in the morning. It’s still cool out. Okay, they pull past. The windows are a little steamy. After they passed me, I realized something: the woman didn’t have a shirt on either. I thought—it was just a perception—I thought I saw her bare shoulder.

“I tucked in behind them and when I got an opening I passed them. Hiked myself up in my seat and sure enough, this woman did not have a top on! These two are driving down Route 3 in the middle of the morning commute absolutely naked!”

“Come on,” Marisse said. “How did you know they were naked? I mean totally?”

“You can just tell. There’s something about the way they were sitting. A little....hunched forward, or something, like they were covering themselves up. And the steamy windows.”

“Anybody can have steamy windows at that hour of the morning.”

“No, it was different. I’m telling you, these people were naked. They saw me looking at them and they both broke out laughing and waved at me. They do this for kicks.”

Marisse searched his face for any sign that he was putting her on.

“I’m not kidding you. Naked. Right down Route 3.”

The next day was Saturday, a day of chores for suburban working couples like Ray and Marisse. Marisse went to the bank and the supermarket and the drugstore. In the afternoon, she locked herself into her studio to work on a painting. Ray went to the dump and the hardware store and then after lunch he cut the grass. The frigging grass, he thought as the red mower spewed clippings and fumes all around him, it’s cutting the frigging grass in the summer and raking the frigging leaves in the fall and shoveling the frigging snow in the winter. You own a house and then you’re a slave to it. The whole thing needs painting and the bathroom light needs to be fixed and the roof needs to be patched and the chimney is starting to come apart. A storm last winter blew down a brick and it sounded like somebody dropped a bomb on the place.

That evening Ray and Marisse ordered out for Thai food and watched a video. It was a Dennis Hopper film that left them deadened: they didn’t feel like watching more TV, didn’t feel like reading, like going to bed, like making love: didn’t feel like anything, really, so they wandered through their downstairs rooms for a few minutes and then drifted out into the back yard. It was a nice night. They were in light clothes, and the freshly-cut grass smelled good, but the mosquitoes found them and Marisse could not abide mosquitoes. Ray could not abide the thought of going aimlessly back into the house. Why were movies like that so popular? People felt dead enough already, he figured. They needed to feel a little more dead just to feel alive.

Then he remembered the couple in the car.

“I’ve got an idea,” he said to Marisse.

“If it’ll get us away from these mosquitoes, I’m for it.”

“Let’s go for a drive naked.”

“I’m not for it.”

“No—let’s do it.”

“Ray, I am not going for a drive naked.”

“Just down the street. Look—it’s dark, it’s late, there’s nobody out. We’ll just go down to the corner and back. It’ll be a kick.”

Marisse considered this. Ray was nuts. The very idea of driving past the neighbors’ houses—it scared her but also made her smile. She could tell Tina on Monday over coffee, and they’d crack up. And it’s not like she had any kids to be respectable for. What the hell. She pulled her t-shirt over her head and threw it at Ray.

“Get naked, big fella. We’re going for a spin.”

Ray shucked out of his shorts and headed for the garage. It was one of the things he loved about Marisse—whatever crazy idea he came up with, sooner or later she’d go along. The concrete garage floor was warm and gritty after the cool grass. Marisse started to bring her t-shirt into the car.

“Huh-uh,” Ray said. “You have to be totally naked. Physically and psychically. No chickening out at the first streetlight.”

She hung her shirt and shorts on the lawn mower. The velour bucket seat of Ray’s Honda felt soft and nice, and she giggled as Ray folded himself in behind the wheel. They sat in the dark a moment. Marisse switched on the radio and found the Boston blues show and adjusted the volume.

Ray backed out and didn’t turn on the headlights until the car was in the street. The green-white dashboard illuminated their bodies. They looked at each other. Marisse giggled again. Ray snorted and shifted into second.

Most of the houses were dark: the Rosens’, the Bains’. Marisse imagined Cynthia Rosen, the picture of suburban motherhood, asleep in a summer nightgown, a light robe nearby in case she had to get up and tend to one of the girls, and she wondered what Cynthia would think if she knew Marisse was riding past her house without a stitch on. Well! Cynthia would be appalled! Past the Stevenses and then past the Bartolomeos on the other side of the street. A light in the Stevenses, but everything else was dark. Under the streetlight they were momentarily illuminated. She looked at Ray: his chest hairs, slight belly and thighs were all visible. His lap was in shadow. She could see her breasts, white in the light.

“Wow,” she said. “Good thing there’s only a couple of streetlights.”

“The better to see you with, my dear,” Ray said, and chucked her under her near breast.

They went round the big curve at the lower end of the street. The houses down here were not as well-kept as the Victorians and four-squares up at her end, and Marisse didn’t know anybody down here. She began to feel more comfortable in her nakedness. All the houses were dark, the people asleep. They all seemed so safe in their little dens, snug in their burrows. She, on the other hand, felt a touch of danger, of wildness. An animal of the night, she thought. A night bird.

Ray wore a bemused look. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. She reached over and ran her hand along his thigh. At the corner, where Monadnock teed into Main Street, Ray began to swing the car around.

“Go down Main Street,” Marisse said. “Just a little ways.”

He looked at her like, You were the one uptight about this.

“This is fun,” she said.

There were more streetlights on Main Street, but also sidewalks so the houses sat farther back. A pair of headlights approached and the car swooshed by, illuminating them only to themselves. What if the car had sideswiped them, she thought. Or what if a cop stopped them, a random drunk-driving check. The farther they got from Monadnock Street, the more exposed she began to feel. There were laws about public indecency.

“Maybe we ought to go back,” she said to Ray.

“Sure,” he said. “This was farther than I imagined anyway.”

They passed another car on the way back, and then they were on Monadnock Street, climbing the hill, going around the curve. Halfway up, they could see a flashlight’s jittery beam, and then their headlights picked up a person walking. An old man, Nicolo Bartolomeo, out for a late walk. Marisse sank down in her seat, and then they were past.

“Hey old Nicko, get a load of this,” Ray said to the closed interior of the car. “A naked lady driving past your house.”

“Oh, leave old Nicko alone,” Marisse said. “Get a load of the naked lady yourself.”

Next morning, Ray put on some jazz and settled in with the Sunday paper. Marisse went out to water the petunias. She had three pots of them hanging across the front porch. A pair of purple finches had made their nest in one, so she was careful as she watered that pot. The finches had begun building their nest in May, and the predominant sound since then had been their distinctive “CHEEP!” The female would sit on the nest while the male stood guard at any of several posts: the maple tree in front of the house, the birch on the side, the telephone line across the street. He’d announce his presence: “CHEEP!” It was an assertive statement. “CHEEP!” I’m here! “CHEEP!” I’m here! It was both a reassurance to his mate and a warning to other birds, marauding cats, and clumsy humans.

The finches’ situation was not simple. They had shown both brilliance and shortsightedness in their choice of the petunia pot. Brilliance, because the pot hung from the eaves of the porch, out of the reach of cats and tucked neatly away from the rain, and the leafy canopy of the petunias gave both camouflage and protection from the sun. But it was shortsighted, too: the petunias had to be watered in order to maintain their leafy protection, and the nest could be easily flooded.

Marisse took her watering duties seriously and approached the nest quietly. She kept a stepstool on the porch so she could see exactly where she was pouring. And she poured only enough to sustain the petunias and not soak the nest. As soon as Marisse opened the porch door, the finches flew to one of their various posts and began raining curses upon her: “CHEEP! CHEEP! CHEEP!” When Marisse was done, they’d alight on the pot, inspect the nest, and then settle back into the process of perpetuating their species.

This morning was no different, and the finches took off as Marisse opened the screen. She loved the colors of the male—raspberry, dusty rose—but the female was as drab as a sparrow. Hunker down in the nest and have babies, while the male flits about putting color into the world. If the female finch were human she’d be one of those housebound mothers who did nothing but tend the kids—never put on a party dress, never see her skin under neon light. Never, she thought, remembering last night with a guilty little smile, go for a drive naked.

In the living room, Ray looked up from the Sunday paper and watched Marisse pour the water into the petunias. He felt good from the night before and from the jazz playing, and the sight of his wife performing this simple act filled him with love. She used a blue earthenware crock, and poured with such attention and tenderness that she might be tending her own babies. She’d make a good mother, he thought. Probably she would. She was a kind person and giving of herself. She was attentive to her cats, and that ought to be some indication. But she shared his boredom with things domestic, even though she still wrestled with the notion of having children. Ray had made his decision: he did not want kids. He liked kids well enough, as long as they weren’t spoiled brats, and he enjoyed spending time with his nieces and nephews. All his friends who had kids told him he’d make a good dad. But he just did not have any desire to be a parent, and he figured this was reason enough not to do it.

For Marisse it was not so simple. As the woman, she felt the burden of children more heavily, and at thirty-five, she felt the biological sands running. Every month another grain slipped through the hourglass of her uterus.

As she finished watering, she noticed someone walking past the house. Old Nicolo from down the street. He spoke first: “Nice day.”

“Beautiful,” Marisse said. “I have a pair of finches living in my petunias.”

“Purple finches or house finches?”

“That’s the male there.” She pointed to the telephone wire, where the bright male was perched.

Nick shaded his eyes. “Purple. Not red like the house finch.”

“CHEEP!” said the finch.

“That’s him,” Nicolo said.

“They make a racket,” Marisse said.

“Turn up the music,” Nicolo said, nodding toward the front door. “That’ll drown ’em out.”

Next Saturday night, they went for another drive. It was not impulsive this time; they planned it over breakfast. They set it all up just so: Ray grilled swordfish for dinner and Marisse made a Caesar salad. They split a bottle of wine. They listened to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and nursed their wine until it was late enough. They joked and mused, and looked forward to their naked drive like a couple of kids anticipating Halloween.

They headed out into the country. This was not hard to do in a town the size of Hurley, and within a few minutes they had left the streetlights behind. Ray opened the Honda’s sunroof and plugged in a Thelonious Monk tape. Marisse settled back into the plush velour bucket and looked out the sunroof at the stars. They passed farmhouses with glowing windows, barnyards brittle in sodium illumination, and contemporaries with their beams and soaring glass triangles.

God, it was lovely! Marisse noticed, as they passed under trees, how the headlights illuminated the veins of the leaves. She began to see details: the weft and warp of cedar shakes, the cold etch of a wrought-iron railing. She smelled the sweet earthy dairy and the dank forest mulch. She felt the window with the back of her hand: cool ice. Why had she never noticed these things? She had the sudden desire to paint, to capture with her brush the texture of the night. Above the piano and bass and the rushing air, she heard the drone of peepers. She shifted in the seat and her own scent rose to her. It was wonderful, all your senses turned on like they couldn’t possibly be when you were fully dressed and focused on a destination.

Ray pulled up out of the woods and drove along a high ridge in the town of Wilton. The sky opened wide on all sides. Marisse could look back to the right and see the lights of Hurley, and over to the left those of another town—Peterborough, she guessed. Higher up, the blinking red lights of a radio tower. She hiked herself up in the seat and stuck her head out through the sunroof. The wind blasted her ears and whipped her hair. The night! Blasting along naked in the night! She pushed herself higher until she was shoulders and chest out of the car. The night rushed by, all wind and flashing fenceposts and the sting of her hair, and up high, the slowly moving sky. She stood all the way up and held onto the rim of the roof. She shut her eyes. She wished she could be completely out there, legs and arms flailing, the night wind seeking out her hidden corners.

Ray grinned and accelerated. Marisse’s knee was right beside his cheek. He loved the little crease her leg made at her hip, and the smooth plane of her stomach. He downshifted into a curve and wailed out the other side. The car was precise, the road smooth; he could run like this all night. Up here on top of the ridge you could see thirty miles in any direction, and off to the southeast was the distant glow of Boston. He wound through another curve, the tachometer needle jumping and the overhead cams making a nice high whine, and Marisse shifting her weight easily to counteract the g-forces. He came out of the curve and upshifted. Marisse’s thigh next to his cheek: he leaned over and rubbed against it.

She felt the scratch of his beard; electricity rippled her skin. She returned the nudge and arched her back, giving the electricity a circuit around her buttocks and up her spine. The move rechanneled the wind and it swept down her back and through her legs, and she opened her eyes and there was another curve ahead so she braced herself and felt the pinprick of an insect hitting her chest.

Ray downshifted for the curve, the last on the ridge before heading back down into the woods, and noticed out of the side of his eye, ahead, on a tangent line to the curve and seen between Marisse’s thigh and the windshield pillar, a glinting. A jittery reflection a fraction of a second away, and even as he hit the brakes and threw his arm out to brace Marisse, he knew the deer would step into the road. He braked hard but smoothly, holding Marisse, who strained backward to keep from being thrown out, and with some internal sensor modulating the pressure between his brake foot—not too much, not too much!—and his arm around Marisse’s waist—hang on, hang on!—he brought the car to a sliding stop as the deer wobbled stiffly out of the brush and onto the road, eyes rolling, legs ungainly on the pavement. Its fur was patchy on its flanks, its winter coat still shedding. Ray heard the ticking of the Honda’s valves, the clicking of the deer’s hooves. An adrenaline rush came, fluttering his gut and his nerves right down to the fingers. Marisse slumped back into her seat. The deer flicked its tail and then trotted off into the woods on the far side of the road.

“Wow!” Marisse said, reaching out. Only when she touched him did he realize his tumescence. “Some ride.” Her breath was quick.

Ray took it slower going home, winding down through the hills. Marisse turned up the stereo and reclined her seat. The piano notes twinkled out through the roof and into the sky, became stars. By the time they pulled into the garage, Marisse was almost asleep. Ray had to nudge her out of the car and half-carry her into the house.

“I think I want to have a baby,” Marisse said. “A little girl.”

“Sure. Anything you say.”

“Ray, I saw the cutest little girl in the supermarket today. Curly blonde hair, wet from the pool. Tan little stick legs, neon sunglasses. I mean, break your heart.”

“Sounds pretty cute.”

“I think I’d like to have a little girl. Someone to pal around with.”

“What if you had a little boy?”

“No. No, I’d have a girl. Like a little sister. Tina’s girls wear her clothes, and she theirs. They have a ball together.”

“Tina started having kids when she was a teenager. By the time your daughter’s old enough to wear your clothes, you’ll be in floral housedresses and orthopedic shoes. She’ll get a real kick out of your aluminum walker.”

“Well, I think I want to.”

“Right.” They’d had some version of this conversation twenty, thirty times. Marisse would see a cute kid and get to thinking about it again. Ray knew that she needed him to talk her out of it, to reassure her that life would be okay without children. It wasn’t hard for him to do this, so he played along until she was pacified.

“You think I’m too old?” she asked.

“You’re getting there. Statistically, women over thirty-five are twice as likely to give birth to boys anyway.”

“Get out. Where did you hear that?”

“It’s common knowledge. Ask anybody who’s waited until their thirties to have kids. They’re talking boys.”

“Well, a little boy wouldn’t be bad either.”

“Yeah, you could swap clothes. You’d look great as a GI Joe.”

“I’m serious, Ray. What about when we’re old? We’ll have some neat young adults to keep us company.”

“Are you kidding? How often do most kids see their parents these days? How often do we—twice, three times a year, tops. Christmas, and once in the summer, and maybe one other time, if they come to visit us. You want company in your golden years, don’t go counting on your own flesh and blood.”

“Hmm...” she said. “Hmm, yeah. What if they turned out to be jerks? What if I had a boy and he turned out to be a druggie or a Seven-Eleven robber or an accountant?”

“You’d better think this through,” Ray said. “Kids are your basic big deal.”

“Yeah, maybe. I can enjoy other people’s kids and not have my own. Your sisters have plenty of kids for the family, and my brother.”

“Right. And we don’t have to worry about them mooching off us in our old age.”

Throughout June and July, the CHEEPing of the finches was as regular a sound as the scraping of the crickets or the drone of a neighborhood lawnmower. When the first little bird hatched, it was bald and wormlike, and at first Marisse thought one of the adult birds had brought back a dead invertebrate as decor. But the little scrap of meat soon showed signs of life, opened its violet eyelids, sprouted some hairlike feathers. And soon it was joined by its siblings, five little birds in all, a quiet rustling in the bottom of the petunia pot.

Marisse was more careful than ever with the watering can, because now she worried about drowning the little finches. They were soon covered with down, and then feathers, and before long, they too began making little peeps. Even in their high-frequency piping you could hear the assertion, the claim to being, that would mature into the same cheeping oratory of their parents.

Eventually they got big enough that Ray and Marisse could count all five adolescent heads from the living-room window. How would they leave the nest? Marisse wanted to know. Ray answered, without knowing the specific logistics, that they would one day learn to fly. He had watched chubby prepubescent robins fluttering around the back yard, encouraged by their parents, trying their wings and eventually gaining flight. A few short glides at first, terminated by feathery tumbles in the grass, but it wasn’t long before they got the hang of it and were easily launching themselves and gliding in for smooth landings. He assured Marisse it would be the same with the finches.

Through July, Ray and Marisse continued their late-night naked drives. Sometimes they went for long blasts out in the country, with music pumping out through the sunroof; sometimes they just tooled around town—through the residential back streets, up and down the commercial strip. On these around-town cruises, Marisse kept her hair pulled over her shoulders. Her nakedness wasn’t visible. Nothing looked unusual, really. A man without a shirt on, no big deal. A couple of times they even went through the drive-up window at Dunkin Donuts. The attendant was a middle-aged woman in thick glasses, and she simply thanked them and smiled as she passed them the bright bags of donuts and coffee. Sometimes when they got home they’d make love; other times they’d read or just go to bed.

“It’s fun,” Marisse told Tina at work. “It’s just good, clean fun. We’re not bothering anybody.”

“But don’t you worry about getting caught?”

“At first. Sometimes still. But unless we do something wrong or get into an accident, there’s no reason for a cop to stop us. We’re not hot-rodders or hell-raisers. We don’t look like bad dudes. A middle-class couple in a Honda sedan doesn’t exactly make a cop reach for the flashers.”

“It sounds kind of crazy. God, you don’t take any clothes at all?”

“None. That’s what makes it exciting. You’re just out there. Just you. It feels kind of liberating.”

“Liberating? What do you need liberating from? You’ve got a good job, a good place to live. Maybe you need a hobby. They give belly-dancing lessons over in Nashua. Maybe you ought to have kids.”

“It’s just fun,” Marisse said. “Actually, it’s more than fun. It’s kind of therapeutic, like a hot tub to Californians.”

“Yeah, well,” Tina said. “Leonard would never go for it. I mean, God, he’s a Little League coach.”

In August, thunderstorms. Mornings were muggy and close, with haze thickening and blocking the sun. By afternoon the clouds had started rumbling into each other, and the storm would break on Ray’s drive home. Sometimes the storms would last into the evenings. Ray would take his coffee onto the front porch and squat against a column and watch the show. Marisse was concerned about the finches during these storms, because the wind would whip the petunia pot around. But the pot never fell, and the birds stayed hunkered down in their nest.

Until one Friday morning, that is, when Marisse went to water the petunias. The day was warm and close, sure to storm later. She was stuffy from the humidity, her sinuses blocked and achy. After Ray left for work, she filled her watering can and opened the front screen. The two adult birds flitted from the nest. The young finches were a bobbing mob in the base of the petunia pot. They had shouldered aside the petunias and were on the verge of tumbling out of the pot, like too many passengers in a lifeboat.

Marisse climbed onto her stepstool. She was so congested, her head felt as full as the watering can. As she raised herself to eye-level with the finches and breathed in the damp mustiness of their nest, she felt a tingling in her sinuses, a pressure in her chest, and before she could turn her head, eyeball to beady eyeball with the young birds, she sneezed. The finches exploded from the nest as if expelled from her nasal passages, and in an instantaneous rite of passage, flew off to all corners of the yard.

Marisse was too shocked even to pour the water. The nest was now empty, the finches dispersed. The adult birds, with much cheeping, rounded up their young and gathered in the birch tree. As if by prearranged signal, they all took off and flew directly across the street to the telephone wire. There they sat, the sleek parents and the chubby young, all cheeping and grooming their feathers, and generally acting pleased with themselves. Again as if on signal, they fell silent and then took off for a big swoop above the street and landed in the maple tree. They kept this up for the rest of the day. But slowly they began to drift away. When Marisse came home for lunch, their cheeping was less frequent. And when she got off work she stood in the driveway to watch for them. There was the occasional bright arc across the gathering clouds, a three- or four-bird formation swooping over the telephone wires, but clearly, the finches were leaving.

She felt a pang of sadness. She went up onto the porch, but saw no dark mass at the base of the petunias, heard no comforting peeps. She had raised those finches, damn it, and now they were gone. The phrase “empty nest” came into her head, but she felt it just below her heart.

The thunderstorm started and Ray came home. She told him about the finches. He thought the sneeze was pretty funny, but he didn’t pay too much attention to her sadness over their departure. The work week was behind him, an evening of thunderstorms was ahead, and while Marisse cooked dinner he popped open a beer and flipped through the mail. The lights flickered during dinner, and Marisse asked Ray if she ought to draw a tub of water. What for? he asked. She wasn’t sure, really; her mother had always filled the tub before thunderstorms.

After dinner, Ray cleaned up the kitchen while Marisse sipped her coffee and read a magazine. Another storm began rolling in, and she figured Ray would take his coffee onto the porch. It would be too lonely for her out there.

Instead, Ray suggested a drive.

“I don’t know,” she said. “In a thunderstorm?”

“It’ll be wild,” he said. “Lightning flashing all around. A dark and stormy night. Werewolves.” He showed his teeth.

Marisse was apprehensive. “What if something happened?” She imagined their nude bodies being found in their lightning-struck car, the bizarre headlines.
But Ray teased and talked her into it. He wanted to head for high ground, where they could really watch the storm. What the heck, she thought. It beats sitting around feeling blue. On the way to the garage, though, she stopped in the laundry room and grabbed the first two things she found: a pair of Ray’s gym shorts and a beach towel. She knew it was cheating, but she stuffed them under the passenger seat before Ray got there.

Ray headed toward Lyndeborough. A lot of ridgetop roads, no cars. As the lightning flashed and thunder rolled, they had the night to themselves. “Wow!” Ray would say after a spectacular lightning bolt, and there would be a moment of reversed afterimage on their eyeballs. At the base of one of the long, high ridges, Ray rounded a curve and in a lightning flash they saw a sight so absurd they both thought it was a hallucination: a kid on an aqua moped, wearing a tropical print shirt and shorts, buzzing up the mountain road. They were by him in an instant, and his weak headlight barely flickered in Ray’s rearview.

“Did you see that?” Ray asked.

“Jesus,” Marisse replied. “That’s that kid. Christopher something. He hangs around with the Rosen girls. He looked more exposed than we do. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.”

“Hell, he wasn’t even wearing shoes—he had on flip-flops.” Ray shook his head. “What’s with kids anyway, riding around in weather like this?”

“You think we ought to go back and give him a lift?”

“Right,” Ray said, and continued in a falsetto, “‘So then, officer, these two naked people pulled up and tried to make me ride with them...’ ”

He had a point, but the kid had looked so vulnerable.

Ray found a turnout with a view of the valley, and he pulled the car off the road and shut off the lights. The rain pelted the roof. Gusts of wind shook the car and sent sticks and leaves past the windows. “Yeah!” Ray said as lightning arced over the valley and thunder boomed overhead. He was enjoying the storm, but Marisse was quiet. She didn’t like storms, they frightened her. And she was thinking about the finches. How would they survive a storm like this? Where would they stay? With the wind blowing debris about, they should be in their nest. She pictured the family of birds huddled under a branch of a large tree, the trunk and upper limbs providing shelter, but in her heart she knew that they probably were not together, that the young finches on their day-old wings would be fending for themselves.

“Lightshow!” Ray said, as lightning flashed across the valley. “Far out!”

From their vantage point, they could see lightning striking the far mountainside, and then, after a big forked bolt splintered into the valley, the lights of a whole village flickered and went out.

“There goes Wilton,” Ray said.

And then, farther down the valley, another set of lights shut off, as if a switch had been thrown.

“Lyndeborough Center.”

“Do you think it’s safe to be out here?” Marisse asked.

“Sure,” Ray said. “We’re grounded by the tires.”

“I don’t know, Ray.”

“Oh, come on. Enjoy the show.”

“What about the finches?”

“The finches? What about them?”

“Do you think they’re okay?

“Sure, they’re okay. Nature has this way of taking care of its own.”

“They only learned to fly today.”

“Hey, don’t worry. That sneeze did them more trauma than this storm. They’re cooped up someplace nice and cozy.”

He reached over for her but she edged away. Lightning flashed. Ray howled his appreciation, but Marisse couldn’t share it. Each lightning flash was like a searchlight, and they seemed to be coming closer. She huddled in the seat as the thunder boomed again. She did not want the lightning to illuminate her. She had an empty nest inside. Where other women had a nest they could fill with eggs and young birds whenever they wanted, she had only an empty straw bowl.

“What if every time the lightning flashes somebody could see us?” she asked. “Would you want them to?”


“Nothing. Forget it.”

“Will you relax? What’s with you tonight?”

She slid over against him.

“I’m cold,” she said.

He put his arms around her. “You sure are,” he said, and switched on the heater. “We’ll get you warmed up in a second. Or we can go. I just felt like seeing the storm.”

“No big deal.”

“No, really,” he said. “Is it about the finches?”

“It’s nothing, really.” She wished he would shut up. She wished she were home.

“They’re okay. Don’t worry.”

Electricity illuminated the car, thunder boomed right overhead, and a lightning fork etched out in front of them. It forked again and—they saw the whole thing—struck a large pine not fifty yards from the car. There was a ball of fire as the tree simply exploded. Several things happened at once, although the strongest image was that of the whole top of the tree falling straight down. It seemed to happen in slow motion, because as the top was falling, the middle of the tree blew to pieces in the fireball and things began hitting the car: first the shockwave and then in rapid succession a peppering of needles, a rain of splinters, and then chunks, branches, and a huge limb that CRACKed into the roof on Marisse’s side. She screamed and jumped for Ray, the car shook, and then it was over. In a couple of days they would return—clothed—to see the damage: ten-foot-long splinters driven two feet into the ground, some thrown a hundred yards from the tree, which was seared and split from the jagged stump, the newly exposed flesh black at the edges and the top of the tree in a heap, the needles still green. But right now, all they saw was the heavy limb across the windshield as the storm still raged.

“Jesus,” Ray said. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “I’m okay.” When she heard her voice she realized she was sobbing.
“We’d better get out of here,” Ray said.

He shifted into reverse and tried to back out, but the limb made a hideous scraping against the car.

“I’ll have to move it,” he said, and reached for the handle.

“Here,” she said, and produced his gym shorts from under her seat.

“Thanks. Jeez, thanks for thinking of this.”

She wrapped herself in the beach towel as she watched her near-naked husband tugging ridiculously at the limb, and when lightning flashed again—not so close—he ducked instinctively by the car. He got up immediately, but she had seen his face. Ray was scared.

Somehow this made her feel good. Enjoy your lightshow, Ray.

She got out to help him. The limb was long—longer than the car—and wedged between the wheel and the fender. She joined Ray in tugging at it, but it was jammed too tight.

“You go lift the heavy end,” she said. “I’ll work it free from the wheel.”

He hoisted, she shoved from the side. She felt the limb budge, so she braced against the fender. “Pull!” she yelled at Ray, and as he pulled she shoved as hard as she could. The limb popped free of the wheel well, and they dragged it off. The fender was scraped.

“Lucky it didn’t blow the tire,” Ray said.

He started to back out. Just as he did, though, there was a whoosh and lights behind the car. He hit the brake. A large dumptruck rumbled by, too fast. The storm was abating; the lightning was less frequent, the thunder farther away. The rain was steady, and the wiper on Marisse’s side was bent.

“Close call,” Ray said.

“Close call.”

“That limb could have come right through the window.”

Halfway down the mountain they rounded a curve and saw headlights. But something was wrong. The beams were tilted at a crazy angle. They weren’t moving. Ray thought it was a reflection, or a trick of lightning. But then he saw the dump truck, slid off in the ditch, and the driver in the road, bending over something. Ray braked to a stop. The headlights illuminated the white t-shirt of the truck driver, his baleful look, and, at his feet, a twisted mess of bright aqua metal, a wire-spoked wheel rotating slowly, its red reflector winking at every rotation.

“Oh, God,” Marisse said.

Ray got out. There was a dark shape just beyond the moped.

“Is he okay?” he asked the truck driver.

The truck driver didn’t respond. Ray saw him blink behind his glasses.

“What the hell happened?” Ray asked, his voice rising. He knelt down. The kid’s eyes were open. Blood came from his mouth.

“Are you okay?” Ray asked the kid.

There was no response.

“Are you OKAY?” he yelled.

He passed his hand in front of the kid’s eyes. Nothing. He felt for a pulse, got nothing. He dug deeper for a vein in the neck. Put his head to the kid’s chest, and heard nothing but a faint gurgle, like water spiraling down a drain.

He looked up. The truck driver was working his mouth as if chewing, and he was rubbing the side of his head. It was bleeding, just above the cheekbone. His eyes were unfocused.

“Are you okay?” Ray asked.

The man made a noise like the bleat of a goat and walked into the middle of the road. He made a kind of circle and came back.

Ray returned to the car.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Marisse asked.

“I think the kid’s dead. I can’t get a pulse. The other guy’s in shock.”

“Oh God, Ray. I knew we shouldn’t have come out tonight.”

“Shut up and let me think.”

“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Marisse said. Ray felt a tingling in his fingers, the touch of the kid’s throat lingering on his hand. “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” Marisse said, and right in time with these two syllables, a flashing yellow light reflected off her face. Oh God, flash-flash, Oh God, flash-flash.

It was an electric company truck. It crested the hill and bore down upon them: flash-flash, flash-flash. Ray waved it down. There were two linemen inside.

“There’s been an accident,” he said. “You got a radio?”

They had. They called the police, and then went to look at the kid. Ray went to sit with Marisse. She was crying. He held her close.

The local police came first, then an ambulance, and finally, the State Police. They photographed. They tape-measured. They asked questions, they scribbled in pads. They filled the air with the metallic crackle of radios, and with blue flashing lights and red flashing lights and brilliant flares. They carted the body away: a siren split the night. They had Ray describe what he had seen. They went away and talked with the truck driver, and then they came back and had Ray describe again what he had seen. A tow truck arrived, and the local cop left with the truck driver. The state cop came back over to the car.

“Mr. Vann, I’ll be writing up a report when I get back to the barracks. I’ve got just one more question for you. Would you mind telling me what you’re doing out here in your present attire?” He passed his flashlight over Marisse, wrapped in her beach towel. “You and your wife.”

Ray looked down at himself. He looked ridiculous; it was the first time he had noticed. All he had on were his shorts, and his legs and arms were covered with road grit and pine needles. He felt like just telling the truth, but he held back. He needed to say something, though. The cop looked him right in the eye, and the silence was growing.

“We were swimming,” Marisse said.

“Swimming,” the cop said.

“Skinny-dipping, actually. Up at the quarry.” She jerked her head up the hill. “The storm took us by surprise and we made a run for the car. The truck went down over the hill not a minute before us.”

The cop switched the beam back to Ray.

“That the way it happened, Mr. Vann?”

“That’s it. We occasionally like to go skinny-dipping in the quarry. Only at night, of course.”

“Of course.” The cop switched off the beam.

“You folks be careful driving home. We may need to speak to you within the next couple of days.”

The rain eased to a light drizzle, and neither of them spoke. The lights of Hurley came into view, and Marisse took quiet comfort from them. Streetlights, stoplights, even the damned McDonald’s golden arches—these were the beacons that charted the passage home. As they turned up Monadnock Street, Marisse watched for their house, for the front porch light. She wanted to get inside, wrap up in a quilt and walk from room to room, touching familiar objects.

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