ON RETURNING HOME IN THE EVENING
ON RETURNING HOME IN THE EVENING
After work, he walked the mile from downtown to his home off Symphony Circle. Slowfooted
as Zeno’s turtle he made his way at deceptive speed, as if no time elapsed between the
office and his home. He had walked out of a revolving door—he now stood by the iron gate in
front of his house. The in-between vanished as he prepared himself for entry.
First, he fixed his eyes to the thatched shingle roof, and then he traced the patterns of the
shingles to the dormers, over to the pinecone turret, to the eye of a window in the attic, then on to
the chimney. Below the turret’s roof, he followed the terra cotta engravings that highlighted a row
of portholes, in whose reflection he saw the gardens behind him. His scrutiny ended at the door.
Framed by a pillar that held up the center of the stone portico, the door was massive, the centercut
of an enormous mahogany tree, sawn from one block of wood. If it yielded to you, the outsider,
you had no choice but to enter. And like an outsider, he made his way to the entrance, satisfied
that the house was as it should be. At this moment, always at this moment, he was stalled by the
unusual idea that he was now leaving the public space and entering a private one. A private space
fashioned by the inhabitant, and not by communal laws. He had to be careful. Left unchecked, this
illusion that the space around you was different inside than the space outside the home, required
As he shut the door behind him, he looked toward the light in the kitchen that had been
on since morning. He didn’t remove the black leather boots that he wore outside in the snowy
streets of Buffalo. He did remove his heavy wool coat, however, and after hanging it on the rack
he walked into the kitchen and found his dogs asleep in front of the refrigerator. The sight of
them reminded him that he had to take them for a walk before collapsing into his armchair.
Walking them was not yet a habit, though it was the first thing he did after waking in the morning,
after visiting the bathroom, after putting on his robe and slippers, fixing coffee. And it was the last
thing he did before disrobing, sitting in his chair, reading a book for a few minutes before
snoozing each night. They required care, he knew that, but more, they were creatures of habit, they
lived according to expectation, and most of all, they needed him. This life, the dogs’ life, relied on
Dog bodies set themselves in an accustomed sprawl in that very spot every night. He
wasn’t above waking them in order to get inside the refrigerator. For their part, the dogs didn’t
expect to be fed from the refrigerator. They slept there because they were bored, as dogs often are,
and they knew his refrigerator ritual would at least break up the monotony. So he complied with
his dogs’ wishes by jerking open the refrigerator door and pressing it into their spines.
With this, the house awoke the way an idling machine revs its motor and threatens
movement. The barking of dogs, the whine of the ice box, the faucet running, all were prelude to a
delicate meeting that took place each evening. Walls of dried roses hanging upside down from
their stems formed a hedgebush in his sight. And upstairs he heard the floorboards creaking.
Footsteps. The other inhabitant of the house had been alerted to his presence. She was making her
way down the upstairs hallway. And as he listened to her each step, he flipped open a container
that organized a week’s worth of multiple vitamins. This regimen had been advised by a doctor
for the extension of his mortal life.
Realizing that he hadn’t announced himself upon entering the house, he began to swallow
the vitamins quickly, one every few seconds, and he drank the precise amount of alkaline water,
another essential nutrient, required for digestion. He fed the vitamins to himself with alternating
hands the way a starving child hoards porridge into his mouth.
When he finished, he wiped his chin and began moving back toward the foyer. As he
walked--the staircase creaking above him--he perceived in his peripheral vision a white-clad figure
limping down the stairs. His wife, who had slept all day, was just a few steps from the landing. She
was breathing heavily, and the smell of her limbs--citronella and decaying skin—knocked him
back, as it often did, a stab in the nose more acerbic than any of the decomposing body parts he
collected during the day. Soon, he was standing in front of her on the landing, offering his hand
for balance as she let go of the railing and took her last step to the floor.
She was wearing her white mosquito suit, an emblem of her evolving wish to insulate
herself from insects and infects. At times, he felt fortunate that she never left the house because he
worried that she would be ridiculed. She was delicate, and he was concerned that ridicule would
exacerbate her condition. Of course, he couldn’t remember the last time she’d been outside, nor
could he remember the last time he saw crowds of people in the streets. Mostly, he only saw a few
odd stragglers here and there. The city wasn’t totally deserted, but it had been thinned out over the
years, as residents left for other climes. As for his wife, her condition had been easily categorized
as agoraphobia by a lazy doctor. Her husband had never accepted this diagnosis. He had seen the
evolution of her illness. He had seen her wear ear plugs to bed so she wouldn’t hear the telephone
ringing, then a black mask over her eyes to allow her to sleep in daylight. Later, she began stuffing
her nose with cotton. A few months ago, she discovered--in the attic--the mosquito net and a large
oak chest that she had yet to unlock, along with a plastic jumpsuit that reminded him of something
an astronaut would wear only without the bulk. Neither of them knew why they owned these
items, nor for how long they had stored them. On the rare occasions that he saw her naked body
as she disrobed and slid into their clawfoot tub, he could not take his eyes off her pale skin. This is
why the Buffalo rose is a flower that requires worship. She was responding in her way to
something else, a change in the air, a desperate need to protect herself from a threat neither she
nor he could name.
Without looking at his face, she limped forward and slowly leaned to his chest, her eyes
fixed on the pocket of his dress shirt. She nuzzled her cheek to his chest. And for a little while
longer she was mute.
Craning his neck over her, he allowed her into his body, then looked down at the top of
her head at a bald spot surrounded by hair matted from sleeping in one spot, and there it was, a
familiar whiff of hairspray. At that moment, a simple unspoken message was passing between
them. Just let’s touch for awhile, just let me feel your body pressed to mine, I’ve been alone all day
and I want to feel a living thing. They were linked by this communication, hers more urgent and
desperate than his, since he always felt as though he were granting her these moments. What else
did they have to talk about? It seemed every day any words spoken aloud offended the ears
because they touched on the mundane, on household chores, on broadcast news, on desert wars,
and thus on the gulf between the minds and hearts of not only this long married couple, but the
distance between a great many couples in Buffalo and in the countryside. This is why astute and
practical readers prefer works of non-fiction. This is why soundtracks of babies babbling are laid
over instrumental music in popular songs of the day. The lack of words buttressed the idea that
life was harmonious. Spoken words only burdened the perfunctory nature of the new quotidian
existence. Words were for acrimony on the rarest of occasions or else the reinforcement of habit.
They were there to simulate harmony when things were out of whack. Words were the enemy of a
community based in reality.
“Have you eaten?” she asked, at last shamed by her embrace.
He didn’t answer immediately. He hesitated because he hadn’t eaten, and because he was
certain she wasn’t up to cooking a meal. He patted her on the back.
“I’ll eat later,” he said slowly, shaking his head. “I’d like to sit.”
She let go of his hand as if to take her burden off of him, and then, squinting in the dim
light of the mercury lamps, stepped out of his way expecting him to head upstairs. But he had no
intention of going to the bedroom.
Whoever moved next would decide the course for the night. The sky was clear and the
stars were out and the list of things to do was minimal.
“I was awake this afternoon,” she said softly, almost a whisper.
He didn’t ask her if she was feeling better. He didn’t dare mention that.
she again very softly, “I looked out the portholes for a while at the neighborhood. I
listened to a song.”
He nodded to acknowledge he was listening. Then he offered this in the way of
conversation: “The streets downtown were completely empty. I walked back from the office.”
“Yes,” he drew his answer out, looking at her directly, wondering if he had coaxed her
memory, if she might recall that part of town at all. Of course, why would she recall it? There was
nothing to do downtown by Eagle Street but take a train or plead one’s case at City Hall. She
hadn’t been there in years.
“That’s why I was late. I walked all the way and ignored every trolley that passed me by.”
She stared at him. “You’re tired,” she said. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
He waited for her to begin walking to the kitchen, knowing that she always said she would
do things for him that were not within her power. Had she actually walked all the way to the
kitchen, lifted the jug of alkaline water from the refrigerator, poured him a glass, and carried it all
the way back to the landing, she would struggle and tire herself out, sit down to rest, then doze off
to sleep. And that was really the last thing she liked to do in the evenings.
“I’m fine, I just had a drink,” he said, reassuring her. She hadn’t moved.
He turned around and walked toward the living room where he sat in a chair with
enormous overstuffed arms. It was as though he were setting himself in the lap of a headless bull.
He walked with deliberate fatigue because he didn’t want to be the energetic one in the house.
Still standing against the wall at the foot of the stairs, she watched him walk to his chair. A
mutual disavowal of her deteriorating physical condition let them tolerate one another. She bore
his sitting in silence even though she wanted nothing more than to be near him. But this need, her
absolute need, was the thing that dominated her housebound existence. And she suffered from it.
The very thing that quenched her desire could only be summoned by a call that sickened her.
Absolute need would bring her companionship and love, if she allowed it to demand these from
him. But she never did. The passage from one feeling to the next was a delicate one. Nausea
followed by a syrup that coated her body. There was almost no solution. The last thing she wanted
was her husband’s generosity. That would have been worse than loneliness, worse than need. The
only cure was for him to suffer from need at least as badly as she did. It would have to be “at
least” as bad.
The dogs trotted into the living room and circled him as he sat in his chair. At first, as his
eyes were shut, he didn’t notice them. Then he heard the dogs panting, he smelled their musk, and,
without opening his eyes, he offered them each a hand and let them lick his palms. He sat like that
for awhile with arms outstretched at either side as though he were feeding them blood from his
wrists. She, meanwhile, sat down on the monk’s bench in the hall and folded her hands into her
lap the way a diver splits the waters. This was a familiar picture: he drifting off to sleep in his chair,
she vigilant and on guard in the hallway, the dogs lying on either side of his chair. The hallway wall
separated bodies in this house off Symphony Circle. Away all day, apart in the evening: this was
the remains of life. They became accustomed to it. This is why no one is ever lonely on the tundra.
This is why igloos stay warm.
They were bound together. By vows. By loss. By withering bodies. By a past that was
somehow forgotten but evident all the same. “What ties me to this man,” she might whisper.
“What ties me to this woman,” he might speak in his sleep. This house didn’t pre-exist their love:
they were certain of that in their bones. And since they couldn’t remember how they came to find
themselves living together, they knew that they had been together long before they had moved in.
This was enough for them to stay together. This is why couples in Buffalo never break their
A roof over their love formed the space around them naturally. The house was built in a
space that already formed their love. The plot of land on Symphony Circle was a kind of freedom
for this couple. Space was a form of freedom and space was in essence that for which all the
rooms of the house were built. Their love would last many years, and because this was clear from
the start, they announced their dwelling priorities to an architect. First, freedom was important.
The architect had to attune himself to the free elements at play. Then, the nature of spaces had to
be heeded. Between any two given bodies, there was only so much space. Third, the rooms had to
accord with the spaces already given, those which--allowed by the spirit of freedom--had already
formed the arch of their love. Above all else, however, the location of the house, the city, the
continent, the planet and the galaxy were paramount. A location anticipates its building, and for
this purpose the open plot of land on Symphony Circle was perfect.
“Only if we’re capable of living here, only then can we start to build,” he had said to the
architect, though now he couldn’t recall ever saying such a thing. Instead, he now repeated the
words, “What ties me to this woman is,” and even though he repeated this only in his sleep, it was
enough. Enough to say that somewhere within those words, within this love they had built from
the ground up, lurked the very careful planning that he dictated to the architect many years ago.
The walls of the living room were framed by intricate wainscoting. The chandelier was
modestly adorned with stained-glass ornaments. The mahogany mantle blended well with the
black marble fireplace. The wood floor was bordered by a Greek key design of alternating dark
and light brown shades. It promised wonder and submission to all who stepped upon it. As the
rooms grew older, they showed evidence of wear: marks and even grooves that imparted the
ravages of human habits. This particular room had grown used to one human body dozing in front
of the fireplace each night and two dogs drifting into dream on either side of the body. The living
room formed itself around these facts. And anyone who broke this harmony was an intruder.
Indeed, the wall that separated the living room from the hallway stretched an inch longer at night
in a sly and inconspicuous attempt to guard its gateway.
He jolted awake in his chair. He felt his heart beating rapidly and irregularly--he didn’t
know why--though he considered that he’d been having a nightmare. But that was mere seconds
ago, and any hint of a nightmare was now gone. His fear, a vague tingling in the ears, was fleeting.
He didn’t know what ailed him. He only knew that he was awake, groggy yes, but awake all the
same. And as he rubbed his eyelids, he heard the familiar bass of the opera singer who practiced
his lyric as he walked the Circle after leaving Kleinhans Music Hall. The singer’s comedic
repetitions and buffo low notes alerted the husband to the time: it was after ten but before ten
At his feet, one dog warmed his boots with its body. The other was half covered by a
Navajo rug that was old but spotless. With his eyes, the husband traced the design of snowflakes,
oak leaves and antelope that bordered a canyon of tobacco brown at the rug’s center. The design
always rejuvenated him because it revealed an old world of natives and primitive cultures. The
person who wove the rug no longer existed.
After a moment, he slid his feet from under the dog and arose with little difficulty. He
then shuffled toward the hallway where he found his wife still sitting on the monk’s bench. Her
eyes were closed and she was saying something.
“…the little girl who drowned...” He watched her lips move. “…alone on the canal...”
And though she was barely mumbling, skipping over words, he recognized the story. He knew it
by heart. He only needed to hear the words “Squaw” or “train truss” and he knew what she was
He bent and lifted her into his arms, but she didn’t wake. Her lips moved silently--and he
heard her voice telling the story again in his head: “My father gave me a stern look which I didn’t
understand. I was just telling the truth as he had taught me to. The strangers with the big hats gave
me a piece of sponge candy and said, ‘Tell the truth.’ I always told the truth. The neighbors never
visited again and when my brother came home from the hospital, we sold the house and moved
from Black Rock. In school the week after, all the kids wore nice clothes for a memorial service.
When the announcement came to end the day early, my teacher took me aside and said she wanted
to help me brush up on my arithmetic. Everyone else left the room…”
His wife kept her eyes closed, he could visualize her childhood memory in detail as if it
were his own. Johnny came home from the hospital. My brother went to live with an uncle in
Ontario. His wife stayed inside during the day and avoided the children in the new neighborhood
in Allentown. Her father worked long hours and her mother sewed curtains all night.
At the top of the stairs, the husband listed backwards dangerously, then righted himself
and continued into the bedroom. Tucking her into bed, he kicked off his shoes, removed his
socks, pants, shirt, in that order, then lay down and slept through the night while his wife’s lips still
moved. Downstairs, the dogs whimpered all night.