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FRANZEN, Jonathan

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The Madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen. The sun low in the sky, a minor light, a cooling star. Gust after gust of disorder. Trees restless, temperatures falling, the whole northern religion of things coming to an end. No children in the yards here. Shadows lengthened on yellowing zoysia. Red oaks and pin oaks and swamp white oaks rained acorns on houses with no mortgage. Storm windows shuddered in the empty bedrooms. And the drone and hiccup of a clothes dryer, the nasal contention of a leaf blower, the ripening of local apples in a paper bag, the smell of the gasoline with which Alfred Lambert had cleaned the paintbrush from his morning painting of the wicker love seat.

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Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections, bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid.

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Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety. It was like one of those big cast-iron dishes with an electric clapper that send schoolchildren into the street in fire drills. By now it had been ringing for so many hours that the Lamberts no longer heard the message of "bell ringing" but, as with any sound that continues for so long that you have the leisure to learn its component sounds (as with any word you stare at until it resolves itself into a string of dead letters), instead heard a clapper rapidly striking a metallic resonator, not a pure tone but a granular sequence of percussions with a keening overlay of overtones; ringing for so many days that it simply blended into the background except at certain early-morning hours when one or the other of them awoke in a sweat and realized that a bell had been ringing in their heads for so long as they could remember; ringing for so many months that the sound had given way to a kind of metasound whose rise and fall was not the beating of compression waves but the much, much slower waxing and waning of their consciousness of the sound. Which consciousness was particularly acute when the weather itself was in an anxious mood. Then Enid and Alfred -- she on her knees in the dining room opening drawers, he in the basement surveying the disastrous Ping-Pong table -- each felt near to exploding with anxiety.


The anxiety of coupons, in a drawer containing candles in designer autumn colors. The coupons were bundled in a rubber band, and Enid was realizing that their expiration dates (often jauntily circled in red by the manufacturer) lay months and even years in the past: that these hundred-odd coupons, whose total face value exceeded sixty dollars (potentially one hundred twenty dollars at the Chiltsville supermarket that doubled coupons), had all gone bad. Tilex, sixty cents off. Excedrin PM, a dollar off. The dates were not even close. The dates were historical. The alarm bell had been ringing for years.

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She pushed the coupons back in among the candles and shut the drawer. She was looking for a letter that had come by Registered mail some days ago. Alfred had heard the mailman knock on the door and had shouted, "Enid! Enid!" so loudly that he couldn't hear her shouting back, "Al, I'm getting it!" He'd continued to shout her name, coming closer and closer, and because the sender of the letter was the Axon Corporation, 24 East Industrial Serpentine, Schwenksville, PA, and because there were aspects of the Axon situation that Enid knew about and hoped that Alfred didn't, she'd quickly stashed the letter somewhere within fifteen feet of the front door. Alfred had emerged from the basement bellowing like a piece of earth-moving equipment, "There's somebody at the door!" and she'd fairly screamed, "The mailman! The mailman!" and he'd shaken his head at the complexity of it all.

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Enid felt sure that her own head would clear if only she didn't have to wonder, every five minutes, what Alfred was up to. But, try as she might, she couldn't get him interested in life. When she encouraged him to take up his metallurgy again, he looked at her as if she'd lost her mind. When she asked whether there wasn't some yard work he could do, he said his legs hurt. When she reminded him that the husbands of her friends all had hobbies (Dave Schumpert his stained glass, Kirby Root his intricate chalets for nesting purple finches, Chuck Meisner his hourly monitoring of his investment portfolio), Alfred acted as if she were trying to distract him from some great labor of his. And what was that labor? Repainting the porch furniture? He'd been repainting the love seat since Labor Day. She seemed to recall that the last time he'd painted the furniture he'd done the love seat in two hours. Now he went to his workshop morning after morning, and after a month she ventured in to see how he was doing and found that all he'd painted of the love seat was the legs.

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He seemed to wish that she would go away. He said that the brush had got dried out, that that was what was taking so long. He said that scraping wicker was like trying to peel a blueberry. He said that there were crickets. She felt a shortness of breath then, but perhaps it was only the smell of gasoline and of the dampness of the workshop that smelled like urine (but could not possibly be urine). She fled upstairs to look for the letter from Axon.


Six days a week several pounds of mail came through the slot in the front door, and since nothing incidental was allowed to pile up downstairs -- since the fiction of living in this house was that no one lived here -- Enid faced a substantial tactical challenge. She didn't think of herself as a guerrilla, but a guerrilla was what she was. By day she ferried matériel from depot to depot, often just a step ahead of the governing force. By night, beneath a charming but too-dim sconce at a too-small table in the breakfast nook, she staged various actions: paid bills, balanced checkbooks, attempted to decipher Medicare copayment records and make sense of a threatening Third Notice from a medical lab that demanded immediate payment of $0.22 while simultaneously showing an account balance of $0.00 carried forward and thus indicating that she owed nothing and in any case offering no address to which remittance might be made. It would happen that the First and Second Notices were underground somewhere, and because of the constraints under which Enid waged her campaign she had only the dimmest sense of where those other Notices might be on any given evening. She might suspect, perhaps, the family-room closet, but the governing force, in the person of Alfred, would be watching a network newsmagazine at a volume thunderous enough to keep him awake, and he had every light in the family room burning, and there was a non-negligible possibility that if she opened the closet door a cascade of catalogues and House Beautifuls and miscellaneous Merrill Lynch statements would come toppling and sliding out, incurring Alfred's wrath. There was also the possibility that the Notices would not be there, since the governing force staged random raids on her depots, threatening to "pitch" the whole lot of it if she didn't take care of it, but she was too busy dodging these raids to ever quite take care of it, and in the succession of forced migrations and deportations any lingering semblance of order was lost, and so the random Nordstrom shopping bag that was camped behind a dust ruffle with one of its plastic handles semi-detached would contain the whole shuffled pathos of a refugee existence -- non-consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping, black-and-white snapshots of Enid in the 1940s, brown recipes on high-acid paper that called for wilted lettuce, the current month's telephone and gas bills, the detailed First Notice from the medical lab instructing co-payers to ignore subsequent billings for less than fifty cents, a complimentary cruise ship photo of Enid and Alfred wearing leis and sipping beverages from hollow coconuts, and the only extant copies of two of their children's birth certificates, for example.

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Although Enid's ostensible foe was Alfred, what made her a guerrilla was the house that occupied them both. Its furnishings were of the kind that brooked no clutter. There were chairs and tables by Ethan Allen. Spode and Waterford in the breakfront. Obligatory ficuses, obligatory Norfolk pines. Fanned copies of Architectural Digest on a glass-topped coffee table. Touristic plunder -- enamelware from China, a Viennese music box that Enid out of a sense of duty and mercy every so often wound up and raised the lid of. The tune was "Strangers in the Night."


Freedom

She attended to the funeral arrangements for her mother-in-law in a mental state whose fragility the autobiographer hopes at least partly explains her poor handling of her discovery that an older neighbor girl, Connie Monaghan, had been preying on Joey sexually. The litany of the mistakes that Patty proceeded to make in the wake of this discovery would exceed the current length of this already long document. The autobiographer is still so ashamed of what she did to Joey that she can’t begin to make a sensible narrative out of it. When you find yourself in the alley behind your neighbor’s house at three in the morning with a box cutter in your hand, destroying the tires of your neighbor’s pickup truck, you can plead insanity as a legal defense. But is it a moral one?

For the defense: Patty had tried, at the outset, to warn Walter about the kind of person she was. She’d told him there was something wrong with her.

For the prosecution: Walter was appropriately wary. Patty was the one who tracked him down in Hibbing and threw herself at him.

For the defense: But she was trying to be good and make a good life! And then she forsook all others and worked hard to be a great mom and homemaker.

For the prosecution: Her motives were bad. She was competing with her mom and sisters. She wanted her kids to be a reproach to them.

For the defense: She loved her kids!

For the prosecution: She loved Jessica an appropriate amount, but Joey she loved way too much. She knew what she was doing and she didn’t stop, because she was mad at Walter for not being what she really wanted, and because she had a bad character and felt she deserved compensation for being a star and a competitor who was trapped in a housewife’s life.

For the defense: But love just happens. It wasn’t her fault that every last thing about Joey gave her so much pleasure.

For the prosecution: It was her fault. You can’t love cookies and ice cream inordinately and then say it’s not your fault you end up weighing three hundred pounds.

For the defense: But she didn’t know that! She thought she was doing the right thing by giving her kids the attention and the love her own parents hadn’t given her.

For the prosecution: She did know it, because Walter told her, and told her, and told her.

For the defense: But Walter couldn’t be trusted. She thought she had to stick up for Joey and be the good cop because Walter was the bad cop.

For the prosecution: The problem wasn’t between Walter and Joey. The problem was between Patty and Walter, and she knew it.

For the defense: She loves Walter! For the prosecution: The evidence suggests otherwise.

For the defense: Well, in that case, Walter doesn’t love her, either. He doesn’t love the real her. He loves some wrong idea of her.

For the prosecution: That would be convenient if only it were true. Unfortunately for Patty, he didn’t marry her in spite of who he was, he married her because of it. Nice people don’t necessarily fall in love with nice people.

For the defense: It isn’t fair to say she doesn’t love him! For the prosecution: If she can’t behave herself, it doesn’t matter if she loves him.

Walter knew that Patty had cut the tires of their horrible neighbor’s horrible truck. They never talked about it, but he knew. The fact that they never talked about it was how she knew he knew. The neighbor, Blake, was building a horrible addition on the back of the house of his horrible girlfriend, Connie Monaghan’s horrible mother, and Patty that winter was finding it expedient to drink a bottle or more of wine every evening, and then waking up in a sweat of anxiety and rage in the middle of the night, and stalking the first floor of the house in pounding-hearted lunacy. There was a stupid smugness to Blake which in her sleep-deprived state she equated with the stupid smugness of the special prosecutor who’d made Bill Clinton lie about Monica Lewinsky and the stupid smugness of the congressmen who’d recently impeached him for it. Bill Clinton was the rare politician who didn’t seem sanctimonious to Patty—who didn’t pretend to be Mr. Clean—and she was one of the millions of American women who would have slept with him in a heartbeat. Flattening horrible Blake’s tires was the least of the blows she felt like striking in her president’s defense. This is in no way intended to exculpate her but simply to elucidate her state of mind.

A more direct irritant was the fact that Joey, that winter, was pretending to admire Blake. Joey was too smart to genuinely admire Blake, but he was going through an adolescent rebellion that required him to like the very things that Patty most hated, in order to drive her away. She probably deserved this, owing to the thousand mistakes she’d made in loving him too much, but, at the time, she wasn’t feeling like she deserved it. She was feeling like she was being lashed in the face with a bullwhip. And because of certain monstrously mean things she’d seen that she was capable of saying to Joey, on several occasions when he’d baited her out of her self-control and she’d lashed back at him, she was doing her best to vent her pain and anger on safer third parties, such as Blake and Walter.

She didn’t think she was an alcoholic. She wasn’t an alcoholic. She was just turning out to be like her dad, who sometimes escaped his family by drinking too much. Once upon a time, Walter had positively liked that she enjoyed drinking a glass of wine or two after the kids were in bed. He said he’d grown up being nauseated by the smell of alcohol and had learned to forgive it and love it on her breath, because he loved her breath, because her breath came from deep inside her and he loved the inside of her. This was the sort of thing he used to say to her—the sort of avowal she couldn’t reciprocate and was nevertheless intoxicated by. But once the one or two glasses turned into six or eight glasses, everything changed. Walter needed her sober at night so she could listen to all the things he thought were morally defective in their son, while she needed not to be sober so as not to have to listen. It wasn’t alcoholism, it was self-defense.