Joy’s Place

Nick Blackburn races through the channels with the remote control. He finds another news story on the murder that took place in town weeks earlier. A local attorney, Raymond Conroy, has been charged with molesting his eight-year-old son before stabbing him several dozen times with a fishing knife and then slitting his wife’s throat. Nick turns up the volume and sits glued to the set, eager to hear what the reporter has to say about his father’s latest case.

This is by far the biggest of Shep Blackburn’s career. A horrible double murder magnified and made worse by the fact that it occurred in a small Midwestern town and sparked a national media circus unlike anything Plainfield, Kansas has ever seen. And right in the center of it all sits Shep. His words plastered across the front page of the newspaper. His face now a regular feature on the evening news. As they show pictures of the young boy on the screen, Nick hears the upstairs phone ring, quickly followed by an annoying shout from his mother that his girlfriend is on the phone.

“Tell her I’m watching the news and I’ll call her back.”

“She says you’re not answering your cell. Come up here and talk to her!” Joy Blackburn shouts again. “She’s still in the hospital for Christ’s sake!”

Nick kicks a pillow across the room and then storms up the stairs from the basement.

Nick yanks the phone out of Joy’s hand.

“What?”

Kate, his girlfriend of more than a year, hangs up on him. She calls right back, and then hangs up again; repeating herself two more times before Joy agrees to keep the phone off the hook for a while. Instead of asking what’s going on, Joy flies off the handle about Shep’s involvement in the Conroy case, this not being the first time she’s taken it upon herself to inform Nick of the immorality of his profession. Joy is convinced Shep is setting a terrible example for Nick to follow. That Nick is compulsively following every detail of the case on television and in the paper worries her even more. Nick can’t get enough, reading her the headlines every morning and quoting his father at the kitchen table. He turns the volume up every time Shep is being interviewed on television or the radio. He even taped a five-minute radio interview Shep did shortly after Mr. Conroy’s arrest and plays it over and over again just to piss her off. She thinks he’s gone mad. He continues on, purposely driving her to tears by saying how much he wants to be a criminal defense lawyer like his old man.

Joy eventually puts the phone back on the hook, only to receive another call from Kate. This time Nick refuses to speak to her so Joy does instead.

Nick goes outside and hits a tennis ball against the garage door. He is soon thinking about college.

Nick is flattered by the amount of attention he’s received since winning the Kansas High School State Championships last spring. He is the favorite to capture the title again this year and has college tennis coaches from across the country calling him regularly. Despite all the interest, he’s never given much thought to going anywhere besides KU. Everyone from Plainfield who can get in goes there, the Jayhawks being the state’s religion.

Nick is still hitting forehands when Joy comes outside to meet him.

“What?”

“Don’t use that tone of voice with me, especially out here where the neighbors can hear.”

Joy leads him into the garage and lays into him.

“What have you done to Kate? She’s a complete wreck! She makes no sense. She wants to talk to me about something she says she is afraid to talk about with anyone else, and when I ask her what it is she says she can’t talk about it. I tell her she knows she can trust me and she says she does feel that she can trust me, but then she still won’t tell me anything. She tells me she trusts me more than anyone, and then she says she can’t trust anyone. She’s making no sense. She’s afraid her mother knows everything, but then she won’t say what everything is. She’s afraid her mother and I’ve been talking about her. She says you’ve been talking to her mother, and that her mother has been telling you secrets about her. I ask her what kind of secrets and she says she doesn’t have a secret. Then she goes on about not having any secrets. Then she starts talking more and more about nothing that makes any sense at all. She starts saying something about cookies and milk and Sweden all in the same sentence. These Swedish girls, she keeps saying and then she says something about cookies again and if I like oatmeal better than chocolate chip.”

Joy stops for a second to catch her breath. She then seizes Nick by the arm like she’s going to rip it off.

“What in the world has happened to her?”

Shep’s Place

Since meeting her a couple weeks before, Nick has spoken to Swedish exchange student Lotte Andersson almost every night on the phone, if rarely at school. It was actually his stepmother, Liz, who suggested he bring her out to the house while hearing him complain that it was impossible to go anywhere in town with Lotte because Kate would find out and start calling and hanging up again.

Shep is the first to welcome Lotte once she walks through the door connecting his kitchen and three-car garage.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lotte. The kid here has told us a lot about you. We, of course, haven’t believed a word of it.”

Lotte doesn’t pick up on Shep’s wit. She laughs at his joke only because the others are.

“Aren’t you going to introduce Lotte to your baby sister?” Liz asks Nick after noticing that they are about to leave the room.

“Sister?” Lotte whispers to Nick. Her eyes sparkle when she sees the one-year-old girl sitting silently in a high chair in the corner. She moves quickly toward her.

“That’s Leslie,” Nick says. “I didn’t even see her over there. She’s not making any noise for a change.”

Lotte is already letting the little girl tug on her finger.

“Leslie? Your name is Leslie?” Lotte says, and begins to gently tickle her belly.

“Leslie Ann,” Liz says. “When she was born we asked Nick to name her and he came up with such a pretty name. Fits her perfectly, Leslie Ann Blackburn.”

The dinner conversation flows with ease across the table. Lotte wondered what Shep would be like and if the subject of the Conroy murder case she’s been hearing so much about at school would come up. It does not, but Shep is still plenty talkative, smiling and laughing throughout while he asks her one question after another. She finds him to be warm and sincere, unlike what she expected in light of all the bad things her host family has said about him since Nick started calling. Shep makes her feel comfortable, with something about him striking her as oddly familiar. Liz is also a big smile, mainly talking about the food and asking Lotte about what people eat in Sweden. Nick hardly says a word about anything other than the house, but no one seems to notice. He cleans his plate and spends the rest of the time obsessing over how much attention Lotte gives to his sister.

He finally insists Lotte see the rest of the house, reminding her that they have not made their way out of the kitchen or dining room since arriving more than an hour ago. He doesn’t live with his father full time, but the large country home is something he likes to show off to his friends. With a private fireplace and view of the lake down the road, his bedroom is something special. He saves it for last when giving someone a tour. He hasn’t always slept in the room. His mother used it as her den when she lived here years ago. But after Liz moved in and the baby was born, she suggested he take it for his own. Nick’s old bedroom was remodeled and turned into a spare for guests.

Lotte likes the fireplace and loves the high ceilings in the living room, but it is the home’s huge yard that wins her over. It appears to go on forever, and the colors of the October leaves remind her of home. With a hand pressed against the glass and staring ahead in the distance, she turns to him and asks if they can go for a walk.

He shows her the tennis court, the empty pool, and then the rest. When they reach the west end of the property, they sit down on a small wooden bridge that leads across a creek running from the back of the house, through the yard, underneath the road, and all the way down to the lake. Here he tells her the story about his baby sister and how his father and stepmother never said anything about her until he heard through a friend at school that Liz was five months pregnant. It is hard for Lotte to follow because Nick speaks so slowly he almost sounds likes he is talking in his sleep. His voice is not filled with anger. It is too slow for anger, but no less painful. It is as if he is trying to both tell and hear a story at the same time. Lotte is shocked that he is telling her such things since they barely know one another and dinner went over so well. What he is saying strikes her as something so terribly personal, so upsetting, and so protected that she wonders why he is telling her at all. Once he’s finished, they sit side by side saying nothing more while watching the stream of water beneath them make its way past one obstacle after another until finally a loud pick-up truck passes by and puts an end to what has been a powerful silence for both of them.

It’s still light outside, but won’t be for long. Nick wants Lotte to see some of his favorite parts of the neighborhood. He takes his Jeep and shows her two lakes from the road since there isn’t time to walk around them. He points out several of the nicest homes in the area and comments on who lives there. He shows her a pasture where he loves riding his dirt bike and snowmobile. He then parks by the side of the road and begins walking in the direction of a cornfield. He guides her across a steep ditch and up through some tall dead grass. The crops have been harvested for fall, so the field is clear.

“From here you can see everything,” Nick says. “Everything. And it’s always quiet. It’s close enough to see everything and far enough away to hear nothing. In every direction there’s something to see, but no one can see you and no one can hear you and no one can touch you.”

They both look around, turning in a circle of their own speed and making, saying nothing because there is nothing to say and because they are too busy looking. Finally, it is Lotte who speaks, but she does so with such grace and such clarity that it seems to both of them as though it has come from somewhere else.

“The silence.”

Nick does not turn to face her at first, but she understands. She waits patiently before saying anything else. She can wait. They stand together within a stare and when he does speak she already knows what he is going to say.

“This is where I grew up,” his voice cracks.

Lotte then reaches out and kisses him so softly it is almost as if she never touches him at all.

The Resort Island Of Rindo

The sea wind sounds like a Kansas snowstorm as Nick and Lotte lay together inside an abandoned barn.

Lost in a clearing of thick woods less than half a mile from Lotte’s summer cabin on the resort island of Rindo, the barn is a battered old structure that no one on the island has ever bothered to tear down. They had also spent time here two years earlier during Nick’s first visit to Sweden. She described it then has her favorite place in the world and shared with him many of the memories it contained. Her most vivid were those from high school when she would sneak off with a pack of cigarettes smoking herself sick while reading books and dreaming of becoming a famous writer. The rotting red and white barn with grass for a floor and an entire side missing still remains her chosen place to disappear.

Her back facing his chest and the fading sun in his eyes, Nick seizes Lotte by the waist and shoves her forward as she arches her spine and her hair falls into his face. He stretches his head up to meet hers, biting her ear as they violently rock back and forth, eventually rolling off their blanket and burying their bodies in the grass. They repeat themselves for hours, endlessly fucking away as if trying to make up for all those lost nights they would have killed to do so over the last five years. Lotte eventually suggests they climb on the roof in order to gain a better view of the sea.

A crystal vision of Stockholm’s Archipelago leaves Nick speechless. Sailboats, speedboats, steamers, the view is extraordinary and far more powerful than he remembered. The larger island of Vaxholm is visible in the distance, as is its historic fortress built in the sixteenth century to guard the surrounding straits. Swedish flags fly from every boat in sight.

Nick stands on the barn’s roof chilled to the bone, almost lost in a way. The cleansing effects of nature are part of it, but nature has nothing to do with the blue and yellow flags waving from the sails in the wind. Nothing to do with the fact that he feels so far away, that he has a true vision of his life for the first time. An instant idea of what he wants and what it might feel like when he gets it. He takes a deep breath with his eyes closed. The sea air filling his lungs leaves him feeling so pure he holds it inside him for as long as he can stand it, wishing it possible to hold his breath forever.

“Does it scare you at all, New York?” he asks Lotte.

“Scare me?”

“Well, I listen to you talk about this place, and looking out here like this, how beautiful it is, how peaceful, how the sun is still shining late into the night, and I can’t help but wonder how you won’t miss it here?”

Nick is still in awe of the scenery, still dizzy from all the sex.

“If I’m afraid of anything it’s not going,” Lotte says. “If something else happens, another attack, or we just don’t like it, we can always leave, but for a writer, for what you want to do, New York is at the center of things. It’s no accident we are on our way there together.”

Lotte finishes her thoughts by touching her lips to his, only then sensing the need to reassure him of something.

“The thing about this place is that it will always be here. It has hardly changed since I was a little girl. I can still come and forget about the world the way it is and imagine it the way I want it to be. When you have a place like this you know is always here, always the way you left it, it makes anywhere else you go feel more like home.”

Lotte pauses to think about what she’s saying and how it might involve Nick.

“Do you remember when you took me to the cornfield and you kissed me there? I knew just what it felt like to have a place like that.”

They sit together on the roof for another hour, talking about the future. She holds him on her lap, playing with his hair and kissing his forehead. The world is wide open, she tells him. A world they will go after together and one she is sure is waiting for them.

Shep’s Other Place And Nick And Lotte’s Place

With the passage of five years, most people in Plainfield now believe Raymond Conroy was wrongly convicted of murdering his son and wife. The original fear and hysteria surrounding the crime has been masterfully redirected by both Shep and the media-savvy author of a bestselling book about the case into a public outcry for a new trial. There are still those convinced of his guilt, but many of the same people who protested the loudest when his life was spared are now eager to welcome the local celebrity back to the community with open arms.

Perhaps the only citizen of Plainfield without a strongly held private opinion as to the actual guilt or innocence of Raymond Conroy is the man who has long defended him. Despite his tireless efforts to free Conroy and correct what he believes was a total lack of judgment on behalf of the jury, Shep still refuses to discuss the case in any terms other the legal merits even with those closest to him.

This is until responding to a secret letter from Lotte.

She first thought of writing him while reading the book about the case Nick brought with him to Sweden. She’d been inspired by his tenacity and refusal to give up on a man everyone assumed guilty. She discovered in Shep a kindred spirit who clearly relished an uphill battle and whose soft spot was reserved for the underdog. She found these qualities refreshing, and, without ever saying so much to anyone else, considered him a worthy role model in this respect.

Her letter was short, handwritten, contained a self-addressed stamped envelope with their new place in New York, and explained that any reflections he might have on his battle to free Raymond Conroy would be of value to her in finishing the novel she’d been writing for several years.

Shep returned her envelope with a sixty-minute tape he’d dictated over a bottle of wine. Lotte had hoped for a letter back, but what she received was far more revealing than anything she could have expected. Shep wished her luck with the completion of her first book and asked that she never share his thoughts with anyone else, including Nick.

The sound of Shep’s voice on the tape begins with a long sigh, as if still deciding whether to actually say anything or not. He then slowly starts speaking in a voice as chilling in its precision as in the ideas being expressed. He has never attempted to sort out the feelings that come creeping out of him like a family secret. Lotte hears him begin by taking a long drag off a cigarette. She does the same after popping her head up on a pillow against the wall in their apartment.

Shep’s opening remarks set the tone for everything to follow:

Whether or not Raymond Conroy actually molested and killed his son and then killed his wife to cover it up is not now and never has been of concern to me. If you would ask me if he is capable of such crimes, my answer, as it would for any man, is yes. Yet the possibility, the potential, the mere capability to commit such heinous acts of violence should never be the basis of imprisoning a man for life. If this be so, as it clearly was in this case, then rare would be those among us undeserving of a similar fate.

Space Untitled

Nick is seated on a plastic chair near the back of Space Untitled, a large SoHo cafe on Greene Street. He swirls his coffee around in a paper cup before taking a sip and then continuing to thumb through a folder of fall course literature from NYU Law School.

“Excuse me if I’m disturbing you,” an older man carrying a white umbrella says, stopping at Nick’s table and surprising him. “But when I walked past and saw you sitting here by yourself, concentrating so intensely as you are, I said to myself, now here must be someone of interest.”

The man’s face twitches as he speaks. He notices the folder next to Nick’s cup on the table.

“You’re a student?” he asks, excited. “A law student?”

Nick only nods. Everything about his body language suggests he wants to be left alone.

“I live nearby and spend a good amount of my time here writing. I find the environment stimulating and have met a number of brilliant young people here. I have not seen you before.”

Nick shuffles his papers around the table and reaches into his backpack for another pen, thinking he’s made it more than obvious he’s not in the mood for company.

“Do you come here often? Live nearby?” the man says.

“No,” Nick says, breaking eye contact.

“Well, you know what they say about lawyers?” the man says, preparing to move on to another table.

“I’m not sure what they say.”

The man smiles playfully as he steps away, twirling his umbrella.

“They say go with God.”

Nick And Lotte’s Place

Lotte is reading the book about Raymond Conroy for a second time when Nick arrives home soaking wet.

“Your mother called. She said it was important.”

“You spoke to her?” Nick says.

“She said she left you a couple messages.”

Nick sits down on the floor next to Lotte and rests his head on her lap.

“Thought you finished it?” he asks in reference to the book. He then kisses her on the thigh.

“Just looking at a few pages again.”

“Why?”

“Why are you so wet?”

“Me?” Nick sort of laughs. “Got stuck talking to a guy about Iraq.”

“In the rain?” Lotte says.

“We were walking together to get a coffee after class.”

Lotte knows better than to pursue the subject any further. When she first suggested there was reason to hope for a peaceful solution some weeks back, Nick had exploded in rage arguing the government privately welcomed the events of 9/11 as a rationale for going after Saddam Hussein and anyone else it wants to.

Nick continues to caress her leg, moving his way slowly toward her feet. She sets the book down and rubs his shoulders. In focusing on certain passages from the trial, Shep strikes her as someone full of emotion that doesn’t seem to have any outlet to express himself other than his work. She thinks he would make a great character to write about someday because of the wide range of impressions he leaves on people. She knows better, however, than to ever say so to Nick.

“Call your mother,” she says.

Joy’s Place And Nick And Lotte’s Place

Joy doesn’t sound upset, but she is speaking so fast Nick can’t get a word in. There was an instant after Lotte said she called that he thought something must have happened to Shep, but this proves not to be the case. Nick settles back on his futon and listens to Joy’s monologue like he might some call-in show on the radio.

“I was shot in the ear by a BB gun while taking Libby for a walk. It happened tonight, only a couple of hours ago. I still can’t believe it. Here I am worried to death about you living in New York City and I get shot by a truck full of teenagers while walking my dog in Plainfield, Kansas. Me of all people, the victim of a drive by shooting!”

“You all right?” Nick says.

“Of course I’m OK. How much damage can a BB do? It’s the point of the thing. Me being shot. And I saw the little shits that did it, too. It was a group of them. Four of them inside the cab of a black pickup truck. I know it was them because they had the nerve to come speeding back past me a few minutes later in the opposite direction. The police agreed it was probably the little shits in the truck.”

“You went to the police?”

“Well, no, I didn’t go to the police. I saw two officers I recognized while I was waiting in the emergency room and told them what happened. They took a statement there in the lobby and said they would do what they could. I didn’t have to go to the station.”

“You were in the emergency room? You said you weren’t hurt?” Nick says, his voice angry with concern.

“Yes, but it wasn’t necessary. Sally insisted I go after stopping by her house to have her look at my ear.”

“I hope she went with you?”

“No, of course not. I wouldn’t let her.”

Nick’s end of the line falls silent as he sits listening to Joy ramble on. The idea of her alone in an emergency room leaves him thinking or her as a someone who, despite her active circle of friends, is very much alone. He starts to worry about her as she speaks. He wonders what would happen if something truly serious happened to her. A car accident? A fall? A heart attack in the middle of the night? Who would help her? Who would notice if she collapsed inside her own home, tripped down the stairs, the victim of robbery and subsequent assault? Who would be there to help her grow old? He suddenly feels selfish and ashamed of his lack of interest in her life.

“Imagine the odds?” Joy says. “Me being shot with a BB gun in Plainfield, only a block or two away from the racquet club. What are the chances? I’m more likely to win the lottery. Seriously, the odds of me winning the state lottery must be greater than being shot in the ear by a BB gun. They must be?”

“You can’t compare the two. That’s not the way statistics work.”

“Well, I think if this can happen then I can certainly win the lottery.”

“Enough about the lottery,” Nick says. “What did the cops say?”

“They’ll do what they can, but, you know, I honestly think I brought this on myself.”

“You what?”

“Weird things like this just don’t happen. They happen for a reason.”

“Stop it. Stop the new age bullshit before you even get started on it here.”

“No, really. I think I may have asked for this with what I’ve been thinking lately, especially about your father. Just two nights ago I had a dream about hiring someone to shoot him if I didn’t get my house payment soon. I’ve been very negative lately.”

“Being shot is not your own fault!”

“No, I think maybe so, honey. These things just don’t—

“Stop it! Stop it! It’s nuts to think—

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“There is no explanation! It was a freak event. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Nick shouts. “Quit thinking about it anymore. You should just go to sleep.”

“Do you think they were aiming at me or at Libby?” Joy says.

“What?”

“Maybe they were trying to hit Libby. How could anyone want to hurt such a precious little doll as my Libby?”

“What difference does it make if they were aiming at you or your dog or someone’s mailbox for fuck’s sake? They hit you and ought to be arrested for it.”

“It does make a difference.”

“It doesn’t make any fucking difference! None! Someone shot you and they should pay.”

“Why would anyone want to shoot me?”

Nick feels as though his mind is being twisted with a pair of pliers.

“I’m hanging up if you don’t quit this bullshit thinking. It will get you nowhere.”

“Well, I know I had something to do with this, but it’s not even why I called. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it.”

Space Untitled

Following the second night of classes for the Fall 2003 semester, Nick runs into the same man he met a week earlier at Space Untitled. This time the man introduces himself as Francis and pulls a vanity published novel from his briefcase to prove his credentials as a writer. A headshot on the back makes him look ten years younger, with the author’s bio beneath it describing him as a scholar of Middle Eastern languages, a graduate of Harvard, and a fully ordained Catholic priest. He characterizes the novel, his fourth, as a religious thriller in which the Pope is mysteriously infected with HIV.

“Like all my novels,” Francis says, “It’s a story of conversion.”

Hearing this is enough to make Nick want to run away and hide. Just as he’d done the first night they met, the man instantly puts him on the defensive and makes him feel the need to lie.

Francis speaks of his twin brother, who recently died of AIDS, and who was the inspiration for the book still in Nick’s hands. Nick is not interested in pursuing either issue. He is still too infuriated with his father to care about much else.

Liz kicked him out early in the summer and recently filed for divorce on the grounds of infidelity. While the charges are not without merit, Shep is not about to let Liz have sole custody of his daughter let alone take his country home away. Joy had agreed to joint custody of Nick and hadn’t wanted the house ten years earlier, but Liz is determined to continue living in it with Leslie and has hired the top divorce attorney in the state to ensure she does. She has also secretly let Shep know through her lawyer that she is considering accusing him of inappropriately touching their daughter as part of her complaint should he not surrender custody and agree to her other demands. In light of such serious threats, Shep believes he has no choice but to ask Nick to fly home and testify on his behalf.

Nick And Lotte’s Place

If mistakes were made, they were mistakes in execution and not in strategy.

Lotte has typed out this line of Shep’s that begins side two of his tape and rereads it over and over again to herself, each time inviting a different interpretation and spawning a series of new questions.

Mistakes in execution and not in strategy?

Lotte is not one to make either, but trying to piece together where Shep thinks he went wrong in defending Raymond Conroy proves strangely motivating for seeing her work through to the end.

She lights another cigarette and imagines a published copy in her hand. The novel is still without a title. She’s been batting around a few ideas in her head as she comes closer to finishing it. Her feeling is the right title will appear at the right time, an act of faith not unlike her views on the process of writing in general. Ideas appear. They cannot be forced. They cannot be faked. The best she can do is be prepared to translate them well onto paper. The harder she works, the more hours she logs in front of her laptop, the closer she has come to the realization that much of what she is doing is out of her control.

Joy’s Place

Joy believes George Bush deserves a bullet between the eyes. The man infuriates her for a host of reasons. Although a registered Republican and general supporter of local and state party candidates, she has never voted to put one in the White House. Goldwater was a loose cannon. Nixon a crook. Ford pardoned Nixon. Reagan was The Wizard of Oz. Bush Sr. a wus.

And W?

She thinks he is a dangerous moron who is recklessly taking the country to war. He can’t speak in complete sentences and has the squint of a liar. He is, in fact, the dumbest person she has ever seen in American politics. There is even talk now in Washington of reinstating the draft.

No son of hers is being called up to fight.

Bush is better off dead.

Joy once tried to start a neighborhood recycling campaign after attending a Tony Robbins workshop that never got off the ground. And more recently, she’d been elected to the board of the Plainfield chapter of Planned Parenthood. None of this, however, could have foreshadowed her decision to the kill the President of the United States.

She sits with her spine straight and both feet pressed flat against the floor. Her hands wrest palms up on her knees. A single candle casts shadows across her living room. It is just past midnight. Her eyes are closed.

The tick of a clock provides a pattern to her thinking. All of her attention is focused on each breath. Long slow inhale. Long slow exhale. One after another, she repeats herself for what seems like hours. Every idea other than the one at hand is slowly exhaled away. She gradually succeeds in becoming centered.

The first headlines start to appear.

PRESIDENT SHOT

BUSH DEAD

THE NATION MOURNS

GUNMAN NOT LINKED TO SADDAM

The images of news reports inside Joy’s head are crystal clear. The only thing missing is a picture of the killer. But do the who, how, and why even matter? No. Not to her. All that matters is laying the idiot to rest. He is evil and must be stopped. It is only her responsibility to put the energy out there and let someone else act on it. Anyone else.

This isn’t the first time Joy has taken to visualization. She’s been at it for years. There was the self-healing of blisters on her tennis hand. Imagining more money in the bank. She’d watched Nick win countless tennis tournaments before he actually stepped onto the court. Kate had risen up out of her hospital bed to nourish her body with baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables just prior to her death. Shep’s monthly checks for her house payment even arrived early in the mail.

Space Untitled

Nick is now a regular at Space Untitled. He does not come across Francis every night. Some weeks it’s once or twice, others perhaps more. The one constant in what is becoming a legitimate friendship, however, is that when they do sit and speak over coffee, much of what they talk about revolves around Nick’s feelings concerning Iraq. Francis remembers America’s involvement in Vietnam vividly. He was Nick’s age at the time of its peak and deeply involved in his religious studies. His brother had not had the luxury of the church to fall back on. He was shipped off to fight and shipped back home all within the same calendar year. He left frightened. He returned crazy. He then spent the next three decades sticking needles in his arms and had recently been buried because of it.

Nick has no immediate fears of being sent off to war against his will. Despite rumors of a draft being reinstated, he doubts it will ever happen and knows if it does he’ll be on the first plane to Sweden.

“There’s always been war,” Nick says. “And to be honest, it’s not even the war that bothers me. I’m not a pacifist. I believe in hitting back. But it’s the whole goddamn production of the thing. It’s the pretense. The media pisses me off far more than the military. I know what the generals are there to do. I expect them to wage war. But journalists? Embedded journalists? It’s all just a big mind fuck. Half the time, I just want Bush or some government type to come on TV and just say, Look, we are going to take out Saddam and steal his oil and fuck you and the rest of the world if you think you can do anything about it. I would be satisfied with that. It’s honest. It’s a challenge I can respond to. I mean I just want to tell them to go ahead and try to get away with their evil shit, but don’t fucking insult my intelligence.”

“How about just don’t lie?” Francis says.

“And that, too.”

Shep’s Other Place

Shep sips from an old coffee mug. He’s dressed in the Fila sweat suit he always wears into the office on Sundays. Leaning back in his leather chair with his feet inside a favorite pair of moccasins up on his desk, he sits alone watching Meet the Press and stewing over his upcoming divorce hearings.

Why can’t she just die in her sleep, he thinks. His hatred for Liz has grown so severe he’s resorted to watching television whenever preparing for the hearings. Without the distraction, he’s unable to think rationally about how best to screw her out of everything she’s asking for.

His attention is momentarily focused on Dick Cheney, who is explaining to Tim Russert why Saddam Hussein is a grave and imminent threat to the United States due to his nuclear weapons program and his possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Russert cuts to a commercial.

Shep is out of cigarettes, but he doesn’t feel like running outside to buy another pack. The coffee tastes too good to abandon just yet. He pours himself some more after putting down the legal pad he’s been holding in his lap. Pictures of Nick and Leslie at various stages in their lives cover the walls in his office. Most of Leslie are carefully posed studio shots. Nick’s are more true to life. Many of them are taken at tennis tournaments where he is holding up a trophy. There are numerous framed news clippings about Nick mixed in among some of Shep himself. There’s even a Plainfield Record story with a picture of the two of them together taken after they won a local bass fishing tournament when Nick was in sixth grade. It hangs on the wall directly above his chair.

Shep takes another sip of coffee and begins to muse how long it might be before he has a picture of a grandchild to add to his collection. He remembers Nick saying something about not having any kids, but he is also old enough to know better than to give such heady declarations much weight. Many an ambitious young man had started out thinking the same way only to be pleasantly surprised.

Nick And Lotte’s Place

Mistakes in execution and not in strategy.
   

Lotte thinks about Shep’s remarks, as it finally sinks in her story is finished. She decides against adding more pages. All that remains is a few days worth of minor changes and proofreading. The struggle is over. She can be done by the end of the week.

For all the excitement the realization brings her, it can’t erase the fact that she’s afraid. No one has a read a word of it. Writing it is one thing. Selling it another.

She lights a fresh cigarette and resumes her proofreading.

The job is tedious, but helps her reconnect with the early parts of the story, which boosts her confidence about the novel’s strength in general.

But her fears remain.

What if after all this work she fails to get the book published? What a waste it will be. She knows this is the wrong way to look at it, but she can’t help it. Her whole life is invested in the stack of paper on the desk next to her. What if nobody finds it interesting?

Space Untitled

The book about a high school football team in Texas Nick has been reading for the last week is in his backpack. He pulls it out and finishes it while downing cup after cup of coffee at Space Untitled. The last chapter before the epilogue is titled “Fields of Dreams.” It leaves him thinking about his own. Not dreams in the sense of what he wants to do with his life, but those in his sleep that he’s been having for years.

Though the settings vary, the theme is always the same.

Prison.

Nick knows it is only natural to dream of everything from flying, to sex, to dying horrendous deaths. Everyone has them. Research suggests the differences are in the ability to remember. Nick believes himself to be an exceptional case in this respect.

He’s never forgotten a dream in which he’s somehow in jail.

They started his freshman year at KU after a truly bizarre night he’s never been able to fully piece together. He’d started drinking in his dorm room around 5:30 p.m. and then walked over to another dorm where some of his friends on the tennis team were getting stoned before heading out to a party. He began smoking with them and that was the last part of the night he could accurately remember. Everything else was a blur. All Nick could recall the next morning, as well as years later, was that he had somehow found himself trapped inside the grounds of an abandon fishing camp on the outskirts of town. He could remember a shabby old cabin with the windows blown out on the edge of a small lake. The grounds were circled by a tall metal fence tipped at the top with curls of barbed wire. There were several rusty old boats pulled up on the bank with the engines removed. He had some recollection of finding the fence, seeing the field on the other side, and realizing that it was too risky to climb. He also thought that he had followed it with the hope of finding either an open entrance or at least a locked gate he could squeeze out of, but found neither.

He had no idea what happened or how he’d gotten home. His first thought was that it had been a nightmare when he woke up the next morning. But when he saw that his hands were cut and the front of his shirt was ripped to shreds, he knew otherwise.

Francis strolls into the cafe as it starts getting dark outside. Nick has not moved from his table all day. Francis talks him into having dinner at a noodle place down the street. When they see the line for a table, Francis suggests they order take out and bring it back to his place nearby.

Francis’s Place

Halfway through the meal, Francis notices Nick has barely touched his food. He’s merely poking at it and he looks pale.

“I can fix you something else?” Francis says. He can see that something terrible is on Nick’s mind.

Nick just shakes his head.

Unlike his dreams of being incarcerated, if he’d ever dreamed of Kate since her death, they were dreams he did not remember. Yet not a waking hour passes that he is not still plagued by her memory.

Francis can’t finish his dinner as he sits listening to Nick try to tell him the story. The grief Nick has reserved for Kate has been building for years. He’s never expressed it openly in the company of another.

“Anorexia is a disease. Like alcoholism. It’s no one’s fault,” Francis tries to explain.

“I know,” Nick says. “But there’s more to it than that.” He starts to sob uncontrollably.

“Of course there is,” Francis says, gently. “It’s a complex problem.”

Nick can barely see because his eyes are burning. He closes them tightly before he continues.

“She was pregnant.”

Francis puts his hands on his knees and lowers his head. He fears that if Nick doesn’t calm down he might hyperventilate.

“Nobody knew except me. I think her parents found out after she went to the hospital, but they never told anyone. At least they never said anything to me. Never said anything. No one did. By the time they found out it was too late.”

Francis doesn’t move from the loveseat in his living room directly across from him. All he can think of is how suddenly the kid has fallen to pieces. How long he must have been keeping it all locked inside him. How awful secrets can be.

Nick eventually eats some of his dinner after Francis warms it up. Francis tells him more about his brother and his thirty-year struggle with drugs. He makes an occasional reference to his latest novel, but only in respect to how writing it helped him deal with the last year of his brother’s life. AIDS is the cruelest disease imaginable in his opinion.

“And while their sources differ,” he says. “It is, in some ways, similar to the disease that killed Kate. Both are simply a matter of wasting away.”

Francis thinks of making coffee, but, considering the hour, asks Nick if he would rather join him in a glass of wine. The clock above Francis’s sink reads 8:20 p.m. as Nick watches him retrieve two glasses from one of his shelves.

They sit back down in the living room and Francis begins talking about the colony of Christian monks in northern France that plays a central role in his latest novel. He notices the wine has brought color back to Nick’s face.

“You’ve mentioned them before,” Nick says.

“Would you like to hear some of their music? It’s stunning, really, so spare.”

Francis is already moving over to his stereo. The music starts out slow, but begins to build. Nick realizes that the spectacular sounds being produced are all the product of men’s voices without instruments. He finds it fascinating and wants to hear more about them.

“You’ve been there?”

“I have,” Francis says. “I almost stayed. It is the most peaceful setting you can imagine.”

“And they make wine?” Nick says. He remembers the plot of Francis’s novel and the fact that the colony operates a small vineyard.

“They’ve been doing so for centuries. It is the only way they support themselves.”

Francis can see that Nick is quite taken with the music.

“Here. Listen here,” he says, directing Nick’s attention to one of his favorite parts on the CD.

They sit in silence for a moment as Francis makes hand gestures like he’s conducting them.

“They wake up every evening at midnight to chant and then do so again at four in the morning when they begin the day. It is the most simple and beautiful existence.”

Francis has thought of joining them permanently. His writing is all that’s stopped him up to this point, coupled with the desire to touch other people’s lives. Ever since his brother’s death, the idea has become increasingly more attractive.

“What time do they go to bed?” Nick says.

“When you live like they do, the difference between one’s waking and sleeping hours tends to be diminished.”

Francis pours them both another glass of wine.

Nick can see how Francis might find the life a monk so appealing. For someone who has lived in the same three rooms for years, the lack of furnishings and personal effects is hard for Nick to believe. Aside from his bed and writing table in the bedroom, the dated loveseat he is sitting on is the only significant piece of furniture in the apartment. Francis could have moved in the day before.

“Tell me more about Lotte?” Francis says.

“She spends all her time writing.”

Nick surprises himself with his answer. He knows it sounds bitter.

Francis senses he should back off.

They talk more about the monks and some of the other monasteries like it that Francis has been to throughout the world. He starts to tell Nick how much he resembles a young Irishman he met just last summer who was actually living in a cave in India, but Nick cuts him off because he has to go to the bathroom.

Nick notices pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters in stacks of exactly the same height lined up on the shelf of an exposed medicine cabinet above the sink. He’d already started to feel nervous before the change catches his eye.

Francis gets up and walks into his kitchen. He removes a bottle of the monk wine from a rack next to the refrigerator. He carries it out of the kitchen, puts it down between the two glasses already on the table, sits back on his loveseat just behind it and waits for Nick.

Nick turns the light off in the bathroom before opening the door so when he does come back into the living room it looks to Francis as if he is a ghost walking through a wall. Francis hopes Nick will see the full bottle next to the glasses and set out on the table as an invitation to join him on the loveseat. He does, and sits down beside him. Both men can feel their blood passing like electricity through their veins. Rather than grab hold of the bottle to open it, Francis takes Nick’s right hand and gently clamps both of his around it.

“It’s okay,” he says.

Nick has the odd sensation of feeling about six years old, Francis suddenly resembling his father the first time he paid him a dollar for a back rub on one of their many fishing trips when he was young that he has tried so hard to forget. Their lips are pressed together within seconds as Nick instinctively closes his eyes and escapes to the safety of his empty field where no one can find him.

Space Untitled

Space Untitled has a table in the back tucked away from everything else. Nick needs privacy. He needs to think. He’s beginning to believe the situation is manageable. He does not pull out a notebook or write anything down on napkins, as he often likes to do when trying to make decisions. There are no pro and con lists to be made. What he needs now more than anything is to trust his instincts. They have served him well in the past and he is confident they can again. He even begins to blame the source of his troubles on not having relied on them enough.

By mentally retracing his steps during the last several months, he tries to identify exactly where and why things have gone wrong. The why proves elusive, but there is no question where his problems began. He cannot think of one good thing that has happened to him since the day he set foot in New York. He has no interest in school. The apartment he lives in sucks. And, as of thirty minutes ago, there is at least the possibility that he may have killed a man.

His heart has already decided on somewhere else.

It’s up to his head to figure out exactly how to get there.

Nick And Lotte’s Place

“There’s nothing he can do,” is the first thing Nick tells Lotte after confiding he’s in serious trouble.

He stares at her like he is somehow the one who is being fooled. He cannot believe his father is the first thing to enter her mind.

“It’s about Iraq,” Nick says, almost combatively. “For about the last seven weeks, ever since school started, I’ve been involved with a group of students opposing what’s happening over there. I haven’t told you about it up to this point because I didn’t want you to worry.”

Lotte fears what is coming next.

“Things started off peaceful and that’s the way I thought they would remain. A lot of shouting but no one got hurt.”

Lotte nods.

“But as things started building up over there everyone got a lot more intense. We started seeing things about secret plans to reinstate the draft so more people become involved at school, and the nature of what we were doing changed real fast.”

Nick’s voice starts to race.

“I didn’t want to get caught up in that. But I already was and everything started happening so fast you just couldn’t get out. It got to the point where everyone was so angry no one could think straight. You can’t trust people acting out of rage and I should have known something bad was going to happen.”

Nick pauses, trying to think of what to say next.

“But I didn’t and now I’m in deep shit. I’m in over my head. I’m going to fucking jail.”

Nick starts to lose it and the emotions are real, but Lotte still doesn’t know what happened.

“What did you do?” she says. “You still haven’t told me.”

“I didn’t do anything, but I was there and they saw me.”

“Who saw you?”

“Fucking cops.”

“But what happened?”

“It’s so fucking bad.”

“You have to tell me. How can I help you unless I know what happened?”

“You can’t help me. I wish you could.”

“Nick!” Lotte says and then shakes him. She shakes him hard by grabbing both his arms. “Tell me what happened!”

“Cop got shot. Maybe killed.”

“Oh no.”

“It was just a protest. But this time some of them brought guns. I don’t know where they were from. There wasn’t that many of us. I guess they were students. I didn’t know until we got there. Maybe from the Middle East. It all happened so fast.”

Lotte cannot believe what she’s hearing.

“Where was this? What time?”

“Wall Street. In front of the Stock Exchange. Early in the morning. We planned it to get people’s attention on their way to work. Everything must have happened before nine. The cops grabbed someone from our group after he took a swing at one of them and just started to kick his ass in full view of everyone. Three of four of them were just kicking his ass. That’s when somebody just opened fire. It was all so fast. I don’t know. But at least one cop fell and I just got the fuck out of there. Ran like shit. Ran into a bookstore.”

Lotte remains still. She listens carefully.

“I’ve been in cafes all day. I haven’t even got a chance to see the news. But it doesn’t matter. There were so few of us that they’re going to know who was there. I can’t deal with the news right now.”

Nick grabs his face again. It’s almost as if he believes his own story. He thinks Lotte is about to go into shock, but, in fact, she’s thinking clearly.

“How do you know they saw you?” she asks. She sounds like a lawyer.

“They had to.”

“Why?”

“Because we weren’t a huge group. No more than a hundred. Some of them must have been arrested and the cops will fucking torture them to find out who else was involved.” Nick pauses just for a second and then adds, “And I saw cameras before the shooting started. Somebody must have gotten us on film.”

His breathing is heavy. He has to stop.

Lotte looks around the room. There is her laptop and her manuscript on her desk next to it. There are two coffee cups on the floor. One has a little coffee left. The other is full of ashes. Despite all her wishes to the contrary, she knows what has to be done.

“We’ll leave for Stockholm in the morning. We can stay through the holidays or until we know if they are looking for you. We can say it is a surprise.”

“They’ll be looking” Nick says. He believes it now.

“As soon as we get there, we will call your father.”

The Andersson’s Place

With only a night’s notice, Lotte’s parents had little time to prepare their apartment for Lotte and Nick. Her mother was able to move her things out of Lotte’s room and clear away some closet space for their clothes. Her father bought more firewood from a market down the street. He assumed they would want to spend time at the cabin so he had phoned ahead to a neighbor to see what kind of shape the island was in. They did not normally visit Rindo in the winter, but there were those who either lived there year round or at least opened up their summer houses for the holidays. He was told the trails were open and the ferries were running on schedule. The same neighbor had also checked on their cabin and said it looked fine from the outside, with no broken windows or anything else appearing out of order

Francis’s Place

Francis never really lost consciousness the night of the assault. Fearing for his life, he’d only pretended to with the intent of tricking Nick into leaving. It worked, but the injuries he sustained were no less severe as a result. The broken bottle resulted in a three inch cut across the top of his head and a mild concussion. He made it into St. Vincent’s Hospital under his own power and a doctor had stitched him up before releasing him the same night.

Francis never called Nick the next day and had no intention of pressing charges against him. As brutal as the incident may have been, he was able to find room in his heart for forgiveness. His religious training notwithstanding, thinking back to the events that led up to the attack allowed him to do so.

The Resort Island of Rindo

By the time they reach Rindo, the sky is a blanket of white. Snow is coming down like cotton. Lotte tries sticking out her tongue to take it into her mouth. Nick just keeps telling himself how much he loves her. The scene is dreamlike.

He almost confesses everything, but holds back at the last minute. The story about the shooting cannot hold up for long. Sooner or later he’ll have to think of something else. She loves her country, but does not want to spend her life here. He knows he can never go back to New York, but the question still remains of what he will actually do with himself should she agree to stay.

Her face is dripping wet and the snowflakes caught in her hair are like a crown of small flowers. He thinks of snowmobiling as a kid, riding the drifts along Hwy-3 with his friends and often just racing through cornfields alone. Blizzards were like holidays and he’d loved them when he was young. School closed down and the whole neighborhood became a playground while at the mercy of a winter storm.

Nature, for Nick, is still freedom.

When Lotte asks him what’s wrong he reminds her of the time they first kissed.

“The silence,” he says.

“Yes?”

“The snow has the same effect.”

Lotte makes a fire and puts down water for coffee when they finally get to the cabin. It’s too early for dinner, but they are both hungry so she makes a couple of tomato and cheese sandwiches on hard bread. They curl up together in a large chair in front of the fireplace after they finish eating.

“When am I going to read it?” Nick asks, kissing the inside of her ear. It is the first time he’s brought up the subject in weeks.

“As soon as we get back,” she says. She feels like a kitten in his arms, warm and loved unconditionally.

Lotte is still asleep in the large chair when Nick begins searching through the kitchen cupboards for something to drink. All he can find is a half-empty bottle of whiskey.

The snow on the ground is at least a foot deep. He trudges through it using the paddle he is carrying like a ski pole on his way down to the dock. The moon sparkles through the trees that are coated with ice. Smoke pours from the chimney of every occupied home on the island. The smell brings back memories of kissing young girls around bonfires in the fall.

His mind has never been more taken with anything. It’s as if each of his senses is working in total synch with one another instead of jockeying for position. The Andersson’s old wooden sailboat is secure on dry land and tipped halfway over against a huge tree to keep any snow or rain from accumulating inside of it. He pulls away the ropes securing the boat to the tree and drags it to the edge of the water.

He remains on the bank a long time before finally getting in. Lotte is the most amazing person he’s ever known and he’s finding it difficult to breath while thinking of all they’ve done together. She has everything in the world to look forward to. He doesn’t doubt for a second that her first book will be published and he believes she’s destined to become a star. A more beautiful and ambitious woman he could never find. He feels blessed to have been a part of her life.

He thinks of his sister, too. Their ages are too far apart and the circumstances surrounding her birth too painful for him to have ever known her very well. But he loves her. If she’s lucky, he thinks, she’ll grow up to be something like Lotte. He then remembers the picture of the rabbit Lotte drew for her on one of Shep’s legal pads the first time she came out to the house and knows it’s time to push off.

The water is freezing. He can feel it on his hands as he slowly rows away from shore. The simple boat is without its sail so how far off he gets will be entirely of his own making. Little crosses his mind as he continues. He completed his thoughts before heading out to sea.

The cold air that burns his lungs is all he has left.

The cold, clear air and the bottle.

He doesn’t drink it all at once. He couldn’t if he tried. Rather, he drops his paddle in the water and takes one small sip after another as he watches it float away.

The boat eventually drifts far enough out into the Archipelago where he can no longer distinguish one small island from another. It is only then that he finishes his warm bottle of whiskey and quietly slips over the side.

Outside Lotte’s Place

On the morning of May 2, 2003, Lotte is back in New York to sign a contract for the publication of her first novel. Championing it as one of the finest debuts in recent years, Lotte’s agent has served her well, selling the book for a surprisingly high price while securing a deal with the same house for her next two. This is a talented new voice they intend to develop and keep on the list at any cost.

Lotte’s meeting with her publisher isn’t scheduled until later in the afternoon, yet she is up before daybreak to buy cigarettes and a copy of the Times. Steam pouring out of an open manhole and the sound of the subway beneath her feet serves as a morning lift no cup of coffee can match. It is at this hour that she’s always finds the city most alive, perhaps because it so resembles death. After depositing her change into a newspaper machine on lower Broadway, she buys two packs of cigarettes at a deli across the street and then nearly trips over a drunk passed out on the sidewalk while skimming the front page on her way back to the apartment. The drunk is a defeated young man absent shelter and a pair of shoes, but with a clean yellow ribbon pinned to his chest. The paper features a shot above the fold of George W. Bush posturing aboard the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit.

Joy’s Place

Joy draws a bull’s-eye around the same AP photo of Bush she tore from the front page of the Plainfield Record. She curses it before tacking it up to her wall with the others. What had long served as her home office since surrendering her large house in the country to Shep has given way to a secret war room. The President continues to be at the top of her enemies list, but the list has grown with each day that’s passed since the loss of her son. Joy’s therapist has repeatedly warned her against trying to make sense of all the complex reasons someone would decide to take his own life, but she refuses to be deterred. Revenge is all that keeps her from ending her own.

Shep, Liz, Lotte, even Leslie all have places reserved on Joy’s wall of blame, where visualizations and the casting of spells can be directed without mercy. For several days prior to the addition of Bush doing his best Top Gun, however, the full force of Joy’s wrath has been focused on a Plainfield Record photo and accompanying story about Raymond Conroy returning home from state prison a free man.

How he could even show his face in town, let alone be welcomed back by the members of his church and various other supporters, proves evil enough to elevate her actions from the level of private sorcery to a violent act. It is Conroy’s repeated public praise of Shep for standing by him over the course of two trials, coupled with his call for volunteers to help him seek out the real killer of his family that drives Joy to buy a rifle at the local Walmart.

Space Untitled

No less than five hundred people show up at Conroy’s church on the night of May 2, 2003 to hear him lay out the evidence he and his investigators have turned up concerning the true nature of the crime. The national media are back, including the author of the book that made his case a cause célèbre. Shep speaks first, championing Conroy’s commitment to justice and continuing to argue there exists not a shred of evidence to suggest he ever mistreated his wife let alone so brutalized his son. The author seconds Shep’s sentiments while also praising Conroy as a man of honor and making sure to hawk his paperback before introducing Conroy to the crowd.

Conroy welcomes the applause before rising from his seat. The crowd stands with him, continuing to roar as cameras go off and their applause grows louder. As Conroy steps forward toward the lectern he sees a woman in a long coat calmly walking down the aisle. He checks the pews in front of him to be of help, thinking she needs somewhere to sit, but she never takes her eyes off him. He smiles as she comes closer, and so does she, each soaking up the other’s attention and the spirit of all those around them.