Alethea Black

In those days, I had girlfriends the way some people have freckles. I wish I could recall them all individually, but I’ve retained only the more peculiar traits of each, resulting in an odd farrago that looms in my mind like a Picasso. There was the girl whose prep school roommate had advised her to put root beer ChapStick on her labia before oral sex, and another who had a parlor gag where she could sign her name with her foot. One girl’s mother had been in and out of mental hospitals her whole life; I remember she once served us roasted chicken complete with burned feathers and cooked innards. I drove to Killington, Vermont, for a weekend with a lively girlfriend who met me at the door wearing nothing but a bra, panties, and ski boots. I’m pretty sure she was different from the one who used to whisper delicious things to me while we were in bed, but she was too shy to speak up about it, prompting me, at the tender age of twenty-two, to consider purchasing a hearing aid, as a kind of sex toy. The prettiest was a girl who belonged to a performance troupe called The Belly Dancers for Peace & Justice, who was convinced she’d seen the Virgin of Guadalupe etched on the hood of a ’76 Monte Carlo.

There was one girl who stands out. Her name was Mandy Purcell. She was working at the swankiest old folks’ home in Arlington, Massachusetts, when we met, during the summer of 1977. I was there doing community service as a result of my work with the Billboard Liberation Front (“adding the blemish of truth” was our motto); Mandy was there voluntarily. All the old guys loved her—the smooth young skin, the frank blue eyes, the gauzy hippie skirts. But there was one fogy, Harold, who reserved for her a special kind of affection. He had that condition old people sometimes get that’s like a combination of Tourette’s syndrome and Zen wisdom. Whenever Mandy would bring him orange juice or change the station on the TV set, he’d start.

“Want to hear a one-word description of the worst blow job I ever had?” Mandy would never answer, but he didn’t need encouragement.

Fantastic,” he said.

At other times, he was more philosophical: “Appearance only goes so far in life. You show me the most beautiful woman in the world, and I’ll show you the guy who’s tired of fucking her.”

One day he told a joke I don’t remember, except that the punch line had something to do with getting scrod in the pluperfect.

“Harold, my man, you are the court jester of the moribund,” I said. “You must be the funniest septuagenarian I’ve ever met.”

“I’m a sexagenarian,” he said.

“You most certainly are.”

In the kitchen, I tried to score points with Mandy.

“Seriously?” I said. “You’re going to take that from him? What about women’s lib? What about respect?”

Mandy stuck a plate sideways in a rack to dry. “Harold stormed the beach at Normandy,” she said. “He gets to say whatever he wants.”

She wouldn’t go out with me. My community service ran through the month of June, and I think I asked her out every week. She always said no, but nicely, claiming she had some sort of boyfriend, although I never saw the guy. After my gig at the nursing home was up, I kind of forgot about her. Until the August afternoon when Ace showed up at my door with the car.

It was a Jaguar convertible. Ace had bought it at a police auction for no money. He’d found a pair of fuzzy handcuffs in the trunk, and dangling from the rearview mirror was an icon of the Evil Queen from Snow White. The Evil Queen had been his first erotic fixation, so he’d felt the car was speaking to him. Before taking it on its first joyride—first under new ownership—he came to get me.

We screamed up Route 2 with the top down. A car is not always the answer to the meaningless monotony of life. But sometimes it is. While we revved at the end of an exit ramp, blood thick with adrenaline, I experienced what I can only describe as divine inspiration. I took off my sunglasses.

“Let’s go rescue Mandy,” I said.

I loved Ace because he never said no to anything. He’d been my closest friend throughout college, where I was first drawn to him because of his mastery of the art of enjoyment. Ace had taken the SAT stoned and had still gotten a nearly perfect score. Freshman week, during which he was blitzed 98 percent of the time, he found a smoke shop on Mass. Ave. and got a tattoo of Chaucer on his left biceps. When he discovered that the local squirrels were not afraid to jump from the tree limb outside his fourth-floor window into his dorm room, he made a nest for them, fed them, and then on walks through Harvard Yard would use his Dr. Dolittle charms to impress women. Before he got kicked out, he’d been working on a thesis proposal to rewrite the Bible in the anapestic tetrameter of Dr. Seuss.

Who will cast the first stone? Who would like to begin?
Who is ready to judge? Who has lived without sin?
‘Cause to love one another—I’ve told you before—
You must love EVERY other, including this whore.

When we got to the nursing home, it turned out Mandy didn’t want to be rescued.

“I’m working,” she said, eyeing the car skeptically. “Come back at seven.”

By the time we went back we’d already split a six-pack of Schlitz in Ace’s garage. Logistics had gotten away from us, and it was 7:45 when I rang the bell. Harold answered.

“She’s gone,” he said. “You blew it, Bub.”

“Fuck,” I said. Before I could elaborate, Mandy came walking up the street.

“I figured you weren’t coming,” she said. “I couldn’t wait around all night.”

“But you came back.”

“I forgot something,” she said, mounting the steps and slipping her narrow body between me and the door frame. In her wake I smelled patchouli.

What’d you forget? I wanted to ask, because I had the feeling she hadn’t forgotten anything at all, but I didn’t want to push things. I had already shown up forty-five minutes late for our first date.

While she was inside, Harold squeezed my shoulder. “Next time, bring me one of those beers you been drinking.”

Once we were on our way, Ace kept checking Mandy out in the rearview mirror.

“Mitch tells me you’re the flower of Golden Meadows,” he said. Before I could protest, he added, “Not in so many words.”

“Oh, really,” Mandy said. “May I ask where we’re going?”

“Don’t you think you should have asked that before you got in the car?” Ace said. Half my time with Ace is spent on disaster control.

“To Cronin’s,” I said, twisting to face her. “It’s a bar in Cambridge. If that’s all right.”

“Sure,” said Mandy. “Why not.”

Mandy, Candy,” Ace said. While we were in his garage, he’d also smoked half a joint. “I like you already.” He grinned. “Tell us something about yourself we would never guess.”

The top was down and Mandy’s hair was airborne; she kept pulling strands of it out of her mouth. “I used to work for a greeting card company,” she said, after thinking for a minute.

“And?” said Ace. “Did you get fired for embezzling truckloads of money?”

“I quit. I designed a card that said Tikkun Olam, and they didn’t like that it was in Hebrew. They said: ‘This is America. Write in English.’”

“What does it mean?” I said.

“’Repair the World’. It was translated on the inside.”

“Bastards,” said Ace.

“It’s all right,” Mandy said. “I didn’t like it there that much anyway. I hardly ever got to design. Most of my time was spent using a glue gun and glitter. I worked with glitter so much that one day I sneezed and it came out sparkles.”

“Awww,” I said. “Like a fairy. A fairy with a head cold.”

“Exactly,” said Mandy.

At Cronin’s, I ordered a pair of Buds and found us a booth in the back. On the way in, Ace had stopped to talk to some friends of his who were congregated outside with their Harleys. The song playing on the jukebox was barely audible above the noise, but I could make it out.

I said: “Tell me if I’m crazy, but—”

“You’re crazy,” Mandy said.

“Don’t you think a better name for this album would have been The Far Side of the Moon? It’s not the part that’s in shadow that they’re singing about. It’s the hemisphere that’s never visible from Earth, that’s permanently remote.”

“Why don’t you write Roger Waters a letter,” she said.

“I’m serious.”

“So am I.”

A couple walked in with their arms around each other and sat in a nearby booth.

“Your boyfriend doesn’t mind you coming out like this?” I said.

Mandy brought her beer bottle to her lips. She had one of those sexy gaps between her two front teeth. “What do you care what my boyfriend thinks?” she said. “Word on you is you have a new girlfriend every week.”

“Because the one girl I really want won’t say yes.”

She gave me one of her forthright glances, and I felt like a student whose paper was being graded in front of him, a patient whose X-rays were being examined.

“Maybe you like them that way,” she said. “Permanently remote.”

I laughed. “Even if that were true—and I’m not saying it is—can a man help what he likes?”

“I know all about your type,” she said. I noticed with surprise that she was farther along with her beer than I was. “You won’t believe me. But I do.”

I reached for her hands. “Prove it to me,” I said.

She held my gaze for several unblinking seconds, then let go. Her eyes migrated to a spot beyond my left shoulder.

“Your friend,” she said. “Is he always like that?”

Ace was coming toward us, wearing one of the bikers’ helmets. He put three more beers on the table and sat down.

“Ask me a question in Latin,” he said. “And I will answer you in Greek.”

“Is that how you greeted your friends with the hogs?” Mandy said.

“My greetings are audience-appropriate,” Ace said. Years later, while Ace is giving a lecture titled “Don’t Ever Pay for Electricity When You Can Make It Simple and Cheap at Home,” a man in the crowd will raise his hand. “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” he’ll ask. To which Ace will reply: “If you’re so rich, how come you’re not smart?” An audience-appropriate riposte, to be sure. But I also believe it marks the exact moment at which Ace became obsessed with making millions of dollars.

“Ace speaks five languages,” I said. “He has one of the highest IQs on record.”

Mandy turned to him. “Does that mean you’re happy?”

“Be careful of this one,” I said. “She’ll see into your soul.”

Ace rotated the bottles of beer in and out of a triangle pattern. “As my father used to say: ‘There are two ways of being unhappy. Not getting what you want. And getting what you want.’” The overhead lights reflected in the hyaline surface of his helmet. “He also used to make us stick our pencils up our noses and leave them there for the rest of dinner if we were caught doing homework at the table.”

Mandy sat back. “How could you eat with a pencil dangling in front of your mouth?”

“And he once put stickers on everything in my bedroom, indicating how much it had cost. The bed frame, the lamps, the desk, the pillowcases, the carpet. All with price tags on them.”

Ace had been my best friend for five years, and I’d never heard any of this. I didn’t even know he had a father.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “but are you full of shit right now?”

Apparently Mandy believed him. “Ace is always full of shit,” she said. “Except for now.”

After that, no one said anything. I guess Ace didn’t know how to live up to the burden of not being full of shit, and I didn’t know what to say. Eventually Mandy turned to me.

“What about your father?” she said.

“If you find him,” I said, “tell him I say hi.”

I can’t recall who drove, or how we even made it to the Little League field in one piece. All I remember is lying with my back flat on a wet sea of grass, with Ace on my left somewhere and Mandy over on my right. And all those stars.

Ad astra per aspera,” I said.

“Okey dokey, Sir Polyglot,” said Mandy.

“It’s part of our message,” I said. “To the aliens.”

Voyager 2 had been launched the weekend before, carrying a Golden Record with sounds from our planet. Among them were footsteps, heartbeat, laughter, ocean surf, birdsong, frogs, a ship’s horn, a kiss, and this phrase. They’d also included a diverse selection of music, from a Brandenburg concerto to “Johnny B. Goode.” Ace and I had slept through the original broadcast of the launch, but had watched the Saturday Night Live coverage later. Father Guido Sarducci announced that the first communication from extraterrestrials was being received. Once decoded, the message said: “Send more Chuck Berry.”

Ad astra per what?” Mandy said.

“It means ‘Through hardships to the stars,’” I said. “They put it on the Golden Record. But first they translated it into Morse code.”

“Of course they did,” Mandy said.

“No aliens will ever intercept that thing,” Ace said. “It’ll just be a weird gift to ourselves. In the future.”

“That’s so typical,” Mandy said. “We always want to fill the void. We don’t know how to just be still and listen.”

We stared at the stars for a few minutes. Then, out of nowhere, Mandy groaned. “Is the planet spinning right now, or is it just me?”

“Ho, baby,” I said. “Are you okay?”

“Maybe you should lie down,” Ace said.

Mandy groaned in a higher frequency.

“Here,” I said, reaching out. “Hold my hand.” She took my hand and squeezed it, hard.

“What about me?” Ace said. So I stuck out my other arm and held his hand, too. I imagined how the three of us must have looked from outer space, strung together like paper dolls.

“I’m cold,” Mandy said.

“Come here,” I said. She crawled over and laid her head on my chest. I let go of Ace and smoothed her hair with my hand. I loved the weight of her head and the scent of her hair. I felt ridiculously happy.

“Mandy, I know we’re both wasted right now. Plus we’ve got this yahoo with us. So I won’t ask you to marry me. But one day, someday, will you let me take you out on a proper date? One date, anywhere you want?”

I waited. I wished a shooting star would streak through the sky like a rocket.

“Yes,” she said.

I had anticipated evenings before, but this was an anticipation of epic proportions. When Saturday night finally rolled around, I decided to buy her flowers, just to shake things up a bit, throw a curve ball at her sense that she had my number. I’d never bought a woman flowers and I had no idea what to get. After a stupidly long time at the florist, I decided on peonies. I liked the way they looked overstuffed; I figured I was getting more bang for my buck.

On the way to Golden Meadows, I passed one of those churches with an outdoor sign whose message changes every week. They’d just put a new one up: even jesus has a fish story.

When Harold answered the door, he took one look at my bouquet and began to shake his head. “There’s no fool like a young fool,” he said.

“What are you, the receptionist?” I said. “Why do you keep answering the door?”

Mandy came down the stairs in a short yellow dress. She looked better than gorgeous; she looked out of this world. She walked right up to me, wearing an expression of barely contained delight. Whatever it was she had to say, it was going to be good.

“I got into art school,” she said. “I’m going to Rome!”

There are some moments in life that are so disorienting, so surreal, you find yourself saying the exact opposite of what you feel.

“That’s so wonderful,” I said. If she’d been smiling any wider, her mouth would have jumped off her face.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was applying,” she said. “Not even my parents. I never thought I’d get in. They only take about four students a year. I just found out today.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said again. I’m convinced I was in shock; I’m lucky she didn’t ask me who the President was. “We’ll have to make a toast.”

A shadow crossed her face. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I can’t go out with you now. There’s too much I need to do before I leave.”

“You can’t go out with me now, or you don’t want to go out with me now?”

“Don’t be like that,” she said. Then she ran into the living room and came back holding a wooden cigar box. “I have something for you,” she said. “But it’s for the future. You can’t open it until”—she paused—“Twenty-ten.” Twenty-ten. The word sounded absurd and impossible, an abstraction out of science fiction.

The box’s lid had been engraved with a dove with both wings spread open. “Did you make this?” I said.

She nodded. “Just give it a good bang against a rock and it’ll open,” she said. “It’s only sealed with Elmer’s.”

I set the box down and put my hands on the bony wings of her hips. “Why don’t you give it to me in person?”

“Take it now,” she said. “But don’t open it until twenty-ten.” She pinched me. “Promise.”

“I promise,” I said. A moment passed, then Harold’s voice came from the TV room. “For the love of God, kiss her already!”

She sent me postcards, mostly decorated with her drawings, but a few had words thrown in, in a snaking pattern around the border, or inside the petals of a flower. I thought about her every day, but for some reason I could never bring myself to write her back. I suppose I felt abandoned, plus she was just so far away. The box remained sealed. I was a man of principles—principles that were circumscribed by boundaries of my own invention, but principles nonetheless.

For a few years, I worked as a DJ on Boylston Street, until I got tired of wearing earplugs every night. While I lived in Providence, I was a research assistant to a professor who used me more to coordinate his travel plans than to do any actual research. I had a brief stint as a cub reporter until everyone at the newspaper lost their jobs. I worked in sales, where the better I became at it, the more I hated it. I got in on the ground floor of a video start-up that tried unsuccessfully to create demand for virtual tours of college campuses. I even had a job at an aerospace company, where I once carried a rocket nosecone on my shoulder. I’ve been a music tutor, a limo driver, a service technician, and a short-order cook. All told, I’ve lived in thirteen cities over the past thirty-three years. I was married once, when I lived in San Antonio, but it didn’t take; I probably shouldn’t have let myself be talked into it in the first place. People speak of not being able to outrun their ghosts, but for me it was just the opposite. I always felt as if I couldn’t quite catch up to mine.

For the past couple of years, I’ve worked as a sound engineer for the film industry. I’ll let you in on a little trick of the trade: The best way to portray silence in a movie is not with an absence of noise, but with the merest, tiniest sound.

Ace made his fortune patenting a microchip with the Bible on it—the non-Seussian version—that people could wear as jewelry. He now lives four hours north of me, in Big Sur, in a house with one wall made entirely of glass.

I haven’t heard Mandy Purcell’s name since that summer, so if she got anywhere with her art, she didn’t go platinum with it. I’ve searched for her on the Internet, but with no luck. I realize she could be dead. I used to dream that she flew across the ocean for me, in the form of a huge white bird. It’s funny—she and Harold were both in love with the song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; it played constantly at the nursing home. The song opens with a long major third, so now I think of Mandy whenever I’m stuck in traffic on the 10. The major third is the interval to which most car horns are tuned.

It’s a Thursday night in Culver City. The year is 2010. Voyager 2 is in the constellation known as Telescopium; it has traveled more than eight billion miles. I don’t know where along the way I lost the box. But I’ve started dreaming of Mandy again. In the dream, I find her. She’s alive, but her last name has changed. She asks me to give her one reason why she should go out with me. I tell her that I was a fool, that all twenty-two-year-olds are fools, that it’s a law of nature. Plus, she owes me a date. She’s the kind of person who believes in second chances, and she’s willing to give me one. On one condition: I have to tell her what was in the box. I have the dream over and over, and my answer is always different. The box was filled with white feathers. With painted rocks. With starlight. With poems, the most beautiful poems, that were all unbelievable, and all true. The box contained a list of everything I wish I had never done, and I tear it up and toss it into the sea. The box contained a list of everything I still wish I could do.

In one version, I confess that I lost it. That my intentions were good, but that somehow, in the execution, I screwed up royally. That this is, in fact, the story of my life. Mandy tells me that she understands, she always understood, she knew this about me, and she forgives me.

This morning, a friend forwarded me something that’s making the rounds. It’s a list of “Better Names” for record albums. Most of them are jokey, but there’s one that takes itself seriously: The Far Side of the Moon. I think I know who wrote it. I’m going to track her down. And if she asks me her question, I’m ready. The box, I’ll say, was empty.

Alethea Black's forthcoming collection of short stories, I KNEW YOU'D BE LOVELY (Broadway Books/Random House), has been called "smart... full of heart" by Joan Silber and "downright brilliant" by Robert Olen Butler. Her work has won the Arts & Letters Prize, has been cited as distinguished in The Best American Short Stories, and has been read at venues around the country by such talents as Campbell Scott and Bill Camp. Order it here.

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