“You (plural)” = Middlebury, VT/August 1999
Where: At the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where I was teaching. It was my fourth visit to Bread Loaf; I’d begun as a waiter (a scholarship that allows you to serve meals in exchange for attending the conference) right after returning from England, in 1987, and over the next twelve years I’d moved up through the hierarchy to instructor. But I’d never gotten any work done during the two-week conference. In 1999 I decided to write a short story every day I was there: just sit down in one of Bread Loaf’s trademark green wooden chairs, in the middle of a field, with 30 minutes or so, and see what happened. “You (plural)” was the only story that came to anything, and it emerged pretty much as it is. I don’t remember much about the others, except that one, called “Night’s Candles,” was about a boy who falls in love with a lobster.
Music: Anything by Carlos Santana
History: In the San Francisco neighborhood where I grew up, there was an older boy with the last name of Rolf. When I was a teenager, I heard that he’d died. I never knew how — in fact, I don’t even know if it’s true. But I’ve thought of that boy many times over the years — and of his mother, whom I remember clearly, for some reason. He had her face.
Irony: My stepfather was nothing like Lou, mercifully, but he was a charismatic man whose personal life was often in upheaval. When I first wrote “You (plural),” I found myself reflecting on the fact that he could never be old or infirm — anything less than the vital, iconic presence he had always been in our lives. Yet when I returned to “You (plural),” nine years later, my stepfather was long dead, after a brief, merciless bout of leukemia.
It’s all still there: the pool with its blue and yellow tiles from Portugal, water laughing softly down a black stone wall. The house is the same, except quiet. The quiet makes no sense. Nerve gas? Overdoses? Mass arrests? I wonder as we follow a maid through a curve of carpeted rooms, the pool blinking at us past every window. What else could have stopped the unstoppable parties?
But it’s nothing like that. Twenty years have passed.
He’s in the bedroom, in a hospital bed, tubes up his nose. The second stroke really knocked him out — the first one wasn’t so bad, just one of his legs was a little shaky. That’s what Bennie told me on the phone. Bennie from high school, our old friend. Lou’s protégé. He tracked me down at my mother’s, event though she left San Francisco years ago and followed me to LA. Bennie the organizer, rounding up people from the old days to say good-bye to Lou. It seems you can find almost anyone on a computer. He found Rhea all the way in Seattle, with a different last name.
Of our old gang, only Scotty has disappeared. No computer can find him.
Rhea and I stand by Lou’s bed, unsure what to do. We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying.
There were clues, hints about some bad alternative to being alive (we remembered them together over coffee, Rhea and I, before coming to see him — staring at each other’s new faces across the plastic table, our familiar features rinsed in weird adulthood). There was Scotty’s mom, of course, who died from pills when we were still in high school, but she wasn’t normal. My father, from AIDS, but I hardly saw him by then. Anyway, those were catastrophes. Not like this: prescriptions by the bed, a leaden smell of medicine and vacuumed carpet. It reminds me of being in the hospital. Not the smell, exactly (the hospital doesn’t have carpets), but the dead air, the feeling of being far away from everything.