Everybody has a story. People are weird, especially when you look at what they do from the outside. But once you get a little bit of the inside track, the skinny (as it were), it sometimes begins to make a little bit more sense.
Richard is my next-door neighbor. He’s thirty-five but his hair is already going gray. It tends to be lanky and flat and greasy-looking. I get the impression he doesn’t shower very much. He’s got piercingly blue eyes that are rarely bloodshot. He drives down to the convenience store at the corner from time to time in his bathrobe and flip-flops, and buys a bunch of Miller High Life and brings it back home. When he’s not bouncing a softball against the bedroom wall in his apartment that adjoins the living room wall in my apartment, he works the graveyard shift at a Seven-Eleven down by the interstate. If you met him on the street, you would think that he didn’t really give a shit about anything. He doesn’t actually, for the most part. But what he does give a shit about, he gives a shit about. As near as I can tell, what matters to him is keeping a roof over his head, and bouncing a softball against the opposite side of my living room wall every thirty seconds when he’s not manning the counter at the Seven-Eleven.
I’d been in my apartment for three whole days, and I’d gotten the boxes unpacked and the furniture arranged. Lisa’s husband was out of town at a conference, so she was over at my place and we were fooling around on the couch. The rhythmic thumping from the other side of the wall hadn’t bothered me before now, because I hadn’t spent much time in the living room, but it quickly proved distracting.
“What the fuck is that?” Lisa asked me, after a particularly emphatic thump. Given that it was the fifth in three minutes or so, it wasn’t an unreasonable question. I crushed out my cigarette in the ashtray on the coffee table, took a long swallow from my bottle of Newcastle, and stood up.
“That’s a good question,” I replied. “I’m going to find out.”
“Hi,” I said, after I’d pounded on Richard’s door and he’d opened it. “What the fuck is your problem?”
“Who are you?” he asked me. He lifted a High Life longneck to his lips, and drank some. He was holding an old softball in the other, tossing it up a couple of inches and then catching it every couple of seconds.
“I’m your next-door neighbor,” I said. “The one whose wall you’ve been banging on every thirty seconds or so. So what the fuck?”
“You’re not from ‘round here, I gather,” he said, blinking at me through a pair of oval-shaped wire-rimmed glasses. He grinned, and I nodded. I came here from New York City. In New York, we don’t mind profanities.
“I’m sorry,” he continued. “It’s a physics experiment. An ongoing experiment. You’re just going to have to deal with it.”
I heard my apartment door shut, and after a moment Lisa came up behind us and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Hello,” said Richard, raising his scraggly eyebrows.
“This is Lisa,” I told him. “She’s a friend.”
“So what’s up with the banging?”
I turned to her and rolled my eyes. “He says it’s a physics experiment.”
Richard lowered the softball, underhanded it into the wall with not inconsiderable force, caught it as it bounced back.
“Nice catch,” Lisa said.
Richard dropped his eyes to the ball, smiled at it, tossed it lightly in his hand. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“That’s the experiment?” I asked him.
“Yup. That’s it in a nutshell, at this point.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
His face grew somber. “I’m afraid I’m not.”
“And you’re going to keep doing that, every thirty seconds.”
He sighed. “Yes. I’m afraid I am.”
I honestly didn’t know what to do with that. In lieu of something better, I forced my lips into the semblance of a friendly smile.
“You realize sooner or later I might have to come over here and kill you.”
His own smile snapped back into place, and after studying me for a second he shook his head.
“You might, but I don’t think so. You’ll just move out to get away from the annoyance. That’s what usually happens.”
He waggled his eyebrows again, twice, quickly, Groucho Marx-style. “Yes. Usually.”
I looked at Lisa. She looked at me, shrugged her shoulders.
“So, can I offer you both a beer? Neighbor?” He tossed the ball against the wall again, caught it again. “It seems like the least I can do.”
I glanced at Lisa again. She was frowning at the softball.
“Actually, we have other plans this evening, Richard. We haven’t seen each other in awhile. Maybe I’ll take a raincheck.”
“Why don’t you just bounce the ball against one of your interior walls?” Lisa asked him, still staring at the softball. Richard chuckled, and shook his head.
“Sadly, that isn’t the way I started. You seem like lovely people, but the woman who was living in your apartment when the accelerator shut down was an absolute harridan, and pissing her off was kind of a side benefit. The experiment has progressed long enough, though, that I’d have to throw out all my accumulated data if I changed the impact site now.”
I stared at him, and he shrugged his shoulders, took a sip of his beer, bounced the ball off the wall again.
“I may really have to fucking kill you,” I said.
He spread his hands.
“Que sera sera. It was nice meeting you. Drop by for that beer some other time. And you two have a lovely evening.”
In spite of myself, I couldn’t help smiling a little.
“Sure,” I said after a moment. “You do, too.”
Lisa and I are a funny bit of business. She’s married to a guy who works as a sales exec for a computer company in town. His name is Rob, and on the few times he’s come out to departmental events and so on, he’s seemed perfectly harmless. He doesn’t seem to like Lisa’s friends and coworkers much, but it doesn’t come across as the sort of dislike that one can really take personally. We go out and have drinks and argue about the relationship between Eliot’s literary criticism and his late conversion to Catholicism, or the problems of representation, agency and the other in A Passage to India and Kim, or the implicit imperialism that is encoded into international surfing narratives. It’s not his thing, but all that isn’t anybody’s thing, really, except for a handful of people here and there who teach literature at the university level. Rob sells IT solutions and enterprise platforms to entrepreneurial businesses and start-ups.
Lisa came outside with me at a faculty gathering to smoke a cigarette. We’d been celebrating a colleague’s book publication—ours is a surprisingly friendly department, though I do see the joke that an observation like that seems to be setting up. We’d been drinking champagne, though, and she told me that over the course of the year we’d been working together she had developed a sufficiently strong attraction to me that she wanted to mention it. I had noticed her as well, though I’d never thought too strongly about taking a run at her, what with her wedding ring and all, but what with the champagne and the declaration of attraction and the things that I’d noticed about her—that she was smart, and she cared about her teaching, and that the bullshit of administrative tasks got her down (one day, after a committee meeting, she gave me a sip from her go-cup of coffee, which turned out to have been heavily laced with Amaretto)—changed my mind. We wound up necking in the doorway of a shuttered storefront, and things progressed from there.
A case can be made that the moral thing would have been to back off from that, to just say no, as a First Lady of yore once put it. I was single, though, and didn’t really have anything going on, and I thought very well of Lisa and not much at all of Rob, and I figured that having something going on with her wasn’t going to complicate my life overmuch, and if she wanted to introduce complications of that sort into hers, it was her decision. I didn’t know that it was a good idea, particularly, for her, but it seemed like it was what she wanted to do. So who was I to say no?
Richard came to this town because of the university, and he came to the university because they had a particle accelerator. We don’t have any of that anymore—our accelerator has been retired, though the university is still intact, more or less. The accelerator is now just an interesting piece of landscaping, on the ourskirts of town.
“I was a quantum physicist. Or I was going to be.” He told me that one day, as we sat on one of the grassy mounds that indicated by its elevation the crazy electromagnetic tunnels that were underneath. “We lost our federal funding, our DoD funding, and so the whole thing got shut down.
“So why are you banging shit against my living room wall every night at thirty-second intervals?”
He lit a cigarette, took a longneck out of the case of High Life that was sitting in my back seat. He twisted the cap, tossed it aside.
“Do you know anything about quantum physics?”
“Okay. One of the primary notions of quantum physics, for a layman, is that weird shit happens sometimes.”
“Like, I throw a softball against my apartment wall enough times, eventually It’s going to go through the wall.”
“Go through the wall? What do you mean?”
“It’s gonna go through your wall. I’m going to throw it on my side, and it’s going to pop out on your side and roll to a stop, perfectly intact, on your living room floor.”
“You’re crazy,” I said. Richard smiled, and shrugged, and drank some beer.
“No, I’m not,” he said. “It’s a question of probability.”
“So what are the odds? If probability is what we’re talking about?”
“The odds are long. Very long, actually. But I’m going to keep annoying you, to see if it happens. To see it when it happens.”
He tipped his beer back, finishing what was in the bottle, then gripped it by the neck and threw it into the tall grass all around us.
“I don’t have anything better to do, do I?”
“So who’s the girl?” Richard asked me one day, as we sat in his living room and drank some High Life.
“Your friend. Lisa. What’s the story?”
“Well, she’s married. To someone else.”
He grunted, took a sip of his beer.
I said nothing. I tipped back my beer. He bounced the softball against my living room wall, let it hit the carpet and roll back to his outstretched hand.
“”So why are you doing it?”
I thought about that.
“I don’t know,” I said at last. “It seems like the thing to do.”
“Does it have legs?” he asked.
“I think it does, maybe.”
“Well. All right, then.”
“I told Rob about us,” she announced one afternoon, when we were again sitting on my sofa. Her eyes were red, but her voice was steady. I sighed, and took a cigarette from the pack on the coffee table, and offered her one.
She declined it with a sharp shake of her head, which I took to be a sign. She only smokes when she’s incredibly stressed out, or when she’s with me. So.
I waited. She didn’t say anything further, but sat at the other end of the sofa, staring at her hands.
“And?” I said at last.
She looked at me then, and took a deep breath that had a bit of shudder in it.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
I reached for a book of matches, extracted one, scraped it against the sandpaper strip on the back and lit my cigarette. The matchbook appeared to be advertising a local bail bond service. I studied it for a moment, then I flicked my wrist with perhaps a bit more violence than was necessary, extinguishing the match. I placed the matchstick carefully in the ashtray and regarded the matchbook for a little longer before tossing it onto the coffee table. I took a drag from the cigarette, held it in my lungs for what seemed like a long time, though it might have been only a moment, and then blew out the smoke to let it swirl across the living room in the late afternoon light.
“Okay,” I said evenly, watching the smoke. “Fine. Then we’ll stop.”
“You’re all right with that?” She sounded a little bit hurt. I shrugged, still not looking at her.
“You’re the one with the complicated situation here, not me. So you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, for you. It doesn’t really matter what I feel about it. I don’t really have a say.”
“Don’t feel that way. You should have a say.”
I raised my eyebrows and quirked my lips into a bitter sort of smile.
“If wishes were horses…” I said.
“You do have a say.”
“No. I don’t.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Fine,” I said, finally turning to her and looking her in the eyes. “My say is this. I want you to be happy. I like you a lot. Maybe I love you. I don’t know. But either way, I want you to be happy. Maybe that’s with me. Frankly, I think your odds are better with me than they are with a guy who doesn’t love what you do or care about what you do or understand it or respect it. But that’s not my call to make, because I’m not the one holding the dice. If you need to give it another try with Rob, then do that. You need to do what you want, or what you think will get you what you think you want. I’ll do what I want, to the extent that I can. That’s all there is to say. It’s not my decision. It’s yours.’
She held my gaze for a few seconds, then dropped her eyes.
“We’re going to try counseling.”
“That’s great. Good luck with it.”
“Don’t be bitter.”
“I’m going to be bitter, but that’s neither here nor there. I’m allowed to be. I should be, if this business with you and me meant anything to me, which it did. But I do wish you luck. I’ve been in therapy, and I think it’s a good thing. Sometimes people get better as a result. So like I say, good luck.”
“You don’t think it’s going to work.”
“Honestly, I don’t have the faintest idea.”
We heard a thump from the other side of the wall. We didn’t say anything for awhile. After thirty seconds or so, we heard another thump.
“It looks like Richard is home,” I said. It was a relief to change the subject.
“How’s his science experiment going?” Lisa asked after a moment. I shook my head.
“He’s still bouncing his ball. Are we done here?”
Lisa was quiet for a long time. Then she stood up from the couch, and picked up her purse.
“I guess we are,” she said. Her eyes were dry, and so were mine, though I also felt like I’d had a pile driver put something right through my chest. I walked to the front door and opened it for her.
“I’ll see you around the department, I guess,” she said as she walked out of my apartment.
“Yeah,” I replied. “See you around.”
“I’m sorry, man,” Richard said later that evening. “That sucks.”
I shrugged. “It’s not like I didn’t know that this was a possibility. You buy the ticket, you take the ride.”
“Messy business, adultery.”
I smiled, and took a sip of my beer. Richard bounced the softball against the wall, and caught it on the rebound.
“I didn’t think of it that way. My sense was that it was already done.”
“Maybe it is. It takes awhile for people to get clear of that shit, it seems to me. Long lag time.”
“Maybe,” I said. He threw the ball again, and stood up, walked to a Dry-Erase board he had mounted on his bedroom door, added a couple of hash marks with a black marker.
“How many times have you thrown that ball against that wall?”
He smiled and sipped his beer as he cast his eyes over the board. “Seventy-two thousand, four-hundred eighty-nine times, as near as I can tell.”
“And it still hasn’t gone through the wall.”
“No, and it may never go through.”
“It probably won’t.”
“So why do it?”
He smiled at me, and ran a hand through his stringy gray hair, and drained the beer from his bottle, and threw the ball again. Thump, bounce, return.
“Because it could, baby. Because it could. And she could come back.”
I looked at him, and then looked down at my lap.
“She probably will.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because the therapy isn’t going to work. The reason they’re having problems isn’t some issue of adjustment or whatever. The reason they’re having problems is that they have problems. Endemic problems. Built-in problems. Shit like that isn’t going to change.”
“So that’s a good thing.”
I drank some beer.
“I honestly don’t know if it is.”
“Why not? Do you still believe that it could turn out well?”
I sighed. “I don’t know if I do. And that’s the problem. Like you say, it’s long odds.”
Richard thrust his left hand into the pocket of his bathrobe, and clacked across the floor in his flip flops, and threw the aged softball against the wall. It didn’t go through.
“We should stop doing this,” I said one day, as we laid around after we’d had sex, I had a cigarette burning, and Lisa was stealing drags off of it. I had been right; she had come back. We’d done this three more times, in fact, but here we were again and this time it was me pulling the plug.
“I think we should stop,” I said.
“Why?” she said. “I like this. Don’t you?”
“Yes, I do. But there’s no percentage in it.”
“How do you mean?”
I sighed, took a drag from my cigarette.
“You’re going to go back to your husband, this whole game is gonna end. I want to believe that we could work out, but we do for awhile, and you seem happy, and then you start to feel guilty about it, and then it’s lather, rinse and repeat. You might have a reason for playing, at this point, but I don’t. I’m fucked. I’m going to lose in the end.”
“Do you really think so?”
“I think it’s possible. Actually, I think it’s likely. This could turn out well for me eventually, but it could just as easily turn out badly, and if we do this ‘come hither, go away thing’ again and again and again, it’s going to be painful. I don’t know that I want to put myself through that anymore.”
Lisa ran a hand over her breasts, over her nipples, over her hair.
“I don’t really know what to say to that,” she said. “I’m sorry. This is hard for me. I’m working on it.”
“I know, and I know you are. Thing is, it’s hard for me, too, in very different ways.”
“So work on it yourself.”
I thought about that for a moment, then shook my head.
“I’m not sure I know how.”
“Maybe you should find out how. You’ve come this far with me.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “But not without cost.”
“I understand that.” She got up from the bed, found her bra on the floor, slipped into it and reached behind her to snap it on. She dressed quickly, and walked out into the front room. I followed, naked.
“It’s long odds,” I said, as she walked to the door. “I don’t think I can do this, like this, anymore.”
“Do you want to, though,” she asked me, “if you could?”
I thought about it.
“You and I are the smartest people in the room at any given moment. I do wish we could work out.”
She smiled then, with her hand on the doorknob. We heard a thud from the Richard wall, but neither of us paid it any mind.
“Well. If you have a change of heart, you know where to find me. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
I’d taken to keeping a bottle of whiskey in the house to help me deal with these partings of ways with Lisa. I was lying on the sofa, watching some movie about mutated birds on the SciFi channel, drinking my way through it and listening to the periodic thuds of the softball on Richard’s side of the wall. Reclining was good because I could barely stand, and I’d learned to adjust to the periodic thump of Richard’s softball. On the upside, I could barely feel anything.
I was waiting for the next impact, when a softball knocked over my glass of bourbon. It popped into view over my shoulder, hit the glass, rolled along the smooth surface of the coffee table, and came to rest on the carpet between the table and the television.
“Well,” I said, staring at it. “I’ll be damned.”
Richard was knocking on my door a few seconds later, and I levered myself up from the sofa, leaned down unsteadily to pick up the softball, and brought it with me to the door.
“Told ya,” he said. “I’m not crazy.”
“Yes you are,” I told him, and handed him the ball. “How many times have you thrown this damn thing at this point?”
He thought about it. “Eighty-eight thousand, give or take.”
“So how did we do with the odds?”
“We beat them, actually. Beat them by a long way. Very long odds.”
He was running his fingers over the ball, in little circular motions, around and around and around again.
“Hey, you want to come over for a beer?” he asked me. “This is something to celebrate.”
“No,” I said. I walked carefully back to the coffee table, picked up the remains of my fifth of Maker’s Mark, and handed it to him. “But go on, celebrate. Maybe I’ll knock on your door in a little bit.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to join me?”
“I do. But right now I have a phone call to make.”