Gerry lives at the bottom of a bottle, tipped on its side so he has plenty of floor space. The bottle used to contain vodka and when sunlight peels and flakes across the vacant lot and catches the glass, which is about two minutes a day because of the adjacent buildings, Gerry walks around inside the words Absolut Ruby Red, complete with said color, and it’s like he’s in a church, every letter a medieval masterwork of window art, the Saints of the Font shining down on him. The clerestory o. Sometimes he kneels.
It’s a nice bottle. He’s built steps down from the mouth and a deck made of chunks of styrofoam and in the mornings before he goes to work he can lounge and gaze out across the lake. Inside he knows the lake’s a puddle, with water levels as capricious as his headaches depending on the rain, but it’s lake enough for the boy in him and it hasn’t flooded him out yet so he’s glad for the location. The lake surface is gunmetal gray that aspires to silver but never is, waves coruscating in discrete patterns when the wind picks up, leaf-boats motorized and scudding against the far-off horizon that’s the white-washed wall of an insurance building. On clear days Gerry can see Sue’s milk carton on the opposite shore, its cheery red and white roof above the moss. Some mornings she’s outside and waves at him and he waves back. Behind him his bottle sings with the wind, wafting a fug of booze at him that never seems to go away. It’s anesthetizing. Makes him late to work a lot.
Gerry’s work is trying to understand what happened to him. He works hard at it. He remembers how he got here, lots of flying and loud noises, but he’s forgotten too, the memory like a dream told too often until it’s hardened into words. No sensation. There was this wife and kid, see. I can’t describe it, in the dream it just felt right. He remembers being larger, but that might be the less realistic part of the dream. Some days his work entails a stroll beneath the dappled weeds that arch above his head, down to the chain-link fence separating the vacant lot from the chalk cliff of the sidewalk, where he leans against a wire and gazes up at the dress cordovans and high heels going by, mighty towers lifting and stomping, that incredible distance won with each step. A mouse is he, he figures, though he knows he still looks human, or something smaller, more insectile, cowering at the edge of a colossal press machine his bug mind will never comprehend. Stands there until his inner needle jerks, queasiness sliding down his limbs to puddle in his calves, the seismocardiograph he wonders if others have at all. That sense of hands coming to rest on you from behind when you know you’re alone. Gerry’s not trapped; he could walk through one of the links without even ducking, be there and not here, and maybe he’d grow to their size in an instant, but he has a hunch the vacant lot would go with him, adhering to his shoes like a sticky tarp drawn up behind him, the dun sweep of a dirt-and-weed bridal veil. He’s married to it, this vacant lot, in a country of the mind, where there’s no divorce.
In his evenings he visits Sue. Sue is rangy and stout at the same time and has a cackle that betrays how young she is, despite the onion layers of clothes she wears. Unfathomable layers, Gerry is abashed to consider. When the wind blows she flaps. Her milk carton lies on its side like his bottle, a cozy half-pint with worn lettering that proclaims her to be homogenized, though he doubts she is. He loves the acute triangle of her door, the portico hominess of it. She has an eye for detail and she sees the sidewalk chalk on his pants.
“You been to the fence.” Her sleeve flaps, a wounded bird. Sue’s mothering is of the disapproving school, but he needs disapproval. It helps him concentrate on his work.
“I shouted again,” he admits. “Just fuck fuck fuck.”
“I always think one will look down. I sound loud to me.”
“You gotta do something about that temper.”
“Sometimes I think I ought to step out.” He’s never said it. In their shocked, congenial silence a breeze rises and the lake shakes its fur, striated ripples from head to toe, skittering the moss. “Maybe I will tomorrow.”
“You’d get crushed like them others.” For a moment the ghosts of them others weave between them, the transients they’ve seen come through who, blind to their new size, run out onto the sidewalk to plead their predicament and are stamped flat. Just last week Gerry watched this happen to one, tried to stop her in fact, a tiny bitter woman with electrified hair, who twisted from his grasp and humped it up the rubble. Ground out by her rubber-soled fate like a cigarette stub, leaving a raspberry stain on the concrete. Between these ghosts that move between him and Sue there drifts another gentler shade, tomorrow, breathing in their hair, kissing them lingeringly.
“Tomorrow I’m writing a letter to the adoption agency,” Sue informs him. “You write ’em and they write your kid and ask him if he wants contact. All hands-off unless both of you agree to meet.”
“A dating site. You get a date with your son.”
Sue gave her newborn son away for adoption years ago. She’s pretty sure the kid’s looking for her and she’s hanging on to the remnant of milk pooled at the lower end of her carton in case he shows up one day and she’s got nothing to offer him. Gerry understands this is a kind of charm meant to invoke the event. He doesn’t want to tell her the milk’s gone bad, or possibly petrified, but it’s hard to be in her carton on hot days.
He doesn’t point out that her letter would be too small for the adoption agency to read. “Come over to my place tomorrow. I distilled a drip off the glass last time it got humid.”
“Your drips are water.”
It’s true, he hates to admit, but then it’s the next evening and Sue’s there on his deck, sipping from a cup he carved from a styrofoam pellet. Something’s different. A hush in the languid folds of her clothes. The sun is a sour-ball going down behind the distant leg shadows on the sidewalk. Sue takes another sip and Gerry thinks she looks sad. Disappointed maybe. His drips are booze, but it’s booze diluted to the point of a homeopathic cure, a molecular memory of vodka. He’s thinking sour, he realizes, because of the smell coming off her.
She tells him she’s been cleaning out her carton.
“I worked it out, Gerry. He’s seventeen. Either he got a whole fucking lotta milk or he didn’t, but I’d be too late with mine, wouldn’t I.”
“You shouldn’t give up.” Gerry scoops some more homeopathic cure into her cup. The clarity in her eyes terrifies him.
“I don’t even know the address of the adoption agency. I think it moved.”
“The kid’ll contact them one of these days. It’s when they get older they start wanting to know who you are.” Start watching you out of the corner of their eye, just when you think they’ve stopped paying attention forever. Gauging your reactions, how you kiss up to the world or not.
Sue is watching him out of the corner of her eye. “You still planning to walk out? You know, maybe I’ll go with you.” A flap of sleeve hides her face as she pushes back her hair. He can only surmise she’s staring off at the giant shadows on the sidewalk. “All that world. Just passing us by.” There’s a roar in Gerry’s ears all of a sudden, possibly the start of a headache, but it’s more like the infrasound thrum of earth turning over. What she said makes him think of all the things out there he’s forgotten the feel of: peaches and steering wheels and tennis rackets. Nail clippers and skin warmed beneath sheets. Diapers and diamonds and sports headlines. Echoes that shake him to pieces inside, phobias percolating. He doesn’t want to think about her leaving. He’s got to beat this, but the roar has gotten louder. It’s a wrecking-ball of sound, eliminating thought.
“Oh, look,” says Sue.
When Gerry turns the lake is gasping, systole and diastole. Sudden rivers form and drain. Against the wall-horizon the pigeons, their mortal enemies, startle up and away. Gerry turns to look behind his bottle and sees the world coming at him, the roar deafening, a tsunami wave of steel and bunched soil that curls above their heads, stretching into outer space.
“Is that a bulldozer?” he says.
“Better get inside,” Sue warns.
They scramble through the neck of the bottle and slide down against each other. For the first time he regrets living in a glass house. He doesn’t want to see it coming. The wall of dirt beyond the glass has already blocked out the little sun there was, interring them in a red womb. “Are you afraid?” he whispers to Sue.
She grins. “I been bulldozed before.”
Then it’s lights out and they’re rolling. Sue’s breath near his face is a sour-milk martini. Every roll up and down the side of the glass peels a layer of her clothes off. He’s not sure how that works. He’s undone, rocking tangled limbs and tongues with her, but there’s the triangle of her door he can slip into and feel at home and it occurs to him that this is the thing he’s forgotten more than all the rest, what he should have been working on all along. This everlasting surprise of homogenization. How to hold on to it when they spin your bottle. For a second they’re buried, then the bottle bobs to the surface of a churning sea of earth, pitch and yaw steadying to a rhythm that carries them forward in the roar of motors; they’re a message, he figures, no idea where they’ll end up, but the bobbing’s nice and for a while he can stop thinking about things.