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Cobblestones

Who would have thought that Max, an overly sensitive and reclusive wedding photographer, would elope with a fiery waitress, a woman with zest and gusto? Who would have thought Pam would concede a modicum of contentment without the prerequisite strings attached (an engagement), not to mention their happiness? Who could have predicted their acute level of intimacy, an intimacy that sucked Max and Pam together like two lampreys to the flank of a shark?

Certainly Pam would be one of the last.

These questions paint a portrait of Pam’s disquieted mind as she walks the seven blocks from Donna’s to the loft she shares with Max. The cobble-stoned portion of Charles Street is, as always, one of the perennial joys of her daily existence. Though the weather is colder than she prefers, the street lamps and nearly full moon catch the cobblestones in exactly the flinty manner that she hoped they might. For just one moment, each cobblestone stands out independently of its neighbor, but at the same time the whole coheres, sending an injection of bittersweet nostalgia into Pam’s psyche, something out of a storybook. The pleasure of loss, she thinks, is sometimes greater than that of gain. Then the moment is gone: Pam breezes past the swath of authenticity, and takes a hard left onto 22nd Street, and climbs the stairs to her apartment.

As she approaches the door and walks down an elbow of hallway in their late 19th century former office building, Pam can hear the faint whoosh of rain. Max is at it again. She gave Midge Plentagan notice just in time: starting tomorrow she has a week off. Max and she can be together; they need to be together. Pam withdraws her keys from her pocketbook, but when she slides the key into the door, she finds it already unlocked.

Three weeks ago Max was laid off from Merle’s Wedding Photography. “A temporary setback,” his boss Carly said. “You know, the off-season.” But when Max asked if she would call him when work picked up again she winced and sighed, and responded with, “We’ll see.” We’ll see? What kind of answer was that? In this case, Max thought, laid off was an overly dignified way of saying “fired,” “canned,” “dismissed.” Pam has tried her best to spin the event into a string of positives – “a time to weigh your options,” “a time of transition,” “a down period,” “a reassessment.” She hopes her attempt at providing support didn’t make matters worse. Max is still reclining on the couch in his sweatpants and Culture Club t-shirt from high school, nursing a beer in the candlelight, listening to a Sounds of the Rain CD, staring at the rug. Pam closes the door softly behind her, drops her pocketbook by the bookshelf, and embraces Max, hugs him to her, hoping to act as a salve to his countless wounds. For the most part, it has worked, though sometimes she feels as if she’s walking on eggshells. She does her best.

“Hey there,” he says quietly, as if he doesn’t want to disturb an invisible sleeping guest.

“So,” Pam says, curling up next to him. “What did you end up doing today?”

This is the most important moment of the day for both of them, Pam thinks. As much as Pam doesn’t want to pressure Max – by making him feel lazy or emasculated in any way – at the same time she wants to appear concerned and lovingly bolstering. This moment will set the tone for the rest of the week. Luckily Max smiles – which is certainly an improvement over the first week of his layoff – and says he went back and reread The Ballad of the Sad Café.

“Oh no,” she says. “You’re not slipping into another McCullers phase again. Not that glum bitch again.” That was what that coy smile was all about, Pam thinks. He was mucking in his own guilty sins. Who was next? T.S. Eliot? Camus? Sylvia Plath? She went to college already. She just doesn’t want to be a schoolmarm like every other liberal arts graduate she knew.

For dinner Max makes homemade macaroni and cheese with asparagus and baked potatoes on the side. Over the two years they have been dating Max has always done most of the cooking. After working at Donna’s all day, Pam hates even thinking about food, and Max is a better cook anyway. He has more patience, that’s for sure; he was raised well, Pam thinks. His mother cooked all the time and taught him a thing or two in the kitchen, started the right kind of fire. Her own mother couldn’t cook her way out of a cardboard box: she’s lucky social services didn’t swoop down in the middle of the night and whisk her and her siblings off in a white van.

“I just felt like good old American grub,” Max says.

“I don’t blame you,” she says. “It’s comfort food.” Affirmation is the name of the game; think positive, be positive.

After they eat Max suggests a post-dinner walk – too many carbohydrates, Max says.

“I just want to be outside for a few minutes. I’m feeling claustrophobic.”

Though Pam doesn’t want to go (she would rather sit and watch television and unwind), she nods, smiles.

“Sure, anything you want,” she says.

Despite the redundancy for Pam, they walk back up Charles Street, past Donna’s, over the cobblestone, by the Walter’s Art Museum and the statue of George Washington. “Baltimore only has so many streets worth walking down,” Max says. But Pam thinks this is his sad sack quasi-depression talking. They used to walk everywhere, she remembers. They weren’t concerned with “good” neighborhoods or “bad” neighborhoods (which she thinks is just an askew American catch phrase for white and black anyway). They would walk the whole city with curiosity. Sometimes wisdom went out the door, but they weren’t so steeped in wistfulness to glumly think that today was much worse than any other day, that society was on a spiraling downturn that would only end up in annihilation and implosion. These days they stick to walking by the ribbon of Mount Vernon restaurants and cafés lining Charles Street, rarely venturing off the street itself, at least by foot.

On this particular walk, Max leads Pam to St. Mark’s, spare and solid, a Romanesque structure. Pam and Max don’t believe in “any traditional God,” as they tell friends. They don’t attend church and have only been inside St. Mark’s on a historic tour a few years ago. Nevertheless, as Pam said once, “Every time I come near this building I can almost believe. Almost.” They hold hands and circle the church. The church spotlights hit the stained glass windows, the clean lines, and the stonework.

“You know, sometimes I forget sometimes how I lost my faith in the first place. Maybe I never had it,” Max says, glancing at a couple arguing on the bench across the circle. The man points at the woman, and the woman looks down Charles Street as if someone might drive by and rescue her.

“No, you did. You told me so. Your mother took you to that Methodist church when you were a kid.”

“But that’s what I’m saying, Pam. Just because I went doesn’t mean … it doesn’t mean I believed.”

“Sure, but kids do,” Pam says, releasing his hand.

“Not all kids.”

Max puts his arm around her shoulder but Pam stiffens up and doesn’t respond. She doesn’t know why. Perhaps it’s the adamant tone that he struck, the sheer stubbornness. This is why he’s still laying on the couch: he’s afraid to admit that he was, at least partially, in the wrong. Max and Pam have been married for two years now, but sometimes it still feels unreal, perfunctory, a play marriage amidst those who are really wedded. Perhaps if they hadn’t followed Max’s grumpy grandfather’s view and eloped things would be different. Sometimes Pam wonders if their lives are on track at all. She feels old, a walking cliché.

“I’m sorry,” Max says. “It is possible that I believed in God when I went to church. I didn’t … I mean, I didn’t hate it.” Pam stays stiff and unresponsive.

“I know I did believe once,” Pam says. “I agree, though. I don’t know what happened. It’s not just college that did it. It’s odd. Almost like it, I mean God, was just taken away from me by some outside force.” She snaps her fingers.

“I know. That’s what I’m saying.” Max unzips his coat pocket. Nervous habit: Lucky’s. “Smoke?” Pam winces and shakes her head. They watch their shadows leak over the cobblestone, and listen to the lingering October moths ping against the spotlights.

For the first two days of Pam’s vacation, they don’t talk about it. Pam helps Max make potato soup for lunch; they rewatch John Ford westerns; they read the newspaper and drink hot chocolate all day long.

“This is heaven,” Pam says. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could live like this all the time?” Max nods, though he thinks they’d kill each other if they didn’t have work to separate them everyday. This almost spurs him to open the classified section. But he doesn’t.

“It’s fun to pal around with you,” Max says. “Like brother and sister.”

Max has always wanted an even closer relationship with Pam. The elopement was just to avoid the sort of overblown ceremony that would cost everyone grief and heartache and hassle. Now Max regrets it. He senses that Pam went along with the elopement just for his sake, and that she partially didn’t feel “special,” and might still not. Recently Max has longed for their early dating days, when they both had separate apartments and could see each other whenever they wanted. Then he always felt the pressure to be engaged and perform. Now he’s a husband. Partially he has just enjoyed the layoff for the sake of solitude. Partially he looks forward to a time when he can exist outside the parameters of responsibility. Yet, here they are, the two of them together, each without outside obligations. He still wants them to be closer.

Wednesday morning over coffee and black currant scones, Max clears his throat. Pam sits cross-legged on the couch, plucking the corner of a throw pillow – her favorite nervous habit.

“You know, I was thinking about the, you know, about the conversation we had. You know, at the church.”

Pam rolls her eyes, as if to say it’s too early, or please don’t start into that again. The last thing I want is a rehashed argument.

“I think for me … now this is going to sound uncharacteristically sappy. But for me this is God.”

“What is?”

Max gestures at the space between them.

“This. Us.”

“That is … that is so …”

Pam lifts herself from her hazy morning funk, and walks through the alternating bars of sunlight and shadow that coat the living room floor, and she stands before Max. Then she bends toward him, and kneels in front of him and rests her head on his knees, tugging at his calf muscles.

For the rest of the day they are inseparable, and they make love, and shower together, read together, cook together, dance together, use the same toothbrush, drink from the same glasses, stand on each other’s feet and laugh as they stumble about the apartment together, and nap resting in each other’s arms. Pam thinks they have always been united, despite Max’s brooding need for seclusion, and Pam’s impatience. They have winnowed their list of friends down so narrowly that, outside of work, rarely do they have company or socialize at all. Who needs anything else when you’re married?

Yet Pam knows this set of expectations cuts both ways. It is crushing if they don’t agree on an issue. If a friend or colleague enters into the picture jealousies can easily ensue. If she wants time to herself, Max will ask “What for?” Not to mention their level of intimacy in social situations makes some of their friends uncomfortable. Max likes watching their friends squirm as he embraces Pam once again on the futon.

Just as Max and Pam settle down for another viewing of Red River the phone rings.

“Let the machine get it,” Max says. Pam pats his hand and the FBI warning flashes on the screen.

“Hi Pam. It’s your sister. Listen I was just wondering if you and Max could do me a big favor. I’m in a real bind. Please call me back tonight. It doesn’t matter what time. It’s sort of an emergency.”

Pam says she better call Joanna back now. Otherwise during the entire film she’ll think about what the favor might be. Max nods.

On the phone her sister says her husband Kurt’s mother had a heart attack in Rochester, that they have to bolt to upstate New York in the morning. But what to do with Alexander? They don’t want to enforce long hours in the hospital on a five-year-old child, not to mention shield him from the nerve-racking cardiologist reports. “Is there any way we could leave Alexander with you for a few days?”

How could she say no to this? Yet, of course Pam realizes the inconvenience this will wrack upon her week of peaceful solitude with Max. He won’t be happy. He will say their peace has been infringed upon here, how he needs to “sort things out.” How could he do so with a young child in tow? As her sister goes over the details, Pam imagines possible justifications and excuses, possible rosy portraits that she could paint for Max to ease his acceptance of the idea.

“Why don’t I bring Alexander by around ten?”

“Okay,” Pam says. “But let me go. Max and I are just out the door to the movies,” she lies.

She decides on the alliance strategy. She rests her head on Max’s shoulder, ruffles his hair, and tugs at his shirt.

“Bad news,” she says.

“Uh-oh.”

“We have to take Alexander for a couple days. Kurt’s mother is dying.”

“Oh,” he says. Pam watches him mentally chew on this idea, biting his lip and scratching his unshaven face. For a moment, he just looks at her.

“Well, it sounds like an emergency,” he says. He sighs, and pauses, and she pats his leg. “It’s what we have to do, right?”

“Thank you,” Pam says. He presses play.

The next day Joanna stands outside of their apartment building, her hand on Alexander’s disheveled blonde scrub of hair, the morning sun glinting off her bangles and bracelets as she waves up to Pam. Pam buzzes Alexander up, and Joanna gestures that she’ll be on her way. Pam opens the door to the sound of little feet scrambling up the stairs, and Alexander leaps the last two, stumbling in front of her, his orange duffle bag bracing his fall.

“Hi, Aunt Pam,” he says, and pops up smiling, brushing his hands on his jeans.

“Whoa. Be careful there,” Pam says.

“I’m always careful. That’s why I just jumped two steps. My record is three. But I think I can get to four in a few months. I think I can do it. Mom says I’m growing. Do you think I’m growing?”

“Three?”

“Well, going up. Going down I can jump a whole bunch. I mean, once I think I jumped about fifteen feet. I’m not sure because I didn’t measure, but that’s what I think.”

“How did you get to be such a good jumper?”

At this Alexander starts hopping around the apartment, circling Max.

“Practice, practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.”

When he loops back, Pam gives him a hug and pats him inside, plopping his stuffed knapsack and duffle bag under the waterfall of plants by the living room windows.

“You remember Uncle Max, right Alexander?”

“You can call me Alex,” he says. “Put er there Uncle Max.” Alex sticks out his hand, forcing Max to lean halfway from the couch to give it a shake. Pam can feel the mood lighten already. A glint of a smile even washes over Max’s face. She just hopes the mood will continue on this sunny path. This would be a challenge.

“Have you eaten breakfast, Alex?”

“Oh sure. My mom lets me get whatever I want for breakfast. I mean, not chocolate chip cookies and ice cream, but anything that you’d normally eat for breakfast. Not fruit though. I hate fruit. You know what it makes you do if you eat too much of it? Disgusting. I usually choose donuts. Today it was pop tarts though. I think I had about seven of them. I lost track. I just kept eating and eating. When I had lots – ”

“Have you ever had granola?” Max asks, shaking his head at Pam.

“Granola. Granola. No. What’s granola? I’ve heard of granola. I think I might like granola. I like the sound of it. Gra-no-la. Grano-la. Gran-o-la.”

“It’s a type of cereal,” Pam says.

“No, I don’t think so. No. No. No.”

“Want to try some. That’s what we’re having,” Max says. “It’s the best.”

“Okay. I’ll try some. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

Pam fixes a bowl for Alex, and sits him down at the breakfast bar with a spoon, and a glass of orange juice. She waves Max into the guest bedroom.

“What are we going to do with him today? I liked your aquarium idea, but – ”

“I know,” Max says. “It’s expensive and all. What does the zoo cost?”

“I’m not sure.”

“We could always just hang out here. Play games. That sort of thing.”

“What games? We have Scrabble, chess, and cards. Adult games.”

“Teach the kid poker or something like that.”

“I don’t know. Let’s ask him. Nothing sounds good to me right now.”

Flipping through the remote, Alexander recites a dozen games he’d love to play, but they are all Sega or Sony game systems. Pam and Max look at each other and shake their heads. Alexander says he doesn’t like to read, and hasn’t really learned yet. He likes to play outside, but only if it’s hunting with his father. Max is incredulous: “Your father takes you hunting?”

Alexander tells them they only use bows so far, and that he hasn’t shot anything yet, but that his father did let Alex help skin a deer once, and take the guts out. “Holding the heart was the best,” Alexander says. “Or maybe the liver thingy. I wonder if you can eat a deer liver. Or maybe the slimy parts.” Alexander asks if there are any ice cream shops around. He loves sugar, he says. Then he says it four more times. Pam and Max shake their heads again, and tell Alexander that in this area it’s mostly restaurants and bars.

“We could go to the zoo,” Pam says.

“Nah,” Alexander says. “Animals are boring. Unless you’re shooting at them. Then it’s fun. The thing I like best about it is when they start falling. That’s the best. They just start falling over. Like trees. Can we just walk around your neighborhood? I want to see the city. The cityyyyyyy. The cityyyyyyyyyyyyyy.”

“Sure,” Max says. “We could do that, and then get a movie or something.”

“Okay,” Alexander says. “Do you have any popcorn or anything? I love popcorn. I wish I could put sugar on my popcorn. That would be the best. I would love that.”

Pam and Max shake their heads.

Once again, Max and Pam go on their ordinary walk, down Charles Street, to the statue of George Washington, around the circle, to the church and back. Pam knows Max is comfortable just sticking with the ordinary, and as they walk down the cobblestone street she thinks about when she was young, visiting her cousins or grandparents. She wonders if she was a brat, or demanding. When you’re a kid you don’t think about those sorts of things, she thinks. You just are. Pam holds Alexander’s hand, who holds Max’s hand. As they walk down the sidewalk, they swing the kid back and forth between them wildly, like a monkey. Pam covers her eyes from the glaring sunlight, and glances in Max’s direction. He seems lost in thought, but not entirely unhappy or displeased. Alexander isn’t a bad kid, she thinks. But Joanna has definitely given him a skewed set of values. And she needs to pull back on the sugar intake. Surely she’d do things differently if Pam had her say, but then anybody would.

As they round the circle and cross the street, approaching St. Mark’s, Alexander points at the building and releases their hands, and runs toward the building. He stops at the looping black chain surrounding the building like a wreath.

“What is that?” Alexander says. He seems to have calmed down, Pam thinks. Then she wonders how long a sugar rush actually lasts. It can’t be more than an hour or so, Pam thinks.

“That’s a church,” Max says.

“What’s a church?

“It’s a building where people go to worship God,” Pam says. “Hasn’t your mom ever taken you?”

“No. I’ve never even heard of it. I mean, I’ve heard the word. But we don’t have any of those around. I don’t think. I mean, I’ve seen them but never really. Is this a good one? It looks like a big one.” Alexander gapes openly at the building, leaning on the chain pole for support. “What’s God?

Pam is incredulous, and she and Max look at each other as Alexander plops in the grass of the churchyard and stares up at the steeples above. Is this what it has come to? Though Pam and Max have rejected their mutual faiths for various reasons, Pam knows they still know that, in the abstract, faith is out there, to be attended to when the time comes, if it comes. Here is the new breed of man, Pam thinks. This will be a person who not only thinks that God is dead, but who didn’t even know He was there in the first place. Pam thinks of her sister, and how she must be so resentful of her ex-husband’s stringent Catholicism that she has denied the existence of religion entirely. She has barred God from the gates. Though Joanna lives a more traditional life than she does, how is it that her views are even more radical in their own way?

“Can we go inside?”

“Uh, sure, Alex,” Pam says.

Pam, Max, and Alexander walk around to the front of St. Mark’s and slowly trudge up the stairs leading to the entrance. They walk with awe. They walk with tentativeness. They walk with shame.

As they push the large doors open, as Pam can see the dark pews, the altar, the inner sanctum, her heart knots and swells in a strange manner. This is different, she thinks.

As they walk home, Pam is in a daze. She looks at Max, but he doesn’t respond. He just looks around, pensive. Even Alexander is quiet. The only thing he says for blocks is, “That was neat. That was really neat.” Pam feels a mood wash over them; they aren’t in control.

As they walk the wind picks up and darkness falls over the city, and they pass by people and shops, though Pam doesn’t notice either one. As she walks she closes her eyes and in the blackness of her imagination she can picture her son smiling. Pam can hear him laugh, and sense his presence in her. Something has changed, she thinks. And I don’t know how. Then she can hear him laughing, a small burble. She opens her eyes and notices the cobblestones, and they absolutely radiate. She doesn’t know if it is the dusk, or the streetlamps, or the moisture on the rocks, or the neon lights, but she knows something is different.

Pam stops in her tracks. I want to be a mother, she thinks. The closeness is a cover. A void lurks underneath, and she wants to be ready for it when it springs. Max and Alexander stop and turn, and watch her, and she stands there looking at her husband and her nephew. She watches her husband’s firmness and little Alexander’s energy, and it all makes sense suddenly. Events happen for a reason, she thinks, and something has to change. She will be ready.

about the author

Nathan Leslie has published two collections of short fiction,most recently A Cold Glass of Milk (Uccelli Press, 2003). Aside from being nominated for the 2002 Pushcart Prize, his fiction and poetry has or will appear in over one hundred literary magazines including Southern Indiana Review, Fiction International, Baltimore Review, Chiron Review, Gulf Stream, Tulane Review, Santa Clara Review, StorySouth, Amherst Review, Wascana Review, X-Connect, Adirondack Review, The Crab Creek Review, and Orchid. He completed an MFA at the University of Maryland four years ago, where he won the 2000 Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize. He is currently fiction editor for The Pedestal Magazine.