Jenny Offill Last Things  
Jenny Offill:
Last Things
Last Things (Jenny Offill)

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  That night on TV, I saw a man pull a train down the tracks with just his teeth. He put his mouth in a bit like a horse, then he walked backwards and pulled as hard as he could. The train inched forward. It was a small silver train with red trim. The man clenched his teeth and pulled again. This went on for some time.

"Where is he taking that train?" I wanted to know. "Is there anyone inside it?"

My baby-sitter didn't answer. His name was Edgar and he only answered questions that interested him. He had told me this on the first day we met. On that day, he had answered a question about the temperature of the Sun, but had refused to tell me his age or height.

Later I found out from my father that Edgar was sixteen and a boy genius who worked in the laboratory downtown. He was very tall and wore sandals made of rope. Once he had been a student at my father's school, but then he had written a paper that had revolutionized the study of poisonous molds.

I liked Edgar even though he ignored me. He was paid five dollars an hour to watch me and I thought that he must spend this money on soap. My mother said she had never seen a boy with such clean hands. It was as if he wasn't really a boy at all.

Sometimes he washed his hands four or five times in one night and he always brought his own soap with him. His soap came in a big black square and smelled like roses. He carried it in a plastic bag in the outside pocket of his coat. Once I asked if I could try his soap, but he said I would ruin it if I did.

Mostly, Edgar liked to stay inside and read. He did not like to dig holes or catch bees as I did. "You go ahead," he'd say. "I'll be right out." But often he'd forget and it would grow dark outside as I waited.

Edgar had promised to build a robot that would play badminton in the yard with me. There was an old net in the basement, and when the robot was done, I could set it up outside and play, he said. This robot would be as strong as ten men and have a special light on top of his head so we could play in the dark. Until then, I was not to ask about the net.

Edgar never answered questions about the show with the train, even though it was my favorite one. Every week, there were three stories, all of them different. After the train man, there was a story about a monk in Tibet who wanted to be locked inside a trunk and thrown to sea. This man claimed he could slow his breathing and heart at will. He took off his orange robe and curled up inside a trunk. In a previous life, he had been a bear, his mother said.

Two men came over and closed the trunk. Then they covered it with chains. It made a big splash when it was thrown overboard; then nothing happened for a long time. A clock appeared at the bottom of the screen and ticked the time away. Six minutes passed. A woman on the boat screamed. On the shore, divers in wet suits paced along the water's edge. There was the sound of someone crying. The man's mother, the announcer said. Six and a half minutes. There was a ripple in the water and then suddenly the man emerged. He held his arms above his head and waved. Everyone cheered. "How did you get out of the trunk?" someone asked. The monk laughed. "The real question," he said "is how did the trunk get out of me?"

The electricity went off, and the TV too. "The storm," Edgar said. After a minute, the lights flickered, but they didn't come back on.

Even in the dark, I kept thinking about the man in the trunk. "Why was his mother crying?" I wanted to know. "If she knew he used to be a bear?"

Edgar was quiet. He found a candle and lit it. He turned his back to me and started to read. The book he was reading was called Being and Nothingness. The only question he'd answered all night long was which was better. (Nothingness.)

Later Edgar told me a story about a girl who fell into a black hole and was never found. A black hole was a collapsed star that nothing could get out of, not even light. If you fell into one, you would fall forever because there was no bottom, only endless space. This was nothingness, Edgar said, when each part of you flew into pieces no bigger than a bit of dust.

I went to the window. There was nothing to see with the streetlights out. I imagined my mother across town dancing in her mermaid dress. The year before, she had taught my father how to waltz, but he always stepped on her toes, so they never did. I've got a man with two left feet, she sang whenever he tried.

A car went by with its headlights on. Then another and another. The neighbor's dog barked each time the street lit up. I thought of how you could quiet a bird by covering its head with a black cloth so that it would think it was night.

It was too dark inside the house. I could see Edgar across the room, but I couldn't make out his face. He's wearing a mask, I thought suddenly, but then I saw the shine of his eyes when he lit a match. He hummed a bit of a song I knew. The one about the woman who turned into a weeping-willow tree. "Has anyone ever really fallen in a black hole?" I asked him. I could hear him humming in the dark, but he didn't answer.

The next morning, only my father was up. "Your mother was the belle of the ball," he said. "She danced with everyone she met." He picked up her party shoes and put them away. On the kitchen table was an empty wineglass and a pile of blue scales.

He fixed me a bowl of cereal, but there was no milk. Orange juice might be good, he suggested. I shook my head. I had once seen my father eat a raisin-and-mayonnaise sandwich when there was nothing else around. My father sighed. He made me toast. Then he went into the living room and turned on the radio. He never knew what to say when we were alone. Once, when my mother went away for a weekend, he read me an entire book about the evolution of squirrels.

On the radio, someone was singing about a devil moon. My father turned the dial. There was static and then the weatherman came on. "After last night's storm, some residents are wondering if we've entered a new Ice Age," he said.

"Idiot," my father muttered. He put on his boots and went outside. Broken branches littered the yard. He gathered them in a pile and stacked them by the shed. From the window, I watched him cleaning up.

My mother came into the room. She was in her bathrobe and her hair was all ratted up from the night before. "Where has your father run off to?" she asked. I pointed outside. She frowned when she saw him clearing the yard. "I suppose this means Mr. Success is still coming over?" she said.

I nodded. "Aunt Fe and the cousins too."

My mother put her finger to her head like a gun. "Kill me now," she said.

I pretended to shoot myself too, but really I was happy they were coming. The summer before, my Uncle Pete had given me a trick pack of gum that snapped shut on anyone who tried to take a piece. I had carried it with me everywhere until my cousin Alec stole it and threw it into the lake.

Uncle Pete was older than my father by three and a half minutes. Because of this, he called my father "Sport" and "Kid" and sucker-punched him when they said goodbye. No matter how many times he did this, my father always looked surprised. The two of them looked just alike, except that my uncle's eyes were blue. He had once had brown eyes too, but then he had become Mr. Science on TV. Colored contacts, my mother said.

My uncle's show came on every day after school and twice on weekends. I liked to watch it because it was different every time. One day it might be about asteroids and the next about rattlesnakes. It all depended on the questions kids sent in.

My mother put on her slippers and went outside. She walked right over the frozen grass and snuck up on my father, who was scraping ice off the car. Right away they started arguing. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could tell he was trying to get her to put on a coat.

When my mother came back inside, the hem of her bathrobe was covered with frost. She went into the kitchen and started cooking. "Yams!" I heard her say. "Dinner rolls! Pie!"

I went into the dining room to play with the toothpick replica of the Mayflower I had made. Inside was a small army of toy soldiers painted black-and-white to look like pilgrims. Even painted, it was hard to tell what they were because of their parachutes and guns. Look out, Indians, my mother said when I showed it to her.

She called Edgar and invited him over for dinner. His parents had gone to Europe for the holidays, but he bad stayed home to study a particularly luminous form of mold. For weeks now, he had been trying to light a lamp with it.

I went upstairs and listened on the extension. My mother was talking about candied yams. "But my hands are glowing," Edgar said. "I haven't slept in forty-eight hours."

"We'll expect you at five," my mother told him. She hung up the phone, but Edgar stayed on the line. "I know you're there, Grace," he said; then he clicked off too.

In the kitchen, my mother was peeling potatoes. She had gotten dressed and twisted her hair into a knot. "Where's the turkey?" I asked her.

"In the oven," she said.

I opened the door to make sure. The year before, my mother had given away our turkey to a woman begging outside the supermarket. No one knew she had done this until Thanksgiving dinner when she served a bucket of chicken instead.

The doorbell rang. "Now, who could that be?" my mother asked.

I looked through the peephole and there was Edgar, carrying a bulky package wrapped in brown paper and masking tape. He was wearing a suit and tie, but still had his rope sandals on.

I let him in. "What did you bring?" I asked. Edgar ignored me and took off his coat. He set the package down on the dining-room table. "Mrs. Davitt?" he called.

My mother came in from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her skirt. "You're much too early," she told Edgar. "Nothing's ready yet." She reached out to straighten his tie, which had come undone.

Edgar waved her hand away. "I have something to show you." He moved around the table, setting the package upright. "I've done it," he announced. "It took eight weeks, but I figured it out."

"Done what?" my mother said.

Edgar didn't answer. Instead, he carefully began unwinding the tape.

I stood on a chair to get a better view. The package was shaped like a giant mushroom and I felt certain that this was what it contained.

It took a long time for Edgar to get the tape off. "We don't have all day," my mother said, tapping her fingers on the table. She took off her shoe and shook something out of it.

Edgar now tore at the tape feverishly. "Voilà!" he said, ripping open the package. Inside was an ordinary table lamp.

"Well?" my mother said.

Edgar held a finger to his lips. He went to the window and pulled the curtain shut. In the dark room, the lamp began to glow with an odd blue light.

"What is it?" I asked him.

Edgar took the shade off the lamp. "It's a rare form of luminous mold," he explained. "Generally found in Arctic regions where there is little or no sun."

My mother leaned forward to study the flickering light. The blue glow made her look as if she was underwater. "How marvelous," she said. "What do you plan to do with it?"

Edgar closed his eyes. He had a dream, he told her, that one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold.

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Excerpted from Last Things by Jenny Offill. Copyright © 2000 by Jenny Offill. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Photo credit © Gasper Tringale