Midmorning, midweek in Middle America. Single-story brick house, midway down the street. Black mailbox, dented and empty. Nondescript front door, and behind it a living room. Weary white walls, tan carpet, upholstered sofa centered below a framed picture: painting of a snug cabin beside a river, deer grazing, hillside smeared with red and orange. Seated in the middle of this sofa, directly below the picture, is a man. Average height, neither fat nor thin, eyes like muddy water. Like the bottom of a grocery bag. Like the featureless landscape on the edge of this anyplace, stretching away from four lanes of truck exhaust and greasy fried chicken.
In front of the man, on his pine coffee table, is a single piece of paper. On this paper is a numbered list. Through each entry on that list, save one, a black line.
At the moment, the silence in the house, along the street, and in the neighborhood is complete: no dogs protesting their chainlink captivity, dust motes drifting and swirling without sound. But what about the hum of the refrigerator? It’s hushed, too. Sometime during the night this quiet rose from deep within the earth, passed through the floorboards, filled all the rooms of the house, and eventually spilled out in rolling clouds, stunning the songbirds all over town, which in their dismay fluffed their feathers and twisted their tiny heads back and forth, back and forth.
The man sits pen in hand, and the world waits. It can’t do otherwise, can it? Every moment is both an end and a beginning. A newborn squalls, a star explodes. A woman walks out and doesn’t look back. The last in a species dies. Someone thinks, “Ah yes, that’s it.” So, wait. Give him time. The pen is there in his hand, and the paper is on the table.
At the top of the page, a single word: AMENDS.
He’s thinking about something that happened when he was still in school. He was asked to write an essay on courage. When the teacher returned it, he saw that she’d commented, “This is an essay on cowardice, not courage.” Then she kept him after class and asked whether he understood. He didn’t understand, but he told her he did.
And that’s been his life, he realizes: not understanding, but trying to pretend he does.
Meanwhile, far above him, above his weedy backyard, above the empty streets of his neighborhood, above the cracked parking lots and crack houses and crackpots of his town, a passenger jet surfs a strong tailwind on its way from LAX to JFK. It’ll arrive early. The New Yorkers on the flight will make their way home by car or train. “I’m home,” she’ll call out as she shuts and locks the front door. He’ll stop at the kennel to pick up his dog. The others, the Los Angelenos and the rest of the passengers, will wait to board their connecting flights, or they’ll climb out of taxis at Manhattan hotels, eager to get checked in so that they can be sure to get dinner before curtain time.
At the moment, though, all of those people are 35,000 feet above, directly above, the man on the sofa, the one holding the pen, looking at a list on a piece of paper, and thinking about courage.
The truth is that he understands more than he thinks he does. About courage, that is. Minutes earlier, after all, he dialed a number and let it ring. When a woman answered, he said into his phone, “Hello, Mom.” And then he said the rest, all that he’d called to say, the entirety of it, his voice quavery at first but stronger as he continued, a rare gleam visiting those lusterless eyes, and they all listened: the deer in the painting, that is, the stained chair in the corner, the dancing dust motes. They listened to him with real respect and even admiration — if only he knew.
Leaning forward, the man draws a line through the last name on his list. Somewhere nearby, a dog barks.