The Village at Null Point

by Jeff Ewing

I look out my bay window at Lance's house across the street, and at the empty house next to it. The homeowner's association has stopped paying the lawn care company, and the grass in both yards is turning brown and scruffy, with beach plum and mile-a-minute creeping in from the marsh. Their wide windows, like mine, are clouded by salt spray. In the early days, the windows were one of the Village's main selling points—estuarine tranquility elegantly framed—but they've long since been rendered, tellingly, dull and blind. I rub the glass pointlessly to try to clear it, and squint out past the end of the street at the crescent of mud and cordgrass poking like a thumb into the eye of the Village. Clouds of bugs hover over the marsh, accompanied by the deep thrum of bullfrogs. Some distance out, the Timber Trail winds to its eventual end, unannounced, at the confluence of three funk-clouded streamlets.

Paolo's there almost every day now, sitting on the planks toying with a gravity knife. Coincidentally or not, it's the same spot where Lance used to sit, at the ragged end of the Village, legs dangling from the unfinished thought of the walkway.

"I could live out here," Paolo says. "Stroll around the grounds, right? Play some fucking croquet."

There are quite a few vacancies in the Village, but I don't mention that.

"Amber could go to a nice suburban school, get stoned and be a cheerleader."

I should be afraid of Paolo, I'm sure, but there's too much of the TV wise guy to him. The only time I feel my hairs tighten is when he tries to make small talk, shoot the breeze about a typical day in Atlantic City or the ordinary trials of his wife and daughter. Paolo is human at those times, and dangerous.

Over on the south side of the marsh, at the terminus of the Blackbird Spur Trail, I see Lucy Killian walking her corgi. I wave to her, but she doesn't see me, or pretends not to. She's about my age, probably a little younger, and as far as I know she too lives alone. She pauses in front of my house every morning to let her dog defecate on my lawn. He prefers it to the brittle stubble of Lance's yard, and I don't really mind. Lucy always picks it up neatly in one of her blue bags and ties it off with a bow.

"People don't know what to do with love anymore," I say. "They treat it like a disease, like the bird flu or something. They just hope it'll pass on and afflict someone else."

Paolo looks at me with pity and laughs.

"Love is a many splendored goddamn thing."

Truth be told, I may not be the best authority. I've been married and divorced twice, which isn't the same thing as love. Necessarily. There could have been love hidden in one or the other of the marriages somewhere, but it's hard to be sure. I have no children to point to as evidence, no scars or bitter stories about how badly I was treated, how my wives soaked me dry. Because I wasn't and they didn't. There were no raised voices, we never had any drunken fights or tearful makeups. I fell asleep in the chair sometimes, and spent far too much time staring out at water. We observed the contrivances and traditions of marriage dutifully, but that was it. Both of them left in identical U-Haul trucks, with someone else driving, having come to the conclusion finally that whatever it was they were looking for in me wasn't there. It's hard to admit a mistake like that, and I have to give them credit for it.

I've considered asking Lucy in for a cup of coffee while her dog's taking care of business, or to the Rec Club for lunch, but I haven't gotten there yet. I'm not sure exactly how these things are done anymore. And I have a hard time formulating any conversation in my head that won't lead, eventually, to the back of a U-Haul disappearing down my street.

* * *

Occasionally a fish jumps out in the marsh, briefly disturbing the sluggish surface. No one tries to catch them. They are likely so loaded with effluent and jet fuel—the airport is just inland from us, and planes on approach dump their excess fuel offshore—that they would explode on the grill. Lance was the only one I ever saw show any interest in them, and he didn't eat them. He left them in the water, impaled on a Woodman broadhead, for some other animal to consume.

"You hear people talk about beating cancer," he told me once as he pulled his bowstring back, sighting on the dorsal fin of a bluefish. "They go on about being reborn, how they appreciate every day for the gift it is, smell the coffee praise the lord yada yada, well let me tell you that's all bullshit. I got cured and now I'm a million-and-a-half in debt and hiding in my own house."

"Well, you never really had it."

"The money?"


He let fly and the arrow dove into the water.

"I thought I had it. Psychologically it's the same thing."

The arrow bobbed up a couple of seconds later, quivering and zigzagging down the channel. He reeled in and dragged the blue out, a ratty looking thing. It flapped its tail and spun in a slow circle around the axis of the arrow.

"You believe in karma?" Lance asked. "Reincarnation and that?"

"No. I don't think so."

He clipped the line at his belt, lifted it absently and whirled it like a lasso. The fish wheezed and shed slime, its tail scraping the boards as it passed. It landed with an unpleasant slap beside a rusted crab pot on a mud island about thirty feet out.

"Nah," Lance said. "Me neither."

* * *

When I first laid eyes on the Village, the weedy expanses and skewed sight lines seemed to me the closest I would ever get to paradise—admittedly, a lower-case p. The ocean beyond the marsh still held a faded trace of Winslow Homer, and I imagined myself out on it sailing the spumed breakers or crabbing in the sedimented shallows. I drove out of my way on the weekends to verify that the Units for Sale sign was still up—slowing to admire the faux-pier entrance topped with its quaint, slightly walleyed gull—and within a year I'd taken early retirement with little resistance, rented a U-Haul of my own, and shoveled my meager possessions into the back. Lance came over with a twelve-pack that first afternoon, popped the tab on a can of warm Bud, and told me he was dying. There was an ad on TV extolling the lucrative side of mesothelioma. He smiled at the set and raised his beer in a convivial salute.

"I've got a thirty-year fixed," he said, "and all I'll have to pay is five."

Across the street, his buckling driveway was crowded with the fruits of his settlement. They were the kind of things a kid would buy if his parents died and left him a middling inheritance: A Lexus RX wagon, a restored Austin-Healey, a thirty-nine-foot cigarette boat. He also owned, I later found out, a quarter-share in a micro brewery and two racing dogs.

He never thought he'd last long enough to see the bill.

* * *

"Come to The Virago and live," whispered a breathy woman on the classic rock station. "For a change."

Lance cocked his head, nearly smooth from the chemo, just a couple of tufts scattered across it in a premonition of his lawn to come. Bobbing to the inevitable song that followed, Bowie singing: "Ch-ch-ch-changes".

I hadn't been to Atlantic City since I was a kid, when it was still a ratty, neglected Monopoly board. The boardwalk buckled and listing, the hotel windows blown out. Through the windshield of Lance's Lexus it rose now from its own ashes, reborn, or at least dressed up. A crack whore with a new dress. Lights and glitter and hubris painted with a crude brush all down the shore.

Lance was Mr. Moneybags in the brilliantined rooms of the Virago, the monocled host of his last hurrah. Laying bets on blackjack hands of twelve, not remotely caring if he won. I drank sour gin and played the nickel slots with old ladies clutching their coin cups in rheumatoid hands. The bells and lights and meager payouts made them so happy it was hard not to love them. I stayed there all night, distributing my winnings and affection, until chemo fatigue got the better of Lance.

We ended up on the beach, standing in the soapy foam looking up the coast at the milky pinpricks of the Village. We discussed home, the idea of it, what constituted one. Whether it was a place you wanted to get to or get away from.

"You can't change where you're born," Lance said. "But you can pick the place you die."

I wasn't sure you could even do that.

"There's got to be better places than Atlantic City," I said.

"Like where?"

I nodded toward the glow of the Village. Felt a warmth spread through me, maybe the gin, maybe not.

"You're a romantic," Lance said. "That's your cancer."

He went back the next night without me, and the night after that. They started sending a car for him before long so he wouldn't have to drive drunk. He was comped for rooms, meals, shows, everything. They had run a check and seen the settlement. They extended a gracious line of credit, fattened him up and milked him for almost a year until news of his lab error remission tongued out across the credit wires like lightning, followed closely by the thunder of countersuits and projected bankruptcy.

That's how he found out he wasn't dying—from a casino bouncer, maybe Paolo, whispering in his ear at the craps table.

I saw him returning that last night, trudging up our street at five in the morning, eyes glazed, carrying a crumpled paper bag and nothing else. I watched him plop down into a lawn chair at the edge of his driveway and take a bottle of Kessler's out of the bag.

"Good news, bad news," he said. "The balance of nature."

The bag was still heavy in his lap, even without the bottle, stacks of chips shifting and clicking inside. Waving the bottle at me there in the bosom of his carelessness—gleaming metal and sleekly molded fiberglass, a bulwark of possessions that just the day before had yelled: "Look upon this wealth and tremble! Would a dying man have all this shit?"

He considered another lawsuit, but not for long. How do you sue someone for giving you your life back? Even if that life is mortgaged to the asshole and ticking down to an inevitable implosion.

He fired up the barbeque and threw on a rack of steaks we could never finish.

"I don't think I'm ready for this," he said.

"For what?"


Though by the next day he'd started to see the upside. Only an idiot or Jesus, after all, would bitch about being resurrected. He looked around him at our sawgrass Gethsemane and saw that it was good. The Village glowed with an incontinent languor, the algae in the marsh blooming in a red bouquet. When the wall started to crumble a week later and the tide rushed in, he must have thought it was life breaking through, rather than the hoary fist of pissed-off Paolo.

* * *

A jet comes in low over the marsh, heading toward the airport. It sprays its fuel in a narrow squall before passing over us silently. When the engine noise finally catches up, it rattles the cleats on the dock and makes my teeth hurt. Paolo points to a wide pool about fifty yards off into the marsh, where a flock of terns is rising and falling indecisively.

"He's out there," he says.

I shield the sun from my eyes with my hand, but there's really nothing to see. The water is flat and gray as everywhere else.

"If it wasn't me it was gonna be somebody else," Paolo says, a ridiculous defense. "You could look at him and see he was a fucking goner. After a while you get so you can look at people and tell, see their lifelines. Like a fucking gypsy."

I don't believe him for a minute. Lance, to the contrary, would have sailed into a smooth old age if it hadn't been for Paolo. Floated across the bumps, flattened out the waves.

The last time I saw him, he was walking out along the boardwalk into the marsh with his bow and a quiver of arrows. There was a ridiculous stubbornness about him you couldn't help but admire, a sort of pioneer cockiness. He didn't have much left by then besides the house, and the bank had been trying to take that for months. He collected their notices like baseball cards, showing each new one to me with pride.

"Certified," he'd say, waving an envelope with its threatening green stripe. "That's me."

His hair had started to grow back by then, and he wore the only clothes he had left, a pair of bermuda shorts and a ratty sweatshirt from the Virago. He was reverting to a wild state that all of us in the Village like to imagine ourselves capable of, though we do everything in our power to ensure against it. I could see a spark in him that hadn't been there before, I suspect even before the diagnosis. He'd come through something after all—not cancer, maybe, but another kind of affliction that had blindsided him just as surely.

I look off toward his hiding place, where I can just make out the bow of his kayak with its knot of nylon cord. The grass is a little tumbled there, the water sloshing into the channel and thumping faintly against the hull.

"You're a killer," I say to Paolo. "Don't try to make a philosophy out of it."

Paolo takes out the gun I've always known was there, tucked up against his ribs, diverting the sweat running down his side in the waterlogged air.

"It's the fucking humidity or something. Sometimes I get to thinking things can go different, that everything's not nailed down already. That I got options."

"You do."

"No, you do. You got chances up the ass—but you got no idea what to do with them."

The shots are quieter than I expect. Little poofs. They slice into the water with a very distinctive sound. Thwoop. Thwoop. The gull Paolo's aiming at flies off screeching.

"I'll tell them you don't know anything," Paolo says, rising with difficulty from the low dock like an old dog.

"You'll be right," I say.

He looks down at me and grunts.

"No shit."

Then he's gone, and I don't miss him one little bit.

* * *

There's a family of frogs living inside Lance's kayak when I dig it out of the reeds. They croak and hop up and down, smacking against the deck of the kayak. I drag the boat up onto shore and dump them out. They hesitate before tucking their necks in and jumping into the tarry water.

The tide's out, and there's more clearance than usual underneath the walkway. The boat thumps against the pilings, riding the meager waves that find their way, through no fault of their own, into the marsh. I can see Lance's quiver tucked up under the boards, wedged into a V of struts. It's heavy and rattles when I set it on the floor of the boat. There's a pretty good pile of chips when I dump them out on the sand. I'm not sure of the denominations, but I know it's enough to kill somebody over.

* * *

The storm of light and noise inside the Virago is unreal, a gaudy Skinner box. I carry the chips in a paper bag in honor of Lance through the opening maze of dime slots and roulette wheels to the cashier. Beyond the line of bulletproof windows, the blackjack tables are packed with tax consultants and highway department middlemen. I cash a handful of chips in for tokens and make my way to a bank of dollar slots bunched under a full-length saltwater tank. Sharks and brightly colored tropicals stare down through the glass, wondering at the strange, improbable life swimming by below.

The dealer at the nearest blackjack table eyes me, then flips a card face up for Lucy Killian. Lucy turns and our eyes lock. She starts to smile, then her face changes. Something rises up under the skin like a disturbance in the marsh—she sees something inside me, past my harmless facade, and she doesn't like what she sees. It's a look I'm familiar with.

The dealer finishes out the hand, then presses a button under the table and holds it. There's no sound, but a door in the wall opens and Paolo steps out. He scans the room. When he sees me his shoulders slump. "Fuck," his mouth says.

The wheels click through their circuits, setting off bells and electronic blips as they go. Paolo pushes through a clot of Asians, spilling drinks and raising a shrill chorus of protest. I smile and lift my clenched hands like a victorious boxer. The machine shudders. Overhead, fish crowd the glass, gills working. The wheels spin and spin. Cherries and lemons rattle by. This is the part that matters, this noise and motion, because after the wheels stop there's no wondering anymore; the outcome's not a possibility after that, it's a done deal. It's life.

BIO: Jeff Ewing's writing has been seen recently, or is coming up, in Crazyhorse, ZYZZYVA, Chattahoochee Review, Sugar House Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter, and can be found online at jeffewing.net.