Short Story: Where Is Everybody?

It was a small family to have drawn together so many friends and relations. Everyone had a blast on the wild and wooly grounds of the Cougevan summer house—playing baby-name drinking games, laughing hoarsely into the night. Everyone, that is, except Phlox’s uncles. For each, the day’s objective had simply been to run out the clock. Now, however, with the pre-fêted baby having ceased to be, the uncles were the only ones to receive a text: Can one of you take Phlox for a couple days?

She wasn’t at the party owing to her debilitating fear of crowds. Her Uncle Marty had faced down his own paranoia about Massachusetts ticks and slapped at mosquitos where he failed to spray. Her Uncle Kai mostly rationalized his failure to landscape the pseudo-historic house under his stewardship by quoting William Burroughs.

Both men were considered stellar in their respective fields. Both had reputations for being “difficult (full stop).” Neither could tolerate ordinary interpersonal relationships for an extended period of time. They agreed on very little except that Phlox’s triathlon-obsessed parents were bourgeois conformists.

Still, the conformists’ lost baby—a boy—was a tragedy. And after three miscarriages, Katie could not have another pregnancy. Although both men were normally bigger than one of you, at Josh’s ping, they recognized what was at stake: the heart and mind of an eleven-year-old genius—maybe the one who’d save civilization from itself. Each felt he understood better than anyone what the girl was suffering: parents mourning the fact that their oddball daughter was all they were going to get.

Both men understood the depth of Phlox’s intelligence. Her parents worried when, as an older toddler, she never wanted to get out of her stroller. But her uncles knew better. “I don’t blame you,” Kai had said years later upon hearing Phlox’s side of the story. “It is the fate of every successful species to wipe itself out.”

Kai usually spent the late part of his summer with a telescope in Australia and the early part at his family’s summer house in Lincoln. Marty had come down from Maine for the Fourth and was still staying with friends in Ipswich. Lincoln was the logical place for Phlox, all communicants knew, but there was a surprising development in Marty’s decision—uninvited—to bring his suitcase and stay there too.

Marty Zink’s name recognition peaked when he received tenure at Wesleyan at the impressive young age of thirty-four, in the late nineties, back when literary was not yet a pejorative. He was the go-to scholar on all things Elizabeth Bishop. Now, with the digital flattening of the globe, his career beyond grading was in eclipse. When drunk, he referred to himself as “the former Martin Zink.”

Kai Cougevan, the MIT astrophysicist, didn’t share that problem. He had spent decades searching unsuccessfully for one elusive thing: knowing why the universe is expanding faster than it should be. In his field it was OK to be chronically unsuccessful; all lights continued to turn green ahead of him.

Marty did not think it important to conceal his annoyance at arriving before Kai had left to get Phlox from day camp. He stood brooding at the threshold. The quant should’ve heard his car, he told himself; he should’ve been standing in this spot beckoning like Bea Arthur. Finally, he rang the bell.

“They were really giving you shit the other week,” he said when Kai opened the door. He turned to look behind his back at the overgrown vegetation. “About the absence of Asian grasses.”

Kai smirked. “Landscaping’s for weenies.”

It was a strange setup, the Cougevan house in Lincoln—a “thematic homage” to Walter Gropius’s famous house nearby on Baker Ridge Road. The eccentric builder started erecting his proxy in 1969, after Gropius died and the local papers made a big to-do. When the builder died midway to completion, Kai and Katie’s grandmother bought the property and had someone else finish. She gave the house to her daughter. There was a hill and a pond and a long curving drive. There were also chronic heating, plumbing, and drainage problems.

Marty kept his eyes on the overgrown property, his back to his host. “Katie said your grandmother would be turning over in her grave at the absence of flowers.”

Kai smiled. “She was a Dane—a great one I must say. Astrid Adler. You would’ve loved her. Everyone did.”

Marty recoiled at this kind of wistful conjecture; here it comes, he thought.

“My mother is like her but a real diva,” Kai went on. “Katie inherited none of that.”

It always irritated Marty, this Camelotization of unremarkable upper-middle-class families. It was as if they’d run their also-ran ancestry through a “Gore Vidal Beach Read” filter. He knew that Kai and Katie’s mother lived in Palm Springs and that their estranged father rarely left his second family in Hong Kong and was said to have serious health issues.

“Why doesn’t she ever leave California?” asked Marty.

Kai shrugged. “Doesn’t like being old or cold. I don’t blame her. She will not go gently.”

Suddenly out of nowhere this sentiment was memorialized with a feline’s siren. Kai bent to scoop up the mewling fluff. “This is Montserrat.”

Marty rolled his eyes. “Of course it is.”

“What,” he objected, “you don’t like cats?”

“Not ones named after colonies.”

Kai held up the cat’s face at eye level. “I should’ve left you home,” he said. “It was for Phlox I brought him. She loves feeding him Inabas.”

Marty’s throat burned with something he refused to acknowledge as jealousy—or at least jealousy in regard to Phlox. Obviously, Kai saw the girl more often; their repartee was the express; his was the local. She was a whiz at math and science, so that put her in Kai’s camp. But she was a whiz at almost anything given a grade. She seemed indifferent to her various subject strengths, though she loved reading more than anything.

“I’m sure this animal lives better than half the world,” said Marty.

Kai rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to income-shame me, the former Martin Zink.”

Marty laughed. “Yeah, but I’ll 02138-shame the daylights out of your quantum ass.”

Kai affected a pose of indignation. “Cambridge has been the center of civilization since the days of William James.”

Marty laughed again. “What are the contributions of Cambridge? Let’s see . . . perforated flower pots, reversible collars, waterproof hats, the first mechanical egg beater.”

Kai looked aggrieved. “You forgot Click and Clack.”

“Well,” said Marty, nodding, “now it’s just one hand Clacking.”

Kai sighed. “Know what? I gotta get the girl.” He paused to laugh. “How often have I said that in four decades?”

Marty felt an awkward sensation as he followed Kai into the house. “I always wonder if Katie and Josh think she’s safe with either of us because she’s a girl and not a boy.”

Kai didn’t bother turning around. “I take great offense at that thought.”

“Well this is the first time she’ll be with the both of us.”

Kai led Marty down the hall to point out a small bedroom. “The poor kid doesn’t even get the doting nanna and grampy,” he said. “How does that happen in this day and age?”

Marty wondered if this was a dig at his parents. They’d had their two boys later in life, with a large gap between. “It happens by people being dead,” he said defiantly.

“On your side, yes.”

Marty followed Kai back down the hall and out to the threshold. He remembered how he and Kai, quite independently, had discovered the snail whorls of thought bound up in their niece, around the time she was seven. Last year she invented a board game called Jackelope that was an enormous hit at Walden Day School and written up in the Globe—only she refused ever to play it.

“Why won’t you play?” Marty had asked.

Her child’s version of a shrug involved crossing her arms at the elbows, reminding Marty of pinching a butterfly paper clip. “The only purpose is entertainment,” she rationalized. “Using up minutes of your life.”

When Kai had walked out the front door and onto the flagstone pathway, he turned to ask, “Want to go with me to pick her up?”

“I’ll stay here,” said Marty.

Suddenly Kai froze and pointed. “Look!”

“Look at what?”

“Black swallowtail,” he replied, motioning toward an obese magnolia. “The females lay a single egg at each stop.”

Marty walked apprehensively into Kai’s scrub brush of a yard to inspect what had alit on a branch. He studied the clamped-shut wings as if miming Nabokov—as if he could see the single egg drop. “Sailor in every port,” he whispered.

Kai laughed. “Jealous bitch!”

With Kai gone, the house’s foreign stillness ought to have been calming, but it only confirmed Marty’s near palpable sensation of everything in life constantly accelerating. Time was going too fast to come up with backup plans. He was already fearing what Elizabeth Bishop called “the long trip home.” She asked: Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Back in Maine, would he have known to think about this odd house and its little society by marriage that he had always taken great pains to avoid? He never got along with Kai. He was all hate back then, a dozen or so years ago. He was with Mark and the world wasn’t working.

Several car beeps roused him from his brooding. He got to the drive just as Phlox was getting out of the back. She seemed so unlike a child to him that riding in the back came off as more Little Lady Fauntleroy being chauffeured than someone under twelve being protected.

She squinted in the sun at her uncle. “Well, here I am.”

Neither man was physically demonstrative by either nature or CBT, but the scrawny child’s insubstantiality usually made them embrace her.

“Give your bitchy old uncle a hug,” said Marty, bending down to a chorus of creaking bones. The unsatisfactory sensation of there being nothing much to hold reminded him of his and everyone’s mortality.

Kai looked down at the two. “Showing up for yourself is the first step, kiddo.”

Marty released the girl and grimaced. “Please don’t use that phrase ‘showing up for yourself.’ My students stick it in papers on Middlemarch.”

Kai laughed. “What is something called Middlemarch even about?”

“If you weren’t such a philistine I’d tell you,” said Marty, righting himself with a groan.

“It’s a classic novel by George Elliot,” said Phlox. “I plan to read it soon. Right, Marty?”

Kai made a face at his niece. “Miss Pantsy-pants over there.”

She forced a smiled as she pulled both her small backpack and her slightly less small backpack from the backseat. “This will go down in history as a bad year for babies.”

“We can talk about that,” said Marty, feeling a clammy weight bear down on him at the thought that she and Kai had got a head start on this dreaded discussion.

Inside, Phlox plopped her insubstantial body on one of the sofas. She had the look of so many girls of her demographic—straight thin hair, plain features but nothing too full or ethnic; Marty could see a bit of his family but not a lot. It was the Cougevan tightness of skin that prevailed, although the dark circles under her eyes he found oddly becoming.

“Are you going to talk to me with inspirational language?” she asked, looking from one man to the other.

Marty laughed. “Now there’s a novel idea.”

“Why would we do that?” asked Kai. “Neither of us inspire anything but fear.”

Phlox burrowed her shoulders into the sofa cushion. “They really wanted a runner kid—on cross-country, healthy social media presence, ’gramming 10Ks and all that, talking about headwinds.”

Kai made a face. “Just run around the house once and make them happy.”

“I don’t run,” she said.

“We hear ya,” said Marty.

“In my life right now,” she said philosophically, “there just seems not enough other people.”

“But you don’t like other people,” said Kai.

Marty nodded thoughtfully. “Other people are overrated.”

Phlox smiled her anemic little smile. “I feel like I could be abducted and no one would even know.”

It killed Marty to realize he felt the same way; he couldn’t think of any pretend happiness to sow.

“No one’s going to abduct you,” said Kai. “But you know what? Always use gayuncle666 as your password. OK? Anything happens—like you’re snatched off the street by the NSA—we will always know it’s you.”

After the languid process of putting things away and playing with the cat and making dinner at a pace driven by a somber eleven-year-old, they went out back to be at one with the overgrown terrain.

From the deck beyond the sliding doors, Phlox immediately ran to the large concrete culvert segment sitting in the yard amid the tall weeds.

“Where did that thing come from?” asked Marty, venturing to the edge of the large, low deck.

Kai laughed. “The Culvert Depot. Where else?”

“What are you culverting?”

“It goes down under the driveway. Who knows why they dropped it here. It was a bunch of guys.”

Marty stared at the industrial surplus. “Everything bad starts with a bunch of guys.”

Now Phlox was inside the tunnel. Marty called out to her in the moonlight, “You need to get out of that pipe. You look like something from Stephen King.” Then he added, “With ticks.”

She emitted tenuous squeals as she clambered atop the concrete, doing things to give herself the kind of shin scrapes they show in Band-Aid commercials. “Notice how no one said ‘Careful’!” she yelled at the men, now sitting with their drinks on period patio chairs.

Marty was slightly unnerved by the way that he and Kai had simultaneously lifted their glasses in her direction. With the wine, he was feeling less worried about ticks but still unhappy about his recently acquired fat. In the glow of the bug candles, Kai was a credit to his profession in being unkempt, but he had the benefit of being tall and devil-may-care gangly. He was looking up at the stars coming into sight. “July is the thunder moon.”

Marty tilted his head to the stars. “And August is the Fruit Loops and milk moon.”

Phlox laughed. “You just made that up!”

“It’s a cliché for me to say this,” said Kai, “but look at that Virgo Cluster.”

Marty had to laugh. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s ugly,” said his host. “You don’t even want to know.”

Phlox snapped to attention. “There are two trillion galaxies in the observable universe.”

“Good girl,” said Kai.

“It’s not dark enough here,” said Marty. “Imagine you’re on an island in Maine.”

Kai laughed. “Imagine you’re on the lonely galactic island DDO 190.”

Marty looked over at the girl named after Astrid Adler’s favorite flower. “I always thought Phlox sounded like a constellation.”

His niece stood tall atop the culvert, seemingly trying to conceal her delight. She had the limbs of a child from stop-motion animation. “I want there to be aliens,” she announced. “Good aliens. Not cute ones like E.T., but just good. Aliens who don’t say things like ‘I feel all the feels.’ ”

Kai widened his eyes and looked away. “I can’t spare you, kiddo.”

“I certainly can,” said Marty, “out of ignorance.”

Phlox held out her arms and put one foot directly in front of the other as if walking a tightrope. “I don’t get how I get scared around crowds but still there just seems not enough other people. I dream about this all the time. Like, I can’t see in the dark, but I know there’s other people there.”

“There was that time,” began Kai with theatrical languor—“that time that Enrico Fermi threw up his hands. ‘Where is everybody?’ He meant aliens. He meant why are we alone in the universe.”

Phlox waited for an answer. “Why, Kai?”

“My nemesis has a theory.”

Marty laughed. “You have a nemesis, Batman?”

“He believes,” said Kai, “that we haven’t seen or heard from any neighbors in the galaxy because we’re still waiting for them to be born.”

“Until I was twenty,” said Marty ruefully, “I used to think that about my soulmate.”

“So when is it going to happen?” asked Phlox.

“This wrong theory posits that there are too few yellow dwarf stars like us and too many red dwarf stars where you don’t have the three things for life as we know it to arise—carbon-based chemistry, liquid water, and an energy source.”

Marty waited for more. “And I’m sure you have a counter-theory.”

“I think Earth is exceptional,” said Kai, “only because everyone else has already died.”

Marty shifted his weight in the chair. “Aw, c’mon. Why was there no spoiler alert?”

Phlox looked perfectly neutral atop the culvert. “You mean planets with living things?”

“Early life is fragile,” said Kai. “It rarely evolves quickly enough to survive.”

Marty felt a sudden flash of fear that Phlox might be thinking about the baby.

“At one time,” Kai went on, oblivious, “Venus and Mars may have been habitable—oh, say four billion years ago. But then Venus turned into an oven and Mars into a freezer.”

Marty shook his head. “You sound like Goldilocks.”

“This all happened relatively quickly—a billion years.”

Phlox looked confused. “Are you saying we were just lucky? I hate when being lucky is the answer.”

Marty couldn’t bear her contemplating annihilation on top of the baby. “You need to take the Batman theory with a pinch of salt, my love. Things will get fixed. You’ll be a fixer, Phlox.”

“You think so?” she asked.

“You’ll write beautiful poetry,” he promised. “You’ll discover a constellation called Phlox. And you’ll find a way to convince a planet of sheep to ride bikes and stop drinking out of plastic straws.”

She looked skeptically at the stars. “When I look up there, I think the same thing. Where is everybody?”

“What,” said Marty, “we ain’t enough of a party for you?”

“I think it’s time for the Phloxinator to go in and get ready for bed,” said Kai, pointing at the sliding doors. “Go in and brush your teeth and do whatever you do with Sephora.”

She jumped down noiselessly, landing like a frog. “I don’t do anything with Sephora.”

Kai yawned. “And you can use your phone in bed. We’re not your parents. Just feckless cunts.”

She burst out laughing.

Kai pointed a stern finger at his niece. “DO NOT tell! You hear me, child? EVER.”

Marty waited for the girl to disappear inside to say, “You’re good with her.”

“You must miss Maine,” said Kai. “It must place you in your element—Auden and all that stuff. All that Shropshire lad stuff. Punctured bicycle on a hilltop desolate.”

Marty shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“Literary arcana that the average person has not the slightest interest in.”

“Who are you to talk about arcana?

Kai grinned like a mischievous boy. “People don’t care about my work because they can’t understand it. They don’t care about yours because they don’t care.”

“Look,” said Marty, pointing at the corner of the deck. “It’s the Full Monty.”

Kai beckoned the cat and scooped it onto his lap, stroking from head to tail. “This little guy was named after the island where I spent the best summer of my life thirty years ago.” He paused. “I was a kid. My richy-rich lover’s father knew George Martin and had this job doing next to nothing in his recording studio. This boy was the loveliest and shallowest boy I had ever known.”

“What happened? Don’t tell me you watched him get sicker and sicker.”

“He fucked me over.”

“Tough break.”

“And then three years later someone else watched him get sicker and sicker . . . and die, like ya do.”

Marty drank up the last of his glass.

Kai allowed the cat to dash off his lap suddenly. “It was the only time I was ever happy with someone. I knew he was an empty vessel, always looking for the next attraction. Still, just thinking of him makes me love life, makes me want to stay alive. Still, in this shitty world of red dwarfs. It astounds me.”

Marty had had too many of these conversations about loss; he’d said it all decades before.

“OK, the former Martin Zink,” said Kai, “that was my true confession. What’s yours?”

“Confession?” Marty tapped the base of his wineglass on the chair arm. “Let’s see. Our father lost all our money on a horse named After Dark.”

Kai nodded. “Josh said he liked playing the ponies.”

Marty snickered in one breath. “In high school I started this campaign to get him to change our name back to Zinkoff.”

“Great,” said Kai. “Everyone thinks you’re a Russian spy.”

Marty smiled. “I was once pickup up by a spy.”

“Did he break your heart?”

The smile slowly faded. “Eh, he died. And besides . . . no one can break my heart.”

“Really?” asked Kai, swiping cat hair off his legs. “There’s no one the former Martin Zink is missing?”

Marty would never allow himself to be cornered. “What I’m missing is the life I can’t afford.”

Kai was silent.

“I had to take a 43% salary cut back in ’09. I had to sell the house in Islesboro. I was so in love with that house and that island.”

“That’s what I don’t get,” said Kai with a laugh. “Maine is tick central. You can get Lyme disease at a Dunkin Donuts.”

Marty brushed away the thought. “I kept thinking I’d rebound and buy something like the house I lost. But here I am seven years later . . . just a renter.”

Kai seemed bewildered. “But the economy’s doing great.”

“They’re forcing my Department chair out of that role,” said Marty. “He just turned 60. I never used to care much for him. He quoted Dan Fogelberg once and I could never unhear that. But this summer he’s been clinging to me like I was a life raft.”

Kai made a sigh.

“College professor used to be the one career outside Congress where you could work until you’re old and senile.”

“But you’re a fat gay dude!” cried Kai. “They can’t fire you!”

It took a moment for Marty to find anything funny. “I remember some early advice that was spot on, but I paid no attention. If somebody doesn’t get your joke, you might have to devote your life trying to find someone who does.”

Kai nodded. “We’re all looking for a better audience.”

“When I was young,” said Marty, “I always wanted to be at these parties thrown by interesting people. And then when I got to where I could throw the parties, the interesting people were all terrible human beings.”

“I never wanted to be at those parties,” said Kai. “I wanted to be off somewhere, alone with my beloved.”

Marty sighed. “Where is everybody? That’s what you had to ask in, say, 1998. Where is everybody who died, all the yellow dwarfs? They were stars but certainly not cowards.”

Kai stared straight ahead. “I’ve never had the heart to tell Phlox the truth—all the cosmic catastrophes waiting to destroy the universe as instantly as it came to be. Everything gets dragged together into a Big Crunch. Or maybe it’s a Big Rip, with atoms and elementary particles ripped apart.”

After a moment Marty said, “That must mean you love her.”

“Love Phlox?” Kai looked as if this were a new idea. He had to sit up straighter on his seat. “It would be great for a change to love someone without the desire.” He paused. “Someone just told me I have contempt for desire.”

“Our culture has lost the desire for physical objects,” said Marty, “including people. I find myself desiring alone.”

“So what do we do, Liz Bishop man?”

Marty shook his head, staring into his empty glass. “My old shrink used to say, ‘There’s no single answer, just a better way than before.’ ”

Within the ensuing silence, the men realized Phlox had been standing at the sliding door she’d slipped herself through, barefoot and in her striped, doll-sized sleeping shorts.

Kai held up his arms. “It’s all happening After Dark, kiddo!”

“Couldn’t you sleep, sweetie?” asked Marty.

She came forward with uncharacteristic trepidation. “I just realized something very important that I need to tell you both right now.”

“What?” asked Kai.

She looked intently at one man and then the other. “I think I’m an alien.”

Marty was surprised at how touching he found this odd effort to remain a child in some way. He felt flattered that she was asking their permission.

“I had a dream while awake,” she added.

“Those are the best kinds,” said Marty.

“I think I’m an alien from a yellow dwarf where everyone died billions of years ago.”

“That’s got to be lonely,” said Kai.

“It’s just me alone,” she said. “Nothing cute. No quidditch teams.”

La petite princesse,” said Marty, saluting with his empty glass. “I would fly to your asteroid in a heartbeat.”

Both men quietly watched as their niece climbed back atop the culvert. This time she sat at the edge, her spindly legs dangling above the hollow.

“So you think the real Phlox was abducted,” asked Kai, “switched in her Baby Bjorn?”

She shrugged her chicken-wing shoulders. “Maybe something implanted me.”

Her dangling legs reminded Marty of the Crusoe that Bishop sketched in verse—safe at home in England but missing the little island volcanoes of his isolation, places where he’d dangle his legs from the crater’s edge and try to justify self-pity. He asks, “Was there / A moment when I actually chose this?”

“Look!” the girl suddenly shrieked. Her excitement nearly sobered the men. They looked to where she was pointing—a ray of moonlight precisely fallen on something yellowy-orange.

Kai got up and followed the beam. “It looks like a marsh marigold.”

Marty had never seen his niece look entranced. “What is it, Phlox? Are you afraid?”

“It was weird,” she said, shaking her head. “I was just thinking about falling into Sagittarius A, the black hole in the Milky Way.”

Kai walked back to his chair. “That’s my girl.”

She appeared to have stunned herself. “I think the light on the marigold is a sign.”

Kai laughed. “Who’s sending you a sign? The dark side of the moon? The black eternity in Sag A?”

She looked at them. “My brother.”

Marty felt his eyes tearing, his heart wilting. The thread in his mind had already stitched together the black swallowtail with the yellow marigold and this moonbeam sent down by the baby that wasn’t. It suddenly occurred to him that if, out of fear of ticks and larger things, he had stayed in Maine and only thought of here, he’d have missed out on a sky crowded with two trillion galaxies, on this warm, safe spot opening up within a field of weeds—infinitesimal within a cosmos dead-set on destruction, but somehow perfect in its alignment with everything that matters. §