She bought a home down the hill from my own, a snug little number done up in wisteria. Not so long ago she won a Golden Globe for her featured role in one of those paranormal romances. I hadn’t seen the film, but I had heard good things from Chudley and others. The house once belonged to her grandmother and she would visit in the summers when she was younger: playing in the park, swimming in the community pool. She was looking to reclaim a part of her past. Two spells in rehab, a nasty divorce and widely circulated honeymoon video. The Hollywood grind had ground her into something she no longer recognized. She was piecing herself back together. Or at least that was what Chudley told me.
Missy and I were doing yard work when the moving trucks came lumbering into town. I was trimming the edges of the lawn. Missy was bedding a plant given as a gift by a close friend in the neighboring cubicle. Neither of us knew the name of the plant (it wasn’t your garden-variety flora). Not even an internet search yielded any clues. The long column of trucks filed past our house. The backs rattled with lavish furnishings, or so I imagined, the din of which sounded like an anxious child riling birthday presents, guessing at the contents inside. Across the street, Chudley was lounging on his roof. I could see the pink of his toes hanging over the guttered edge. Missy went inside for a cold drink and I walked over to Chudley’s place.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“Come on up,” he called down to me.
I climbed the ladder in the backyard and assumed my usual position, parallel to Chudley. I helped myself to a fresh beer, a domestic brew, nestled in a pocket of banked leaves. (Chudley’s gutters were badly clogged after years of neglect, but instead of cleaning them out he tossed in a handful of ice cubes and used the trough as a makeshift cooler when he wanted to unwind on the roof.) We watched the actress command and coordinate the movers like a veteran general. She was dressed in clothes geared for comfort: charity t-shirt, pink sweatpants. She wasn’t wearing any makeup and her hair was tied in a loose braid. Chudley was panting heavily.
“You’re a huge weirdo, you know that,” I said.
“One man’s weirdo is another man’s freedom fighter.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
Missy, all dirt and sweat, was sitting on the porch steps. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, skimming through a magazine she picked up at the supermarket checkout.
It could be said I worked as a purveyor of worldly knowledge, a molder of young minds, or so I might have imagined myself reciting in the right company (the breed of people who balanced glasses of brandy precariously at the ends of their fingers). It could also be said I supervised the next generation of disappointers in the intervening hours between bus rides. There are two sides to every coin. In either scenario, I arrived at the school at seven and left at three. Sometimes I wore a tie and other times I didn’t. Sometimes I drank coffee and other times I drank tea. Sometimes I taught from the book and other times I broke ties with the text and allowed my thoughts to wander unbound, without a destination. Some days I felt like I made a sliver of difference. And other days I believed myself an outright and irredeemable failure.
Teaching was never part of the larger plan. In fact, in my younger years, I wanted to be a rock star (or at least luxuriate in the lifestyle). I traveled around the region in a van of bearded misfits. We spray-painted lines of Dylan and Lennon on highway overpasses, under bridges and tunnels. The scant cash we wangled from poorly attended shows was squandered on hard liquor, more spray paint. Every now and then the police picked us up and we would have to wait, holding back our bowels, for our parents to come and make bail. I wanted so desperately to distinguish myself from my father, an unflinchingly serious man for whom I had decidedly little respect. Back then I never would have guessed I’d end up working in the same high school he sunk thirty-nine years into, within the same department. Other job opportunities presented themselves from time to time, but none of them seemed worthy of serious consideration.
My mother needed a ride home from the airport. Once a month, as part of an acclimatization training prescribed by an online message board, she called a car, loaded her empty luggage into the trunk, and spent the better half of the afternoon outside the security checkpoint, waiting for a fictitious flight to board. She hadn’t traveled on a plane in twenty-odd years, yet she kept postcards of Hawaiian Islands around her house as a reminder of what was waiting for her on the other side.
She was standing beside the revolving doors when I arrived. I laid her suitcase across the truck bed, lashed the handle to a bungee cord. We situated ourselves in our seats, buckled.
“It’s strange,” she said, her voice solemn and deliberate. “There are times when I think I have the panic under control. A small window opens and I take my place in the ticket line, but I can never quite make it to the desk.”
“Why don’t you take the pills? They put you out like a light. You won’t remember a thing.”
“That’s avoiding the fear, and I don’t want to avoid it — I want to move past it,” she said. “I wasn’t always such a stiff, you know. I had my moments of daring.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“When I was in high school I jumped off a roof into a swimming pool. It was a single story ranch, but it still took courage on my part.”
She yawned and looked at the airfield through the side window.
“I miss it. The sudden impulse, those rare moments of boldness. The older I get, the more attuned to the rhythm of life, the less often that notion comes around,” she said. The weather turned and a surge of rain came down, increasing in severity the longer we drove. Every few miles I checked on her suitcase in the truck bed, bobbing there like a cork.
“So the goddess has come down from Olympus to live among us mortals. Break out the popcorn and bonbons. This has the makings of first-rate drama,” Palover said, as we passed each other in the hallway.
Chudley threw pinecones at our bedroom window. It was two in the morning. Missy was snoring up a storm; she could sleep through anything — any prodding, alarm, or natural disaster. I crept downstairs and let him in through the back door. He was sopping wet, even though it hadn’t rained in days. He shook his hand dry and reached inside his jacket pocket, extracting a small stack of photographs, rubberbanded together. An anachronism in our digital age. He laid the pictures on the kitchen island, twenty-seven in all. I switched on the lights above us. The photos showed the actress sunbathing in her backyard. She wore a blue bikini top, sunglasses, jean shorts. In several photos, she was reading a hardbound copy of The Da Vinci Code (a book I had been recommended — a number of times — but was reluctant to read after realizing its size). In others, she was painting her nails or thumbing her cell phone or stretching out her arms.
I turned to Chudley.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
RAVI MANGLA lives in Fairport, NY. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, American Short Fiction, Tin House Online, The Rumpus, Mental Floss, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among other publications. Understudies is his first novel. He keeps a website at ravimangla.com.
Adapted from Understudies, by Ravi Mangla, Copyright © 2013 by Ravi Mangla. With the permission of the publisher, Outpost19.