Dinosaurs On The Roof A Novel
JANET CRESTED THE HILL
, her breath was smooth, her stride easy. Sweat streaked her brow, beading and falling. There was an unfamiliar car parked at the curb near where she lived, but she wasn’t expecting anyone, and her landlords, the Luckritzes, always had relatives and friends coming and going.
Since she’d increased her distance from three to four miles today, exhaustion might have dragged at her, but the striving had turned into a gleam in her blood that pushed her to sail on. The swish of her ponytail threaded out the back of her baseball cap brushed her shoulders. Her long legs stretched and coiled, promising a future of runs, always longer, always farther. Even races. Miles of concrete flowing under her. Miles of dirt. Marathons, even. Throngs of runners in silky shorts, their lungs gasping. She would float along in a cloud of wild breathing.
A shift in the late-afternoon light turned the ragged old four-door into a shimmering green bubble. She was pretty sure it was a Chevy, and eighties. Not that she knew cars that well. And then nudging away ringlets of sweaty hair, she saw gray duct tape crisscrossing rusted scars on both the front and rear fenders and knew who was inside. Her gaze vaulted the brown siding and the shingled rooftop ahead to a fissure in the autumn colors of the tree-packed hills. Scattered houses rode the summit, and somewhere miles below, the banks of the Mississippi brought the town to an end. Across that gray slab of water rose the Wisconsin hills.
Her attempt to see into the car met only shadows thrown by a nearby
oak. While telling herself to jog past, maybe gallop on into the woods, she slowed and then stalled. The window started jerking down in spasms, and the face that pushed out was that of Bernice Doorley, a lifelong friend of Janet’s mother, Isabel. Caught upon the hook of the old woman’s gaze, Janet felt the rewards of the run leave her. The last time she’d seen Bernice was at her mother’s funeral over a year ago.
“How do,” said Bernice.
“Straying a little far from home, aren’t you?” Janet asked.
“Not so far. Speedometer says here I went just a little more than six miles.”
“I ran about that far.”
“Did you now? Look at you. All out of breath. Who you runnin’ from?”
“Just running, Bernice.”
“What’s that called again?”
“Just ‘running,’ as far as I know.”
“No, no, it’s got some other name so it don’t sound ordinary, but somehow there’s more to it.”
“That’s the one.” With a sly little smile, she pushed the door open. “Get in. Have a little rest.”
Janet looked away and then back but gave no indication she would enter the car. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Lookin’ for you. Isn’t that clear?”
“Get in. I need to ask a sort of favor, and I can make it snappy.”
Janet smiled but took a backward step, as if something she would be smart to avoid waited inside the car. “Listen, do you know what? We can talk, but I should take a shower. You can come up.” Her attempted display of welcome made her feel like a puppet with fingers worming their way up inside her to make her act in ways she didn’t mean. Why can’t they just leave me alone? she thought. Bernice appeared ready to scowl, her eyes
vaguely suspicious, behind the thick lenses of her glasses in clear plastic frames. “Listen,” Janet explained. “What I meant was we should go inside. I need to get something to drink and jump in the shower before I catch cold.”
“You want me to come inside?”
“Yeah.” That was her deal, all right. Polite, compliant, and fake. A cozy little chat with Bernice was the last thing she wanted.
“Oh well, you should say what you mean, then, Janet.”
“I thought I did.”
“Not as far as I could tell.”
Emerging into the day, Bernice made a sturdy impression, always had. Medium height and slightly overweight, she was broad across the back and hips. Her white hair was tightly curled from a recent permanent, and a white knit scarf cradled her neck. She’d even gone to the trouble of pink lipstick, eyeliner, and rouge for reasons Janet doubted had to do with her visit here. Her pleated sage green skirt and flannel jacket, hip-length and gray, seemed to have come straight from the cleaners. All dolled up for something, Bernice still looked built for lugging heavy objects, a workhorse through and through. They’d made an odd pair, her mother and Bernice. Isabel Cawley had been long-limbed and delicate, maybe even rarefied as the years went on, though there was nothing fragile about either one of them when the time came to drive a remark clear to the bone.
Bernice smiled just then, and Janet turned and looked off. The west appeared to have exploded, the aftermath radiant.
“You sure are a tall drink of water,” said Bernice behind her, making it sound like a fault.
“I guess.” She set off, chuckling, as if being teased were her favorite thing. It was true, though. She was like her mother, both of them angular and alluring, not model-thin, but a length boys hungered to contend with, her auburn hair a flash of genetic fire streaking away from her blond mother to her runaway father.
She led the way, circling the garage, above which her apartment extended off the house, to where she had hidden a key under a brick near the base of the stairs. As soon as Bernice rounded the corner, Janet waved
and went up and let herself in. Chugging Gatorade from the fridge, she set about filling the kettle with water to boil. She was dumping Oreo cookies on a plate when Bernice strode in, set her big beige handbag on the kitchen table, and stood considering what she could see of Janet’s apartment. The more or less rectangular space was divided into a kitchen and living room by copper linoleum squares in one area and reddish-brown wall-to-wall carpeting in the other.
“Help yourself,” Janet told her, placing the cookies on the table. “Make yourself at home.”
“You could give me a glass of milk.”
“Why not?” Along with cups, saucers, and Lipton tea, she got out a half-gallon of milk, a tall glass, and then a banana for herself. “I’ll be quick as I can.” She left Bernice sipping, savoring, and shuffling toward the kitchen window, where the parted curtains would present the terraced hillside packed with neighboring homes.
A narrow hallway led to her bedroom, and by the time she arrived, her resentment at Bernice’s intrusion had become complicated by a reactionary guilt. She stripped, gnawing the banana. The shower in the adjoining bathroom filled with steam, and the water rattled on the tile, the wall, while a nagging voice yammered on about her self-centeredness—that was a good one—her standoffish temperament. It was the basic accusatory theme. Swallowing the last of the banana, she flipped the skin into the sink and shut the door. A cold heart. People liked to say she was too smart for her own good. Didn’t know when to be satisfied.
Her skin reddened in blotches as the explanation for Bernice waiting in her kitchen came clear, and she understood that, counter to her first mistaken assumption, the reason Bernice was dressed to kill had everything to do with her visit. It was because she meant business and intended to be taken seriously once she got around to the subject of Janet’s divorce—the way her life was a complete mess. You couldn’t divorce your mother, and you couldn’t divorce your father, though they could divorce each other. But you were stuck. Not that she hadn’t tried, at least with her father, and with Belger, the town in which she lived. With this very moment.
Swabbing a patch of mirror out of the fog, she saw irritation in her reflected face. She knew that Bernice couldn’t help but adopt the role of surrogate mom doing the good work of the dead. Most everybody thought Janet had gone off the deep end when, not long after her mother’s funeral, she quit her job as an elementary-school teacher and took up the life she was now living. Which was, to the minds of many, no life. She had no job. She jogged long distances alone. Sometimes she wandered in the woods. Or maybe she drank herself into a nice high or, maybe, better yet, a nice stupor. There were periods when she read long classic novels like Middlemarch, Bleak House,
or The House of Mirth,
and then, somewhat mysteriously, these interests collapsed into stretches governed by tabloids, catalogs, fashion magazines, rented movies, and endless TV.
At first it had been difficult to keep people at bay, but as her solitary ambition bloomed, she saw how deeply she desired it. The friends of her childhood had turned out to be very few and not all that lasting after she went off to college. As for the relationships she’d begun while living the life of a schoolteacher, they were with busy women who had busy husbands and kids and jobs and little free time. In the beginning they all called, and she took time to explain, aware almost from the start of the way she was plotting to outmaneuver their concern. She knew how to work with their need to see themselves as good friends, while steering them back to their real interests, which were their kids, their husbands, and themselves. When the mood was right, she’d warn them to remain attentive to “the things that mattered,” so they wouldn’t end up divorced, like her. Last, she would mix in a few ploys about how she really needed to do what she was doing, telling them how much she was learning, and “no, she wasn’t depressed,” and she “missed them, too,” feeling all the while like she was tightening rubber bands around her fingers, the tissue discoloring. At a certain point, sick of finding her answering machine full of messages, she pulled the plug, and the result, as the blinking red light went out, was a moment of breathtaking peace. The next day the trash collectors carried it off. If people wanted her, they could phone when she was home, and if they didn’t get her, they could keep trying, or they could, as she hoped, give up.
Most did exactly that, but one or two persisted, unable to imagine
how she could survive without their affection. After indulging them as long as she could stand it, she would provoke a fight. It was a tactic of last resort and usually found its opportunity around the subject of men. There were rumors about her and married men, or at least a certain married man. But she acknowledged nothing, coolly keeping gossip at bay and her frustrated friends guessing, just as she kept the lid screwed tight on certain of her other habits, such as how she dealt with stress and tedium and annoyance—how, when everything got too demanding and she really needed a time-out, she headed down to Kaiser Street. Once there, she knew how to appear lost and purposeful in just the right mix to invite one of the Crips or Bloods to approach. Working their best urban hiss, they pitched their wares, offering just about everything—crack, heroin, speed—in a half-baked code that she would politely entertain, though all she ever wanted was ’ludes and grass. Mostly, though, she kept it simple and went straight to her regular guy, Big Baby Dog. He teased her about her outmoded habits and bragged he was the only dopeman worth her time, because the rest of them were second-rate “gangsta” farmed out from Omaha or Wichita, all rejects from somewhere—Chicago, Des Moines. She figured that what he said of them was probably true of him, too—that they’d all been involved in some kind of screwup that caused them to be judged in need of training and sent to learn their trade in less competitive Belger.
Returning from her bedroom in a T-shirt and jeans, her hair wrapped in a towel and her feet bare, she found Bernice relaxing in the armchair near the apartment’s largest window, which, with its teal panel curtains scooped wide, opened onto woods and sky out back. Her jacket was unbuttoned, the scarf loose. She held the empty plate on her lap. “Oreos,” she sighed between chews. “Your momma loved Oreos.”
“You’re right about that.” Janet was making sure the tags of the tea bags dangled neatly out of the mugs before adding the boiling water.
“What are you so mad about, Janet? You got a chip on your shoulder big as a house.”
“Is that what you came by to talk about?”
Janet detoured for more cookies, all the while collecting her resources to tell Bernice to mind her own business. She had no idea why she was living the life she was living, and she didn’t care why, because it was what she wanted, and she was going to do it until she no longer felt like doing it, and if it was weird, well, fine; and if it bothered people, well, fine. With money she’d saved from work, plus her divorce settlement and the unwanted assistance of her mother’s life insurance, along with other funds Isabel had squirreled away, Janet could last at least six more months. She knew how to live even more cheaply if she had to, and if she went through every dime, it was her own fucking business. So they could all just butt out, and Bernice, as their representative, could take her platitudes and her chatty advice and stick them.
“Listen,” Bernice said. “You like animals, don’tcha?”
“I always remember that about you. When you were a little girl, even. Your momma thought you was going to be a veterinarian.”
Arranging the tea on the end table beside the armchair, Janet studied Bernice, trying to see where the hell this tack would take them.
“You remember that, right?” said Bernice. “Because I have three dogs and two cats, you know.”
Janet retreated to the wall. The old woman had a sentimental suck to her. The lights might as well have been dimming on everything but her strangely enchanting eyes. “It’s a real mess,” she said.
Janet pushed her right foot down as if to somehow move off from this moment. “Are they sick or something?”
“No, no. The dogs? No, no, they’re all fine. One of the cats is old, but she still takes no sass off any of ’em. Elmira was the first one I ever had of this batch. She’s got her seniority. And there’s one of the dogs is old, but he’s a tough one. No, no, it’s the Rapture, see. That’s the trouble. You heard about the Rapture?” said Bernice.
Janet decided to try a little tea, unable to imagine what Bernice was up to. “This is what, Bernice?”
“C’mon, now, you’re not gonna tell me you have your head so deep in the sand, you never heard of it. It’s been in the papers—it’s been on the
TV. You have a TV, don’t you?” She sounded annoyed, unable to see a television anywhere.
“It’s in there,” Janet said. “My TV.” She gestured to a pine cabinet that stood against the far living room wall.
“The chair you’re in swivels around. VHS, TV—it’s all inside the cabinet.”
“You got cable?”
“Yeah. Sure. Why?” Janet tightened her lips to hide how absurd the conversation was striking her.
“Look. This is no laughing matter. I feel like you’re just about to break out laughing.”
“I don’t know why we’re talking about my TV.”
“We’re not. It’s just odd you got it locked up.”
“I don’t like to look at it unless I’m going to watch something.”
“Fine. Good. It’s your business where you keep the fool thing.”
Janet struggled to hold a serious expression, while Bernice raised her hand in a vague way. Lifting her glasses to rub the bridge of her nose seemed an afterthought. “I’m talking about the Rapture, okay. This is a matter of Jesus and a bunch of special angels coming to haul some people off body and soul, all the folks who been saved. And this one load is coming out of Belger, and I am one of them going to be taken up.”
Janet took a prolonged sip of tea. “Really.”
“It was in the papers. It was on the TV.”
“It was in the papers that you were going to be taken up?” If Bernice was nuts, the answer to this question might give Janet a way to gauge how nuts.
“No, no. That wasn’t in the papers. That couldn’t be in the papers, Janet. You mean like did it say, ‘Bernice Doorley is being taken up’? No. It was in the papers that the Rapture is coming, and coming soon. That’s what was in the papers. It’s worldwide. We aren’t the only ones. I’m talking about our group over at the Church of the Angels. We’re not the only ones. And it’s all Bible-based. This isn’t one of those cults, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“What are you thinking? Not that it matters.”
“Well, it matters to me, Bernice.”
“That’s what most people get around to saying when push comes to shove. They just get their drawers all knotted up about these cults. At least around here. But there are books you can read if you want to, at least about the idea of it. Not about how Belger fits in, but the overall notion. You know what I’m remembering about you? The way you always did have a way of diggin’ in your heels. Over nothin’ sometimes. Just plain stubborn.”
“And I’m too smart for my own good, right? Don’t know when to be satisfied.”
“There’s some that say that, sure.”
“Well, that’s not how it ever looked to me, let me tell you.”
“Some of us tried to advise your momma. Just pull down your little pants and tan your hide every now and then. Take you down a peg.”
“You know, I think she took that advice.”
“There’s worse things.”
“Actually, I did read an article about that Rapture business, Bernice. This was in the Des Moines paper. And I think there was a cover story in Time
if I remember right.”
“I don’t know.”
“But I didn’t read any of it too carefully, because at the time I didn’t know it pertained to Belger.”
“Well, it pertains to some of us, anyway, and it’s coming tonight.”
“I’m afraid so. Which is why I’m here, as you can imagine.”
“Tonight? Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. That’s the whole thing, because it’s pretty well set I’m one of them. I’m going to be one of them saved. So you see, I’m worried about my animals.”
“Is something going to happen to them?”
“Well, for Pete’s sake, Janet, just use your brain for a second. I’m not certain exactly how it’s going to work, but once I am taken up, they’re going to be there in that house all alone.”
When Janet smiled in spite of trying not to, Bernice looked disgusted by her own inability to rouse the necessary alarm. “Think for a second, will you? Who’s gonna feed them? Can you answer me that? I mean, I’m just going to be sucked right up, and I’ll just be gone, the Lord Jesus looking for the saved ones and dragging us right out of our living rooms, our cars. Airplanes. Buses. Some won’t even know it’s coming, and off they’ll go. Just gone. Their seats empty. If it happened now, you would just be sittin’ there, leanin’ against that wallpaper with that cup of tea up to your mouth, havin’ this conversation with an empty chair.”
The notion of Bernice vanishing had a certain appeal. “Can I ask you something, Bernice?”
“No. Not just this second.” She stood up, turned in a circle, and wiggled out of her jacket. Agitation joined with a series of charged impulses had her more confused than excited, and her ruddy, wrinkled hands smoothed the pleats on her cream-colored blouse again and again. “What about the dogs? What about the cats? Do you see? Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you have no idea. It’s all going to grind to a halt. I mean, the world. The whole shebang. Not tonight—I’m not saying tonight or tomorrow, even—but sometime after. And not too long, either. The timetable is a mystery, so nobody knows when, exactly. But I don’t want them to go hungry in the meantime. So I’m wondering if you might feed them for me. That’s what I’m wondering. If you would make sure they don’t starve. Could you do that for me?”
“What about Irma? Couldn’t Irma take care of all this for you?”
“Irma moved to Wisconsin. Maybe you didn’t know that. All the way to Sayersville.”
Bernice couldn’t stop fussing with her blouse, which was chiffon, Janet noted, and closed above her breasts not by buttons but by a circular brooch. Realizing that Bernice was all dressed up this way because of what she was talking about, the Rapture, Janet took a fresh look at the newly applied clear nail polish, flawless stockings, neatly tied shoes. Bernice had even used powder to fade age spots on her cheeks and forehead. She was all set for her trip, but she seemed to have confused heaven
with a night out on the town. “Sayersville’s not that far,” Janet said. “Just give Irma a call and—”
“Look. There’s no way I can talk to her about this kind of thing. I just can’t. Or anything else, for that matter. She would give me an earful. I can just hear her calling it a buncha bunk and making fun of her crazy old mother. I don’t need that just now. She doesn’t have a religious bone in her body. What I need is to rest assured someone will see to the animals. You know, feed ’em, walk ’em. If I just put food out, don’t you know it’ll all go bad in a day or so, and they won’t eat it, especially Elmira, because she’s such a finicky eater. Anyway, it’ll all just rot and make them sick. Or they’ll run out of water. And General—he’s an old dog—on his last legs, you know. Why should he suffer? You see the problem.”
Even with its bizarre premise, the exchange was beginning to bore Janet. “Sure,” she said. She wanted an Oreo, and picking up one of the last two, she held back the impulse to say that as far as she was concerned, Bernice had more than one screw loose. “I’m just thinking this is pretty last-minute,” she said and smiled.
“Why do you think I’m so stressed out? I was racking my brain—just racking it—when I remembered your mom always talkin’ about how you loved animals. Talked to them. Some big collie, I remember. She even took me once to watch you and we sat in my car watching you talk to that collie. That was a sweet sight. Believe you me, I would rest a lot easier.” Removing one of her earrings, she tended her earlobe where the clasp had left an imprint. “Will you?”
“I want to tell you, Bernice, I don’t think it’s really going to happen.”
“I don’t blame you for taking that attitude, I really don’t, but—”
“I would just be patronizing you.”
“That’ll do just fine. Because I’m sure I would be thinking along those same lines if I was in your shoes. And if it doesn’t happen, then you won’t have to do it. But if it does, what I’m asking is simple enough, don’t you think?”
A wave crawled over Janet, the sensation of unwelcome influence, as if a hypnotist were casting spells to make her let this old woman have her
way. When she shook her head, the negation was mainly of certain incomprehensible aspects of her inner life, and she said, “Sure.”
“That’s good of you, but I knew your momma raised you right. We were friends from the second grade on, you know.” Bernice was nodding, her expression reverent. “We were soul mates, you know.”
“Yes, we were. We often said it. But you probably don’t see that as something likely, either.”
“I’m not so sure I want to rule it out completely.”
“Well, that’s hopeful.”
Some people had soul mates—they had troops of interested angels. Janet had a hypnotist devoted to making certain she obeyed other people’s commands, took on their chores. “That’s how I feel,” she said.
Startled that she’d spoken, she knew better than to continue. “Nothing.”
“Spit it out if it’s important.”
“Okay, then. Because I guess what I’d like us to do, if you’re not busy right now—Do you have something to do?”
The desire in Bernice’s eyes was like water rising over Janet’s head. Looking for a way out, she could only wish for something she could claim as an excuse for her grudging surrender as she said, “Not a thing.”
“Because what would suit me would be if you could follow me over to my house so I could show you everything, such as where the food is kept and the can opener. They all have separate bowls, okay? You could meet them, and I could give you a key to my place. That way I could just put this whole thing out of my mind. Because the way it’s been going, it won’t give me a second’s peace.”
“Okay. Sure.” As she bent to the task of her socks and shoes, she sensed a change in Bernice. She found the old woman fixed on something out the window, where the sunset was a fiery bruise above trees erupting from the hilltop that formed the edge of the horizon.
“Look at that,” Bernice said.
“God’s face.” Her tone was as saccharine and melodramatic as her gaze. “I see Him everywhere lately.”
Janet studied the mixture of elm and fir trees, a pair of the tallest protruding like the prongs of a plug. “Above those two sticking out up there,” she said, pointing. “Is that where you’re looking?”
“He’s there, Janet. Now just tie your shoes and let’s go.”
“Okay.” She tugged the laces tight, a sputtering resentment squeezed out by the hateful willingness she felt to placate this old woman.
“I know I should have come by sooner, so we could have had more time to get everything right.”
“Sure.” With her eyes necessarily downcast, it seemed safe to ask, “What do you think Mom would say about all this?” She straightened impulsively, surprised that she wanted to see Bernice answer.
Bernice raised her eyebrows like she might crack a joke, but then her mood proved more sad than amused. She seemed to labor to remember Isabel accurately. “That’s a tough one.”
“It just occurred to me.”
“I don’t know. I’ve wondered that, but I can’t say. Not for sure. One day I think one way, and on the next I got a whole different opinion. But it’s all guesswork. That’s the thing to keep in mind. I never had a chance to ask Isabel, because I didn’t go to this particular church when she was still with us. But then I started, and now I been learning this and that, and all of a sudden this is what’s happening. But I figure I’ll be seeing Isabel soon.” She picked up and fluffed her jacket, and with her purse under her arm, she was clearly itching to be on her way.