Welcome, welcome, come in and make yourselves at home. The host and the hostess usher their guests through the foyer they’ve always wished a bit bigger, but alas, and into the living room for drinks. No, not a new color on the walls, just a fresh coat of the same old white—it’s incredible how quickly things go drab. Dinner is duck, scored, seasoned, and then seared in a cast iron skillet. The wine is burgundy. Dessert, excessive. The conversation turns eventually back to the house itself, a yellow brick ranch, which did you know has a bomb shelter in the basement? The host and the hostess don’t like to make a big deal, but their old friends always bring it up to their new friends, who, having never seen a bomb shelter before, have to—have to. So with their bellies now sloshy, their legs stiffly readjusting to bearing the full weight of their owners, the host and the hostess lead everyone—bring your drinks—out of the dining room and through the kitchen still fragrant with thyme and crisp duck skin. At the top of the basement stairs, the host and the hostess pantomime: after you—no, after you—no, really, after you, I insist. At the bottom of the stairs, they insist also that their guests ignore the disarray in the finished portion of the basement and the awful water-stained drop ceiling that they haven’t yet gotten around to replacing. Ignore, too, the books upon books that the host and the hostess keep meaning to read, the camping gear still not unpacked from last June, the old cat carrier—they aren’t cat people and freely admit they were kidding themselves to think otherwise. The guests follow, beneath the kitchen and dining room, and at the far end of the basement, the host spins the iron wheel on the face of the foot-thick lead door and heaves it open. The hostess yanks a chain to illuminate a narrow, glossy gray-painted corridor that jogs left every fifteen feet or so, sloping deeper and deeper beneath the backyard. The guests follow, until they reach a square room of whitewashed cinderblocks. In the corner closest to where they stand: a generator and a chemical toilet, a showerhead protruding from the ceiling, a chrome foot pedal and a brassy drain in the floor. In the opposite corner: two cots, pushed together, both made up to be slept in. The right hand wall of the shelter is lined with metal shelves stacked with canned goods, gallon jugs of water, crates of pasta, rice, dried beans. A year’s worth, more. The host and the hostess beckon the guests inside. The guests peek furtively at their cell phones and watches, then step into the fluorescent-lit room, which is not what they remembered, not what they imagined. Above them, the neighborhood sprinklers flutter to life in the twilight, and the guests’ own houses wait in silence and darkness. How far above them? The host and the hostess can’t say exactly, but far enough is what the real estate agent had said when she first showed them the house. Far enough. Which, indeed, is why you are here.
The king presides over an empire of spirits. He rules from the highest tower of the remotest outpost. Is he dodging demons? Only in the foggy evenings after dinner, when the wineskin shakes itself awake. The country in the grips of danger, citizens prisoners in their own homes, he was only looking to teach her a lesson.
THE BOMBMAKER’S DAUGHTER
Yesterday, I baked a Father’s Day cake for the men, my own father chief among them, who are up to their necks in pesky special agents and beset by eerie visions of the past, even as they make their deadly predictions for the future. I sit in the next room with the ghost of my mother, reading and listening, while the men convene around my kitchen table and eat cake, talking at first of children and wives, then psychiatrists and ex-girlfriends, bongs and bellbottoms and train voyages across our ragged country, which has sent its most revered intelligence talents, tap-dancing and violating, after my father and these men, who speak with confidence of finding themselves, of brotherhood and action. But even in this steel and microchip jungle, assassinations are no less dangerous than ever. God still holds us in his grasp, and I’m no less skeptical that he will provide.