Harrigan squinted at himself in the full-length mirror, thoroughly dissatisfied. He wore a pair of blue jeans with creases up the legs, a hooded sweatshirt, and a new pair of sneakers. He looked like a businessman who’d dressed down for a casual Friday at the office. Even his sneakers seemed too white. As he looked around the room, then back at himself in the mirror, it occurred to him he’d forgotten something—an appointment, an errand of some sort—though it being Saturday, he couldn’t conceive of what it was.
Tearing himself away from the mirror, he went out to the living room, where he immediately felt more at ease among the disorder. The bedroom had seemed artificial, as impersonal as a hotel room; even the books stacked on the bedside tables had seemed as though they’d been selected for display. In the living room, he felt more comfortable among the garments thrown over the backs of chairs and the books and magazines stacked haphazardly on tables; it felt as though some of the room’s disorder might rub off on him. Crossing the room, he turned his attention to the sound system on a shelf in the corner, where an mp3 player was wired to four large speakers discretely arranged so as to fill the room with sound. He clicked through the music directory to Radiohead, the band of choice for disaffected young urban professionals, and played The Bends, an early album from the band’s more tuneful days, which he preferred to their later experiments with song structure and sound. Truly, it amazed him how completely the speakers filled the room. Yet no sooner had he turned away from the player than the audio file began to skip, reducing voice and guitar both to disorienting arrhythmic screeches. He turned back to the mp3 player, paused it, and removed it from the dock, as if to inspect the damage, though it being a digital player, there was no damage he could see.
He returned the player to the dock, attempting to play the same sound file. This time, nothing happened; the player appeared to be stuck. Yet when he scrolled down to a different track, it played without a hitch. Only yesterday, he’d listened to The Bends, and the sound files had worked. He shut the sound system off, too disconcerted to listen to anything. He would have preferred the mp3 player not work at all than that it arbitrarily zap his favorite tracks. He was sitting in an armchair, staring at the room’s reflection on the blank television screen and chewing this over, when his wife and children came in.
The eldest child, Harriet, blond, with her mother’s cheekbones and her father’s brown eyes, started toward him and then stopped halfway across the room, staring at her father, in the posture of a jungle animal stalking its prey. Behind her came Hank, a withdrawn boy of four, tucked uncomfortably into a suit of clothes—brown corduroys and a red and green plaid shirt—that made him seem a comic figure, like a child playing at being grown up. Harrigan’s eyes fixed on his wife, Henrietta, who dispassionately herded the children into the room. She fit elegantly into a casual suit of clothes, the sharp, chiseled contours her body had developed when she’d taken up exercise after childbirth making her form seem precisely geometric and (Harrigan sometimes thought) distinctly masculine. She wore running shoes, jeans, and a shiny white training jacket that zipped up the front and had the manufacturer’s logo emblazoned on the lapel. Even had her body developed the sort of plumpness that sometimes followed childbirth, her face remained mannish, her pointed chin making her profile seem like a crescent moon. Upon entering the room, she looked at Harrigan, and she burst out laughing. “Come on, let’s go,” she said, to husband and children both. Harrigan sat a moment before he stood and followed her out the door.
They lived in a residential neighborhood on a hill overlooking the city. Even pooling their salaries, they’d been lucky to be able to buy. They lived in one of the smaller houses on the block, a two-bedroom in which they’d converted the basement into a third bedroom and family room, though the space was large enough, they might have let it, as many families did. In the garage, Harrigan started the car, and he backed out and parked alongside the curb while his wife loaded the trunk; then she climbed in the passenger’s seat, and his children climbed in the back. To the north, a gray bank of clouds rolled in from the ocean, gradually obscuring the sky. Was it something he’d meant to do at the office? Turning onto the highway, Harrigan watched a thickening cloudbank above the tops of the trees, and it filled him with apprehension.
As they climbed the long grade to the bridge, Harrigan tapped his fingers on the wheel. To one side of the road, filmy gray strands of fog drifted between the trees. Inland, yellow sunlight split the sky in two. The ocean materialized alongside the bridge, an undulating surface like pressed tin, reflecting the gray sky. In the back of the car, Harriet pressed her face to the window, watching a boat tack across the mouth of the bay. On the other side of the car, Hank stared glumly at the water. While he drove, Harrigan mulled over the distance between his children, both so serious, yet in entirely different ways, and he tried to decide which of their dispositions most favored his own. Beside him, Henrietta turned in the passenger’s seat, speaking to the children in an odd singsong of what they would do when they arrived at their destination. Listening to her mother, Harriet clapped her hands and sat forward in her seat. Hank looked at his mother. Then his face relaxed, and he grinned sheepishly at her, as though she’d been privy to whatever he’d been thinking. Who were these people, Harrigan wondered? It seemed scarcely conceivable they were of the same species he was, much less his own family.
“I’m glad we took this break today,” Henrietta said, leaning over to touch Harrigan on the back of his neck. The car climbed the grade on the other side of the bridge, ascending into the maw of a tunnel cut into the side of the mountain. As they entered the tunnel, Harrigan switched on the headlights.
“Me, too,” he replied.
On the other side of the tunnel, they descended into the wealthy northern suburbs. Henrietta looked at her husband. “What’s the matter?”
Harrigan shrugged, trying to dismiss the wave of annoyance he felt at the idea she’d somehow read his thoughts. He looked at the road, four lanes separated by broken white lines. They rounded a curve. At the bottom of a grade, the road straightened out, heading north. “It’s nothing,” he said.
Henrietta sat back in her seat, slumping down so her knees almost touched the dashboard, and she reached above her to grip the headrest with both hands. “You know, that’s what I’ve always liked about you,” she said, staring out the window at a shopping plaza at the foot of an exit ramp. “I never know what’s going on in there.”
Harrigan didn’t say anything; he merely grunted his assent, though curiously, as if it came as a revelation his inscrutability might account in some part for his appeal to his wife. Up ahead, water cut into the land. Houseboats bobbed on the shallows. After the exit for the state prison, the road began to rise, and trees encroached on the shopping plazas as the water receded, disappearing from the roadside.
“It was something that happened this morning,” Harrigan said, glancing in the rearview as he changed lanes. “The iPod in the living room stopped working, right in the middle of a song.” He shrugged, suddenly at a loss. “It was working only yesterday, the same song.”
Henrietta nodded. “So it’s the fact you couldn’t predict what it was going to do that bothers you?”
Harrigan glanced at her across the car. “I suppose so.”
His wife resumed staring out the passenger’s side window, where the water was a distant splash of reflected light at the bottom of a hill. Harrigan gripped the wheel, trying again to remember what he’d forgotten. Was it something financial, something to do with the house? Henrietta turned in her seat, facing the children.
“What do you both want to do when we finally get there?” she said, looking from Hank to Harriet and back again. Harrigan studied their faces in the mirror. In less than five years, he’d managed to establish a successful psychiatric practice, yet his family remained mysterious. How was that possible? And what had he forgotten? How could his mind remain such a blank?
“I want to eat sandwiches,” Harriet said, swinging her legs where she sat in the back. “I want to have our picnic.”
Hank looked uncertainly at his sister.
“And what about you? Don’t you want to do anything?” his mother admonished him.
The child shrugged. When Henrietta reached over the back of the seat and tousled his hair, in spite of himself, he grinned.
“You’re like your father,” Henrietta said, casting another glance Harrigan’s way. “I never quite know what’s going on in there, either.”
A few minutes later, at the foot of an exit ramp, Harrigan veered left, piloting the car up a hill. They emerged onto a plateau overlooking the beach. From this vantage, they could see the pines and the scrub oaks along the water, the twisted shapes of the trees looking like features of some alien landscape. A white mist rose off the water, dissolving into a band of blue, beyond which Harrigan could see the distant cloudbanks rolling toward shore. The red sun peeked like a spot of blood through the clouds.
As they descended toward the coast, cars were parked alongside the road, which wound between dunes toward the parking lot at the state beach. As he piloted the car around the curves, Harrigan contemplated the life unfolding before him, its every good feature the result of the steadiness that was inimical to the qualities his wife praised in him. In 30 years, with luck, they’d have paid off the house—provided, of course, they both kept working; provided they both had their health—by which time, one or both of his children would have completed his or her schooling and would most likely be married (Harrigan felt bittersweet at the possibility). What would the unpredictable man his wife professed to love have done? Would he leave before the process could see itself through to completion? Would he have walked out in the middle of their lives, before either of his children could finish high school?
All at once, he heard the screech of tires, and he was torn from his reverie by his wife’s grip on his forearm. “Hank!” she yelled—his son’s name, his name, too—bracing herself against the dashboard. As Harrigan applied the brakes and swerved to the left, he saw in the rearview the children tumbling across the back seat, Harriet falling headlong into Hank’s arms. When they came to a stop, the corner of their bumper was half a foot from the bumper of a Volvo that had been pulling out of the lot. A woman sat behind the wheel of the car. Slowly, she lifted her hands, looking at Harrigan with a blank, wondrous expression. Much to Harrigan’s surprise, in the passenger’s seat, his wife burst out laughing.
As they pulled into a parking space at the state beach, Harrigan sat behind the wheel, his hands shaking. Henrietta leaned over and kissed him. “Lucky dreamer,” she called him, and then she climbed out of the car and retrieved the picnic basket from the trunk, swinging it by her side as she followed his children over the dunes. As Harrigan watched his son’s blond head disappear, he remembered it was Hank’s seventh birthday, and that was why they’d come to the beach for this picnic in the first place.