It is night in suburban New Jersey—real, rural night, a darkness I haven’t seen for some time. There are stars. The house is low: two storeys and a basement, a wide deck out the back overlooking a leaf-peppered swimming pool, all the detritus of middle-class life surrounding: barbeque grill, bird fountains, half-finished DIY projects, tarp-shrouded mysteries. The trees thicken and deepen into black. Through the double garage, itself a museum of tools and sentimentalities, the living room opens up.
Roxanne is planted firmly on (or rather deep within) an armchair. Her eyes are down, glued resolutely to her iPhone screen. She’s going through Facebook I think, evidence of the social media coup I’ve heard the old have pulled on the young. Across from her, the television blares. I have claimed the sofa opposite, trying my best not to perch, aware of my tinnitus despite the noise and wondering whether I should be making conversation. Instead, I watch a glistening reporter on the TV speak about the recent shooting in Las Vegas. That great American checklist hovers Biblical above the screen: Donald Trump is mentioned, the emergency services are praised, thoughts and prayers are offered up in industrial quantities, and the gun control line (ever-coiled in the background) prepares to spring. Roxanne begins to play a video on her phone, and for a few moments the report is obscured beneath garbled lo-fi tones. On the sofa perpendicular to Roxanne’s chair, Claude is twitching. I watch his jaw clench and unclench.
A harrowed-looking woman appears on the TV. Ribbons exclaiming headlines criss-cross the bottom of the screen, covering her hands and the steering wheel of her car. Advertising slogans appear and are gone just as suddenly. Her eyes are beyond red—a kind of hollow purple, blotches of white speaking of the translucence there, the bruises all around. This woman, we are told, is a survivor. She tells the camera (just her phone, I think—a Skype or Facetime call) about the small window hundreds of feet up in the Mandelay Bay hotel where one man set up a small arsenal of modified semi-automatic rifles, kicked out the window, and opened fire on the crowds below. The news correspondent doesn’t stop nodding. At last, he interrupts her, as he knows he must: “And have you spoken to your children? Do your children know what happened?”
And there it is: the money-shot. Like the World Trade Centre, like the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, like a hundred thousand unnamed buildings beyond this nation’s borders, the woman’s face begins to collapse in on itself. Slowly at first—tremors ripple across the brow and the chin—and then all at once, until her words are lost completely. The camera zooms. Words were never wanted here in the first place.
Roxanne is apparently a California native, but her accent is pure New Jersey. She is in her mid-sixties and lives as an old hippy, taking trips and socialising with young travellers. It was she who agreed to host me, she who picked me up from the strange stillness of the Ringwood library’s parking lot in the early dark of morning, and she who gave me beer and cooked me an omelette when we arrived. She is lovely and, in her own strange way, childish—there is a certain naivety about her, an adolescent flair that must once have kept her young. Now it just makes her seem frightened. It’s difficult to resist throwing her in with any number of lost movie grandmas.
Claude, meanwhile, is a little younger, and French. He has absorbed the American conversational tendencies—that is, he asks you about yourself, nods for a few seconds, then proceeds to talk about himself for as long as you’ll let him. I learned that he’s from Paris, that he’s been in the US for twenty years, that he met Roxanne while travelling in the seventies (looking for—I shit you not—“the root of the blues”), and that he, unlike his wife, has resisted the allure of young travellers and old, unchanged dreams. That is not to say he goes gently into that suburban twilight; on our first meeting, Claude was stood atop a stool, a torn-out chandelier in his hands. “Hold this, will you,” he said, not looking at me, his face red. Of course, I did, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to stop my arms shaking as he performed surgery on the light fitting. Now, at 11 P.M. in front of the television, he finally cracks. I watch it happen.
“For God’s sake Roxanne, do you have to do that now? There are people trying to watch the news. You’re behaving like a fucking teenager.”
Roxanne, to her credit, steps up. She says nothing, but pouts, letting the video play agonisingly on, the tinny shrieks of some internet prankster carving wrinkles into Claude’s cheeks.
I keep my eyes on the TV screen. I hear—or imagine I hear—Claude’s teeth snapping against one another. Seizing the remote, he turns the TV up obnoxiously loud.
Normally a friendly, softly spoken woman who would probably describe herself as “bubbly” on Ashley Madison, Roxanne transforms. “Oh, grow up Claude,” she says, almost spitting, “stop pretending you give a rat’s ass about anything that happens outside of your office.” She squirms on the chair, her legs flopping over the plush armrest. Smartphone forgotten for the moment, she glares at her husband, small eyes flashing in the half-light.
Claude splutters for a few seconds before leaning back into the sofa. He has chosen, he tells me with his heavy sigh, to take the moral high ground. He mutters something in French, and an unsteady silence follows. I swallow. “Now, Fred, as I was saying”—and here he glares at Roxanne, who is already back to her phone—“America in the seventies was a very different place. Just look at these pictures—let me see if I can get the Apple TV working.”
And without a hint of irony, Claude cuts off his precious newsreader. The final image is of a man wandering forlornly about the ruined foundations of his burnt-out Californian bungalow, the camera pushing its zoom to the limit, the golden face elusive. The reporter’s voice is flat. “He’s probably lost everything. Maybe his kids, or a pet. Perhaps the ashes of a loved one. Imagine. Imagine.”
Claude is grinning, white teeth sharp and sudden. “Got it,” he says. The picture changes.
Election season has come to New Jersey. You can tell by the commercials, themselves a tourist attraction: where else but America does television treat its viewers with such open contempt? Floating above the insults each candidate throws at the other in the political infomercials is a strange talking point: the issue of the bears. Each year, New Jersey lifts the ban on bear hunting for a single week, opening the floodgates to the waves of hunters and would-be action heroes who apparently make up the majority of the state’s electorate. The black bears who wander down from the mountains and forest and state parks find themselves suddenly assailed, and supposedly learn a hard lesson about straying too close to civilisation. Of course, the glaring oversight is that the bears are hardly running back home to tell their friends not to go to Mahwah because gee, the humans sure are pissed—they’re killed, and the next bear is none the wiser.
The candidates’ stances on the annual bear hunt are comically predictable. “I say no more bear hunts!” the grey-haired, harried-looking Democrat announces to the cameras. “Long live the bear hunt!” the sharp, dead-eyed Republican cries (why do Republicans always look like Republicans?), “build a wall around the mountains—and make the bears pay for it!”
Claude, quiet and clear-eyed now that Roxanne has gone to bed, tells me about his own close encounter. It is after midnight, and, absurdly, we have been playing guitar in Claude’s office for the past hour or so—me, clumsy variations of the one blues scale I know, Claude a symphony of furious jazz licks buoyed, I think, by an almost teenage angst.
“I was out with the dog,” he says, gesturing to the dark trees beyond the deck, the barbecue, the pool. “He was—well, you know, he was doing his business, when he starts barking.” Claude isn’t looking at me—his eyes are fixed on the space just above my shoulder. New Jersey’s moon is round and white and close. Crickets and cicadas chirp in the darkness.
Claude’s voice is barely above a whisper. “He was barking and wouldn’t come back, so I went over. And there it was, a few feet away—huge, black, claws like kitchen knives. It was just stood there, looking past me. It didn’t move. I’ve never been so terrified.” He finally looks at me, and his face cracks into a smile. “Next day, I bought a gun.”
And without saying goodnight, Claude gets up. With one last look at the shadowed thicket beyond his garden, he turns and is gone.