The kitchen table is a slab of oak on spindly legs that scoot and moan as Asher drags them across the linoleum. Coming home he'd found the table ten feet from where she liked it to be and wedged firmly against the door to the laundry room. Once he's got the table clear he opens the door and finds his boy kneeling primly in front of the dryer, watching his little Velcro shoes tumble and thump behind the round window. "Look," he says, like Asher had only stopped by for a chat. "They're dancing."
Asher straps the warm shoes onto the boy's feet and then deposits him into the backseat of the car. They drive forty minutes and park in a pay lot six blocks from the hospital. Asher aims the windshield at a billboard of an oversized doughnut—sprinkled, chocolate frosted—so the boy will have something to look at, and then he hands him some napkins off the floor mat and a popped jar of pickles and tells him not to open the door for anybody. He leaves the windows cracked, locks the doors, and hurries up the sidewalk.
In the hallway outside her room he consults with her doctor, discussing what the physician repeatedly calls "her condition" while Asher nods mechanically, half listening and half monitoring the effect of this news on his insides, curious that he feels no more than a clock. He finds her lying in a bed with rails, her head stuck to a pillow as she stares past him with eyes like two navy buttons. Her body is swallowed by a shapeless paper gown and hooked by wires to inquisitive machines. In the lobby Asher buys a disposable camera from a vending machine and stands in front of her bed saying, "Honey, over here, look at me," until her head swivels. The shutter flicks and she blanches in the flash. He wants to have this frozen in glossy 4x6, so he can simply slide it over when she comes asking, Why.
Asher gets back in the car and shuts the door. In the backseat, the boy watches him closely while he sits a long time with both hands [End Page 62] on the wheel. He has not brought the boy's mother. "Daddy?" he says, then stops, the question inflating in his mouth. Where. Where is. But the words stay, taut as rubber behind his teeth. After a minute he swallows them. Asher smiles at him thinly in the rearview, approving his choice, then makes the car cough to life.
If everything that could be is, then somewhere there's another Asher on another Earth who still has a wife. It is a Thursday afternoon, and in this alternate life he would have shaved. He would be three dozen miles from here with clean hair, sitting at a desk in his company's headquarters, sock-footed, having his shoes polished as he flips through an onionskin schematic, making decisive strokes with his pencil, his mind occasionally drifting to the stiff eraser in his mouth, which he would lick. It would never occur to him to wonder about other Ashers in other lives, versions of himself who might be trapped in the jar of his dirty kitchen by the rain.
There is a knife in his hand, angled like it means to do harm to the stalk of celery on the cutting board, but for the life of him Asher can't remember why. His mind gropes backward for a moment, struggling to establish continuity, but then it flops down after minimal effort. A whole minute pulls through him as he listens to the rain scatter on the roof, trying to scrape a patch of his arm hair with the blade. If she were to come through the door this instant, she would be disappointed first and foremost by what he has done to her kitchen. It is spattered, heaping, filmy. He has never seen this many dirty dishes in a sink—they are crammed in like jigsaw pieces. A fruit fly wobbles over to him and he flicks at it with his knife until...