Right away, everything is not Oliver. From the bright confidence in his eyes to his actual posture. Tracy almost says something to Ever, even thinks to say it to Baum instead, someone who’s known Oliver longer. He doesn’t stand like Oliver stands, doesn’t hold his head the same way, doesn’t slouch. The word that comes to Karen’s mind is present. Oliver has never seemed so in the moment. He’s not only standing in the door jamb of the farmhouse he inherited, but he’s nowhere else in the world. You think you know a guy. You certainly think you know the little things that mark a friend, the characteristics that make it so you could recognize that person on a dark street after the bars get out. Rodney’s actually had that experience with Oliver. About to enter the subway station on Bleecker he saw a familiar silhouette trudging uptown. He called out to him. Oliver! And Oliver turned around and the two slurred under the moon for some time before eventually going their separate ways. But now here…
Tracy doesn’t say anything. None of them do. The seven of them stand struck on the enormous, gorgeous porch of the blue and white farmhouse, the mid-Michigan sky huge above them, above the roof, as if making sure the place looks its best for Oliver’s big city friends. And that’s part of the jar, part of the surprise: there is a sense that Oliver has cleaned up for their visit. That he’s not only prepared to hang out; he’s ready to host. It’s so far from the Oliver they all know him to be that Connie laughs. Because she has to. Because someone absolutely has to break the mood; here we’ve all been talking about Oliver for weeks, worrying ourselves into a tizzy, circling back to the same possibly overblown examples (Has Oliver always used the word “delighted”?), ramping up to the decision to leave the city, to check on him. And while I was thirty-thousand feet in the air, the seven of them experienced the build-up of the long drive, through Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, things getting more tense, less spoken, with each state. And here, after the coaster of a climb, after all the gossip, the jokes, the late night epiphanies, here, now, at the peak… here stands Oliver Carpenter himself, the man, no longer just our idea of the man, and he’s carrying himself as uncharacteristically as he sounded on the phone. So Connie laughs. Because with every serious situation there’s that period of time before it gets serious. Before the full-bore reality of change sets in. And so like they’ve been sling-shot across the country in three cars, the seven of them like wax figure caricatures of themselves, archetype-personalities, seven men and women maxed out on their own identities and entirely sure of who they are and, more importantly, who Oliver is supposed to be, here they stand on a farmhouse porch facing a friend who looks better than he’s ever looked before.
“You made it,” Oliver says.
Rodney actually flinches at the sound of his voice. This isn’t the same shy speech Rodney is used to, whether spoken at noon or at four AM on the streets of Manhattan. This voice, Rodney thinks, has strength.
“Hello, Olly,” Morris says.
Tracy silently thanks God for Morris. Because of course Morris would care the least about the visible change in anybody but himself. Morris, his hair practically pinned back for having driven ten hours with the top down, crosses the remaining floorboards, grabs Oliver by the wrist, pulls him to his body, and says, “Fuckin missed you, man.”
And for a moment it feels like Morris has extended an olive branch to someone who had no idea they were in a war. Oh, how strange, how awkward, to come so far, to talk so much… is there anything more embarrassing to a thespian than an anticlimax?
“You look good,” Morris says, patting Oliver on the stomach. And this, even this, looks wrong to Tracy. Oliver of Old would’ve crouched with the stomach-pat, would’ve bent with it. But this man here? The one with the late sun shining in his eyes? Oliver might as well be on the same football team as Morris for how well he takes the masculine show of affection.
“Hey, Olly,” Connie says. “Great place.”
And then everyone’s talking because, perhaps, the shock is over. The curtains have parted. After weeks of speculation, here’s Oliver, standing center stage in the door jamb of Carpenter’s Farm.
Baum and Karen step to him and give him a mutual hug. Rodney waits his turn, then does the same. Ever gives him a solid punch to the shoulder. It’s only Tracy who, if Oliver were by some unfathomable chance studying his friends to the same degree they’re studying him, would appear odd to him. Yes, by all accounts, Tracy is not herself, either.
She’s taxed. Isn’t sure what to feel. Because the relief at seeing him, flesh and blood, isn’t whole. Yet, there is a sense of having overdone it. Dramatized. She can’t explain that exactly and she wishes, momentarily, that Oliver were behind glass, that the seven of them were gathered around a picture of their friend on social media, so she might voice the ordinarily hyperbolic thoughts she has.
They go a little something like this: I’m still not sure.
But of what? What is Tracy sensing exactly?
Oliver is looking at her, smiling. He’s clasping hands and greeting.
“Hi, Oliver,” she says. It strikes her how fresh faced he appears. How clean.
Is this what getting out of the city can do for someone? And if so, shouldn’t they all move?
“Tracy,” he says.
He steps to her and for a moment she isn’t sure how to proceed: do they clasp hands, hug, or do nothing at all?
What would she normally do with Oliver?
“How was the drive?” he asks.
“Good,” she says. “Long.”
He smiles. It’s so genuine as to be alarming.
Then, Morris is crossing the front door’s threshold and Tracy feels a foreign urge to reach out, to take Morris by the blazer sleeve, to stop him from what suddenly feels like a ritualistic opening ceremony, as if, by entering Carpenter’s Farm, Morris has sealed their fate, every one of them.
She actually reaches out. As Baum and Karen make mention of the porch, as Connie jokes about a farm with no animals, as Rodney now also steps inside, Tracy actually raises a hand, only to have it taken by Ever who winks at Oliver and says, “Thanks in advance for having us. Can’t wait to drink you out of house and home.”
“There’s not much,” Oliver says. “Just some brandy in the pantry.”
“Then we’ll have to make a run,” Ever says. “Just like in the city.”
Oliver smiles. “A little different than the city out here. But yes.”
Inside, Rodney is doing a better job of managing the oddity that is currently Oliver than Tracy is. He’s following his lover through the foyer into a quaint, no, adorable living room that almost feels like a set. It’s not that it’s so well decorated or so particularly put together, but the combination of couch, rug, items on the mantle, and the photos on the wall harken to the thousand stages Rodney has stepped onto seconds before breathing deep and becoming someone else. It’s a welcome feeling. Helps combat the pinch of anxiety he felt upon hugging Oliver, the sense that somehow Oliver Carpenter has done better for himself, is closer to achieving his life’s dreams, all of their dreams, by moving as far as possible from what they all know to be the epicenter of theater.
“Who are these mugs on the wall?” Morris asks. Morris has noted the difference in Oliver, too, but, so what? Good for him. May all Morris’s friends get some much needed rest and relaxation and turn their lives around. Poor Oliver went through legitimate hell when Donna dumped him and nobody knows that better than Morris, Morris who sat with Oliver on the bare mattress in the stone square that passed for a bedroom in Alphabet City, Morris who literally held Oliver as Oliver cried, as grief visibly distorted Oliver’s face, as Morris stroked his friend’s hair and said, You’re going to get through this. Everyone does. Morris who, after leaving Oliver in as good a state as he believed possible for the time, texted the others in a group thread, telling them Oliver had it bad, real bad, and that all hands had to be on deck for this one.
And now? Why feel anything but wonderful for discovering Oliver stands up straight, smiles, and speaks with more durability than he’s ever spoken before?
“Family,” Oliver says. “Can you believe it? Been related to these people all my life.”
The joke makes them laugh. All but Tracy and Karen, Karen who actually tells herself not to look across the living room at Tracy because if she does, if their eyes connect, it could ignite an entire and endless series of silent questions that will last the duration of this overnight visit to a friend.
Instead, Karen turns to the photos. Baum is over by the fireplace, on his knees, his head inside the flue, exclaiming how well built it is, as Karen gets lost in the eyes of the man smiling back at her from behind the glass. Older man. Clearly works with his hands, under the sun. But is he smiling? And how old is he? It’s hard to tell. One of those faces, perhaps. Is the man happy here, content to have his picture taken? Is he bothered by it? What year is this? How exactly is Oliver related to this particular man?
“That’s my great uncle,” Oliver says.
His voice, so unlike his own that Karen briefly believes it’s someone she hadn’t noticed was in the house, is suddenly at her side.
She can’t stop her immediate reaction, which is to jump a little.
“I scared you,” he says.
This is silly, Karen thinks. All this worry. It’s one thing to be dramatic around a table in a loft in New York City. It really is another to bring it out in a friend’s farmhouse so far away. She thinks perhaps she should take a quarter of the Xanax in her pocket. The bit she keeps just in case and, if she’s honest with herself, the bit she takes sometimes whether she needs it or not.
“I’m told he was quiet,” Oliver says. “Hardly ever spoke at all.”
Ever is there now, redirecting the flow, unintentionally, asking Oliver the square footage of the farm.
“Twenty-three hundred,” Oliver says. “Not including the barn, of course.”
All seven friends look to the living room windows for the first time. They go silent with the view, seeing, really seeing, where Oliver has spent these past six months. The fields, difficult to make out, hard to get a real read on, appear endless. Or perhaps it’s the sudden clouds above, or the line of willows that create a second, closer, horizon.
“A lot to take care of,” Baum says. As ever the stagehand. As ever the logician.
“The Farmer helps,” Oliver says.
Tracy and only Tracy notes the capital “F.”
“You gotta get lonely out here, man,” Rodney says, seemingly oblivious to what Oliver just said.
Oliver steps closer to the glass. Everyone catches the pride in his posture.
“Who’s the Farmer?” Tracy asks. Because she has to. Because this keeping-it-all-in thing can only go so far, so deep, before she’s not actually here, before she’s dedicating herself to playacting for the duration of this visit to a friend.
Oliver, still eying the fields, smiles.
“He’s wonderful. He tends the crops. Did it for my grandfather, too.”
Tracy feels some relief. Finally, here’s something that makes sense. It’s weird enough to accept a hundred and eighty degree change in a friend over the course of six months, but to swallow the idea he would know how to suddenly farm is simply too much.
“What’s out there?” Baum asks. “Looks like wheat.”
Does it? None of them are sure. Ever squints and brings his nose closer to the glass.
“It’s a lot of stuff,” Oliver says. “But come on, let me show you the kitchen.”
Tracy isn’t sure what she was expecting of Oliver’s farmhouse, but this isn’t it. Back when he lived in Alphabet City, Oliver had no furniture in his bedroom at all and only a tattered two-person loveseat he’d found on Avenue B in his living room. The stove was in the living room, too, and the bathroom was only big enough for the toilet and a standing shower, the bottom of which was always yellow. His clothes were always strewn about and it was easy to identify every pair of pants, socks, and shirt he owned. But this? The kitchen counter is made of the same nice wood the large table is. French doors lead to a wood deck that overlooks the fields and the sink is clear of almost all dishes. At the center of the table are salt and pepper shakers and white flowers. The two long sides of the table are set with napkins and silverware. This may not be Shangri-La, it’s simple in its way, but it’s a far cry from a filthy studio occupied by a person who barely clung to adulthood as recently as six months ago. The first word that comes to Tracy’s mind is money. The second is, How? Because to have things, one must first have money.
Did Oliver inherit the forks and knives, too?
As Baum asks about the electrical outlets, as Morris and Rodney play house by the stove, Tracy is having a hard time reconciling this Oliver with the needy man she knows him to be. There’s always been something childlike about Oliver, despite his obvious intelligence, and now, because they’re on a farm, and because Oliver owns the place, she thinks of the kid from The Twilight Zone episode called “It’s a Good Life.” Even that kid was still a kid. But does Oliver need them, us, his New York parents, anymore? It strikes Tracy that he didn’t ask for them to come visit. They asked him if they could.
After we all asked each other if we should.
At this point, the seven of them in the kitchen, as Baum opens the stove and Karen comments on the cupboards, I’m in an Uber on my way to my hotel in St. Louis. I’m thinking about the inane presentation I have to make for a job I care nothing about and I’m wishing I was with them. I text Tracy, asking how it’s going. Her response:
The driver points out the fabled Arch and while it’s temporarily interesting, I’m wondering what Tracy means exactly. I know her better than to assume those two words tell the whole story. Tracy likes to explain. She likes to connect with language. So do I. I do a little math and I figure they’ve probably only just arrived at Oliver’s farm and so I don’t pry any further. But I want to.
As I wonder, Morris is checking the cupboards for alcohol. Like we’d all do back in New York, visiting a friend’s new place. First things first: cupboards and medicine cabinets. What do you got here that can get us fucked up? A bottle of booze and a bottle of Vicodin might lead to impromptu theater, might lead to the best performance of your life.
But there aren’t any bottles in the kitchen.
“You dry, Olly?” Morris asks.
At this point, Tracy starts to feel actual relief. Because maybe, just maybe, the transformation she’s witnessing in a dear friend is not wholly unexplained after all. Maybe, just maybe, Oliver cleaned up. It’s not like he was ever found with a needle in his arm in a gutter in Brooklyn, but still, like I said, we drink. So maybe what Tracy is seeing here, for the first time really in person, is a new life, crafted by someone who felt they needed a new life. And while this is a complex thing to consider, it settles her a little right now. Because it explains things.
“Just a little brandy in the pantry,” Oliver says.
All heads turn to the pantry door in unison. As if it just suddenly appeared. It’s the old school variety: a walk-in, slatted doors, the kind you could stand up in, spy on the people sitting down to dinner.
“Brandy?” Morris says. “Gross.”
“Is there a place to make a run?” Rodney asks.
“There is,” Oliver says. “Bookman’s General. Four miles that way.” He points. “A straight line there and back.”
Tracy can’t help but think of Oliver as a crooked line. A right angle. A sharp turn.
Rodney laughs. They all do. There’s some relief in this. Bookman’s General. They’d almost forgot there might be something else, anything else, out here in the middle of nowhere. And whatever Oliver has become, he’s not forcing it on the others. House rules are one thing, but certain regulations make for a long night.
“We’ll bring our stuff in,” Karen says. “Then someone can go for a run.”
“Yes,” Oliver says. “A lot to show you still.”
“What’s this?” Baum asks. Baum who inspects every room he ever enters. He’s standing in front of the open refrigerator, the door he opened himself, pointing to shelves packed with what looks like prepared meals.
“Dinner,” Oliver says.
“You made dinner?” Tracy asks. It’s one thing to speak with more confidence, another to clean up the house, but to prepare dinner for the rest of them?
“I did,” Oliver beams. He turns to her and it feels to Tracy like a stage-light has turned on. “I seem to be surprising you at every turn,” he says.
Has he noticed? Really? And isn’t that in and of itself, Oliver noticing anything but the deep recess of his own philosophical tangle, frighteningly unlike him?
Tracy smiles and feels something close to earnest warmth for him. For fuck’s sake, her friend is doing well.
“You are,” she says.
“Good,” Oliver says. He winks.
Then they’re outside, all of them but Oliver, opening their car doors and popping their trunks. They’re only staying for a night, long drive back, so there isn’t much to bring in. Meeting Ever halfway into the backseat, both leaning in from opposite doors, Tracy suddenly feels bad for not having brought Oliver a house warming present. Do they have anything on them they can pretend was a gift?
“Let me think,” Ever says, their noses inches from one another under the roof of the car. Tracy feels safer suddenly. It surprises her. Her and Ever alone. Like maybe they should leave. “I suppose I could give him my watch?”
“Do you feel weird about this?” She asks. Because, dammit, he’s her boyfriend and she should be able to ask him of all people anything she likes.
“About what?” Ever asks. But he should know. Because it’s all we talked about for weeks. Because they just saw Oliver for the first time in six months and the transformation is remarkable if nothing else.
Tracy remains calm. Tries to. It’s silly, isn’t it? And the blank look on Ever’s face acts as a mirror; she can see herself turning red in it.
Still, she doesn’t quite let it go.
“Honey,” Tracy whispers. The others are opening and closing trunks, calling out to one another. “This isn’t natural. Is it?”
Ever looks like he’s considering this. But is he just humoring her?
“It’s good,” he finally says. “He’s doing better.”
Ever nods. “Sure, it’s a little weird.”
“Wouldn’t it be like you coming home one day and I suddenly only dress in black, my hair hanging over my face, I don’t say a word?”
Ever squints at her, as if trying to see her this way.
“That sounds kinda–”
“Ever? Is it weird or am I crazy?”
Ever breathes deep.
Tracy lets this settle in. Truly tries to feel fine about it. But when she pulls out of the back seat, blankets in hand, when she rises and closes the back door and hears that someone else has closed their door at the same time, when she turns and sees Karen standing beside her own car, blankets in her arms, too, Tracy sees the mirror image in Karen’s eyes, as if Karen just asked Baum the same thing. And the two women hold each other’s gaze for a beat before looking back to the farmhouse, as the sky darkens for the first time above it, as the others laugh and talk and carry their things up the wide front steps to the big front porch.
And me? I’m pulling into the hotel when this happens. And while Tracy hasn’t texted me back, I do receive a message from Baum.
Place is pretty amazing, he writes. I respond:
Olly seems good?
I watch the three dots running, you know, impatient. Not exactly sure why. And while I haven’t been told the story yet at that point, and haven’t seen Oliver myself, I’m anxious for that response.
Better than ever, Baum texts me, just as the man behind the counter at the Red Roof says to me, “Just you? Only you?”