Because Lena and Warren had settled down in their college town, moments from the past would occasionally flash out at them, much as artifacts surface from the earth after a hard rain. Debating with Warren over a used trike at a yard sale one day, Lena suddenly realized that she was standing before the very house she had flopped in one distant summer with a tribe of youths. Behind that bland stucco exterior she had widely shared her toothbrush, embroidered a pillow with the face of Chairman Mao, and spent a week in her room with an energetic Algerian who turned out to be a cocaine dealer.
“What’s wrong?” Warren asked. “Too old and crummy?”
“No, it’s okay.”
“What are you staring at?”
“Oh, nothing,” she said, turning away.
Another time, Lena happened to spot a hunched figure on a corner waiting for a traffic light, and once again a lost memory began to emerge. No way! Inevitably aged, with glasses and half as much hair, but otherwise no mistaking him. Little Miller! She rolled past slowly, confirmed the sighting, and that evening after dinner, when she and Warren fell into their nightly routine of kitchen clean up, said, “Today I saw a weird guy I used to know. Did I ever tell you about Little Miller?”
Warren, a man who liked to eat large drifts of peanut butter on toast and drive around listening to tapes he’d made with his brother when they were fifteen and had a band called “Mr. Peabody” said, “You’ve hardly told me anything. Who was he?”
The children screamed and fought. But she didn’t have to run to them immediately, did she? Better if they worked it out themselves, and so she began to explain.
The house with fruit trees and flowers had started as hers and Tom’s (her only boyfriend before Warren). They found it together, amazed by their luck. They were juniors, but having a life together off campus was all they cared about. They bought a set of china at the Goodwill and became known for their lavish dinner parties, until their budget gave out. No choice but to rent out the back bedroom they’d been using as a dumping ground. After dozens of calls came in, they settled on Yori, a Grateful Dead-loving free spirit with a Smith Barney account.
Soon Yori was joining them for meals, and before long, Yori’s friend Miller was hanging around most of the time, too.
Miller was a cipher. He was as small as a child, but looked old like a troll if you peered into his eyes. He wasn’t affiliated with the University. Yori said he’d met him downtown at a free concert. He said Miller was down on his luck and that he wanted to help him out for awhile. Miller clearly didn’t mind, happily playing the sidekick, laughing at Yori’s jokes, wearing his cast offs and accompanying him around town in the hand-me-down Volvo from Yori’s parents. Lena both felt sorry for Little Miller and disliked him. It was annoying he was always there waiting for his next meal, and his only possession was a dirty little backpack filled with crummy little things.
Even worse, he had started sleeping in the corner of the living room every night, emitting a slightly fungal smell. The house that she and Tom had loved so much had been invaded. Finally the day came when Lena and Tom asked Yori if he’d stop bringing Little Miller around so much, and to their surprise, Yori didn’t mind at all, as if looking for an excuse to get rid of him. That evening, while Lena and Tom were at a poetry reading at the bookstore, Yori delivered the blow. And when they returned home, Little Miller was finally out of their lives.
But so was Lena’s jewelry! And other things as well. Lots of things. Her stereo. Her clock. Some books. Even a small framed watercolor of an emu.
Furious that he’d been kicked out of the house, Little Miller had clearly gone on a rampage, looting and pillaging. They pounded on Yori’s bedroom door, and found him hanging upside down on the anti-gravity table he’d gotten from his parents for his birthday, listening to the Dead on headphones.
“What the hell happened?” Tom said.
“Did the deed,” Yori replied. “He was cool about it.”
“Are you sure he was cool?” Lena cried. “A lot of our stuff is gone.”
“He ripped us off!” Tom said.
Yori loosened his ankle straps and did a flip off the table. “Miller wouldn’t do that. Miller?”
Lena didn’t like to be accusing her housemate’s friend of stealing, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the little troll swiping a few things for revenge. He could sell the stuff at the flea market, make ends meet for a few days more.
“Why did we ever get a housemate anyway,” Lena cried that night. All her favorite necklaces, rings, and bracelets were gone, things she’d been given by friends and family over the years.
Next morning, as they sipped their first cups of coffee, there came a knock at the back door. To their amazement, Little Miller stood on the stoop. The nerve!
“Hey, I came by to get my sweater,” he said.
“Did you take our stuff?” Lena accused.
“You know! All the stuff, everything!”
“I didn’t take anybody’s stuff. I just want my sweater.”
Tom appeared behind her. “Get the hell out of here.”
“Hey man, my sweater!”
By now Little Miller had worked his way into their living room, but Tom was blocking him. “Give us back our stuff or get out.”
Little Miller tried to dart past him, but Tom was much bigger and he pushed Little Miller roughly.
“This is uncool!” Little Miller yelled.
“I said get out.” Tom shoved Miller so hard, Miller fell backwards. Then Tom lunged at him, and tore off Miller’s little knapsack.
Tom yelled, “Open it! See if anything’s in there!”
Lena didn’t like seeing Little Miller struggling on the ground and didn’t want to paw through his backpack, either. When she failed to respond, Tom grabbed the grimy pouch and shook it out onto the floor. A few t-shirts, an orange, some pens, some underwear, and a bag of potato chips fell out.
“You jerk!” Miller gathered up his belongings and tried to stuff them back in. “I hate you guys!” He looked as if he might cry. But to Lena’s surprise, Tom still had no mercy. He began to kick Miller. He kicked his arm. He kicked him in the side. And when Miller stood up to put on his pack, Tom pushed him back out the door, sending him flat on the ground.
“You’re going to be sorry!” cried Miller.
“God! Did you have to be so mean to him?” she said.
“He stole our stuff!”
“So what!” Lena said.
“What do you mean, so what?”
Though they had been together almost three years, Lena and Tom didn’t last long after that episode. Lena was haunted by the way Tom had behaved. When they broke up, she even told him it was partly because of Little Miller.
Funny thing, because a year later, Lena ran into Tom at a Chinese restaurant downtown. He was with his new girlfriend, but he swaggered over to say hello anyway. He said, “Hey, by the way, remember that TA we used to have over for dinner sometimes, Richard, from Philosophy? Remember his spacey girlfriend Sunshine? Remember how we thought she was just using him? Turns out, Sunshine is the one who stole our stuff. She and some other guy. Richard found your emu picture in a box of junk in his garage, so you can get it from him sometime. What do you think about that?”
Lena gasped, “Poor Little Miller!”
The children were quiet now, and Lena was decidedly more relaxed. “So anyway,” she said, “I always felt like the whole thing happened for a reason. That Little Miller was a good luck figure for me.”
“Good god, why?” Warren said.
“Well, because if I hadn’t seen Tom attack him like that, I might not have realized how violent Tom was before it was too late.”
“Oh, so that’s the only reason you didn’t spend your life with Tom?”
“I doubt it, but who knows.”
“But,” Warren said, “maybe if there hadn’t been a Little Miller, Tom would never have reacted that way to anything.”
Lena shook her head. “No. It was just a matter of time.”
Warren said, quite irritably, “Who knows. If Little Miller was hanging around here, I’d probably attack him too.”
“You’d talk to him, you’d tell him to leave. Sure. But you wouldn’t go crazy like that. I know you wouldn’t.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Warren hissed.
“Evie needs a bath,” he sighed.
After that, a peculiar thing began to occur. Lena began to see Little Miller all over the place. Morning, noon, and night, in all different parts of town, she spotted him shuffling down the street with his backpack. Uncanny. It was as if a whole army of them had been unleashed, pacing the boundaries of her world.
There wasn’t much to complain about in Lena’s California town. The weather was clement year round. A little foggy sometimes in summer, and in the fall an occasional wind whipped in from the sea. Storms in winter. Nothing exceptional. Nothing except earthquakes rattling china cabinets and knocking down a chimney here and there. Nothing was perfect. How could she complain about a season of Little Millers?
“It’s weird, I keep seeing that Little Miller guy,” she told Warren one evening during their kitchen routine.
“I thought he was your good luck charm,” Warren said.
“Now I’m starting to feel like he’s some kind of curse.”
“Should I go beat him up?” Warren said, scouring a frying pan.
Warren was a good husband. She couldn’t complain about him, either. He did his own laundry and the children adored him. Nothing was wrong. Yet sometimes, Lena thought back to the days when she’d left this town and worked on the east coast at a distinguished magazine. It was the time of her life—she knew it even then. Sometimes she’d even think, “This is the time of my life.” Staff editor by age 24, bringing home manuscripts in her backpack every night on the T, discussing them the next day with the brilliant editor who was her boss and considered one of the great minds of his time. Lena had her own office at the magazine. It had high ceilings and beautiful moldings and a view from the old brownstone to the swan boats in the Public Garden. By now she would have risen up the masthead and would be spending summers out on Nantucket or the Cape. Her mind would be firing on all cylinders like a Mercedes-Benz engine purring over the Simplon. Full steam ahead.
Meanwhile, Warren often spent an hour driving home from the supermarket, circling around the neighborhood, just to listen to his old tapes. He always claimed the lines in the store were long, but Lena knew what he was really doing. She’d seen him once, barreling down the road, howling his head off with the windows up. Why did he have to listen to Mr. Peabody secretly? Looking back was a guilty pleasure, it seemed.
“It seems fairly certain you had lots of adventures before you decided on me,” Warren grunted, drying his hands.
“We’ve had lots of adventures too,” Lena said.
“Name one,” Warren said.
“What about having children and living in this house?”
“I suppose picking out grout and tiles and carpet squares is pretty adventurous,” he said.
She’d met him freshman year. Back then she thought of him as too straight-laced for her. The rest of her friends were sitting around listening to loud music and wearing hippie clothes. Warren wore plaid shirts with pens in the pocket.
Whenever he saw her standing at the bus stop, he’d pull over and offer her a ride into town. He had an old Datsun with ripped seats and a rattling dashboard. Wires hung from beneath it and tickled her legs. The heater was on all the time. If you let go of the wheel it took a nosedive off the road.
One Friday night she knocked on his door, her pupils wide and black as tiddlywinks.
“It’s Friday, Warren!” She could see he was studying with a hot gooseneck lamp on his desk.
“I have a mid-term Monday,” he shrugged. “How about you?”
“Well, there’s a party downtown if you feel like going.”
“Hmm. Okay,” he said, as if agreeing to a journey he would not complete for some time. “I could use a break.”
They lurched down the hill from the college. The air was so warm they had the windows down, and the sky was bright with stars and a moon nearly full, and when they reached the party people were putting eggs in the microwave and watching them explode. There was an apparatus in the living room you could hang upside down on to stretch your spine, and people were trying that, while others were dancing, and yet others were giving foot massages and smoking loosely rolled cigarettes of marijuana in the hall. Tom had invited her, and introduced her to his friends. After awhile she noticed Warren standing outside, his back to the party, perfectly still. Warren was strange, she thought. He didn’t care if he seemed like an oddball. He didn’t care if she saw him outside, standing alone.
In a while she came out to check on him.
“Shhh,” Warren said.
On the moonlit lawn sat an opossum with brindled fur and a harlequin-shaped face, and it hissed at them, showing its pointy teeth.
“Wow,” Lena said.
The opossum hissed again.
“It’s stuffy inside,” Warren said.
“And it smells like rotten eggs,” she added.
“Do you want to stay?” He pulled his keys from his pocket. She assumed he wanted to get back to study, so she let him go. And it was the night she and Tom got together. But Warren had made a sound investment, and they stayed in touch over the next few years. One thing led to another. When he visited her in Boston, no longer did Warren seem square. He had become a nice looking man. He called it the opossum party—I didn’t want to go home and study, he told her. Didn’t you know? She hadn’t seen that at all.
One night, scrubbing chocolate out of a baking dish, Lena said, “So want to hear the latest chapter of the Little Miller story?”
“Okay, if I must.”
Yes, she had spotted Little Miller again, tiptoeing down the sidewalk like a mouse. This time, she pulled over and jumped out of her car and stood waiting as he approached.
He stopped in his tracks and peeled off his dark glasses.
“You’re Miller, aren’t you?”
“Who wants to know?”
“My name is Lena. We knew each other a long time ago. Remember Yori?”
“Yori,” said Little Miller. “The clown?”
“Yori was a clown?”
“Yori the clown was a clown,” Little Miller said.
Lena said, “I was thinking of the Yori who lived in the house over on Cayuga Street. Who liked the Grateful Dead. I was his housemate. Remember? We used to eat together a lot?”
He squinted. “I meet a lot of people.”
“Remember when I accused you of stealing my stuff?”
Little Miller pursed his lips. “Don’t think I want to do business with you, ma’am.”
“Remember my boyfriend Tom, grabbing your backpack and shaking it out?”
Little Miller began to move on. “You’re stuck in the dismal past, lady.”
“We found out later you didn’t do it,” Lena called after him. “See, I’m trying to tell you I’m really sorry!”
He kept walking. How could she make him understand how much she’d thought about it all this time?
“You know, I was so mad at Tom for the way he treated you, we broke up,” Lena cried.
“Truth is,” Little Miller turned, “some bad things happened to me and I got mixed up with some really bad people, which is regretful, but people took advantage of me. Lots of them! Then I decided to draw the line. Now life is peaceful. Very serene. Beautiful. I’m blessed. God bless you.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Lena. “Anyway, I made you some brownies. Here.” She uncovered the plate she was holding. Wrapped in Saran, it was heaped with thick, chocolaty squares.
“What’s in ’em, rat poison?”
“Mostly just butter and cocoa,” Lena replied.
She took a few steps his way. He took a few towards her.
“Here,” she said, and bit into one herself. “Yum.”
With unexpected speed he advanced and latched onto the plate. He peeled open the Saran and neatly stuffed an entire brownie into his mouth. “Excellent,” he said, choking it down. “Bliss to you.”
“You did that?” Warren nearly shrieked. “Today?”
“Yep,” Lena said.
“You should have told me first. I probably would have said no. He’s obviously a mental case!”
“Warren,” Lena said, “if you said no, I would have done it anyway.”
“You would have? Don’t my feelings count?”
“What’s with you? I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
“I can’t believe you approached some borderline personality on the street with a delicious dessert. He’ll probably start stalking you.”
“God, Warren. You’re so sterile!”
Warren did the pots and pans for a while in silence, his elbows jerking wildly.
“He might have attacked you,” he said, after awhile.
“Warren, I’m the one who attacked him, remember?”
The children were watching a documentary about gorillas, gentle ones. There was static in the air, and Warren dried his hands.
“Then does this lift the curse? Are we free of Little Miller?”
“I think we are,” she said.
“You know, I’ve had a few adventures in this town.” He lifted the garbage pail towards the door.
“I’m sure you have.”
“Once I stole a birdbath. From the chancellor’s house.”
“A birdbath?” Most mischievous, most unlike him. “Why?”
The past flickered in his smile. “Someone wanted it. I had my reasons.”
“Tell me!” she cried.
“Never assume you have a man pegged,” he admonished, tripping out into the night.