“Who was it who decided on where Tallahassee should be?” Toby asks questions, and we laugh a lot. Stupid things really. But it makes you think, and it helps to pass the time. He takes the money when people pump their gas, and I do most of the other things, like brake jobs, tires, and shocks. Mostly minor repairs, quick jobs that get a good price for the boss. Mr. Cutter keeps things under control and drives the tow truck when somebody breaks down on the highway. That’s how he makes his big money. He says when you break down on the interstate, you become desperate. “The main thing we give them is a sense of security,” says Mr. Cutter. I call him Mr. Cutter, but everybody else calls him Harry because the name of the business is Harry’s Gas Station. “If we didn’t charge ’em a lot, they’d think we did a half-assed job,” he tells me and Toby. And later Toby says to me, “Using that logic, we should charge Harry a whole lot more for what we do.” Toby mostly takes care of the cash register and points out the restrooms and gives people change for the cigarette machine. And he sells candy and soda to the sweaty little kids and tells the traveling salesmen where the phone is. And he hands out maps when the customers want them.
You can’t say anything to Toby. He’s always changing it around and making it funny. Mr. Cutter’s always saying Toby’s nothing but a smart-ass college kid. But I don’t find anything wrong with having a little fun. Toby graduated from a community college and is going to a four-year. Though he’s smarter in a lot of ways, I’ve been here sixteen years, and I know a lot more about cars. But, boy, Toby knows more about everything else. I could tell Betty kind of liked Toby, but I didn’t pay much attention to it.
Like I said, Mr. Cutter owns the station, but he isn’t around much because of driving the tow truck, and he owns another station, where the town people go for gas. I’ve worked for him for sixteen years. I know he doesn’t like Betty coming around because he thinks she distracts me. We get a lot of business in the summer. There are always cars boiling over and people always need gas. Most of our customers come off the interstate. Toby started working after college let out for the summer. Mr. Cutter told him right away to call him Harry, but he never said that to me. We don’t get many locals because we’re a little overpriced. Toby lives up north, but he has an uncle who lives here so he asked Mr. Cutter for a job. And he started calling him Harry right away.
Just to make things more interesting, Toby decided that we should do something with the maps, so we uncreased them and laid them out on the desk in the office. People are always asking for maps because people are always going places. Toby told them not to trust those GPS things, and he told the customers, “There’s nothing like a map to get you to where you’re going.” Toby took some scissors and began snapping them. When he was finished, there were a whole bunch of cities lying on top of the desk. Peoria, Orlando, Savannah, Nashville, Columbus. He told me to refold the maps and put them back in the racks. Toby said, “Think about it. A couple driving along, looking for Tallahassee. The husband turns to his wife and asks her to check the map. She pulls it out and says Tallahassee’s not there. And he says, ‘What do you mean, it’s not there?’ And she says, ‘Look, there’s a hole where Tallahassee should be.’” Toby has a real imagination. When we were finished, the desk looked like a battlefield with all these fallen cities. Every state had at least one city gone. So no matter where anybody was going there’d be something missing. At least, that’s the way Toby saw it.
Betty and I have always known for the last three years we are going to be married. She works in the local diner as a waitress. We’ve been saving our money because we think by the beginning of next year we can afford a trailer. I’m ten years older than she is, but her parents like that. Mr. Dodd says that I’m a “maturing influence.” I knew she kind of liked Toby because she’d laugh at things he’d say even if they weren’t funny. That’s one thing you learn about women. Most of the time Toby is funny, so I didn’t much notice. Betty is twenty-two, which I think is a perfect age.
Toby decided that we weren’t finished with the maps, so on another day he pulls out this little white bottle from the desk drawer. In the office we have an old Royal typewriter that keeps breaking down. Mr. Cutter says we got to get a computer, but he says that every time the typewriter’s not working, and what he says doesn’t amount to much when it comes to spending money. The typewriter has so much grease on the keys, you can’t really make out any of the letters. And that’s why I didn’t know we had any Wite-Out and didn’t know what it was. Toby found it. He likes to rummage through Mr. Cutter’s stuff. I tell him he better be careful, but guys like Toby don’t have to be as careful as guys like me. I found that out most of my life. So Toby takes the Wite-Out and asks me to get the maps off the rack. Then he begins dabbing the little white brush like he’s painting with shoe polish. When he’s finished, he takes a black pen from his shirt pocket and very carefully writes something. He has real small handwriting anyway—but this was ridiculously small and perfect. He dabbed away the word Tuscaloosa and wrote in Vacancy. “How do you like that?” he said, and he held up the map for me to see. “Vacancy, Alabama.” He dabbed out Pearl, Mississippi, and wrote in Ruby. He replaced Hopkins Hollow, Connecticut, with Hopkins Hole. Sometimes he’d write in something that was a little off-color, like Beaver Shot, Oklahoma, or Pussy, Oregon, or Cock, Wisconsin. “Some old maid,” he said, “will be asking directions for Cock. Or some minister will be seeking Pussy.” I have to admit it was pretty funny.
We get all the license plates through here. At one time or another, I’ve seen the license plates of every single state, and that includes Hawaii and Alaska. I may not have been many places, I tell people, but a lot of places have been to see me. You got to see something after sixteen years. After I’d seen the license plates of all fifty states, I got to admit the job became kind of routine. I know Toby is young, even insensitive at times, but he makes the job enjoyable. He’s always got something going on. And sometimes he gets me thinking, like when he asks me if I believe in something and I say yes, and he shows me I didn’t really mean to say yes. That kind of thing. Then Toby has these crazy questions, like puzzles, that can keep you going crazy for days.
I have to tell you something else he thought of that was pretty good—though some might not understand. We had this little hole we drilled in the side of the ladies’ restroom. We hid it behind boxes and oil cans. After we drilled, he had me chisel out some so we could see at a better angle. It made me feel a little uncomfortable, but Toby said, “Hey, there’s no harm in just looking.” I felt bad in a way and only pretended to look. Toby said that the New York State license had the best pair of legs he’d ever seen, and I agreed though I had no reason to.
Toby wasn’t finished with the maps either. He got real tricky. Sometimes with green, red, and blue Magic Markers we’d put in other highways. Where we thought it might be nice to have a highway, we put it in. Without any inconvenience, without any cost, without any dusty detours, wham, we made you a highway. Just like that. We had an interstate going from Charlotte to Fayetteville to Lynchburg to Charleston to Knoxville. Some of our state highways climbed out of lakes and other times they’d drift off to nowhere. Sometimes we’d put roads where they seemed to be needed, and at times they were just useless and pretty. Some states seemed to have so many roads they didn’t know what to do with them, but we’d add more until the whole map was choked with them.
We got so good at altering the maps that we moved some cities from one state to another. We’d put Spokane where New Bedford should be, and Little Rock where Spokane should be, and Topeka where Little Rock should be. I tell you we got good at it. Toby’d say, “We’re doing the country a favor.”
About two weeks ago, Toby came into work real upset, like I’d never seen him before. I don’t know if he had an argument with Mr. Cutter or his uncle. But something was wrong, so I told him I’d take care of the pump if he’d work at fixing the air hose that seemed to be clogged. Betty came over during her break. She bought me some metric wrenches from the Ace Hardware. I told her she shouldn’t have done it because we’re trying to save money to buy a trailer and we’re going to get married, probably in February. It was a sunny day and that made the oil stains next to the gas pumps sparkle in a greasy sort of way. Nothing’s prettier than a gas station on a sunny day. It was a real scorcher. There was a haze around the car hoods. Betty said she had to get back to the restaurant, but she had to use the ladies’ room first. I got her the keys which were attached to a flat piece of wood that said “restroom.” I was about to take the lug nuts off a Ford truck when I thought about the peephole. I was hoping no cars would pull up because Toby was fixing the air hose and I was going to the back room. I pushed aside a couple of smudgy oil cans and pressed my eye to the hole. There was Betty with her back leaning on the wall over the sink, her dress up around her waist and Toby there. The weather and the cramped dark room made me feel real uncomfortable. I thought about the box of metric wrenches. Then a horn started to blow. Later, when I saw Betty, she handed me the key. Her eyes looked crushed. They had the color of one of those oil stains. Her body seemed to hum. Before she left, I thanked her for the wrenches.
Toby’s going back north in a couple of days. I found out that Betty put a picture of herself in his glove compartment. I can’t be mad at Betty. Toby is sure better looking, and he certainly is smarter and funnier. I say I saw the license plates of all fifty states, but that’s not the truth. I don’t think of buying the trailer anymore, but that will probably change. I decided not to say anything to her or Toby. Toby would only turn it around and get me laughing. And if I said anything to Betty, I’d feel really hollow inside. I went to Toby’s car and opened up the glove compartment.
I don’t laugh as much at Toby’s jokes. He’s always thinking up something new, but I don’t pay as much attention. He asks me what is wrong, but I don’t say much. “Nothing,” I say and that’s usually the end of it. In a way, I’m not looking forward to the day when Toby’s gone. But I know one thing. I’ll keep handing out our maps to the customers. I’ll give them maps with a couple of things missing, a border here and there, a capital or two, a city or a town, some river misplaced. But they’ll also contain some amazing new things. Highways that never before existed. New cities or old cities in new places. And wherever these people are going, they’ll always be surprised at how we got them there, even if it’s not where they want to be. Still, they’ll always be surprised, and that’s not so bad. They could wind up anywhere and that would be worth it, I suppose.
I’d kind of like to be there when Toby opens up the glove compartment. I know he’ll see Betty’s picture, and that will probably make him feel good. And then he’ll see the road map, and I know he’ll open it because he’ll guess something is up. It took me a long time to do it, and he’ll appreciate that. I’d like to see his face when he sees every town and highway and everything with its new name. “Betty” written everywhere. Betty mountains. Cities named Betty. Betty rivers. Betty highways. Who knows? Maybe his car will break down. And he won’t know where to tell anybody where he is if something bad happens. It will make him feel kind of weird. Being so smart and all. Except about cars and things that can happen. He’ll think somebody knows something. It won’t really matter, but it will give him something to think about.
“You just have to admire all the possibilities,” says one character in Patrick Lawler’s short story collection, The Meaning of If—a sentence that encapsulates the myriad of “if’s” explored in these pages. At times surreal and yet so realistic, we hear each “muffled whisper,” we see each “muddy photograph,” we know each “secret life,” as if it were our own. These are familial stories of transition and transformation—both mental and physical—that consider the question “What if?”
When I pick Kirti up from the bus station, I don’t want to look at her all at once. It’s been years since I’ve seen her last and I want to take her in piece by piece. I look at her brown arms that hug her dirty yellow backpack to her chest, a pose too childish for her twenty-three years. Her elbows are so dark they’re nearly purple, from the bunching of her skin. Her right ear has a ring pierced through the top of it, like a goat’s.
“Let me take that.”
“It’s not heavy.”
I unlock the car. It’s a hot day and the seats have been baking in the sun. Kirti rolls her window down. She’s got sunglasses on that cover most of her face, so I’m allowed just her large, elegant nose and her cheeks, browner than I remember.
“It’s almost never hot here.”
“I don’t believe you. Remember last time I came?”
“You’re just picking hot days to visit. We can go to the beach.”
She’s looking out the window, her hair, loose, blowing all around her face. Prettier than me, of course, as little sisters are. The sunlight falling on her face looks like internal radiance, that old trick. Her lips are parted and I can see the white-yellow edge of her teeth.
“I don’t feel like the beach,” she says.
We get out of the car, and I notice that her gait has changed. It has become slower and more swaying, a little dreamy. She lets me hug her, but holds herself away. The house is clean—has been cleaned for her. The day before I came home from work early to dust and vacuum and put away. From the corner of my eye I watch Kirti as she looks around. She hardly seems impressed, but I didn’t really expect her to be. I take her to the guestroom where the air mattress is all set up and she puts her backpack down at last. She’s wearing an uncharacteristically loose dress that gathers on a cord at the neck and falls to her knees. Her legs are unshaven, hairy as a man’s.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Kirti.” I catch myself. “You don’t look fat. I’m not saying you’re fat.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s the way you’re holding yourself.”
She rubs her hands in her hair. She’s taken off her sunglasses, finally, and I can see her black, bus-tired eyes. “Okay. I was going to tell you. I just didn’t want you to freak out.”
“I’m not freaking out.”
Since there is no place to sit except the air mattress, we stand awkwardly in the doorway. I have managed, at least, to keep my voice tremendously level.
“Have you told mom and dad yet?”
“Not yet. They’re going to lose it.” Then she says, “Where’s Brianne?”
“She went to pick up sandwiches for lunch. Are you hungry?”
She shakes her head.
“What do you want? We have OJ and milk, and I have some of that French lemonade mom used to get.”
“Just some water.”
I go to the kitchen and lean against the counter. It’s hot. Even with all the windows open, we’re not equipped for it, have only one mostly ineffective fan. Something I have not thought of, since we use it in our room when we sleep. We’ll have to buy another one for Kirti to sleep tonight. Take a few deep breaths. In an emergency I am often calm, and can hold myself back until it’s passed. I pour my sister a glass of buttermilk and bring it to her. She’s moved to the living room, slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the couch.
“Water, I said.”
“Have it, na?”
She wraps both hands around the glass and holds it to her cheek, then her forehead. Cold, and slightly sour, sweetish too, and thick. I remember her, of course I do. She drinks it quickly and with pleasure, and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Do we have to talk about it right now?”
“No,” I say. “We don’t have to do anything. Have you seen a doctor?”
“I’m perfectly healthy.”
“Kirti, are you crazy? You have to see a doctor.”
“For fuck’s sake, I saw one. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Well, what did he say?”
“What did she say?”
Kirti shrugs. “I’m about four months in. Everything looks fine. Need to take folic acid. No papaya, which is weird. But okay, I don’t really eat papaya.”
“Yes, four months, stop repeating everything.”
“Do you know who the father is?”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying—I’m just trying to get my arms around it.”
“Listen, Anu, I promise we can talk about this. I just really, really don’t want to right now, okay? Can we please talk about something else?”
But we both can think of nothing else to say, and so we sit together in silence. Kirti runs her finger along the rim of the glass to scoop out the last of the buttermilk that has clung to the sides. She’s hungry but won’t ask for food. Her body, even now, is skinny, partly because she is naturally lean and partly because she hasn’t been taking care of herself. Her hair is thin, pulled back from her face, fuzz at the widow’s peaks where you can see the scalp. In this light, her skin is waxy and sallow. Skinny—our mother was never skinny. From my earliest memory she had a soft comfortable body that spread out with age, each hip large enough to seat a baby or a small child. Her lap, sought in moments of distress or the babyish need for comfort, often provided the kind of solace the mother’s body gives, even while her mind is elsewhere.
I am not skinny like my sister. My hips are wide, childbearing hips. My thighs and belly, between which I carry my useless womb, are both soft, a fact that in earlier years shamed me, then made me hopeful, and now seems like a waste.
Brianne’s keys are in the door and then she appears. Tall for a woman, my Brianne, pale and slender, wearing a checked shirt, carrying the bag of sandwiches. A moment passes between us that is enough to make the smile on her face wane slightly, but she puts down the bag and says, “Kirti, you’re here. It’s good to see you,” and Kirti stands and lets herself be embraced.
“It occurred to me that we don’t have a fan for her. For tonight.”
Brianne’s look says Is that all that’s the matter. “I got one while I was out. Arctic Hurricane.”
“You’re incredible,” I say and get up to kiss her. She puts a hand on the small of my back. We took tango classes one summer and she liked it more than me. But we were not well matched in tango, we both tried to lead.
“How long was the bus ride?”
“Thirteen hours, Jesus, you must be exhausted,” I say. “I didn’t realize it was that long from San Diego.”
“I didn’t come from San Diego,” says Kirti. “I think I’m going to lie down for a little bit.”
Kirti herself was a sort of surprise, at least to me, born a full ten years after my birth, to the month though not the day, in summer. I had long gotten used to my place in the world, and watched my mother’s belly grow for months with a mixture of anxiety, envy and anticipation. During this time my mother was self-contained and dreamy, and I grasped her hair, her hem, her fingers often in my hands, though I was already too old, wanting to reach her. Her lap, which had often held me, became to full to fit me, so I placed my head there, until that too didn’t fit. My father stood with me on this distant shore, watching my mother drift out further and further, though he seemed less troubled by it—she had already once returned to him. But she never returned to me, not quite. Instead, my father joined her and I stood alone, looking over the gulf that separated me from my mother and father, and feeling myself to blame.
Kirti arrived tiny, born premature, and stored for the first few days in a plastic case in a room full of infants in plastic cases, row after row of them arranged before the window like unopened toys. My parents spent their days and nights in the hospital, and I stayed with my next door neighbor, Tillie, and her mom, who took us, every day, to the community pool. I saw my sister just once in the hospital and couldn’t hold her. My dad held me up and pointed: that one, three over from the right. I didn’t know how he could tell. She looked just like all the other babies.
But something did come over me, when I at last got to pick her up. She was too weak to hold up her own head. Her hands were pink and exact, replicas in miniature of my own. Her skull, still soft, rested in the cup of my hand and her eyes looked right into mine. I looked back into those eyes and smiled.
She naps for most of the afternoon. Napping, maybe reading in there, or just looking out the window at the tree in the backyard, which brushes its leaves against the glass with the wind. Brianne and I eat together, and talk, quietly, about the news Kirti has brought. I can see immediately Brianne’s relief, which is premature, and entirely misplaced. She is more of a mystic than me and trusts the universe to provide everything one desires, at the right time of course. When she tells me this I ask her about people who are poor or dying of AIDS. Why hasn’t the universe provided them with a cure, money for dinner? What makes us so special? Brianne shrugs. Maybe they’re not asking right, is what she says, which we both know is a bullshit answer.
“She hasn’t said anything—anything—about adoption. We don’t know anything yet. And even if she does—”
“Do you think she wants to be a mother and raise a child? She’s come here for a reason.”
“Please, please stop,” I say. I’m sort of furious. “We don’t know anything yet.”
“You can’t trick yourself out of getting hurt by not hoping for things.”
I look away from her. There are tears in my eyes. The worst thing right now would be for Kirti to walk in and catch us: two dirty lesbians scheming to steal away her baby. Brianne doesn’t know Kirti very well and what little she knows should make her suspicious—my sister has the most fickle heart of anyone I’ve ever known. We finish our meal in silence. After the dishes are done there is nothing to do: we cleaned yesterday, and did the grocery shopping; laundry’s not until next week. Emails have been answered, bills have been paid. I had thought that the three of us would go for a walk, to the park or the beach, or go see a movie. I have made a list of restaurants to suggest for dinner, but have not planned for this. Kirti’s presence in the other room is constraining. We move quietly. I pick up my book, but have trouble focusing, I keep moving my eyes over the same sentence, the same three words.
Brianne wants a baby too, of course, almost as badly as I do. Not badly enough to carry it inside her and give birth to it, that’s the difference. After the usual sperm bank stuff failed, I had six rounds of IVF and three miscarriages within the first trimester; the other times my womb rejected the eggs outright. After the last miscarriage, I decided to stop trying. It felt too much like when I was in high school and in love with a girl in the senior class. I was a freshman. That girl was so tall and cool, she had a perfect face, and it was a shame to love her. I was so ashamed of it. Something about the way I had been made was wrong, I had been assembled incorrectly. I could at that time already see the ways in which Kirti had improved on me: bubbly, a charmer, a pretty child, and social, with her plump little cheeks and arms. It was all you could do when you saw her, little imp, with jam inexplicably smeared around her mouth, to not pick her up and kiss her. As she grew older she thinned, her cheeks and thighs became sleek. But that was an improvement on me, too.
She’s in her studio, Brianne, listening to Philip Glass. I can hear him, muffled, through the kitchen wall, circling himself, and adding, circling, and adding.
“What time is it?”
Kirti’s sleepy voice. Her hair’s mussed, nearly standing on end in the back, her feet are bare. And, I can’t help it, I see her, for a moment, exactly as I always did when she was little, her plump face further softened by sleep.
“Five, I think? Five-thirty?”
“I slept.” She sits down next to me on the couch and puts her head against my shoulder. Her hair is soft, a little oily against my cheek.
“Yes. For a few hours. Are you hungry?”
“Your sandwich is soggy.”
I bring it to her on a plate, and she eats it quickly.
Nods again. Mustard on her cheek. I wipe it with my thumb. I bring her some bread and cheese and milk and a cold, peeled egg, which she eats with an unthinking hunger I have never seen in her.
“Your new place is nice,” she says when she’s finished. “It sort of makes you think how much of a dump your old place was.”
“I mean, you fixed it up nice. But it was sort of just a cardboard box.” She looks at my face and says, “I’m giving you a compliment.”
“Where are you living?” I say.
“Well, sort of—sort of—I was living in Fresno for a while—”
“Yeah, and then I was visiting some friends up in Nevada City. There’s a farm up there we were all working on. I worked there for a few months.”
“And now—well, nowhere, I guess. I have some of my stuff in storage back in San Diego.”
“Where are you going once you leave here?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“And you were thinking maybe you could stay here.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything, Anu.”
“It sure seems like that, doesn’t it.”
She, oddly, remains pacific, only shrugs. “What’s amazing about life is that you never quite know where it will take you.”
“So you’re just swimming in the sea of life, huh, just floating on your back, drifting this way and that, wherever the current takes you, impregnated—maybe like a jellyfish, they just shoot their sperm out into the water, you know, Fresno, Nevada City, your sister’s place, and then who knows where for what or for how long and what after? The universe is full of mysteries.”
“Jellyfish shoot their eggs in the water too. They don’t get pregnant.”
“Okay, thank you Mr. Scientist.”
“I can leave, you know. I’m happy to leave.”
“And go where? To mom and dad?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
She looks proud. That familiar tilt of her chin. She used to confess to me, when she was little, her crimes, her secrets. She used to hug my neck as she slept and I was the one to carry her from the car. Now, I cannot see the oily panic that may be welling underneath the surface of her calm, or the anger. But she’s come here, hasn’t she, to me and not someone else. Perhaps she’s in trouble—and then I almost laugh for thinking of it like that: what does trouble look like if not this?
“Kirti,” I say. “Stay, okay? I’m sorry. Stay.”
She just nods.
The drive to dinner is silent, no surprise there. Brianne and I refrain from the private conversations couples sometimes conduct in public through glances, touch. She drives, and I look out the window. Kirti, sitting kitty corner from me in the backseat looks out the window too. I glance up and see her averted eyes in the rearview mirror. She’s showered and changed into a new, but similar dress, gathered at the neck and cotton, loose. This one is white; she knows well to set that color against her skin. It is her trick to glow when you catch her in your vision but are too afraid to stare, some illusion she must have learned early in life and has always used to her advantage. At the restaurant, we order a bottle of wine for the table, and she has a few little sips. “In Europe they drink through the whole thing,” she says, and I let it pass along with everything else.
“So, Kirti, you were in Nevada City? Farming?” Brianne says, bravely wading in.
“What was it like up there?”
“Oh, beautiful. We had chickens. When I first got there it was snowing, and we were all staying in this trailer together. We had to wake up really early—I mean, really, really early. And work with your hands, you know? And at the end of the day, you had these eggs, you’d planted carrots for the summer, and harvested—turnips or whatever, there wasn’t that much during the winter—you had the feeling you were really doing something. It wasn’t just punching things into a computer all day. You made food.”
“I worked on a farm for a summer too.”
“You did?” I say.
“Yeah, back in Boise.”
“You never told me. A potato farm?”
“We grew other things,” she says. “Aside from being stunningly homophobic, Boise’s pretty nice.”
“So you say.”
Kirti shifts in her chair. She dips her finger absently in her glass and licks at the residue the wine has left. I try to remember back to what all my books said about four months pregnant. Does she ache, are her breasts tender? Can she feel the baby move inside her? She has not yet rested her hands on the neat curve of her belly the way that pregnant women always seem to do, which sends a knife through me every time. She feels watched, and looks up, not shying from me, meeting me, my eyes with hers. They are the same color as mine but slightly different in shape, rounder, and have a small pocket of red in the inner corner of each, the first place to be filled with tears. They are sad eyes, even when they are not sad, when they gaze calmly across the table.
“I still can’t get her to come visit,” Brianne says to Kirti. “It’s been ten years and she won’t visit my hometown. They have bike lanes!”
“I just don’t want to go somewhere where I’m not welcome.”
Brianne tilts her head and lifts her eyebrows at me, you want to do this now?
I shrug. You brought it up.
“My parents are pretty old-fashioned,” she says to Kirti, half apologizing.
“Ten years, and where are the Shahs?”
“At least they’ve met you,” I say.
“Oh god, our parents are the worst.” How easily she can say that, Kirti, how much it takes for granted. “You can’t take it personally.”
“I’m going to go to the bathroom.”
It’s empty. I wet a paper towel and pat it all over my hot face. When I get back to the table, Kirti is telling Brianne that they made their dresses from old sheets they found on the farm. Brianne’s face is fixed on my sister’s: not politely, but with genuine interest, at her story or her prettiness I’m not sure.
“I didn’t know that you knew how to sew.”
“It’s not that hard. They had a sewing machine.”
“We have some maternity clothes at home you could have,” says Brianne, “right?”
“Right,” I say. The food comes, but I’m not all that hungry. The wine has soured my mouth. Kirti eats and eats, finishing her plate of pasta, and then mine when it’s offered. She likes the restaurant, the food, it’s been a long time since she’s been taken out. My parents will lose it, they really will, but they’ll get the grandchild they feared they’d never have, and will soften and forgive when they see its face.
“If you guys want to,” Kirti says, in a show of politeness. We order three kinds.
At home she tries on a pair of jeans with the stretchy front panel and a pretty, expensive dress that we never should have bought to begin with, empire waist, eyelet lace, white, with little sleeves. We had been excited, the first time. At the store I tried everything on, filling out the extra room with my imagination. The clothes still have their tags.
“You can keep that,” I’m sitting on the closed toilet seat, watching her look at herself in the full-length mirror hanging from the bathroom door. “It looks really nice on you.”
“It’s a little big.”
“You’re going to get bigger.”
“It’s too hot for pants.”
She pulls them off her. Then she pulls the dress off too and stands in her underpants in front of the mirror. No bra, and her breasts have swelled, tipped in brown nipples. There is something almost grotesque about it, her belly, big as the distended belly of a starving child. A faint black line runs down the center of her, as though drawn in by a pencil. Her face is so tender.
“Have you thought of a name?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Shasta.”
“If you want your baby to grow up to be a hippy.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad.” She looks at me in the mirror. “I’m not dumb, you know.”
“I never said you were dumb.”
“I can see it. What you’re thinking.”
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“You used to tell me that I was dumb. You used to sit with me in the back of the car and whisper it in my ear.”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I do. I’m surprised you do, though. You were little.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“No. Of course not. I was just a kid. You only remember the bad parts.”
“I don’t,” she says, “I remember other things.”
She thinks. “Like…how you let me sleep in your bed. You didn’t just lie down next to me, you put your arms around me.”
I remember that, too. Warm and soft as a little animal, burrowing. She would narrate her dreams as she dreamt them.
She holds my gaze in the mirror. “Don’t I look different?”
“Yes. You didn’t use to look like such a mountain woman.”
She smiles, my beautiful sister. I ask, “Whose baby is this?”
She pulls her farm-made dress over her head, and sits on the lip of the bathtub. “Well, at the farm, I met—he owned the farm. He’s a little bit older.”
“And what happened?”
“What do you think?” She shuts her eyes tight for a minute, and opens them, still dry. “He wasn’t married, but he had just separated from his wife. And he had a little kid already with his wife. A baby, really. It’s messy, you know, he didn’t tell her about me and I met her, I met them both, that little kid and—anyway. It’s done.”
“Done? What does done mean?”
“I mean I left. He didn’t want anything to do with it. So I just left.” Her eyes are all red. “Don’t say it.”
“Whatever you were going to say.”
“You think I’m going to yell at you?”
“You want to, don’t you?”
I look at her, trying to see her as a stranger would. For one thing, I can see nothing childish about her at all, not the firmness of her pose, not the tight set of her jaw, not the pucker between her brows. For another, I can see it now, not panic, not anger, but sadness, vast and ocean gray coming up through her eyes and tilting the corners of her mouth, though she doesn’t cry. And shame, plastered over by false pride, the way she has deliberately squared her shoulders. How she’s grown since I’ve last seen her. It’s taken me this long to sniff out her broken heart.
“I want you to have her.”
With something like anger, I say, “Don’t say that unless you mean it.”
“I mean it.”
“Have you thought about it?”
“I thought about it, Anu.”
“Think about it more.”
“If you don’t want her just say so.”
Her. Not it, her. I look away. Kirti is just in the corner of my eye, and luminous again. A student, an artist, a stock girl, a farmer, a mother for nine months and then whatever she wants next, passing from one thing to another, as easily as a little bird darting from flower to flower. A child, six, and careless with a doll that had once been mine, drawing on its face with indelible ink, blacking out the eyes.
“I thought you would be happy.”
Shaking my head. “Why didn’t you get an abortion?”
“Because of you.”
In the bedroom Brianne is sleeping with a book open on her chest. The fan is on, and ruffles her hair and the pages every time it swings around. There is a small smile on her face, which is just the way her mouth is at rest, like a dolphin’s or a dog’s. She wears glasses to read.
I like this room. The bed takes up most of it, but it has a big window that looks out onto the city, a shelf of light in this dark. I don’t think I can sleep. I change into my nightgown and have to climb over Brianne to get into bed. Reading Moby-Dick again, and she’s lost her page. I shut the book and take off her glasses and switch off the light. A baby, three of us, a tiny army against a hostile world—is that what I had thought? Or proof that I was who I was meant to be, that I could give myself whatever I needed? I wanted that small body in my arms. It is something that existed before reason, words. Her arms around my neck.
“Are you crying?”
“Not really.” Brianne turns over and puts her warm feet against my shin. “Are we going to be parents?”
“I don’t know.”
“What did she say?”
“She says things just to please people all the time.”
With a sigh, she pulls herself up, out of sleep. “Why do you think so little of her?”
“Do you think she’s prettier than me?”
“Anu. I’m not going to do this with you.”
Her face is a soft shape against the window. So pale, so reasonable, my Brianne, my complement, my opposite, my shame, my heart, my worst fear. One summer she took my two fists in her hands and unclenched them, smoothed them out to the palms, and I fell in love.
“Let’s go swimming tomorrow. We haven’t gone in such a long time.”
“If the weather holds.”
Which will go first, Kirti or the heat? I can see her in dirty shorts and a straw hat, standing on the top of a hill. The farm covers the slope in verdance, curly heads of lettuce, vines of blooming squash, Paleolithic fronds of kale. A man, the father, stands beside her with no face. And between them stands the child, their natural daughter, skin the color of earth, wheat colored hair, hands tiny bunches of carrots, cooing. I reach my hands out to this girl and she runs away.
After breakfast we drive north, out of the city. Kirti rolls the window down. She is delighted to be crossing the bridge, which wears today a skirt of fog that will vanish before noon. She’s borrowed a two-piece that barely fits her breasts, and she looks oddly voluptuous when she takes her dress off at the shore of the lake. Her eyes are less tired than yesterday. Brianne holds her arm to mine, as she often does, to compare our colors, never in her favor. Out of the three of us, she is the only one to slather herself so entirely in sunscreen, she smells of it pinkly. We sit on a blanket on the shore, heating our bodies until we feel the desire to cool them in the lake, Brianne with Moby-Dick, Kirti with a book on philosophy she’s picked from our shelves, and me with a magazine that I look up from often, to stare out across the water. A pair of children in colorful bathing suits wade into the lake, and I think of Tillie and me, swimming at the community pool the week of Kirti’s birth. Tillie had wanted to splash around and make up water games—kid’s stuff. I just wanted to swim from one end to the other. I’d touch the wall of the pool and turn right back around again, shutting my eyes tight against the stinging chlorine.
The baby would look like me. The greater world would see her and assume she was mine without question. But I would know. In three years, another person might return to me, someone who has finally settled with the wildness of her youth, coming to me with her arms open, wanting back her child. And how easily the world could tilt from mother to aunt, aunt to mother.
“Christ, Anu, are you always this morose?”
I look up at her. She’s crosslegged on the blanket next to me, sitting up very straight. Somewhere along the line she has corrected her terrible posture.
“Don’t needle me.”
“It’s not hot enough yet.”
I look at Brianne. “How many times are you going to read that book?”
“Go on,” she says.
I take off my shoes and walk with my sister to the water, watching her slow, careful steps. So close, she smells peppery, and her back bears the traces of dormant acne. There’s a welt on her arm, purple in color and perfectly triangular, where once, long ago, I accidentally burned her with the tip of an iron. I touch it. The skin has cooled and healed, but still remembers.
“That hurt like crazy,” she says, looking.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
We’re at the water. It is cool, but not cold. Touches our feet, pulls away, returns. Our wet skin is the same color.
“I can feel her move now. It’s so weird. She has eyelashes already.”
“You can’t feel that.”
“The doctor told me.”
Kirti walks in a little further, covered in goosebumps, feeling at the ground with her feet before she puts her weight down. Her shins, and then her knees. “Be careful,” I say.
Her thighs, her waist. Then all at once, she ducks her head down and disappears, and comes up grinning.
“I do it slowly.”
“It’s worse that way.”
I wade in to my knees, then my thighs. The water is cold under the skin of the sun-warmed surface, true cold, and murky from the silt stirred up by our limbs. I feel bright, entirely awake. I too duck under the surface of the water and hear it booming in my ears. Push out and knife my body into the water, pulling myself with my strong arms. Kirti is just a few feet away, floating on her back. Her toes poke the water, her nose, her breasts, her belly. Her eyes are open, serene. Standing, I look back at the shore, Brianne is sitting right where we left her, pale pink and tiny. In that entire thousand-page copy of her beloved book, there is only one sentence I found underlined and starred by her hand: Ah, the world! Oh, the world!
The trick of floating took me a long time to master. I was always sinking at the knees. It was Brianne who taught me, balancing my body’s mass in her hands in the YMCA pool. I doubt anyone had to teach my sister. I let the lake lift me. The trick is to stay loose, which is harder than it sounds. I can see us from above, two planets spinning their separate orbits. But we have the same eyes. She closes hers, I leave mine open, filling them to the brim with sky.
Southeast Asia, 1996
Heejoung took the job as a flight attendant because she wanted to see the world. It has been three years. She has seen the world. Its major cities have blurred together. Bangkok’s floating paper lanterns are superimposed onto Singapore’s harbor. She calls this place Hong Kong—no, she calls it HKG. Her life becomes simple. An abbreviation of life. There is night and there is day, there is sky and there is earth, and earth, in the day, is a runway imprisoned by razor-crowned fences.
She does not own a cat or a fish or a plant. Nothing heavier than forty kilograms. She stores large possessions in her parents’ sewing room, in Daegu. The rest she drags in a navy blue suitcase from one airport hotel to the next. She dislikes her coworkers because they are her only friends. She dislikes the things that they talk about. The metaphysics of their employment. They tell her—when she says she wants walls she can paint, furniture of her choosing—that life is one long transition. This job, they gleefully attest, is preparing them for the series of journeys that await them after death. Heejoung detests this idea.
In SGN (Ho Chi Min City) she abandons her crew and books a first class ticket to Seoul. An aisle seat, beside the stranger—a handsome stranger—who will become her husband. During takeoff she leans over him, captivated by the shrinking city, and does not recoil when she feels his hand on her back.
Snow erases their lawn, their driveway, and the flat tar roofs of neighboring houses. The world is now what remains. A stripped dogwood stretching tangled branches. Slush spotting the road. And her husband—in his new Red Sox parka, its sun-flickered price tag still on the sleeve—shoveling a path from the front door to the mailbox. Heejoung drags a dining room chair to the window. Her husband shovels toward the house until, from this angle, she cannot see him. She leans so close to the window her breath fogs the glass. The front door slams. Fists of snow fall from the roof.
Clotheslines web the buildings together. Shirts and pants dangle like doomed, colorful insects. Jun, age two, hammers something wooden with something plastic. Sang Min hammers her stomach from inside, with small feet and curled fingers.
They live on the 17th floor. The street is a rumor. Her husband does all their working, shopping, drinking. There is no reason for her to leave their apartment alone and therefore no spare keys. Housework keeps her active, he tells her. Good exercise.
Her days go as follows:
She raises one son with one hand and keeps the other hand pressed to her belly.
She spices skinned rabbits with kochujang and daenjang.
She lets love be made to her.
She is told she is happy.
At night she explores the unlit apartment pretending the furniture, in the dark, isn’t the table, the counter, the couch of the day. She gazes at the apartment complex across the alley. Sometimes she sees an American woman undressing in front of a vanity. When she sees this woman Heejoung likes to turn on the dining room light, hoping to make herself visible.
The woman’s apartment is dark this evening. But the apartment above hers is lit. Its window opens. Two large pillows are tossed outside. Then sheets. Photographs. A glass vase that shatters amazingly. An unzipped suitcase is held outside and flipped upside-down. Clothes float slowly to the ground. Then a woman steps onto the windowsill. Heejoung scrambles to bed.
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
Her sons are five and seven years old and they revere their father. They ask Heejoung for the same kimchi and boiled egg lunches their father eats. They like wearing black slacks and oxfords; they prefer briefcases to backpacks. Every morning, they beg him for a ride to school. While his driving them is not abnormal, it is uncommon, and this morning—the way that he insists on choosing their clothes, how he demands they eat their breakfast faster, how he tells them, before leaving, to kiss and hug their mother goodbye—perplexing.
Why would they leave for school 30 minutes early? Heejoung wonders. Why would he ask her, on Saturday—two days after she asked for divorce—if she would mind if he drives them on Thursday? He never asks her approval for anything. Is he trying to respect her? To prove he is different now?
In the foyer, she asks Sang Min, while zipping up his windbreaker, if he would like to go to the park after school. He shrugs. She can see he’s not saying something. Jun sprints out the front door. His brother squirms free, chases after him, and they run to the car swinging their briefcases in low matching arcs.
After they leave Heejoung anxiously cleans. She mops the kitchen and bathrooms. She polishes utensils, then polishes spatulas, peelers, and whisks. She dusts ceiling fans. Bakes seventy-two cookies, eats one and a half. She vacuums the boys’ room. When she opens their closet, to vacuum in there, she finds stripped hangers piled on the floor. The dresser contains three socks, a white T-shirt, torn jeans, some underwear. Bear Snores On and 365 Penguins, their favorites, remain on the bookshelf. Their toothbrushes are still in the green plastic cup next to the sink. This calms her, briefly.
She calls her husband. No answer. She leaves numerous messages. That afternoon the boys do not emerge from the school bus. She chases it on foot, but is unable to catch up. She runs home and calls the school. Her sons were marked absent, she learns, excused by their father.
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if she had told her husband that the boys should take the bus, instead—that she wanted to cook them a big breakfast? Eggs and black beans and brown rice? That she didn’t want them to sit in the lunch room for 30 minutes, supervised by a gruff gym teacher reading the sports section? Would he have said, “Okay, fine, but I’ll pick them up,” and taken them to Seoul on a later flight? Would he have signed them out during lunch and raced them to Portland? Would she have found their empty dresser in time?
In time to do what?
In Korea, men remember her face. They see it on KBS news. MBC news. They download the image of her on the courthouse steps, face strewn with pixelated tears, from the Korea Times website. They send letters. In them they express sorrow for her cowardly husband’s actions. They propose discussing his cowardice over dinner. Some men claim to be lawyers. They promise to win Heejoung custody of her children. But first she must meet them for dinner. She doesn’t. They spell too poorly for lawyers. Other men ask how horrible a man must be in order to abandon such a beautiful woman, an intelligent woman, a woman who must eat out occasionally, right? A mechanic in Seoul compares her husband to a bunny rabbit and then compares himself to a lion. But a lion would chase her in person. A lion would not fix others’ cars.
The letters speak to her vanity but keep talking. They remind her that her husband has fled to Korea with her children, leaving, in their place, two mortgages she hadn’t known existed. The letters remind her that the Korean judicial system supports him. A father cannot kidnap his children, the court has decided. And: The children live in a large white house, their beds made daily by a capable stepmother. They are well fed and better educated; they earn top marks at boarding school. He has hurt her, not their sons. Doesn’t she want what’s best for her children?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if, during breakfast, Jun got oatmeal on his collar and when she brought him upstairs to change the closet was empty? Would he have said that Dad stuffed their clothes in a suitcase? That he planned to take them to Seoul?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if, as she zipped Sang Min’s coat, he said, I need to tell you a secret: Dad defaulted on his second mortgage. Our TV, our swings, this briefcase (he lifts it over his head, leaning from the effort), everything belongs to the bank?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if as her husband waited in the car the boys said, adorably, in unison, Dad tries to buy our affection with toys and sweets because, unlike you, he does not really love us and fears we will not love him back? That is why he is kidnapping us. Because we love you more than we love him. Would she feel any better if they said that?
Whitfield, March 19, 2008
What if they said? What if they said? What if they said?
A church friend has given Heejoung a hostess job at the Japanese restaurant he owns. The restaurant is rarely busy. She spends entire shifts considering appeals to the high court in Seoul, or imagining the American court, which has granted her custody, reaching its hands into Seoul to scoop up her sons and return them to Whitfield. She reimagines that morning in March, down to the fried-egg-and-boy-sweat scent of Sang Min’s jacket, the granola bar crumbs she found on Jun’s pillow. She enters the morning wherever she pleases. During breakfast. Hugging Sang Min and reaching for Jun. From the front door watching her husband’s Corolla drive off. But she cannot change anything. She has created a museum in her mind.
Eric, the first waiter on shift, tells her he loves her. He does not really love her. It’s a game they play. She tells him she loves him. He leaves to check on his tables.
Bored, Heejoung watches people rush past on the sidewalk, noting hairstyles, the wash of their jeans, distinguishing limps. Sometimes, hours after they pass, or days, weeks, they return to the restaurant, and she likes to surprise them with her memory, to smile and say, when they open the door, “I knew you’d come back.”
The women waited for Olivia. Perched on their lawn chairs beneath the dogwood, which blossomed in leathery white bursts, Nel thought they looked more like they were waiting for their youth. Leanne had slathered on so much foundation she resembled an overripe tangerine, and Connie stank of French perfume. Nel regretted wearing new capris. The white pants had looked effortless on the pretty, child-like model in the catalogue, but they hung limply from her own middle-aged waist. What would Kevin call them if he walked into the backyard now? A gaggle, she thought. A gaggle of women, hoping for some mid-afternoon miracle that would transform them from mere sacks of marriages and motherhood into pristine girls again.
She was perhaps being melodramatic. They waited on Olivia, the childhood friend they had not seen for twenty-five years, ever since she’d disappeared with her new-found husband to Iran. Then Iraq, then Jordan, then God only knew where because they’d lost touch. Tajikistan, maybe. Somewhere unpronounceable that would make her friends back home twist their mouths ungracefully.
Olivia was late.
Leanne swatted at the yellow rain of pollen. “It’s hot,” she said. “Too hot to sit outside.” She’d foolishly worn mascara, although summer had arrived early in Durham. Now gunpowder splotches seeped from the corners of her eyes.
“Drinks.” Connie leapt from her seat. “Margaritas? Mimosas? Olivia loves mimosas.”
That Nel only had whiskey and gin did not concern Connie, who clattered through the sliding door into the house. The women had been inside each other’s homes and lives since they were girls; they treated each other’s houses as if any and all could be hostess, although today it was Nel’s turn. Nel’s house. Nel’s liquor cabinet Connie was raiding. Connie had begun the twelve steps to sobriety four times now. She never made it past step one. “One and three-quarters,” Connie claimed.
“Good Lord, I feel like Moses marching through the desert.” Leanne dabbed her cheeks. “The icing on your cupcakes is melting, by the way.”
“It’s lovely out here,” Nel said.
“You’re showing signs of sun damage, Nel. Building all those shacks…”
“It’s taking its toll.”
Over the years, Connie had found the bottle, and Leanne had found God, while Nel collected plywood and power tools and paint to rebuild houses that were falling apart. The Durham streets were haunted with the addresses of buildings she’d gutted over the years.
Nel placed a mesh fly cover over the pretty cakes and tea sandwiches she’d made. It was a little warm now that the sun had clipped the chimney, filling the gutter with light. But Nel would not budge; the garden was beautiful. Dandelions pushed through the soil. Leaves unfurled, thin-skinned and pale. At the bottom of the gravel path, the pond sparkled with the stars you couldn’t see during the day.
“Outside or in, Olivia will seat us wherever she feels like anyway,” Leanne complained. “She always gets what she wants.”
“The type of woman who goes to ladies’ night at the gun range…”
Leanne stared into the sky above the pond as if it might turn into a shell of wood. She was into her spirits. Water turning into wine. Women dissolving into salt. She saw salvation in the eye of every storm.
Olivia was in town to dispose of her mother’s remains. Nel had learned this from Leanne, who’d heard it from her pastor and had carried the news directly to the house Nel was restoring on Morning Glory Road. Nel had looked up too fast and slipped on the pitched gable, scraping her knee against the hip of the roof. That evening she’d sat beside her husband Kevin, who was counting his overtime hours till retirement, while he pretended to read his book. Nel did not mention Olivia. She watched the midges cluster around the porch light.
They heard her voice first, calling out to ask if anyone was home. Connie, who had returned with three tall glasses, loud with ice, snapped upright, and Leanne’s face tore unpleasantly into a smile. Then a shadow rubbed against the table, buffing the iron a tin-can blue. Olivia. Appearing as if summoned from the nastiness that had been leaking from their hearts.
Nel had imagined this meeting for years. She’d thought Olivia’s skin would be leathered from years beneath the Arab sun, her thin body cured into strips of tough salted meat, like jerky that had been well-chewed. Olivia herself would be shy at first, then grateful for being received. Nel had never settled on whether there’d be tears, and this uncertainty paralyzed her momentarily. She couldn’t say for sure, but when she turned, she thought she smiled politely and said “welcome,” or “hello”; at least not “where were you, you bitch?” This last, a surprise, since she had not been angry with Olivia before she arrived.
Olivia was thicker. She wore an exquisite floral print dress in satin and lace that wrapped too tightly across her wide hips and thighs. When they hugged, Nel’s body grazed the folds of her ample flesh, soft and lumpy, and smelling like modest mountains of cold cream.
They stepped apart. Leanne drew in her breath, exhaled, folded her arms. Connie grinned. Nel offered Olivia a sandwich. “Barbecue?”
Olivia hesitated. “You’re not vegetarian now, are you?” Connie said. Squawked. Her glass was already empty.
“I always have been,” Olivia said. Only lapsed at times.”
Such as the first seventeen years of her life, if Nel recalled right, setting the assorted pork and salmon-cream cheese sandwiches down among the cupcakes, speckled with bacon bits.
The booze, at least, sufficed. When Connie returned with a pitcher of straight gin, a plate of limes, and an extra glass, Olivia did not protest.
“You must miss alcohol,” Connie said. “Living among Muslims.”
“There’s no shortage of alcohol in Syria,” Olivia said. “Syria invented beer.”
“Still,” Leanne said. “It can’t be as easy as drinking in a Christian country. It can’t be as easy as drinking here.”
“I’ve had wonderful wine in Syria. It’s so close to Europe after all.”
Which North Carolina, with the vast Atlantic eating at its shores, was not.
“What’s it like…” Nel began.
“Glorious. A hassle changing anything when your streets are stuffed with history, but Syria has such a sense of place.”
Nel nodded, absently. She was trying to dry the sweat from her calf. Her husband had been right. The pants made her look old, exposing her ropey blue veins.
Olivia said, “Still, life is life everywhere, you know?”
They did not. They’d only ever lived in Durham.
“I meant, what’s it like to be back here after all this time,” Nel said.
“Little’s changed apart from the empty buildings. Half the town is boarded up.”
This was not true. The city was thriving. But as Nel was about to say as much, she noticed that the paint on the table had turned a jaundiced gray, and in places had chipped away. She saw the garden as Olivia did: the lawn a mean tangle of weeds, the earth beneath Durham, clay. Only the cruelest plants survived. Kudzu crept along the branches and strangled the telephone poles, as if squeezing out the last breath of spring. Even the pond water was warm and stagnant. Its surface shone as if coated in Vaseline.
That was Olivia, alright. She turned gold into sawdust. Because she’d lived in the Middle East, swum in the Mediterranean, though they were just names you could point to on a map, like anywhere else.
Nel had dreams of water. Not of vast ocean-blue stretches though. She dreamt that she melted, and melted, she made a small puddle of liquid that spread across the floor and seeped away, leaving nothing behind. Not even a stain.
“Blame Nel,” Leanne said. “She bricks up buildings to make shanty-towns.”
“I redevelop buildings to create affordable housing,” Nel explained. She tried to sound upbeat. “Durham’s experiencing a Renaissance. Of sorts. And the poor are being pushed out.”
“We’re bereft,” Leanne said, straight-faced.
“I rip open decaying houses, pull apart the loose felt matting on the roof, the skew nails, the rotten beams; then I stitch it all back together again, properly.”
Nel enjoyed what she did. She enjoyed sanding the floors, softening the strictness of the wood until the planks were pale and quiet, like the bones of a whale. She’d started fixing up houses a few years ago, driving the old roads while her son was in Iraq. He’d since returned from his final tour, all in one piece, thank God. But there were so many projects that still needed her attention. A house, of course, was not a child. Nel knew that. She knew that it would splinter and rot, and in the end would never be more or less than what she’d made.
“So you do all that work and then just give the house away?” Olivia asked.
Nel shrugged. “Sometimes I keep something to remember them by. An old pistol was left behind at the place I’m fixing now.”
The Morning Glory house sat behind a textile mill, abandoned except for kids and gangs and kids in gangs, who used it for sex and drugs and stabbings occasionally. “It’s one of those Remington Rands popular with the military.”
The women wanted to see the gun. Nel had hidden the pistol from her husband and son, who would have thought her guilty of some misplaced sentimentality, and was pleased to have the chance to show it off. In the bedroom upstairs, she felt between her underwear for the slim barrel and the case of cartridges.
“Good Lord,” Leanne said when Nel set the gun and box on the table. She held the pistol in her upward facing palms as if in supplication to some old God. “My pa had one of these.”
“My brothers, too, in Vietnam,” said Connie. “They taught me to shoot on M1911s, in case I got mixed up with the wrong type of man.”
Fat lot of good that had done.
The conversation turned to men. “A rather grand term for those ‘round here. Most are just boys who’ve gotten pruney skinned and started sagging in places,” Leanne said.
Connie agreed, spilling a little as she poured herself another generous glass. “Richard struggles with microwave meals. Well, I didn’t marry him for his brains.”
That much was true. Richard was good looking, but not so much so that many other women would wait on him hand and foot. He fooled around and drank. Sometimes when he drank he liked to fight. Often with Connie.
“I don’t know why you married him at all,” Nel said.
“Oh, Nel,” Olivia said. “We’re women. There’s always someone after us. We don’t want just someone, though, do we?”
“I thought you were happy enough with anyone,” Leanne said.
The pitcher slipped from Connie’s hands, spraying the sandwiches with gin as it fell into Olivia’s lap, then clattered over the patio. The women cried out and tried to dab Olivia’s dress with small squares of tissue paper, but their attentions would have been useless even if they weren’t half-hearted, and they quickly turned to simply surveying the damage. Connie dried the pistol with her hem, and racked the slide expertly.
Olivia laughed. Perhaps it was then, happy in her sticky dress, that they knew she did not resemble the tormented woman they’d created while defending her from gossip once she’d left, knew that she would not climb upon the cross they’d cobbled together for her, that she’d escaped because she believed their lives were wanting.
“Baptized with booze,” Leanne said.
Connie retrieved a bottle of gin from Nel’s liquor cabinet and plonked it down beside the crustless, now sodden, sandwiches.
“How lovely,” Olivia said.
The food, the little party napkins, the paper umbrellas in the kitchen cupboard Nel had bought in case the reunion turned rowdy, all seemed such a waste. Even the weather was turning; a cloud passed across the sun and the bricks began to darken.
She held her breath as Leanne picked up the pistol and aimed at the honeysuckle, squinting down the sight, though she knew that when triggered, the pin would only click. The pistol had rusted. Its machinery was ruined. With a thorough clean it might be resurrected, but she wouldn’t have it serviced.
“What I should have done before the lout left with my credit card,” Leanne said.
Nel shook her head. “You’d have had a line half-way to China looking for your help, and no time to pray.” Olivia smiled at Leanne and Connie and Nel, as if it were all a joke. Mostly, it was.
“You should have brought your kids,” Connie said, refilling Olivia’s glass.
“Just one son. Ardavan studies the cello in Berlin. Not that you’d know. All he talks about is the internet.”
Connie nodded, vigorously. “My son is the same. He’s in Afghanistan, but I just hear about the video games he’s played.” Her voice sounded strangled in the heat, thick with coming thunderstorms.
“My youngest buys and resells stuff online to pay for college,” Leanne said. She hunted in her handbag, found a pack of Marlboro Lights and passed them along. “The military’s not high-minded enough for Clayton. He prefers to sit around a table discussing how democracies are made.”
Which was obvious, to them, anyway: by guns, by bombs, by blood.
“Smart kid.” Olivia lit a smoke and washed the taste out with gin. “Ardavan’s a pacifist, too. Learned from the best, right? Lord, our fathers would have tanned our hides if they’d found us marching against the draft.”
“Which was why we didn’t,” Nel said. “The college girls in Chapel Hill did that. We were only fourteen.”
They’d trooped to church early Sunday mornings instead, before they’d washed the taste of toothpaste from their tongues.
“Leanne didn’t mean Luke was more useful than his brother,” Connie said. “She meant that Luke was willing to lose his life for us. For our freedom.”
Nel wanted to correct Connie. She didn’t admire these kids because of the danger they were in. A boy would throw away his still-unshaped life before he understood its worth. She was impressed by the cut of their collar, the stiffness to their shoulder blades, their obedience to order. You could imagine resting your head on such a body that would not flinch or falter beneath your great, invisible weight. Nel remembered how proud she’d been, seeing her son in uniform. His certainty thrilled, and she’d felt an immense joy that encompassed the sweating day, the hard bleachers, and every one of those cadets.
She’d loved her son when he looked lovely as a soldier. But then he came home from war and wasn’t lovely any longer. Wasn’t waking at dawn and performing his duty. Instead, he fell into disrepair. He sat before the television and God help her if she didn’t pray the fucking power would cut out one day and never turn back on. She avoided him. She accelerated her own schedule, combing the grass for nails, packing the shingles, rotted from years of neglect and shot through with damp holes, into tidy bundles that could be carted off for trash.
“We never marched against the Vietnam War,” Nel repeated. She didn’t know why she needed Olivia to admit she’d lied. Kevin said Nel would choke some day, swallowing Olivia’s tripe hook, line and sinker. Of course, he was jealous. He’d loved her once, too. But Nel had never followed Olivia, never wanted anything except to understand what was in her mind, which had been Nel’s as well, when they were young.
“No one supported the Vietnam War,” Olivia said with a slug of gin.
Leanne said. “You were obsessed with Vietnam vets.”
They’d hunted the boys being shipped away, stalked those who had returned. They’d lavished their affection on those poor souls, who were moved by their generosity. “You hussied up to every dick in uniform, married or not.” At fifteen, they’d tested boundaries they hoped they could not cross.
But they had. They had crossed those invisible lines in the sand and become women far too young. Olivia almost had the child to prove it. If Nel hadn’t driven her, slightly drunk, to the clinic, and waited, sticking uncomfortably to the felt seat while they did whatever it was they did, her boy would have been a year older than Nel’s.
Sometimes, through a wet windshield, Nel thought she saw the pale child swimming through the rain, across a street. His delicate spine, like a sea creature, seemed to have just uncurled. Only after a moment, she realized it was not Olivia’s son, but hers, painstakingly paddling against the current to go back to where he’d been and would not be able to return. And she wondered if it hadn’t been cruel to bring him into this world in the first place, if it would have been kinder to keep him a warm, safe secret of the mind.
“The things we did for love.” Olivia shook her head. “We were young and foolish then.What wonderful days those were. What heartbreakingly beautiful days.” She threw back her head as if to swallow the water in the atmosphere.
They were still foolish as far as Nel was concerned. Only now they were also old. Nel was disappointed in Olivia, in her lame surrender of the history that had tied them together all these years. Dirty clouds streaked white stripes across the Carolina blue, like burnt fat. Nothing would cool them that May.
Olivia upended the bottle into her glass. “The lengths I’ve gone to for love over the years…” She gestured vaguely a great distance. “I spent a week once floating in the Dead Sea.” She slurred a little as she leaned in and squeezed out the last lime juice from the leftover pulp.
Olivia and her husband Darius lived in Jordan then, and one evening were scheduled to attend a fundraising gala for the King’s Cancer Foundation—one of those dreadful events where, faced with microscopic bite-sized meals and emaciated flutes of champagne, guests mill about like parrots repeating the same few lines. Rarefied parrots, obviously, flashing fine silks from Shanghai, delicate leathers worked in Italy; furs from Moscow it would be too hot to wear.
Traffic was abysmal—in the summer a sheet of exhaust settled over the tops of the buildings like a cowl—so Olivia was to meet Darius with the tickets at the Opera House. But an hour before she was to leave, she realized the tickets were missing.
Darius had paid a handsome sum for the event. He was angling over some business deal and his presence at the party, she’d been made to understand, was vital. In search of the stubs, she ransacked the kitchen cupboards half undressed, upended the living room drawers, and shook free the important papers she stored in old library books from her youth, whose margins had been marked up with secret messages years before. Olivia was the type of woman who only appeared not to notice that she inspired unreasoned devotion.
While Olivia generally avoided entering her husband’s office—Darius was particular about his papers, which he placed in delicately balanced, right-angled stacks she feared upsetting—her options had run out, and she removed her slippers and slid the door aside to tiptoe barefoot onto a smart seal-gray rug she did not remember purchasing. The rug beneath her feet was cool and soft, and she shivered, maybe anticipating already what else she might find.
In plain view beside the missing tickets, for instance, a series of documents she knelt to read. Olivia had been under the impression she owned her apartment, but on the mortgage contract she found only her husband’s and son’s names were listed. The reason for the loan referred to a business venture she did not recognize. She took her time reading the fine print. Eventually, even the fancy rug began to scratch. Olivia collected the tickets then, returned the papers to their original position, and that night ate shrimp scampi the King had paired with a dry Austrian white wine. Before bed, she and her husband made love, as they generally did on Wednesdays, but with more vigor than usual. Perhaps inspired by the unusually excellent food, which had caused Darius to rub his paunch with pleasure. Perhaps because, after so many years, her husband could surprise her still.
But Olivia did not forget what she’d read. The papers preyed on her mind as she planned meals and settled the household accounts. She burnt rice thinking about The Oasis Club, which she thought sounded like an escort service. Finally, the power went out when she was blow-drying her hair because she’d forgotten to pay the electricity, and she lost her number one rank at the tennis courts after missing two consecutive games. That was when Olivia concocted a plan.
“I was kidnapped,” she said, gleefully.
Being kidnapped in a Muslim country was actually much harder than the women might have thought. Olivia secreted cash away over a series of months, skimping on imported groceries and allowing donations to lapse. Then she ran an advertisement in the university’s newspaper: Well paid short term work available for computer programmer. Discretion necessary.
She arranged to meet the boys (they were invariably men who’d applied) at Café Des Arts, a student bar her set did not frequent. Still, afraid of being recognized, she took little care with her appearance, not bothering to touch up her pasty skin or smooth the puffiness beneath her eyes.
She regretted her decision when she met Sami. He was a broad shouldered young man, with heavy eyebrows, and perfect skin she wanted to ruin. He glowered at her over the table and she stumbled over a question about his computer experience.
“What do you care? You won’t know what I’m talking about,” he said.
“Plenty of women know a thing or two about computers,” she said.
“Not your age.”
She’d walked stiffly away, wrecking a pair of sandals on the dusty roads when she couldn’t find a cab. The whole affair, she’d realized, had been a silly idea.
And that should have been the end of it. For a week she played bridge and tennis again. She even had the oven cleaned properly. But somehow she soon found herself in the same café, this time wearing stilettos and pants too tight for underwear. Sami sat in a corner, picking through a book.
“I need voice scrambling software and an untraceable phone line,” she said.
He raised his eyebrows, as if the act took real effort, and she breathlessly explained what she wanted him to do.
“We should meet to discuss the logistics.”
He shook his head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Olivia did not recognize the pity in his smile. She only knew it was not kind.
A week later, she booked herself into a resort on the Dead Sea shore, even though it was February, and only tourists crowded the beaches and restaurants. She’d wanted nothing to do with the negotiations. Sami was to demand a million dollar sum and leave a message for Eleanor Smith at the hotel when it was done. A million dollars seemed a reasonable amount.
Did thoughts of the negotiations trouble Olivia as the skin on her back stretched and bunched beneath well-oiled hands? When she rinsed salt from her body in mint scented showers, did she wonder if her husband had contacted Ardavan yet? No, if Olivia thought beyond the edge of the pool that fell away to wave-damaged rocks, it was to think of the twist of Sami’s thin-lipped mouth, to bask in the tingling sensation that came from both waiting for and dreading to hear his voice, knowing they would then not speak again.
Olivia lay at the lowest point on earth. She covered herself in mud, set hot stones along her spine. When she rose from the waters washed clean, she swore it was as if she had been made new.
One hundred and thirteen hours after she checked in at the resort, her husband offered a five hundred thousand dollar ransom. She accepted—Sami sounded bored—and returned in the back of a fraying leather-seated cab, sun-tanned. She and her husband never spoke of the incident, and the ransom money never transferred.
“Five hundred grand,” she said proudly. And only a hundred and thirteen hour wait.
Leanne downed her gin in one long gulp. “What did you expect? You abandoned us all to marry a stinking Arab.” She leaned forward on the table and waved her empty glass dismissively. “And you know what? You’re not smarter, more dignified, more cosmopolitan for fucking a foreigner. You’re still Olivia Gauss of Durham, North Carolina. Nothing more. Just paying to go to fancier parties. That’s all. And you try to tell us about war…”
“We were evacuated from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq…” Olivia said.
“You know about broken houses and someone else’s blood. When your son listens to gunfire, not Bach, when he dies, you’ll know about war.” She stopped herself. Drew a breath. “It’s a crime the good Lord blessed you with a kid after what you did. It’s unjust. So don’t sit there looking so pleased with yourself. You’re just like the rest of us: old and dumb and fat. Only worse, because you don’t seem to know you haven’t won.”
Connie clasped and unclasped her hands. She did this so often, the skin between her long fingers had reddened into hot, secret sores. The color of the rashes they’d imagined their sons suffering from, chewing on the sand that got everywhere.
“I didn’t realize…” Olivia said.
Leanne shook the bottle at her side. “What kind of party is this? We’re out.” It had hurt her terribly, wishing it had been her youngest son with his money-making schemes and not Luke who’d died.
Connie rose unsteadily to her feet, still holding the bottle, and stepped toward the house, then halted suddenly, swaying where she’d stopped. From the driveway, they could hear Kevin’s truck brake, and the engine die. No one moved to clear the glasses from the table. A strange lassitude had settled over them. It was as if Leanne’s outburst had taken something physical, something muscular from them all. Nel couldn’t even bring herself to hide the gun.
Only Olivia seemed immune to this torpor, and she pulled from her handbag a long, dark blue piece of material, the color of the sea. Leanne and Connie watched, horrified, as she placed the cloth over her head and folded the fabric expertly around her face, securing the corners with bobby pins she pursed between her lips. A silk ocean slipped down her back.
Then the sliding door opened with a metallic squeal, and Olivia smiled widely at Nel’s husband.
“Hello, Kev,” she said. She’d always been fond of him. Even after she got rid of the kid.
Something creased in Kevin, folded in on itself as he studied each of the women in turn. Nel would be lying if she said that she did not imagine sometimes what her life would have been like without a son. Mostly, she imagined it wide open and glamorous. On bad days, it was just the same. They loved each other, Kevin and Nel, in their way.
Nel was not jealous of the large other world into which Olivia had vanished; she had a son who had served his country and survived, a caring husband, which was more than most. She built affordable housing for heaven’s sake! Her goddamn world burst from the tight seams into which it was sewn. If anything, Olivia’s world was not wide enough. They’d imagined so much for her. They were bound to be angry in the end that even she could not escape the disappointments of age.
“What’s going on?” Kevin asked.
“Get some whiskey for us, will you, love?” Nel lit a cigarette from the open carton and thought of all it must have taken for Olivia to place her faith in a single man, to tuck her incredible soul into a tiny corner of her husband’s heart. No matter how fat, how excellent the container, he would not be able to contain that trust. And why should he? Why should they covet such small prizes as a husband’s love when they’d compromised the rest of their lives away? It seemed such a silly thing to cling to.
“Nel, what the heck is going on?”
The house creaked. The hot wind shook the pipes, which shuddered and struck the wooden walls. In a few hours the sky would be dark as the inside of an oven, and the lightning would flicker like busted filaments. But not yet. Nel was ready now to talk.
“We are remembering,” she said, perfectly happy. They’d started to look back, started to pull apart the story they’d constructed to cover the desperation that gnawed in those dark, empty minutes at their lives. She could feel a new loneliness crack apart inside her, like an egg. There was no stopping now the kingdoms they could lose.
Milena always reminded me of a backdrop to a bleak landscape, a woman unlikely to arouse much conscious consideration, though she hovered around like an uncertain but inescapable future punishment. She popped in and out of our lives at random, insignificant moments. There was, for instance, that typically drab October afternoon in Frankfurt. I was strolling along the river with my mother and her friend Sandra. The harsh wind was blowing dead leaves around our feet, and we were getting our first bitter taste of German fall. I was only half-attending to the adults’ conversation, as I recalled that morning’s history class. The teacher had called on me to summarize the assigned reading. I’d pretended I hadn’t read it, embarrassed by the thought of speaking in front of everyone in my broken German. “I don’t know,” I’d quietly murmured and shaken my head. My classmates bore silent witness to my humiliation, as my heart crawled under my desk in shame.
I caught fragments of Sandra’s story about a recent date with a German banker. “Nothing special,” she snorted, and pulled her mink coat more tightly around her. “He’s insignificant. I’m a bombshell compared to him.”
“You didn’t have fun?” my mother asked.
“How could I? I could smell his bad breath from across the table. At least I got a free dinner out of it. I should focus on Bosnian men again. They understand me so much better.”
Someone suddenly called out my mother’s name.
“Lili, is that you?”
We turned around, and there she was, Milena. Like some preordained misfortune that had finally caught up with me.
She lived in our dilapidated apartment complex on the outskirts of Frankfurt. The place was a hub for Bosnian refugees. Our families gravitated towards each other, grasping for any sense of familiarity in their new world, for people they could talk to easily, without having to string together awkward words in a harsh, foreign tongue. Milena came from our hometown of Jajce. Her husband Dalibor and my father had been high school classmates, bonded by shared memories of long bygone days, when their pranks had been the talk of the town and a promising future awaited – steady government jobs and apartments in one of Jajce’s new building complexes, vacations on the Adriatic and cars on credit, all the comforts of small-town Bosnian adulthood they could rightly expect to be theirs. And yet it had all turned out otherwise.
My mother always begged me to befriend their daughter Sanja. “Sanja’s your age. Be nice to her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends,” she pleaded. I sometimes halfheartedly tried to draw her out. But attaining popularity among my German classmates was no easy feat for an awkward Bosnian refugee girl, and the last thing I needed was a strange friend like her to set me back. Sanja, with her translucent cheeks and the prominent dark blue vein on her forehead, didn’t seem to care that much for my friendship anyway. Though every once in a while, she did look away from the TV screen and open up to me. Once she fleetingly whispered into my ear, “I hate growing up. It’s so stupid. My period won’t stop. I’ve been bleeding all month.” She’d seen a doctor, she told me. He had advised her to relax. But that must have been difficult in a household like hers.
As Milena hurried towards us, her long, brown scarf blowing wildly around her, I realized we had not seen their family in a while.
“Are you on some crazy new diet? Have you stopped eating?” my mother asked as she embraced her.
“It just peels off. I don’t know why,” Milena said, and nervously waved her hand into the air. As she did so, the scarf slid to the side and revealed a set of brown bruises along her neck.
“I called you a few times. Nobody ever answers the phone.”
“I haven’t been home,” she said and moved closer to us. Then, with her eyes darting around, as if she were on the lookout for some looming danger, she volunteered in a confiding voice, “I don’t live there anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where did you go?”
“Not too far away,” she whispered. She straightened her back, looked at us and continued. “It’s a shelter for women. Visit me sometime. Sanja’s with me.”
“We’ll come soon,” my mother said and nudged me, a quiet admonishment to stay silent, just as I was about to open my mouth to ask questions.
Milena’s hushed allusions to marital strife were not surprising. All the Bosnian couples around us fought. Alcohol, religion and our many bitter losses were their arguments’ steady themes. The walls in our apartment complex were thin, and gossip about the latest screaming match spread with unbounded fury. Except for a couple of childless newlyweds, who’d married ecstatically in the midst of the worst fighting, as if the unraveling of everything around them had been a dream and not their reality, I could not think of a single family that was unaffected by the complex mess our transient lives had become.
But Dalibor and Milena’s fights seemed more ominous. Like so many Bosnian couples, they had different religious backgrounds. Dalibor was a Catholic Croat and Milena, an Orthodox Serb. Dalibor sometimes complained bitterly to my father, a bottle of beer attached to his hand. “She should convert to my faith. Shouldn’t she?” What am I supposed to do with that woman? If she won’t, she can go to the river and live under the bridge. Or float away with all those ugly container ships. Someplace far away.”
We didn’t talk to Milena much longer that November afternoon by the river. “Don’t tell Daco where I am. He doesn’t know,” she said and walked away from us towards the bridge underpass. As her bony back faded into the distance, blending with the flock of gray ducks that were resting peacefully under the bridge, I wondered about Sanja. Was she still bleeding every day? Or were things better for her in the shelter?
After our encounter by the river, I did not give Milena or her altered circumstances much further thought. Perhaps it was more pleasant not to think of women like her. Or perhaps my own, well-worn worries preoccupied me too much to leave any emotional space for the sorrows of casual acquaintances.
A few months later, Sandra mentioned she’d seen Milena shopping with her husband at Aldo’s. “They seemed happy,” Sandra said, puffing on a cigarette.
“I guess this means they’re back together,” my mom replied slowly, in a flat voice.
Soon afterwards, we received an invitation to Milena’s baptism. She was to convert to Catholicism in Paulskirche on a Sunday afternoon. We did not attend, and we never went to Dalibor and Milena’s house again. We moved to a different neighborhood where there were no Bosnian families, cutting us off from that epicenter of gossip that was our old apartment complex.
Still, news of Milena and Dalibor trickled in now and then. They were part of the initial wave of refugees that returned to Bosnia when the war ended. I wasn’t surprised. Dalibor had always said he’d be the first in line to go back. To him everything was better in Bosnia, the tomatoes and the cheese, and the air he breathed and the water he drank. But there were food and fuel shortages when they returned, and Dalibor could not get back his old job at the Elektrobosna factory, which he’d been counting on all along. At first he did some construction work for the United Nations peacekeeping force. In later years, he opened a shop in the town’s center, near the waterfall.
My grandmother still lived in Jajce, and she mentioned Milena to me over the phone. “She looks like an old woman,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her at first. I almost walked right past her.”
Milena wasn’t seen out and about much. Dalibor took over the grocery shopping and other household chores, full of some newfound, seemingly inexhaustible energy. Local women made fun of him when he cheerfully bargained with the peasants over cheese prices at the marketplace. The only time Milena left her house was when she visited abandoned Orthodox monuments near Jajce, or the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God, near the catacombs. The church was bombed during the war. Nobody had bothered to clean up the ruins, though some stone slabs and fragments of icons still littered the church grounds. She did not seem to mind. She sat among the wreckage, her eyes fixed for hours at some vague spot in the distance.
People also sometimes saw her walking along the Pliva river near the waterfall. She’d stand at the shore and stare at the currents, a brooding, solitary woman who’d aged abruptly and unkindly. Nobody bothered to talk to her or tried to penetrate behind the half-veiled sadness that encompassed her. That is, until the day her body washed up on the Pliva shore at Jajce’s exit, swollen and with some dead leaves and branches tangled in her hair. Then she was suddenly the only thing on everyone’s minds.
Dalibor buried her in the town’s Catholic graveyard. It was a miracle he found an open spot of land amidst the many overgrown, forgotten graves of Jajce’s dead, whose families had emigrated too far away to tend to them.
My grandmother, who was always up to date on the latest local tragedy, was well informed about Milena’s case. “Of course she died of guilt. She never wanted to be a Catholic. Her conscience wouldn’t give her any peace. Why did he bury her in the Catholic graveyard, people ask. It was the final straw. That rogue should have known better.” I wondered what else there was to the story, and what had really been going on behind Milena’s house curtains while we’d treated her as a mere shadow.
For a while, Milena was all that people talked about. But they tired of the topic eventually. The gossip slowed to a trickle and Milena’s story was supplanted by some other, more current tragedy. For some reason, I kept my silent tabs on the remnants of her world. Though I’d never thought much of Milena when she was alive, in death my preoccupation with her grew. I periodically inquired about her daughter and husband. Somebody told me he still had his small store. Sanja worked there, too. After closing the shop at twilight, they usually strolled together across the bridge towards their house, their steps aligned in silent harmony.
After Milena’s death, Dalibor took up gardening. “When it’s nice out I bet you anything he’s out there weeding the flower beds in his dirty blue overalls,” my grandma said. “He’s obsessed. As if nothing else exists. It’s the most beautiful garden in town, though. That much I’ll admit.” I asked her to send me a photograph of the garden, which I now keep in a drawer with some old letters and other sentimental trinkets. Every once in a while, I pull it out and study the image, searching for who knows what, as I behold the neat rows of red and white roses in their springtime bloom, the potted yellow geraniums by the entrance gate and the lilac jasmine trees lining the garden’s edges.
Want great poetry and fiction every month?
For the last hundred miles, Brooks’ ten-year-old son, Adler, had been yelling profanities out the window. It started during a break from driving. To stretch their legs they jogged down a rural road along the wire fence separating the pavement from endless rolling hills of grazing land. The red-hued cattle saw them coming and turned parallel to the road, their stampede kicking up a billowing cloud.
Adler kept chasing them. “Stupid cows,” he yelled, as they dashed in the direction he was going, never doubling back or turning away from the road, where they’d be free of him. It was only when Brooks got tired, over a mile from the car, that he had the boy turn back.
“Can you believe that,” Adler said, walking backwards so that he could keep taunting the cattle. “Dumb Cows.” Then he sucked in his breath and bellowed, “Asshole cows!” while eyeing his father to gauge his reaction. When there was none, he yelled it again. “Asshole Cows!”
Back in the car and driving with his window down, Adler screamed into the wind, emptying every cuss word he knew at the animals. Brooks didn’t interfere. He hoped bringing the boy to open, wild places would help him purge whatever anger was knotted up inside of him, and if this was the sound of that happening, he was okay with it.
“Look at that candy-ass, schmuck of a baby cow,” Adler said as they passed a Black Angus calf that had somehow gotten through the fence and was separated from its braying mother. Adler undid his seatbelt and reared around so he was propped on his knees, looking out the rear window of the car. “I think we should help that one.”
This was in western Idaho. That day alone they’d passed hundreds of miles of rolling landscape sectioned off by barb wire into pastures full of Black Angus and Indian ponies, and as they had no real schedule, no time frame, Brooks did a U-turn and pulled onto the side of the road. When he cut the engine and heard the sad bleating of the mother cow, he imagined himself silently lifting the calf over the fence and seeing the look of understanding and pride on Adler’s face.
The shoulder of the road dipped down a twenty foot embankment that Brooks had to jog to keep from falling. At the bottom of the slope he realized how wrong he’d been about the size of the calf. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. Seeing Brooks dash toward it down the incline, it tried to force itself back through the wire. The barbs bit into the fat part of its hind leg and tore back some of the skin. The calf spit out a terrible Muurrrr. Mawwww. When its mother stepped closer, Brooks saw that she was easily a foot taller than he was, and he leapt back. But the calf was stuck. Its struggling moved the wire up and down like a jigsaw blade, and the pink gashes in its body widened as it writhed. Muurrrr. Mawwww. Brooks stood back up and reached for its leg to pull it loose.
“Push that son-of-a-bitch through!” Adler yelled from the road.
Brooks stepped forward and planted the sole of his sneaker against the flailing calf’s leg. He booted it through, tearing its skin worse, but freeing it back into the pasture. The mother ran to it and they both trotted away. Brooks studied the tufts of bloody skin and black fur shaking on the barbs. The calf had probably stepped through the wire easily enough, and would have found its own way back had he not scared it. He felt foolish, and hoped Adler hadn’t seen the cuts.
“That was smooth,” said Adler as Brooks climbed back up to the road, but he didn’t look to see if his son was serious or mocking and he didn’t want to know. A familiar wave of uneasiness appeared to descend upon him from the vast blue sky. His mind went numb except for some hot, dark presence in that corner that he tried to avoid, the corner from which emanated his sad, mealy-mouthed self-doubt.
They got back into the car and kept traveling, west by northwest, the way they’d been for the last three weeks, slowly finding crooked back roads to lead them across country. Brooks tried to shake the fear such wilderness raised in him and to remember that he’d wanted this—a chance to give Adler the wonder, the essential miracle of the world. This was the opposite of where he came from. In Illinois, where his marriage had imploded, he had ached for wild places, for some geographical feature to make him feel peaceful and humble, opposed to the traffic in his suburb, which made him feel frantic and small. For a long time Brooks did not say anything.
Then Adler pointed out the window to a river that cut a serpentine path through the wilds. “Dad, God damn, will you look at that,” as if offering a foul mouthed benediction to the unfolding road.
Want great poetry and fiction every month?
For a week in the middle of March, Paul Haberman felt increasingly out of sorts. Not much appetite, lousy sleep. In meetings he’d find himself absently chewing a knuckle. When the phone rang after nine at night, he braced for calamity. The wind blew hard against his bedroom window, and he imagined his neighbor’s oak tipping onto the roof. Lying in bed, with Cynthia huffing peacefully beside him, he asked himself what could be the matter and then did his best to answer. Maybe he’d been working too hard. Maybe he was troubled by the state of the world. Maybe by the fact that his stepchildren were growing up too fast. Or maybe it had been two months since he’d taken his car to the Baron. As soon as it grew light enough outside, he picked up the phone and dialed.
“Dr. H!” the Baron shouted on the other end of the line. “Why’s it been so long?”
“Lost track of time,” Paul said.
“You, maybe. But not that big beauty of yours. She needs a man who’s regular.”
“Any chance I can bring it—her—tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, huh? Pretty busy, doc. But for your sweet lady, sure.”
The Baron always called Paul doctor, and Paul never corrected him. At first he’d held back out of caution; maybe all the Baron’s clients were doctors, and if he found out Paul was only a lawyer, he might turn him away. Paul had since crossed paths with others of the Baron’s clients, and among them were a pharmaceutical executive, a stock analyst, the president of a pest company. But now they’d known each other more than three years, far too long to set things straight without embarrassment. Still, Paul hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea of the Baron picturing him in a white coat, peering into people’s ears. When the Baron said, “Better cancel all your patients before noon,” it took Paul a moment to answer, and when he finally did, he could only murmur, “They won’t miss me.”
“I doubt that,” the Baron said. “But it’s what I appreciate about you, doc. Most of these guys, they think a medical degree turns their turds into bonbons.”
The misunderstanding had likely come about because it was a doctor who’d first sent Paul to the Baron—a podiatrist, who’d talked for an hour about his Alfa Romeo while digging a plantar wart out of Paul’s heel. As it turned out, he had a hard time talking and working at the same time, and he’d often pause to make a point, bloody scalpel jabbing the air above Paul’s toes. “I thought the whole transmission was blown. But the Baron talked me down. Cost me a couple grand, but she runs better than ever.” Paul worried the novocaine would wear off before he’d finished so refrained from asking questions. But after the third mention of the Baron he couldn’t resist. The Baron of what? By then, in any case, the doctor was cauterizing the hole in his foot, and he wanted distraction from the smell of his burning flesh.
“You don’t use a dealership, do you?” the doctor asked. “Might as well have my two-year-old change your oil.” Then he lowered his voice and glanced over his shoulder to be sure the nurse wasn’t lurking in the doorway. “Don’t tell him you’re a patient. Just say I sent you.”
He slipped Paul a card. The Flarin’ Baron, it read. Italian and American cars only! Underneath the phone number was a drawing of a hot-rod with flames bursting out of its rear. Was this meant to inspire confidence? After the doctor finished, Paul hobbled across the parking lot on his still-numb foot. He had no interest in Alfa Romeos that could take a hairpin turn at eighty miles an hour, without braking. But all the way home he thought he heard something rattling under his Imperial’s hood. That afternoon he called the number.
The truth was, he always believed something was wrong with his car. Within a few weeks of having it serviced he’d imagine his tires were going bald on one side, or his brake pads were wearing thin, or his radiator had cracked. The more time passed, the more convinced he became that a complete breakdown was imminent. Not having learned to drive until he was in his late thirties, he was still amazed that a person could sit behind the wheel of a metal box and careen down the freeway without exploding into flames as fierce as those on the Baron’s card. Every so often he’d open his hood and gaze into the tangle of pipes and wires, belts and filters, and understanding nothing of what he saw, experience an odd palpitation in his chest, along with a flash of heat in his face. How could this mess get him down the street, much less across state lines? How could it keep him from stalling on the Turnpike or from skidding into a semi on the George Washington Bridge?
Driving into downtown Denville, where the Baron’s garage was tucked between the old library, abandoned for a larger and less convenient space to the north, and an imposing Methodist church, Paul already noted a loosening in his neck muscles and jaw. The blustery weather had calmed, and though the sky was still overcast, through the dashboard vents he caught an anticipatory whiff of spring. He breathed it in and promised himself he’d come here more often. So what if it meant taking a morning off work once a month?
The garage was a nondescript building made of cinder blocks painted blue, with two sliding aluminum doors that were always closed, and set to one side, a fiberglass garden shed that served as an office. There was no sign to mark it, nothing in the way of advertising or welcome. Paul knew to pull around back, where a pair of pick-up trucks from the fifties sat on blocks, rusting beside a metal fence topped with sagging barbed wire. There he honked three times, and with the engine still running, he waited. Five minutes passed, ten. Finally, a windowless door—too small, it seemed, for the size of the building—sprang open, and out stepped the Baron, in dark blue coveralls and safety goggles, unruly tufts of black hair above both ears and centered over his forehead. Clear scalp everywhere else.
“Doc!” he called, arms spread, palms up, as he made his way across the yard, a void of cracked concrete and discarded exhaust pipes. “Why you treating this baby so bad? She needs some lovin’.”
When he reached the Imperial, he stroked its hood and cocked an ear to listen to the hum of its belts. Then he walked around it twice, kicking tires, signaling Paul to turn on headlights and blinkers, pointing up to indicate he should step on the gas. “Shove over,” he said, and Paul slid into the passenger seat. With the Baron came the smell of singed fabric or hair. For another few minutes, he fiddled with turn signals, wipers, heat controls, radio knobs, frowning the entire time, and Paul readied himself for bad news. But the Baron only nodded, caressed the steering wheel, leaned close to the dashboard, whispered something Paul couldn’t hear. Then he straightened, smacked his hands together, tipped his head to the side. “Off you go.”
Paul slipped out and watched him roll the Imperial around to the front of the building. By the time he made it there himself, the car had already disappeared inside, and the sliding door was closed. In three years he’d never once glimpsed what went on behind it.
Instead he waited in the little office, on the only chair, which was really just a stool on wheels in front of the folding table that served as the Baron’s desk. The only other furniture in the shed was a filing cabinet, either full or unused, stacks of papers leaning against it. On one wall hung two flags, Italian and American. The others were covered in posters of cars—Maserati and Mustang, Fiat and Firebird—none of them framed, several hanging loose at one corner, a smudged loop of tape showing where it drooped forward. The only image not automotive was a photograph of the Baron, whose real name was Ronnie Gianella, with his wife and three mostly grown boys, the oldest twenty-three, the youngest seventeen. The photo, also unframed, had been shot on a cruise ship. In the background, calm Caribbean water an impossible blue, a lumpy ridge of coral visible in the distance. On deck, everyone was looking in a different direction, one of the boys leaning over the railing, another scowling at the camera, the youngest laughing at something out of sight. When it was taken, the Baron, five years younger, had had more hair but looked otherwise unchanged, broad squashed nose and skin the color of smoked pork, little eyes that seemed to have trouble peering out of their deep sockets.
Of them all, only his wife appeared content, a few steps removed form the group, smiling serenely at her boys, head covered in a silk scarf that didn’t hide the absence of hair underneath. When Paul had first come to the Baron she’d just finished her second round of chemo. “Seems to be doing the job,” the Baron had said. But then, slicing both hands down his chest, added, “Didn’t save her beauties, though. Went from Delray curves to flat as a Caprice.”
It was half an hour before the Baron joined him in the office, and when he did, he was frowning again, shaking his head, safety goggles reflecting the overhead light. Before he could open his mouth, Paul stood and said, “I know I should have come sooner—”
“You got that right.”
“It’s been a busy time.”
“No excuse,” the Baron said. “Great girl like that, you shouldn’t neglect her.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“She needs attention. You know how it goes—she starts feeling like she’s being taken for granted, then she gets cranky.”
“Is it bad?”
The Baron’s expression shifted from disapproval to sympathy, and he put an arm around Paul’s shoulder. “Could be worse,” he said. “Could be a lot worse. Be thankful for that.”
He led Paul to the table, where he penciled out a list of services, adjustments, replacement parts. Paul understood little of it—didn’t tires rotate automatically whenever he drove?—but he agreed to each of the Baron’s suggestions. Cooling fan? Okay. Oil pan gasket? Sure. Wiper blades and fluid? Yes, yes. Only when the Baron mentioned an evaporator coil for the air conditioning did Paul hesitate. “Something’s wrong with the air?” he asked. “Seemed to be working just fine.”
The Baron frowned again and took a step away. “Sure it works,” he said, voice inflected with insult. “But efficiently? Hell no. Chews through all our girl’s gas. Notice how often you been filling the tank?”
Paul hadn’t. Nor had he turned on the air since last summer. But he gave an apologetic shrug and gestured at the list. “Whatever you think it—she needs.”
“Can’t do things halfway,” the Baron said. He leaned back on his heels, thumbs tucked into cloth loops on the coveralls. Pinched brows shadowed the whole of his eyes. “Not here.”
“You’re right. I know.”
“Come to me, it means you’re all in.”
“Of course,” Paul said.
“She worth it to you?”
“Okay, then,” the Baron said. His brows relaxed, and he touched the tip of his pencil to his lips. “So. We finish off with some new spark plugs, grease the drive shaft, and she’s a girl who feels pampered.”
For a minute the Baron scrutinized the list, tapping the pencil on the tuft of wiry hair above his right ear. Then, without itemizing anything or making any calculations, he came up with a number, scrawling it quickly at the bottom of the page. He circled it, slapped the pencil on the table, shoved the paper at Paul, and turned his back, attending to a piece of mail he pulled from the top of a nearby stack. Paul knew to wait a moment before picking up the pencil and adding his initials. After he did, he cleared his throat and asked, “How’s Janelle?”
When the Baron turned back to him, he was grinning a tired grin, the goggles propped on top of his head. “Thanks for asking, doc.”
“Last time I was in she was getting ready for radiation.”
“Seems like it took. We’ll know more next month.”
“I’ll be thinking about her.”
“Could be worse, you know? Two years, total remission. And they got it early this time.”
“And the boys?” Paul asked. “Doing any better?”
The Baron blinked his little eyes and wiped his palms on the front of his coveralls. “Up and down, I guess. Mike’s working again, but his marriage, forget it. John and me, we just do better when we don’t talk at all. He’s good to his mom, anyway. And Jeremy, I think he’s learned his lesson. He’ll stay out of trouble, for the most part. But he’ll never have a normal life, not now. I’ll be taking care of him until they put me in the ground. But you know, could be—” He ran a hand down his face, recharging his grin, and let out an awkward little shout of laughter. “How ’bout you? Aside from your beauty out there? Things been good?”
Paul rubbed a thumb over his knuckle, chapped where he’d bitten it. “No complaints,” he said.
“I’d swap places with you in a heartbeat, doc,” the Baron said. Then he backhanded the air in front of him, as if swatting away clinging fingers. “Now get lost so I can take care of your girl.”
For an hour Paul walked around the little town center, poking his head into a magazine and cigar shop, a jeweler’s, a bakery where he came away with a cheese danish. He ate it on a bench in the riverside park, watching mallards paddle around the shallows, dipping green heads into murky water. The sun had begun breaking through clouds, and though the air was still crisp, he was comfortable enough to lean back and stretch an arm across wooden slats, two fingers picking idly at flaking paint.
No complaints. Wasn’t it true? Sure, there were the long hours at work, the traveling that wore him out, the sore throat that had nagged him much of the winter. There was his stepdaughter Joy, fifteen, spending afternoons with a rodent-faced boyfriend—her first—who lived with his grandmother in a dilapidated bungalow just off Route 10. Where the parents were Paul had no idea. He wore shirts that hung lopsided, jeans rolled above filthy sneakers. Whenever Paul answered his calls, which always came at odd hours—ten-thirty on a weeknight, seven on a Sunday morning—he didn’t say hello or announce himself but just grunted, “Can you put her on?” A month ago Joy had come home with mouth-sized bruises on her neck. Last week, while folding laundry, Paul picked up a pair of silk underwear, blue and trimmed with lace, far too small for Cynthia.
And then there was his stepson Kyle, two years younger, recently hammering sheets of plywood into a sprawling maple at the edge of the backyard. Wasn’t he too old for a treehouse? Paul asked, and in response, Kyle spit in the grass and said, “It’s not a treehouse. It’s a fort.” To keep out marauders? “Man, I just need my own space,” Kyle said. He’d swiped the wood, it turned out, from a construction site at the top of the ridge, and a few evenings later a contractor knocked on the front door. He’ been up and down half the streets in the neighborhood so far and had found his supplies at every house with a kid in junior high. Paul led him out back and helped him carry away what wasn’t already nailed down. He wrote a check for the rest, while Kyle sulked in the half-built fort, a pair of boards leaning crookedly across two limbs, a rickety ladder of two-by-fours spiraling up the maple’s trunk. “He’s not really mine,” Paul told the contractor, who tucked the check in his pocket and said, “Know what you mean. I’ve got two. Most days I’d happily sell them to the fucking circus.”
These were things he might have complained about, but not to the Baron. They weren’t the same as having a son unemployed and breaking up his marriage, another who wouldn’t speak to you, a third who’d broken into a liquor store and gone to jail. They certainly weren’t the same as having a wife who’d lost her breasts and hair to cancer, who was having radiation treatment after a two-year remission. They were things he could keep to himself, though now they seemed to drift with the ducks crossing to the far bank, the current carrying their opalescent heads and sooty backs a dozen yards downstream. Janelle Gianella. It was a lovely name, one of the loveliest he’d ever heard. He’d always wondered if she’d married the Baron just so she could have it. On his third or fourth visit, the Baron had insisted Paul call him Ronnie, but Paul had never been able to, not even in his thoughts. It was too silly a name for an adult. Why not go by Ron or Ronald? A few visits later, he’d asked Paul if he might take a peek at his wife’s latest PET scan, see if he agreed that she needed another round of Cytoxan. “We like our doctors fine,” the Baron said. “But you know, sometimes it’s good to get another look.” He’d be happy to, Paul muttered, but it wasn’t his specialty, and he didn’t know if he’d really be able to help… “I understand, doc. You’re a busy man. Forget I asked.”
Janelle Gianella. He found himself repeating the name silently, the sound of it as lulling as that of the water easing past. What had he been so anxious about all month? Why chew on knuckles and fret over kids whose mother only shrugged and said, “They’re not half as bad as I was when I was their age.”
Overhead, crows squawked at something nearing their nest—a squirrel? a hawk?—and leaves rustled though there was no breeze. It was warm enough now to take off his jacket, which was scattered with flakes of paint and pastry. He checked his watch. Two hours had slipped by as swiftly as a sign on the freeway. When he made it back to the garage, the Imperial was back outside, parked on the street in front, hubcaps shining in the fresh sunlight. The Baron was waiting for him in the office, sitting on the stool, arms folded across his chest. If he had any other cars to work on today, they didn’t seem to be here now. Paul had his checkbook in hand but had learned not to have filled anything out ahead of time, or at least not to have entered the figure the Baron had written down.
“You look relaxed,” the Baron said. He picked up the pencil again and began tapping it once more on his lips.
“I don’t get too many mornings off.”
“Patients don’t give you much of a break, I bet.”
“I’ll pay for it later,” Paul said. “But it’s worth it.”
“Good to put yourself first every once in a while.”
“Everything go smoothly?”
“She’s a tough girl. Hardly any tears.”
“There’s always something.”
“Nothing too bad, I hope.”
“Well, doc,” the Baron said. His sympathetic look was back, though this time he didn’t put an arm around Paul’s shoulder, didn’t rise from the stool. “Considering the possibilities, no, not too bad.”
“What was it? What did she have this time?”
“Of course I couldn’t know until I got in there. Not just the evaporator coil, but the housing, too, and the housing cover. But you’re lucky. The condenser, that’s the big one. No problems there. Be grateful for that.”
He wanted to be. There was plenty to be grateful for. But hearing the Baron say so irritated him, and he couldn’t keep himself from saying, “I never noticed any trouble with the air.”
This time the Baron’s expression wasn’t insulted but injured. Without goggles on, his eyes had a precarious quality, always on the verge of weeping, it seemed, and usually the sight of them made Paul turn away. But now he found himself waiting to see if tears would really fall. “Any time you want a second opinion—”
“I trust you,” he said, more sharply than he meant to. “What’s the damage?”
The Baron, looking no less hurt, squinted and tapped the pencil. He thought for a minute, two, and then wrote. The number he finally passed along was three hundred dollars more than the original. Paul filled in the check and handed it over without a word. “She did just fine,” the Baron said. “Treat her well, and she’ll take care of you for a long time.”
“Appreciate it, Baron,” Paul said, catching sight once more of the photograph of Janelle and the boys, her smile less peaceful than chilling, he thought now, so removed from the distress of everyone around her. Why couldn’t he call him Ronnie, just this once? After all he’d been through, why not give him that one small thing, instead of begrudging him a few hundred bucks? “I’ll be thinking good thoughts,” he said, and then, knowing he shouldn’t, added, “When the results of the next scan come in—”
“All right,” the Baron said, standing abruptly and waving the check at the door. “Now get back to your patients before they start thinking you skipped out to play golf.”
He followed Paul out to the curb, watched as he opened the Imperial’s door and slid inside. The sunlight set him blinking, and he couldn’t seem to stop. He had Paul rev the engine several times, run the windshield wipers, press on the brakes while he checked the rear lights. Then he patted the trunk and said, “You’ve got a keeper here. We should all be so blessed.”
He stayed where he was as Paul put the car in gear and rolled down the street. He was still there, in the rearview mirror, by the time Paul made it to the intersection and began to turn. There was no question the Baron was taking him for a ride. He’d known that for some time now. What bothered him wasn’t going along with it so much as realizing how badly he needed it. He couldn’t wait to hear the Baron say, “Your life sounds all right, doc,” only then believing it. It didn’t matter that the Baron knew nothing about him, not even what he did for a living. Why couldn’t he decide his life was all right for himself, without having to compare it to someone’s whose wasn’t? Why did he have to do so over and over again, every other month? There was probably something unethical about it, or maybe immoral, and one day he might decide to stop.
For now, though, he let himself enjoy gliding down the quiet, late-morning freeway, floating on rotated tires, all parts greased and slipping across each other without friction. Before he made it to the train station, he turned on the air conditioning and bathed in the cool breeze, knowing that for a short while—the rest of the day, the next week or two—he’d trust metal and rubber and the mostly smooth pavement underneath.
The first time with Dean, I was on a couch and he knelt beside me on the floor. He parted my lips with two fingers and slid them into my mouth. Something moved inside, a snake in a basket. He ran his fingers along the edges of my teeth and pushed them open. His fingers were salty. It was unpleasant.
He pushed my teeth father apart, inserting a third finger. I wanted to laugh. In and out the fingers slid. I closed my mouth. He pushed my teeth open. He was a swimmer. When we kissed, he kept his fingers in my mouth and pinned my hands over my head.
He had a girlfriend, and I was with another man. I didn’t understand how if you liked the sex you wouldn’t always want to keep doing it. He was an architect. He said when we met I had acted superior. I didn’t remember.
The first time he drew me across his lap, light streamed into the room. I said, “There’s fat on my ass.” He said, “I like the fat on your ass.” He would make me come, and then he would come and afterward drape his limbs around me as we breathed. I would slide my hand along his backbone, counting the ridges. When he withdrew from me, I would slip his penis between my fingers, one at a time. There were scars on his hands he said were from playing with a compass as a kid. He said, “I like hurting you.” I took him to a posh store and egged him to buy an expensive shirt he wore until the collar and cuffs frayed.
Occasionally I would call him, and he would tell me to come over, or he would call me, and I would agree to go. Before the meeting, I would sit in the sauna at the gym, imagining the night ahead, wearing perfume, a dress, heels. I wasn’t worried about what he would do, only that I might not enjoy it enough. Most of the time, we had sex by chance. I would become aroused by seeing him. I would wait for him to speak, and when he did I would wait for him to ask me to do something. If he didn’t, I would pretend to myself we were done. Sometimes in the middle of a scene, I would be indifferent to his pressure, and he would accept it. Sometimes, he said he felt close, and I could see from his perspective it seemed I had given him something. I felt a little false in that understanding, but I didn’t correct it and I did not arrive at a point of wanting it to end.
The dog smelled and was ugly, a Yorkshire terrier with two snaggle teeth and the baleful underbite of a deep water fish. It had a breathing disorder and hacked loudly until it was picked up and slung over a shoulder like a colicky baby or the pig in Alice in Wonderland. The owner of the dog was dying, and Rachel took it home. Rachel was lonely, and after a week she forgot the dog’s smell and ugliness. If you said the dog smelled, she said she had bought special shampoo and you must be imagining it. She styled the dog’s hair in a spiky variation of her own and carried it everywhere in a tote bag. In time her friend Paul said he could not bear another word about the dog. He didn’t want it thrust at him when he visited nor dragged to his apartment when Rachel went there for dinner. Their relationship ended.
The dog outlasted other attachments. By the time it was 14, it was deaf and almost blind, and it had developed thick cataracts that made it look like a small, crazy-haired zombie dog. The hacking was incessant. Still, Rachel was stricken at the thought of losing her companion, and I realized I would never understand her attraction to the most hapless and stricken creatures that came her way, although I might be counted among them. I moved in with her after construction outside my apartment made it impossible to live there. At this point, the dog was listless and uninterested in food. In the course of a week, Rachel visited the vet three times, and again, frantic, she placed the Yorkie in the basket of her bike and pedaled from the West Village to 34th Street. When she returned, she didn’t see any responsiveness in her pet. She called out to me, and I went to the back room. Rachel said, “Look at Pepper. I’m afraid to.” My friend looked shrunken, huddled against the closet door. I opened the blanket that smelled of the dog and saw a motionless rag. Pepper was dead, and as I announced this to Rachel, she collapsed in my arms and sobbed. The dog’s legs were stiff. Its tongue was hanging loose, and I had the hardest time not laughing.
On our way to a café, I said to Richard, “You love me.” He said, “Not as much as you think I do.” I was silent as we neared a grove of palms, and shadows crossed the path. I said, “I wish you would take that back.” He said, “What?” His hair was spiking up and catching the falling light. I repeated what he had said, and he said, “I don’t know how you can take back something like that.” I said, “It hurt my feelings and I would like you to say you didn’t mean it, even if you did.” He said, “I was joking. It was a joke. I don’t know how much you think I love you. How could I know something like that?” But I thought he did know. On our return from the café, he said, “I’m sorry I said that. I don’t know why I did.” I said, “Thank-you,” and the world grew a little flatter, duller.
Where are you? I need to tell you something. It’s very important. Call me as soon as you get this message. I want to give you money. As soon as I get out of here I will. But that’s not what I want to tell you. I’m afraid I’ll forget. They talk about neural pathways. What are neural pathways? They say I can relearn things. I don’t know what I used to know. How could I know something like that? Are you in this country?
I was in the backyard, trimming the mulberry bush, and as I leaned over, two starlings pecked my butt. I shouted, “Stop it.” What did they want? It was my garden, my bush. At the time, I was living with a man who disparaged my mind. He had disparaged my mind when we married, and maybe that was why he had proposed. Why I said yes is a question I am pondering. I don’t mind my father’s decline. The ill temper has fallen out of him. He did not recover from exile, and you cannot trust a person in a state of deprivation. We used to be afraid to cross him. Now we slide him around the chess board. My mother knows a foolproof form of murder. You place a bowl of dry ice in the room of a sleeping person. The dry ice sucks out the oxygen from the air, and no one can determine the cause of death. In the backyard, as I looked closer at the bush, I saw baby birds in a nest. The starlings were a mother and father, and I realized it was not my garden and not my bush. I felt I could let go of my house. I could leave my husband.
With every mile Johnny drives, Lester Cronin is closer to dead. Nobody knows this yet but me. Nobody ever talks about what happened to Grandpa Eddie anymore, like the whole family just forgot all about it. But I never will. The last four years, my whole time in the Army, I’ve been planning and working toward revenge, waiting for the chance to set things right. Once I finish off Lester, I’ll go to college on the G.I. Bill—move on and live a respectable life. I’m just coming home to take care of business first.
Officially I’m on active duty until September, but I had enough leave time left to out-process two months early. Dad and Johnny picked me up at Detroit Metro in Johnny’s Delta 88. We get the first view of the Mackinac bridge coming up from I-75 and the sky stretches out around the ivory suspension arches. The blue of the lakes blends together with the blue of the sky, reaching up toward the clouds. Our windows are down and the damp, dense air tastes cool and fresh, not like the thick Georgia heat I just left.
Dad sits in the middle of the backseat, crowded in by Johnny’s blue sweatpants, duffel bags and two pairs of basketball shoes. Johnny got a scholarship to play at Hillsdale but he spends the summer at home, up north with the rest of the family. There’s only three beers left in the case of Busch that Dad bought at the Shell station in Pontiac. He cracks one for himself and passes another up to me.
“Bet you’d like one of these, eh Johnny?”
Johnny jerks the wheel just hard enough to wet Dad’s t-shirt with Busch.
“Colonel Henry ain’t doing so good, Buck,” Dad says. “The hard life’s finally catching up with him. Walks with a cane now.”
“What’s he, ninety-two?” Johnny asks.
“Ninety-four in November,” Dad says.
“Might still have a good run left in him,” I say.
“Looks rough since the last time you seen him, Buck,” Dad says. “Something in his eyes, like the fight just ain’t there.”
“I’ll never count Henry down ‘til he’s out for good,” I say.
“Your Grandma Clio’s doing great, though,” he says. “Women get the better end.”
Grandma Clio’s a good thirty years younger than Henry and she had a rough time keeping up with him until a few years ago.
I didn’t see Grandma Clio or Henry last year when I came up for Christmas. Spent Christmas Eve with Grandma Gloria. The old two-story farm house looked more faded and beat-up than I remembered. The white outside walls are stained with time and weather and the barn is in even worse shape—a cold wind blowing down from Ontario would take it down. It was good to see family but it’s not the same as it used to be. Dad’s side used to be close, now everybody’s doing their own thing. Cousin Gwen spent Christmas Eve with her boyfriend’s family, something nobody would’ve done when Grandpa was alive. After Grandma downed her fifth shot of Kessler’s she told Aunt Alexa that Gwen could forget about spending next Christmas Eve with us.
There’s not much room in the old house anyway, with all the new grandkids running around. It’s a big enough house for a regular family, but not for us Metzgers. It gets really loud with all the little shits running around with jingle bells and crying to open their presents. I had to step outside every ten minutes or so just to clear my head. Right before dinner, Dad, Uncle Karl, and I all sat out on the porch a good half hour in sixteen degrees and wind. We passed around the Seagram’s and chopped beef ’til they called us in for dinner at ten. Uncle Karl couldn’t hardly walk by then and the raw beef and cracker crumbs were frozen to his moustache. Aunt Julie was so embarrassed that she grabbed him by the ear and drug him into the back room. Later on, Karl kept telling me, “See what happens when you get married? Don’t do it, Buck.” He must’ve said it about twelve times and Aunt Julie kept giving him a look like he murdered her sister or something. I bet Karl got it good back home. Sure as hell didn’t get laid.
We’re still a half hour from the house but I can taste the cedars and the evergreens, the fresh Lake Huron water. Down below Johnny’s side of the bridge is Fort Michilimackinac and on my side the public access beach; at least a hundred people are running around with coolers, beach balls and beer. There’s sailboats and freight ships under the bridge where Lake Huron meets Lake Michigan and the ferries spray white foam from their engines on route to Mackinac Island.
“Ever wonder why Mackinaw is spelled with a “W” in Mackinaw City and every time you see Mackinac on the other side of the bridge, it’s spelled with a ‘C’?”
“It’s so the Buckeyes, Fudgies, and Trolls learn how to say it right ‘fore they cross the bridge,” says Dad.
I’ve been a lot of places in the last four years and there’s nothing so clean, nothing so green and fresh as the U.P. shoreline. In some towns around here, like ours, they got no-franchise laws. It keeps everything like it was in the old days, but there’s not many new jobs and no new business. When I was a kid, places like St. Ignace seemed big, but across the bridge all we’ll see is a town smothered in spruce and birch, no city sprawl, just small blue or white houses scattered in the dark green hills.
“See that cement support there,” says Dad. “There’s a body in there. Under the tower. Mason fell in when they were pouring cement. Nothing they could do but keep on pouring. My old man worked with a guy, Steve Pitt. He seen it happen.”
Dad’s been moonlighting—working construction and at the loading docks again. There’s been steady work there for a few years now. When me and Johnny were kids, he used to do a lot of odd jobs on the side. For a couple years, he worked the woods steady. He’d pay Johnny and me five dollars each to go with him and trim the limbs off the big trees with a bow saw and stack the wood. One summer he was working out by Bear Creek. Johnny and I would bring our poles and flies and go after trout when we finished the work. A couple times, Dad’s chainsaw dulled and he set it down and joined us at the creek. Mom always said you could never shut him up before he got drafted, but that’s the first time he really started talking to us.
“It’s your first day of freedom. We should keep this buzz going. Hit the Skunk House or the Channel Marker. It’s still happy hour.”
“Maybe we should get back and see everybody,” I tell him.
“Your Mom’s working ‘til late and your brother Tommy’s fishing with your uncle Karl. You’ll see everybody else soon enough. Plenty of time.”
“We should go to the casino,” says Johnny.
“How you gonna get in?” Dad asks. “You ain’t twenty-one yet.”
“What casino?” I ask.
“I got it covered,” Johnny says.
“There’s casinos up here now. At the reservations.” Dad grabs Johnny by the sweatshirt sleeve. “Where’d you get a fake ID you little son of a bitch?” Dad lifts his hand to cuff him but he slaps his own knee and starts to laugh. “Just like your old man.”
We take the scenic route through St. Ignace, downtown, past the bus stop where I left for the Army almost four years ago. We stop at the IGA for a twelve pack and sandwiches.
“Just enough to get us there,” says Dad. “They got free drinks in the casino.” He turns to Johnny. “Made it past the bridge—guess you can have a couple now.”
Johnny cracks his second Busch by the time we pass the exit for home. He keeps the Oldsmobile on a straight course north to the Sault.
When I was nineteen, we did a training mission out in Death Valley, at the NTC. It was my second trip out there. First time we flew, the second time we came back on busses. We stopped in Vegas for a few hours and most of the guys hit the casinos or the whorehouses. Since I was a minor, I couldn’t get into the casinos, but there were slot machines everywhere. I played some at a McDonalds and a couple in a gas station. Sergeant Sullivan said it wasn’t a problem unless I won a big jackpot. Then I’d need somebody to claim it for me. If that happened, he said we’d split it. I lost my last twenty-five bucks, except for a quarter. I bet that last quarter and won back five bucks. When the busses lined up to leave for Georgia, Sergeant Morgan didn’t make it back to the convoy in time. They said he was with some red-haired midget prostitute. Next time we saw him he was Private Morgan.
The Sault casino is darker than the ones in Vegas, but there’s enough glass and bright lights to make it glow purple in the night sky. The hotel that’s connected is bigger than any I’ve seen in this city, even though it’s half the size of the smaller Vegas casino hotels. The electric beams around the lower section light the outer doors like gold.
“Who’s feeling the luck tonight?” Dad asks.
“I’m gonna tell you guys something, but don’t get pissed,” says Johnny.
He shows us the fake ID and it’s my real drivers license that I thought I lost two summers ago when we were swimming out at Detour State Park.
“You little cocksucker.” I grab his collar and Dad grabs my arm.
“What’s done’s done,” he says. “Johnny, you’re gonna sit your ass in the car a good hour, then you try to get in. You get arrested, we ain’t bailing you out till we got our fill of free drinks, got it—dumbass.”
The casino is bigger inside than I thought it would be. Except for the cigarette smoke, it smells clean and new, like cedar and carpet shampoo. The floor is red, gold, flat and hard. The entry looks like the fancy hotels where we had our battalion Christmas parties. Instead of dress blues there’s workers all around in their white shirts and dark red bowties. Most the gamblers wear t-shirts, ball caps, jeans and flannels. The security guard stares at my ID and looks back at my face a few times before he lets us in. Johnny might have a problem when he tries to get in. There’s animal mounts all around the front area and a statue of a Chippewa warrior next to some steel-framed display cases with old black and white pictures of Ojibwa Indians fishing the St. Mary’s. Besides that, it’s not much different than the Vegas casinos. What I saw of them from the lobbies.
“Let’s hit the blackjack table,” Dad says. “Don’t tell the old lady, but I lost my overtime check on those quarter slots last week. Slot machines are for suckers. Least with blackjack you got a fighting chance.”
Soon as we sit down, there’s Johnny beside us at the blackjack table.
“Told you to wait a while,” says Dad.
“It’s cool. Heather works here. Saw her coming in for her shift and we walked in together from a side door. Lend me a couple twenties. I’ll double it in an hour.”
“I’ll give you twenty. Only got forty here. Need to hit the ATM.”
Dad and I both change twenty and bet the two dollar minimum. Johnny goes straight to a dollar machine. It’s not long before Dad’s down to his last four bucks. He gets a pair of sevens and the dealer’s showing a four.
“Split ’em,” he says. He draws fours on both. “I need to double down on these. Johnny, give me back my twenty, you motherfucker,” he yells out toward the dollar slots. Johnny can’t hear him through the Bob Seger cranking from the lounge speakers and the ringing of the machines.
“Sir, we’re gonna need you to calm down,” says the dealer. He waves in the security guard.
“What you need, four bucks? Here.” I slide the tokens toward him.
“Sir, there’s no exchange of tokens at the table. This is your warning.”
Dad cracks his knuckles. “I see how it is. You don’t want me to double down. Just hit ’em you little prick.”
A fat security guard with greasy hair taps Dad on the shoulder. “You’re cut off sir. Any more language like that and we’re gonna have to ask you to leave.”
Dad draws a jack and an eight. The dealer busts. “You motherfucker,” Dad says. “I should’ve won double.”
The guard grabs Dad’s shirt collar and jerks him out of his chair. Three more security guards come running over. Dad’s chair falls to the floor and his beer pours out all over the felt.
“Look what you done,” says a second guard, this one female. “Get his ass out of here before I call the cops.”
“He didn’t do shit. It was your boy here,” I tell her.
“You need to leave too,” she tells me.
“What did I do?” She doesn’t answer. I look at the dealer and he just he looks away. “You can’t do this—it’s not right,” I say.
“Are you gonna leave the premises or do we need to escort you out?”
“Check the cameras,” I say. The dealer and the guards ignore me.
I grab what’s left of my tokens and join Dad in the parking lot. Johnny’s nowhere around. The two guards are still walking back to the door.
“I’ll be seeing you around, you fat bitch,” I tell the fat one. He reaches for his club but the other guard stops him.
“And I’ll be looking for you,” he tells me. His body starts to shake but he’s not afraid. Wants to prove something here and now.
“It’s not worth it,” says the female guard. “They’re not worth it.”
One night, down in Columbus, Georgia, a couple fat-fuck bouncers like this guy kicked my friend Doug out of Ernie’s Roadhouse. Opened the door with Doug’s head. Me, Roberts, Morgan, Diaz and Rizzoli waited till they closed up and then we followed one of them to his apartment. We put his bald head through the window of his own Camaro. His scalp was hamburger by the time the glass cracked and shattered. He curled up on the sidewalk like a baby and just started crying.
When all the apartment lights started coming on, I thought we’d be busted for sure but we squealed out in Rizzoli’s truck just when somebody opened the door and started yelling at us. My chest got real tight and I had a hard time breathing. My hand was cut and bleeding from the window glass. On the way back to Fort Benning, we passed a state trooper and I thought for sure we’d get pulled over. Somebody must’ve seen the truck and the plates. By the time we got back, my buzz was gone and I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t slept right since. The bouncer had it coming. I never felt bad about what we did. It’s just scary to think how easy it is for somebody to come after you when you don’t expect it.
That’s how it is too, like that kid in Bosnia, Samson. He was alert to everything in the field, but he didn’t see it coming when that fuel truck ran him over. A few feet here or there, could’ve been any one of our sleeping bags. There’s just too much shit like that to think about. Most the time, I have to drink myself to sleep if I can sleep at all. Then I wake up sudden like the time the blue Kevlar fell from the ammo shelf in that Bradley, right on my forehead and damned near knocked me unconscious. I’m shaking good now, and breathing heavy, but it’s not fear—more like adrenaline.
Dad and I wait by the car for a good half hour but Johnny never comes out.
“Let’s get a drink,” Dad says.
There’s still a mismatched seven pack of Busch and Old Milwaukee in the backseat of Johnny’s car but we don’t have the keys. We walk out to the gas station across the road from the parking lot. Dad wants Kessler’s but they don’t sell liquor.
“Let’s go into town and get a pint,” he says. “We ain’t got nothing better to do.”
It’s at least a couple miles to downtown, but we head out into the dark down Shunk Road.
“Your Ma gets home in an hour,” Dad tells me. “Gonna be pissed we’re not there yet.”
“Maybe the casino wasn’t such a good idea,” I tell him. “Johnny might be in there all night. What’s that on your arm?” It’s the first I notice of the blood on his sleeve. It looks purple on his faded red t-shirt.
“Must’ve happened when that fat fuck pushed me out the door. He’s lucky I’m so drunk or I would’ve kicked his ass.”
“We could give him some payback.”
“When we get back to the casino parking lot, we’ll stake out the place, figure out what car is his. Then we . . .”
“I ain’t sitting around all night trying to find his car. Loser like that ain’t worth that kind of payback. Should’ve knocked his ass out in the parking lot. That’s what he deserves.”
It’s not too long before we come across a party store. There’s no houses around, just the flashing neon sign and a flood light in front of a garage door. Looks like someone just turned an old house into a store. The purple-green light from a bug zapper shines over the rotted screen door entrance.
“Evening, gentlemen,” says a white-haired lady with brown oval frames. She’s only about five foot two but must weigh close to two hundred pounds.
“Hey there,” says the old man. “Don’t suppose you got a pint of Kessler’s for me?”
“It’s Saturday night. Sold out the pints but I got a fifth if that’ll do you.”
Dad grabs a brown paper bag of venison jerky and a box of Swishers. The lady puts it all in a bigger brown bag with the fifth. Dad snags his red t-shirt on the screen door latch. It rips a good size hole before the door springs back against the frame. The sound echoes like a rifle shot over the field and the neon sign shakes above us.
We finish off more than half the Kessler’s by the time we make it to the St. Mary’s river, ducking into alleys and side streets along the way for shots. Somehow we end up on Portage between the Edison plant and the country club.
“We should probably head back and find Johnny,” I say.
“Let’s take a break here. Just for five minutes,” Dad says. He starts walking toward a bench when a blue Chevy Silverado pulls up.
“William, is that really you?”
Most people who know me call me Buck. A handful of friends call me Billy or Billy Buck. Only people who ever called me William were Great Grandma Aideen, Mrs. Gurov and Stacey Larson. I’m a couple years older than Stacey, but we used to hang out. Met her at a baseball game about ten years ago. Her brother Ben was the catcher on my team, little league through high school, ever since they moved here from Marquette.
“What are you doing out here, William?”
“Came with Johnny. He’s still at the casino. The old man and I got tired of blackjack so we took a walk. What are you doing?”
“Dinner at the club. They asked me to play in a quintet. Hey, you guys want a ride somewhere?”
“Which way you headed?”
“Just on my way home. Kind of hungry though. Want to grab some food?”
“Alright.” Dad’s slouched over the park bench. I help him to the truck.
“Is he okay? You guys had a few,” Stacey says when she gets a good whiff.
“It’s those free drinks at the casino,” Dad says.
Mom must be back from work by now. She’ll be pissed off for sure that we’re not home, but we can’t do much about it since Johnny’s our ride. More than anybody, Mom was there for me while I was on active duty, sending me letters and taking care of my business back home. Last time I talked to her, it was from a phone booth in Columbus. The whole time I was riled up, trying to handle the idea of going back to civilian life. She was trying to calm me down with all her logic, but I just got more frustrated. She put up with me until I mentioned getting payback for Grandpa Eddie, then she told me I was acting just like him and Lester Cronin so I hung up. When we get home, I’ll try to explain everything—that it wasn’t her, just the stress. Then I’ll never mention what I’m thinking again. People don’t seem to like the truth much, especially mothers.
Stacey wanted to eat at the Palace but it was too full, so we decided to go across the street to Frank’s Diner. Dad’s passed out in the truck. “Just let me rest a couple minutes,” he told us three times. “Then I’ll come in for a burger.” He’s done for the night.
We cross the street by Maloney’s and turn left toward Frank’s. There’s a group of young stoners in flannels and black sock caps. Must be college guys, but they’re trying to act gangster. They eye up Stacey when we walk past. The one with the nose piercing gives me a bad look. I feel their stares from behind us until we get to the glass door of the diner. It’s hot inside. Steam rolls out from the kitchen. A table of old men laugh over the clanking pots and pans and the clinks of real glass cups. There’s a yellow wet floor sign just past the door mat and our shoes stick to the stained white tile when we walk up to the hostess. There’s lard and Clorox in the air and I taste the damp of summer heat and wet air from the fan mixed together while a brunette in a short black dress walks us to a booth.
“Ever eat here before?” Stacey asks me. She sniffs in the greasy air and cringes.
“All the time before I left. Food’s great here.”
“Just be the two of you,” the hostess says. She’s cute but has a pudgy face and braces that make her look younger when she smiles. Her brown hair is tucked into a dark hair net and her face is spotted with acne.
“Your Dad okay out there? I feel bad,” Stacey says.
“That’s what you get when you pass out early in my family.”
“He looked really tired. Didn’t get much sleep?”
The waitress sets down two glasses of ice water and two plastic-covered menus.
“They got up early to pick me up at Detroit,” I tell her. Truth is, it’s the Kessler’s that knocked him out. I’m tired as hell too, but I can’t sleep lately. Last three days I slept one hour.
“What’ll you have?” the waitress is blonde. She’s about Mom’s age and looks familiar. With our family you never know.
“I’ll have the Fat Frankie,” I say. Stacey squints at me.
“Great choice,” says the waitress.
“Sounds real healthy,” Stacey says, “but I’ll have the roasted turkey, I guess.”
“Nothing wrong with a Fat Frankie,” I tell her when the waitress is gone.
“So you just got back today,” Stacey says. “How does it feel to be a free man again?”
Her eyes are hungry and locked into mine but they’re glossier than I noticed ‘til now. She must’ve had a few drinks at the club or maybe toked it up with the other musicians. I kissed Stacey at a party in high school and she even wrote me a few letters when I was gone, but not much ever came of it. Something will come out of this situation, though, the way she’s looking at me.
“I saw Blake Braune the other day,” she tells me. “Asked me if I knew how you were doing. I didn’t realize you’d be getting out so soon.”
“Me either,” I tell her. “I took all the leave time I had left so I could get back in time for the fall semester. How’s Blake? Only seen him once in the last four years.”
Most people think Blake and I are close since we played on the same teams together, hung out with the same crowd. Truth is, I haven’t been thinking much about him or the old crowd for the last couple of years. While I was gone, the platoon brothers were my family.
“I don’t see him much, she says. Seems fine. Last week I had to pick up a hammer for my Dad at Cronin’s hardware and I ran into him and Jason.”
“That place is still open. I was kind of hoping they burned it down by now.” She gives me a funny look and I realize she doesn’t know the rumors about Lester Cronin killing Grandpa Eddie. She doesn’t know how much I hate old man Cronin so she must think I’m crazy. The name Cronin makes all the hair on my body stand up and I feel a tingling over my scalp. We don’t say a word until the waitress comes back with our plates. Stacey might still be looking at me the same way, but I can’t focus on her eyes. Faraway places and people and times I’ll never see again flash through my mind. Sitting down at the booth made my buzz more intense and the room starts to spin around us.
“Here’s your dinner,” says the waitress. “You want light mayo for that turkey?”
“How about mustard?” Stacey asks.
The waitress nods. “Be right back with that. Enjoy.”
Stacey stares down my Fat Frankie and fake gags before she smiles at me.
“Hey, this is good shit,” I tell her. “Want to try it?”
“I don’t eat red meat,” she says.
“Your loss. Don’t tell me you don’t like a good burger once in a while.”
“When I was a kid. Now it just makes me sick to think about it. Red meat comes from smart animals. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel as much pain, right?”
It’s the kind of bullshit we tell ourselves to justify our stupid theories about life. It’s the kind of lie we tell to sleep better at night. Most people don’t bother calling other people’s bullshit for a lot of reasons. I’d be stupid to call bullshit when a beautiful girl like Stacey looks at me the way she’s looking at me now, so what I tell her is, “You might be right.”
Her lips curl. I feel her leg brush mine under the table. She reaches out to touch my arm and it calms me as much as I can calm. There’s a loud noise from the kitchen, like the chop of an axe or the sound of a mortar fragment on metal. I jump up from the booth enough to bang my right knee on the wood. First she looks at me, scared, then we both laugh like it’s some kind of joke. I feel the cold in my chest and sweat over my whole body while I nod and watch those beautiful red lips move.
That Janet Williams hadn’t liked children all that much she blamed on the boy’s mother. Children annoyed her, frankly—all that incessant energy, the enthusiasm for obnoxious music and inedible food, their general and relentless neediness. When pressed, however, she would admit there was something special about this one, this Danny, her five-year-old grandson. On that day—that god-awful day—he’d mostly amused himself, trying out all of the chairs in the living room, plopping himself on the new loveseat and scootching his little bottom around, testing it for comfort, twisting his face around like a bad actor portraying a food critic. Goldilocks with nappy hair.
“There’s not a thing wrong with that sofa,” she’d admonished him as the phone rang. He’d blown a quiet raspberry to demonstrate his immunity to her goading.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, boy.”
The call had been from Keisha, the second of the day from her, her voice reminding Janet of some other time, although just then she had been unable to put her finger on when that might have been.
“Mama,” her daughter had sighed—a happy sigh. “Mama, His will be done, has been done. All praises, all praises.”
“None of your foolishness tonight,” had been Janet’s response. That girl, her sanctimonious ravings. Who needed it? She never knew what it might be with her daughter, had never known. The new thermostat didn’t work. Cryptic passages in obscure books of the Bible needed interpretation RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Mama, please how do I crisp these collars? He wants them just so, like all the deacons have. You know how Jerrold gets.
Me, me, me, me, me.
“What do you want, Keisha?”
“I’ve sent them across, Mama. My angels. Sent them across to Him.”
The boy in Janet’s house made sputtering noises and blew spit bubbles. Maybe this was normal for boys. She reminded her daughter that another of her angels happened to be right here in her face, right this very minute thank you very much, and that all day long he had been giving her the fish eye and various other exotic expressions.
“Damn boy’s about to eat me out of house and home,” she told her. Danny mugged shoveling handfuls of food in his mouth. Janet tossed him another pack of Skittles, which he caught with his teeth. No lie! He tore the packet open and dumped what looked like half into his mouth. You’ll choke, she mouthed—wondered if that sounded less like worry and more like a wish.
Through the phone she heard something that might have been singing, but it was hard to tell. When Keisha had been the age of her son, she “sang” entire operas to herself, part Diana Ross, part screaming banshee. Janet heard something about tempests raging and peace, the phone line flattening all of it to a sad monotone.
Keisha’s earlier call, before noon, Janet remembered. Same phone, here on this counter, beside it, a to-do list—things to be accomplished before the trip to Rend Lake with Wes. She’d warned this girl (hadn’t she?) that she had no time for mess, that a weekend away with her (potential) new stepfather was more important than anything that she, her sorry-ass husband or any of their crumbsnatchers had cooked up. It would have been the weekend that Janet closed the deal, and on the list had been the tools of her trade: the makings for a knockout supper, fine champagne, a sexy CD. Wes enjoyed a soprano sax.
What became of that list? That boy had better not be over there scribbling on it.
Now, across the wire, her daughter sang something about being here and how because of that the rest of us need not worry.
“Keisha,” Janet prompted.
“We are bathed in His glory,” came the reply.
Enough! Honestly these people and their drama. What hope did Janet have but to snag this man (any man!) and convince him to move as far away from this crew as they could find. Tasmania. Tuvalu. Some place with bad phone service.
“Wes and I want to be on the road early, so I need to go to bed. Is one of you coming to get this child? Or I could send him in a cab.”
I’ll bill you.
Danny hummed and sang and pretended to draw. Mostly he looked around the room at nothing in particular, a million miles away, no doubt. Couldn’t be more like his mama. Sometimes.
For what it’s worth his mama had been lucid during the earlier call.
I need you to pick Daniel up after kindergarten. Keisha, classic demand mode—damn anyone else’s needs. Another childhood trait, it had been. Get me a new dress for school. Eggs for breakfast, and they better not be runny.
Please, Janet would remind her. Puh-leeze. Again and again and again, she’d remind her, and Keisha would always look at her as if she had been speaking another language.
“They’re like angels, Mama. Wrapped in white, that He may receive them.”
Miriam, Sarah, and baby Hosea—and they had been angels, too. Bundles of brown beauty, perched on their parents’ laps in some Sears photo studio, dressed to the nines, posed in front of a neutral backdrop, muted earth tone smears. Big brother, bigheaded Danny, beaming, down on his knees, in front.
“Keisha?” Janet insisted. The girl just hadn’t sounded right, but when had she ever, really. “What’s the matter, Baby? Talk to mother.”
Just then Janet remembered what the air-thin whispers put her in mind of. Years ago (time passed so quickly!) she had dropped Keisha off at some teenage friend’s house. (And who knew what that girl’s name could have been. Since she had married Jerrold Davis and joined New Purpose she had cut off her friends from “the world.”) Keisha had called from the party, pointedly whispering into the receiver. “Mother, they’re doing things here.” “Things?” Janet had prompted, and in reply all Keisha had said was, “You know. Things.” Her voice had been full of both fascination and horror. The rest of the call had been mostly breathing and giggling from Keisha’s end. “Do you want me to pick you up?” “Are (whatever her name had been)’s parents there?” More giggling and wheezing. “I can be there in five minutes. Keisha?”
“Talk to me, Baby.” She’d said it back then, and she’d said it on the terrible day, too.
“It’s Jerrold, Mama. He’s so heavy. I must prepare him to be received.”
“Keisha? OK, sweetie, mother’s coming right over. I’ll get the boy together and . . .”
“Uh-uh. Don’t bring that boy over here. Don’t.”
“You heard me, Mama. Do not bring that boy over here.”
“All right, Baby. It’s all right. Mother will do whatever you need. Just talk to me. Keisha?”
Some nasal humming. (Could that have been a sob?)
“There’s someone at the door, Mama. The deacon. I called him.”
“Keisha, don’t hang up. I’ll wait. Don’t hang up.”
“Blessings, Mama, on you and your son.”
Keisha? Baby? Keisha.
The phone clicked off.
They waited and the boy spun on the barstool. What a compellingly odd person he was—even back then he had been so. Butterscotch-colored with a large blocky head that he would grow into when he inherited his father’s good looks—which he would. He’d grow into the strangeness, too. He’d use it to attract people, to endear them.
On that night he had hummed and he’d spun and he’d hummed. Hadn’t he been listening to her conversation? Hearing his mother’s name called in alarm by her mother: Wouldn’t a normal child know to be alarmed?
She paced. Now and again she’d look down and there he’d be, right up next to her, head tilted back like a turkey in the rain, ear-to-ear insipid smile like a primitive cartoon.
Then again it had been a good thing, after all. Certainly on some days oblivion is a form of grace.
Hadn’t she herself packed it all away since that night? Press clippings. Memorial cards. A tiny teddy bear she’d plucked from atop the mountain in front of his family home, black button eyes, its bow of white ribbon crumpled and stained with blood-brown chocolate.
Words lingered: Premeditation. Cyanide. Insanity.
Images, too. Three tiny coffins (So small! Who imagined such things?) arrayed around a large one. Cameras—dozens upon dozens—aimed at her and at the boy. She’d layered a shawl across his face.
More than anything: the blank-eyed bliss on her daughter’s face. Try forgetting that.
When the doorbell rang, it, as expected, had not been her daughter.
“Ms. Williams? Ms. Janet Williams?” A policeman. That deacon, the young one, from their church.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid . . .”
She’d put her hand up—the universal sign for just-one-damn-minute. They reeled back, as if her fingers contained lightning bolts.
“Danny. Daniel!” Sometimes he didn’t seem to know his own name. Keisha had that, too: selective deafness. The boy stopped his spinning and humming and dropped from his most recent stool, staggering like a drunk, overcome by the sudden motion of the room. When the spinning stopped he seemed to recognize the deacon and made to rush for the door.
Get him out of here. That had been her instinct. Go take a bath. Fish through the smutty books in my underwear drawer. Find my purse and steal me blind. Just get the hell away from here. Now.
She held up the same hand that had stopped the officer to stop the boy in his tracks. She concocted some errand—some picture to be torn from Essence.
“Leave the magazine on the bed when you’re through.”
The boy had called out something to the deacon, but on her life she cannot remember what he had said. He knew something was up (don’t they always) but considered the look on her face and decided to comply. She had set her jaw and affected the slightest of squints; it was the face she used on recalcitrant employees at the phone company. Foolproof, dependably so.
“That’s a good boy,” she encouraged. God, how she hated easy compliance. They’d work on that, the two of them would.
She turned and faced the men.
What she remembers most from that night was feeling sorry for them. What an awful thing, what a grim business: the giving of bad news. The officer had been young—perhaps barely out of the academy. Peach-fuzzy, he was. Blond, chunky build, ex-military—his haircut announced that.
The other man, the deacon, she had seen glowering self-importantly next to the pastor of New Purpose. A friend of Jerrold’s, she remembered, but she couldn’t retrieve a name. Something Germanic perhaps. Barely out of his teens, clean as a whistle and self-righteous as a snake. Good Lord, could there be anything more smug than a handsome young man who thought he had God’s ear. That night he had a bruised quality about him, like someone off an all-night flight from Tokyo.
Instead of sadness she saw fear in their eyes; and she was the cause of that fear, she knew. What, after all, would she do when they told her what Keisha had done?
As it turned out, not much. Hang her head. Accept a hug from the boy deacon. Note the probable next steps: autopsy, funeral arrangements, jurisprudence for her daughter. Lots and lots of media, they warned, and she agreed that would be the hard part.
But, really, until they spoke their truth, these men had no idea how she might respond. None. And for a moment—just for a moment—she savored her power, the sheer deliciousness of it. How often in life did you have a man—two men—at your absolute disposal? What wouldn’t a man do for you in a moment like this—and she could see in their eyes that the longer she held them off, the harder it pained. Once, maybe twice in her life she’d had this power. Sex with her now long-dead husband. He’d be helpless—she’d stun him, he’d buy her the moon. And then there was that nasty piece of work down at the office—a lineman—up to his whiskers in gambling debt, rude and evil, him sniveling in a chair in her office, his fate in her hands. Beg me, she’d thought to herself. Beg me and maybe I’ll save your worthless behind from the unemployment line. She’d stared the bastard down while he cried like a little girl—the same way Keisha would always do, in fact—swearing, as would Keisha, off his bad behavior, promising to be good forever. She had reared up, slightly, up over the worm. Who cowered. She’d had to dispose of that chair (one indiscernibly shorter than her own that she’d kept across from her desk—for the little people). He’d peed his pants a little, ruined the damn thing.
The eyes of the frightened: They were peerless. In front of her, these two men: Waiting for my fangs, boys? You! Blondie: in that kitchen and clean up the mess my grandson left on the counter. Preacher boy! Yes, you, hot stuff: Up on that roof and clean those leaves from the gutter. In the bedroom when you finish, the both of you. I’ll be waiting—and I’d better not be disappointed.
On occasion over the years—rarely—she revisited this moment in the doorway. She’d entertained the identical pedestrian fantasies that all her fellow humans did: She’d frozen time right there. Wouldn’t life be . . .
Except Janet, good determinist that she was, could never finish that sentence. Janet had been nine when she had settled on the stoicism that would shape her entire life, and she had told her mother that her path in life contained no choices. Her proof had been the fact that all of the things that had happened to her had in fact happened to her. The other choices had not. Her mother—who had as much as made a religion out of resolute common sense—had ordered Janet to stop talking nonsense. Frequently and never with anything remotely resembling tolerance she would cut off Janet’s little pseudo-philosophical ramblings at the nub, handing her a clean dishtowel and ordering her to get on with the matter at hand—another philosophy that had always served Janet well. So be it, then. She’d put these men off as long as a person decently ought to.
Like the big girl she’d always demanded her own crazy-ass daughter be, Janet squared her shoulders, took a deep breath and nodded to the men, signaling that it was time for them to take their best shot.
Cecelia stole it. It was my Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake recipe and she walked away with the win. I normally wouldn’t make such a fuss. I’m not one to complain or point fingers. But in this case, I can’t keep quiet. I just can’t shut my big mouth. That blue ribbon means my winning recipe is going to the Minnesota State Fair, and going without me. That ribbon, and all that came with it, should have been mine and mine alone.
Let me tell you a thing or two about Cecelia Bentz. She was my best friend for twenty-two years so I think I can speak freely. Cecelia Bentz is no baker. She can cook a very nice Thanksgiving dinner—turkey, potatoes, the whole nine yards. Sure, she can cook, but she cannot bake. Cecelia uses all-purpose flour for almost everything and pre-made mixes for everything else. Once I began to bake, I asked her kindly to make the sides. Leave the desserts to me, dear. And up until one week ago, she did.
What makes her deceit so hard to swallow is that Cecelia was my only rock in the whole world when Roger died this winter. She was at our home when his heart gave out, and lucky, too, because I was away for a few hours, bargain shopping at the outlet mall. Later in the hospital, when his heart beat fast, trying to recover, she stayed right by my side, right by his bed, the whole time. She took the rotating shift at night to let me sleep. When I needed black coffee from the cafeteria or a hot shower at home, she stayed with Roger until I returned, never leaving him alone, not for one minute. She was such a true, kind friend.
“He likes it when you hold his hand,” she said and took his left, smoothing the frail skin with her fingers.
“He does,” I said. On my side of the bed, an IV pierced the top of his hand. I rubbed his forearm, slowly smoothing the black hair.
When it was time, when my Roger passed out of this world and his soul took up communion with the angels in heaven, she sobbed and I sobbed and we held onto each other there in the hospital room.
Cecelia’s the only reason I got through all of that. I’m still getting through.
This whole horrible ordeal with the recipe happened a week ago at the Cyrus County Fair. The fair has been a constant in this part of the state for over one-hundred and twenty-two years. I am proud to say that I have attended thirty-seven of those years and my Roger, thirty-six.
Roger was a man of many passions. In the beginning, he was interested in classic cars. He spent hours with them, admiring long lines of buffed pick-ups and shiny convertibles. I’d often find him under the hood, studying the parts that made them hum. If it wasn’t there, I’d catch him in line, waiting on some kind of sugar. He had an insatiable sweet tooth. I liked the corndogs, myself. But not Roger. He ate funnel cakes and elephant ears and any color of snow cone. He ate roasted almonds and honeyed fruit and miles and miles of pink cotton candy.
A few years after the car shows, Roger took up the banjo and put together a small band. They played on the bandstand, which in those days was more like a houseless porch than a stage. They played for four nights in a row, and it was crowded each and every night. Another year he decided to buy an old junker. He tore the doors off, gave it a spray with cheap green paint, and entered himself into the demolition derby. I was less than pleased, saying Hail Mary’s in the stands while I balanced two babies on my knees, trying to soothe them during the crashes and the cheering. He didn’t win but he didn’t hurt himself either, thank the Lord.
When the kids were older, we took them to the Midway. They twirled in fat strawberries until they were almost sick, then ran over to the dragon trains for a quick bounce up and down along the track. The two were terrified by the ghosts inside the haunted houses, but they walked through them over and over again. The Midway isn’t what it used to be, I’m disappointed to say. After I accepted my red ribbon this year (or I should say, after I was denied the blue), I found myself wandering around the fair in a sort of daze, seeing everything differently. The rides looked worn, used. They had chipped paint and stiff gear shifts. They were all plugged in, with enormous hose-like extension cords, to small electrical boxes throughout the fairgrounds that sat in puddles of mud.
I walked home through the cemetery and stopped to visit Roger’s grave. It was the brightest one in the whole yard, newly planted. There was a small splay of red flowers on the stone, no doubt from a close friend. Roger was loved by everyone, but no one as much as me. I left a snow-cone there that matched the flowers. His favorite flavor—cherry. I walked away before I could see it melt.
I loved the fair but never cared much for rides, so when Roger and the kids were off spending our summer allowance zipping and zapping around the place, I would sit on a straw bale outside the Midway or on an empty bench under the bingo tent, and watch people. That was always my favorite thing. You learn so much about people just by watching them. An otherwise miserly old man will give his granddaughter ten dollars just for a funnel cake and fries. A frazzled mother will finally find peace as her children wait in line after line after line. A young couple will take each other’s hand, but not before looking around to make sure no one else is watching. I could sit and watch for hours. And for many summers, I did just that.
This was all long before I had any idea that the kitchen could be an enjoyable place, one not just for mashing potatoes and washing dishes. I remember the first time I tried to bake a pie, when Roger’s mother came to visit. It was a disaster. A right disaster. Imagine this: mother-in-law and my bawling new baby rushing into the street while the whole kitchen is thick with black smoke. And me, trying to fight it off with a dish rag, burning my eyes out. A wet, sopping mess. I know now that I misread the baking temperature and my pie boiled over. Much over.
Roger didn’t encourage much baking after that, bless his heart. He learned to satisfy that sweet-tooth somewhere else. He came home with a box of doughnuts or a sweet pie or cookies by the bakers dozen.
It wasn’t until about ten or so years ago that I took another swing at it. I wanted a hobby. Roger had yet another one, cross-stitch this time. He sat in the living room, bent over the tiny needle and thread, wearing his reading glasses—the ones that made me smile every time he put them on because they were purple and made him look so young and so handsome. He stitched each little ‘x’ perfectly. He had patience like a saint. I was better with trial and error. I think that’s why, when it came, baking came so naturally.
I began with cookies. These were simple because you could burn a whole batch and still have something more to work with. Fool proof. After mastering cookies, I tried pies again. In the summertime, northern Minnesota overflows with berries. Blackberries are my favorite, and raspberries. The pies went well. And when one boiled over and black smoke started to rise out of the stove, I didn’t panic like I had done when I was younger. I simply asked Roger to please stop sewing and take the batteries out of the fire alarm and open a window.
I made bars, too, the staple of any picnic or potluck. I was quite inventive. Spiced Pumpkin Praline Bars in the fall. Sweet and Sassy Lemon Bars in the summer. Orange Blossom and Lavender-Scented Cheesecakes in the spring. Double-Fudge Devil Brownies in the winter.
People said, Oh Ellen, these date bars are divine, and These lemon drop cookies are better than anything my grandmother ever made, and This angel food cake makes me feel like I’ve died and gone right straight up to heaven. I always smiled and thanked them. It is important to be humble, especially when one knows she has a gift.
At Easter one year, after eating my Christ is Risen Coconut Cake, my Baptist cousin Mindy suggested that I share my God-given talent by entering into a competition. At first, I thought, No, I couldn’t possibly. Then I asked Roger, and he said, Do it. So I did. Roger got sick that spring, but he was still a great sport. He tried eleven different kinds of bars, small portions, of course (careful of his heart), before I settled on the one I would enter. I remember it to this day. Chocolate Potato Chip Jumblers. A fat brownie bottom with a creamy peanut butter middle and chocolate-covered potato chips crunched on top. The judges loved it. I won first place.
I’ve won plenty of blue ribbons since then. Let me make it clear, once again, that this whole thing isn’t about the ribbons or the title. Or the fact that the winning cake this year from the Cyrus County Fair is entered not only into competition at the Minnesota State Fair, but also has the chance to launch the baker onto a segment of a weekday edition of “Morning Brew with Mark and Emiline,” the most popular morning talk show out of Minneapolis. It isn’t about any of the prizes or the prestige. It is about honesty and truthfulness and what is good in the world. It is about being straight and owning up to one’s wrong-doings, one’s lies, one’s deceits. It is about my cake.
Last summer I entered my Sauerkraut Surprise Cake in the competition. I was hesitant at first, but Roger convinced me. His new thing was Pilates and he stretched and curved his spine into a “u” and said, Do it. The sauerkraut is meant to be a novelty, you see, something to tickle the eater’s imagination. You can’t actually taste it. The judges thought it was clever and delicious and gave me a red ribbon, second place. Adeline Sumner won the blue with the same German Chocolate Cake she had entered for the last five years. I heard someone say she won first because she had severe pneumonia and wouldn’t last through the winter (which she didn’t) but I paid no mind to those rumors, nor did I spread them along. I do not approve of gossip—it’s just secrets spread around and around in mean little circles.
This year, though, I was sure I’d found it. The winning recipe, the perfect dessert. Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl Pound Cake. Rich. Delicious. Baked to perfection. An easy win. Had it not been for Cecelia’s stolen dessert, my cake would have shown supreme.
The Sour Cream Raspberry Ripple Cake was one I tried on Roger a year ago. He loved it. I remember watching him take the first bite, licking homemade raspberry jam from the fork. He asked me to make it again the next week. And I did. I made it for one month straight, anything he wanted, then, when he wasn’t feeling well. After that, I didn’t bake it again until the funeral.
The night before Roger’s funeral, the house was full and all asleep with family and friends from out of town. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t spend one more minute lying in my bed alone. So I went to the kitchen. My hands moved as if from memory, pulling the flour and the sugar and the baking soda out of the cupboards, sifting and measuring and cutting cubes of butter. I made that cake from memory alone. And I believe Roger was there, beside me, helping me get it right, just how he liked it. When I drew it out of the oven, golden brown, perfectly risen, I began again. I mixed another batch and then another. I must have pulled three more out of the oven when I was startled. It was Cecelia, in the door of my kitchen. It was 4:15 am.
“You’re already awake,” she said.
“How long have you been there?”
“What are you doing, Ellen?”
I looked around my kitchen.
“It was his favorite,” I said, and then sobbed into the batter.
Cecelia stood firm in the doorway. I kept mixing, and I was crying, too, faster and faster. The fourth cake was overcooking in the oven. I could smell it.
“Stop it,” she said.
Then louder. “Stop it.” Again.
And just like that, he wasn’t there anymore with me, Roger, his spirit. It was as if he had simply gotten up and left out the door into the early morning. I stopped stirring.
“He’s gone,” I said.
Cecelia’s eyes filled. She came out of the doorway and hugged me, so tight, as if I would fall down to the floor if she let me go. When I finally pulled the last cake out of the oven, it was black in the pan.
Cecelia was there for me again, early this summer when I felt the clutter of the house pressing in on me, and I asked her to come over and help me get rid of some things.
“What should I do with his crossword puzzles?” she asked, and handled them gently.
“Don’t you do it, dear? Any patterns you like, just go ahead and grab.”
“His Pilates tapes?”
“Take ‘em if you want, or get rid of them.”
“The pressure cooker?”
“You’re much better with jams and jellies than me, it’s all yours.”
Cecelia made small piles around the room. She worked slowly. I could see she was still upset for me, the way her eyes watered.
She held up his eyeglasses. Those special purple spectacles.
“Those I need,” I said. “Those I’ll keep.”
I held them in my hand for a long time before setting back to work.
“What about the miniature tractor and trailer made of green spray-painted nuts and bolts?” she said.
I snapped my head back over a heaping stack of Sunday papers and cocked an eyebrow. We laughed and laughed together amidst the piles of Roger’s things.
We met last Wednesday for coffee, Cecelia and I, like every Wednesday since we became friends. I was telling her all about my Peanut Butter Swirl Cake when she ran out of coffee filters and walked down to the grocer for more. While she was gone, I decided to make myself useful, folding some laundry and washing up a few dishes. When I was putting away the crystal, I found a pair of glasses sitting in a small bowl in a tall cupboard. I nearly crushed them with the gravy boat. When I took a closer look, I saw that they were Roger’s. The same silly purple frames. I was so happy to find them. I thought they were lost. I had cried for two whole hours on the floor of my bedroom thinking about them being gone.
When Cecelia came home, I told her how I found them bunched in with some dishes, accidently packed away with the canning supplies from earlier that summer. I hugged and thanked her, with a happy tear still in my eye. We didn’t get to have coffee after all that morning. Cecelia didn’t feel well once she got back from the store. I fixed her some tea and filled up a hot water bottle. I tucked Roger’s glasses into a pocket in my purse and went home.
We haven’t spoken about the cake incident. She hasn’t called to apologize. I’m not about to make the first move. I am too upset. Hurt, really. I suppose she’ll say she forgot it wasn’t hers, even though it was written on a card that said, “From the Kitchen of Mrs. Roger Ellroy.” Last time I checked, that was me.
I have spoken with Cecelia twice though, since the fair. Not by choice, but by the good Lord’s will and intervention. We belong to the same prayer chain. The first time she called about a prayer for Mrs. Baker, the diabetic. She tried to get me to say something, explain why it was I hadn’t called, hadn’t accused, hadn’t asked her for an answer.
“What did I do?” Cecelia pleaded over the phone. “Tell me, Ellen! Tell me what I have done?”
I just kept right on with my Hail Mary’s. I prayed extra loudly. The prayer chain is no place for that conversation. The second time she called—when Timothy Niles broke his leg jumping off a wet trampoline—it was much colder. We said our prayers and hung up like we didn’t even know each other, like we had picked up the phone for a wrong number, an unfamiliar voice down a long distance line.
It doesn’t make me happy to say these things, to tell what I know, and say what I’m saying. Cecelia was my friend, my real true best friend. And to me, that means something. I can’t shut up, not this time, can’t allow her to get away with taking something that doesn’t belong to her. I can’t just allow her to parade around as if it were hers, as if I had never been there, behind the whole thing, all along. That recipe was mine. It was mine, you can see that now.
The spa was located in the hills, behind the town’s famous billboards.
“The farthest spot on known earth,” her husband said, looking over the brochures. “No fast foods for miles.”
Her husband helped her pack, while she stood to the side eating Dorito’s. The afternoon sun shone on her as she got in the car and slammed the door. Her husband waved. When she pulled out of the driveway, he called out to her. “Relax enough, so you can ovulate and then we can get back to business.”
The drive took an hour. The spa was a large white building with the mountain behind, hugging it. On the right side was a pool. On the left side was a room with bay windows overlooking the coast. In the middle, as she pushed through the revolving doors was the entrance and a table set up of fresh organic food and juices.
The women in white coats smiled and their voices sang like angels on acid, welcoming her to an experience that’ll transform her.
“Listen to your body,” they said as they showed her to her room. Her room held large windows that faced the mountain. The pine trees pressed against the glass, bits of sunshine filtered in.
She asked for coffee.
They looked at each other. “Why do you need coffee?”
“Because I’m tired.”
They smiled. “If you’re tired, then go to bed or rest in the sauna or go for a swim in the pool, perhaps.”
As she swam in the hot pool, swimming one lap after another, she could hear the wolves howling. She slept that night, hearing them whimpering and scratching her window.
Early morning, they gathered in the great room, prepping themselves for yoga. While they stretched and cried out to Mother Nature, she asked if anyone else was concerned about the wolves. Did the wolves ever pose a problem?
“Don’t listen to the wolves,” they told her. “Listen to your body.”
“But doesn’t anybody else hear the wolves?” She looked around at the other women in the room. Their eyes closed, deep in thought, deep in breathing; inhaling and exhaling.
The lady stood up and walked to her, placing her hands on her shoulders. “What is it your body’s saying? Listen deeply. What is it your body’s telling you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then on to the dogwood pose, shall we? On the count of three…”
On the third day, she asked for coffee. “Why do you need coffee?”
“I’m tired. I got a headache. It’s a caffeine withdrawal headache. I know it.”
“Don’t listen to your brain. That’s your brain talking. Listen to your body. What is your body telling you?”
“It’s telling me it wants coffee.”
They smiled. “No, it isn’t.”
At the five o’clock spiritual exercise, she stayed in her room. They came into her room, concerned. “I just don’t feel like it,” she said as she filed her nails and cut them into tiny perfect curves.
They gently took the items out of her hands. “Take a rest. Remember why you came here. You came to rest. You’re doing too much. What is your body telling you?”
She asked for a shaver. Her hair was growing back from the last wax and the shaver she brought had already turned rusty. They took the rusty shaver from her, threw it into the bin. “You don’t need to worry about things like that. That is not important. What is important is your body. What is your body saying?”
She sat on her bed’s clean white sheets, watching her nails grow long, curling inward. She watched the short bristled hairs on her legs grow. She gathered the tangled hairs on her head and twisted them up into a messy bun.
That night, it thundered. The wolves howled. The power and lights flicked off. They gave them candles and told them to rest, to call out to Mother Nature and to listen to the body. “What is it that your body is trying to say to you?” they asked, looking into her eyes.
She moved the dresser in front of the door and threw the heavy white candles thick as bricks through the windows. The glass shattered. The rain came in, filling the room. The pine trees tumbled forward, touching her feet.
The mice came, crawling up her body. Sparrows flew in. Together they poked and pecked into her tall matted hair that sat atop her head like a wobbly castle. She laid on the bed and opened her legs. The rabbits wet and white came into her vagina, burrowing and digging to keep warm. The wolves pranced in on tiptoes. They stepped over her body; stepped over the mice, rabbits, sparrows, and came to her neck. They snarled, exposing large teeth. They leaned forward, biting deep into her neck.
The women were outside, pounding on the door: “Listen to your body. What is it telling you? What is your body trying to say to you?”
She closed her eyes and listened.
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