Four years had passed since I returned to this building, the old city, and the old job. At work digitizing the poster of another Czech New Wave film—this one depicting algae sprouting from a woman’s head, dark eyes sparkling with silver pin lights that reminded me of plankton—my heart started racing so fast I handed over my shift and went home. I sensed another panic attack. What did it was the smell of jasmine that wafted through that image—impossible but as real as a bite.
The jasmine had been trailing me. At first it was like a furtive glance across the room. The scent of a blooming vine would slither into the apartment with a passing breeze from an open window or suddenly shut door. It even made its way in the stillest of air that had been chewed on for days, keeping out the gelid winter. I checked my clothes, my linen, perfume bottles, but that couldn’t be it. I didn’t wear perfume, the bottles were decorative, my grandmother’s mementos. In the summer and fall I’d dismissed the scent as a whiff of viburnum or linden. Jasmine just wasn’t something you would find in Prague. I knew that smell; I knew it well.
“Maybe you should go to the hospital,” my co-worker Marketa suggested one day, her eyes scanning me as she held up my coat.
“It’ll pass,” I said.
I measured my steps to the Staroměstská metro station, the snow sludgy and clinging to my hems, wishing I hadn’t worn high-heeled boots. I gripped the rubbery escalator handrail on that interminable descent from which I could hear the train’s distant hum in the earth’s bowels. That whistling, the pounding of wheels, turned into a chugging roar as vertigo washed over me.
Inside my studio, Grandma was listening to a Hana Hegerová record, sitting on the couch and knitting another bright-colored scarf, presumably for me. “You’re early,” she said, watching as I unzipped my boots and put on the slippers by the door.
“Yes,” I said. I was used to finding her in my apartment, especially since she lived upstairs and my studio was officially hers. Her plump, stockinged legs and muumuu-adorned presence were as ubiquitous as the heavy walnut furniture. “I need to lie down,” I said.
Her eyes searched mine as she put the yarn in her canvas bag, slung it over her shoulder, leaned forward and rose with great effort. Lying down on the couch that doubled as a bed, I could feel her warmth on the woolen cushions as I closed my eyes.
“Rest,” she said. “Come over later. I made goulash.”
“I’ll call you if I’m coming over.”
“No need to. Just come in. You need to eat,” she said. I could hear shuffling around the room, the clinking and rinsing of glass in the sink, the creak of the cabinet door as she opened and closed it. How did I end up here again? I saw myself at 5,17, then 29, 50, 72, my entire life spent between this studio and the larger one upstairs, which was my parents’ until they moved to their country cottage and I returned from Brazil.
“You’re lucky they took you back,” Grandma said often enough about my job at the National Film Archives, since I had returned with nothing aside from a suitcase and a few wrinkles. For her, my relationship with Samuel and all those years abroad, they didn’t really count. And for a while I, too, was almost convinced everything had been a long holiday, a mindscape in which life intensifies, attuned to another frequency.
In my early twenties, when I got into film school, I took up Romance languages in my spare time, learning some Italian and then Spanish, but it was Portuguese that intrigued me enough to go to Portugal and then, finally, to Brazil. I’d always been drawn by unknown places and people presented to me through photographs, films, and documentaries. At home, I felt part of the furniture.
After dozing for a couple hours, I put on my jacket and went upstairs. We ate Grandma’s goulash with the television on mute.
“Backgammon?” she asked after dinner.
“Not tonight,” I said, sniffing something. There it was again, the faint smell of jasmine. “Do you smell it?”
She turned on the TV and looked at me impassively. “You’re right. Too many caraway seeds.”
“Not that. The goulash is fine.” With legs propped on the coffee table, her swollen shins caught my attention. “How about a massage?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up, youthful with expectation. Sitting across from her, I picked up her leg and rubbed the pressure points on her feet. Closing her eyes, she basked in pleasure like her big red tabby. In moments like these, I could see the young woman she had been.
“You’re a jewel,” she said, her voice lilting. “Pavel’s a bachelor, you know. Still single, like you.” Worse than unattractive, Pavel had a bland handsome face, a smug grin, and a ready string of infantile jokes that appealed to my grandma.
Re-shifting my weight, I reminded her again: “I have been married.”
“Oh. A beach ceremony in the middle of nowhere doesn’t count,” she said. “Besides, no one knows about it.”
“I know about it,” I said, laying down the peeling, reddened foot.
Snapping her eyes open, she huffed. “That’s it? You’re a tease,” she said.
I got up to wash my hands. By the time I left the bathroom, she was already talking to her friend Helča on the phone. The two compared notes on talent shows—this one called Dazzling Incarnations—while watching. “That’s what passes for talent nowadays,” Grandma usually said, only this time the talent in question happened to pass her test. “She’s the spitting image of Edith Piaf,” she declared. Pressing the cellphone to her chest the way she would’ve done with an old receiver, she looked up at me. “Rest, Evička. Good night.”
As I lay in bed, I watched the snow against the windowpane. The wisps conjured memories. At this time of year, summer in the southern hemisphere would still be in full swing, the sea calm enough to swim at all hours, with tourists alternately reveling and devouring the village like insatiable hounds. Samuel’s three bakeries around town would be so bustling he’d employ additional people, making regular trips to Rio to restock any gourmet merchandise. Jaunty açaí stands would’ve sprouted for the season, and a mixture of techno, international and Brazilian pop, jazz, bossa nova, favela funk would all compete for attention, heard from stand to stand and house to house. Soon, those tourists would be gone, leaving the village, then the town, flushed out with the remains of a summer-long party.
During the summer, I’d see Samuel at short intervals during the day, spending my mornings alone while he slept off the late nights at Belezapura, his recently opened music venue and side project. At the time I was teaching English online to Japanese students, so I’d rise early with the golden wash that entered the bedroom through the windows, glance over at Samuel’s sleeping face, cross the room and open the house’s colonial windows one by one. The window at the end of the hall I saved for last. It opened into a mesh of lush passion fruit vines that laced the sunlight—an interplay of copper, lime green, and butterfly shadows. As the vines grew into an arbor outside, they drew stars on the floor and the chair by the window. If the wind blew just so, the scent of jasmine circled the three front pillars—straight and modernist, white-washed but blending with the sand and earth that trailed the house like a passing sigh.
Images dissolved as I fell asleep. When I woke up the next day, I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm. I took a quick shower, made instant coffee, poured some milk in it, and layered on my scarf, hat, coat. I trudged to the subway station, grateful for the splash of sun breaking through the clouds. I sidestepped the first slush pile on the pavement but stepped into the second, my boots sinking right in. The frigid wetness seeped in—an icy gel of discomfort.
In the subway, I caught my reflection in the dirty glass. I looked sallow and puzzled. How could I return to something that no longer made sense?
I arrived at work barely on time, went to my desk, and examined the pile of posters. I removed my socks and boots discreetly, leaving them on the edge of the radiator. The socks would dry soon enough, I figured. Marketa shot me a sideways glance when she spotted them, but so what? We had plenty of space between desks, and my socks didn’t smell. This is the type of thing Samuel would’ve done without a second thought. Not that he was clueless. He simply lacked inhibition. At first it was shocking, then it freed up a space in me. The opinions of others were something one could live without. After shaking them off, they seemed like an extra appendage.
“Are you feeling better?” Marketa asked during lunch in the cafeteria. By then my socks had dried stiffly and crackled as I wiggled my toes.
“Better than what?”
She took my answer for sarcasm and smirked.
“It’s supposed to be nice this weekend. We’re going up to Honza’s cottage on Saturday. What are you doing?” she asked. A speck of plaster fell from the ceiling, landing on the wooden table. “Filthy!” she said. She looked around for someone to clean it up.
In Brazil, the so-called invisible people who did the cleaning had been all too visible, tasked with keeping everything orderly according to the tastes of their employers. Samuel liked to teach people, offering coffee, snacks and doing the work along with them until they knew just how he liked it done. For the younger ones, he’d put on a rock album, instilling a sense of freedom—and energized labor. “Post-colonial propaganda,” I’d said to him.
In the beginning I found it discomfiting to employ cleaners at home—and they were all women—not just in terms of subservience but also for the intrusiveness, the inherent lack of privacy in exposing your dirty laundry to a stranger. “Treat them with respect and it’s fine,” Samuel liked to say. The women didn’t talk to me, and Samuel said I needed to learn how to be a boss. “I don’t like being a boss or being bossed around,” I’d say. He’d smile, amused. We had a string of faxineiras until we finally met Selma—a shy middle-aged countrywoman who brought herbs from her garden. She responded more to my hands-off approach than Samuel’s marionetting.
There I was again, lost in thought, so that Marketa repeated, “Do you want to come? Honza’s bringing a friend from Brno. He’s funny, I hear.”
Since my return, people had been trying to set me up. From the little I had told Marketa about Samuel, she assumed that “funny” was my one criterion. I was tired of saying no, so I agreed to go out for a drink on Friday.
I met the three of them at Kavarna Lucerna. Marketa waved to me, and joined the trio sitting by a window overlooking the upside-down ass of Saint Wesceslas’s dead horse. “I know, I know. There was nowhere else to sit. I hate David Černý,” said my would-be suitor by way of introduction. He was wearing a tight-fitting pinstriped suit and a manic grin.
“David Černý’s brilliant,” I said, taking a seat.
“And what is so interesting about creeping babies, pissing fountains, suicidal businessmen hanging off a pole, and this”—he pointed to the sculpture across the glass—“travesty of our national hero?” Honza and Marketa exchanged glances.
“It’s not a businessman. The man hanging off the pole is Freud and he’s suspended, hanging on,” I said. “Ambivalently but still. As for the babies—”
Petr stared at me like I was speaking about barnacle formation in gibberish, so that Marketa interrupted. “We’ve been indoctrinated with surrealism, Petr,” she conceded for his benefit.
“Subversive poser. Enough horse shit,” he said. Honza laughed. I must have furrowed my brow, because Petr turned to me. “Let’s get you a drink. You could use one.
I ordered a bavorák, then another, fizzling out their presence. Now and then, I stared out the window at the horse’s dangling tail. At some point Petr got up to answer a call, and Marketa turned to me. “He’s just nervous. Petr takes care of his mother. You live with your grandmother. You two have something in common once you get past his taste in art,” she said. I thought of correcting her, as I lived below my grandmother, but what was the point? Her comparison soured my mood. I excused myself, went to the counter, and paid for my drinks. As I was leaving, Petr grabbed my forearm.
“You can’t go,” he said.
That weekend was surprisingly warm with the soft pastels of early spring. Along the river line even the willows showed signs of life, people were out, their faces tilted to the sun like flowers. Before I knew it, I was traipsing alone in the castle district of Hradčany. The Belvedere palace slid into view with its verdigris roof, the spruce’s branches framing the Renaissance building. Ever since I’d returned, I gravitated towards the building which was envisioned as a summer palace for the wife of Ferdinand I, who died before its completion. It’s a suspended playground meant to embrace the sun, the garden, and the city. The lightness of the arcade and many windows reminded me of Samuel’s modernist house in Brazil.
Samuel had taken me to see it shortly after we met. I was so struck by its scope and imagination, that he’d build something like it—at once classic and avant-garde—that I said nothing. It was constructed in incongruous sections, an open plan for the main part and another for the bedrooms, hallway, and foyer. The kitchen stood apart from the house altogether, in the back, with its own garden. Unlike the other houses on the street, it had a simple wooden gate, its plants grasping for the sea through the sand and earth. Someone who would build a house like that must have an original mind. And of all the qualities in someone, originality was what I sought, tired as I was of templates of being.
“So, you want to live here?” Samuel had asked.
“What do you mean? We’ve only just met.” He didn’t take his eyes off me, his gaze unwavering, almost like a child’s in frankness. I had looked at the burnt cement floor of the living room, which was painted a deep indigo, all sky and wonder, and I could not think of a good reason to say no. Samuel had first introduced himself to me at Belezapura, his music venue in town. I was there with an Argentinean acquaintance, a woman who worked at the local art-house movie theater. “Do you usually prefer the A or B side of an album?” he’d asked. An experimental version of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ classic “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” was playing at the time, which sounded vaguely familiar.
“The D side when there’s one. What’s this, a sampling?”
He crossed his arms and shook his head so slowly it seemed mechanical. “Egberto Gismonti, baby,” he said. I couldn’t help but laugh. He was equally attractive and strange—tall, his skin a mahogany shade from the sun, a large aquiline nose, and an asymmetrical face, one eye much larger than the other. Altogether he had a calm assurance, the way he stood apart while taking everything in. It wasn’t so much that he owned the place but rather he owned his space.
A few days later, we went on a date that lasted a week. He’d said to bring a toothbrush, and I figured I would spend the night at his place. Instead, we got on the road.
Like a racecar driver, he changed lanes and passed cars, going too fast and then halting to a stop. At one point I’d closed my eyes. “Slow down,” I pleaded. He did, but I could sense the effort involved.
Soon we entered a mountainous region flecked with cottages and enveloped by blue mist, the bucolic landscape reminiscent of Slovakia, with its bungalows and enmeshing forests. Our cottage had a porch and was pushed back into a hill, where pine and eucalyptus surrounded us. A creek coursed through the property, the air crisp with a mineral scent.
Samuel had brought a bottle of whiskey, and we drank it slowly, sitting on the porch before retreating inside, where we made love for the rest of the week—on every conceivable surface as well as in the creek—and just when we thought we were exhausted, a feral glance would rouse us. We were trying each other out. There was a gleefulness to it all, a game of making up for lost time—of a future where we might not be together. If we were never to meet again, this time would have to suffice.
We swam naked in the nearby lakes and ate breakfast and lunch in the property’s common area. Everything was prepared by a beautiful, stout second-generation Polish woman with a gentle smile and a mischievous glint in her eyes. She was obviously familiar with Samuel’s preferences—he’d brought an ex there before, he said—and served us graciously, stopping to chat and feed the birds. When she learned I was Czech, she nodded slowly, as if calibrating a response. Finally, she said, “This is the land of forgetfulness.” She said she grew up without television, newspapers, internet, and news of the world, and did not learn Portuguese until she was sent to school at seven. Her parents, she said, had eventually forgotten where they were whereas she had forgotten much of what they told her about Poland. Her Polish now consisted of a few scattered words, recipes, and habits. I counted the number of wildflowers on the vase on the table, and surely enough, they were odd numbered, a superstition common to Slavs. It also struck me that the place her family had settled was a simulacrum of a village in Eastern Europe, as nebulous as that was.
At some point, Samuel chipped in, “There are many Ukrainians here as well. Jana, why don’t you get together?” Jana shook her head, chuckling. “Because then a Russian would come out,” she said. Apparently it was a joke in these parts, a joke Samuel was in on.
When we were ready to eat, I marveled at the colorful array of dishes spread on the linen cloth. “She killed a chicken for us today,” Samuel said.
“A sacrifice,” I responded.
We ate it reverentially, in keeping with the fantastical feel of our mountain alcove. During that entire time, we were the only guests around.
At night, we had access to the kitchen. In between swimming, sleeping, and exploring, we warmed up the pans in the industrial kitchen, our appetites as robust as the sex. In the morning, I would rise just as the first blue-grey light began to show and go onto the porch to be alone for a while. I wrote on napkins, just so I wouldn’t forget as Jana said. I feel cleansed. A tightly-shut room has cracked open, I wrote.
Next, I was looking through fronds at the apricot sky by the sea. In less than a month, I brought my few belongings to Samuel’s beach house. And he, day after day, would bring in new furnishings—a new rug, chaise, a dresser, wardrobe, a vanity—found in antique shops, on the side of the road, or from the many people he knew or ran across, all bargained in his favor. I wasn’t used to such extravagant gestures and distrusted them. I seemed to have no choice in the matter, as items would be summoned by a passing glance of approval. For a while I was almost reluctant to notice something that would soon be mine, as though by magic. “I grew up under communism, you know,” I told Samuel at one point. “We were taught to shun excess and impulses.”
He would give me one of his sardonic looks and slap his thighs. “You’ve come to the wrong place then. A wild colony. No place for amateur anthropologists.” These comments annoyed me enough to make me question my certainties.
We had a ceremony on the beach at sunset to mark our wedding. We played Dorival Caymmi. He got people from the village to build a pergola, and they stood at a distance looking on as the vow, which consisted of silently looking at each other for a while, exhausted itself and the justice—a friend of Samuel’s—said, “So be it!” We were supposed to formally register a civil wedding at the town hall, but never got around to it. I found that informality liberating. Used to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything had to be notarized, stamped, and apostilled by countless hands, I relished its undoing. A piece of paper would’ve broken the spell.
Still, many people referred to me as Samuel’s wife, rarely by my name.
As I think of that beginning now, I recall the contours of a seashell—enigmatic but merely the surface of the roaring inside, its bony scent unfurling the connective tissue among people. Soon, Samuel’s female friends began to visit us at home. I had met them before at the music venue, in passing. They were the daughters of the elite—well-educated, fashionable, and used to all forms of privilege, even if some were conscious of social causes. They greeted me with polite interest at first but were skeptical of our relationship. I supposed I would’ve been, too, in their place. All of a sudden I was just there, an interloper as far as they were concerned. My reserve and Samuel’s expansiveness didn’t seem to fit. “So different from Bel,” I heard them say about the ex, whose traces could be found in the garden. Apparently, she was the one who chose that particular strain of Madagascar jasmine around the front pillars. These friends brought gifts—candied orange peels, jazz albums, a Persian rug once, like an offering to a prince. It became evident that many of these friends had once been lovers or wanted to be one, and the ongoing question was, why me?
Samuel and I tended to question each other’s questions from other angles.
“Freedom can be agonizing. Have you read any of the Existentialists?” I asked Samuel once.
He didn’t respond, pulling out books by George Gurdjeiff and Adries Shah from the shelves. His friends would come over at all hours; they showed up unexpectedly and sprawled. There were a couple of constant fixtures—Laura, for instance. She had a piercing gaze, both steady and provocative. She seemed to glide through space, effortlessly at ease. No sooner would she arrive, and she had a ready quip to match Samuel’s. Laura refused to speak Portuguese to me, saying it was easier to converse in English.
“You should teach Czech,” she said.
“There’s not much of a demand for that.”
Exchanging a glance with Samuel, she smirked. “Czech could be the new Esperanto.” She suggested I teach those who had an interest in learning something impractical just for kicks. Laura owned a boutique in town and when she appeared at the village, expected to stay the night. Sitting back on the chaise, she’d smoke a joint, alternatively choose and have records chosen for her benefit and bask in Samuel’s way of getting you to air out your thoughts. For a while jealousy had given way to a certain voyeurism. I didn’t want to interrupt something I wanted to watch unfold.
Once, after my one visit back to Prague during those six years in Brazil, I’d brought Samuel a book about the city with a pop-up map. He’d noticed the picture of the Belvedere and remarked on its arcades and verdigris roof. I tried to convince him to come here to Prague with me, but it was no use. “Wherever you go, you take yourself,” he said. “The trip is internal.”
He was fond of mystics, adventurers, and phrases like that, and when I rolled my eyes, he’d smile and tell me to get out of the cage I’d built around myself.
“I’m here, aren’t I? Isn’t this proof enough that I am open?”
“The cage may be open but you’re still inside.”
“I don’t want Laura to come around anymore.”
“Because I’ll bite her if she does.”
“I don’t recommend it. I don’t see why you can’t be friends.”
“That’s just a façade. You should know better. Lay out the candied oranges she brings.”
We began to argue about Laura constantly. “You’ve changed,” he said. “When did you become someone who looks at an orange and only sees the orange.”
A few days later Samuel went to São Paulo. I stayed in the village and got invited to the film festival in town, a yearly event run by a French producer who had retired there. The festival had become one of those chic little spots in the circuit that could only remain hidden for so long. I noticed Laura inside the hall of the festival. Neither of us greeted the other, acknowledging each other sideways while she talked to a group of men, and I spoke to my acquaintance who helped organize the festival.
After an Argentinian film—Wild Tales, it was called—the last screening of the day, people slowly petered out and the ones who stayed were invited to the mansion of one of the producers. Laura was there. I don’t remember much of the party aside from a flurry of people on a deck, strobe lights, and glasses of champagne and whisky. Eventually we gravitated towards each other and exchanged a few banal words.
“Where’s Samuel?” she asked.
“Not here,” I said.
We went to one of the back rooms and she mentioned Samuel again, made fun of his sideburns. Tanned and hazel-eyed, she was wearing a white pantsuit with a deep decolletage. I noticed a reddish spill on the fabric, near her shoulder blade. “Well, so you’re human, after all,” I said.
She huffed. “This oily pest spilled it on me while trying to impress me with his credentials.”
“You look like a swan in that pantsuit.”
“And you look like an owl. So serious all the time.”
I stared back at her. A light switched on in me. I now felt a strange lucidity, when something previously out of focus sharpens. I seduced her by merely looking at her long enough, seizing the power of watching her react. She was beautiful, more so as drops of sweat pooled on her upper lip. I leaned over and licked the salty sweat from her cupid’s bow. She stared back at me. Grinned.
I felt like Samuel. But I was nothing like Samuel, and she must have sensed that intermingled with sudden desire was a wish to stamp her out. At that moment sex was a substitute for a fight, a latent desire to take control, to change the plot and become the protagonist and the director. It didn’t take long for Laura’s expression to darken, as if she had just remembered who I was. Already dressed, she left without offering me a ride.
The public vans that had brought me to the party were no longer running. I had to walk all the way to the village. I don’t know how long it took exactly—it felt like hours, my sobering up every step of the way—but I was at home by seven in the morning, feeling strangely bereft at that house by myself after such an unusual turn of events. Nausea settled in. It reminded me of the time my grandmother had forgotten a roast in the oven and I ate it greedily. Then, as the staleness of the meat sunk in, I’d slumped into a corner of the room while my body raged, my tongue stale and leaden.
By the time Samuel returned, I had decided not to mention anything, assuming neither would she. It would be our pact, some kind of a ladies’ agreement. I didn’t think she would show up at the house again, not for some time anyway, but I was wrong. Not only did Laura meet him in town, but she also began to come by at least once a week, often unannounced and sometimes accompanied by Samuel himself, her laughter heard from the front gate. I couldn’t believe her nerve, the taunting. Then it occurred to me that she didn’t have anything to lose. I did.
At some point I told him about Laura and I. He just listened as he rolled a straw cigarette. “Well, you beat me to it,” he finally said, pausing before adding with a lopsided smile, “you’re telling me this to compensate for something else.”
“Who do you think you are? A guru?”
I was considering leaving him, and it bothered me that he sensed it.
“Only to myself,” he said.
Not long after that, I traveled to Rio alone. He didn’t question it or ask why, but something in his silence told me he was hurt. It was supposed to be a short trip, and it was cut even shorter. When I got the call, I was sitting in a bookstore café drinking hot milk, something Grandma often made for me. Laura, of all people, called to tell me Samuel had run into another driver on his way home at night. She said it was an instant death. In fiction, this was a deux ex machina, but real life is free to pull all sorts of tricks, drawing the curtain in the middle of a fight or a kiss.
So shocked I couldn’t bring myself to think, I must’ve made enough robotic requests to get from A to B. Everything from the moment I left Rio back to the village, the bus to town and then a van, blurred through numbness jagged with pain. Like a terrible toothache lodged not in my mouth but in my chest.
It was overcast when I arrived in the house, still damp from rain. When I opened the gate and trod the yard, my footprints matting the sand, I stopped to look at the vines of jasmine on the front pillars. Their buds were shut tightly like eyelids. I took it personally, as I couldn’t remember a time when they had been closed up like that. A new car was parked in the driveway, a stretch of land without shrubs or plants. Usually, it was where Samuel’s old Variant would be, its absence now conspicuous. I walked inside the house and saw the mirror on the foyer’s wall. It was covered with a sheet. The house seemed austere yet defiled, the floor streaked with dirt tracks from shoe soles.
Samuel’s two brothers were there. I had met them once before in the central bakery, and briefly at the house. They were urbanites with little taste for rustic beach houses or villages for that matter, preferring to stay in a hotel in town. They had been polite enough, though they clearly regarded me as just another girlfriend. As I watched one of them empty one of Samuel’s drawers, I tensed up. “Leave it,” I protested.
The older one turned around with a shrewd glance. “What do you want?” he asked. I wanted to assert some right in the matter, to sift through its contents—the letters, the photographs of Israel, the Kinder egg toys, the sunglasses, which I knew well enough—everything suddenly valuable to me. I balked at his gaze, however, like I was applying for another permission to be, to stay or to go.
I suppose a piece of paper would’ve helped then. Their mother, they said, was “too upset to come.” She had demanded Samuel be buried in São Paulo. After taking care of business matters, settling debts, closing the shops and Belezapura, the brothers left as silently and efficiently as they came, showing no interest in the house. I stayed put. The reckless driving then made sense as vestigial rebellion from his earlier years perhaps. I remembered one of his jokes, “My family, we’re commies. Everything is everyone’s and no one’s.” Like me, he sought some autonomy by coming here, by making a house so odd by regular standards. Unlike his lapidated brothers, he chipped away at veneers.
“Take care,” the brothers said on their way out. They looked like a blanched version of Samuel, lit within by artificial lights.
At some point Laura showed up. “The door was open,” she said. “Careful with that.”
“Here we are,” I said. “Come in.”
She sat next to me. We both stared at the mirrors—all of them covered with sheets. I cannot say we became friends, but a certain truce was reached, her very presence a form of consolation. After all, we had loved the same person. At some point we even held each other’s hands, like sisters and witnesses to one of life’s unanswerables.
She came around every day for a month, bringing quiches, bread, and soups.
When I finally left for Prague, she questioned the decision. “Why?” she asked. “It’s your house.”
“Yours, too,” I said.
“No. It’s not.”
The roaring of the sea turned a higher pitch, crashing and then fizzing with the foam. “This isn’t real life,” I said.
Real life. What a clipped bird it was turning out to be, wings trapped in caged reminiscences. And the jasmine trailing me was turning putrid. I left the Belvedere just as the air chilled and the sky turned violet. Now I often forgot where I was, lost in a time that seemed more real than my surroundings. Since my return, I had been living in this gelatinous reality, this maze of thoughts that all return to Samuel in that house. On the tram back to my studio, I heard Laura say, “You have to wait it out. Otherwise this sensation will follow you.”
We’d walked out of the house together, dragging my bulging suitcase across the yard, and she drove me to the airport. I took nothing of the house but its key.
Arriving at my studio, Grandma wasn’t there. Suddenly, I wanted to see her, to tell what I was about to do. I found her in front of the Dazzling Incarnations show upstairs, busy with my scarf. “I’m leaving,” I announced.
She didn’t even look up, knitting. “You already left.”
The river Ganga seethes with ashes. We shove our elbows into each other’s sides, muscle our way in to look. The bodies of our grandmothers and grandfathers burn on the cremation ghats. We watch them become less like bodies and more like a collection of burning fabric and bone marrow and veins turning into ash.
We collect the ashes into the kalash, and then we say a quick prayer and leave the kalash with the purohit. We wonder if the ashes carry the sickness inside them, or if the sickness has separated from their bodies, and in that moment, we imagine the sickness itself as a body, vulnerable and tender. After a few days, the purohit hurls the ashes in.
The ashes dissolve into the river, mixing, impossible to separate again. This makes it harder for us. We cannot point to a congealed lump of ashes and say, Here is Patti who cooked the best idlis in the world and here is Ushana who made all those beautiful paintings and here is Smruti who is a very fast runner and beat all of us in the one hundred meter dash and here is Pooja who hated us, maybe, and here is our uncle Jaya who, when we told him we were going to be famous singers one day, laughed so hard his fingernails fell off. We still keep the fingernails in tiny urns on our desks.
All these people and no way to tell them apart. We know their names, but the river doesn’t.
When we are sick, we come to the river Ganga begging it to heal us. The heat pares us down, reduces us to thirst and burning. Some of us bring wounded limbs or injuries, inherited through our bloodline or self-induced by our stupidity. Others bring the sickness, arms spangled with mosquito bites.
The smell of scorched hair hovers over Varanasi. The clang of bells. Merchants hawking remedies too expensive for us to buy. Orange embers from the ghats land in our hair and remind us how close we are to burning.
Our proximity to dead bodies makes us nervous. But despite this, the Ganga is a healing river, and there is nothing we need more than to be healed. We anoint our foreheads with ceremonial white ash and bathe in the river. The ashes seep from our hairlines and pool in our collarbones.
Nalini breaks off from us and runs to the river bend. She stoops to cup a section of the river in her hands and her great grandfather passes through her fingers.
There are so many memories we steal from Varanasi. The sweet dahi vada we gnaw between our teeth. People asking for money so their families can cremate them when they are dead. A woman crying as the sunlight strikes her face, sculpting her into something raw. Ashes fall into the river and the water reaches up to touch them.
In the years following the sickness, we learn who the river has chosen to save and who it has forsaken. Swati dies. None of us knew her very well, but we knew she mostly liked to eat food that was colored white. So, we burn white food along with her.
We are scared to scatter her ashes into the river. What if the ashes are still Swati? What if she is still lodged in them, unable to get out?
Kavya tells the rest of us we are wasting time, so we throw Swati into the river anyway. Her ashes mingle with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Swati’s white food mixing with Pooja’s maybe-hatred mixing with Patti’s love mixing with Smruti’s mile time mixing with Jaya’s laughter.
Nalini looks for animals in the Ganges. The softshell turtle, the river dolphin, the otter. But they will not come near the crush of visitors. We don’t tell Nalini this, so we can watch her try and fail to find them.
She mistakes a passing boat for the back of a dolphin and jumps into the river. We laugh at all of her pouring forward. Nalini struggles and screams, thrashing in the water.
There is a moment where no one knows what to do. Do we jump in and risk ourselves? The boat’s propeller could pull us under, add us to the tally of ghosts in this river. Or do we let her go?
Then Kavya jumps in, swimming towards Nalini, and it would look bad if we didn’t jump in, too. So we all swim to her and pull Nalini to the shore. The boat misses us by a few feet.
Exhilarated by the rush of almost dying, we make promises we can’t keep. We tell each other: we’ll do anything for you, we’ll die for you, we’ll bail you out of jail, we’ll donate our kidneys if you ever need one, just tell us what you need.
We know we’re being stupid, but it’s okay to be stupid. We think we have time.
But we grow up, finish school, get married. For some of us, our husbands die, and we break our bangles, don the white clothes of widows, and migrate to settlements.
For others, we are frustrated because either our husbands won’t die, or our future children won’t be born, and nothing seems to change.
We move away from Varanasi. The population of river dolphins dries up. Gharials are endangered. We read about bombings and shootings and stabbings in the paper, and pour tea for ourselves to drink in the afternoon.
It is only sometimes when the sunlight glints scarlet against the waves or our bodies flush with desire or we touch the fuzzy heads of our children that we think: we are lucky to be alive. Lucky to not be particles in the river right now. Who would ever want to leave?
Nalini is run over by a rickshaw two blocks away from where we live. When she calls out for help, only the rickshaw driver hears her, and he doesn’t stop. She bleeds to death in the street. Her kidneys are ruined.
Nalini’s family does not have enough money to do a full funeral ceremony, but they do everything else right: pray over the body, cremate her, scatter her remains at the sangam where the three rivers meet. Sacrifice a husked coconut, milk, some rice, a garland of flowers.
After her death, the body that used to be Nalini exists amongst the softshell turtles and river otters and endangered gharials.
In some years our bodies will be ashes, and our children will celebrate our lives. They will feast on banana leaves and set our pictures on our verandas and eventually they will cremate us and throw us into the river.
We hope they will cry for us, at least a little. We want our families to grieve for the hundreds of generations that will forget us after we are gone. We hope their tears mix with our ashes, all of it ending up in the river.
When diseases and motorcycle accidents and electrocution finally shove us out of our bodies, we roam the earth for forty days. We can’t believe it is over. We want to haunt the people who killed us or the people who loved us, to terrify them equally, to make them realize we are still here.
But our families scatter our ashes in the river so we cannot return to what is left of us. Some of us grow vengeful. Our families aren’t grieving enough. Others want to save our children from a forest fire or to console our husbands or simply to die again, but with more sophistication.
When the hunt for our ashes exhausts us, we recall the feeling of the cool river against our face, on that day we almost drowned with Nalini. We return to the river. Pollution has darkened the waters. We sift through the water, but we can’t find any trace of our old bodies. Everything that we were is gone, dissolved, so we sink to the riverbed and surrender to a glacial quiet.
We are born two weeks early, seven weeks late, in rickshaws, during stormy nights, in the sunlight, in a horse stable, on the terrace of an apartment building.
Our parents take us to the river Ganga to name us. Around us, the night eddies and aches with the sound of language we cannot yet untangle. We drink in everything with our newborn eyes and immediately forget all of it. The ice-cold water rushes towards our faces. Our eyes sting with the salty water. We scream and thrash to get away from it. But we cannot escape.
We want the water to leave our eyes, but our parents lift us and dunk us again in the river. We make underwater sounds but they come out as bubbles, so we watch our voices lift up and up until they break against the river’s surface.
I first read K-Ming Chang’s writing in 2018, back when I was Fiction Editor of Nashville Review. Her story, “Meals for Mourners/兄弟”, captured my attention with its embodied, elemental language and stirring portrait of family life. Since that time, Chang has written a novel, a chapbook, and a story collection, among other projects. Currently, she is a Kundiman fellow. Her story, “Excerpt from the History of Literacy”, was published by Four Way Review in November 2020. While Chang’s characters bite, use meat grinders as weapons, and store their toes in a tin, Chang herself is generous of spirit, prone to doling out affirmations. During an unseasonably warm day in early spring, we talked about the craft of writing, giant snails, and the magic of making things possible.
FWR: Today I thought we could talk about your writing through a craft lens. Craft means different things to different people. To start, writer Matthew Salesses says in his recent book, Craft in the Real World, that “Craft is a set of expectations. Expectations are not universal; they are standardized. But expectations are not a bad thing.” What expectations do you feel you must meet in your writing, and whose expectations are they?
(Chang holds up her own copy of the book excitedly)
KMC: Maybe this is more what expectations I don’t meet, but I never want to explain things [to the reader] I wouldn’t explain to myself. If I were the reader and I wouldn’t need an explanation, then [as the writer,] I’m not giving one, even when I know it could make the reading more difficult for someone else. I write for myself first and foremost. I always use myself as a compass. If I am surprised or delighted by something or laugh at something or understand something, I allow that to be the compass. If I think too much about how a stranger will read it, I lose all sense of how I want the work to be.
FWR: So you’re meeting your own expectations when you write?
KMC: Yes. My expectations for myself are harsh, and I can be self-deprecating toward my own work. So, what I try to do is distance myself from [my work] as much as possible. I try not to think about how this is something I’ve spent a lot of time on and hate. I try to give myself time, a couple months or longer, and come back to the page to experience it as a reader. I look for a sense of surprise, always. I want to think, “Wait, I don’t remember writing this! I didn’t expect it to end there!” If I am not surprised, I know it’s not ready yet.
If I am not surprised, I know it’s not ready yet
FWR: How do you shock yourself when you are the one creating the surprise?
KMC: It does happen! When it goes well, the work ends up really far from where I started. It’s like a game of telephone from the first sentence—it mutates so much. Sometimes the surprise is even just a metaphor, and that can be enough.
FWR: Right now, you edit The Offing’s Micro section, which the journal files under its Cross Genre vertical. When I think of your writing as a body, “cross genre” is kind of the perfect category-defying category for it. It’s like having a non-container. Yet, no matter what form your writing takes, I feel I would recognize a K-Ming Chang piece anywhere. Part of the reason for this is your use of language on a line level. How would you describe your style?
KMC: I love this idea of a non-container! I think my style is very language driven, the idea of letting language lead me rather than logic. This sometimes results in a lot of derailing in my work—like, wow that sounded really interesting, but what does it mean? I find that’s where I have to reign myself in. I am very interested in lineages and mythmaking, creation and destruction, the elemental things that are common in mythical worlds. My style is hard for me to describe because I feel I am always trying to break out of my own style. When I write poetry, I am always trying to break out of my own poetic voice, and when I write prose, I feel very resistant to prose forms and sentences. So, it’s a constant wrestling.
I think my style is very language driven, the idea of letting language lead me rather than logic
FWR: I am always amazed by your ability to work fluidly across genres and forms. You write poetry, short stories, novels, micro fiction, and beyond. You have a poetry chapbook coming out from Bull City Press called Bone House. You also have a forthcoming story collection from One World called Gods of Want. When you sit down to write, do you have the intention to create, say, a short story from the outset? Or do you first have an idea for what your narrative is about, and then select its formal (non-)container?
KMC: I used to think it was a profound process, but it’s really like having a loose thread on your sweater that you yank. Usually, I start with a first sentence or even a few words. And then I pull on it and pull on it and let it expand. Usually what ends up happening is that whatever I think I am writing ends up as a giant block of text. When I think about what kind of narrative it will become—if it is a narrative—that is part of the revision process. When I am in the process of writing and producing, I really have no concept of “is this fiction, is this autobiographical, is this an essay, is this a poem?” That’s a lens for later.
FWR: That shows in your work. It feels like the language almost comes first and then the story blooms in this really interesting, organic way. What was it like writing Bestiary using this process?
KMC: I always joke that I tricked myself into writing it. When I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, this is a novel. This is a full manuscript or project.” I wasn’t thinking anything. I was allowing it to be fragmented, almost like a series of essays, where each section had its own completed arc (which I later unraveled). I wanted to play on the page and have the scope be a bit smaller while I was writing. If I thought, “What is the through-line? What is the plot?” it would have been mentally strenuous, stressful, and scary for me. It was a mind trick. Then later, I unstitched it all and rewrote it.
FWR: When I read Bestiary, I was struck by the density of figurative language and how you use proverbs to explain the world. For example, “the moon wasn’t whitened in a day” and “burial is a beginning: To grow anything you must first dig a grave for its seed.” For me, these aphorisms are a kind of hand off into the myth and magic in your stories. You explain the world through the earth, through the body, through transformation. Your characters do not only feel that they have sandstorms in their bellies when they are sick—they literally have sandstorms in their bellies. Can you talk about the connection between language and transformation in your stories?
KMC: Wow that is so beautiful and profound! I think transformation is the perfect word. In a lot of ways, it is like casting a spell with language. Through metaphor, you turn something into something else. In the language, that is the reality. I had a teacher named Rattawut Lapcharoensap who wrote a story collection called Sightseeing. He told me that writing makes something possible that wasn’t possible before. I love that definition of writing—to make something possible. It is also very literal. You take a blank page and put words on it that weren’t there before. If you think about it that way, it isn’t so profound, but there is something magical about it to me. Regarding proverb and myth, I love that language can be embodied. Language isn’t just a passive tool to render something. The poet Natalie Diaz once gave a talk at my school, and she said in the alphabet, the letter A came from the skull of an animal, and that’s the etymology of the letter A.
FWR: I feel like you wrote that! Speaking of real histories embodied in language, many of your stories are metafictional. In your short story “Excerpt from the History of Literacy,” your novel Bestiary, and your forthcoming chapbook Bone House, you use myths, wives’ tales, epistolary, oral storytelling, and Wuthering Heights to inform your narratives. In your mind, what is the role of the metafiction for the plot at hand? How do other stories inform what is happening in your own work?
KMC: I love that you asked about metafiction because I’ve actually been thinking about this. It’s interesting because when people think metafiction, they think postmodern. They think that it’s a very recent thing to have moments of meta in fiction. Chinese literature is extremely metafictional. The beginnings of chapters will say, “In this chapter, here’s what you’re going to learn.” And then at the end of the chapter they’ll say, “to find out the end of this conflict, read on to the next chapter.” In a lot of translated Chinese fiction that I know and love, there’s this sense of artifice. I am constructing something for you, so read on to the next chapter, the next scaffolding. It shows you the performance of the fiction, which I love so dearly. It’s ancient, not experimental or new or strange—maybe it is to Western audiences. Regarding plot, I think there’s something very playful about reminding the reader of the fiction. It kind of breaks the expectation of realism, which opens up the possibilities—this is all a construct anyway, so why can’t you give birth to a goose? Why can’t you fly?
Regarding plot, I think there’s something very playful about reminding the reader of the fiction. It kind of breaks the expectation of realism, which opens up the possibilities—this is all a construct anyway, so why can’t you give birth to a goose? Why can’t you fly?
FWR: Earlier, you mentioned you write to fulfill your own expectations. In her lecture titled “That Crafty Feeling”, Zadie Smith says that critics and academics tend to explain the craft of writing (or, expectations) only once a text has been written—that is, after the fact of making. She says that “craft” is almost retrospective. It doesn’t really tell a writer how to go about writing, say, a novel. Does this resonate with you?
KMC: I completely agree! There are so many times where I’ve only been able to articulate my intentions, or what tools I’ve used to articulate those intentions, long after I’ve written the thing. Most of the time I don’t even know my own motivations, much less my own expectations, for writing a particular piece. I think that’s part of the joy and mystery of the experience – if I clearly know my own expectations and how I’m going to fulfill them, it tends to fizzle out quickly. There’s something about being a perpetual beginner, or at least feeling like one, that makes writing possible for me.
FWR: Have there been times when you’ve been given craft advice you refused to heed? What writerly hills have you died on? You’ve been lovely to work with from an editorial standpoint, but I wonder if there are times you feel the need to put your foot down.
KMC: I love getting edits and feedback because I’m constantly lost in the woods. I’m always asking what to cut—I welcome it! But I think I struggle with conventions of storytelling that we get told as writers. We internalize things like, “Make sure the narrator is driving the story and have an active narrator.” I’m really curious about stories that have characters who are caught in the eye of a storm—who are not necessarily driving the story, but are in circumstances where the world is what is moving them, because of status and who they are! This idea of an “I” narrator who creates conflict and action is a very particular way of seeing yourself in relation to the world that I don’t think my narrators have the privilege to experience. I have also been told, “Every word is necessary”—to have an economy of language. There’s an interview with Jenny Zhang in the Asian American Writers Workshop where she says, “I don’t want to be economical. I want to be wasteful with language.” I loved it so much I wrote it down. I fight against this utilitarian idea. Write toward the delight of sounds and words. Why follow this capitalist directive in the way that we write? I think breaking out of that is really important.
I fight against this utilitarian idea. Write toward the delight of sounds and words. Why follow this capitalist directive in the way that we write? I think breaking out of that is really important.
FWR: I like the idea of being wasteful with language. I think you could also see it as being generous with language.
FWR: You talk about your characters not being as active. How do you go about developing your characters? I’m thinking about how Smaller Uncle in “Excerpt from the History of Literacy” is most vivid in relation to the details assigned to him—from the tendencies of his nose hairs to the way he fixes the “dumpster-dive TV.” Can you talk more about how you develop and discover your characters?
KMC: A specific phrase or voice will pop into my head and I’m like, “Who is this? Who are you? Why would you say this?” It’s always horror or shock at some terrible thought. It always comes from this place of curiosity. I want to know why this person is thinking this or doing this in a particular moment. The unravelling is discovering what happens. I sometimes stray completely from where I began, but character is really the driving force of my curiosity. I want to find out the circumstances under which characters do or say certain things. We often think that characters need to have individualistic, unique, instantly recognizable identities. But I’m really interested in collectives. People whose selfhood bleeds into their families and their communities, with lovers. I love the mutability of the self. I’m more interested in how selfhood doesn’t exist—the blurring of borders.
But I’m really interested in collectives. People whose selfhood bleeds into their families and their communities, with lovers. I love the mutability of the self. I’m more interested in how selfhood doesn’t exist—the blurring of borders.
FWR: Do you have any favorite literary characters?
KMC: In Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen, there is a character called Moonie. The book begins as a revenge story, and I love revenge. I love this character and this book! I also have a huge weakness for Wuthering Heights. I am endlessly fascinated by any character from Wuthering Heights. I may not ever want to meet them or interact with them, but I have endless fascination. There are so many mythical characters I love from different mythologies. There is a snake goddess who is also a giant snail sometimes. I’m delighted that she’s a giant snail. Yes, I love that. Her myth is that she creates the world and creates people out of mud. We’re all just snails!
FWR: I’ve always felt that way. So, what are you reading right now?
KMC: I’m rereading a book that’s coming out in July from my publisher, One World, called Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung. I also just read a book called Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge. It’s coming out from Melville House and is one of my favorite books of all time. The myth, the uncanniness, the strange beasts—I feel like the title is self-explanatory. It broke me out in a cold sweat the whole time, but in the best way. I have this goal for myself that will probably never happen to read all four classic novels of China. One of them is Dream of the Red Chamber, which I have read, and Water Margin, which is about bandits. I love writing about pirates and I feel like bandits are of the same branch, so I want to start reading that.
FWR: Thanks for the recs! Before you go—any thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on your writing?
KMC: In terms of the actually sitting down and writing, not much has changed. For me, there is an increased sense of urgency in wanting to tell certain stories that are in a community. Before Covid, my stories were about interwoven webs of community. That’s very important to me, and this was heightened during the pandemic. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time with my family in the hustle and bustle of a very large household. I remembered what it was like to be surrounded by voices and storytellers all the time. Being home rerouted me in what I wanted to do. Being solitary helps me write, though. I try to create that solitude. When I was living at home, I had this habit of writing in ungodly hours of the night. At first, I thought it was because I am such a night owl, but really, it’s because I was alone. When everyone in the house was either out or sleeping, everything was muted. The windows were so black I couldn’t see out into the world. I felt so alone, and it almost created my mood. I needed to enter that space to be with myself. I needed the solitude of night pressing in.
It wasn’t like you think. Charlie Todd was one of the most popular candidates going through Rush that year, even with a limp and a useless hand. We tried not to stare, but her left arm was lifeless, paralyzed, and her hand curled at the end like a comma. She hit her head in a car wreck just before high school. We heard it from Brea Loveless who knew her before it all happened.
That year, we held seminars at Rush Retreat about the importance of diversity and acceptance on the University of Tennessee’s campus. The school was pressuring Panhellenic to be more open, but our sorority was ready. There was a mixed girl going through Rush, and not only was she gorgeous, but a lot of girls didn’t even notice she was any different from us until we pointed it out. We hoped a Muslim girl might apply, but they usually stuck to International Club, and we couldn’t do a Greek mixer with a club. But we asked the AKA girls to choreograph our step routine for the Panhellenic Dance-off last year, and we felt really good about that.
The University of Tennessee had fourteen Greek sororities, but there was an unofficial top four. The Zeta Thetas, or the Zluts, were local Knoxville girls. The Chi Omicron Phis, or the Chi Babies, were all cotton money from Memphis. The Eta Eta Etas, or Eat Eat Eats, were chubby rich girls from out of state. And the Kappa Omegas, or the Knock Offs, were Nashville private school girls who couldn’t get into Vanderbilt. If those four wanted Charlie Todd, then the rest did, too. And since Charlie Todd was from Nashville and her younger sister was already a Kappa Omega, they acted like Charlie was theirs. But we knew the rumors—that Mamie and Charlie weren’t even close. That Mamie didn’t want her sister around in high school, so she wouldn’t want her in college, either.
They used to be close, or so Brea Loveless told it. She said they were once almost like twins, laying hands on each other’s arms like they were extensions of their own. Access to each other’s minds so that they didn’t need words. But something changed in the accident—Charlie did. Mamie didn’t have any injuries, but she got fat and quit the color guard. We heard it straight from Brea.
Since Charlie was the only special needs girl going through Rush, she basically had her pick. She didn’t need a wheelchair, but we all had ramps and elevators in our sororities because our houses were new. Tennessee used to have this law that if seven or more women lived in a house, it was considered a brothel, an old law never struck from the books. But donors speak louder than old laws, so UT finally let us build Sorority Hill, just like Fraternity Row. The frat houses were outdated, filthy brick boxes from the 70s. But the sorority houses were state of the art, totally accessible for the handicapped, and decorated with the principles of feng shui.
During Rush, the candidates came to our house for three different rounds. When Charlie showed up, she was wearing jeans and a pink gingham top. It was a little informal next to all the sundresses on the other pledges, but we still guided her to a wingback chair that faced the party—total privileged status. Girls of least importance had to stand in the middle of the room. We knew which candidates needed more attention and gave the others a passing hello because we only had so much time. It just wasn’t possible to love everyone equally.
The mixed girl, Nicole, and Charlie came through the same party that round, which meant we had to buzz back and forth between them. We needed to keep Nicole and Charlie’s undivided attention so they didn’t have time to look around. Or think. We needed them to choose us.
“They could have put them in different groups,” Mindy Thompson said. “That makes the most sense.”
Nicole was a rising freshman from Knoxville, and so she was friends with all the Zetas. We had a lot of work to do. We showed her our median GPA was higher than the rest of the sororities’ and that our house was the smallest on Sorority Hill only because it was first. Our Nationals built us a house when the other sororities had to raise funds locally. They weren’t strong at other universities like Alabama, Ole Miss, or Texas. Not like us. We preferred being a sorority whose national presence mattered more than one single chapter in Knoxville. We told her we were part of something bigger and more important with lots of different kinds of people.
“Do you ever do anything with the other chapters?” she asked.
“If you see another sister in public, you do a secret sign. If she sees you, she does it back.”
“Oh, so then do you introduce yourself?” she asked. “Like is that how you meet each other?”
“Well, no,” we said. “You just smile at each other and keep going.”
“Then why do it?” she asked. Every time we saw someone in a T-shirt with our letters at the airport, we made an O with our fingers and thumb and held it over our heart hoping the girl would notice. If she did, she would do it back, and we had that thrill of a mutual secret.
“It’s fun to show each other we’re the same,” we said.
Nicole looked down at her hands and picked at her nails. They were unpolished and short. A biter.
“So you like being a part of the same club.”
“Exactly,” we said. “Who doesn’t?”
As a rising junior, Charlie was an unusual candidate. She was a year older than her sister, waiting until after Mamie joined a sorority to do so herself. We gave most of our pledges to freshmen because they could invest a full four years in the chapter. Becoming one of the best sororities was about consistency and lower turnover, but including someone with a disability would show just how inclusive we were, unlike everybody else. If we wanted the chapter to survive, we had to show the world that we weren’t just shallow, pretty girls who threw great parties. We were open-minded; we were inclusive. Anyway, no two people were completely alike, so really, we were all the same in that.
“What’s your major?” we asked, and Charlie said it was interior design. We thought that sounded feminine. She was a talker, which was great, because it can be hard to think of things to say with girl after girl after girl. As Charlie talked, she pulled on her paralyzed hand with the other one, stretching out the stiff fingers and massaging the wrist.
“Does it hurt?” we asked, and she said she was supposed to wear a brace, but she didn’t like the way it looked. We all could understand that.
“Beauty is pain,” we laughed. We couldn’t wait for lunch.
That night, whispers spread from house to house. No one was supposed to have any contact with pledges outside of the Rush parties, including real sisters like Mamie and Charlie Todd. However, a Rho Chi said she saw Charlie and Mamie go into Gus’ Good Times Deli together and that Mamie hugged Charlie as they stood in line to order.
“That’s against the rules,” we cried. We heard the rumors, that they didn’t normally hang out. That they weren’t close. This felt like Mamie trying to make up for lost time, trying to win her sister over only to get her into her sorority. Mamie had her whole life to be nicer to her sister. We weren’t supposed to talk to the Rho Chis either, but everyone broke that rule, and everyone knew everyone broke that rule, so that was different.
“Just because they’re sisters doesn’t mean they have to be in the same sorority,” the Rho Chi said. “They’ll always be sisters.”
“That’s it,” we said. We knew exactly how to convince Charlie to leave hers.
During the next Rush party, Charlie arrived in a pencil skirt, white blouse, and kitten heels. She looked like she was going to a job interview, but some of the freshmen were showing too much cleavage, so Charlie looked classy by comparison. And if she joined our chapter, there would be plenty of time for style advice.
She wobbled in her heels as we guided her to her seat. This was the round where we performed a show about our chapter, a skit passed down since the early 90s. We had a mermaid who looked like Ariel. She floats about trying to figure out where she belongs. She finds her sorority home in a chapter filled with all kinds of other sisters: mermaids and humans and sea creatures. The skit emphasized our tradition of diversity.
“You know,” we said to Charlie. “Ariel could have gone to the sorority with all the mermaids she already knew, but that’s not what finding a sorority is about.”
“I love the costumes,” Charlie said, smoothing her tight skirt with her right hand as if it, too, were a fin.
“You’ll find all kinds of people in our chapter,” we said, just as we practiced. “Your friends will always be your friends, and your family will always be your family.” We let this last part sink in for a moment. “Joining a sorority is about finding the right place for you.”
“Everyone I’ve met during Rush has been so nice,” Charlie said. “I’m not used to it. It’s like I suddenly have something that other people want.”
“Not suddenly at all,” we cried. “We just want you. And we sure hope we will see you back here for Preference Night.”
“Oh, yes,” Charlie said. “Preference.”
After the party, and after we closed the door behind the last candidate, we thought through what Charlie said. Would she cut us? Would she come back? Only the Chi Babies had cut Charlie so far. That sorority would cut a girl just so the girl couldn’t cut them first. They were afraid of rejection, of risk. But how else do you become sisters?
When we got the list of returning candidates and Charlie’s name was on it, we clapped and squealed. Apparently, she had chosen Eta Eta Eta, Kappa Omega, and us as her top three. We couldn’t believe it. We were bummed that Nicole had cut us, but we knew the Zetas were hardcore rushing her since she’d gone to high school with half of them. She must not have cared the Zetas weren’t progressive, not like us. Maybe she was as predictable as any other girl.
The Kappa Omegas still had the best chance of getting Charlie because they had her sister, but we were determined to make her think twice. She arrived on Preference Night wearing a lacy mint green dress that stopped just below her knees, an awkward length, as if she had gone into her mother’s closet and picked one of her dresses. Her shoes were flats, no more heels this time, so no worrying about her turning an ankle as we crossed the room. We gave Charlie the best seat in the house, at the front but to the side so she could see the rest of the desirable candidates around her. They would all have a front row view of Mindy Thompson, our soloist, who would sing a moving song sure to make them all cry.
Every candidate had one of our sisters sitting at her feet, talking to her about the sorority and how excited we would be to have that candidate run through our door on Bid Day. Kat O’Donnell sat on her knees in front of Charlie where she could touch Charlie’s knees and hands like they were old friends. Kat was the best sister for the job, because she pledged a different sorority than her older sister. Granted, they went to different colleges—not like Charlie and Mamie Todd. But it was our best chance to convince Charlie she didn’t have to pledge a sorority out of obligation.
“I thought a lot about my decision,” Kat said, who raised up on her knees, leaned in to Charlie. “But I knew when I met these girls that this was the place for me.”
“I’ve met so many, it’s kinda hard for me to tell them apart,” Charlie said, and she looked around at our candles, our flowers, our balloon arch with a microphone stand. The entire patio smelled of gardenias, both in the vases as centerpieces and the perfume we sprayed all over the tablecloths. Next to Charlie was a teacake with her name scrawled across it in icing. Charlie took a big bite, and our stomachs rumbled. Usually, the candidates were too nervous to eat much of their teacakes, so as soon as they left the party, we swarmed the tables, scarfing up their leftovers before clearing the plates and setting down new cakes for the next party. We were both hungry and concerned watching Charlie eat her cake with her one good hand and lick her fingers. An appetite was never a good sign.
“You know,” Kat said. She was about to deliver our final whammy for winning Charlie over. “My sister got to pick her own sorority. Why shouldn’t I have that opportunity, too?”
Charlie chewed the remainder of the teacake in her mouth while nodding. Then she swallowed. “Well, I guess it’s the one time you actually can choose your family.”
Kat’s mouth fell open a little, and we all stopped breathing. Kat sat back down on her heels, flustered. Then, Mindy started humming under the balloon arch with a hand to the microphone. She looked at her feet while the speaker played a Steven Curtis Chapman song. She swayed with the intro and opened her eyes on the first piano note.
Mindy was good at this. As a senior, this was her last Preference Night. We fretted over who would do it next year. A freshman would be best, someone who could deliver the same performance for three straight years. Our Rush process had to be honed for results. Sure enough, the girls near the front dabbed at their eyes with their napkins, their uneaten teacakes in our periphery. One pledge near the back was in full sobs, and we felt bad, because she was just a seat filler. Not every girl can get a bid, but empty seats look bad, so unlike Chi O we kept a few around who were easy to vote out. Some of the seniors were crying genuine tears and hugging each other, as this was their last Preference Night before their last year of date parties and chapter meetings before going separate ways into the world. But Kat O’Donnell turned on the water works like we knew she could. She looked up at Charlie as a few tears—but not too many—slipped down her cheeks. She squeezed Charlie’s curled hand between her two. With the other hand, Charlie finished off her teacake, crumbs landing on her pooched belly as she relaxed in her chair. She probably couldn’t work out very well with her condition, but we could help her understand nutrition when she was eating meals in the house with us. She took a sip of punch.
At the end, Kat walked Charlie to the door last. We all reached out, tapped Charlie’s shoulder, waved goodbye. We used her name.
But when we closed the door, Kat O’Donnell broke down in real sobs, sinking into a nearby chair. We crowded around her, petting her head and offering her tissues.
“What’s wrong?” we asked, and Kat looked up, mascara streaking down her face that was crumpled in an ugly cry.
“I didn’t choose my family,” she said.
The next morning, we got our list of confirmed pledges. We scanned for Charlie’s name first and slumped when we didn’t see it.
“That’s okay, girls,” our Vice President of Membership said as we stood in the chapter room holding hands in a circle while wearing matching pink Bid Day shirts. “We tried our best. Just know it’s not our fault.”
We stood on the front lawn and faced the courtyard where the next generation of pledges were barricaded behind curtains of crepe paper ribbons. On the Rho Chi’s count, the pledges burst through the streamers and ran full speed to their new homes. We greeted them with hugs and squeals and matching T-shirts.
Charlie couldn’t run, so she limped along last, shuffling toward the Kappa Omega house. We knew it. We just knew it. They had her actual sister; we could never compete with that. It was so unfair. We spent all that time on her for nothing.
Our new class of pledges bounced around us, blond highlights flying about. We couldn’t help but look over their shoulders as Mamie met Charlie between the courtyard and the Kappa Omega lawn. They stood inches away, but they didn’t hug. Mamie was saying something, then put her face in her hands like she was crying. Charlie moved forward and wrapped the one arm she could around her sister. They stood like that for a minute, and it looked sad, and for a brief moment we wondered if maybe Kappa Omega had not given Charlie a bid after all.
But then Mamie took Charlie’s good hand in her own, and they walked back to the Knock Offs, who all started swinging their right arms with fists in the air, singing their sorority song: Drink a toast! To the Kappa O’s! The greatest girls I know…
Charlie joined them, swinging her arm, too, her fist in the air, certain and proud. The KO’s swarmed her with their ponytails and tears. We watched her until we couldn’t, until she blended in to the crowd and became a Kappa, too. They were all moving the same direction at the same time in the same way.
That’s when Kat O’Donnell clapped her hands and stomped her right foot. We stomped along as our new pledges looked at us with wonder, so happy that we chose them, as if we would never choose anyone else. We would never choose differently. And so we circled them, everyone crying and laughing and hugging, and we sang louder and louder so the other sororities could hear us. So that our own voice was unmistakable. We sang so that they would know just how happy we were.
Ever since Abba died, a girl has been living in my mouth. Mostly, she sits on my tongue and watches me do my homework or make houses with old cereal boxes. When Amma makes me write receipts for the laundry business she runs out of our living room, the girl helps me count.
“I want to have fun,” she says some days. “Don’t you want to have fun?”
I tell her this is all the fun we can have right now. If Abba was still alive, we would go to the park and sit on the carousel and go around and around till the sky tilts. With Amma, I only get to watch as she walks from sofa to sofa, making foul-smelling hills out of other people’s clothes.
“Imagine if she was the one who died,” the girl says. “Do you think your father would come back to life?
Sometimes the girl doesn’t like being made to eat daal four days in a row or doesn’t want us to go to school or doesn’t want Amma to try to suffocate us with her hug and then she gets angry. She slides down my throat and sits on my heart, her legs wrapped around it. When she squeezes, I have to breathe deeply to keep from crying.
“What’s gotten into you,” Amma keeps saying and stares at me hard like she can tell I am hiding something. I squeeze my lips together tightly so she can’t see inside my mouth. She would send the girl away and I can’t have that: the girl is my only friend.
One morning when Amma says we are going to Billy’s house because his mother has died, the girl jumps into my stomach and pinches my lungs.
“Let’s go,” she says. “I have an idea.”
Billy is the luckiest boy in my grade, maybe in the world. Everyone at school likes him. He comes to school in a white Corolla with his father, who smells like oranges and wears sunglasses and looks like the man on the movie poster at the theater across the street from my house. Sometimes, Billy’s father stops by our house with a bag full of dirty clothes and while Amma and he discuss business in the bedroom, I sit with Billy on the balcony and pretend he likes me. He tells me he loves scary movies. Once he told me he watched a movie where one man hooked up a tube to another man’s arm and drank all his blood.
“Took all his power,” said Billy and snapped his fingers. “All his luck, too. I have two copies of the DVD at home.”
“Can I come over to watch?” I asked, and he looked at me like he ate something rotten.
“What if he was right?” the girl in my mouth says now. “What if you could change your luck by tasting the blood of someone lucky?” She crawls along the sides of my teeth.
Amma points at the plastic bag someone dropped off only the night before. “Wear the black dress,” she says. “I’ll clean it later.”
The wool still smells like its owner’s sweat. I hold my breath when I squeeze in. Then I slide Amma’s pearl hairpin into my hair.
“Please,” I say when she frowns. When she turns, I slip it into my pocket.
The whole taxi ride from the other side of I-40, the girl leaps from my stomach to throat to heart. She plans.
I imagine Billy’s blood will taste like thick honey. I imagine this of all the kids at Julius West Elementary. They are loud and happy and play only with each other.
“It’s because they’re different,” the girl tells me. “You can’t do anything about that.”
Most days, at recess, I hide behind a bench and poke my own palm with the pearl hairpin until red dots ooze out. I lick the dots and wish for something spectacular to happen to me: to break my leg or to become so sick I have to spend weeks in the hospital, to get electrocuted and wake up in a world where Abba isn’t gone; he is just visiting some place he had always wanted to see—New York, Arizona, Los Angeles. Then, the girl would have never come to live in my chest.
At the end of the gravel driveway to Billy’s house, Amma fixes her makeup. I feel the hairpin in my pocket.
“Behave like we belong,” Amma says. She dabs perfume onto her wrists and behind her ears. Her breath smells of onions and toothpaste. I hold my arm out.
“Not for little girls.” Amma pulls her hand away, tucks the perfume deep inside her bag. Then she knocks at the door.
“Stupid bitch,” says the girl.
Billy is in the living room, his bony legs look like an unsteady colt’s. The grownups can’t keep their hands to themselves. He is getting hugged and kissed and offered tiny sandwiches. When we walk to him, he crosses his arms and kicks the leg of the coffee table. His mouth puckers. My face gets five-slaps hot. At home, Amma made me practice saying, “I’m sorry about your mom.”
“Don’t say it,” says the girl. I listen. Instead, I gather my hair under my chin and bite the ends.
“Don’t you want the kids in school to make you a big card, to crowd around you at lunch?” asks the girl.
Amma stands close to Billy and his father, their three pairs of feet nearly touching. I peer at the bottom of Amma’s chin. The skin near the bone is thin, like the veiny bubble of a frog’s throat. Bruises appear on it easily: mosquito bites or finger marks or a blood spatter like a tiny man had fallen off a balcony onto a tiny sidewalk inside her neck, cracking his head open.
I could pierce it easily when she sleeps quietly on the couch, I’ve told the girl. But she tells me I don’t need Amma’s blood.
“She’s just as unlucky as you,” says the girl.
Billy’s eyes are wet. His hair falls onto his pumpkin forehead. He pulls at the end of his too-big, too-long shirt. The girl starts climbing up to my throat.
“Why are you here?” Billy’s neck is red and splotchy. His seems sad and small, nothing like the boy from last week when he had led a half-circle around me in a chant. Daughter of a bitch is a bitch, bitch, bitch.
“No one likes her,” he says and points at me.
My knee is still a thick scab from fighting him to the ground.
“Last warning,” Principal Miller had frowned when Amma came to pick me up after the fight. “One more incident like this and you’re gone.”
“Tell Fatface Miller to shut up,” the girl had said.
“I don’t care,” I had said, instead.
Outside the school, Amma called a taxi and we rode home silently. Before bed that night, she breathed prayers into a glass of water.
“Drink this,” she said. “Maybe it makes you nicer.”
Amma’s palm is against Billy’s cheek. “This is a sad time.” She is using her bedtime-story voice. “It’s okay to be angry.”
I’ve heard this voice before. When we were new to America and I missed the stray cats outside my grandparent’s house in Lahore, she used that voice to tell me the cats missed me too. Later, I would hear her calm Abba on the other side of my bedroom wall. When she stopped using the voice was when everything went wrong. Abba got angrier. Amma started shouting at him. I move closer to her.
Billy’s face twists and then his entire body pulls away.
“Oh,” Amma says, and it looks like a deep sadness is pulling at her lips from the inside. She retracts her hand, holds it against her chest.
The girls says, “She would have swung it against your cheek if that had been you.”
“Son.” Billy’s father taps his head in warning.
“It’s okay,” Amma says. “When someone close to you is gone, you feel abandoned, angry. I understand.”
“She doesn’t understand you,” says the girl.
I pull at Amma’s sleeve, the girl in my stomach. “I’m hungry.”
“I’m sorry,” Billy’s father says.
“I’ve been there,” Amma says again.
The girl is unhappy. She twists inside my throat. I can feel her climbing to the back of my mouth. I imagine she’s on some sort of knotted rope.
“You’re not going to take that,” says the girl. “Say something.”
I shake my head.
“You can’t come to my house,” Billy says to me. His father squeezes his shoulder.
Amma is looking at me. I wish she would say something nice to me, but she looks like she is ashamed, saddened that I could make someone else so upset.
“She only cares about him,” says the girl, and swings against the roof of my mouth. “Everyone cares about him. Tell him to go to hell.”
“I can go where I want,” I say to Billy. I open my mouth wide to show him the girl swinging wildly.
“Stop it,” Amma says.
“Weirdo,” Billy says.
“Kick him,” the girl says.
I do. The kick is loud, Billy’s cry even louder, and before I know it, he has run away somewhere and everyone is looking at me and the skin on my arms is burning in Amma’s grip.
“What is wrong with you?” Her eyes are dark. “Why can’t you be normal?”
The room goes quiet. I can hear everyone’s breaths, in out, in out. The girl is angry. She wants to climb out of my mouth, to fly around the room and kick everything in sight. I squeeze my lips together.
“Go, apologize.” Amma’s jaw is tight again.
“I don’t know what to do with her.” She says this to Billy’s father and they both look at me in the same, disappointed, way.
Behind the door with a blue rocket ship, Billy is in a caterpillar curl on his bed. He is crying.
“He’s stupid,” says the girl.
“You’re stupid,” I say, not knowing what else to do.
“This house is stupid,” the girl says.
“Your house is stupid,” I say.
“Go away,” Billy says.
“Stay,” says the girl.
I close the door behind me. Billy is clutching his stomach.
“I hate you,” he says. I know he means to be angry but his chin trembles, and he sounds weak. On his bedside is a picture of his mother and him. They are standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. They are smiling.
I sit down next to him. Billy wipes the trickle from his nose on the too-big sleeve of his shirt. I trace the edge of the spaceship on his bedcover. He tucks his hands between his knees.
“He misses his mommy,” the girl says.
I pinch the skin on my hand and wonder what Billy’s eyes would look like if I pricked his neck.
“Here we go,” the girl says. She is sitting on my teeth now. She is nudging my tongue with her feet. I pull the hairpin out of my pocket.
“Are you going to cry?” I ask Billy.
“What do you want?” A tear falls down his cheek, then more.
His face is doing ugly, sad things. I can feel the end of the pin in my palm. Abba would have wiped my eyes if he saw me looking like Billy. Abba would have held my face. My chin quivers.
“Stab him,” says the girl. “Do it.”
I want to. I want to listen to the girl and stick the pin in him. I want Abba to come back. But he looks so tiny and sad, I can’t bring myself to do it. Instead, I lean in and kiss him. I press my lips against his wet slug mouth.
“Ew.” Billy’s head jerks back and he wipes his lips. “What are you doing?” Then he laughs, a small laugh that sounds a lot like his laugh from the playground, like he is better than me, like I could never be like him.
His face is still ugly, but he no longer looks sad. I imagine he will tell everyone at school about this. I imagine they will all whisper about me at lunch. My ears already burn. The girl is awhirl inside my head. Somehow she is in my arms and my legs and my stomach all at once.
I grab Billy’s shoulder and lean in and bite him. Then he punches me in my chest.
“You’re crazy,” he screams and scrambles off the bed. He is holding his mouth.
“You’ve done it,” the girl says. “We’ve done it.”
I can’t breathe because now the girl is dancing. She is in my chest and then in my stomach and then in my legs and back in my throat. Billy is still screaming. His blood tastes just like mine: coins and salt and water. There are footsteps thudding up the stairs. I slide the hairpin into my hair, just above my ear. I imagine Amma will slap me five times, six times. She will take me home in silence and lock me inside my room. And tomorrow, I will be lucky.
Jaclyn Gilbert’s debut novel, Late Air, is about love, loss, and the art of running. Late Air (Little A) hit bookstores November 13th. Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University. She is the recipient of a research fellowship from the New York Public Library, a contributor to the Bread Loaf and Tin House Writers’ Conference, and her work has appeared in Post Road Magazine, Tin House, and Lit Hub, among others.
Four Way Review sat down with her recently over coffee, and eventually cocktails and ice cream, to discuss her writing, grief, and what it means generally to be a human being
FWR: Okay, I figured we could start with the basics, which is essentially asking you about the genesis of this story, and how you actually began approaching your first novel. So, what is the origin of this story and when did you realize that it was actually a novel more than a short story?
Jaclyn Gilbert: Well, originally I just wanted to tell the story of this accident that came to me out of the blue. I was running along the Bronx River Parkway, and I had this horrible thought: what if a stray golf ball hit me on the golf course? I trained on a golf course [while running at Yale] without really being afraid of that happening, but something about looking at it from a present vantage point made me look at the risks differently. It suddenly seemed really dangerous! So I started writing this short story about a coach dealing with a golf ball hitting his star runner. It was a world that I knew really well, so I decided to set this opening scene on the course where I could really ground my imagination and my senses and kind of observe the possibilities.
When I’d finished a draft, I gave it to a friend in my MFA program, and she was like, “My God, this is so compelling. You have to keep writing it!” So that gave me the courage to see it to some kind of finished point. Then I submitted it as a story that took place in a couple of weeks, and was only about Murray, the coach, trying to deal with the accident, but in a much more sympathetic way than the novel seeks to portray him. But after I had finished writing the story, I didn’t love it. It wasn’t providing enough conflict or enough understory to really to make it something that felt real. So I went deeper. I didn’t want to hide behind this really sad and pathetic character who’d had this horrible thing happen. I had to really figure out what his life was before this event and what were all of the ramifications of that past into the present.
So that led to a lot of layering in order to develop his moral ambiguity and place around this event. And later that summer, after I’d written the story, I tried out writing from whole other point of view, which became Nancy, Murray’s estranged wife, and this became an interesting way to look at Murray’s past. Once I started exploring all of her memories and ideas about marriage, I started to conceive how these two timelines might intervene in the present. I started looking for as many potential echoes as possible between the two. I was really interested in how the associative echoes that are happening with Murray’s psyche and his consciousness in the present and how there might be these points of correspondence with the past and what Nancy remembered. I drew from a lot of colors and essential images that re-emerge throughout the story to create parallels in the narratives, constantly bouncing off Murray, trying to force him to confront this repressed past. I guess the genesis of the story really came by trying to imagine what this man’s mind like, what are all the different timeframes that might be operating in it, and pushing the story to be more about him.
FWR: What did you want the story to be about, then?
JG: I really wanted to write about a marriage, which meant I had to develop Nancy. So the revision process really became about Nancy not just being in the service of her husband’s story and past, but about a woman’s journey that in many ways is opposite to Murray’s. It’s through that counter narrative that I could explore the ways we grieve. Once I realized this was really a story about the process of grief, I was able to shape this vision into a more realized story about finding truth or recognizing shared pain.
FWR: You just said something really interesting. You said you were running and you suddenly had this imagined fear of something that could have potentially happened in the past. But you never had that fear during the actual time you were running on golf courses.
FWR: Which is interesting because I think a lot of the book is about not having fear in the present but then actually reflecting on the events of the past, which creates a fear for the present. When the characters are together, they are in the moment, and they actually don’t have fear. But when they are later separated and the trauma has occurred, they seem to be incapable of being in the present. In particular, Nancy, envisions not only the fears from the past, but that fear invades her present. She becomes kind of obsessive in her own feelings and the things that could go wrong from the vantage point of looking back. Do you think that there’s anything in there that you were examining in terms of how we perceive our past or how we establish fears based on the examination of the past and past trauma?
JG: I don’t think I could have seen that in the writing process because I think I was just reacting to my own fears. But I think that this book is capturing what posttraumatic stress is like. As I was writing this book, I was confronted with my own traumas, especially during college. I didn’t necessarily know that was a traumatic time in my life because I had never really given voice to admitting that it was traumatic. I just thought I was very stressed. When I was in college, I actually remember not feeling very much at all. Like I was just so programmed to achieve these prescribed goals. It felt like this insurmountable thing and I didn’t really even know what it was that I needed to achieve. I was so terrified of failing that it consumed my daily operating systems so much so that I couldn’t even pinpoint what I was so afraid of.
I think maybe that’s why something about the ball literally coming out of left field was so jarring, because it was asking me to look at that time and for me to recognize that that was a painful time. Maybe that’s also why I could relate to Murray’s character so much– he’s clinging to these systems for order and control through running, which has always been my go to since I was young. That was how I made sense of my world when it felt chaotic. But it also has blinded me to the fact of that trauma, because it was like, “oh, I’m always muscling through this thing”.
I’ve come to believe that when things are really incomprehensible and painful, you can’t possibly know how you’re going to feel until much later, after the event. The story feels born out of that because Murray and Nancy couldn’t have known that their child was going to die, the suddenness of that. And I felt like I did experience a sudden trauma in college. So I think I was drawing from the suddenness of something that I would have really wanted to be able to prevent, but that I really had no possible way of preventing and fixing once it was over.
FWR: But there’s also something so fearless about Nancy and Murray’s characters when they first meet. That first initial meeting in Paris, there’s something almost risky in their leaps of faith in each other. They’re willing to rush into this love. They’re willing to take these risks that allow them to take each other in, both physically and emotionally. Then, even before the trauma, that risk begins to erode when life become settled. It’s similar to what you were saying about your own personal experiences as a young person running on the course: you had no fear. But looking back on the experience, and reflecting as an older person, you recognize that a danger or a potential danger was always there. So there’s almost something being said about evolving and growth and not only the pros of maturity, but also the cons, like what we sacrifice. When we agree to be mature, when we agree to be adults, we sacrifice a kind of fearlessness that allows us initially to be creators, whether it’s a baby or a book.
JG: There’s always this inherent risk in everything you do. I think what I was really looking at through these characters, especially in their past, is idealism. I think it’s at heart of everything. As much as it is about perfectionism, it’s also about idealism. This search for this idea of perfect love or the idea of being the perfect parent, or appearing one way on the outside. Like you really have everything that you could possibly want. It’s really about attaining an ideal, like a dream. And these Ivy League institutions breed a kind of mindset that ignores and tries to hide what’s really going on behind the scenes or how corroded that dream could be.
And if you’re in a place as romantic as Paris – and I’m also really fascinated by Paris as this place built on this nostalgic dream and I think that’s really one of the big reasons why Giovanni’s Room plays a big role for me in thinking about Nancy’s character. For me, [James] Baldwin is writing about this idea of Paris after he leaves America and is looking at the unrest from the Civil Rights Movement from a distance, but Paris isn’t really real and there’s a denial built in. You don’t know that when you’re reading Giovanni’s Room until eventually it all crumbles.
I think that’s what I was trying to achieve—the kind of stories we tell ourselves when we take these risks and build these ideas and dreams around what we think we want and what love is and what marriage is, when in reality it’s all a constant imperfect test.
FWR: Your prose is just so vivid and alive, and so for the most part I was just enthralled and caught up in the narrative, but now that we are talking, I realize how much of the story is about reflection. It’s not really about the initial experience, it’s about reflecting on that experience and placing meaning on it after it’s happened.
JG: One of the things I was trying to think about was tense. I couldn’t really write the whole thing in past perfect, but that’s kind of how you could read Nancy’s section because, like you said, so much of this is comparing the past to the present, and so much of Nancy’s story is in the past, and a lot of it is thinking about things that could have been, but even that could have been has passed. So the future, present, and past are all in the same stream. I had to be really careful about my tenses and figure out how to artfully break the rules of time so I could get Nancy to a moment where she’s got to break that dream mentality of what could have been and just deal with the reality of grief.
FWR: Much of his book is centered on a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage as much as it is the collapse of a marriage because of the inability to communicate grief and pain. So much of that pain — even before the grief occurs — is centered on the physical, but in very different ways for each character. In what ways does the book examine the physical manifestations of grief and how and why do they differ in each character?
JG: That’s really at the heart of the story. A lot of these manifestations are really interwoven in the characters’ identities. So a lot of the expressions of grief are really about survival of the self. But on the other side, there’s a whole subconscious narrative because there isn’t a voice for that pain because it’s so unspeakable and impossible to sit with. So even though the characters are doing all these things that make them think they are feeling the pain, they aren’t really, because the real pain necessary to heal is so deep and so real and so beyond the rituals of the physical. So there is a lot of running away instead of running towards, but eventually you have to run directly towards it, or at least hopefully that’s what happens.
Jaclyn Gilbert was interviewed by Jessica Denzer for Four Way Review. Jessica Denzer is a writer and educator. She received her BA in English Literature from Fordham University and her MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, painstakingly trying to make the writing magic happen.
From Late Air
Late August, Monday
“Remember our goals,” Coach Murray said. He and his number one runner, Becky Sanders, were in his car headed to the campus golf course. Through the darkness, the empty streets, Murray relied on his headlights. He tuned the radio to a clear station: the Doors.
“We’re aiming for 5:00–5:10 pace,” he said.
“Okay.” Becky was peeling a small blood orange, one long sheath unfurling on her lap. At 5′2″ and ninety-five pounds, she reminded him of his two-time cross-country All-American Sarah Lloyd. As a senior, Sarah had set a course record of 16:23.14 in the 5K. Becky was only a sophomore, but Murray believed she had even greater potential than Sarah; he saw Becky winning Nationals this year, maybe even competing in the Olympics one day.
Murray hadn’t showered or shaved in three days. It was humid in the car, and the gray stubble around his long mustache felt damp.
He hadn’t always had a mustache. In his youth, Murray was clean-shaven, but he’d worn his blond hair a little long through his own college running days. He’d run on full scholarship for the University of Scranton. Growing up in Luzerne County, he’d gone by his first name, Samuel, but on Scranton’s track, the chant Mur-ray had sounded best—especially at the age of twenty-three, when he’d qualified for the ’80 Summer Olympics in the 10,000-meter run.
Now, almost three decades later, Murray was sixty-two and no longer ran. His two knee replacements made walking so difficult that at the golf course, he’d have to use a cart to get around. He couldn’t miss a split.
At a red light, Murray noticed as Becky carefully removed two strings of pulp from the orange, then divided out the first quarter section. She raised a sliver to her lips and bit in slowly.
Murray’s breakfast sandwich still lay warm on his lap. No cheese, just ketchup and egg. He smelled oil and toasted bread, and then the juice misting the air as Becky’s thumbs pressed down.
He’d grown accustomed to their prolonged silences. In fact, he’d come to welcome them. Becky never challenged his insistence on their two-a-day practices, the first of which always happened in the morning, and the second later in the afternoon, when he held practice for the whole team. Murray had started his precedent in ’01, when he’d been named head coach—the year after Sarah Lloyd had joined his ranks—and he had groomed at least a dozen other phenoms since then, each as hungry as the last to qualify for Regionals, then Nationals, to earn the elite status Murray had tasted in college too. Every record Murray set had depended on running before daylight, the darkness an ideal time for finding focus, this protected space where he could demand only the best from his girls.
Becky warmed up at the fairway of the first hole. She did some form drills: high-knees, butt kicks, some rabbit hops. The sun had partially risen, mist clouding the first hill a soft, dusty green. Becky’s father, Doug, was an ardent golfer, and he had met Murray for eighteen holes the summer he’d started recruiting Becky. It was then that Murray had told Doug about his recruiting plan to help earn Becky’s admission to Yale, given her slightly subpar grades and test scores. In the end, she’d chosen him over all the other coaches vying, even those offering full scholarships. The pressure for her to keep up academically remained high, but he felt assured by her 3.6 average last year, when she was still a freshman.
He marked a tall elm as the start line and read her target splits from there. He told her to focus on her foot strike, keeping her weight centered. She’d have two minutes of rest between sets. “Four of them,” he said.
Becky rolled her neck around. She jounced her knees. When she readied her stance, he began his three-second countdown, stopwatch tight by his thumb. He clicked hard, and she bounded forward, her stride chiseling the mist. Her tan calves parted as they pushed into the fairway grass. Her thin, muscular arms sliced the breeze.
To Murray, Becky would always be like a Belgian warmblood, this magnificent breed he’d once bet on as a child, with his father, at the Erdenheim Steeplechase. The horse had a pinwheel brand on its left thigh. Becky had a scar, too, but on her right shoulder.
Last year, Becky had placed third at Regionals. Murray had taken her to a diner for a pancake breakfast to celebrate. It was there, her fork circling tiny slivers of pancake, that she told him how she’d been burned by someone’s still-lit cigarette. She’d been walking with Doug on Atlantic City’s crowded boardwalk when someone brushed her hard. She hadn’t really eaten any breakfast that morning, so Murray had finished the pancakes for her, a heaviness in his stomach he’d disliked; it was the hunger he longed for, the exertion that earned it.
Murray watched Becky in the distance as she hooked around the first bend, the quarter-mile mark.
Her forward lean looked good, legs kicking back nicely. Gravity was taking her, he thought. She let gravity take her.
He lumbered over to his golf cart but had a difficult time lifting his right leg and stepping in; even more cumbersome was crouching down into the seat.
Just two minutes to get to the finish at the base of the fairway on the second hole. He turned the key and floored it. He kept one hand steady on the wheel, the other over his notepad. A breeze cooled his face and the sweat that had gathered along the back of his neck. He focused on the bluish grass unspooling beneath him.
At the finish point, he pushed hard on the brake. He checked his watch: 4:55.16. He squinted his eyes, waited for a sign. Checked again: 5:10.39. Where is she?
5:25.16. He slammed hard on the pedal and careened up a side path. He called her name several times, but nothing came back.
It wasn’t until several minutes later, in the distance, that he saw the white of her T-shirt, shapeless and crumpled. The closer he approached, the more he could discern of her body: fetal, motionless. He checked his stopwatch—10:23.57—and clicked stop. Frantically, he thrust his body forward, shoulders jerking unevenly to make up for his wobbly stride. He bent over where she lay in the grass. A dark purple bruise marred her right temple. He squeezed two fingers together and touched the side of her neck. A pulse. He lowered to his belly, met her at eye level. With a middle finger and thumb, he peeled the right lid open. It was dilated. He leaned in toward her mouth, careful not to move her head. A difficult angle, so he had to drag his cheek over the grass. Her warm breath emanated, but it was ragged and shallow: one deep inhale followed by two seconds of apnea.
“Becky.” He spoke close to her ear. “Blink if you can hear me.” When there was no movement, he shouted, “Please, Becky! Blink!” He waited three more seconds, close to her mouth, monitoring the warmth, and then he was fumbling for his cell phone, fingers pressing for 911; he was shaking. He heard himself on the phone, specifying Becky’s head trauma as severe, maybe a level 6 if he went by his years of sports medicine training. A first responder asked him to keep close watch of the time, to note any changes in her vital signs. He reminded Murray to stay calm and—above all—not to touch her neck. Estimated wait was seven minutes.
Murray dropped his phone into his pocket.
Last night he’d called ahead to the clubhouse; no golfers had been scheduled. They were on a slope by the woods. Could the ball have rolled? He thought he saw a shadow moving from behind a tree. He called out, asking if anyone was there. But no one answered: there was just his own voice resounding, and then the deadening silence after that.
Becky’s hands were curled tight and close to her chest. Like an infant—silent, spine tucked into her mother’s womb. He thought he sensed a blue light passing overhead, lucid and wavering, then this slow ascension of her body.
On the day after Hazel died – it was a Tuesday afternoon in early March – George stood at his woodworking bench, whittling a bowl. He pressed the piece of yew down, and used a bowl gouge to scoop a smooth sliver of the pinkish-white wood so that it curled upwards and away, falling to the bench. He did this repeatedly – he tried not to think of anything else, not Hazel, not the empty house – and then, tired of that singular motion, he reached for sandpaper and ran it over the burrs and birds-eyes until the wood was warm and smooth to the touch.
George looked through the window, out on to the loch, where the water was as flat and as grey as slate. On the loch’s far shore, lying low across the hills Beinn Bheàrnach, Beinn a’ Bhainne, and Beinn Taladh, was a bank of cloud that made the hills seem like stubs that ended only a few hundred feet up. These were the hills that George and Hazel had looked at every day of the 43 years that they had been married. Peat and granite and died-back bracken were George and Hazel’s winter-time palate; these were the hues that stayed with them through the darkest months of the year, until April when the first of the dog violets reared their purple nodding heads.
Hazel hadn’t been well, but despite the pains that tore at her bones, and then the operation just before Christmas, she had been out in her garden every day. A few weeks after the operation, even, she had pulled on her wellies, got her gardening gloves down from the hall shelf and wrapped her purple rain jacket about her. Concerned, George had watched her through the long window at the back of the house climb carefully up the steps, clutching at the wooden rail, and enter her labyrinthine vegetable garden. He had watched as she had become smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind the poly-tunnel, just a purple speck on the hillside, a trowel in her hand.
Now white wood shavings curled on George’s fleece jacket, and flecks of wood dust sprinkled his arms and shoulders. He didn’t bother to brush himself off. When the light grew dim, he switched on the overhead strips, which flickered and growled to life. He would stay out here until he saw his tools in double; only then would he go inside the empty house.
The next afternoon, the minister called in to visit. George watched him drive up the road in his faded Ford Cortina, and then they sat in the living room where the stove glowed with coals. George served him tea and some Ginger Nut biscuits which Hazel had bought at the Spar Shop just Saturday. The minister had mild Parkinson’s disease, and his hands shook, the tea cup rattling on the saucer. He spilled a little of the milky tea on the beige carpet, both of them pretending not to notice. George didn’t mind; he just wanted the minister to leave. He wasn’t ready to talk about Hazel.
The minister offered his condolences. “Thank you,” George said, and then looked at the spot on the carpet where the tea stained brown. He asked if Hazel had left any wishes for her funeral, any specific requests – cremation, burial, that kind of thing. “We hadn’t expected her to die,” George said, thinking how cruel to be taken, after everything they had been through, by a stroke. He got up to stand at the window.
From there he looked out onto the edge of Hazel’s vegetable garden, which staggered in wild, overgrown terraces up the hillside behind the house. Neither George nor Hazel knew exactly how many acres the garden covered, because as demand for Hazel’s produce across the island had increased, so the garden had stretched out into their land at the back of the house. From the outside, the garden looked nothing more than untamed gorse bushes and rowan trees, trees that Hazel had planted when they had first moved to the house because in local lore they were thought to ward off witches. But on entering, and following the muddy path up the hill, the garden stretched out into large areas planted with every kind of vegetable that could grow in the island’s short season.
Raised beds were planted with leeks, spinach, kale, squash and kohlrabi, beds that sat alongside fruit cages, potting sheds, and a poly-tunnel which in late spring brimmed with sweet peas and, in summer, with strawberries, runner beans, trailing tomatoes. Up higher were whole sections reserved for root vegetables – crops that in summer burst their green tops through the rich loamy earth, and in autumn delivered creamy white offerings of parsnip, potato, turnip, Jerusalem artichoke, roots that kept them going through the cold dark months of winter.
From up here, Hazel had often told George at the end of a long day of work, she could look out across the house, the fields that surrounded them, and beyond to the loch, the hills, and the islands beyond theirs. From here she could be reminded that they lived on an island, because it was so easy to forget, an island that they had chosen randomly off the map all those years ago, its very virtue being that it was disconnected from the rest of Britain. She said that she felt reassured, when she was looking out on the sea that kept them apart from the mainland, that this would stop the rest of the world from encroaching upon theirs.
George now stared out at the rowan trees that bordered the garden, clasping his hands behind his back, his fingers picking at an old woodworking cut on his thumb. Behind him, the minister fidgeted and shook. George wondered what he was going to do about the garden. Keeping it up had been Hazel’s job, not his.
“You’ve been standing there for five minutes,” the minister said kindly, and George turned to find him still sitting there.
“The garden,” George said, then trailed off. The settee springs creaked as the minister prepared to get up. “If it’s cremation you choose, it will have to be a mainland service,” the minister said. “Or there’s burial in the village, of course. It’s a lot to think about, and so soon. Perhaps you will call me when you’ve had time to consider?”
George nodded heavily, his mind darting to when he had seen Hazel in the hospital, just two days ago, after the doctors had said she was gone. He blinked the image away, and right then, through the window, he thought he saw a movement through the trees. He looked closer, squinting his eyes, straining to see through the silvery branches if what he thought he had seen was real. A pair of eyes looked back at him, white and wide, and then another pair, and then another. He saw a flash of tawny hide, a glimpse of cream, the sharp points of antlers. Deer, George started, and the Minister looked at him quizzically.
“Never mind,” George said, and then rushed the Minister to the door, hoping he hadn’t been rude.
“You’ll be in touch about things?” the minister said, “and of course, if there’s anything.”
When the minister had set off in his car, down the steep driveway towards the sea, George went upwards, towards the garden. There, he saw how the deer had got in: a fallen strut had left a gaping entrance to Hazel’s garden, and the fence had been trampled. The deer might come out on their own, but it was unlikely. He would need to fix the fence, and he would need help to get the deer out. He couldn’t do it alone.
Early the next morning, frost glinted on the tufts of shoreline grass, and herons stood still and long-legged at the water’s edge. George looked out from the window in the living room, and then picked up the phone to call his neighbour, Karl the farmer, and ask if he had time to come over.
The deer were still in the garden. George had watched them from the living room window as they destroyed an elderflower bush, the bush shaking in great waves as it succumbed to the violent nibbling of teeth. Now George felt a kind of weariness that two cups of coffee hadn’t shaken, a deep tiredness that had lain with him all throughout the sleepless, cold night and had risen with him at the blue hued dawn. It was a tiredness that loomed over him so that he felt if he didn’t keep working, it would crush him.
He was finishing up a slice of Hazel’s sourdough bread when Karl’s truck pulled up outside the house, his two sheepdogs, Ailsa and Aidan, turning circles in the truck bed.
“Hello, mate,” said Karl, eyeing him cautiously. He held out his hand, across the pile of condolence letters that littered the doorstep.
“Karl,” said George, shaking his hand, looking down at the letters. “I’m okay.”
“Whatever you need,” said Karl, and George nodded.
Karl was younger and taller than George, broad-backed, big-boned, carrying a head of bright blond hair. His face glowed red above the neck of the Guernsey sweater he always wore. George and Karl had been neighbors for going on 25 years, when Karl had taken over managing the farm on the Ashworth estate, and had moved to the cottage four miles along the road. The Ashworth estate stretched as far as George and Hazel’s house, and continued on the other side, so George had seen Karl come down on his quad bike, or in the truck if it was blowing a hoolie, twice a day, every day for the last two and a half decades.
George stepped outside and pulled the door closed behind him. The cold air stung his nostrils. Hazel loved this kind of weather, the ground still hard but spring somewhere nearby. She loved the white stillness of frost and the long evenings when a stew simmered on the stove, when she and George would play Scrabble together, which Hazel usually won. Hazel had always been good with words, ever since school where she had won the spelling competition. That was when George had first noticed her; they had both been thirteen.
George led Karl around the side of the house to the garden.
“Part of the fence fell,” said George, pointing to the gap. “This was her department. I haven’t been round here since,” he paused, “the operation. Before Christmas.”
“I see,” said Karl. “Can you get a new section of fence up?”
“I can get some posts,” he said. “And some new wire fencing.”
“When do you think you’ll have it ready?”
“Tomorrow, maybe. By the weekend for sure. I’ll have to go to the town for supplies.”
“Okay,” said Karl.
“But the deer,” said George. “There must be five of them at least. They’ve been watching me.”
Karl nodded. Over the years, Karl had become a feature in George’s life, if not quite a friend then someone George could count on. Hazel had sold her produce every week at the market, sixteen miles away in town, so she knew nearly everyone. But George rarely went away from the house, unless to fit a door he had made or sell his turned wooden objects. He was fine without friends; he had Hazel, and he had his work.
But when Hazel had got sick at the start of the winter, Karl had begun dropping in every now and again after he’d fed the sheep, offering Hazel and George lifts to the ferry for hospital appointments in Glasgow, picking up medicine for them from the town. Karl’s wife, Mandy, might send along a cake or some bread, and recently Karl had shown up on his quad bike with a fallen branch of rowan wood from the estate. He had asked Mr Ashworth’s permission to take it to George to turn bowls with, and Mr Ashworth had said, given the circumstances, that this would be fine.
These were little things, but where they lived, they made all the difference. During Hazel’s sickness, George realized, he had come to rely on Karl and Mandy in a way that made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
Karl and George stood now, looking into the garden, until they saw movement, a swaying of branches, the snap of twigs and the flash of red between the shades of greens and greys.
“I see them,” said Karl. “Little pests.”
“I don’t know how long they’ve been in there,” said George. “Hazel, she hasn’t been out here since, well – ” His shoulders hunched and his chest caved, as if he were folding in on himself.
“It’s okay, mate,” said Karl, reaching out a hand and placing it gingerly on George’s shoulder. George raised his forehead, pulled back his neck, sucked in a little air.
“Since Saturday. She was fine on Saturday. She was out here on Saturday.”
“Well, it sounds like they’ve had enough of a feed,” said Karl. “What say we get these rascals out of there? I’ll get Ailsa and Aidan from the truck and see what we can do. How does that sound?”
While George and Karl were out in the garden trying to get the deer out, the minister left a message on George’s answering machine.
“It’s Reverend Paul,” said the message, which George listened to later on that night. “From the church.” He asked if George might call him, or if he might come round again, to discuss the arrangements. George had listened to the beeps that followed the message and then had pressed the delete button.
George and Karl were unsuccessful with the deer. The sheepdogs did their best to round them up but every time one of the dogs cornered one, the deer leapt away into some further reach of the garden. Karl and George stayed with it until around lunch time, when Karl said he had to go and see about the cows.
“Of course,” George said. “You be getting along.” He tried to say it in a way that didn’t make Karl feel bad. Even so, Karl shifted awkwardly from one rubber-booted foot to the other and offered to come back another day if the deer still hadn’t left.
“If it’s no bother,” George replied, trying not to sound relieved.
“It’s nae bother to me at all, I want to help,” Karl said. “You’d do the same for me, right, mate?” George dipped his head, a heavy nod of agreement.
As darkness fell that Thursday afternoon, George went out to his workshop. He pressed the light switch on the wall, and the caged strips flickered to life. The bowl he was working on lay on the bench, its corners cut, its insides gouged, its surface rough with the scoops and turns of his tools.
George had been woodturning for as long as he had been married to Hazel, 43 happy years as a husband and a woodturner. You couldn’t rush either one if you wanted to do them right. George had learned about wood from his father, growing up in the New Forest, where his father had taken George on his wood-seeking trips around their house. By the time George had left school, at fifteen, he had learned to love wood with the same passion that his own father had.
George earned his money from making doors and gates for people, kitchen cabinets, those sorts of useful things. But what he rose for every day, was to turn discarded, forgotten pieces of wood into beautiful bowls, platters, vases, objects that would live in people’s houses for years, maybe even be passed on to the next generation. He wasn’t good with books, or words, or spelling, like Hazel had been, but he was good with his hands and he had the love of wood buried deep within him.
George looked out of the dark window at his own reflection staring back, and then at the row of tools clipped in hooks along the wall. There was the red handled chisel his uncle had bought him when he had turned his first bowl, the saw, 40 years old, a new blade bought on Amazon just one month ago. A bradawl, the rubber grip long since turned sticky but the blade still up to the job, which he had bought in an old man’s yard sale on their first holiday together in 1976. A jack plane that Hazel had bought him for his twenty-second birthday, the same year she briefly went to work at the Clydesdale before deciding an office life wasn’t for her and took to gardening full-time. A sliding bevel square, one of many tools left to him by Jack, who used to farm next door. The froe that George had bought himself, the gimlet he had found. The rasp, the spokeshave, the twybil; a brace, a broadaxe, a bucksaw.
George ran his hand over the blades and handles now, ending with the set of Sheffield steel bowl gouges his father had left him when he’d died. George had spent nearly his whole life with these tools, each one so precise, existing for one single purpose only. He looked once again up at the window out of which he could see nothing, only his own ghostly reflection. What would his purpose be, now that she was gone? What would he be?
Lying on one end of the bench was the piece of rowan that Karl had brought to him from the estate. It had been sitting there, gnarled and knobbled, waiting for him to do something with it, but with everything that had happened – the operation, the slow recovery, and then, this, Hazel’s death – George hadn’t got around to even splitting it open. He had no idea, and could not tell from looking at it, what was inside, what colours and patterns he would find when he eventually laid it out and cut it through with the saw.
But he had the urge to touch it now, to rub his fingers over the bark, and then he wanted to take the branch in his hands, and he did, feeling the weight of it pull on his arms. Then, it were as if his body were acting on its own, and the deer, Karl, the minister’s visits, even the fact that Hazel wasn’t inside cooking dinner, all of that became a kind of haze to which George was now numb. He took the branch over to the saw table and laid it down in front of the circular blade. He pulled on his safety glasses, stretched his fingers into some gloves, and flicked the switch on the side of the saw. The jagged mouth of the blade roared, a blast of sawdust-speckled air gushed upwards onto his face. The teeth began to pierce the rough skin of the wood and the noise drowned out the darkness that had permeated George’s mind. Just the rowan, the blade, and the devastating cut of metal on wood.
George shut off the saw and laid the two pieces of wood down on the workbench, blinking the dust from his eyes and taking in the colours before him. Cream and copper, tan and taupe, specks of auburn and swirls of russet, freckles of chestnut and honey and peach. He swept off the dust, and then licked the tip of one of his fingers and rubbed a little saliva into the wood. Along with the growth rings that he expected, the wood also contained patterns that snaked in one direction and then in the other, the lighter-colored sapwood on the outside spiralling inwards towards the deep treacle-tinged heartwood at its core.
George ran his hand over the wood once more, taking in the brightness of the colors, and then he watched as they began to fade, as the air in the workshop oxidized the wood. It was as if their lights were going out. The colors lost their brightness, the wood lost its shine. It would never be the same piece of wood again.
The week lumbered on, bringing with it an entourage of lady-callers, women who lived on the island, many of whom people George had never even met. He had made the mistake of letting one of them through the door, early on in the week, and then they had talked on Facebook, probably, or at the post-office, and before he knew it, they all wanted to come in.
They brought cakes, mostly, but also soups, stews, trays of flapjacks, an apple strudel, a multi-coloured chilli plant from the village shop, all of which lay abandoned on the shelf inside the porch where in April, Hazel would have been laying out trays planted with seeds, ready for outside sowing in June. When the women knocked at the house, he didn’t answer, and so they cupped their hands to the window and then pressed their faces into the aperture their hands created. Then they would decide he wasn’t there and back away, leaving their offerings inside the porch.
Eventually, someone brought George a bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, even though he hadn’t had a drink in God knows how many years. The bearer was new to the island – a blow-in, locals called these people – and had no idea that George had promised Hazel a long time ago that he would never touch another drop. George snaffled the whisky into the pocket of his woodworking jacket and took it out to the workshop. He didn’t bother with a glass.
There was an old leather armchair in his workshop, and he sank back into it, rested the bottle on his knee, and looked up at the rafters. He let out a sigh. Then George twisted the top off the bottle, put it to his lips, and glugged at the amber liquid, wincing and enjoying the pain as it slipped down his throat. The whisky burned the back of his tongue, and gouged tears of surprise from his eyes because he had not tasted whisky in so many years and now he remembered how disgusting and how delicious it was.
He thought of Hazel, and of her garden, and of her windowsill which should be covered in trays of seeds but instead was covered in trays of brownies and other things he would never eat. He tugged at the neck of that bottle and forced himself to swallow the whisky, and after a few minutes of drinking his arms felt light, as if they might lift of their own accord, and his head was woozy, and then he couldn’t remember why he was sitting in his workshop at all. With the confusion came a momentary, welcome relief.
But the feeling that had been plaguing him since Hazel had died, the weight that hung around his shoulders, that dogged him in the house and followed him when he went to bed and when he got up in the night to go to the toilet and when he finally rose to deal with the day, the immense and stupefying weight of her absence still clung to him, and even though he was drunk and he felt like throwing up everything that was inside him, still it was there. And the thought that it would never leave, that Hazel’s absence might for ever hang around his neck, was, even in his drunken discomfort, also a strange kind of relief, because at least that meant that he would always feel her close by.
When George woke up to a hand on his shoulder nudging him awake and Karl looming over him, he didn’t know where he was. But by the light coming through the windows, he could see that it was morning. His head was raging.
“You okay, George?” said Karl.
“Just give me a second,” said George, who felt sick and mortified by what Karl had seen. “I was just…”
“Yes,” said Karl, who ran his finger along a knotted branch of ash that lay drying on the racks, looking away so that George could gather himself, straighten his jacket and kick the bottle underneath the chair. “I came about the deer,” said Karl.
George had forgotten about not getting the deer out yesterday, and felt immense gratitude for Karl having come round. They went outside to Karl’s truck, where the sheep dogs snapped and twisted in the back.
“You okay, mate?” Karl said, eyeing him closely.
“I’m getting there,” said George, who had now been without Hazel for four whole days, the longest they had been apart for twenty or more years. “I’m not really sleeping,” he ventured. His head felt as if it were bursting.
“Is there anything we can do?” asked Karl “Mandy says do you want to come over for tea?”
“Aye, maybe one of these days,” said George, who would have loved to eat a meal at a table with someone else. He had been surviving off sourdough bread and cheese, which he nibbled at while standing up at the kitchen counter, too afraid to sit down alone. “Maybe later,” he said, worried that too much warmth would crack him. “I’ll let you know,” he said, knowing he probably wouldn’t.
The sheep dogs, Ailsa and Aidan, pressed their muzzles against the grill at the back of Karl’s truck.
“How about them deer?” said Karl, “are they still up there in your garden?”
“They’ve taken out the rowans,” said George.
“Oh dear,” said Karl, knowing Hazel had planted them. He twisted the handle on the tail gate and the dogs piled out of the truck, panting and dangling their long pink tongues around the rims of George’s boots. “Come,” Karl snapped at the dogs. To George he said, “let’s see what we can do, shall we?”
The deer took fright when the dogs appeared, and scattered to every corner of the garden. “You stay by the gate,” Karl shouted, following the dogs with his whistles and clicks up through the paths that wound from each part of the garden to the other. “They might come out,” he shouted, his voice fading as he went further away. Then Karl was gone, only his red jacket visible in flashes.
In actual fact, Hazel had told George when she had gone for her operation before Christmas that, should anything happen to her, she wished to be cremated. She wanted her ashes to be scattered in the garden, Hazel had said, underneath the rowan trees. George hadn’t wanted to talk about it but Hazel had insisted. “Just in case,” she had said, holding his hand in bed the night before she was due at the hospital. “I just want to know that we talked about it.”
George’s head was still thick with the whisky that he wished to God he hadn’t touched. The feeling of having broken his promise to Hazel was enough to make him realize that it was the last time he would ever drink again. He heard a shout from the top part of the garden, somewhere up near the brassicas, then he heard the dogs barking, and then a scuffle of hooves around the perimeter fence as two white-faced stags came trampling down the hill towards him.
“Look out!” shouted Karl, whose head was just visible above a clump of gorse bushes. George was momentarily fixated by the way the animals leapt towards him. One of the stags had just a small pair of antlers but the other was an eight-pointer, maybe a ten. Its haunches undulated as it ran. A fine drizzle had begun to fall on George’s face and it seemed as if the drops were falling on someone else’s skin entirely. The two stags were nearly upon him, undeterred by his presence.
“Let them through, George,” Karl shouted, “stand back.” The stags made directly for the opening in the fence. All George had to do was to let them pass. They streaked by in a flurry of fur and bone and hoof.
“Well done, mate,” said Karl, who had come down the hill towards him. “I’m afraid we’ve got trouble with that young fallow, though,” he said. “She’s tried to get through the deer fence, and I think her leg may be broken.” A fine layer of mist had settled on Karl’s face too, and the two of them, bedraggled and damp, look out at one another beneath rain-soaked hair.
Karl came back that afternoon after milking and shot the injured deer. It had been a young one, its leg mangled by trying to jump over the fence, its antlers small but perfectly formed. They laid the deer on plastic sheeting in the garage, split it open from end to end and removed the gralloch which Karl plopped into a bucket, the kidneys and intestines trying their best to slip through his fingers. He left the head on a tarpaulin, and took the feet for his sheep dogs to chew on. Together they hoisted the body up onto a hook in the roof beam, put there for such a purpose. George would skin it for its meat once it had bled dry.
Afterwards, they sat in the house and George lit the wood-burning stove, resisting the urge to ask Karl if he wanted to play Scrabble. George produced the apple strudel, and together they ate it and drank a pot of tea. “Have you decided what you’re going to do about the – ” Karl paused, “about Hazel. About the funeral?”
George sipped at his tea, and said, finally, “Yes.” He knew what had to be done, and tomorrow he would call the minister. “Hazel wanted to be cremated,” said George. “She wanted her ashes scattered underneath the rowans. They’ll grow back, won’t they?” he asked.
When they had gone up to free the deer from the fence, and found its leg broken and the deer weak having wrangled all night, they had found the garden in a state of destruction. The beech trees’ lower branches had been bitten to the core, the purple sprouting, kale and other winter greens were flattened and snapped, stems bleeding white, open to the sky. The potato patch was churned with cloven-hoofed prints, and the rowans were naked, stripped of their bark, the sapwood within shredded and torn as if an angry clawed animal had been trying to get its guts out.
George had run his hand along the trunk of one of the trees, once smooth and silvery, now rough against his palm, like strands of old rope. George didn’t know if the rowans would survive another year, but Karl had suggested he call James the farrier, who was good with trees, to see if he had any advice. When Karl finished his tea, George didn’t offer him any more. They said goodnight at the door, and George heard the truck bounce down the lane to the road, the dogs whining from their cage in the back.
In the garage, the deer hung from the hook. In the stark glow of the strip lights, the deer’s hide shone bright, tawny with patches of cream, specks of brown, hazy spots of auburn faintly visible. The head lay on the tarp still, and the deer’s eyes were closed now, its lids pressed shut against its face. But when Karl had taken a rifle and nuzzled it up against its struggling head, its eyes had been wide open, bright with fear and pain, the eyeballs engorged, straining through its own scull. George had hardly been able to bear it, though he knew that this was the kindest thing to do.
“Best to put it out of its misery,” Karl had said, and then he had pulled the trigger. The fawn was killed immediately, its body slumping against the fence where its leg had been caught, but for a few seconds, its muscles had twitched and its eyes had gone on blinking, the nervous system firing impulses even though its heart had stopped. George wasn’t religious, or even spiritual, but he thought, for a moment, that he might have been able to see something pass from its eyes, something fade, before the eyes stopped blinking and the muscles ceased to shiver.
George closed the door to the garage, turning his back on the deer. It would still be there in the morning, and a few days later when George would skin it and carve up the meat for the freezer, taking a parcel along to Karl and Mandy. George went back inside the house, past the trays of cakes, to the table where the phone lived. Holding the receiver, he dialed the minister’s number, and waited for him to pick up on the other end.
The potholes in the road were filled with muddy water because it had rained the night before. Some of the holes, jagged around the edges, were the size of miniature craters and every time we reached one, we stomped our feet in it and sloshed the brown water on each other. We roared in excitement, our voices pummeling the cool and heavy morning air, as the water splashed on our clothes and skins. It was as if the dirty liquid were seeping into our bodies and energizing us for the task at hand. We were on our way to burn a thief.
We were partly shoving and partly dragging him along with us, hands under each armpit to keep his shaved head and muscled torso upright. At first, when we’d caught him hiding under the carpenter’s workbench with Auntie Naa’s smartphone stashed precariously in his boxers, he’d played stubborn, locking his arms around a leg of the bench when we’d tried to pull him out by his waistband. But a head-twisting slap had left him dazed and pliant. We’d hoisted him to his feet and stripped him of his tools, a screwdriver and a knife with a curved, glinting blade, similar to the ones the butchers used to slice through singed goat hides in the market. After that we’d yanked off his jean trousers, causing him to trip over his callused feet, and fall, and ripped off his t-shirt to reveal the crisscross of smooth, raised scars that decorated the entirety of his back; the man was obviously a career criminal. A bottle of kerosene and a box of matches were not hard to find.
“I beg you in Jesus’ name,” he’d started to cry when we began shoving and dragging him, head lowered, in our midst as we jogged down the main road. We’d ignored his pleas. Jesus himself, in all of his white glory, would have had to come down to rescue this guy. We’d caught others like him before but had let them go after a simple beating with our shoes and belts. Big mistake. They had returned with reinforcements while we slept, broken into our homes, tied us up and struck us with the blades of their machetes and the butts of their locally-manufactured pistols, and taken all that we’d toiled for and cherished the most. At least once a month, we woke up to find that a family in our neighborhood had been beaten and robbed. Two weeks before, armed robbers had shot Mr. Francis, who worked at the passport office, in both hands because he’d refused to tell them where he’d hidden his laptop. They preyed on our mothers who traded in the market and had to wake up while the sky was still gray to meet with the middlemen who supplied them with yams and tomatoes from the north and cassava and okro from the south. These criminals grabbed them while they waited for the buses, which ran infrequently during the early hours, slapped them until their faces ballooned, and stole the monies that they hid in the shorts they wore underneath their cloths. Lately, these animals had begun tearing off these shorts and raping our poor mothers! Right there in the open! Why couldn’t they just take the money and leave?
And we weren’t even rich people. Small Frankfurt, our neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra, consisted of two and three-bedroom bungalows haphazardly thrown together so that street names and house numbers would not make sense if they were ever introduced. Ours was one of those communities where most homeowners had not painted their houses and were comfortable with the grayness of the cement blocks. Cement blocks on which city workers frequently scrawled in red paint: REMOVE BY ORDER OF THE ACCRA METROPOLITAN ASSEMBLY. If only the Assembly cared as much about the state of our roads. All but the main road were un-tarred and the red dust that was whipped up by cars coated us and everything we owned. When we washed ourselves in the evenings, the water that spiraled down our drains was red. Not that we could afford to bathe every time we scratched our skins and saw the grime that accumulated underneath our fingernails. The water pipes had not yet reached us–and seemed like they never would–so most of us were buying water by the barrel from the dented water tankers that lined up on the side of the main road like the UN convoys that we watched on TV, driving into warzones. We were, therefore, stingy with the water in our drums and buckets. Not like those people who lived in neighborhoods like Kponano and Alistair. Those people who watered their expansive green lawns at noon when the sun was highest and had large flat screen TVs in their pristine villas and small flat screen TVs in their gleaming cars. People whose homes were littered with the things that robbers sought; the kinds of things that we barely had.
We neared the open field where we planned to burn him. There was a large mound of trash at the east end of that dusty tract of land, a putrid collection of the degradable and the non-degradable. We picked up speed, our feet rhythmically pounding the pavement like a police battalion marching against protestors. In fact, we were speeding up because of the police. We were sure that someone would have called them by now; they would fire bullets into the sky to disperse us if they showed up. The thief would be rescued, held for a few weeks, and released back onto the streets to terrorize us. We weren’t going to let that happen.
There were many others who wanted to stop us. Word of the thief’s capture and of our plan to necklace him had spread quickly. People, mainly women, had lined the road while others ran behind us. They still had on their sleeping clothes; the women with their cloths tied around their chests and their hair gathered in hairnets. Toothbrushes and chewing sticks poked out of many mouths.
“This man has a mother somewhere o, you cannot do this,” Auntie Naa was screaming from somewhere behind us. You would think that she would have been grateful that we’d retrieved her phone and were about to punish the thief who had stolen it. That we were about to send a strong warning to others who refused to work and, instead, chose to use our community as an ATM. Another woman began to ululate. In between the piercing cries she shouted, “Come and see o, our youths are about to kill somebody’s son.” Annoyed, we began a protest chant that immediately drowned her out.
Weee no go gree
We no go gree
We no go gree
Weee no go gree
“We will not agree!” we sang. We clapped our hands and stomped our feet harder. The surface of the un-tarred road onto which we’d branched was too damp to produce dust. Instead clods off dirt flew into the air around our feet and stung those whose legs were uncovered. Not like we felt the pain. The chant had thrown us into a frenzy. We’d become encased in a bubble, generated by our lungs, that blocked out any sound that wasn’t produced by us. We were one clapping, singing, stomping body, pulsing with our determination to avenge what those criminals had done to us. This one, who was stupid enough to strike at dawn when some of us were awake and alert enough to begin the chase as soon as Auntie Naa raised the alarm, would pay the debt that his brothers owed. It seemed like he’d resigned himself to his fate and had stopped crying out the name of his Jesus. Or maybe he hadn’t stopped, but how were we supposed to know that, enclosed in our bubble like we were?
As we stepped onto the field, we were approached by about twelve of the older men who were not with us. They’d come to rescue the thief. We immediately formed a circle around him. They might have invaded our ring of sound but we dared them to break through our solid wall of flesh. They threw their bodies at our barricade but we held strong and surged forward. They stumbled and fell at our feet. We would have trampled them if they weren’t our fathers, uncles, and older brothers. We marked time until they got to their feet and began to stagger away, defeated.
We threw the thief onto the edge of the trash heap so that his head was cushioned by rotten bananas and cow entrails while his legs lay on the red dirt. We pulled a frayed tire from a ledge of waste above his head and formed a semicircle around him. It was time. He was now frantically searching our faces and boring through our eyes with his. His eyes were watery. We became still. Our throats closed up and our sound bubble began to rise and float away without us.
“God will not forgive you, don’t do this,” we heard one of the women shout.
“Why won’t the men stop them?” someone else cried.
Their voices were intruding on us, breaking our concentration. We had to act quickly. We lifted his shoulder and put the tire around his neck. He was whimpering. He cupped both hands and began slapping them together. The fool thought he could beg his way out of this. As if he and his friends listened when our mothers pleaded with them at the bus stop in the dark. We poured the kerosene over the length of his body. Some of it splashed on our legs and we drew back, our chests heaving. We were struggling to breathe; there was no air, only the stench of kerosene and garbage. The thief, on the other hand, was breathing just fine. He began struggling to stand up, as if the kerosene had ignited his desire to live. The tire around his neck made his efforts clumsy, almost comical. We jabbed our feet into his legs and thrust him back down onto the trash. He started doing the thing with his eyes again, looking at me as if he was trying to escape from his body into mine, through my eye sockets. My palms became slick with sweat. My hands stiffened and I felt that if I wriggled my fingers, they would break with a loud clack. This had never happened to me before. Even when I dissected a frog in the lab for the first time, when I made a vertical incision down its abdomen with my scalpel and pulled apart both glossy flabs to reveal the dark brown of its large intestine and the pale pink of its small intestine. My hands had been steady, flexible. But now, my wet and stiff fingers caused the matchbox to slip and fall.
“Pick it up,” Henry said to me. The matchbox had landed near my right foot. It was touching my big toe.
Why should I be the one to pick it up, weren’t we all standing there? And who was he to tell me what to do?
“Priscilla, stop wasting time and pick the thing up,” Kweku said. We were standing pressed so close together that I could feel his sweat on my arm. I turned my head and glared at him.
“Don’t you have hands?” I snapped. I was used to fighting with Kweku. He’d sat behind me in school since kindergarten and we both planned to study biology in the university next year. I stepped back so that the matchbox was no longer touching my toe.
“My sandals!” Susan yelped. She’d been standing behind me, mashed up against my back. I ignored her. Hadn’t she known she was wearing sandals when she was jumping into puddles of dirty water a few minutes ago? Besides, she was the one who’d brought up this idea about burning the next thief we caught. She’d been furious because robbers had broken into her house, stripped her father naked, slapped him around, and made him do jumping jacks in front of his family. He’d had a heart attack the next day. She’d said that necklacing was how people dealt with robbers in other places, maybe in other countries. When she brought up the idea I should have told her that that is not what is done here.
“I beg you, sister,” the thief sobbed. Now he was focused only on me. No one had made a move to pick up the matchbox.
I retreated further into the wall of people behind me. A chorus of “agyeis,” “ouches,” “ahs,” and “ohs” followed my move. I imagined us falling down on each other like dominoes, falling so low that we were face to face with the thieves, rapists, and murderers who dwelled at that level. When I turned, each person was still erect but shuffling backward. Sensing his moment, the thief struggled to his feet, lifted the tire from around his neck, and dropped it on the ground in front of him. I stepped back even farther; I didn’t want kerosene on my uniform. The man began to walk sideways in the gap between the pile of rubbish and the now-cracking wall that we’d formed. I didn’t try to stop him. No one else did. He glanced at me and then at his escape route, once. Three seconds later, his legs were scissoring the air as he ran toward the opposite end of the field. A voice in the back–it sounded like my mother’s–said, “Won’t you people hold him until the police come?” I didn’t answer, no one did. We began to disperse. I had to go back home; I hadn’t even had breakfast yet and my shoes were wet.
Look for more work by Peace Adzo Medie in Issue 6, due out this November.
“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?”
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?
Just a name
Rosa, a girl in a story, a name I happen to like. She’s a girl with a father who follows her to the ends of the earth as she follows a story, a myth, an incantation.
She is trying to be a virgin and a diplomat, like Gertrude Bell.
She would also like to be a mad heroine, like Isabelle Eberhardt.
Her parents would like her to finish her homework.
She covets the gypsy’s wide skirt, the nun’s collar, her mother’s braid.
She rides up on a horse, plants her bloody hand on the wall of a church, makes her mark.
In the street, she breathes polluted air, lets her father, a man, buy her a drink made of almonds. Says merhaba, says teshekur ederim, turns away from her father. Wants a boy. Wants a penis.
Experiences a moment of 21st century doubt.
The blind doctor
She leans forward in her chair. Can he feel her movement?
She leans, examining him, sees waves break over his gentle face.
She sees him but he can’t see her.
She trusts his x-ray vision, a function of his heart.
Tells him what she wants: a boy, a penis, (a heart).
Her mother in a braid, her mother in pigtails.
Her brother, a genius or a fool.
They’re all fools.
She twirls in her skirt, her hands tilted toward god.
Naked beneath her skirt, she is breezy.
What would Gertrude Bell say?
Isabelle Eberhardt, where are you?
What does Rosa know about Gertrude Bell?
That she was a highly accomplished virgin, an adventuress, (never an adulteress), a linguist, a diplomat.
She’s in the desert, immaculate and alone:
She walks white sand until it’s in her throat and lungs. Coughs sand like granulated sugar, can’t stop rubbing her eyes.
The Bedouin boys appear and dance the depth-negating dunes.
Their bodies are short, wiry, powerful. (She realizes a new incarnation of her own every hour.)
In the almost-cold dawn, they offer her the thinnest version of bread she’s ever eaten, just-baked over hot stones. She takes the bread, aiming for diplomatic distance, can’t help but offer them a glimpse of her eyes, which sparkle.
Her head is covered in yards of white linen.
His heart, his eyes
The blind doctor leans; Rosa watches interest arrive on his face.
His heart is oval-shaped, with honeycomb compartments, each containing a patient, a little like her. She’s young; she lives on the bottom floor. (There’s an old man with a hack who lives above.)
She wants to touch his blind eyes.
Isabelle Eberhardt would do it; Gertrude Bell would not.
One of these days. In the meantime, bide your time.
(Isabelle Eberhardt is another type of desert woman entirely.)
Forgive my violent emotional weather!
If I’d travelled dressed as a man!
The land and I are one; one with the land.
Call me ……
Does the body answer to the soul?
That hero is long dead, but I’ve read the book.
Not sure I fully understand about soul, but bliss, I do.
I would not convert to Islam.
I do not have six languages at the tip of my tongue.
Refuse to go back to your civilization.
Is this confusion or wisdom, Dad?
This good horse, these camels.
Her life now, as I read it, is finished, closed. But her life as she wrote it is unfinished.
Let me have my unfinished life.
Freak or trouble-maker?
Where are the Bedouin boys?
The blind therapist creates a gaze through modulation of voice . Without the distraction of sight, he tends not to be deceived.
His theory of truth: that it’s layered. He has a range of stylized sounds that act as his eyes and offer solace or neutrality.
Parker Williams, a boy in the ring.
I’ve caught a live bird in the hand.
Have you ever been to the Sahara? Walked a desert? Ridden a camel? Known anyone who’s worn a veil, died old, still a virgin?
Are these the wrong kinds of questions to be asking?
(What do you see?)
What is a genius?
He is silent.
Rosa hides her smile behind her hand, unnecessarily.
She sees orange and red, the greens and yellows of fall harvest pumpkins: something from her childhood, intruding.
Her doctor can’t see. Does that mean he has no brilliance?
–Where are you now?
Like a window, he always knows when to ask.
Rosa wishes she were a doorman, but without having to open and close.
She wants to travel across the desert on a camel.
Her father could come and retrieve her, if he dared.
Her mother and brother would stay home, banned.
She watches the blind doctor navigate the glass of water; she watches the level of the liquid against clear glass.
She shifts in her chair, pretzels her legs beneath her.
She covets the bull’s-eye of genius but would be satisfied to look behind the doctor’s eyes, to see what he sees.
Would she trade her allegiance to the idea of Gertrude Bell for the talents of a Macedonian firewalker? Will she ever lose her virginity? (Is it negotiable?)
She has a friend who eats only white things.
She is unpoked, buttoned-up, all-one. A miserable donut (no hole). Without being punctured, how can she know her center?
When certain cars pass in the street, he is forced to lean in toward the patient and focus more intently to catch what is being said.
He is all ears.
The pores of the walls open, listening.
The layers of sound divide—he zeroes in on the layer that speaks to his heart: endless longing.
He leans forward, retreats, collects the room’s sounds in a basket in his head. The sounds run through, leave gold.
The child is running against time, her legs are tied to the moon’s shadow.
Someone presses hard on a horn. It floods the room.
She dreams she sees him on the street, walking quickly, with a stick.
She runs and catches him just as he turns into his building: Hi!
He knows her voice, turns toward it.
She leans toward his face, finds his hands on her eyes.
She fills his cups with tears.
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