I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town “The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad. A small group of us went to visit them.
We set off without any mishap. That is, apart from minor details: we didn’t take enough cigarettes, one of us lost her gloves, another forgot her door key. And then, at the station, we bought one ticket less than we needed. Well, anyone can make a mistake. We counted wrong. Even though there were only four of us.
It was a little awkward, actually, that we counted wrong. Apparently, in Hamburg, there was once a horse that could count beautifully, right up to six…
And we got out without any mishap at the right station. Though we did get out once or twice before—at every station, as a matter of fact. But every time, realizing our mistake, we had, very sensibly, got back in the carriage.
When we arrived at our destination we had a few more awkward moments. It turned out that none of us knew the Zaitsevs’ address. Each of us was relying on the others.
A quiet, gentle voice came to our aid: “You’re here!”
It was the Zaitsevs’ daughter: a girl of eleven, clear-eyed, with blond Russian plaits just like I had had at that age (plaits pulled so many, many times by other children, plaits that brought me no end of grief!).
She had come to meet us.
“I really didn’t think you’d get here!” she said.
“Well, Mama kept saying that you’d either miss the train or get the wrong one.”
I was a little offended. I’m actually very punctual. Recently, when I was invited to a ball, not only did I not arrive late—I was a whole week early.
“Ah, Natasha, Natasha!” I said. “You don’t know me very well yet!”
Her clear eyes looked at me thoughtfully, then down at the ground.
Delighted that we now knew where we were going, we decided to go and sit in a café for a while, then to hunt down some cigarettes, then try to telephone Paris and then…
But the fair-haired girl said very seriously, “No, you absolutely mustn’t. We must go back home right away. They’re expecting us.”
So, shamefaced and obedient, we set off in single file behind the young girl.
We found our hostess at the stove.
She was looking bemusedly into a saucepan.
“Natasha, quick! Tell me what you think? What is this I’ve ended up with—roast beef or salt beef?”
The girl had a look.
“No, my angel,” she said. “This time it looks like beef stew.”
“Wonderful! Who’d have thought it?” cried Madame Zaitseva, delighted.
Dinner was a noisy affair.
We were all very fond of one another, all enjoying ourselves, and all in the mood to talk. We all talked at once. Somebody talked about the journal Contemporary Notes. Somebody talked about how you shouldn’t pray for Lenin. That would be a sin. After all, the Church didn’t pray for Judas. Somebody talked about Parisian women and dresses, about Dostoevsky, about the recent spelling reform, about the situation of writers abroad and about the Dukhobors, and somebody wanted to tell us how the Czechs cook eggs, but she never succeeded. She kept talking away, but she was constantly interrupted.
And in all the hubbub the young girl, now wearing an apron, walked round the table, picking up a fork that had fallen onto the floor, moving a glass away from the edge of the table, seeing to all our needs, taking our worries to heart, her blond plaits glinting as bright as ever.
At one point she came up to one of us and held out a ticket.
“Look,” she said. “I want to show you something. In your own home, is it you who looks after the housekeeping? Well, when you next buy some wine, ask for one of these tickets. When you’ve collected a hundred tickets, they’ll give you six towels.”
She kept pointing things out to us and explaining things. She very much wanted to help—to help us live in the world.
“How wonderful it is here,” enthused our hostess. “After the lives we led under the Bolsheviks! It’s barely believable. You turn on a tap—and water comes out. You go to light the stove—and there’s firewood already there.”
“Eat up, my angel,” the girl whispered. “Your food will go cold.”
We talked until it grew dark. The fair-haired girl had for some time been repeating something to each of us in turn. At last somebody paid attention.
“You need to catch the seven o’clock train,” she had been saying. “You must go to the station straight away.”
We grabbed our things and ran to the station.
There we had one last, hurried conversation.
“We need to buy Madame Zaitseva a dress tomorrow. Very modest, but showy. Black, but not too black. Narrow, but it must look full. And most important of all, one she won’t grow tired of.”
“Let’s take Natasha with us. She can advise us.”
And off we went again: Contemporary Notes, Gorky, French literature, Rome-
And the fair-haired girl was walking about, saying something, trying to convince us of something. At last, somebody listened.
“You need to go over the bridge to the other platform. Don’t wait till the train comes in or you’ll have to rush and you might miss it.”
The next day, in the shop, the graceful figure of Madame Zaitseva was reflected in two triple mirrors. A little salesgirl with pomaded hair and short legs was draping one dress after another over her. And on a chair, her hands politely folded, sat the fair-haired girl, dispensing advice.
“Oh!” said Madame Zaitseva, flitting about between the mirrors. “This one is lovely. Natasha, why aren’t you giving me any advice? Look, isn’t that beautiful—with the grey embroidery on the front. Quick, tell me what you think!”
“No, my angel, you mustn’t buy a dress like that. How could you go about every day with a grey stomach? It would be different if you had a lot of dresses. But as it is, it’s not very practical.”
“Well, fancy you saying that!” her mother protested. But she didn’t dare disobey.
We began to make our way out.
“Oh!” cried Madame Zaitseva, “Just look at these collars! They’re just what I’ve been dreaming of! Natasha, take me away from them quickly, don’t let me get carried away!”
Concerned, the fair-haired girl took her mother by the hand.
“Come this way, my angel, don’t look over there. Come over here and look at the needles and thread.”
“You know what?” whispered Madame Zaitseva, with a sideways glance at her daughter. “She heard what we were saying about Lenin yesterday. And in the evening she said, ‘I pray for him every day. People say he has much blood on his conscience. It’s a burden on his soul… I can’t help it,’ she said to me, ‘I pray for him.’”
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London
I wash my hands, scrubbing them.
They still smell of shit.
Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he
offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”
He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.
It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.
“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.
That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?
Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”
He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”
Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”
“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”
“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”
Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.
“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”
“I wish we had friends with children.”
“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”
“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”
“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”
“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”
He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.
“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.
Danny looked at me victoriously.
“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”
“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”
“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”
“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”
Dr. Barak coughed.
Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”
Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”
That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.
He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.
“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.
When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.
He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”
Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.
“Can I have chocolate milk?”
For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.
“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”
That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.
“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”
My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”
“Did you give her something?”
He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”
“Of course not!”
He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.
“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.
“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”
“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”
My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.
A Messenger alert.
It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.
How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.
Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.
Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”
We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”
“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.
She began to get off the toilet.
I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”
She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”
She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.
I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”
She screamed, “Daddy!”
But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.
“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.
“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”
“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.
Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.
I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.
Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”
“At least she went.”
“But what does Ron have to say about it?”
I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?
“Since when are you two back in touch?”
“Since when do you go through my phone?”
“Since I have a reason to.”
“How dare you?”
“You want to talk to me about morals?”
“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”
“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”
“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”
“Sure. It’s my fault.”
“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”
“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”
“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”
He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”
“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”
“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”
“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”
“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”
“He’s a child psychologist.”
A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”
I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.
My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.
Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”
Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.
She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.
I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”
They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”
I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.
One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”
He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.
I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”
“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”
“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”
Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?
The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.
“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”
“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”
“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.
“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”
“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”
He looked at me tentatively.
“Do my hands smell like shit?”
I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”
I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.
They covered my face.
I wept into them.
We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.
“I met with Ron,” I finally said.
The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.
“Because I wanted to see him.”
His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.
“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”
He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.
“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”
A paralyzing silence fell over us.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.
We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.
We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
“I have not yet begun to fight!”
John Paul Jones
The road descends all the way to the sea, as though the whole world was a huge basin where everything drove, sailed, glided and swept down to the bottom. I’m on my way to visit my mother. I’m riding my old green bicycle, peddling happily, gears greased, hands firmly gripping the rusted handlebars. The evening air is humid but a gentle breeze sweeps my hair back and brushes against my face. And when tiny beads of sweat bud on my lips I lick them away, tasting their salinity. I speed past an illuminated billboard on which Mel Gibson grins with a smile once enthralling, but no longer. The first time I saw Lethal Weapon I laughed uproariously at Martin Riggs seated with Roger Murtaugh in the gleaming boat parked on his lawn, because it reminded me of the oval ocean in which father placed me and Eran when we were children. On bright summer days, father would stand outside our window, press his nose against the screen and call out loudly: “Who wants to be Archimedes today?”
“Me! Me!” we’d both shout, quickly undressing and rushing outside in our white underwear and tanned skin to father’s exciting ocean. The tub was already filled to the brim with fresh water, cold at first, from the garden hose. “Today you’ll be Archimedes,” father declared, beaming, pointing to the oval sea, “Get in. Let’s see how much water you’ll splash out today.” Eran followed me down into the depths and the green grass surrounding us was flooded by waves of water in adherence to the incontrovertible truth of Archimedes’ Law, which father patiently explained to us. He handed us the long pole, one end of which was already green with mold and always served as a mast, and tied a square of white cloth to it which had been surreptitiously cut from mother’s old holiday dress. When all was ready he grasped the thick rope tied to the tub’s handle and cried out, “Eran, today you’re Magellan! We’re sailing to Tierra del Fuego!” On another occasion I was Christopher Columbus. We bravely sailed west to discover India and, as always, when it was my turn to be Columbus, father would ask, “Well, my pretty one, what are the names of your three vessels?” and I would quickly clutch the rim of the tub to keep it from overturning because father was already running as hard as he could on the grass around the house, the tub careening, water splashing, me yelling back to him, “Nina, Pinta and Fanta Maria!” and the three of us roared with laughter because that’s what I’d say when I was little and didn’t know its name was “Santa Maria.”
We traveled with father to many faraway lands. We journeyed to Sweden to view the Vasa which had sunk in Stockholm’s ancient harbor with all of its crew and cannon as it set out on its maiden voyage; we sailed from port to port on the magnificent Love Boat and disembarked to tour Puerto Vallarta; and once even reached Polynesia where we embarked in a double pirogue and didn’t tip over. And on one unusually hot day father sprayed us with the hose so we wouldn’t become dehydrated, God forbid, and announced, “Today we’ll sail from Ashkelon to Arcachon and Biarritz, where the rich French people have summer homes.” But I, who’d already studied geography in school, said with an innocent expression on my face, “Dad, that’s not possible. They’re on the Atlantic coast.” Father was briefly mortified but recovered. “Alright, then we’ll go back to earlier times, they’re always fascinating. What do you say, let’s join Odysseus, King of Ithaca, on his journey home from the Trojan War?” My face expressed indifference because I didn’t like wars. I proposed boarding a black gondola on the canals of Venice, “If Eran agrees, of course.” I think that was the year the oval tub grew too small for both of us and father had to sail me first and then my brother. I no longer feared to journey alone to the Cape of Storms, and when we’d rounded the continent we decided unanimously to rename it the Cape of Good Hope. But Eran grew impatient even before we’d gone ashore and stamped his feet, “Enough, Dad, now it’s my turn. I want to go to the Galapagos, to the iguanas!”
We learned about many exotic locations and historic maritime expeditions during the delightful games with father on the lawn. Once Eran asked with a challenging thrust of his chin, “And what long voyages did you make, Dad?”, and father thought for a long moment, while the water in the tub settled, scratching his head as though attempting to remember, “Ah, I went on a long trip in Mauthausen, then a march from Bergen-Belsen, before then I also visited Auschwitz, which was a long time ago and I don’t really remember very well, but what I can tell you is that I was plunged into the eye of a storm long before I ever saw the open sea – “
Eran and I fell silent and our gaiety faded. We were already familiar with these names, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen, and other names of similar places from mother’s whispering to Aunt Lily, one of them crying silently, the other crushing larval cigarette butts in the glass ashtray, fingering a white handkerchief in her lap.
Father saw we’d quieted down and quickly moved to reinvigorate us. He pulled the rope with such strength we almost tumbled from the boat as he began rushing us to Mount Ararat to locate, once and for all, Noah’s lost ark.
Then Eran really got big. Hands, feet, neck, all his clothes and shoes were too small for him and his voice changed and he asked to move to the closed-in balcony, at least he’d have his own room, without me. I kept pace with him, as though we were twinned. I’d already discovered Osnat was using tampons and wondered when my turn would come. Meanwhile, I was wearing a double-A bra and putting on mother’s pink lipstick whenever she left the house.
One day, almost as an afterthought, the tub was shoved into the crawl space under the house, a shady, cool place with a musty odor where mother’s cats would shelter from the heat. Our last voyage in father’s tub was to the Lofoten Islands where the maelstrom, the deadly ocean whirlpool, waited in ambush at high tide. Father told us it was known even to Jules Verne; it was the mysterious whirlpool in which the Nautilus sank – and at night when I lay in bed, curled in a blanket, my nose between the pages of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, I was pleased to learn the French author had been right. And because we had escaped the whirlpool the water in the tub subsided and Eran and I, and father, listened intently to the sirens’ song. Father shut his eyes, turned his ear to the wind and rhythmically stroked his cheek with pleasure. Eran wrung out his wet undershirt with abrupt movements, looked at father, an unfamiliar expression on his face, as if he were seeing him for the first time, and said angrily, “What sirens are you talking about, Dad, it’s only the wind and the crickets!” and turned to enter the house, dripping wet. Then he yelled, in a parting shot, “Why don’t you ever talk to me about soccer?!”
I silenced my brother quickly. As he walked away, I yelled at him that he didn’t understand anything! I still heard them singing, their gentle, tantalizing voices, and still looked up to my father, even though I too began to wonder how he knew so much about brave admirals like John Paul Jones and Captain Cook, about distant seas and exciting missions in places whose names sent chills of pleasure through me and filled me with an urgent lust to see the world.
Mother never swam in the ocean or in the pool and father dared only infrequently to drive our white Susita automobile as far as Beersheba or Tiberias, and even less frequently picked up a book and sat down to read it from cover to cover. “He no longer has patience to read,” mother sighed, tightening a screw in her eyeglass frame with a tiny screwdriver. “They killed his patience.”
At the end of that summer, just before the autumn winds began whipping the tips of the cedars along the border of our fading garden, and just before the spikes of the sea squills began their torturous emergence from the hard earth, at the end of that summer mother ran into the house with a terrified expression in her eyes. She’d been weeding the garden and saw a marbled snake slither beneath the house. Father ran outside, bent down between the oleander bushes and stared for a long time into the narrow, dim coolness between the earth and the house above. When he rose to his feet and saw mother standing at the doorway fingering the hem of her skirt he spread his arms – “there’s no snake there” – but when his glance met her frightened eyes and he saw her shrinking back he crouched again with a sigh and carefully removed all the junk that had accumulated beneath the house through the years: a roll of chicken wire that no one could remember why it had been purchased; Eran’s scooter, which had surrendered all its majesty; and the periscope we had constructed from plywood and mirrors, almost in one piece and perhaps still usable. And when he pulled out the small tub I saw sadly that time had corroded its surface into red-brown rust and had left it pitted like one of mother’s lace doilies that rested on the cushions of the living room armchairs, starched and stiff.
The days passed slowly, then sped on their way. The winds awoke from their summer slumber as though they’d been alerted. Mother picked pomegranates from the tree and placed them in a blue clay bowl that highlighted their pinkish-yellow colors. Most had been attacked by insects, but were still lovely on their surface. The grape arbor still sagged with the weight of lush clusters. Eran and I stretched our hands toward their twined vines, grasped the tendrils and pulled the ripe fruit down into our mouths. When the wagtails returned to peck the earth then autumn had truly arrived and the summer became a hazy memory. The traces of our adventurous journeys in the tub dissipated. Clouds arrived from the sea and clumped in corners of the sky like huddled sheep. Nights were chilly and brought rain. After days of downpours that beat down everywhere with unfathomable intensity the rain was transformed into a whispered, calming drizzle. I wandered outside for hours in my gray raincoat, seeing visions deep within the mirroring puddles. And when a storm arrived to beat wildly against the slats of the shutters, mother said it was the winter’s swan song and how pleasant it was in such weather to be beneath blankets in the eye of the storm. It was mother who taught us that the storm’s eye is the safest place to be at sea during a whirlwind, the exact opposite of what we’d believed, even father, and that ships can sail in the eye of the storm without fear. And so, if that winter’s final rain was a storm, we remained in the calm isle of its eye.
One morning the last orange dropped from the tree in obedience to an unspoken instruction and embarked on its journey of decomposition. Spring was brief that year and the summer very hot and oppressive. Eran was finishing twelfth grade. Every evening he ran a timed hour along the beach. He’d returned from the naval commando team-building exercise bruised and exhausted, and also dirty and somewhat ill, but with a smile of victory on his lips. However, he wasn’t accepted into the naval commando unit and no one could console him, not even his girlfriend Nitza. In the autumn Eran reluctantly joined a different unit, completed the training with distinction, eventually came to terms with the bright red color of his unit’s beret, returned to Nitza, and was killed one dark night in an ambush in southern Lebanon.
Afterwards, a silence descended on the house and never lifted. The sailors and brave discoverers of new lands who filled our childhood sailed away in their ships beyond the horizon, pennants flying, and never returned. We remained planted in the earth. Mother wrapped up her pain and buried it deep within her – “There’s still a child here at home” – while father submerged his rigid denial in the sea’s cold waters, swimming to a small island until his strength gave out or taking long morning walks along the beach, striding beside the waves on the same route Eran took every evening at the end of twelfth grade, pacing pensively, searching for a trace of his son’s footprints, his back bending, his heart unravelling.
I stopped at a red light, brakes screeching. I wiped the sweat from my face and adjusted the straps of my backpack. In the distance I saw the sea’s dusky shadow merge with the sky into a unitary boundless gray entity, pierced by pale starlight and the eyeballs of the round lamps along the promenade curving to the south. When the light turned green I made my way toward the anchorage. The gloomy sea was hidden momentarily by a brighter one: a giant billboard advertising a Greek island holiday.
On one of the few occasions that mother and father had enough money and energy to take a short holiday, the four of us drove to Eilat. The journey was long and enchanting. “It’s like Africa,” said Eran, amazed by the acacia trees struggling to survive in the arid heat, seeming to flee from him as fast as we were driving toward them. Mother told us that the manna eaten by the Israelites in the desert hadn’t fallen from the sky, as is written in the Torah, and that scientists believed that the biblical white material was, in fact, sweet secretions of ants living on the acacia branches. She went on to tell us the meaning of symbiosis, and Eran and I immediately responded, “Ugh, secretions of ants – “, then my brother turned around and swore he saw Lot’s wife. I cried that I saw ibexes leaping on the cliffs.
We reached Eilat hungry and dusty. The Red Sea’s waters were dark blue and the beach curving and golden. An expanse of cloth tents blossomed on the sand. Before it grew dark we also built a tent of flapping piqué bedspreads and broomsticks, near our Susita, and mother gave each of us our favorite sandwich. After eating we entered the water, except for mother. We splashed, swam, insisted we’d seen scorpion fish and parrot fish and took care to avoid being stung by the black sea anemones. All our urgings were useless, mother refused to go in the water. Father gave up first. “Leave mom alone,” he motioned, she’s hopeless, and again wet his black hair. “Did you forget the business with the cats?” We hadn’t forgotten. Mother observed one of the neighbors bathing three kittens in a large metal bucket and wanted to look, and saw their small heads and limbs trembling beneath the shimmering surface. With their remaining strength the kittens tried to free themselves from the grip of the man bent over the pail glancing out of the corner of his eye at the neighbors’ daughter, at mother, “You know what cats do in the garden, wailing all night like they’re being slaughtered? Then they give birth and the kittens bring fleas. It’s the same every year and their mother never learns!” He didn’t release their striped bodies until they grew limp and the water in the pail no longer moved. Since then mother’s fame had spread to all the stray cats in the neighborhood, who came to her for refuge. And since then – so we assumed – mother avoided water resolutely. When the town built a swimming pool she would enter only to her ankles, and never took her worried eyes off Eran and me though we swam like dolphins. Only when father placed us in the tub’s oval sea and became a daring admiral did mother watch us contentedly, seated on the porch stairs.
After Eran had been killed father lost all sense of time. He sat alone in the garden for hours on a wicker chair frayed from age and the sun, slumped in the lacy shade of the Persian Lilac tree, fingering an old piece of rope, as though reviewing all the knots he’d taught us when we were children: fisherman’s knot, overhand knot, reef knot, granny knot. Father’s fingers were thick and nimble. “You already know how to tie your shoelaces, right?” he said the first time he showed us the rope’s wonders, “so you already know one knot!”
When I saw him sitting like that in the shady garden I was horrified and a fist clutched my heart: father had shriveled and seemed so lost he required a lifeline. I imagined him leaning toward me and patiently explaining where to place my fingers and how to form the rope into a loop and where to pull and tighten so the knot would be secure, but I didn’t exactly remember what went where anymore. And so father continued to fade away from us until he silently disappeared from our lives, one moment visible, then illusory, glinting, then quenched in the distance – until he descended into the endless, macabre abyss at the horizon where the sea ended – and was never seen again.
I’m flying downhill on the bicycle, the wind flinging my hair back and cooling my skin. Mother moved away from the old house long ago. Now, though it seems unbelievable, she lives on the sea. Literally on the sea. A man with white hair desired my mother for her silences and the sorrow that withered her spirit, and brought her home to him. The stability mother always sought in a safe harbor she found, as it happened, on the man’s small, rocking boat anchored in the Jaffa marina. “Our house is big and empty, and it’s like a museum,” she sighed to me one morning, “Eran’s gone. Dad is gone. You have your own life, I don’t want to live here any longer. The house is yours now, with all that’s in it, and all that isn’t, it’s all yours. And if you don’t want it either, you’re welcome to sell it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.”
Mother didn’t wait for me to sell the house – nor had I decided what to do with it – but packed a few suitcases and moved in with her sister Talma. After a while she also moved from Talma’s because she’d met Herbert. This was the first time she had invited me to her new home.
I arrived at the marina, panting heavily. I tied the bike to a streetlamp and scanned the area to locate the lights of the boat mother had described on the phone. “On the stern is the verse you, Eran and Dad always loved,” she set me a riddle we’d solved long ago, and added, surprised at herself, “You won’t believe the coincidence,” that is – I inferred – the verse was a sign this man was also a kindred spirit. I smiled to myself. For a brief moment my brother and I were again seated in the splashing tub, the sun gilding our heads, and repeated along with father the magical fact that “All the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.” My brother and I roiled the water’s surface and were answered by waves rippling outward, and we tried to understand how all the rivers go to the sea and the sea is not full.
I’m standing beneath the streetlamp, my feet in the puddle of light, hands on my hips. Large boats and small fishing craft rock in the marina’s waters. Nearby waves shatter dully against the rocks of the breakwater. The air smells of fish guts mingled with flecks of salt the wind carries to shore. In the deepening darkness I can’t find the boat or the verse on its stern. Only thanks to my cellphone do I find mother and Herbert, who have emerged onto the deck of a shiny white boat and are now waving a flashlight at me. He smiles pleasantly and extends a trembling hand as I climb up to his bobbing home. I look at him with interest, he’s the man who was able to do what father never could – detach mother from dry land.
I follow him down into the boat. Mother’s expression is welcoming, her eyes gleam and she hugs me tightly, “This is my daughter,” she proudly says to her new partner. “I’m pleased, pleased to meet you,” Herbert repeats.
The boat rocks gently and I glance at mother surreptitiously. She looks back at me with unfamiliar confidence. Her eyes tell me everything’s fine. My mind eases, mother has found new love, everything’s fine. Mother gestures and I sit opposite her on the upholstered bench, and Herbert immediately offers hot tea or cool cocoa, whichever we prefer.
I ask mother where they’re headed.
“We’re not headed anywhere, sweetheart,” she calmly replies, “We’re not headed anywhere. Nothing’s changed as far as that’s concerned. I’m not stepping into the water. Herbert assured me the boat is securely tied to the dock, we’ve dropped anchor and the basin within the breakwater is usually smooth as butter. It’s a house, that’s all it is.”
“And I thought you’d finally gotten over that business with the kittens.”
Mother shrugs, “Why would you think that. We’re staying here, and during the winter we’ll move to his apartment in Giv’at Olga. Anyway,” her smile sparkles, “No lands remain for us to discover – “
I thank Herbert as he hands me a cup of hot tea with a charming gesture and asks whether to add a sugar cube and whether I like sailing, or whether I’m “like your mother.”
Mother sips carefully, “No, she’s not like me. I’m something special. I never sought adventure, but who knows? You only live once.”
Herbert strokes her head very gently. I examine the cup in my hand.
“You know, Herbert,” mother says, “One day I’ll find the courage and then the three of us will sail west, perhaps to Ile d’If, opposite Marseille. We could pause near the St. Jean fortress, perhaps Dantès will wave to us through the bars of his cell.”
I stare at mother in amazement. Had she been listening when father read The Count of Monte Cristo to us? I don’t remember her ever reading it.
She smiles at me encouragingly. Father’s image, tall and joyful, appears momentarily between us. Our thoughts drift to Eran who had begun, for a short while, to resemble him, until a large, returning fishing vessel chugs toward us, and as it maneuvers its way into the anchorage the water grows agitated and Herbert’s boat sways.
A striped cat I hadn’t noticed before jumps onto mother’s knees and curls up in her lap like a snail. Its half-open eyes examine me, then close again.
I hear mother ask, “Have you decided what you want to do with the house?” and I, distracted, answer “No, not yet,” thinking about my green bicycle tied to the streetlamp on the pier, and that I’ll soon have to pedal back up the long slope that led down to the marina. Perhaps I should say goodbye, and leave.
*From “A Sensitive Woman”, a collection of stories, (The fifth book by Edna Shemesh, to be published in 2019)
Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.
It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.
They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.
His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.
Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”
Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.
The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”
“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”
He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.
“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”
Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.
“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.
Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.
He roused himself. “What does he want?”
“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”
“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”
“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”
Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.
“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”
“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.
“I suppose so.”
Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.
“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”
“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”
The butler entered to announce dinner.
Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.
“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.
Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.
“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.
He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”
In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal
Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.
He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.
The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.
“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”
“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.
Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”
“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.
“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”
“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.
It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.
“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.
At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.
“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”
“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.
He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.
Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.
Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.
It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.
“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.
“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”
“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.
He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.
At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.
After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.
He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.
“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.
“Oh, yes—he came.”
“You didn’t see him, of course?”
She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”
That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.
“Ready for your coffee, dear?”
He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….
She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.
Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.
“What is the matter?” she said, startled.
“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”
“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.
Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.
Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.
The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”
Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”
“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.
“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”
“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”
“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”
Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.
Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.
“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”
Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.
“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”
“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.
The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.
The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”
Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.
“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”
“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.
Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.
“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.
“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”
“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.
In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.
Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.
“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.
For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure
“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”
Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.
Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.
“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”
Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.
“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.
The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”
Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.
“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”
Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.
“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.
Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”
Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.
“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”
The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.
When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.
“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.
The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”
She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”
Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”
She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.
In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.
“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”
She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.
Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.
Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.
Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.
In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”
Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”
“That’s different,” said Waythorn.
She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.
“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.
The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.
He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.
And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.
From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.
One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”
“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.
He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.
The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.
Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.
The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.
“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”
He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.
The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”
“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”
But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.
She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.
“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.
As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.
“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.
The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.
“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.
Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.
She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.
“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”
She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.
She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I’d wake just long enough to be angry that he’d woken me. But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast. By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother’s coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porch light. If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there. In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons. I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.
But that winter I was too concerned with my own problems to think about my father’s. I was a skinny, unathletic, sorrowful boy who had few friends, and I was in love with Molly Rasmussen, one of the prettiest girls in Glencoe and the daughter of a man who had stopped my father on Main Street that fall, cursed him, and threatened to break his face. My father had bought a used Ford Galaxie from Mr. Rasmussen’s lot, but he hadn’t been able to make the payments and eventually Mr. Rasmussen repossessed it. Without a second car my mother couldn’t get to her job at the school lunchroom, so we drove our aging Chevy to Minneapolis, where no one knew my father, and bought a rust-pitted yellow Studebaker. A few days later Molly Rasmussen passed me in the hall at school and said, “I see you’ve got a new car,” then laughed. I was so mortified I hurried into a restroom, locked myself in a stall, and stood there for several minutes, breathing hard. Even after the bell rang for the next class, I didn’t move. I was furious at my father. I blamed him for the fact that Molly despised me, just as I had for some time blamed him for everything else that was wrong with my life—my gawky looks, my discount store clothes, my lack of friends.
That night, and others like it, I lay in bed and imagined who I’d be if my mother had married someone handsome and popular like Dick Moore, the PE teacher, or Smiley Swenson, who drove stock cars at the county fair, or even Mr. Rasmussen. Years before, my mother had told me how she met my father. A girl who worked with her at Woolworth’s had asked her if she wanted to go out with a friend of her boyfriend’s, an army man just back from the war. My mother had never agreed to a blind date before, or dated an older man, but for some reason this time she said yes. Lying there, I thought about that fateful moment. It seemed so fragile— she could as easily have said no and changed everything—and I wished, then, that she had said no, I wished she’d said she didn’t date strangers or she already had a date or she was going out of town—anything to alter the chance conjunction that would eventually produce me.
I know now that there was something suicidal about my desire to undo my parentage, but then I knew only that I wanted to be someone else. And I blamed my father for that wish. If I’d had a different father, I reasoned, I would be better looking, happier, more popular. When I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s thin face, his rust-red hair, downturned mouth, and bulging Adam’s apple, I didn’t know who I hated more, him or me. That winter I began parting my hair on the right instead of the left, as my father did, and whenever the house was empty I worked on changing my voice, practicing the inflections and accents of my classmates’ fathers as if they were clues to a new life. I did not think, then, that my father knew how I felt about him, but now that I have a son of my own, a son almost as old as I was then, I know different.
If I had known what my father was going through that winter, maybe I wouldn’t have treated him so badly. But I didn’t know anything until the January morning of his breakdown. I woke that morning to the sound of voices downstairs in the kitchen. At first I thought the sound was the wind rasping in the bare branches of the cottonwood outside my window, then I thought it was the radio. But after I lay there a moment I recognized my parents’ voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew they were arguing. They’d been arguing more than usual lately, and I hated it—not so much because I wanted them to be happy, though I did, but because I knew they’d take their anger out on me, snapping at me, telling me to chew with my mouth closed, asking me who gave me permission to put my feet up on the coffee table, ordering me to clean my room. I buried one ear in my pillow and covered the other with my blankets, but I could still hear them. They sounded distant, yet somehow close, like the sea crashing in a shell held to the ear. But after a while I couldn’t hear even the muffled sound of their voices, and I sat up in the bars of gray light slanting through the blinds and listened to the quiet. I didn’t know what was worse: their arguments or their silences. I sat there, barely breathing, waiting for some noise.
Finally I heard the back door bang shut and, a moment later, the Chevy cough to life. Only then did I dare get out of bed. Crossing to the window, I raised one slat of the blinds with a finger and saw, in the dim light, the driveway drifted shut with snow. Then my father came out of the garage and began shoveling, scooping the snow furiously and flinging it over his shoulder, as if each shovelful were a continuation of the argument. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew that it was red and that he was probably cursing under his breath. As he shoveled, the wind scuffed the drifts around him, swirling the snow into his eyes, but he didn’t stop or set his back to the wind. He just kept shoveling fiercely, and suddenly it occurred to me that he might have a heart attack, just as my friend Rob’s father had the winter before. For an instant I saw him slump over his shovel, then collapse face-first into the snow. As soon as this thought came to me, I did my best to convince myself that it arose from love and terror, but even then I knew part of me wished his death, and that knowledge went through me like a chill.
I lowered the slat on the blinds and got back into bed. The house was quiet but not peaceful. I knew that somewhere in the silence my mother was crying and I thought about going to comfort her, but I didn’t. After a while I heard my father rev the engine and back the Chevy down the driveway. Still I didn’t get up. And when my mother finally came to tell me it was time to get ready, her eyes and nose red and puffy, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. Normally she would have felt my forehead and cross-examined me about my symptoms, but that day I knew she’d be too upset to bother. “Okay, Danny,” she said. “Call me if you think you need to see a doctor.” And that was it. She shut the door and a few minutes later I heard the whine of the Studebaker’s cold engine, and then she was gone.
It wasn’t long after my mother left that my father came home. I was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV when I heard a car pull into the driveway. At first I thought my mother had changed her mind and come back to take me to school. But then the back door sprang open and I heard him. It was a sound I had never heard before, and since have heard only in my dreams, a sound that will make me sit up in the thick dark, my eyes open to nothing and my breath panting. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it was a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues. It sounded as if he were crying and talking at the same time, and in some strange way his words had become half-sobs and his sobs something more than words—or words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through. It scared me. I knew something terrible had happened, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to him and ask what was wrong, but I didn’t dare. I switched off the sound on the TV so he wouldn’t know I was home and sat there staring at the actors mouthing their lines. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. There, in the middle of the room, wearing his Goodyear jacket and work clothes, was my father. He was on his hands and knees, his head hanging as though it were too heavy to support, and he was rocking back and forth and babbling in a rhythmic stutter. It’s funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw him like that was the way he used to give me rides on his back, when I was little, bucking and neighing like a horse. And as soon as I thought it, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. “Dad?” I said. “What’s wrong?” But he didn’t hear me. I went over to him then. “Dad?” I said again, and touched him on the shoulder. He jerked at the touch and looked up at me, his lips moving but no sounds coming out of them now. His forehead was knotted and his eyes were red, almost raw-looking. He swallowed hard and for the first time spoke words I could recognize, though I did not understand them until years later, when I was myself a father.
“Danny,” he said. “Save me.”
Before I could finish dialing the school lunchroom’s number, my mother pulled into the driveway. Looking out the window, I saw her jump out of the car and run up the slick sidewalk, her camel- colored overcoat open and flapping in the wind. For a moment I was confused. Had I already called her? How much time had passed since I found my father on the kitchen floor? A minute? An hour? Then I realized that someone else must have told her something was wrong.
She burst in the back door then and called out, “Bill? Bill? Are you here?”
“Mom,” I said, “Dad’s—” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
She came in the kitchen without stopping to remove her galoshes. “Oh, Bill,” she said when she saw us, “are you all right?”
My father was sitting at the kitchen table now, his hands fluttering in his lap. A few moments before, I had helped him to his feet and, draping his arm over my shoulders, led him to the table like a wounded man.
“Helen,” he said. “It’s you.” He said it as if he hadn’t seen her for years.
My mother went over and knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but whether that statement was born of sorrow over something she had said or done or whether she just simply and guiltlessly wished he weren’t suffering, I never knew. Taking his hands in hers, she added, “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s going to be fine.” Then she turned to me. Her brown hair was wind-blown, and her face was so pale the smudges of rouge on her cheeks looked like bruises. “Danny,” she said, “I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes.”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes and tight lips. “Okay,” I said, and went back to the living room. There, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the television, the actors’ mouths moving wordlessly, their laughs eerily silent. I could hear my parents talking, their steady murmur broken from time to time by my father sobbing and my mother saying “Bill” over and over, in the tone mothers use to calm their babies, but I couldn’t hear enough of what they said to know what had happened. And I didn’t want to know either. I wanted them to be as silent as the people on the TV, I wanted all the words to stop, all the crying.
I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to drive the picture of my father on the kitchen floor out of my head. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my pulse tick in my throat. I was worried about my father but I was also angry that he was acting so strange. It didn’t seem fair that I had to have a father like that. I’d never seen anybody else’s father act that way, not even in a movie.
Outside, the wind shook the evergreens and every now and then a gust would rattle the windowpane. I lay there a long time, listening to the wind, until my heart stopped beating so hard.
Some time later, my mother came into the room and sat on the edge of the chair under the sunburst mirror. Her forehead was creased, and there were black mascara streaks on her cheeks. Leaning toward me, her hands clasped, she bit her lip, then said, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.” Her breath snagged on the last word, and I could hear her swallowing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She opened her mouth as if she were about to answer, but suddenly her eyes began to tear. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “After the doctor’s come. Just don’t worry, okay? I’ll explain everything.”
“The doctor?” I said.
“I’ll explain later,” she answered.
Then she left and I didn’t hear anything more until ten or fifteen minutes had passed and the doorbell rang. My mother ran to the door and opened it, and I heard her say, “Thank you for coming so quickly. He’s in the kitchen.” As they hurried down the hall past the living room, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Lewis and his black leather bag. It had been years since the doctors in our town, small as it was, made house calls, so I knew now that my father’s problem was something truly serious. The word emergency came into my mind, and though I tried to push it out, it kept coming back.
For the next half hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
It wasn’t until after Dr. Lewis had left and my father had taken the tranquilizers and gone upstairs to bed that my mother came back into the living room, sat down on the couch beside me, and told me what had happened. “Your father,” she began, and her voice cracked. Then she controlled herself and said, “Your father has been fired from his job.”
I looked at her. “Is that it?” I said. “That’s what all this fuss is about?” I couldn’t believe he’d put us through all this for something so unimportant. All he had to do was get a new job. What was the big deal?
“Let me explain,” my mother said. “He was fired some time ago. Ten days ago, to be exact. But he hadn’t said anything to me about it, and he just kept on getting up and going down to work every morning, like nothing had happened. And every day Mr. Siverhus told him to leave, and after arguing a while, he’d go. Then he’d spend the rest of the day driving around until quitting time, when he’d finally come home. But Mr. Siverhus got fed up and changed the locks, and when your father came to work today he couldn’t get in. He tried all three entrances, and when he found his key didn’t work in any of them, well, he threw a trash barrel through the showroom window and went inside.”
She paused for a moment, I think to see how I was taking this. I was trying to picture my father throwing a barrel through that huge, expensive window. It wasn’t easy to imagine. Even at his most angry, he had never been violent. He had never even threatened to hit me or my mother. But now he’d broken a window, and the law.
My mother went on. “Then when he was inside, he found that Mr. Siverhus had changed the lock on his office too, so he kicked the door in. When Mr. Siverhus came to work, he found your dad sitting at his desk, going over service accounts.” Her lips started to tremble. “He could have called the police,” she said, “but he called me instead. We owe him for that.”
That’s the story my mother told me. Though I was to find out later that she hadn’t told me the entire truth, she had told me enough of it to make me realize that my father had gone crazy. Something in him—whatever slender idea or feeling it is that connects us to the world—had broken, and he was not in the world anymore, he was outside it, horribly outside it, and could not get back in no matter how he tried. Somehow I knew this, even then. And I wondered if someday the same thing would happen to me.
The rest of that day, I stayed downstairs, watching TV or reading Sports Illustrated or Life, while my father slept or rested. My mother sat beside his bed, reading her ladies magazines while he slept and talking to him whenever he woke, and every now and then she came downstairs to tell me he was doing fine. She spoke as if he had some temporary fever, some twenty-four-hour virus, that would be gone by morning.
But the next morning, a Saturday, my father was still not himself. He didn’t feel like coming down for breakfast, so she made him scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast and took it up to him on a tray. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, but when she came back down awhile later all the food was still on the tray. She didn’t say anything about the untouched meal; she just said my father wanted to talk to me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m eating.” I had one sausage patty and a few bites of scrambled egg left on my plate.
“Not this minute,” she said. “When you’re done.”
I looked out the window. It had been snowing all morning, and the evergreens in the backyard looked like flocked Christmas trees waiting for strings of colored lights. Some sparrows were flying in and out of the branches, chirping, and others were lined up on the crossbars of the clothesline poles, their feathers fluffed out and blowing in the wind.
“I’m supposed to meet Rob at his house,” I lied. “I’ll be late.”
“Danny,” she said, in a way that warned me not to make her say any more.
“All right,” I said, and I shoved my plate aside and got up. “But I don’t have much time.”
Upstairs, I stopped at my father’s closed door. Normally I would have walked right in, but that day I felt I should knock. I felt as if I were visiting a stranger. Even his room—I didn’t think of it as belonging to my mother anymore—seemed strange, somehow separate from the rest of the house.
When I knocked, my father said, “Is that you, Danny?” and I stepped inside. All the blinds were shut, and the dim air smelled like a thick, musty mixture of hair tonic and Aqua Velva. My father was sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, wearing his old brown robe, nubbled from years of washings, and maroon corduroy slippers. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were dark and pouched.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me,” I said.
He touched a spot next to him on the bed. “Here. Sit down.”
I didn’t move. “I’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked away. For a moment we were silent, and I could hear the heat register ticking.
“I just wanted to tell you to take good care of your mother,” he said then.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What do you mean?”
He looked back at me, his gaze steady and empty, and I wondered how much of the way he was that moment was his medication and how much himself. “She needs someone to take care of her,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going to take care of her anymore?”
He cleared his throat again. “If I can.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why are you doing this to us? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he answered. “That’s the problem. Not a thing is going on.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t like it when you say things I can’t understand.”
“I don’t like it either,” he said. Then he added: “That wasn’t me yesterday. I want you to know that.”
“It sure looked like you. If it wasn’t you, who was it then?”
He stood up and walked across the carpet to the window. But he didn’t open the blinds; he just stood there, his back to me. “It’s all right for you to be mad,” he said.
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t lie, Danny.”
“I’m not lying. I just like my father to use the English language when he talks to me, that’s all.”
For a long moment he was quiet. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten I was in the room. Then he said, “My grandmother used to tell me there were exactly as many stars in the sky as there were people. If someone was born, there’d be a new star in the sky that night, and you could find it if you looked hard enough. And if someone died, you’d see that person’s star fall.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“People,” he answered. “Stars.”
Then he just stood there, staring at the blinds. I wondered if he was seeing stars there, or his grandmother, or what. And all of a sudden I felt my throat close up and my eyes start to sting. I was surprised—a moment before I’d been so angry, but now I was almost crying.
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what was wrong, so I could know how to feel about it; I wanted to be sad or angry, either one, but not both at the same time. “What happened?” I finally said. “Tell me.”
He turned, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, because he didn’t answer for a long time. And when he did, he seemed to be answering some other question, one I hadn’t asked.
“I was so arrogant,” he said. “I thought my life would work out.”
I stood there looking at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he said. “I hope to God you never do.”
“Quit talking like that.”
“Like you’re so smart and everything. Like you’re above all of this when it’s you that’s causing it all.”
He looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly.
“Well?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
He looked up. “You’re a good boy, Danny. I’m proud of you. I wish I could be a better father for you.”
I hesitate now to say what I said next. But then I didn’t hesitate.
“So do I,” I said bitterly. “So the hell do I.” And I turned to leave.
“Danny, wait,” my father said.
But I didn’t wait. And when I shut the door, I shut it hard.
Two days later, after he took to fits of weeping and laughing, we drove my father to the VA hospital in Minneapolis. Dr. Lewis had already called the hospital and made arrangements for his admission, so we were quickly escorted to his room on the seventh floor, where the psychiatric patients were kept. I had expected the psych ward to be a dreary, prisonlike place with barred doors and gray, windowless walls, but if anything, it was cheerier than the rest of the hospital. There were sky blue walls in the hallway, hung here and there with watercolor landscapes the patients had painted, and sunny yellow walls in the rooms, and there was a brightly lit lounge with a TV, card tables, and a shelf full of board games, and even a crafts center where the patients could do decoupage, leatherwork, mosaics, and macramé. And the patients we saw looked so normal that I almost wondered whether we were in the right place. Most of them were older, probably veterans of the First World War, but a few were my father’s age or younger. The old ones were the friendliest, nodding their bald heads or waving their liver-spotted hands as we passed, but even those who only looked at us seemed pleasant or, at the least, not hostile.
I was relieved by what I saw but evidently my father was not, for his eyes still had the quicksilver shimmer of fear they’d had all during the drive from Glencoe. He sat stiffly in the wheelchair and looked at the floor passing between his feet as the big-boned nurse pushed him down the hall toward his room.
We were lucky, the nurse told us, chatting away in a strange accent, which I later learned was Czech. There had been only one private room left, and my father had gotten it. And it had a lovely view of the hospital grounds. Sometimes she herself would stand in front of that window and watch the snow fall on the birches and park benches. It was such a beautiful sight. She asked my father if that didn’t sound nice, but he didn’t answer.
Then she wheeled him into the room and parked the chair beside the white, starched-looking bed. My father hadn’t wanted to sit in the chair when we checked him in at the admissions desk, but now he didn’t show any desire to get out of it.
“Well, what do you think of your room, Mr. Conroy?” the nurse asked. My mother stood beside her, a handkerchief squeezed in her hand.
My father looked at the chrome railing on the bed, the stainless steel tray beside it, and the plastic-sealed water glasses on the tray. Then he looked at my mother and me.
“I suppose it’s where I should be,” he said.
During the five weeks my father was in the hospital, my mother drove to Minneapolis twice a week to visit him. Despite her urgings, I refused to go with her. I wanted to forget about my father, to erase him from my life. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her I couldn’t stand to see him in that awful place, and she felt sorry for me and let me stay home. But almost every time she came back, she’d have a gift for me from him: a postcard of Minnehaha Falls decoupaged onto a walnut plaque, a leather billfold with my initials burned into the cover, a belt decorated with turquoise and white beads. And a request: would I come see him that weekend? But I never went.
Glencoe was a small town, and like all small towns it was devoted to gossip. I knew my classmates had heard about my father—many of them had no doubt driven past Goodyear to see the broken window the way they’d drive past a body shop to see a car that had been totaled—but only Rob said anything. When he asked what had happened, I told him what Dr. Lewis had told me, that my father was just overworked and exhausted. Rob didn’t believe me any more than I believed Dr. Lewis, but he pretended to accept that explanation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him more for that pretense, or less.
It took a couple of weeks for the gossip to reach me. One day during lunch Rob told me that Todd Knutson, whose father was a mechanic at Goodyear, was telling everybody my father had been fired for embezzling. “I know it’s a dirty lie,” Rob said, “but some kids think he’s telling the truth, so you’d better do something.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Tell them the truth. Set the record straight.”
I looked at my friend’s earnest, acne-scarred face. As soon as he’d told me the rumor, I’d known it was true, and in my heart I had already convicted my father. But I didn’t want my best friend to know that. Perhaps I was worried that he would turn against me too and I’d be completely alone.
“You bet I will,” I said. “I’ll make him eat those words.”
But I had no intention of defending my father. I was already planning to go see Mr. Siverhus right after school and ask him, straight out, for the truth, so I could confront my father with the evidence and shame him the way he had shamed me. I was furious with him for making me even more of an outcast than I had been—I was the son of a criminal now—and I wanted to make him pay for it. All during my afternoon classes, I imagined going to see him at the hospital and telling him I knew his secret. He’d deny it at first, I was sure, but as soon as he saw I knew everything, he’d confess. He’d beg my forgiveness, swearing he’d never do anything to embarrass me or my mother again, but nothing he could say would make any difference— I’d just turn and walk away. And if I were called into court to testify against him, I’d take the stand and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my eyes steady on him all the while, watching him sit there beside his lawyer, his head hung, speechless.
I was angry at my mother too, because she hadn’t told me everything. But I didn’t realize until that afternoon, when I drove down to Goodyear to see Mr. Siverhus, just how much she hadn’t told me.
Mr. Siverhus was a tall, silver-haired man who looked more like a banker than the manager of a tire store. He was wearing a starched white shirt, a blue-and-gray striped tie with a silver tie tack, and iridescent sharkskin trousers, and when he shook my hand he smiled so hard his crow’s-feet almost hid his eyes. He led me into his small but meticulous office, closing the door on the smell of grease and the noise of impact wrenches removing lugs from wheels, and I blurted out my question before either of us even sat down.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My mother,” I answered. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me if he thought my mother had already told me the truth. Then I asked him again: “Is it true?”
Mr. Siverhus didn’t answer right away. Instead, he gestured toward a chair opposite his gray metal desk and waited until I sat in it. Then he pushed some carefully stacked papers aside, sat on the edge of the desk, and asked me how my father was doing. I didn’t really know—my mother kept saying he was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her. Still, I said, “Fine.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I’m really terribly sorry about everything that’s happened. I hope you and your mother know that.”
He wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. Standing up, he wandered over to the gray file cabinet and looked out the window at the showroom, where the new tires and batteries were on display. He sighed, and I knew he didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“What your mother told you is true,” he said then. “Bill was taking money. Not much, you understand, but enough that it soon became obvious we had a problem. After some investigating, we found out he was the one. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Your father had been a loyal and hardworking employee for years, and he was the last person I would’ve expected to be stealing from us. But when we confronted him with it, he admitted it. He’d been having trouble making his mortgage payments, he said, and in a weak moment he’d taken some money and, later on, a little more. He seemed genuinely sorry about it and he swore he’d pay back every cent, so we gave him another chance.”
“But he did it again, didn’t he?” I said.
I don’t know if Mr. Siverhus noticed the anger shaking my voice or not. He just looked at me and let out a slow breath. “Yes,” he said sadly. “He did. And so I had to fire him. I told him we wouldn’t prosecute if he returned the money, and he promised he would.”
Then he went behind his desk and sat down heavily in his chair. “I hope you understand.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He leaned over the desk toward me. “I appreciate that,” he said. “You don’t know how badly I’ve felt about all of this. I keep thinking that maybe I should have handled it differently. I don’t know, when I think that he might have taken his life because of this, well, I—”
“Taken his life?” I interrupted.
Mr. Siverhus sat back in his chair. “Your mother didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second. I felt as if something had broken loose in my chest and risen into my throat, making it hard to breathe, to think.
“I assumed you knew,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I think you’d better talk to your mother about this, Danny. I don’t think I should be the one to tell you.”
“I need to know,” I said.
Mr. Siverhus looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Very well. But you have to realize that your father was under a lot of stress. I’m sure that by the time he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be back to normal, and you won’t ever have to worry about him getting like that again.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted him to go on.
Mr. Siverhus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I came to work that morning and found your father in his office, he had a gun in his hand. A revolver. At first, I thought he was going to shoot me. But then he put it up to his own head. I tell you, I was scared. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘that’s not the answer.’ And then I just kept talking. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get him to put the gun down. Then he left, and that’s when I called your mother.”
I must have had a strange look on my face because the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t all right. I felt woozy, as if I’d just discovered another world inside this one, a world that made this one false. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could stand up. Then I did.
“Thank you, Mr. Siverhus,” I said, and reached out to shake his hand. I wanted to say more but there was nothing to say. I turned and left.
Outside in the parking lot, I stood beside the Chevy, looking at the new showroom window and breathing in the cold. I was thinking how, only a few months before, I had been looking through my father’s dresser for his old army uniform, which I wanted to wear to Rob’s Halloween party, and I’d found the revolver tucked under his dress khakis in the bottom drawer. My father had always been full of warnings—don’t mow the lawn barefoot, never go swimming in a river, always drive defensively— but he had never even mentioned he owned this gun, much less warned me not to touch it. I wondered why, and I held the gun up to the light, as if I could somehow see through it to an understanding of its meaning. But I couldn’t—or at least I refused to believe that I could—and I put it back exactly where I found it and never mentioned it to anyone.
I didn’t tell my mother what I had learned from Mr. Siverhus, and I didn’t tell anyone else either. After dinner that night I went straight to my room and stayed there. I wanted to be alone, to figure things out, but the more I thought, the more I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if it was starting already, if I was already going crazy like my father, because I wasn’t sure who I was or what I felt. It had been a long time since I’d prayed, but that night I prayed that when I woke the next day everything would make sense again.
But the next morning I was still in a daze. Everything seemed so false, so disconnected from the real world I had glimpsed the day before, that I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. At school, the chatter of my classmates sounded as meaningless as my father’s babble, and everything I saw seemed out of focus, distorted, the way things do just before you faint. Walking down the hall, I saw Todd Knutson standing by his locker, talking with Bonnie Zempel, a friend of Molly Rasmussen’s, and suddenly I found myself walking up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, I hadn’t planned anything, and when I shoved Todd against his locker, it surprised me as much as it did him.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said to him. “My father died last night.” I’m not sure I can explain it now, but in a way I believed what I was saying, and my voice shook with a genuine grief.
Todd slowly lowered his fists. “What?” he said, and looked quickly at Bonnie’s startled, open face.
“He had cancer,” I said, biting down on the word to keep my mind from whirling. “A tumor on his brain. That’s why he did the things he did, taking that money and breaking that window and everything. He couldn’t help it.”
And then my grief was too much for me, and I turned and strode down the hall, tears coming into my eyes. I waited until I was around the corner and out of their sight, then I started running, as fast as I could. Only then did I come back into the world and wonder what I had done.
That afternoon, my mother appeared at the door of my algebra class in her blue uniform and black hair net. At first I thought she was going to embarrass me by waving at me, as she often did when she happened to pass one of my classrooms, but then I saw the look on her face. “Excuse me, Mr. Laughlin,” she said grimly, “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but I need to speak with my son for a moment.”
Mr. Laughlin turned his dour face from the blackboard, his stick of chalk suspended in mid-calculation, and said, “Certainly, Mrs. Conroy. I hope there’s nothing the matter.”
“No,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But out in the hall, she slapped my face hard.
“How dare you say your father is dead,” she said through clenched teeth. Her gray eyes were flinty and narrow.
“I didn’t,” I answered.
She raised her hand and slapped me again, even harder this time.
“Don’t you lie to me, Daniel.”
I started to cry. “Well, I wish he was,” I said. “I wish he was dead, so all of this could be over.”
My mother raised her hand again, but then she let it fall. “Go,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t bear to look at you another minute.”
I went back into the classroom and sat down. I felt awful about hurting my mother, but not so awful that I wasn’t worried whether my classmates had heard her slap me or noticed my burning cheek. I saw them looking at me and shaking their heads, heard them whispering and laughing under their breath, and I stood up, my head roiling, and asked if I could be excused.
Mr. Laughlin looked at me. Then, without even asking what was wrong, he wrote out a pass to the nurse’s office and handed it to me. As I left the room, I heard him say to the class, “That’s enough. If I hear one more remark . . .”
Later, lying on a cot in the nurse’s office, my hands folded over my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined I was dead and my parents and classmates were kneeling before my open coffin, their heads bowed in mourning.
After that day, my mother scheduled meetings for me with Father Ondahl, our priest, and Mr. Jenseth, the school counselor. She said she hoped they could help me through this difficult time, then added, “Obviously, I can’t.” I saw Father Ondahl two or three times, and as soon as I assured him that I still had my faith, though I did not, he said I’d be better off just seeing Mr. Jenseth from then on. I saw Mr. Jenseth three times a week for the next month, then once a week for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure how those meetings helped, or even if they did. All I know is that, in time, my feelings about my father, and about myself, changed.
My mother continued her visits to my father, but she no longer asked me to go along with her, and when she came home from seeing him, she waited until I asked before she’d tell me how he was. I wondered whether she’d told him I was seeing a counselor, and why, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wondered if she’d ever forgive me for my terrible lie.
Then one day, without telling me beforehand, she returned from Minneapolis with my father. “Danny,” she called, and I came out of the living room and saw them in the entryway. My father was stamping the snow off his black wingtips, and he had a suitcase in one hand and a watercolor of our house in the other, the windows yellow with light and a thin swirl of gray smoke rising from the red brick chimney. He looked pale and even thinner than I remembered. I was so surprised to see him, all I could say was, “You’re home.”
“That’s right,” he said, and put down the suitcase and painting. “The old man’s back.” Then he tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. I knew he wanted me to hug him and say how happy I was to see him, and part of me wanted to do that, too. But I didn’t. I just shook his hand as I would have an uncle’s or a stranger’s, then picked up the painting and looked at it.
“This is nice,” I said. “Real nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he answered.
And then we just stood there until my mother said, “Well, let’s get you unpacked, dear, and then we can all sit down and talk.” Despite everything that had happened, our life together after that winter was relatively peaceful. My father got a job at Firestone, and though for years he barely made enough to meet expenses, eventually he worked his way up to assistant manager and earned a good living. He occasionally lost his temper and succumbed to self-pity as he always had, but for the rest of his life, he was as normal and sane as anybody. Perhaps Dr. Lewis had been right after all, and all my father had needed was a good rest. In any case, by the time I was grown and married myself, his breakdown seemed a strange and impossible dream and I wondered, as I watched him play with my infant son, if I hadn’t imagined some of it. It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.
But of course it had not mended entirely, as my life had also not mended entirely. There was a barrier between us, the thin but indestructible memory of what we had been to each other that winter. I was never sure just how much he knew about the way I’d felt about him then, or even whether my mother had told him my lie about his death, but I knew he was aware that I hadn’t been a good son. Perhaps the barrier between us could have been broken with a single word—the word love or its synonym forgive—but as if by mutual pact we never spoke of that difficult winter or its consequences.
Only once did we come close to discussing it. He and my mother had come to visit me and my family in Minneapolis, and we had just finished our Sunday dinner. Caroline and my mother were clearing the table, Sam was playing on the kitchen floor with the dump truck my parents had bought him for his birthday, and my father and I were sitting in the living room watching “Sixty Minutes.” The black pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas was talking to Morley Safer about “the Spirit that descends upon us and inhabits our hearts.” Then the camera cut to a black woman standing in the midst of a clapping congregation, her eyes tightly closed and her face glowing with sweat as she rocked back and forth, speaking the incoherent language of angels or demons. Her syllables rose and fell, then mounted in a syntax of spiraling rapture until finally, overcome by the voice that had spoken through her, she sank to her knees, trembling, her eyes open and glistening. The congregation clapped harder then, some of them leaping and dancing as if their bodies were lifted by the collapse of hers, and they yelled, “Praise God!” and “Praise the Lord God Almighty!”
I glanced at my father, who sat watching this with a blank face, and wondered what he was thinking. Then, when the camera moved to another Pentecostal minister discussing a transcript of the woman’s speech, a transcript he claimed contained variations on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words she couldn’t possibly have known, I turned to him and asked, in a hesitant way, whether he wanted to keep watching or change channels.
My father’s milky blue eyes looked blurred, as if he were looking at something a long way off, and he cleared his throat before he spoke. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Do you want to watch it?”
I paused. Then I said, “No,” and changed the channel.
Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day he put a gun to his head and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for a while, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
“Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!!” was the incessant cry of our stepmother Sophie. It was the command that drove our household. She was a slight woman with a turned-up nose and a perky hairdo and the figure of a former Miss Alabama, which she was. She smoked Salems from dawn to dusk. We thought we could outlast her because of that, we thought that cancer would take her before she could claim our hearts. In this we were only partially correct. In the meantime, the ferocious bellow that issued forth from that perfect suburban figure was itself enough to sting us all into immediate and unconsidered action, no matter what our chosen field. It did not matter to Sophie whether our pursuits were intellectual or physical. Achievement was the bottom line.
There were seven of us. The tail-end of the family was dominated by two sets of twins, born just twelve months apart. The Quinns, the three of us called them. We did not think of the nickname as reductive. They were all boys, dark-haired and thin and grubby. They ran through the neighborhood like looters. They ran through our house like Tasmanian Devils, a whirl of teeth and limbs. Even in their sleep they ran, twitching their legs like wild dogs and barking to each other in their alien Quinn language. The content of their conversations: unknown. Supposition: sinister in intent. They had no mother until Sophie, who invaded the family unit when they were four. They had no memory of a mother to dictate their loyalties. Sophie trained them like laboratory monkeys. All of them athletes, all of them fierce and wild and beautiful. Lost to us. Winners.
Their sport was soccer. Sophie taught it to them, in the backyard. She dressed up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt and pulled her hair back in a ponytail and put on a sweatband. Even when she was playing goalie she kept her Salems handy, lighting one after another, flicking the ashes in the short green grass. The Quinns wore their jeans at first; later, as they grew, black silky shorts and long-sleeved jerseys and cleats and bright blue knee-length socks. Sophie dribbled the ball around the yard and kept it from the Quinns, who raced and tripped after her. She played goalie by the side of the house, and the Quinns took turns shooting, trying to score on her. They spent hours out there in the backyard, even after the Quinns were teenagers and too big for her and too good as well. It’s a time-lapse movie, this memory of the Quinns, starting out as blue-jeaned ruffians and growing tall and graceful and colorful, until at the end they are big enough and strong enough to hoist her up on their shoulders and carry her in a ceremonial lap around the yard, the chant, the cry, rising up to the closed windows on the second floor: “Win, win, win, win, win, win, WIN!!!”
The status of the Quinns, present-day: halved. One of the younger Quinns dead of a heart episode at the age of twenty-five; one of the elder Quinns blown up in a late-night car wreck. The surviving Quinns are rarely seen: glimpsed once a year at Christmas with their own wild children and wild-haired wives gathered around the Christmas tree. Greetings from our families to yours. An unthinking gesture: the rest of us have no families, none but the one we fled.
The eldest of us was George. He was the one who carried the soul of the Real Mother. She was alive in his memory and his face, which was long and thin and fiercely gentle. Just like hers.
He was the one who had the stories of her. George was the one who knew best the last story about her. The last story about the Real Mother. How the youngest of the Quinns started crying together in the middle of the day and then the older ones joined in. Their howling filled the house. The Real Mother was in the bathtub. It was the first bath she’d allowed herself in many many months. Her hair was up in the shower cap. The one with the blue flowers printed on it. She heard the howling Quinns. We all heard the thundering Quinns. George was nine and he was outside in the yard playing on the monkey bars and he heard their yowl. He ran in because it went on so long and he ran upstairs to the crib-room which was down the hall from our room, next to Mother and Father’s room. The Quinns were lined up in their cribs, four red faces surrounded by light blue blankets. The room a cacophony. So loud George did not hear the thud. The thud she made. Downstairs. In the bathroom on the floor she lay on the watery tiles and would not get up. Who found her? We all did. We all went in there from wherever we were playing, all three of us. All but the Quinns. She had slipped on a water-toy before she could even get a towel to cover her and we all saw her. We all saw everything. The rest of it was just crying. That was the last story but only George was allowed to tell it.
George was crafty and brilliant. He was the brains of the family. He was the memory. His plot was simple: agree to everything Sophie suggested, pretend to accept her, and keep our hearts our own. He made straight A’s all through high school, and all through college, and we trusted everything about him. He was fastidious. He was carefully organized. He kept notecards on everything that Sophie did that was terrible, or different from what the Real Mother would have done. DOES NOT MAKE A HOSPITAL TUCK. ALWAYS BULLYING FOR BETTER GRADES. DRIVES TOO FAST. CANNOT CARRY A TUNE. He was the only one of us who could remember the Real Mother in enough detail to know when betrayal occurred.
Status of George, present-day: a short-order cook at the Waffle House. A genius at it. The waitresses write nothing down. He does the pancakes and the bacon and the waffles and the sausage and the scrambled, poached, fried and hardboiled eggs simultaneously. Economically. He is perfectly organized. He keeps the shouted orders in his head and blots out everything else and so is perfectly happy.
Janet was the next oldest, and she had her own stories, which she did not tell George. George was not a part of these stories which were secrets. One of the secrets was the secret of kissing glass. One of these secrets was the secret of the month. One of these secrets was the secret of the turtle. One of these secrets was the list of boys. One of these secrets was the Real Mother’s song, which had no words. One of these secrets was the shriek of colors. These were the secrets she told in the five motherless years. They were secrets from the Quinns and Father and George and when Sophie came they were secrets from her. Janet was the ugly one with all of the knowing. She was not ugly but she thought she was. She thought this because she was short, and because she had hair on her forearms which everyone always looked at immediately. “You’re the beautiful one,” she said. “You’re the one with the beautiful hair.” But it was not true, not really. When Sophie came she said the same thing, and then we knew that it could not be true.
Sophie spent hours fixing Janet’s hair, and showing her how to use makeup, and what kind of clothes to wear, and what her Best Colors are. Then Janet knew that she was the ugly one. Then the world became a place filled with mirrors. George wrote this down on a notecard. But Sophie talked to Janet, too, in ways that no one else would talk to her. She told her that looks were not everything, that minds and work and words could be more important. George knew that the secret message in everything Sophie told Janet was that she was ugly, and he made sure that Janet could always recognize the subtext of every conversation.
Janet’s Status: Doctor. Unmarried. Lonely. Alcoholic? In pictures she looks wild-eyed in her white coat, caught by surprise, a doe in headlights. The white coat is not purity. It is competence. The stethoscope around her neck is dark and silent, repelled by the heart.
Our father revealed a hidden talent for pet names after he married Sophie. “Come here, my little spider monkey,” we heard him heavy-breathing on some thundery nights. Was it always raining in those days, or is that a distortion of memory? Our father: “Come say hello to your organ grinder.” The Quinns: barking in Martian. Us: silent. Listening. Hardening in our beds like loaves of bread left out and forgotten. The names: Spider-Monkey. Organ Grinder. Cantaloupe. Beautiful. Daphne. Apollo. Jekyll. Hyde. And the sounds: Bark, bark, bark. Mew and mewl. Fish on the rocks. Loons in the water. Geese in the air. Bark and mewl and slap, slap, slap. What they do is love and it is not terror. Thunder rocked the house. We heard nothing. We heard nothing at all.
Can we doubt that our father loved her? In no way. It was a hard thing to reconcile with George’s notecards. George wanted to write down a special card for that: HAS BRAINWASHED OUR FATHER. But this did not seem right. He was so much happier than he had been in the years without a mother. He did not drink any more. He whistled, and we had never known that he could. He brought friends to dinner. He took us out to movies once a week. He started touching all of us again. If he was brainwashed, then it had been done in a way that made him happy. George was enraged. “Every time he kisses her, he forgets about where we came from. But we never will.” So the card that went into the file read : MAKES FATHER FORGET. He kept the cards all of the years he lived in the house, even when he was older, in high school, and should have known better. WEARS TOO-TIGHT SWEATERS. LIES ABOUT LOVE. TOUCHES HERSELF. MARRIED FOR MONEY. FLIRTS WITH OTHER MEN. DREAMS OUR DEATHS. He never relented. He made us read them. He never let us forget. We thought when he graduated from high school and went off to college that that was the end, that he had burned them, or shredded them, or buried them. In this, too, we were mistaken.
Status of our father: he remembers everything, and he will not forgive us. He has lost two wives and two children and the rest of us he has excised from his daily life. But he remembers. He still lives in the house. He has kept everything as it was. He remembers it all. He plots against us. His is the spirit of wrathful revenge.
One afternoon when all of us were supposed to still be at school, Sophie took out her high school cheerleader outfit. She put it on. It was not even tight anywhere, it still fit her perfectly. She had long since lost the pom-poms. In the short red skirt and the red sweater with the big T bisecting her chest, she rummaged through a trunk full of her old things. She had pictures of herself on the eve that she was crowned Miss Alabama, and in her graduation gown. These were framed but had never been hung on our walls. Also framed were her diplomas: high school and her B.A from the University of Alabama. She took these, and packets of old love letters from a half a dozen men, and playbills from productions she had starred in, and she spread them all out on the kitchen table. She did a little cheer then. “Win, win, win, win, win, win, win!” She heard the click of the kitchen door. She looked up. “Oh,” she said. She looked very young, and so obviously embarrassed that she was one of us. “You didn’t see that,” she said. “You weren’t even here. What are you doing home so early?” So it was a secret, just between the two of us. It was not shared with Janet or George. It was a secret that could have changed things, but didn’t.
Status: another body on the 34th floor of a building wrapped in reflective glass. Secretary/typist. Days spent with earphones strapped like electrodes to the head, transcribing meetings and minutes, secrets and plans. Nights spent in a box-room five minutes from the glass building. Walk to and from work past the million passive faces. Ears burn with words and words and words and words.
This spring Sophie died of cancer. Two of the Quinns were already dead; we were no strangers to death. But we wished this into being. It was terrible. When the cancer came she rode it fast; she was dead not two weeks after the diagnosis.
We came back for the funeral. It was afterwards that our father approached us, in the cemetery.
“I found your notecards,” he said to George. Nose to nose. Spittle and tears. “I found them in her things. You bastard, you killed her. You robbed her of every happiness. You are no children of mine. You were no children of hers.”
Sunlight fell upon us like a curse. The priest led my father away. George looked at both of us.
He knew what he was doing. He knew what he was doing when he left them there for her, like a bomb in the bottom of a dresser drawer. We didn’t know. We thought he’d thrown them away, perhaps taken them with him.
But that was not the worst thing we did not know. It was what he said to us next:
“I don’t remember anything about her. Our real mother. I don’t remember how she dressed or what her voice sounded like. I don’t remember a single lullaby. I never did. I tried, but the only thing I could ever remember was her lying there dead.” He shrugged. He turned away.
We are impoverished of spirit, all of us. There is nothing more to disclose.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Geoff Schmidt from Out of Time
I thought that Mr. Purnell was a little young to be a funeral director, but he had the look down cold. In the instant between his warm, dry handshake and my taking my hand back to remove my winter hat and stuff it into my pocket, he assumed the look, a kind of concerned, knowing sympathy that suggested he’d weathered plenty of grief in his day and he was there to help you get through your own. He gestured me onto an oatmeal-colored wool sofa and pulled his wheeled office chair around to face me. I hung my coat over the sofa arm and sat down and crossed and uncrossed my legs.
“So, it’s like I said in the email—” was as far as I got and then I stopped. I felt the tears prick at the back of my eyes. I swallowed hard. I rubbed at my stubble, squeezed my eyes shut. Opened them.
If he’d said anything, it would have been the wrong thing. But he just gave me the most minute of nods—somehow he knew how to embed sympathy in a tiny nod; he was some kind of prodigy of grief-appropriate body language—and waited while the lump in my throat sank back down into my churning guts.
“Uh. Like I said. We knew Dad was sick but not how sick. None of us had much to do with him for, uh, a while.” Fifteen years, at least. Dad did his thing, we did ours. That’s how we all wanted it. But why did my chest feel like it was being crushed by a slow, relentless weight? “And it turns out he didn’t leave a will.” Thanks, Dad. How long, how many years, did you have after you got your diagnosis? How many years to do one tiny thing to make the world of the living a simpler place for your survivors?
Selfish, selfish prick.
Purnell let the silence linger. He was good. He let the precisely correct interval go past before he said, “And you say there is insurance?”
“Funeral insurance,” I said. “Got it with his severance from Compaq. I don’t think he even knew about it, but one of his buddies emailed me when the news hit the web, told me where to look. I don’t know what his policy number was or anything—”
“We can find that out,” Purnell said. “That’s the kind of thing we’re good at.”
“Can I ask you something?” “Of course.”
“Why don’t you have a desk?”
He shrugged, tapped the tablet he’d smoothed out across his lap. “I feel like a desk just separates me from my clients.” He gestured around his office, the bracketless shelves in somber wood bearing a few slim books about mourning, some abstract sculptures carved from dark stone or pale, bony driftwood. “I don’t need it. It’s just a relic of the paper era. I’d much rather sit right here and talk with you, face to face, figure out how I can help you.”
* * *
I’d googled him, of course. I’d googled the whole process. The first thing you learn when you google funeral homes is that the whole thing is a ripoff. From the coffin—the “casket,” which is like a coffin but more expensive—to the crematorium to the wreath to the hearse to the awful online memorial site with sappy music—all a scam, from stem to stern. It’s a perfect storm of graft: a bereaved family, not thinking right; a purchase you rarely have to make; a confusion of regulations and expectations. Add them all up and you’re going to be mourning your wallet along with your dear departed.
Purnell gets good google. They say he’s honest, modern, and smart. They say he’s young, and that’s a positive, because it makes him a kind of digital death native, and that’s just what we need, my sister and I, as we get ready to bury Herbert Pink: father, nerd, and lifelong pain in the ass. The man I loved with all my heart until I was 15 years old, whereupon he left our mother, left our family, and left our lives. After that, I mostly hated him. You should know: hate is not the opposite of love.
* * *
I was suddenly mad at this young, modern, honest, smart undertaker. I mean, funeral director. “Look,” I said. “I didn’t really even know my father, hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t need ‘help,’ I just need to get him in the ground. With a minimum of hand holding and fussing.”
He didn’t flinch, even though there’d been no call for that kind of outburst. “Bruce,” he said, “I can do that. If you’re in a hurry, we can probably even do it by tomorrow. It looks like your father’s insurance would take you through the whole process. We’d even pay the deductible for you.” He paused to let that sink in. “But Bruce, I do think I can help you. You’re your father’s executor, and he died intestate. That means a long, slow probate.”
“So what? I don’t care about any inheritance. My dad wasn’t a rich man, you know.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant to imply. Your father died intestate, and there’s going to be taxes to pay, bills to settle. You’re going to have to value his estate, produce an inventory, possibly sell off his effects to cover the expenses. Sometimes this can take years.”
He let that sink in. “All right,” I said, “that’s not something I’d thought of. I don’t really want to spend a month inventorying my father’s cutlery and underwear drawer.”
He smiled. “I don’t suppose a court would expect you to get into that level of detail. But the thing is, there’s better ways to do this sort of thing. You think that I’m young for a funeral director.”
The non sequitur caught me off guard. “I, uh, I suppose you’re old enough—”
“I am young for this job. But you know what Douglas Adams said: everything invented before you were born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything after your fifteenth birthday is new and exciting and revolutionary. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. The world has changed a lot since you were born, and changed even more since I was born, and I have to tell you, I think that makes my age an asset, not a liability.
“And not in some nebulous, airy-fairy way. Specifically, the fact that I’m 27 years old is how I got onto the beta-test for this.” He handed me his tablet. I smoothed it out and looked at it. It took me a minute to get what I was seeing. At first, I thought I was looking through a live camera feed from some hidden webcam in his office, but then I noticed I wasn’t in the picture. Then I thought I might be seeing a video loop. But after a few experimental prods, I understood that this was a zoomable panoramic image of the room in which I was sitting.
“Pick up one of the sculptures,” he said. I zoom-dragged to one of them, a kind of mountainscape made of something black and nonreflective. It had pleasing proportions, and a play of textures I quite admired. I double-tapped it and it filled the screen, allowing me to rotate it, zoom in on it. Playing along, I zoomed way up until it became a mash of pixellated JPEG noise, then back out again.
“Now try the white one,” he said, pointing at a kind of mathematical solid that suggested some kind of beautiful calculus, behind him and to the left. Zooming to it, I discovered that I could go to infinite depth on it, without any jaggies or artifacts appearing. “It’s so smooth because there’s a model of it on Thingiverse, so the sim just pulled in the vectors describing it and substituted a rendering of them for the bitmap. Same with the shelves. They’re Ikea, and all Ikea furniture has publicly disclosed dimensions, so they’re all vector based.” I saw now that it was true: the shelves had a glossy perfection that the rest of the room lacked.
“Try the books,” he said. I did. A copy of The Egyptian Book of the Dead opened at a touch and revealed its pages to me. “Book-search scans,” he said.
I zoomed around some more. The camel-colored coat hanging on the hook on the back of the door opened itself and revealed its lining. My pinky nail brushed an icon and I found myself looking at a ghostly line-art version of the room, at a set of old-fashioned metal keys in the coat’s pocket, and as I zoomed out, I saw that I was able to see into the walls—the wiring, the plumbing, the 2́4 studs.
“Teraherz radar,” he said, and took the tablet back from me. “There’s more to see, and it gets better all the time. There were a couple of books it didn’t recognize at first, but someone must have hooked them into the database, because now they move. That’s the really interesting thing, the way this improves continuously—”
“Sorry,” I said. “What are you showing me?”
“Oh,” he said. “Right. Got ahead of myself. The system’s called Infinite Space and it comes from a start-up here in Virginia. They’re a DHS spinout, started out with crime-scene forensics and realized they had something bigger here. Just run some scanners around the room and give it a couple of days to do the hard work. If you want more detail, just unpack and repack the drawers and boxes in front of it—it’ll tell you which ones have the smallest proportion of identifiable interior objects. You won’t need to inventory the cutlery; that shows up very well on a teraherz scan. The underwear drawer is a different matter.”
I sat there for a moment, thinking about my dad. I hadn’t been to his place in years. The docs had shown me the paramedics’ report, and they’d called it “crowded,” which either meant that they were very polite or my dad had gotten about a million times neater since I’d last visited him. I’d been twenty before I heard the term “hoarder,” but it had made instant sense to me.
Purnell was waiting patiently for me, like a computer spinning a watch cursor while the user was woolgathering. When he saw he had my attention, he tipped his head minutely, inviting me to ask any questions. When I didn’t, he said, “You know the saying, ‘You can’t libel the dead’? You can’t invade the dead’s privacy, either. Using this kind of technology on a living human’s home would be a gross invasion of privacy. But if you use it in the home of someone who’s died alone, it just improves a process that was bound to take place in any event. Working with Infinite Space, you can even use the inventory as a checklist, value all assets using current eBay blue-book prices, divide them algorithmically or manually, even turn it into a packing and shipping manifest you can give to movers, telling them what you want sent where. It’s like full-text search for a house.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. “Do you know anything about my father?”
For the first time, his expression betrayed some distress. “A little,” he said. “When you showed up in my calendar, it automatically sent me a copy of the coroner’s report. I could have googled further, but… ” He smiled. “You can’t invade the privacy of the dead, but there’s always the privacy of the living. I thought I’d leave that up to you.”
“My father kept things. I mean, he didn’t like to throw things away. Nothing.” I looked into his eyes as I said these words. I’d said them before, to explain my spotless desk, my habit of opening the mail over a garbage can and throwing anything not urgent directly into the recycling pile, my weekly stop at the thrift-store donation box with all the things I’d tossed into a shopping bag on the back of the bedroom door. Most people nodded like they understood. A smaller number winced a little, indicating that they had an idea of what I was talking about.
A tiny minority did what Purnell did next: looked back into my eyes for a moment, then said, “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “He was always threatening to start an antique shop, or list his stuff on eBay. Once he even signed a lease, but he never bought a cash register. Never unlocked the front door, near as I could tell. But he was always telling me that his things were valuable, to the right person.” I swallowed, feeling an echo of the old anger I’d suppressed every time he’d played that loop for me. “But if there was anything worth anything in that pile, well, I don’t know how I’d find it amid all the junk.”
“Bruce, you’re not the first person to find himself in this situation. Dealing with an estate is hard at the best of times, and times like this, I’ve had people tell me they just wanted to torch the place, or bulldoze it.”
“Both of those sound like good ideas, but I have a feeling you don’t offer those particular services.”
He smiled a little funeral director’s smile, but it went all the way to his eyes. “No,” he said. “I don’t. But, huh.” He stopped himself. “This sounds a bit weird, but I’ve been looking forward to a situation like this. It was what I thought of immediately when I first saw Infinite Space demoed. This is literally the best test case I can imagine for this.”
I wish I was the kind of guy who didn’t cry when his father, estranged for decades, died alone and mad in a cluttered burial chamber of his own lunatic design. But I’d cried pretty steadily since I’d gotten the news. I could tell that I was about to cry now. There were Kleenex boxes everywhere. I picked one up and plucked out a tissue. Purnell didn’t look away but managed to back off slightly just by altering his posture. It was enough to give me the privacy to weep for a moment. The tears felt good this time, like they had somewhere to go. Not the choked cries I’d found myself loosing since I’d first gotten the news.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think it probably is.”
* * *
I’d expected Roomba-style rolling robots and wondered how they’d get around the narrow aisles between the drifts and piles of things in Dad’s house. There were a few of those, clever ones, the size of my old Hot Wheels cars, and six-wheeled so they could drive in any direction. But the heavy lifting was done by the quadrotors, each the size of a dragonfly, swarming and swooping and flocking with an eerie, dopplered whine that bounced around in the piles of junk. Bigger rotors went around and picked up the ground-effect vehicles, giving them lifts up and down the stairs. As they worked, their data streamed back into a panorama on Purnell’s laptop. We sat on the porch steps and watched the image flesh out. The renderer was working from bitmaps and dead-reckoning telemetry to build its model, and it quivered like a funhouse as it continuously refined its guesses about the dimensions. At one point, the living room sofa appeared to pierce the wall behind us, the sofa itself rendered as a kind of eye-wateringly impossible Escherling that was thick and thin simultaneously. The whole region glowed pink.
“See,” Purnell said. “It knows that there’s something wrong there. There’s going to be a ton of quads tasked to it any second now.” And we heard them buzzing through the wall as they conferred with one another and corrected the software’s best guesses. Flicking through the panoramas, we saw other pink areas, saw them disappear as the bad geometries were replaced with sensible ones in a series of eyeblink corrections. There was something comforting about watching all the detail fill in, especially when the texturemaps appeared in another eyeblink, skinning the wireframes and giving the whole thing the feeling of an architectural rendering. The bitmaps had their own problems: improbable corners, warped-mirror distortions, but I could see that the software was self-aware enough to figure out its own defects, painting them with a pink glow that faded as the approximations were fined down with exact images from the missing angles.
All this time, there’d been a subtle progress bar creeping in fits and starts across the bottom of the screen, just few pixels’ worth of glowing silverly light, and now it was nearly all the way. “You don’t have to do the next part,” he said. “If you’d rather wait out here—”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“They gave us eight scanners. That’s more than we should need for a two-bedroom house. Two should do it. One, even, if you don’t mind moving it, but I thought—”
“It’s okay,” I said again. “I can do this.”
I shook my own tablet out and pinched it rigid, holding it before me like a treasure map as I walked through the front door.
The smell stopped me in my tracks. It had been teasing me all the morning on the porch, but that was the attenuated, diluted version. Now I was breathing in the full-strength perfume, the smell of all my fathers’ dens: damp paper, oxidizing metal, loose copper pennies, ancient cleaners vaporizing through the pores in their decaying bottles, musty cushions, expired bulk no-name cheerios, overloaded power strips, mouse turds, and the trapped flatulence of a thousand lonely days. Overlaid with it, a rotten meat smell.
My father had been dead for at least a week before they found him.
* * *
Infinite Space wanted teraherz scanners in several highly specific locations. Despite Purnell’s assurances, it turned out that we needed to reposition half a dozen of them, making for fourteen radar panoramas in all. I let him do the second placement and went back out onto the porch to watch the plumbing and structural beams and wiring ghost into place as the system made sense of the scans. I caught a brief, airport-scan flash of Purnell’s naked form, right down to his genitals, before the system recognized a human silhouette and edited it out of the map. The awkwardness was a welcome change from the cramped, panicked feeling that had begun the moment I’d stepped into Dad’s house.
The screen blinked and a cartoon chicken did a little ironic head tilt in the bottom left corner. It was my little sister, Hennie, who is much more emotionally balanced than me, hence her ability to choose a self-mocking little avatar. I tapped and then cupped the tablet up into a bowl shape to help it triangulate its sound on my ear. “Have you finished mapping the burial chamber, Indiana Bruce?” She’s five years younger than me, and Dad left when she was only ten, and somehow it never seemed to bother her. As far as she was concerned, her father died decades ago, and she’d never felt any need to visit or call the old man. She’d been horrified when she found out that I’d exchanged a semi-regular, semi-annual email with him.
I snuffled up the incipient snot and tears. “Funny. Yeah, it’s going fast. Mostly automatic. I’ll send it to you when it’s done.”
She shook her head. “Don’t bother. It’ll just give Marta ideas.” Marta, her five-year-old daughter, refused to part with so much as a single stuffed toy and had been distraught for months when they remodeled the kitchen, demanding that the old fridge be brought back. I never wanted to joke about heredity and mental illness, but Hennie was without scruple on this score and privately insisted that Marta was just going through some kind of essential post-toddler conservatism brought on by the change to kindergarten and the beginning of a new phase of life.
“It’s pretty amazing, actually. It’s weird, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing the whole thing. There’s something about all that mess being tamed, turned into a spreadsheet—”
“Listen to yourself, Bruce. The opposite of compulsive mess isn’t compulsive neatness—it’s general indifference to stuff altogether. I don’t know that this is very healthy.”
I felt an irrational, overarching anger at this, which is usually a sign that she’s right. I battened it down. “Look, if we’re going to divide the estate, we’re going to have to inventory it, and—”
“Wait, what? Who said anything about dividing anything? Bruce, you can keep the money, give it to charity, flush it down the toilet, or spend it on lap dances for all I care. I don’t want it.”
“But half of it is yours—I mean, it could go into Marta’s college fund—”
“If Marta wants to go to college, she can sweat some good grades and apply for a scholarship. I don’t give a damn about university. It’s a big lie anyway—the return on investment just isn’t there.” Whenever Hennie starts talking like a stockbroker, I know she’s looking to change the subject. She can talk economics all day long, and will, if you poke her in a vulnerable spot.
“Okay, okay. I get it. Fine. I won’t talk about it with you if it bugs you. You don’t have to know about it.”
“Come on, Bruce, I don’t mean it that way. You’re my brother. You and Marta and Sweyn”—her husband—“are all the family I’ve got. I just don’t understand why you need to do this. It’s got me worried about you. You know that you had no duty to him, right? You don’t owe him anything.”
“This isn’t about him. It’s about me.” And you, I added to myself. Someday you’ll want to know about this, and you’ll be glad I did it. I didn’t say it, of course. That would have been a serious tactical mistake.
“Whatever you say, Bruce. Meantime, and for the record, Sweyn’s looked up the information for the intestacy trustee. Anytime you want, you can step away from this. They’ll liquidate his estate, put the proceeds into public-spirited projects. You can just step away anytime. Remember that.”
“I’ll remember. I know you want to help me out here, but seriously, this is something I need to do.”
“This is something you think you need to do, Bruce.”
Yeah,” I said. “If that makes you feel better, then I can go with that.”
* * *
I got the impression that Infinite Space was tremendously pleased to have hit on a beta tester who was really ready to put their stuff through its paces. A small army of turkers were bid into work, filling in descriptions and URLs for everything the software couldn’t recognize on its own. At first they’d been afraid that we’d have to go in and rearrange the piles so that the cameras could get a look at the stuff in the middle, but a surprising amount of it could be identified edge on. It turns out books aren’t the only thing with recognizable spines, assuming a big and smart enough database. The Infinites (yes, they called themselves that, and they generated a near-infinite volume of email and weets and statuses for me, which I learned to skim quickly and delete even faster) were concerned at first that it wouldn’t work for my dad’s stuff because so much of their secret sauce was about inferences based on past experience. If the database had previously seen a thousand yoga mats next to folded towels, then the ambiguous thing on top of a yoga mat that might be a fitted sheet and might be a towel was probably a towel.
Dad’s teetering piles were a lot less predictable than that, but as it turned out, there was another way. Since they had the dimensions and structural properties for everything in the database, they were able to model how stable a pile would be if the towels were fitted sheets and vice-versa, and whittle down the ambiguities with physics. The piles were upright, therefore they were composed of things that would be stable if stacked one atop another. The code took very little time to implement and represented a huge improvement on the overall database performance.
“They’re getting their money’s worth out of you, Bruce,” Purnell told me, as we met in his office that week. He had my dad’s ashes, in a cardboard box. I looked at it and mentally sized it up for its regular dimensions, its predictable contents. They don’t put the whole corpseworth of ashes in those boxes. There’s no point. A good amount of ashes are approximately interchangeable with all the ashes, symbolically speaking. The ashes in that box would be of a normalized distribution and weight and composition. They could be predicted with enormous accuracy, just by looking at the box and being told what was inside it. Add a teraherz scan—just to be sure that the box wasn’t filled with lead fishing weights or cotton candy—and the certainty skyrockets.
I hefted the box. “You could have dinged the insurance for a fancy urn,” I said.
He shrugged. “It’s not how I do business. You don’t want a fancy urn. You’re going to scatter his remains. An urn would just be landfill, or worse, something you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away.”
“I can bring myself to throw anything away,” I said, with half a smile. Quipping. Anything to prolong the moment before that predictable box ended up in my charge. In my hands.
He didn’t say anything. Part of the undertaker’s toolkit, I suppose. Tactful silence. He held the box in the ensuing silence, never holding it out to me or even shifting it subtly in my direction. He was good. I’d take it when I was ready. I would never be ready. I took it.
It was lighter than I thought.
* * *
“Hennie, I need to ask you something and you’re not going to like it.”
“It’s about him.”
“Right,” I said. I stared at the ceiling, my eyes boring through the plaster and beams into the upstairs spare room, where I’d left the box, in the exact center of the room, which otherwise held nothing but three deep Ikea storage shelves—they’d render beautifully, was all I could think of when I saw them now—lined with big, divided plastic tubs, each neatly labeled.
“Bruce, I don’t want—”
“I know you don’t. But look, remember when you said I was all the family you had left?”
“You and Mattie and Sweyn.”
“Yes. Well, you’re all I have left, too.”
“You should have thought of that before you got involved. You’ve got no right to drag me into this.”
“I’ve got Dad’s ashes.”
That broke her rhythm. We’d fallen into the bickering cadence we’d perfected during a thousand childhood spats where we’d demanded that Mom adjudicate our disputes. Mom wasn’t around to do that anymore. Besides, she’d always hated doing it and made us feel like little monsters for making her do so. I don’t know that we’d had a fight like that in the seven years since she’d been gone.
“Oh, Bruce,” she said. “God, of course you do. I don’t want them.”
“I don’t want them either. I was thinking I’d, well, scatter them.”
“Where? In his house? Another layer of dust won’t hurt, I suppose.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. What about by Mom’s grave?”
“Don’t you dare.” The vicious spin on the last word was so intense I fumbled my tablet and had to catch it as it floated toward the floor on an errant warm air current.
“Sorry,” I said.
“He never earned the right to be with Mom. He never earned what you’re giving him. He never earned me sparing a single brain cell for him. He’s not worth the glucose my neurons are consuming.”
“He was sick, Hennie.”
“He did nothing to get better. There are meds. Therapies. When I cleaned out Mom’s place, I found the letters from the therapists she’d set him up with, asking why he never showed up for the intake appointments. He did nothing to earn any of this.”
It dawned on me that Hennie had dealt with all of Mom’s stuff without ever bothering me. Mom had left a will, of course, and set out some bequests for me, and she hadn’t lived in a garbage house. But it must have been a lot of work, and Hennie had never once asked for my help.
“I’m sorry, Hennie, I never should have bothered you. You’re right.”
“Wait, Bruce, it’s okay—”
“No, really. I’ll deal with this. It’s just a box of ashes. It’s just stuff. I can get rid of stuff.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was, too. I folded the tablet up and stuck it in the sofa cushions and stared at the ceiling for a moment longer.
* * *
Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?
Here’s the thing. It turns out that I don’t mind mess at all. What I mind is disorganization. Clutter isn’t clutter once it’s been alphabetized on a hard drive. Once it’s been scanned and cataloged and put it its place, it’s stuff. It’s actionable. With the click of a button, you can list it on eBay, you can order packers and movers to get rid of it, you can search the database for just the thing to solve any problem.
Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential. The right thing at the right moment might save a life, or save the day, or save a friendship. Any of these things might someday be a gift. If times get tight, these things can readily be converted to cash. Honestly, things are really, really fine.
I wish Hennie would believe me. She freaked out when I told her I was moving out of my place into Dad’s. Purnell, too, kept coming over all grief counselor and trying to help me “process” what I was feeling. Neither of them gets it, neither of them understands what I see when I look into the ruin of Dad’s life, smartened up as neat as a precision machine. Minimalism is just a crutch for people who can’t get a handle on their things. In the modern age, things are adaptive. They’re pro-survival.
Really, things are fine.
When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 p.m., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness. Pinning on her every hope they had yet to realize, her parents imagined the type of life well-situated Igbos imagined for their children. She would be a smart girl with the best schooling. She would attend church regularly and never stray from the Word. (Amen!) She would learn to cook like her grandmother, her father added, to which her mother countered, why not like her mother, and Glorybetogod’s father hemmed and hawed till his wife said maybe he should go and eat at his mother’s house. But back to Glorybetogod, whom everyone called Glory except for her grandfather, who called her “that girl” the first time he saw her.
“That girl has something rotten in her, her chi is not well.”
Husband pulled wife out of the room to prevent a brawl (“I don’t care how old that drunk is, I will fix his mouth today”) and begged his father to accept his firstborn grandchild. He didn’t see, as the grandfather did, the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face that would affect every decision she made, causing her to err on the side of wrong, time and time again. When Glory was five she decided, after much consideration, to stick her finger into the maw of a sleeping dog. At seven, shortly after her family relocated to the US, Glory thought it a good idea to walk home when her mother was five minutes late picking her up from school, a choice that saw her lost and sobbing in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot before night fell. She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify—as if she’d been born resenting the world.
That’s how, much to her parents’ embarrassment, their Glory came to be nearing thirty, chronically single, and working at a call center in downtown Minneapolis. She fielded calls from disgruntled home- owners on the brink of foreclosure, reading from a script that was intricate and logical and written by people who had never before spoken on the phone to a human being. In all their calculations about her future, Glory’s parents had never imagined that on April 16, 2013, after receiving yet another e-mail denying her request to restore her Facebook page (the rep refused to believe any parent would actually name their child Glorybetogod), their daughter would be the sort of person for whom this flake of misfortune set rolling an avalanche of misery that quickly led to her contemplating taking her own life.
She called her mother, hoping to be talked out of it, but got her voice mail and then a text saying, What is it now? (Glory knew better than to respond.) A call to her father would yield an even cooler response, and so she spent the evening on the edge of her bed, neck tense as a fist, contemplating how a bottle of Moscato would pair with thirty gelcap sleeping pills. The note she wrote read, I was born under an unlucky star and my destiny has caught up with me. I’m sorry, Mummy and Daddy, that I didn’t complete law school and become the person you’d hoped. But it was also your fault for putting so much pressure on me. Good-bye.
All of this was true, and not. Her parents did put pressure on her, but it was the sort of hopeful pressure that might have encouraged a better person. And she was unlucky, yes, but it was less fate and more her propensity for arguing with professors and storming out of classrooms never to return that saw her almost flunk out of college. She eventually graduated, with an embarrassing GPA. Then came law school, to which she gained entrance through a favor of a friend of a friend of her father’s, thinking that her argumentative tendencies could be put to good use. But she’d managed to screw that up, too, choosing naps instead of class and happy hours instead of studying, unable to do right no matter how small the choice. These foolish little choices incremented into probation, then a polite request to leave, followed by an impolite request to leave after she’d staged a protest in the dean’s office.
Glory fell asleep after a glass and a half of wine and woke to find the pills a melted mass in her fist. In the morning light, her melodramatic note embarrassed her and she tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. At work, avoiding the glare of her supervisor and the finger he pointed at the clock, she switched on her headphones to receive the first call: Mrs. Dumfries. Her husband had died and she had no clue where any paperwork was. Could Glory help her keep her house? Glory read from her script, avoiding the no they were never allowed to utter. Then Glen, who was actually Greg, who was also Peter, who called every day at least four or five times and tried to trick the customer service reps into promises they couldn’t keep. Little did he know that even if Glory promised him his childhood home complete with all the antiques that had gone missing after the foreclosure, she would only be fired and he would still be stuck in the same two-bedroom apartment with his kids. All day the calls came in and Glory had to say no without saying no and the linguistic acrobatics required to evade this simple answer wore away her nerves.
At lunch, she ate one of the burritos that came three-for-a-dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her coworkers, and checked her e-mail again. Then she walked by the lobby of the advertising agency that dominated the top two floors of the building. To the right of the glass lobby doors were mounted the logos of the companies the firm had branded. She paused and took a photo of herself in front of the logo of the jewelry megachain. If her Facebook page was ever restored, she would post the picture, with the caption “Worked on my favorite account today. The best part is the free samples!”
Then her cousin in Port Harcourt would like her post, and another friend would confess her envy, and others still would say how (OMG!) she was sooo lucky. And for a moment she would live the sort of life her parents had imagined for her those many, many years ago.
After her lunch break, she sank back into her seat and was about to switch her headset on when he walked in. Glory knew he was Nigerian right away by his gait. And when he spoke, a friendly greeting as he shook her supervisor’s hand, her guess was confirmed. He wore a suit, slightly ill fitting, but his shoulders made up for it. He joined a group of trainees across the room.
He had an air of competence she found irritating, reading from the script as though he had it memorized, managing to make it sound compassionate and genuine. At one point he noticed her staring, and every time she looked at him after that he was looking at her, too.
She culled bits and pieces of him over the rest of the day, eavesdropped from impressed supervisors who sang his praises. He was getting an MBA at the U. He’d grown up in Nigeria but visited his uncle in Atlanta every summer. After his MBA he was going to attend law school. His parents were both doctors.
Glory knew what he was doing, because she did the same: sharing too many details of her life with these strangers, signaling why she didn’t belong here earning $13.50 an hour. She was better than “customer service representative”—everyone should know that this title was only temporary. Except in his case, it was all true.
He smiled at her when she was leaving, a smile so sure of reciprocation that Glory wanted to flip him off. But the home training that lingered caused her to avert her eyes instead and hurry to catch the bus.
Her phone dinged. A text from her mother. Why did you call me, do you need money again? No, she wanted to respond, I’m doing fine, but she didn’t. After a week, her mother might send $500 and say this was the last time and she’d better not tell her father. Glory would use the money to complete her rent or buy new shoes or maybe squirrel it away to be nibbled bit by bit— candy here, takeout there—till it disappeared. Then, when her mother couldn’t restrain herself anymore, Glory would receive a stern, long-winded lecture via e-mail, about how she wouldn’t have to worry about such things if she were married, and why didn’t she let her father introduce her to some of the young men at his work? And Glory would delete it, and cry, and retrace all the missteps that had led her to this particular place. She knew her birth story and what her grandfather had said, but it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.
The next day, Glory arrived at work to see the man sitting in the empty spot next to hers.
“Good morning.” “Hi.”
“My name is Thomas. They told me you are also from Nigeria? You don’t sound it.”
“I’ve been here since I was six, I hope you don’t think I should have kept my accent that long.”
He flinched at her rudeness but pressed on.
“I don’t know many Nigerians here, maybe you can introduce me?”
Glory considered the handful of women she kept in touch with who would have loved to be introduced to this guy, still green and fresh. But they saw little of her real life, thinking Glory to be an ad exec with a fabulous lifestyle, and any introductions would jeopardize that.
“Sorry, I don’t really know anyone either. You should try talking to someone with real friends.”
He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue. It was nice to talk to someone new who had no expectations of her.
“So, why are you slumming it here with the rest of us? Shouldn’t you be interning somewhere fabulous?” “This is my internship. I actually work in corporate but thought I should get a better understanding of what happens in the trenches.”
“Wait, you’re here voluntarily? Are you crazy?”
He laughed again. “No, it’s just . . . you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m not stupid,” Glory said. “So fuck you.” Then she switched on her headset, ignoring his “Whoa, where did that come from?,” and turned her dial to the busiest queue. The calls came in one after then other, leaving Thomas little chance to apologize if he wanted to.
An hour in, he pressed a note into Glory’s palm.
I’m sorry, it read. Can I treat you to lunch?
Her pride said no, but her stomach, last filled with the sandwich she’d stolen yesterday afternoon, begged a yes.
She snatched up his pen. I guess.
Mom, I’m seeing someone. Glory typed and deleted that sentence over and over, never sending it. Her mother would call for sure, and then she’d dissect every description of Thomas till he was flayed to her satisfaction. Her father would ask to hear the “young man’s intentions.” The cloying quality of their attention would ruin it.
Thomas would have delighted them. He went to church every Sunday—though he’d learned to stop inviting her—and he had the bright sort of future that was every parent’s dream. He prayed over his meals, and before he went to bed, and when he woke up. He prayed for her. Glory despised him. She hated the sheen of accomplishment he wore, so dulled on her. She hated his frugal management of money. She hated that when she’d pressed him for sex he’d demurred, saying that they should wait till they were more serious.
Glory couldn’t get enough of him. She loved that he watched Cartoon Network with the glee of a teenager, loved that he could move through a crowd of strangers and emerge on the other side with friends. He didn’t seem to mind her coarseness, or how her bad luck had deepened her bitterness so that she wished even the best of people ill. He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume. She wanted to ask him what he saw in her but was afraid his answer would be qualities she knew to be illusions. A carefree attitude that was simply carelessness. Bluntness mistaken for honesty when she was just mean.
They talked of Nigeria often, or at least he did, telling her about growing up in Onitsha and how he wanted to move back someday. He said we and us like it was understood she’d go back with him, and she began to savor a future she’d never imagined for herself.
She’d been to Nigeria many times, in fact, but she kept that from him, enjoying, then loathing, then enjoying how excited he was to explain the country to her. He didn’t know that what little money she could scrape together was spent on a plane ticket to Nigeria every thirteen months, or that over the past few years, she had arrived the day after her grandmother’s death, then the day after her great-aunt’s death, and then her uncle’s, so that her grandfather asked her to let him know when she booked her ticket so that he could prepare to die. Thomas still didn’t know she was unlucky.
She kept it secret to dissuade any probing, unaware that people like Thomas were never suspicious, as trusting of the world’s goodness as children born to wealth. When she visited her grandfather, they’d sit together in his room watching TV, Glory getting up only to fetch them food or drink. Nobody knew why she made the trips as often as she did, or why she eschewed the bustle of Lagos for her grandfather’s sleepy village. She couldn’t explain that her grandfather knew her, saw her for what she was—a black hole that compressed and eliminated fortune and joy—and still opened his home to her, gave her a room and a bed, the mattress so old the underside bore stains from when her mother’s water broke.
Near the end of her last stay, their conversation had migrated to her fate.
“There is only disaster in your future if you do not please the gods,” he’d said.
The older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhale her life had been so far, in preparation for an explosive exhale that would flatten her.
“Papa, you know I don’t have it in me to win anyone’s favor, let alone the gods’.”
They were both dressed in shorts and singlets, the voltage of the generator too low to carry anything that cooled. Glory sat on the floor, shifting every half hour to savor the chill of cooler tiles. Her grandfather lounged on the bed. When he began one of his fables, she closed her eyes.
“A porcupine and a tortoise came to a crossroads, where a spirit appeared before them. ‘Carry me to the heart of the river and let me drink,’ the spirit said. Neither wanted to be saddled with the spirit, but they could not deny it without good reason.
“‘I am slow,’ said the tortoise, ‘it will take us many years to reach the river.’
“‘I am prickly,’ said the porcupine, ‘the journey will be too painful.’
“The spirit raged. ‘If you don’t get me to the heart of the river by nightfall and give me a cup to drink, I will extinguish every creature of your kind.’
“The tortoise and the porcupine conferred. ‘What if you carry me,’ said the tortoise, ‘while I carry the spirit? We will surely make it by nightfall.’
“‘I have a better idea,’ said the porcupine. ‘These are no ordinary quills on my back. They are magic quills capable of granting any wish. The only condition is that you must close your eyes and open them only after your wish is granted.’
“The tortoise and the spirit each plucked a quill, eager for desires out of reach, and closed their eyes. That’s when the porcupine snatched the quill from the tortoise and jammed it into the flesh of his throat. He filled the spirit’s hands with the tortoise’s blood, which it drank, thinking the gurgling it heard to be from the river. But spirits know the taste of blood. It lashed out at the porcupine, only to find that it could move no faster than a tortoise. The porcupine continued on his way.”
Her grandfather’s long pause signaled the end. “Are you hearing me?”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”
Glory’s time with her grandfather had eased pressure building in her, but the relief had been short-lived. A stream of catastrophes greeted her stateside: Keys left on the plane. A car accident, her foot slipping on the pedal made smooth by the car insurance check she’d forgotten to mail. A job lost for lack of transportation, which after many fruitless applications had landed her in the petri dish of the call center where she’d met Thomas.
Thomas, on the other hand, was a lucky man. He always seemed to find money lying about the street, although never so large an amount as to induce alarm or guilt. He always got what he wanted, always, and attributed it to ingenuity and perseverance, unaware of the halo of good fortune resting on his head. When Glory had him write a new request to Facebook, her page was restored in a day. He would have been appalled to know she sometimes followed him when they parted ways after work, watching with fascination as he drew amity from everyone he encountered.
Some of his luck did rub off on her and she found herself receiving invitations to long-standing events she hadn’t even known existed. Igbo Women’s Fellowship of the Midwest. Daughters of Biafra, Minnesota chapter. Party, Party, a monthly event rotated among different homes. Sometimes, as she watched Thomas charm a crowd with little effort, she wondered how it was that one person could be so blessed and another not. They’d been born in the same state to parents of similar means and faith. Even accounting for the privileges of his maleness, it seemed to Glory that they should have been in the same place. She began to think of his luck as something that had been taken from her and viewed their relationship as a way to even her odds.
At last they were serious enough for Thomas, and the sex was not mediocre exactly, but just good, not the mind-blowing experience she’d expected it to be. But Thomas was moved and thanked her for trusting him, and she said, “You’re welcome,” in that cutesy, girlish way she knew he would like, even though what she really wanted was for him to stop being such a gentleman and fuck her silly.
And the more he said us and we, the less quickly she deleted that Mom, I’m seeing someone text. One day, instead of sending it, she posted a picture of her and Thomas on her Facebook wall, setting off a sequence that involved her Port Harcourt cousin calling another cousin who called another and so on and so forth, until the news reached her mother, who called her. It took thirty-seven minutes.
Glory waited till just before the call went to voice mail to pick up.
“Who is he? Praise God! What is his name?” “Thomas Okongwu,” and at Okongwu her mother started praising God again. Glory couldn’t help but laugh and felt a blush of gratitude. It had been years since any news she’d delivered over the phone had given her mother cause for joy. She told her about Thomas and his ambitions, getting more animated the more excited her mother became. She ignored the undercurrent of disbelief on the other end of the line, as if her mother couldn’t quite believe her daughter had gotten something right.
After that, it was like everything she did was right. Her job, long pilloried, was now a good thing. The fact that she had no career, her father wrote, meant that she could fully concentrate on her children when they came along. Her ineptitude at managing money no longer mattered. You see, he continued, she’d picked the perfect man to make up for her weaknesses. Kind where she was not, frugal where she was not. Successful.
Glory stared at her father’s e-mail, meant to comfort but instead bringing to mind the wine and pills and what they could do to a body. She moved the message to a folder she’d long ago titled “EVIDENCE”— documents gathered to make her case if she chose never to speak to her father again.
When Thomas asked her if she’d like to meet his mother, Glory knew the right answer and gave it. But she panicked at the prospect of having to impress this woman. Her parents had been easy. Thomas was impressive. She was not.
“Why do you want me to meet her?” she asked. She knew the question was a bit coy, but she wanted some reassurance to hold on to.
Thomas shrugged. “She asked to meet you.”
“So you didn’t ask her if she wanted to meet me?”
After a patient rolling of eyes, Thomas gripped her shoulders and shook her with gentle exasperation.
“You’re always doing this. Of course I want you to meet her and of course she wants to meet you. You’re all she ever talks about now. Look.” He dialed his cell phone. Glory heard a woman laugh on the other end of the line and say something that made Thomas laugh too. Then he said, “Hey, Mum, she’s right here. I’ll let you talk, but don’t go scaring her off.” The warm phone was pressed to her ear, and a voice just shy of being too deep for a woman’s greeted her.
Glory tried to say all the right things about herself and her family, which meant not saying much about herself at all. She wanted this woman to like her, and even beyond that, to admire her, something she wasn’t sure she could achieve without lies. On Facebook, she’d pretended to quit her job at the ad firm—a “sad day indeed,” an old college friend had written on her wall, making Glory suspect he knew the truth. (She unfriended him right away.) But Thomas’s mother could not be so easily dismissed. Glory trotted out her parents’ accomplishments—engineer mother, medical-supply-business-owner father—to shore up her pedigree. Then she mentioned more recent social interests of hers, like the Igbo women’s group, leaving out Thomas’s hand in that. All the while her inner voice wondered what the hell she was doing. Tricking the gods, she replied.
The day Thomas’s mother flew in, Glory cooked for hours at his apartment. She’d solicited recipes from her mother, who took much joy in walking her through every step over the phone. By the time Thomas left for the airport, his apartment was as fragrant as a buka, with as large a variety of dishes awaiting eager bellies.
His mother was tall and Glory felt like a child next to her. His mother was also warm, and she folded Glory into a perfumed, bosomy hug.
“Welcome, ma,” Glory said, then wanted to kick herself for sounding so deferential.
“My dear, no need to be so formal, I feel like I’ve known you for years, the way my son goes on and on. It’s me who should be welcoming you into the family.”
She complimented each dish, tasting a bit of one after the other and nodding before filling her plate. It was a test, and Glory was gratified to see that she had passed.
Thomas squeezed her leg under the table, a reassuring pressure that said, See? Nothing to worry about. But what did a person like him know about worry? When his mother questioned her about her work, it was clear she assumed Glory worked in corporate with Thomas, and neither of them dissuaded her. Yet it rankled Glory, who couldn’t decide whether Thomas had stretched the truth into a more presentable form or hadn’t realized what his mother would assume.
Thomas used the pause that followed to excuse himself on an errand. Glory, knowing there was no such errand, gripped his hand tight, pleading. Thomas pried his hand away while his mother busied herself adjusting her coffee to her liking.
He leaned over and whispered, “Just be you. She likes you already, relax.”
Thomas pecked Glory on her nervous, trembling mouth and kissed his mother on the cheek. As soon as the door closed behind him, the older woman spoke.
“Well, it’s just us girls now, what should we chat about?” She smiled an invitation at Glory, who took a long sip of water to mask her anxiety. When she didn’t say anything, Thomas’s mother took the lead.
“So you two are supervising a group of three hundred? You should have no problem with a family then. Thomas says they are like a bunch of unruly children.” She laughed.
Glory knew she should laugh, too, make light of the notes posted around the call center asking people not to steal food. But her contrary nature stirred.
“Actually, I am one of those unruly children. I work the floor.”
“Oh.” Then seamlessly, “Well, it’s no matter at this point, is it. I’m so happy that you will soon leave the US to come and stay with me in Nigeria. It’s so important to bring up the children there. Thomas’s father and I are delighted that you both agree.”
This was something Glory and Thomas had never discussed. If he’d been there, he would have squeezed her leg, a silent Please don’t argue with my mother. Glory felt it then, that peculiar knot at the back of her neck that tensed whenever she came to a crossroads. The prospect of disappointing Thomas so boldly was the only thing that stayed her tongue. Unfortunately, that reticence extended to the rest of their exchange.
“So, no siblings.” “No.”
“You didn’t enjoy that, I’m sure. Kids need companions, don’t you think?”
Every minute that passed without Thomas by her side, Glory felt as though a veil was slipping off her, revealing more and more of her true nature. With every question his mother asked, and every terse answer she gave, Glory felt his mother close off a bit, leaning back as though to consider what manner of girl she was. Her interior was frantic, grasping for something interesting to say, but monosyllables were all she could manage.
After thirty minutes, his mother’s pleasantness had cooled to politeness and Glory excused herself to the bathroom before it chilled further.
You have to come back now, she texted Thomas. Now! And he did, just as his mother grew serious and leaned in to have some say. Perfect timing as always.
With Thomas there, the ease between the two women returned, but the more they talked, the more his mother touched on the expectation that Glory would drop everything and go back to Nigeria and live there with her hypothetical children, in her mother-in-law’s house. Thomas was most comfortable in Nigeria and would move back when he was done with schooling to join Glory, who would already be settled. If the idea had been hers, or if she’d even been asked, Glory might not have minded, but all this was delivered as a given, not a choice. All Thomas’s talk of we and us felt less like a collaboration now and more like a general commanding his troops. It surprised Glory to realize that she had not been the only one scheming.
After they took his mother to her hotel, Thomas and Glory idled in the parking lot, each waiting for the other to break the silence. Then, offering neither apology nor explanation, Thomas placed a box on Glory’s lap. She opened it, the hinge levering to reveal a ring that, just a year ago, she would never have imagined herself receiving. The tension returned to her neck.
A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She held out hope that one day all her missteps would stumble her into accomplishments she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation—she couldn’t bear it. And yet, salvation it was. Acceptance into many proper folds. Lies she would never again have to tell. She could lose herself in the whirlwind of Thomas, golden child become golden man.
But then Glory thought back to that first time she’d turned her luck with a truly reckless move, the thing with the dog. There was her uncle’s dog, napping. She’d felt antsy all over and a thought wormed into her head, that the tension would go away if she touched the dog’s tongue. It suddenly seemed the right and only thing to do. She rubbed the scar now, thinking of all the times she’d picked stupid over sensible, knowing, just knowing, that this time she’d gotten it right. She could not afford to get it wrong again.
Looking at the ring, resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.