It was one of the secret opinions, such as we all have, of Peter Brench that his main success in life would have consisted in his never having committed himself about the work, as it was called, of his friend, Morgan Mallow. This was a subject on which it was, to the best of his belief, impossible, with veracity, to quote him, and it was nowhere on record that he had, in the connection, on any occasion and in any embarrassment, either lied or spoken the truth. Such a triumph had its honour even for a man of other triumphs—a man who had reached fifty, who had escaped marriage, who had lived within his means, who had been in love with Mrs. Mallow for years without breathing it, and who, last not least, had judged himself once for all. He had so judged himself in fact that he felt an extreme and general humility to be his proper portion; yet there was nothing that made him think so well of his parts as the course he had steered so often through the shallows just mentioned. It became thus a real wonder that the friends in whom he had most confidence were just those with whom he had most reserves. He couldn’t tell Mrs. Mallow—or at least he supposed, excellent man, he couldn’t—that she was the one beautiful reason he had never married; any more than he could tell her husband that the sight of the multiplied marbles in that gentleman’s studio was an affliction of which even time had never blunted the edge. His victory, however, as I have intimated, in regard to these productions was not simply in his not having let it out that he deplored them; it was, remarkably, in his not having kept it in by anything else.
The whole situation, among these good people, was verily a marvel, and there was probably not such another for a long way from the spot that engages us—the point at which the soft declivity of Hampstead began at that time to confess in broken accents to St. John’s Wood. He despised Mallow’s statues and adored Mallow’s wife, and yet was distinctly fond of Mallow, to whom, in turn, he was equally dear. Mrs. Mallow rejoiced in the statues—though she preferred, when pressed, the busts; and if she was visibly attached to Peter Brench it was because of his affection for Morgan. Each loved the other, moreover, for the love borne in each case to Lancelot, whom the Mallows respectively cherished as their only child and whom the friend of their fireside identified as the third—but decidedly the handsomest—of his godsons. Already in the old years it had come to that—that no one, for such a relation, could possibly have occurred to any of them, even to the baby itself, but Peter. There was luckily a certain independence, of the pecuniary sort, all round: the Master could never otherwise have spent his solemn Wanderjahre 1 in Florence and Rome and continued, by the Thames as well as by the Arno and the Tiber, to add unpurchased group to group and model, for what was too apt to prove in the event mere love, fancy-heads of celebrities either too busy or too buried—too much of the age or too little of it—to sit. Neither could Peter, lounging in almost daily, have found time to keep the whole complicated tradition so alive by his presence. He was massive, but mild, the depositary of these mysteries—large and loose and ruddy and curly, with deep tones, deep eyes, deep pockets, to say nothing of the habit of long pipes, soft hats, and brownish, greyish, weather-faded clothes, apparently always the same.
He had ‘written,’ it was known, but had never spoken—never spoken, in particular, of that; and he had the air (since, as was believed, he continued to write) of keeping it up in order to have something more—as if he had not, at the worst, enough—to be silent about. Whatever his air, at any rate, Peter’s occasional unmentioned prose and verse were quite truly the result of an impulse to maintain the purity of his taste by establishing still more firmly the right relation of fame to feebleness. The little green door of his domain was in a garden-wall on which the stucco was cracked and stained, and in the small detached villa behind it everything was old, the furniture, the servants, the books, the prints, the habits, and the new improvements. The Mallows, at Carrara Lodge, were within ten minutes, and the studio there was on their little land, to which they had added, in their happy faith, to build it. This was the good fortune, if it was not the ill, of her having brought him, in marriage, a portion that put them in a manner at their ease and enabled them thus, on their side, to keep it up. And they did keep it up—they always had—the infatuated sculptor and his wife, for whom nature had refined on the impossible by relieving them of the sense of the difficult. Morgan had, at all events, everything of the sculptor but the spirit of Phidias—the brown velvet, the becoming beretto, the ‘plastic’ presence, the fine fingers, the beautiful accent in Italian, and the old Italian factotum. He seemed to make up for every thing when he addressed Egidio with the ‘tu’ and waved him to turn one of the rotary pedestals of which the place was full. They were tremendous Italians at Carrara Lodge, and the secret of the part played by this fact in Peter’s life was, in a large degree, that it gave him, sturdy Briton that he was, just the amount of going abroad he could bear. The Mallows were all his Italy, but it was in a measure for Italy he liked them. His one worry was that Lance—to which they had shortened his godson—was, in spite of a public school, perhaps a shade too Italian. Morgan, meanwhile, looked like somebody’s flattering idea of somebody’s own person as expressed in the great room provided at the Uffizzi museum for Portraits of Artists by Themselves. The Master’s sole regret that he had not been born rather to the brush than to the chisel sprang from his wish that he might have contributed to that collection.
It appeared, with time, at any rate, to be to the brush that Lance had been born; for Mrs. Mallow, one day when the boy was turning twenty, broke it to their friend, who shared, to the last delicate morsel, their problems and pains, that it seemed as if nothing would really do but that he should embrace the career. It had been impossible longer to remain blind to the fact that he gained no glory at Cambridge, where Brench’s own college had, for a year, tempered its tone to him as for Brench’s own sake. Therefore why renew the vain form of preparing him for the impossible? The impossible—it had become clear—was that he should be anything but an artist.
‘Oh dear, dear!’ said poor Peter.
‘Don’t you believe in it?’ asked Mrs. Mallow, who still, at more than forty, had her violet velvet eyes, her creamy satin skin, and her silken chestnut hair.
‘Believe in what?’
‘Why, in Lance’s passion.’
‘I don’t know what you mean by “believing in it.” I’ve never been unaware, certainly, of his disposition, from his earliest time, to daub and draw; but I confess I’ve hoped it would burn out.’
‘But why should it,’ she sweetly smiled, ‘with his wonderful heredity? Passion is passion—though of course, indeed, you, dear Peter, know nothing of that. Has the Master’s ever burned out?’
Peter looked off a little and, in his familiar, formless way, kept up for a moment a sound between a smothered whistle and a subdued hum. ‘Do you think he’s going to be another Master?’
She seemed scarce prepared to go that length, yet she had, on the whole, a most marvellous trust. ‘I know what you mean by that. Will it be a career to incur the jealousies and provoke the machinations that have been at times almost too much for his father? Well—say it may be, since nothing but clap-trap, in these dreadful days, can, it would seem, make its way, and since, with the curse of refinement and distinction, one may easily find one’s self begging one’s bread. Put it at the worst—say he has the misfortune to wing his flight further than the vulgar taste of his stupid countrymen can follow. Think, all the same, of the happiness—the same that the Master has had. He’ll know.’
Peter looked rueful. ‘Ah, but what will he know?’
‘Quiet joy!’ cried Mrs. Mallow, quite impatient and turning away.
He had of course, before long, to meet the boy himself on it and to hear that, practically, everything was settled. Lance was not to go up again, but to go instead to Paris, where, since the die was cast, he would find the best advantages. Peter had always felt that he must be taken as he was, but had never perhaps found him so much as he was as on this occasion. ‘You chuck Cambridge then altogether? Doesn’t that seem rather a pity?’
Lance would have been like his father, to his friend’s sense, had he had less humour, and like his mother had he had more beauty. Yet it was a good middle way, for Peter, that, in the modern manner, he was, to the eye, rather the young stockbroker than the young artist. The youth reasoned that it was a question of time—there was such a mill to go through, such an awful lot to learn. He had talked with fellows and had judged. ‘One has got, to-day,’ he said, ‘don’t you see? to know.’
His interlocutor, at this, gave a groan. ‘Oh, hang it, don’t know!’
Lance wondered. ‘”Don’t”? Then what’s the use———?’
‘The use of what?’
‘Why, of anything. Don’t you think I’ve talent?’
Peter smoked away, for a little, in silence;. then went on: ‘It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that—as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.’
‘Don’t you think I’ve talent?’ Lance repeated.
Peter, with his trick of queer, kind demonstrations, passed his arm round his godson and held him a moment. ‘How do I know?’
‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s your own ignorance you’re defending———!’
Again, for a pause, on the sofa, his godfather smoked. ‘It isn’t. I’ve the misfortune to be omniscient.’
‘Oh, well,’ Lance laughed again, ‘if you know too much———!’
‘That’s what I do, and why I’m so wretched.’
Lance’s gaiety grew. ‘Wretched? Come, I say!’
‘But I forgot,’ his companion went on—’you’re not to know about that. It would indeed, for you too, make the too much. Only I’ll tell you what I’ll do.’ And Peter got up from the sofa. ‘If you’ll go up again, I’ll pay your way at Cambridge.’
Lance stared, a little rueful in spite of being still more amused. ‘Oh, Peter! You disapprove so of Paris?’
‘Well, I’m afraid of it.’
‘Ah, I see.’
‘No, you don’t see—yet. But you will—that is you would. And you mustn’t.’
The young man thought more gravely. ‘But one’s innocence, already———’
‘Is considerably damaged? Ah, that won’t matter,’ Peter persisted—’we’ll patch it up here.’
‘Here? Then you want me to stay at home?’
Peter almost confessed to it. ‘Well, we’re so right—we four together—just as we are. We’re so safe. Come, don’t spoil it.’
The boy, who had turned to gravity, turned from this, on the real pressure in his friend’s tone, to consternation. ‘Then what’s a fellow to be?’
‘My particular care. Come, old man’—and Peter now fairly pleaded—I’ll look out for you.’
Lance, who had remained on the sofa with his legs out and his hands in his pockets, watched him with eyes that showed suspicion. Then he got up. ‘You think there’s something the matter with me—that I can’t make a success.’
‘Well, what do you call a success?’
Lance thought again. ‘Why, the best sort, I suppose, is to please one’s self. Isn’t that the sort that, in spite of cabals and things, is—in his own peculiar line—the Master’s?’
There were so much too many things in this question to be answered at once that they practically checked the discussion, which became particularly difficult in the light of such renewed proof that, though the young man’s innocence might, in the course of his studies, as he contended, somewhat have shrunken, the finer essence of it still remained. That was indeed exactly what Peter had assumed and what, above all, he desired; yet, perversely enough, it gave him a chill. The boy believed in the cabals and things, believed in the peculiar line, believed, in short, in the Master. What happened a month or two later was not that he went up again at the expense of his godfather, but that a fortnight after he had got settled in Paris this personage sent him fifty pounds.
He had meanwhile, at home, this personage, made up his mind to the worst; and what it might be had never yet grown quite so vivid to him as when, on his presenting himself one Sunday night, as he never failed to do, for supper, the mistress of Carrara Lodge met him with an appeal as to—of all things in the world—the wealth of the Canadians. She was earnest, she was even excited. ‘Are many of them really rich?’
He had to confess that he knew nothing about them, but he often thought afterwards of that evening. The room in which they sat was adorned with sundry specimens of the Master’s genius, which had the merit of being, as Mrs. Mallow herself frequently suggested, of an unusually convenient size. They were indeed of dimensions not customary in the products of the chisel and had the singularity that, if the objects and features intended to be small looked too large, the objects and features intended to be large looked too small. The Master’s intention, whether in respect to this matter or to any other, had, in almost any case, even after years, remained undiscoverable to Peter Brench. The creations that so failed to reveal it stood about on pedestals and brackets, on tables and shelves, a little staring white population, heroic, idyllic, allegoric, mythic, symbolic, in which ‘scale’ had so strayed and lost itself that the public square and the chimney-piece seemed to have changed places, the monumental being all diminutive and the diminutive all monumental; branches, at any rate, markedly, of a family in which stature was rather oddly irrespective of function, age, and sex. They formed, like the Mallows themselves, poor Brench’s own family—having at least, to such a degree, a note of familiarity. The occasion was one of those he had long ago learnt to know and to name—short flickers of the faint flame, soft gusts of a kinder air. Twice a year, regularly, the Master believed in his fortune, in addition to believing all the year round in his genius. This time it was to be made by a bereaved couple from Toronto, who had given him the handsomest order for a tomb to three lost children, each of whom they desired to be, in the composition, emblematically and characteristically represented.
Such was naturally the moral of Mrs. Mallow’s question: if their wealth was to be assumed, it was clear, from the nature of their admiration, as well as from mysterious hints thrown out (they were a little odd!) as to other possibilities of the same mortuary sort, that their further patronage might be; and not less evident that, should the Master become at all known in those climes, nothing would be more inevitable than a run of Canadian custom. Peter had been present before at runs of custom, colonial and domestic—present at each of those of which the aggregation had left so few gaps in the marble company round him; but it was his habit never, at these junctures, to prick the bubble in advance. The fond illusion, while it lasted, eased the wound of elections never won, the long ache of medals and diplomas carried off, on every chance, by every one but the Master; it lighted the lamp, moreover, that would glimmer through the next eclipse. They lived, however, after all—as it was always beautiful to see—at a height scarce susceptible of ups and downs. They strained a point, at times, charmingly, to admit that the public was, here and there, not too bad to buy; but they would have been nowhere without their attitude that the Master was always too good to sell. They were, at all events, deliciously formed, Peter often said to himself, for their fate; the Master had a vanity, his wife had a loyalty, of which success, depriving these things of innocence, would have diminished the merit and the grace. Any one could be charming under a charm, and, as he looked about him at a world of prosperity more void of proportion even than the Master’s museum, he wondered if he knew another pair that so completely escaped vulgarity.
‘What a pity Lance isn’t with us to rejoice!’ Mrs. Mallow on this occasion sighed at supper.
‘We’ll drink to the health of the absent,’ her husband replied, filling his friend’s glass and his own and giving a drop to their companion; ‘but we must hope that he’s preparing himself for a happiness much less like this of ours this evening—excusable as I grant it to be!—than like the comfort we have always—whatever has happened or has not happened—been able to trust ourselves to enjoy. The comfort,’ the Master explained, leaning back in the pleasant lamplight and firelight, holding up his glass alooking round at his marble family, quartered more or less, a monstrous brood, in every room—’the comfort of art in itself!’
Peter looked a little shily at his wine. ‘Well—I don’t care what you may call it when a fellow doesn’t—but Lance must learn to sell, you know. I drink to his acquisition of the secret of a base popularity!’
‘Oh yes, he must sell,’ the boy’s mother, who was still more, however, this seemed to give out, the Master’s wife, rather artlessly conceded.
‘Oh,’ the sculptor, after a moment, confidently pronounced, ‘Lance will. Don’t be afraid. He will have learnt.’
‘Which is exactly what Peter,’ Mrs. Mallow gaily returned—’why in the world were you so perverse, Peter?—wouldn’t, when he told him, hear of.’
Peter, when this lady looked at him with accusatory affection—a grace, on her part, not infrequent—could never find a word; but the Master, who was always all amenity and tact, helped him out now as he had often helped him before. ‘That’s his old idea, you know—on which we’ve so often differed: his theory that the artist should be all impulse and instinct. I go in, of course, for a certain amount of school. Not too much—but a due proportion. There’s where his protest came in,’ he continued to explain to his wife, ‘as against what might, don’t you see? be in question for Lance.’
‘Ah, well,’—and Mrs. Mallow turned the violet eyes across the table at the subject of this discourse,—’he’s sure to have meant, of course, nothing but good; but that wouldn’t have prevented him, if Lance had taken his advice, from being, in effect, horribly cruel.’
They had a sociable way of talking of him to his face as if he had been in the clay or—at most—in the plaster, and the Master was unfailingly generous. He might have been waving Egidio to make him revolve. ‘Ah, but poor Peter was not so wrong as to what it may, after all, come to that he will learn.’
‘Oh, but nothing artistically bad,’ she urged—still, for poor Peter, arch and dewy.
‘Why, just the little French tricks,’ said the Master: on which their friend had to pretend to admit, when pressed by Mrs. Mallow, that these æsthetic vices had been the objects of his dread.
‘I know now,’ Lance said to him the next year, ‘why you were so much against it.’ He had come back, supposedly for a mere interval, and was looking about him at Carrara Lodge, where indeed he had already, on two or three occasions, since his expatriation, briefly appeared. This had the air of a longer holiday. ‘Something rather awful has happened to me. It isn’t so very good to know.’
‘I’m bound to say high spirits don’t show in your face,’ Peter was rather ruefully forced to confess. ‘Still, are you very sure you do know?’
‘Well, I at least know about as much as I can bear.’ These remarks were exchanged in Peter’s den, and the young man, smoking cigarettes, stood before the fire with his back against the mantel. Something of his bloom seemed really to have left him.
Poor Peter wondered. ‘You’re clear then as to what in particular I wanted you not to go for?’
‘In particular?’ Lance thought. ‘It seems to me that, in particular, there can have been but one thing.’
They stood for a little sounding each other. ‘Are you quite sure?’
‘Quite sure I’m a beastly duffer? Quite—by this time.’
‘Oh!’ and Peter turned away as if almost with relief.
‘It’s that that isn’t pleasant to find out.’
‘Oh, I don’t care for “that,” said Peter, presently coming round again. ‘I mean I personally don’t.’
‘Yet I hope you can understand a little that I myself should!’
‘Well, what do you mean by it?’ Peter sceptically asked.
And on this Lance had to explain—how the upshot of his studies in Paris had inexorably proved a mere deep doubt of his means. These studies had waked him up, and a new light was in his eyes; but what the new light did was really to show him too much. ‘Do you know what’s the matter with me? I’m too horribly intelligent. Paris was really the last place for me. I’ve learnt what I can’t do.’
Poor Peter stared—it was a staggerer; but even after they had had, on the subject, a longish talk in which the boy brought out to the full the hard truth of his lesson, his friend betrayed less pleasure than usually breaks into a face to the happy tune of ‘I told you so!’ Poor Peter himself made now indeed so little a point of having told him so that Lance broke ground in a different place a day or two after. ‘What was it then that—before I went—you were afraid I should find out?’ This, however, Peter refused to tell him—on the ground that if he hadn’t yet guessed perhaps he never would, and that nothing at all, for either of them, in any case, was to be gained by giving the thing a name. Lance eyed him, on this, an instant, with the bold curiosity of youth—with the air indeed of having in his mind two or three names, of which one or other would be right. Peter, nevertheless, turning his back again, offered no encouragement, and when they parted afresh it was with some show of impatience on the side of the boy. Accordingly, at their next encounter, Peter saw at a glance that he had now, in the interval, divined and that, to sound his note, he was only waiting till they should find themselves alone. This he had soon arranged, and he then broke straight out. ‘Do you know your conundrum has been keeping me awake? But in the watches of the night the answer came over me—so that, upon my honour, I quite laughed out. Had you been supposing I had to go to Paris to learn that?‘ Even now, to see him still so sublimely on his guard, Peter’s young friend had to laugh afresh. ‘You won’t give a sign till you’re sure? Beautiful old Peter!’ But Lance at last produced it. ‘Why, hang it, the truth about the Master.’
It made between them, for some minutes, a lively passage, full of wonder, for each, at the wonder of the other. ‘Then how long have you understood———’
‘The true value of his work? I understood it,’ Lance recalled, ‘as soon as I began to understand anything. But I didn’t begin fully to do that, I admit, till I got là-bas.’
‘Dear, dear!’—Peter gasped with retrospective dread.
‘But for what have you taken me? I’m a hopeless muff—that I had to have rubbed in. But I’m not such a muff as the Master!’ Lance declared.
‘Then why did you never tell me———?’
‘That I hadn’t, after all’—the boy took him up—’remained such an idiot? Just because I never dreamed you knew. But I beg your pardon. I only wanted to spare you. And what I don’t now understand is how the deuce then, for so long, you’ve managed to keep bottled.’
Peter produced his explanation, but only after some delay and with a gravity not void of embarrassment. ‘It was for your mother.’
‘Oh!’ said Lance.
‘And that’s the great thing now—since the murder is out. I want a promise from you. I mean’—and Peter almost feverishly followed it up—’a vow from you, solemn and such as you owe me, here on the spot, that you’ll sacrifice anything rather than let her ever guess———’
‘That I’ve guessed?’—Lance took it in. ‘I see.’ He evidently, after a moment, had taken in much. ‘But what is it you have in mind that I may have a chance to sacrifice?’
‘Oh, one has always something.’
Lance looked at him hard. ‘Do you mean that you’ve had———?’ The look he received back, however, so put the question by that he found soon enough another. ‘Are you really sure my mother doesn’t know?’
Peter, after renewed reflection, was really sure. ‘If she does, she’s too wonderful.’
‘But aren’t we all too wonderful?’
‘Yes,’ Peter granted—’but in different ways. The thing’s so desperately important because your father’s little public consists only, as you know then,’ Peter developed—’well, of how many?’
‘First of all,’ the Master’s son risked, ‘of himself. And last of all too. I don’t quite see of whom else.’
Peter had an approach to impatience. ‘Of your mother, I say—always.’
Lance cast it all up. ‘You absolutely feel that?’
‘Well then, with yourself, that makes three.’
‘Oh, me!‘—and Peter, with a wag of his kind old head, modestly excused himself. ‘The number is, at any rate, small enough for any individual dropping out to be too dreadfully missed. Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, take care, my boy—that’s all—that you’re not!’
‘I’ve got to keep on humbugging?’ Lance sighed.
‘It’s just to warn you of the danger of your failing of that that I’ve seized this opportunity.’
‘And what do you regard in particular,’ the young man asked, ‘as the danger?’
‘Why, this certainty: that the moment your mother, who feels so strongly, should suspect your secret—well,’ said Peter desperately, ‘the fat would be on the fire.’
Lance, for a moment, seemed to stare at the blaze. ‘She’d throw me over?’
‘She’d throw him over.’
‘And come round to us?’
Peter, before he answered, turned away. ‘Come round to you.’ But he had said enough to indicate—and, as he evidently trusted, to avert—the horrid contingency.
Within six months again, however, his fear was, on more occasions than one, all before him. Lance had returned to Paris, to another trial; then had reappeared at home and had had, with his father, for the first time in his life, one of the scenes that strike sparks. He described it with much expression to Peter, as to whom—since they had never done so before—it was a sign of a new reserve on the part of the pair at Carrara Lodge that they at present failed, on a matter of intimate interest, to open themselves—if not in joy, then in sorrow—to their good friend. This produced perhaps, practically, between the parties, a shade of alienation and a slight intermission of commerce marked mainly indeed by the fact that, to talk at his ease with his old playmate, Lance had, in general, to come to see him. The closest, if not quite the gayest, relation they had yet known together was thus ushered in. The difficulty for poor Lance was a tension at home, begotten by the fact that his father wished him to be, at least, the sort of success he himself had been. He hadn’t ‘chucked’ Paris—though nothing appeared more vivid to him than that Paris had chucked him; he would go back again because of the fascination in trying, in seeing, in sounding the depths—in learning one’s lesson, in fine, even if the lesson were simply that of one’s impotence in the presence of one’s larger vision. But what did the Master, all aloft in his senseless fluency, know of impotence, and what vision—to be called such—had he, in all his blind life, ever had? Lance, heated and indignant, frankly appealed to his godparent on this score.
His father, it appeared, had come down on him for having, after so long, nothing to show, and hoped that, on his next return, this deficiency would be repaired. The thing, the Master complacently set forth, was—for any artist, however inferior to himself—at least to ‘do’ something. ‘What can you do? That’s all I ask!’ He had certainly done enough, and there was no mistake about what he had to show. Lance had tears in his eyes when it came thus to letting his old friend know how great the strain might be on the ‘sacrifice’ asked of him. It wasn’t so easy to continue humbugging—as from son to parent—after feeling one’s self despised for not grovelling in mediocrity. Yet a noble duplicity was what, as they intimately faced the situation, Peter went on requiring; and it was still, for a time, what his young friend, bitter and sore, managed loyally to comfort him with. Fifty pounds, more than once again, it was true, rewarded, both in London and in Paris, the young friend’s loyalty; none the less sensibly, doubtless, at the moment, that the money was a direct advance on a decent sum for which Peter had long since privately prearranged an ultimate function. Whether by these arts or others, at all events, Lance’s just resentment was kept for a season—but only for a season—at bay. The day arrived when he warned his companion that he could hold out—or hold in—no longer. Carrara Lodge had had to listen to another lecture delivered from a great height—an infliction really heavier, at last, than, without striking back or in some way letting the Master have the truth, flesh and blood could bear.
‘And what I don’t see is,’ Lance observed with a certain irritated eye for what was, after all, if it came to that, due to himself too—’What I don’t see is, upon my honour, how you, as things are going, can keep the game up.’
‘Oh, the game for me is only to hold my tongue,’ said placid Peter. ‘And I have my reason.’
‘Still my mother?’
Peter showed, as he had often shown it before—that is by turning it straight away—a queer face. ‘What will you have? I haven’t ceased to like her.’
‘She’s beautiful—she’s a dear, of course,’ Lance granted; ‘but what is she to you, after all, and what is it to you that, as to anything whatever, she should or she shouldn’t?’
Peter, who had turned red, hung fire a little. ‘Well—it’s all, simply, what I make of it.’
There was now, however, in his young friend, a strange, an adopted, insistence. ‘What are you, after all, to her?‘
‘Oh, nothing. But that’s another matter.’
‘She cares only for my father,’ said Lance the Parisian.
‘Naturally—and that’s just why.’
‘Why you’ve wished to spare her?’
‘Because she cares so tremendously much.’
Lance took a turn about the room, but with his eyes still on his host. ‘How awfully—always—you must have liked her!’
‘Awfully. Always,’ said Peter Brench.
The young man continued for a moment to muse—then stopped again in front of him. ‘Do you know how much she cares?’ Their eyes met on it, but Peter, as if his own found something new in Lance’s, appeared to hesitate, for the first time for so long, to say he did know. ‘I’ve only just found out,’ said Lance. ‘She came to my room last night, after being present, in silence and only with her eyes on me, at what I had had to take from him; she came—and she was with me an extraordinary hour.’
He had paused again, and they had again for a while sounded each other. Then something—and it made him suddenly turn pale—came to Peter. ‘She does know?’
‘She does know. She let it all out to me—so as to demand of me no more than that, as she said, of which she herself had been capable. She has always, always known,’ said Lance without pity.
Peter was silent a long time; during which his companion might have heard him gently breathe and, on touching him, might have felt within him the vibration of a long, low sound suppressed. By the time he spoke, at last, he had taken everything in. ‘Then I do see how tremendously much.’
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Lance asked.
‘Wonderful,’ Peter mused.
‘So that if your original effort to keep me from Paris was to keep me from knowledge———!’ Lance exclaimed as if with a sufficient indication of this futility.
It might have been at the futility that Peter appeared for a little to gaze. ‘I think it must have been—without my quite at the time knowing it—to keep me!‘he replied at last as he turned away.
Although I was only ten years old, I could understand that something important had happened. Every time our bedroom door opened, my mother shut it again so we wouldn’t hear the frantic whispering in the living room. “Meetings” like this only happened in our house when something serious was going on. The door to the children’s room was never normally shut when people came over to chat over a cup of coffee or chamomile tea – the opposite in fact. It was always open to the living room; and every time we came in or went out, the women from the neighbourhood and our family would take turns giving us kisses. “May God protect them”, they all repeated amongst themselves.
My sister, being twelve years old, seemed to understand more than me. Maybe it was her feminine intuition, which had begun to get a feeling for the reality of life around us. She was listening carefully through a crack in the door; and every time the conversation got louder, a look of terror came over her face. Then she would hurry into the room, sit down at a small desk, and ask me angrily, “Have your done your homework?”
Occasionally, we could make out some words among the whispers like “scandal” and “insult”; but the racket always increased whenever the question itself was asked—from time to time, with a worrying anger that really frightened me, anxious child that I was: “Did she have to tell people? May God expose her shamelessness.”
The “scandal” was everywhere in the neighbourhood. Even when I failed to stop the ball from going into the goal at our neighborhood football field, none of the bigger children told me off or told me to get out of the way like they usually did. All their attention was focused on the “scandal”, and gossip was more important than the game. Even the so-called “leader of the gang” gave up this daily game in the end, so that he could sit with the grown-ups and talk about what had happened. But not before he had lit a cigarette and sucked in its smoke, trying to look all of his sixteen years. As kids do, we made a circle round them, trying to sneakily overhear as much information and as many details about this “scandal” as we could: how did it start and what did it mean?
Most of the children around me were baffled by the story that the older boy was discreetly telling … “Then he put his hand…” I was not confused like them, even if I did not know exactly what his words meant. Everyone suddenly shouted at once “Really??”, when the leader of the gang said as he took a puff on his cigarette, “under the panties.”
My father was late coming home that night. My mother waited on the balcony looking over the village, anxiously smoking. My sister was whispering away with my cousin, who had decided to stay at our house that night. For me, this was just another indication of the calamity that had befallen us. The only times I had stayed at their house or they had stayed at our house was when someone in the family had died.
Had someone died now? If so, where were my other cousins? Why were they whispering under the covers? And where was my dad?
When I heard the sound of his truck, I calmed down a little. In less than a minute, I heard my father’s familiar footsteps. As he got further up the stairs, they became clearer and clearer. Then I heard my mother when she came back from the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of hot Arabic coffee. My sister and cousin went silent. All three of us, totally independently, held our breaths and tried to make out any word coming from the balcony. We had no success worth mentioning.
I don’t know how everything changed, but the family shot into action the next day. I started to smell rice and chicken cooking along with kibbeh and Fuqaʿiyya. Suddenly, all the children were gathered in the house of the head of our family. There were men and women all around us too. At first, the food and the huge gathering and all the different kinds of cap guns, bullets, and rifles that were in our house made me forget everything I had thought about the “scandal”; and then all of a sudden, I was running with the runners, playing with the ones who played and got shot.
When the head of the family stood up, all of the women started to argue with us–with both an anger and a kind of fear I had never seen before. My nervous aunt even slapped one of my cousins across the face in order to shut him up. That made us aware of how serious the situation was, and so we were compelled to obey. The head of the family started talking about things that I didn’t understand. But I did manage to understand the words “one family” and “no problem”. All of the men nodded their heads in agreement.
When the head of the family had finished his speech, he went towards one of the men I used to call “uncle” (like I used to address all men) and hugged him and kissed him. All the other men proceeded to hug and kiss this man afterwards. Suddenly, the room was filled with loud ululations and then high pitched shrieks, in a slightly confused manner.
A weighty silence then came over the room as one of the women in the family stepped forward dragging a girl who I supposed was my age, or a little older. She stood in front of Uncle and told the girl firmly, as both of them cried with fear: “Kiss your uncle!”
That night, as my mother was tucking me into bed, my sister asked her, “Does this mean it’s over?”
My mother looked at her sternly and said, “She is a wretched girl. Is she the first one who had to do this? Did she want to destroy the family? Never bring up the story again or talk about what happened for as long as you live. Understand?”
My sister whispered a few words, which I guess meant that she had submitted entirely to my mother’s demands. My mother turned off the light in the room and looked at us lovingly. She said quietly with tears in her eyes: “May God protect you”.
Two people came through the double glass doors of a twelve-story brick building and walked along the chain link fence to the parking lot. The tall, gray-haired man guided the short, white-haired woman by her elbow, urging her into a more energetic pace. Their heads were canted forward at the same watchful thrust, and anyone looking at them would have guessed correctly they were mother and son. The man was a solid six feet, not fat, but bullish in the shoulders and chest, and the woman, probably tall when she was younger, was now stooped and hollowed. The son’s tailored suit and expensive, well-made shoes reported success in the world, and his impatient pace, while the never-slowing lanes of traffic whizzed by the fence, suggested deadlines and engagements. Poor men stop to look at their environment; wealthy men pass through it on their way to somewhere else.
Though the old woman no longer had the same large body as her son, her face still had the vigor of opposition, evident in the stubborn, demanding chin. Leaning on her cane, hobbling beside him, she argued loudly, “I told you we can’t go yet. I didn’t say goodbye to my friend.”
He didn’t slow down, but he turned his head to say, “Gloria?”
“I have to say goodbye to her. She won’t know where I’ve gone.” “You’ve said goodbye to her five or six times already. All right? Okay? You’re done with saying goodbye to Gloria.”
She stopped, “I’m not done,” but the man kept going. “And what if I don’t like this new place?” she shouted.
He had reached the car. “What’s there not to like? It’s very nice.” (He had never actually seen it.) “They have animals. It’s in the country.”
Now she reached the car too. “But the people. Are they friendly?”
“What are they like?”
“They’re like you. They’re old.”
“But I have to be back at five thirty. For dinner.”
“No, we’re leaving. Remember? This is your last day in Buffalo, your last day at The Meadows. And god help me, here’s your final goodbye.”
He forced her around to get a last look at the enormous structure on one of the city’s busiest highways. The Meadows was a brick building built in the seventies that blighted the entire block with its tall, institutional facade and apron of black parking lots. “Goodbye Meadows,” he said, as though to a child, not bothering to hide his exasperation.
“Goodbye Meadows,” she repeated in a pure, obedient tone.
Sylvia Fleming hadn’t been in a car in many years. Within the fortress, a resident’s every need had been taken care of, and the few times it had been necessary to venture into the outside world, The Meadows provided a van which picked up and delivered residents to the garage in the basement so their feet never touched the earth and their lungs never breathed anything but interior air. Like many other people who lived there, Sylvia hadn’t worn anything but slippers since the day she entered. She didn’t own a pair of shoes anymore and earlier that morning, John’s brief glance at her flaking, bluish feet with their thick, raptor-like toenails had been enough to dissuade him from any attempt to take her to a store and purchase more ground-appropriate footwear.
Once they got on the interstate, he waited for her to fall asleep, but she stayed awake the entire time, making conversation.
“I don’t know, Mom. Mary moved to California. She and I are separated. A year ago, remember?”
“Right. I’m so mixed up I don’t know if I’m coming or going. By the way, no one asked me if I wanted to move.”
“Look, for the last time: You can’t stay there any longer. The Meadows has already rented your apartment to someone else.”
“Who told them they could do that? I happen to live there.”
“You did live there and now you’re moving away.”
He could see her staring at the complicated structure of bridges and ramps, the pillars that held up the massive swaths of concrete that loomed over the flat, industrial landscape of western New York, moving millions of cars in an infinite combination of directions. “It cost a lot, didn’t it? I was running out of money.”
“You’re right. This new place is cheaper. By half.”
“How’s your friend?”
“Your friend from work who came with you once.”
“Bentley? That was a long time ago. But actually, he’s the one who discovered this new place. It’s called Flora and Fauna.”
“That’s nice. Like The Meadows.”
“Not really. This place is out in the country. It’s much smaller. They have a garden and chickens and I think the food will be better.”
“So how’s Mary? Why didn’t she come with you?”
A month ago, when the report came that Mrs. Fleming’s mental and physical deterioration required a greater level of care than The Meadows could offer, they recommended The Orchards, their sister institution where each resident had a room rather than an apartment, and access to nursing and hygiene staff twenty-four hours a day. John had been tempted to say yes. It would have meant The Meadows movers and The Meadows van would have done the relocation and his only job would have been to sign a check. But something had made him pause. He wanted to do right for his mother, a person he had once loved, or at least, looking at the childhood photographs, it appeared he must have. Now he felt a mixture of guilt and duty, so he assigned the matter to Bentley. Two days later, Bentley put him on the phone with a woman named Rose Curtain. She was a registered nurse and she operated a home in the southern tier of New York State that provided just the level of care his mother needed. When he asked about vacancies, Ms. Curtain had said, “We’re not a large place. We never have more than three, and last week, well, our dear ninety-eight-year-old Arnie climbed the hill and his beautiful, south facing room is available.”
“Arnie climbed the hill?”
The Meadows had phoned again and requested that Mrs. Fleming be removed by the end of the month. “Deteriorating hygiene,” the officious caller informed him, “is the first sign the resident needs more extensive oversight. And the reports show that Mrs. Fleming…” But seeing Bentley step into his office, John ended the phone call. “So who is Rose Curtain?”
His employee stopped in the center of the room. “Rose? Well, very reliable. Very dependable. You would be satisfied, and I think your mother would be happy.”
“But who is she? How do you know about her place?”
Before answering, Bentley looked at the carpet. Then he looked up, and if John had hoped to see anything but the usual expression, he was disappointed. Bentley was never combative, nor arrogant, nor even mildly self-assured. His manner was apologetic, as though by his mere presence he might intrude. If John were given to wondering, which he wasn’t, he might have wondered if the many hours Bentley sat at his desk absorbing the shadowless blue of the computer screen had sucked all that was robust out of his body. His skin was the color and texture of eggshell. His hair was never anything but unwashed, and the mole on his neck sprouted a whisker. Though he had solid brown eyes, they were so unquestioning as to be without depth. Bentley was a quiet sufferer, just as he was a quiet accomplisher, and he had, over the years, earned John’s admiration. Lucky Cow, the company John had bought as a young man out of business school and grown from a small cheese-making business into a corporation with national distribution and universal name recognition, reflected not only the economic aggressiveness of John Fleming, but the inventive genius of Bentley Tomes.
Bentley knew cows. He knew cheese. That was his world. But when John saw that the business would not grow as he had envisioned unless it had broader appeal, he had developed a new division. Lucky Cow moved into the processed line and that line grew steadily while the line of natural products stayed flat. His business sense told him to drop it, and from that point on, he let demand dictate the direction the company took. As it turned out, Bentley, the farm boy, was willing to accept these changes and soon had learned his way around the world of food science. He hired the people who knew how to make a commodity that tasted like cheese, looked like cheese, smelled like cheese, but was made entirely out of soybeans. And now, pressured by the demands of the stockholders, a noisy crowd who had no patience with the volatility of a major ingredient that was dependent on weather and soil and other variables, Bentley had found the people who could create a commodity with the same CRA, cheese recognition attributes, but none of the unpredictability of actual food. They were considering inert materials. Still being tested were wood pulp derivatives mixed with coagulants. But could you get the public to eat a food that wasn’t a food at all?
It was Bentley who finessed that question. One ounce of Lucky Cow cheese product would satisfy the daily adult requirements of seven essential vitamins and minerals.
“Which ones?” John asked. “Because calcium, these days, is very popular.”
There was a mystery at the center of Lucky Cow. Mary had identified it one night in the midst of an argument and her succinct, biting description stayed with him long after she had left. Why do I think you don’t care? Because the guy you put all of your trust in, the guy you depend on, you haven’t even bothered to get to know. I know him better than you do. Because you’re incurious. People don’t interest you, John Fleming, only things. Accumulated things.
Some of that was not true. They had worked together thirty years, and John actually did know something about Bentley. He was not married. He did not have a girlfriend. Two facts. Both were understandable, given his behavior. Bentley was not a sexual being. There: a third fact. And yet, he was always sympathetic to John’s ongoing problems with Mary and his children and the various women he’d been involved with since she left. Maybe he was willing to listen because he didn’t have a personal life of his own. Maybe he was a closet something or other. If so, matter closed. John did not need to know any more about it, but now, watching him figure out how to answer the question about Rose, it came to him that perhaps Bentley was simply a virgin.
He stayed at his spot in the middle of the carpet, hands in his pockets. “We went to school together. My family’s dairy farm was next to her family’s dairy farm. Now she raises heifers.”
“She was your girlfriend?”
John saw a blush fill his employee’s cheeks even as he glanced down at his shoes, and then, sheepishly, back up at John. Bentley was wearing the same tan pants and tan jacket he always wore and the redness of his face with the worn and stained outfit made him appear even more scrappy. Several years ago, John had tucked a hefty Christmas bonus into a card with a note, Go treat yourself. He’d scribbled the name of “his man” at the only decent gentleman’s clothiers in Erie, where the corporate headquarters of Lucky Cow, because of financial advantages in the state of Pennsylvania, had relocated eleven years ago. But it didn’t change. The same perma-press jacket and slacks.
“In high school,” Bentley said. “But her father surprised us in the hayloft and she was sent away to a boarding school.”
“How awful,” John said, seeing everything a little too clearly. Bentley, in his awkward, forthright manner, attempting to ravage the girl next door, while all the little rustles and squeals that come with private acts alerting the murderous father. The pulling out, the terror, the slinking away. It would have wounded him for life.
Or maybe there hadn’t even been the chance for fucking. That was worse. To be surprised just when they were working up to it, to have the farmer stop it so violently that the shrunken, guilty prick stayed shrunken and guilty forever. Either way it was sad.
“On your recommendation we’ll check it out. I’ll pick my mother up on Saturday.” But that was a lie. There was no time to check it out; he’d have to move his mother right in, unless, of course, the place simply wasn’t safe. “Any of your family still in the area?”
“All gone.” Bentley’s voice was without emotion, his skin back to its normal whitish tone. He had no more to say, and so, with characteristic awkwardness, he turned and went out the door. John watched the worn heels of Bentley’s shoes, the baggy backside of his trousers pass into the hallway. It occurred to him that the horror of that night in his friend’s adolescence might explain everything. But insights of this nature, revealing private things, made John uncomfortable. Automatically, his fingers started to move across the keyboard. Toneless clicks filled the room and hundreds of exquisitely neutral numbers crossed the computer’s face.
The road was so empty and the odor of urine rising from his mother’s seat so sharp, that his foot had pressed the accelerator to the floor. The black Mercedes shot through the lush, green landscape like a stone fired with a boys sure aim from his slingshot.
The sign for Flora and Fauna was tiny, but he saw it just in time and made the turn. He pulled up in front of a farmhouse flanked by dilapidated outbuildings. Sylvia sat in the car, waiting until John came around to open her door. Then she unbuckled her seatbelt, set her cane on the ground, and very slowly placed one slippered foot next to it. The other followed, whereupon John leaned in and hoisted his mother onto her feet. Real ground. True air. She sniffed it. “I remember this,” she said.
They faced the house. The clapboard needed painting; the porch needed repair. There was an old barn and a field next to it with cows.
“What’s that?” Sylvia asked when a shrill bird-like sound startled them both.
“I believe it’s a chicken, they cackle.”
A small, white dog ran towards them, its tail wagging.
“But John, we forgot to get my things.”
“No, Mom, everything’s been taken care of. The movers came after we left and packed it all up. I’ve seen to everything.”
“No one asked me. Not once. Do you realize that? And I have to go to the bathroom. Fast.”’
But after three hours, Sylvia’s bathroom announcements no longer created the urgency they had at first. “Not a problem. I’m sure someone here can help you.” John took his mother’s elbow and pulled her across the rough, uneven grass. The screen door was closed, the cool breath of an empty hallway coming through it. He rapped on the doorframe. “Hello?”
“You’re here already!” a voice sang from deep in the interior. “Just a second! I’ll be right there!”
“I don’t have those pads or those disposable…” his mother remarked in a loud voice.
“You’re fine.” At each of the four rest areas, he’d guided her as far as the door of the Women’s and then dutifully waited outside to guide her back. Beyond that, he had no wish for information. “I’m sure she’ll have them.”
Color splashed across the screen and a woman with a mass of red hair and a wide, unrehearsed smile pushed it open. Bosom leading—she had the imperiousness common to large-chested women, people like his ex-wife—she stepped barefoot onto the porch and clapped her hands together.
“You’ve arrived, Sylvia Fleming! How very good of you to come on such a beautiful day!” She pulled his mother into her body for a hug. “And John Fleming.”
She was about to hug John too, but he stepped away and put out his hand.
“I’ve seen you before,” Sylvia said.
“My name is Rose. I bet you’re tired and thirsty. I bet you’d like to see your room.”
“What we need, I believe, is a bathroom,” John whispered.
“But first, I’ll show you the bathroom and help you get settled.”
“I’ve been here before,” Sylvia announced as Rose, holding her hand, stopping to slip her feet into a pair of rubber sandals that were waiting inside the door, led his mother down the hallway. She moved at the old woman’s pace so patiently there might not have been such a thing as time or other places to get to.
The floors glimmered and on a shelf he saw a vase of garden flowers.
“I know you.”
“Yes, you do. I’m Rose.”
“I was so rushed I didn’t bring any pads or any of those disposable….”
“Don’t you worry. I have everything you need. This is the bathroom. Let me show you.”
When the door shut behind them, John found himself alone in the hallway, eavesdropping as they chattered comfortably. “Exactly,” Rose was saying, “they go back in here. So you’ll always know where they are.”
“I remember. John brought me to your house before, because I remember that they go in there.”
“I’m glad it feels familiar. Then you won’t have to be nervous about moving in with us.”
“Oh no, I’m not nervous. I know you and I know this place. But The Meadows is where I live and I want to get back there because they’re going to wonder where I am.” She added in a polite tone, “You’ve been very kind to let me use your bathroom.”
Sylvia came out first and pronounced it a very nice place. “I would come here if I didn’t already have an apartment somewhere else.”
“Good, let me show you the bedroom.”
Rose took them to the end of the hallway and when she opened a door, a blaze of yellow light fell across the floorboards. “It gets the afternoon sun so this is where I keep my plants.”
They stepped into a large room filled with greenery. It had a single bed, a reading chair, and an enormous birdcage where a bird of many colors eyed them warily. “Sammy! Sammy!” it shrieked.
His mother hobbled up to it and said, “I’m Sylvia. Can you say Sylvia?”
“That’s Maurice. He loves Sammy and he’s always hoping that when the door opens it’s going to be her.”
“You’ll have to learn to say Sylvia,” his mother chided, clucking at Maurice as though she were familiar with the ways one made friends with parrots. “He knows me. See, we’ve been roommates before.”
The bed was covered with a soft blue quilt. Tiers of houseplants were arranged in front of the windows. It would be like sleeping in a terrarium, John thought.
“Dinner’s at five thirty. I really must get back.”
“Mom, we’ve been through this. You’re done with The Meadows. They kicked you out.”
“What do you mean? They didn’t kick me out.” She straightened herself up and in a queenly tone corrected him: “I am a resident.”
“You need more care. And you’ll get more care here. And that’s final. You have to get it into your head. This is your new place.” He couldn’t help it. Even though he knew very well that she wasn’t being dense on purpose, it had been a long day and all he really wanted was to have everything settled.
“There’s Sammy,” Rose said, slipping her hand into his mother’s. “Can you see her over there? She comes every afternoon to help me.”
Rose pointed out the window, and in the distance behind the barn, John saw something moving. But it wasn’t a person.
“She’s a senior in high school. She lives nearby and it’s faster coming over the hill,” Rose said.
As they watched, the movement took on definition and though he found it hard to believe at first, he realized as the object approached that it was indeed what it had seemed: a girl with long hair whipping about was galloping towards them on a brown horse.
“I know I’ve been here before,” Sylvia said in a soft and amazed voice. “I’ve seen that hill. I’ve seen that rider.”
They watched her dismount and lead the horse into the barn.
“Sam does the evening rounds, although right now you’re our only resident.”
“This room is very pretty,” Sylvia said. “I like it. I like the view. There’s so much to look at.”
John consulted his watch. They’d been there an hour and it was clear that the place would be fine. He clasped his mother’s hand and said, “I have to go now,” his voice thick with a sorrow that had nothing to do with this leave-taking.
“Drive carefully.” She was practiced in the routine of goodbye. She waited for the touch of his lips to her forehead and then made the remembered motherly remarks. “Don’t worry about me. And next time, bring Mary.”
The lake was only a few miles north of the highway. But there was no evidence of a huge body of water just beyond the hills. Just as well. His mind, empty of the usual “to do” list, watched the beautiful, black machine eat up the miles while his memory snagged itself on a conversation.
You’re nothing but a robot, she had said to him in the early hours of the day they had decided to separate. You don’t take anything into consideration except money. Money’s the ultimate goal.
“Go ahead,” he’d said sarcastically. “Don’t hold back. Now that you’re telling me what you really think, why not unburden yourself?”
Okay John. Then what about doing good? What about making a quality product? What about contributing to people’s health and well-being? Well, why go on. I won’t waste my breath.
He remembered how beautiful she had appeared at that moment, how wise and womanly and sad. But she couldn’t blame him for economics. “Numbers don’t lie. And I’m a good businessman because I understand growth. For your information, growth is necessary for a healthy business.” He’d finished with the brand of humility he’d learned at the therapist’s. “I’m good at growth. I’m not good at other things.”
That was not entirely true. As he knew all too well, growth was aggression. There were businesses that could plateau and still have healthy balance sheets, but he was too ambitious for that. He’d re-invented the entire cheese landscape and now Lucky Cow was not just a company any longer, but a force. Each time he altered the product it received national attention without even a full-scale advertising campaign and instead of TMS, targeted market saturation, they had BMS, bulk saturation. Now BMS drove the corporation. Lucky Cow altered packaging or ingredients continuously, simply to gain attention.
The therapist suggested that he and Mary spend a Saturday together every month and for a while, it seemed to be working. On a Saturday in June, Mary had wanted to explore the lake. They’d found a hidden path that took them to a small cove with a protected beach. The water was cold, invigorating. “Isn’t it wonderful?” she cried, dancing about with the simple pleasure of nakedness. He splashed out quickly; it was too cold. But he found a rock to sit on, and watched her play in the water while he rubbed himself dry with his shirt. When she came out, rinsed and glistening, they had moved in concert. He caught a stink of something on the wind, but it was from another cove, so he put it out of his mind, and together, following the lead of their bodies, they dropped down to the sand. But then he felt insects biting his legs, tiny pinpricks of pain, over and over. Sand fleas. He slapped them away until she took his hand and murmured softly, holding his hand to her mouth, her breast, stroking him, kissing him, opening herself. But it started again and finally, he couldn’t stand it, he jumped up.
Yes, it was too abrupt, but he couldn’t help it, they were annoying him.
Back in the car, Mary’s eyes were wet. She was pressed against the door, as far away from him as possible. He couldn’t think of the right thing to say, so he nosed the car along the curve of the lake and let it find the one lane blacktop, so unused there were weeds along the edge. It took them to a cove they had never visited. They discovered a hotel that seemed to operate mostly as a restaurant. The elegant, old-fashioned structure was three stories high, with a gingerbread porch cantilevered over the rocks. The tables were filled, the diners dressed as though for a party, women sparkling with jewelry and perfume, white-coated waiters balancing platters heaped with some kind of fish. They found a table on the outer edge, and in the spirit of the party they ordered it too. Smelt. The breaded, crispy, tiny fish, heaped on a silver platter, came with a dipping sauce. Mary was famished. She looked errant, disturbed, laughing too loudly, eating the fish with her fingers, dozens disappearing at once. He nibbled carefully, preferring the beer and celery to creatures that had been dragged from the oily bottom of a polluted lake.
Yes, he knew exactly what his mistakes were. Hadn’t they talked about it endlessly? But no amount of hushed dinner-time talk, her greasy fingers lifting the fish to her mouth, her laughter hanging on a precipice where it might at any moment dissolve into tears, could alter the fact that an army of small, stinging insects had attacked his legs and not hers. What was he supposed to do? He said he was sorry but apparently his timing was off. The time for sorry had been earlier. Well he didn’t understand then and he didn’t understand now how an intelligent adult woman could be so undone by such a tiny thing. Fleas! It was their last outing.
The phone rang. “How’d it go?” the familiar voice asked.
John was tempted to hedge a bit just out of habit. But why? Bentley was his friend. “It’s a nice place. I think she’ll get good care.”
“Great.” Bentley paused, taking a moment before revealing the real reason for the call. “What did you think of Rose?”
“Rose is remarkable. She’s everything you said. It’ll be a nice change from The Meadows. My God, now I realize what a horror that place was.”
“Do you think…” but Bentley hesitated and John could see him casting his eyes downwards. “Well, would it be all right, John, if I go there once to visit your mother? Do you think she’ll remember me?”
“Absolutely. She’ll be happy to see you. I guarantee it.”
“Good. I think I’d like to do that. It would give me a chance to say hello to Rose.”
“I’m getting into traffic,” John said, understanding as soon as the opportunity had passed that he should have suggested they go there together.
But Bentley, who was used to non-engagement, simply went on. “Okay, just listen. The tests are done. We know what to use. It’s not straw dust; it’s not wood pulp. Too much texture. Get this. It’s water. Plain, ordinary water. With seven essential vitamins and minerals, plus the oils and coagulants and stabilizers and flavorings. You know, the list.”
Water, John thought, coming into the city, weaving the Mercedes through the ribbons of traffic and then braking suddenly when the line slowed. On a beautiful summer day when he’d seen a girl galloping her horse down a hill, water, that plain and forthright, almost spiritual substance, seemed exactly right.
*Megen Staffel, “Leaving The Meadows” from The Exit Coach. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
When I came down, Granpa’s door was barely open. A blade of candlelight from inside crossed the floor and the living room couch. Mom whispered orders. Someone prayed. When I peeked in, Mom’s hand touched the bed and her other was on Granpa’s chest. In the candlelight his mask was too thin, too much like his face. His chin had fallen. Someone closed his eyes.
I went upstairs and practiced lying stiff, my own eyes and mouth gaping in the dark, and wondered if the silence I heard would go away, if a deeper quiet would come, something Granpa could now hear. I sank backward into my mattress. I felt death like fast water rise and run over my sheets, my pillow, my ears and shoulders, the whole length of me submerged, all but my nose, a lump in the fast surface. I listened until my heart became loud, a meat-faced giant with bloody boots stomping through a village, so I awoke again and practiced not listening. I concentrated on all that was left of me, my open nostrils like two diminishing circles of breath that rose and fell.
Next came the noise of the birds and the light. Already the horizon sizzled. The distant pop and crackle of firecrackers was steadily marked more and more by an echoing boom. I remembered the excitement and the fireworks—it was the Fourth of July—and all the things my brother Rocky taught me that summer: M80s, bottle rockets, sizzlers, ashcans, and bottom-blasters.
Granpa was dead on the Fourth! He had looked like a dead man for so long and though I’d never known him when he wasn’t out of his mind, I couldn’t imagine the Fourth without him. Our entire family, all the Fitzgeralds and the Tomasinos (Aunt Maureen had married an Italian) always staked out the front of the Belleville firehouse with lawn chairs and coolers and boxes of sparklers for anyone who wanted one and all of us came to wave at Granpa in his fire chief’s hat and sash as he rode smiling like a mummy on display and waving from his own beach chair strapped to the roof of the hook and ladder. He’d been chief of the Volunteers for thirty years and honorary Parade Master every Fourth since he retired. The Fourth was the one day he got out of his pajamas. At home, he was skin and bones, his shoulders a hanger draped in a yellowed terrycloth robe as he wandered the house, as quiet as the cats. Dad explained I should treat him more like a four-year-old than a grown-up and be as patient as I would with any of my littlest cousins.
But Granpa and I had a running game of Tom and Jerry. Once I tied kite string around his ankles while he slept sitting up on the couch and when at last he stood, he toppled over the coffee table like a two-by-twelve. He didn’t even have time to put his hands out. Another time I dropped a shrew down the back of his union suit. His hair grew a little long and shaggy now and then and I got my cousins, the little Tomasino twins, Lynnie and Marie, walking tippy-toes and whispering, to put curlers in his hair while he snored. In return, I expected him if I was at my homework in the den or the kitchen having a doughnut. I could smell him or just know he was behind me and turn in time, before he put a gunnysack over my head or screeched in my ear. Once, a fireplace poker came down across my bowl as I lifted a spoonful of Cheerios. Milk went everywhere, onto the walls, the floor behind me, all over my shirt and face. Another time I was at the table doing penmanship when somehow I knew, thanks to an unmistakable sensation, a steak knife was at my temple. What I loved was to be in a quiet room, alone with my baseball cards or a book and realizing he was there too, in the chair next to me or standing with his back to the bookshelves and staring at me, his eyes lit like candles.
When Dad came to me with the news, I was in the living room watching Sunday morning cartoons. I listened politely and turned back to the TV. What concerned me though was the arrival from Vermont of my cousin Doreen, who always came for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth. I was eleven and she was only nine but already in the fifth grade and smarter in her school than anyone. As far as they knew, I tolerated her because she was good at sports, being double-jointed, with quick, wiry little monkey legs. Because she was two years younger and a girl, I didn’t always treat her well, but secretly I loved her more than anyone. Always after she went home, she was all I thought of for weeks, the first thing when I opened my eyes in the morning and again as I had my cereal. For days I had long imaginary conversations with her. She was the last thing at night I saw before I fell asleep.
She was so pretty, it pained me to look at her. Her chin and cheeks and forehead were so perfectly shaped and so empty of freckles I could barely remember what she looked like. She used to squinch her nose and follow me everywhere when she was five, no matter how mean I was. Now her nose was as straight as a line drawn with a ruler and her glasses always slid down so she could peer over at me with her small gray eyes. Sometimes her eyes were green or blue, depending on her mood or the time of day, whether I was telling lies or not, whether she hated or loved me, though I never knew which color meant which.
She must have loved Granpa more than I did. She was crying into a big hanky when she stepped out of the car into the driveway. She wouldn’t look at me, though I’d been waiting for her all morning. She had come straight from church in her white stockings and blue round-toed shoes but when she finally looked at me I was startled at what a mess she was.
Aunt Angela was a mess, too. Her nose-blowing sent all three cats—Spooky, Clumpy, and mine, Ratface—around back. Uncle Paul, in a black suit and black tie, looked like he might be dead, too. He sat bolt upright in the driver’s seat and stared over the wheel after Angela and Doreen left the two passenger doors wide open.
Doreen just stood in the gravel, gripping her hanky. She stared at her shoes, her shoulders all jumpy as she sucked her lips. I looked hard at her and wondered why she was putting on this show. I had waited all morning and now that she was here, I despised her, as if she were some dressed-up circus chimp. Was she the one I loved? I wondered how to get rid of her.
Angela clumped noisily up the steps and pulled my head to her big bosom and squeezed me. She smelled sweet and sweaty, her bare arms hot on my neck for a moment before she ran indoors where the noise, the wailing, thanks to the Italians, began in earnest.
For a long time I stared curiously at Doreen, until I got bored with the pathetic little battle between her lips and her eyes.
“Hi, Doreen,” I said. “You submarine.”
Her gray eyes flashed green outrage and blue injustice. Then she said, “Hi,” and exploded into tears.
I thought of something and ran into the house. When I got back, I had two orange popsicles. She had gotten better hold of herself by then, the hanky and both her hands were in her pockets.
“Popsicle?” I asked.
She scowled. “How can you be thinking about popsicles?”
I looked at her for a long time, almost telling her I was glad Granpa Fitz was dead, then decided against it. I felt lovesick for a second, holding the two melting treats in my fists. Then I hated her again.
“Nothing wrong with popsicles,” I said. “I don’t care who died.”
“Aren’t you even upset?” she said.
“What?” I said, pretending I hadn’t understood.
“Aren’t you upset?” This time she screamed, her fists and front pockets forced down hard into the depths of her lap as she leaned toward me, peering up into my eyes, as if to see the inner dome of my empty skull.
“Why should I?” I shouted.
“Granpa Fitz is dead!”
This made me so angry, my shoulders, my arms, my whole body shook. How could she be such a little lap-dog? Who put her up to this?
“Haven’t you any sense?” I said, mimicking Mom.
“What did you say?” she said.
I could have screamed, but I whispered, “Granpa’s not dead!”
“What?” she said. “You’re sick.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. “You’ll see. At the parade. Granpa wouldn’t miss the parade. Not ever. Even if he was dead.”
Now her eyes were red with hatred. Her mouth was open, gasping for air.
“Cross my heart,” I said as she watched. I dragged my finger twice across my shirt. “Hope to die.”
There was such a fuss all morning. Two reporters from the Belleville Sentinel, the EMTs, the county coroner, the police and all the stupid little second-cousins in their church clothes came marching back and forth past us as Doreen and I sat on the porch in sunlight. We had covered a lot of ground by then.
“I can’t imagine what it’s all about,” I said and stood up. “Mom knows. So does Pop. I don’t see why everyone’s faking.”
Normally Doreen took a superior attitude whenever I got into a fix as ridiculous as this, but what pleasure our secret gave her by now. She peered intelligently down her perfect nose through her lenses at the yard, as if the inexplicable situation were some iridescent insect crawling across a slate. By then I had so easily enlisted her that I was unbearably bored. Where was Rocky? The morning before, he and Bean, his best friend, dragged me out of bed and assigned me a bag of dinged golfballs to carry down through the woods by the country club, where Bean buried the capped butt of a lead pipe in a mound of dirt. A hundred yards away, beyond an electric fence and a meadow, was the target we could see with Beanie’s binoculars. When everything was ready, he struck a match and held it while he peered through his binoculars with the other hand. Once he shouted FIRE, Rocky set an M80 to the flame then dropped it into the pipe. I shoved in a golfball and we dove for cover.
That was fun. There had been no wind and Rocky had our cannon calibrated so that pretty soon we hit the tee every shot. After the blast Bean jumped to his feet with his spyglasses and watched the old guys tee up, smoking cigars, climbing in and out of their carts oblivious to the white ordnance that bounced in their midst and danced into the high trees. Bean wouldn’t let us touch his binoculars but he gave a full report of what happened each time and Rocky made adjustments. Before long we were rolling in the dirt. One big fat guy Bean called Butterballs was so slow-moving we took three shots at him.
“Once,” Doreen said, interrupting my thoughts, “I heard Mommy say how rich she’ll be once Daddy kicks off. They both laughed but I didn’t think it was funny. Dad said if he could just convince the insurance company (Doreen looked gravely at me when she said these two words) into believing he’d fallen into the incinerator at the garbage plant, we could live like royalty. Daddy said he’d grow a long beard and come back to get hired as her gardener. That was really all he ever wanted anyway, to just dig in the dirt like a dumb old gardener.”
She put the palms of her hands up and looked at me with big eyes. I wondered if I should ditch her and head now for the woods or wait until Rocky came for me. Rocky was always out of the house before all of us. He might not even know about Granpa yet and I suspected I knew where to find him. But shouldn’t they have come and got me? Maybe Bean couldn’t get any more M80s.
“Maybe Granpa just wants to fool the insurance company so we can all live like royalty,” she said and put her chin on her knee. I could see her thinking, how do royalty live? I had no clue either and before long I went down the steps to kick gravel out of the driveway onto the lawn. After she said a few more stupid things I realized I was furious at her for buying in so easily, but when I looked at her sideways she caught my eye, becoming suspicious at once.
“Granpa’s dead,” she hissed and her lip began to waver. I hated her so much then I shivered.
“He is not, stupid.”
“Is too!” She spit the words at my feet.
“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. “At the parade.”
“You won’t!” she said, without looking up.
“Goddamn you to hell,” I said. “You’ll see.”
At noon Mrs. Falato arrived, trailed by her sons Mark and Paul with huge trays of ham, roast beef and sliced cheeses in their arms. They ran back out and returned with another tray of subs and three cases of root beer. Doreen and I had made tentative peace by then and ate in a hurry on the porch. The commotion inside, the crying, the laughter and the drinking (the liquor cabinet had been opened early in the morning) reached a hysterical volume. When we were done we hid our plates under the hedge and charged through the Whalens’ yard out to London Road and ran the whole way into town. Our place in front of the firehouse was already taken so we ran for a long time on the sidewalk, through the dense crowd of families past the Comet Market, the Presbyterian Church, past Albee’s stationers and the hardware store.
“Wait!” said Doreen and stopped and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. I breathed fast too, but waved at her to come. The parade was about to start and we wouldn’t see a thing. When she pointed up behind me, I knew what she meant. No one was up by the flag yet except a fifth grader named Jamison who was bouncing a basketball against the pole. We ran and ducked through the gate and up the steps and arrived in full sunshine with a perfect view.
We claimed our places on the wall. We sat a minute until I said, “Save my seat” and ran back down the stairs and under the rail again, through the crowd and into Albee’s where I found myself looking up at the counter and a Styrofoam pyramid bristling with twenty-five-cent flags. Mr. Albee had turned to the top shelf for sun lotion a woman in a straw hat had asked about. In no hurry, I reached for a flag for Doreen. Then took one for me. Mr. Albee was still searching the shelf. I waited and watched him. A second later I was outside in the sunshine again, lost in the crowd. Flags waved everywhere. Everyone was all smiles. It must have been the warmest, sunniest, friendliest day in the history of America. When I heard the drums my heart nearly burst. Already our wall was a throng of kids and I charged up the steps to find Jamison standing in my spot next to Doreen.
“Hey!” I said and she looked at him sullenly.
“He’s just there till you get back,” she said.
“No, I ain’t,” he said. He had the basketball under his arm and a stripe of chocolate went from his mouth almost to his ear. He looked at me and tossed a crumpled Hershey’s wrapper into the crowd below.
“That’s my spot,” I said but he just smiled and gave me the finger.
When the trumpets sounded everyone turned, even Jamison, and I shoved him so hard he fell over an empty stroller. His basketball went bouncing onto the road. He was too surprised to even cry and the last I saw of him some adults with a picnic basket and a baby had jostled him out of the way.
“You’ll see,” I said and turned to give Doreen a flag. I said it again as the VFW brass came marching down the hill and she turned her eyes from me. Despite the excitement, the brass were a dull gang in suits and sashes and I would have shouted something rude if not for the majorette who marched in front. She was a lady I never saw except on the Fourth. I wondered who she was, embarrassed and thrilled by her tall white hat and feather, the black curls that framed her pretty pointed face, the short white marching skirt as it flapped about her thighs and her white boots that went up and up past her knees. She twirled the baton over her head, around her back and through her legs. I stared and stared at the white gloves over the elbows of her otherwise bare arms, hypnotized by a strange desire, and could find no escape from her until the Vietnam vets finally hit the drums at the hilltop. Then they sounded the trumpets and tubas and their fabulous band played medleys of tunes like “I Feel Good” and “Shake That Thing” and a jazzy version of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
We had to stand on our toes to see Jonah O’Neil. He was the most famous war hero in Belleville now because of the things he had done in Vietnam and the collection of mementos everyone said he kept in a safe in his mom’s basement. Rocky once said Jonah had eyes like a cruel retard, which had given me nightmares, but he looked pitiful and bloated when I finally saw him, with giant elephant legs, the purple nose, his face the color of a spoiled ham. No one laughed at him as he marched in his fatigues, which were tight enough to burst the buttons and zippers, or the green beret bobby-pinned to the side of his head.
Next came the Korean War vets. Granpa had been a major in Korea and these were his best pals. Like the group before them, they followed Old Glory but all had their jaws squared and their corsairs tilted jauntily on their heads. Mr. Reid, who was a Scot and must have done something in Korea as well marched alongside them in a kilt and a bearskin busby. Mostly because of the busby, they got warm applause.
Amidst all the shouting and applause and laughter, the crying, the squealing babies, the sea of flags, the noise of the bands and the fire engine strobing red and blue intermittently beyond the hill, Doreen had been silent. Now and then she stood on tip-toes for a minute to scan the crowd. Once I got tired and sat down next to her feet. Her knees and her ankles in those little white socks were so pretty I wanted to close my eyes.
“Granpa rides the hook-and-ladder,” I said, looking up at her. Since she obviously knew, she didn’t bother to answer. I wanted to tell her Granpa never marched with the WWII vets either, when they came down the hill, but that would have been pointless also. All of them—except Mr. Cleary, who had lung cancer— had always looked bigger and stronger than him. They carried an attitude of victory and heroism in a way none of the others who had come before them had and a hush came over the crowd. No one shouted. Everyone stared at this, the largest troop of all, white-haired, bone-skinny or pot-bellied old geezers in sashes and corsairs marching silently below us as I tried to imagine all the Krauts and Japs they must have killed.
This year only three from WWI were alive. They rode in a racing blue Corvette convertible driven nervously by Lucy Farr, the prom queen who must have just gotten her license. Mr. Pilsen, who was ninety-two, kept standing in the tiny back seat to throw kisses and wave his flag but Mr. Stuart who sat in front in a kaiser hat turned around every few seconds and pushed him down into his seat. The other old guy, whose name I didn’t know, seemed asleep in the back as he slouched forward, resting his big strawberry of a nose on Lucy’s shoulder.
After that came the Civil War cannons. They were pulled by horses, the big wooden spokes in a blur followed by a dozen ponies of the Kilsy Civil War & Cavalry Club. The ponies were mounted this year by Union riders with blue uniforms, sabers, black boots and white gloves. All kinds of things came next—three librarians from the public library; Boy Scout troop number 111; the Belleville Brownies; the Masons; the Farr County Clown Club. The freshmen marching band, in torn-up, ketchup-stained blouses and bandages, canvas knickers and tricornered hats came near the end and sent a wave of laughter and applause through the crowd by playing their disorganized “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with tin whistles, flutes, a parade drum, a triangle and a bugle. It seemed the whole thing would never end when a cheer went up that was so loud Doreen covered her ears and sat down. I tapped her shoulder and handed her my flag. The cheer went up again and I realized the firemen marching in front of the engines, Irishmen to a man, were singing. The crowd all up and down the street began to sway and join in too, though by then whatever it was sounded more like a brawl than a song.
As the hook-and-ladder approached I could barely see over the shoulders of the grown-ups. The third cheer was so loud I had to scream at Doreen. She took my hand and I leapt to my toes in time to see Granpa’s sash and the fire hat laid out on the seat of his empty lawn chair, which had been duct-taped to the roof over the red cab and floated away from us, far out in the middle, like a toy boat on a wide colorful river.
Doreen let go of my hand. I looked up the street and down toward St. Paul’s. The commotion was everywhere the same. Everyone in the world had crowded onto the streets of Belleville. Weekenders from Boston and New York and Montreal had come for a peek at our majorette, our soldiers, our hook-and-ladder bearing an empty lawn chair dressed with a red fire chief’s hat and a green sash. For a minute the noise and crowd were complete, a deafening loneliness, the same as the silence I heard in the morning in my bed, after concentrating so long on the puzzle of Granpa’s absence.
Doreen sat at my feet and covered her ears again. It was the strangest thing, that Granpa Fitz was dead, as if something too big to see had changed—and changed everything else in ways that were too small to see. I sat down next to her, only half intending cruelty as I whispered into her delicate hair, but she shook her head, eyes closed, hands over her ears, to stop me.
I tried again but she was trapped by something. She kept her ears covered and shook and shook her head. I waited, until a platoon of state troopers on Harley Davidsons cleared the road with their metal thunder and brought me to my feet. Rocky loved motorcycles more than anything on earth. More than God. Almost as much as he loved Granpa. You could never say anything against Granpa or the Ultra Glides when Rocky was around. Where the hell was he? Shouldn’t someone find him? And tell him? Did he know? I searched the crowd for him but it was pointless. I checked the front of the firehouse. I watched the formation of white helmets pass below us and disappear into a rumble in the crowd, then turned back to the confusion up the street. Everywhere a thousand red, white and blue flags waved. When I saw Doreen’s hands over her face, I figured at least now she could hear.
I knelt and said, “Hello, Doreen. You jelly bean. Did you see him?”
She turned a savage, unfocused glare at me. She stared at my mouth now, hating me with perfect reason, as if I’d led her into a dangerous place then run off and left her.
“Did you?” she answered. “Did you, honestly?” Something in her eyes scared me.
I almost said it was a stupid question and didn’t matter anyway. She had been such a sucker. In a moment of violent confusion I had to stand, turning my back on her, and run to the flagpole which I kicked and kicked. I began to shake and the shaking took hold of me until my nose itched. I rubbed it furiously with the backs of my hands but my cheeks got hotter, my lips and all the muscles from my nose to my chin cinched tight by the time she called me, and asked me again.
When I turned she was standing with both flags in her hand, as if offering me a flower. I showed her a fist and said I would strangle her, anything to shut her up. I pointed a finger too close to her eye. She only frowned and crossed her arms. Then she scrunched her nose and looked past me over her glasses.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Peter Brown from A Bright Soothing noise
During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or they bowed— and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most minuscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.
But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.
The purpose of binding women’s feet, as I’m sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women’s bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters’ feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.
Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.
One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. “Where have you been, Little Brother?” Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.
“Swimming,” said Changming.
Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?
“I’m learning,” her brother said. “At school. At school I am learning to swim.”
“At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school.”
“I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school.”
“The pool at school,” she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. “The pool at school,” she said again.
When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.
“Papa,” she said. “I want to learn to swim.”
Her father’s eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.
“Females do not swim,” he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.
Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.
“I want to. I believe it will be good for me.”
“Females have no need to swim,” her father countered.
“I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim.”
Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. “What is this need?” he asked. “Have we not provided you with everything you need?”
“No, Papa,” she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. “You see, my Lotus shoes”—by which she meant her deformed feet—“prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world.”
“Desirous,” Papa said. “Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband.”
“Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim.”
Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father’s favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.
“Must?” her father said.
“I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it.”
“Must and must again.”
She said nothing.
“Your need is strong.”
She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.
“So be it,” he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.
The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.
She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.
Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.
Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she’d visited.
She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.
She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.
Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he’d been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength. But he also thought: She must never have loved us. Any of us.
Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Temporium by Kelly Cherry.
Ben was my summer boyfriend, my “older man,” Mom called him. He was twelve, and I was eleven, a skinny eleven, though I believed my breasts appeared acceptable to those who mattered. He lived usually with his mother in Florida. He had a beautiful red face with a scar outlining his jaw from once playing basketball and diving into the pavement. He was known as a diver, though he didn’t swim. He even refused to stick his ankles in the baby pool my parents packed with beer and Coke for their parties.
The first Monday of summer, Mom stayed home from work. She had me on trial. Would she have to take a leave or could she trust me alone? No money for a sitter. In our neighborhood, kids ran around like abandoned animals, but we knew to be civilized when we had to.
I made lunch in the microwave, not the stove, which Dad said had the potential to explode when used by small hands. Cheese warmed between two slices of bread. I ate in the living room, reading about different breeds of cats and humming. Multi-tasking. Mom had the television on in the basement. She already pounded up the stairs once to check on me. She was having fun, pretending to care.
After lunch, Ben turned up outside the picture window carrying some pillowcases. With my hand on the doorframe, I swung toward him and we kissed for the first time in nine months.
“You smell like cheese.” He gave me a pillowcase, which was smooth and fancy. “I need to borrow your backyard.”
At the top of the staircase, I yelled to my mother, “I’m heading to be responsible out back.”
“I’ll be watching,” she called.
Ben went toward the pine trees, where so many years’ worth of needles covered the ground. He dropped to his knees and shoveled piles of them into his pillowcase. He said his dad had a new girlfriend who carried a tape measure in her purse. “At breakfast she measured my height.”
“How tall are you?” I asked. Some kids in the neighborhood called him a shorty. Whenever I brought him up they said, “That shorty?” though never to his face.
“The girlfriend asked if I knew you. She called you ‘That silly girl who ties something around her chest.’ She said that’s not what breasts are supposed to look like.”
“As if she knows.” I sat cross-legged in the needles and sorted out the sharpest. They were increasingly snappy the further down the pile. “Breasts don’t all look the same.”
“They had a conversation about it.” Ben filled another pillowcase. “Dad called your breasts ‘hypothetical.’ Or, I don’t know, ‘parenthetical.’ ”
“Your house is a house of hysterics.”
Mom came outside with a watering can. She watered the yellowed weeds near the back porch, watching us. Ben waved and smiled at her, and she took it as an invitation.
“I wondered when someone would have the initiative.” She nodded at the stuffed pillowcases. “Garbage bags would hold more.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ben said. “It so happens I have a need for needles just as you have a need to be rid o’ them.”
She gave me a look like we were weird. I groaned as she went for the bags. “I’m officially on the chain gang.”
“What’s wrong with her wrist?” he asked.
“Don’t look at my mother.”
“It’s the color my chin turned a few days after I messed it up.”
I took a handful of pine needles. “You’re a crappy boyfriend.”
He took my hand and brushed away the needles. He had a crazy eye that twitched occasionally. “You’re a good kid.” He kissed me quick on the cheek, watching the backdoor.
With trash bags of pine needles, I followed Ben across the street. The needles pricked through my shirt, but I didn’t complain. Up a narrow stairwell and down a short stuffy hall, I wondered which room was his and what it would be like to follow him in and close the door behind us.
Instead, I watched him empty four bags of needles onto his father’s sheets. We smoothed the comforter over top so no one could tell what was beneath, and he showed me three small holes in the comforter.
“You notice things better left unnoticed,” I said.
We heard the front door open, and my mother, “Mary, you shouldn’t be here!”
“Come to the park,” I told Ben. “Everyone’s there.”
“That doesn’t excite me.” He fluffed one of the pine-needled pillows. The bed was prickly and splotched. “Have fun with your ugly friends.”
Instead, I went home with Mom, my wrists crossed behind my back like they’d been handcuffed. “You know how to be nice, young lady,” she said. Boys’ homes were enemy territory.
I sprawled on the living room carpet until almost dinner. Dad’s car pulled into the drive. “There’s a gorgeous girl on my floor!” The screen door snapped behind him. He took off his shoes. “How’s my doll?”
“Tired and dirty.” I turned away from him, toward the kitchen. Mom was making sloppy joes.
“Your mother still mad at me?
I didn’t answer. He tiptoed over me, though there was room to go around.
“Let me see it,” I heard him say. I closed my eyes. All afternoon, Ben hadn’t kissed me. There was a bed. There was his anger. I imagined how it would feel, climbing into a soft space and getting pricked with a thousand needles. It was almost my turn.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Jessica Hollander from In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place.
My cat is in the driveway, gnawing on fine bones. The rain has begun: a warm muzzled sound, large soft drips, not the rapid dark downpour of yesterday. Everything wet and green, sopping, soaking.
My cat comes in, sits on the desk where I write. His paw leaves a pale red print on the page. He wants to be scratched behind the ears, he splays himself belly up for extra attention. He thinks he lives a fine life and he does. Inside he is petted and catered to; outside he lives the secret life of a hunter.
Meat Eaters and Plant Eaters: my son has divided his dinosaurs into two collections, counts how many he has in each. Plant eaters are more pot-bellied we learn: huge stomachs to process all that scruffy plant material.
Meat Eaters are leaner, tougher, their bodies efficient hunting machines. My son likes the meat eaters best: their jagged teeth, fierce open jaws, arms outstretched for prey. He prefers predators to prey, words he’s recently learned.
But in the morning: “Mom? What is that? What did I step on?”
And I clean his bare foot and the rug, now blood-stained, of the gizzards our cat left behind during the night. My son stares at what I flush away. “Was it a mouse?” “Yes, I think so.”
It’s summer and the dead things are multiplying: mice, a chipmunk, and if we are very unlucky: a small bird, its downy feathers floating in the house for days, like milkweed seeds come to rest.
The cat has retired to the closet, kneads a sweater that’s fallen over the tips of shoes. The pawing sets him purring, and soon he is curled into himself to sleep away the day.
“Are we going to die?” We are brushing our teeth, a ritual my son performs reluctantly, especially in the morning. “Are we going to die?” he asks again.
“Yes, but . . . not for a long long long time, not for maybe 100 years . . .”
“NO! We’re not, we’re never going to die.”
Silence—we’re both thinking—and then the question again: “Are we going to die?”
I hesitate—he’s only five. “Yes, but . . .”
“NO!” and he pounds on my chest. What he doesn’t like he tries to pound right out of me. I know I need to talk to him about not hitting when he’s mad, but for now I take the pounds. I go soft, evasive. “Maybe we won’t die . . .” He must know I’m just saying that because he wants me to, I rationalize.
“Never. We’re never going to die.”
“Maybe . . .”
“Maybe means no. We’re not going to die.”
And that decides it. For now anyway. He’s off to his bedroom, where his dinosaurs are. Craaak! I hear them crashing into one another, the Tyrannosaurus charging the Triceratops, but the Triceratops has horns and a thick skin, he may be able to get away alive. The swift meat eater catches him by the back leg, his teeth sink in; he bites a huge chunk of Triceratops; the poor plant eater will slowly die.
“I’m just going to drink water,” my son tells me over lunch.
“And why is that?”
“Because if you drink water, you won’t die.”
I nod, wondering how he’s reached this conclusion,
then remember a book we read recently about the human body: we can live for so many days without food, but without water, we die. I pour another glass for him, glad that he prefers water to soda, at least for now.
From my window I catch sight of the cat outside. I watch him circle something in the tall grass. Quietly he paces, his circle tightening, closing in, and then quite suddenly he leaps, back arched. He’s got something— though I can’t see what—between his paws.
We find the something on the bathroom floor—this time abandoned, not eaten or opened, not even a bloody scar: a tiny brown field mouse, its tail a long wire. My son stares at it, watches as I gather it in a paper towel. “Is it alive? Are you going to let it go outside?” I nod, though I’m unsure whether it’s dead or just stunned. I take the small bundle downstairs to thrust out the back door under the bushes outside.
“Did it get away?” my son asks.
I tell him that it did, though I didn’t really see.
“Big plant-eating dinosaurs gulped down stones as they ate. The stones stayed in the gut, helping the stomach muscles grind leaves and twigs into a soft sticky stew of plants. Dinosaurs, such as Apatosaurus, could digest this stew more easily,” I read from the thick book we got from the library, All About Dinosaurs.
“Apatosaurus used to be Brontosaurus. Read about the meat eaters now, Mom.”
“Allosaurus had large eyes, nearly twice the size of those of the much bigger meat eater, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Above the eyes was a bony flap forming an eye ridge, possible to shade its eyes from the sun. Allosaurus had about 40 teeth in its upper jaw and 32 in its lower jaw. They were up to four inches long and their front and back edges were sharp and serrated, like steak knives, for slicing through flesh. As they wore out or broke, new teeth grew in their place . . .” I read on. The words do not seem to be putting my son to sleep; he’s alert, intent on processing anything new we might learn. Our cat slips into the room through the closet door. He’s found his way in, as he usually does, through the crawl space that leads through the attic, the attached garage, to the outside. He jumps onto the bed where we’re sitting, slinks past us, his fur brushing against us in turn, as he makes his way to the end. He kneads himself a warm spot, and soon he is curled into himself, purring softly. My son likes that his bed has become the cat’s favored resting spot.
“Shut the door Mom,” he tells me as soon as I close the book.
I do, and from the other side I hear him slip out of the bed I’ve tucked him into, slam the closet door closed, then slip back in between covers. Now the cat is trapped in the room—no secret passageway to the nightworld outside. Most likely he hasn’t realized this yet. I wonder how long he’ll indulge my son, tolerate his constant stroking. For now they lie, two warm bodies fitted into one another: one purring, one stroking, soon twitching and dreaming.
*Jessica Treat, “Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters” from Meat Eaters & Plant Eaters. Copyright ©2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.
Way over there, the boy could see them, in the deep end, his mother and the man his mother said he’d better stop calling Dan Dog. They were all the way over there, doing what his mother told him was the dead man’s float. He could do it too, she said, no reason in the world, she said, no reason not to just swim over to the deep end and float.
“Try that I can’t swim,” he’d said to his mother as she bobbed
“Well, palley-walley, it’s you who’s making the big mistake,” she said before she rolled over and spread out her arms.
He could see them in their sprawl, Dan Dog’s legs sunk down
in the water, the straps of his mother’s swimsuit in a drifty signature around her.
When he saw the man lift his face up, he shouted, “Hey Dan Dog, fetch this.” The man took a closed-eyed breath and lay his billowed face back down in the water.
The boy stood on the pool steps and opened his arms. He wore wings, blown-up, electric-orange wings, bunched on his arms.
“Here I go,” he shouted.
He leaped. He bounced on his tiptoes till he came to the place where the bottom sloped steeply. It had a pull, he could feel it, the deep end, a suck that the boy knew wanted to get him. He doggie-paddled back to the stairs. Tucking his legs up, he kept himself down in his tuck and squatted his way up to the top step.
The man rolled on his back, his feet pointing straight up, the way the boy had seen a man float on a morning cartoon.
“Dan Dog,” he shouted, singsong. “Roll over, Dan Dog.”
His mother lifted her face for air, squinching open her eyes, then she dove under in a clean pike. The boy could see her below water arranging her swimsuit and he guessed she would break surface just where she broke the surface, squeezing herself up in a rush through the man’s legs.
“Hey!” said the man. “What the fuck?”
His mother downed the man in a swift dunk.
“You didn’t hear that, did you?” she called over to the boy. “Come on,” she said. “Am I ever going to see you swim or what?”
The boy saw a pawed hand come out of the water and pull his mother under in a quick yank. She popped up, blowing water in a snorty laugh. The man popped up beside his mother, whipping her swimsuit top in a skim on the water, and the boy heard him bark into her hair, “I’m going to get you bad.”
“Look at me, Dan Dog!” the boy shouted from the top step, where he stood making half flaps with his winged arms.
“Look, pal,” said his mother, flattening out on her back, “what did we say about that?” She sculled in place and then did a little watery arabesque, her body folding and sinking slightly. “I haven’t done all this in I don’t know how many years,” she said, coming back up, her shut face, the boy could see, cresting just on top of the water.
“If you throw a brand-new baby in water, it will swim,” said the man. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. I mean, we’re practically fish for Christ’s sake,” he said and tossed the strappy swim top out onto the pool deck.
“I’m not a fish, Dan Dog. Do I look like a fish?” said the boy.
The mother said, “I’ve got you, really,” and pushed off against the side of the pool. “Trust me,” she said, stretching her arms out above her head. “See, the water holds you up.”
“I’m not a fish,” insisted the boy.
He pulled and the nylon squeaked, stuck and sticking against the boy’s wet skin before the wings came off.
They could just forget about his going in, but the boy knew they were not forgetting—the way they kept lifting their faces, calling to him to join them in the dead man’s float. He would—no matter what they said to him—just not go in.
“Fine,” said his mother, “be that way.”
The boy was out again, doing his tiptoed best.
Whatever they said, his mother and the man, Dan Dog, the boy could feel the drain’s pull. Even back here, on the shallow steps where he’d crab walked himself over to, there was the drain’s suck, sucking him over to the deep end, where his mother hung on Dan Dog’s back while Dan Dog did pull-ups on the diving board.
Really, it was proof, wasn’t it? His furred neck, and the way he shook himself off, water spraying out just like water shook from a dog, wasn’t that proof, really?
“I used to do a hundred,” the man said, yanking himself up in what looked to the boy to be a motion from the same cartoon where the big bad guy had the little woman and she was holding on for her dear, good life.
His mother squealed.
“Twenty-five, twenty-six,” the man yanked, “twenty-seven, twenty-fuck, twenty-shit, oh shit!” he said, letting go, and the boy watched the joined splash of his mother and the man and the sink and sunk shape of them still joined, over in the deep end.
“Oh, Dan Dog,” he called. “Ruff, ruff, Dan Dog.” The man was facedown in his dead man’s float. His mother was floating on her back, her hands cupped and sculling close to her side. If they were dead men and dogs in the deep end, the boy wondered what that made him over in the shallow end.
“Check this out,” he called, flapping his wingless arms. Then he dropped his arms and called out, “You know, I’m a human, too.”
“Make me do things,” said his mother.
The boy sat on the steps.
“Say anything and I’ll do it—it’ll be fun,” the mother said. She was treading water.
The boy said, “Okay, be Mom.”
The mother splashed over. “You know, you’re a real pill. Come on, can we have a little fun or what? Please, just give me a thrill, just say, ‘do a crab’ or say, ‘do the bunny breaststroke.’ It will be fun, really. Okay? Please.” His mother stretched out flat on her back and did a flutter kick over to where the man floated.
The boy said, “Okay, fine, be the ocean,” but his mother had already rolled over into her dead man’s float.
It seemed to the boy that they were hardly coming up for air—Dan Dog’s back looked swollen and pink, his mother strapless and drifting slightly under—neither raising for full enough breaths and neither lift¬ing, now, very much at all.
The boy called, “I say be an octopus,” and when his mother did not stir, he said, “I’m playing. Okay, Mom, I’m playing now.”
The boy walked around the edge of the pool, his bare feet pumiced by the cement. It felt good to the boy to be over here by the deep end of the pool and safe too, looking out there back to the shallow end. He saw one wing floating, orange and puffed, by the steps. The other he could not find, till he found it shored, electric, under the man’s arm, black hair seaweeded thickly over it.
His mother floated right in front of him. He thought that if he just leaned over he could touch her; for good luck he might just give her a little touch; he might touch the clean, white stripe of skin on her back for extra good luck. He did it and she startled, roiled, rolling over with her legs kicking and her arms grabbing up, raising herself as his mother would in alarm. The boy was holding on to something hard of her.
“Oh, it’s you,” he heard her say. Then he felt the seizing under-tow and knew that about his position in the animal kingdom he had been right.
*Victoria Redel, “Make Me Do Things” from Make Me Do Things. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
The first time Heloise saw Mitch, he was standing beside the vending machines in the hospital cafeteria, angular and fresh in his puckery clean white scrubs. She had come in for a Coke and chips, not that she wanted either, only the excuse to escape her rounds with the hospital chaplain and her classmates from the Divinity School. It freaked her out how much she was attracted by the misery of the people in those rooms. The stumps. The scars. The pins. Unlike her classmates, she couldn’t force herself to ask a patient’s name, sit by a bed, and hold a hand. All she wanted to do was stand by the door and stare.
She fled to the cafeteria and stood sipping her Coke, trying to remember why she had wanted a degree in religion in the first place. As an undergrad, she had taken courses in paintings of the Renaissance, the poetry of Donne and Blake. The next thing she knew, she was a student at Harvard Div, tagging along behind a stocky Congregationalist minister and a bunch of sincerely devoted ministers-to-be, all of whom wanted to offer dying people the comforting words of Christ.
She looked up and saw Mitch. He twisted apart an Oreo, scraped the icing with his teeth, and studied her as if he were diagnosing some disease. Absently, he curled his wrist to stroke the shiny head of the stethoscope around his neck. She suspected he could put that instrument to her chest and discover things about her that she didn’t know herself. Like maybe she had a better heart than she thought she did.
“So you really believe in God?”
She must have looked startled.
“Upstairs,” he said. “I saw you with the other student ministers.”
She knew that the accepted way to eat an Oreo was to split the layers and lick the icing, but she always had preferred biting the entire cookie. Not that she had eaten an Oreo since she was five.
“So, do you?” Mitch asked again. “I’ve never met anyone our age who believes in God.”
“I’m trying,” Heloise said. “But sometimes I have to wonder if God believes in me.”
Opposites attract. Everyone said it. Mitch was tall and she was short. He was fair and she was unfair. Mitch had never had a girlfriend, while Heloise had been having tortured romances since her senior year in high school, when she had instigated an affair with the witty bisexual black man who taught history in her town. She tended to earn good grades, but each success came hard. Mitch was healthy, handsome, smart. He had grown up in a loving family and won scholarships to MIT and Harvard Med. He was a non-believing Jew who put his trust in antibiotics and NMRs; she was a half-assed Unitarian trying to justify her faith in a supposedly loving God.
So yes, opposites did attract. The question no one ever asked was: How long can they stay attracted? What were people, magnets? That was why so many marriages fell apart. For a few years, in your twenties, you thought you could be your opposite. People who were weary of their madness married people who promised peace. People bored with their own stability married spouses who were sure to shake things up. But souls could only stretch so far, for so long.
Still, their marriage might have worked. She admired Mitch. She loved him. She hoped his goodness might rub off on her. Really, there was nothing wrong with the man except that he had never suffered, and what kind of flaw was that? She might have survived forever as a sort of Persephone in reverse, tolerating three seasons a year with Mitch in his cheery sunlit world, if only she had been allowed an occasional brief fling in Hades. But she depended on Mitch for everything. They moved when he got his fellowship, and later when he got his first job, and still later when he became chief of anesthesiology at the largest hospital in Troy, New York. She finally found the time to work on her dissertation, an overly ambitious attempt to understand the appeal of martyrdom in Judeo-Christian art. But this meant she stayed at home mired in confused ideas about sex, despair, and strange deaths, while Mitch spent his days and nights in an unambiguously bright OR, where everything was clean and measured—the rise and fall of a patient’s chest, the unwavering needle on a clear-faced dial.
They moved so many times that she misplaced her friends along the way, like the measuring spoons she had inherited from her aunt and the tablecloth her mother had embroidered before she died. With no friends of her own, Heloise was forced to borrow Mitch’s. Like Mitch, they loved to hike. All that greenery and dirt made up for their sterile days in the hospital’s harsh blank corridors. Most of Mitch’s friends had been Boy Scouts in their youth, and even in their thirties they still radiated the boyish confidence and sincerity Heloise associated with that group. Camping or not, Mitch acted as if nothing could go wrong so long as he made sure to carry the right equipment and keep a clear head. At least once a month, the surgeons and dieticians planned some sort of trek, and Mitch and Heloise trekked along with them. On regular weekend nights, everyone got together for potluck dinners, although the two-doctor couples could have afforded to cook—it drove Heloise nuts, the way Mitch’s friends pretended they weren’t rich. Still, she always prepared a dish and went. And when everyone else got pregnant, Heloise and Mitch got pregnant, too.
A year after Eunice was born, Heloise and Mitch planned a trip with another couple. The other mother, Deb, showed them a brochure that had been printed on recycled paper. “It’s called Sunshine Lodge,” she explained. “It’s on a mountain up north. Everything’s solar powered. The owners keep llamas, goats, and sheep. There’s a playroom for the kids, a sauna and hot tub for us, and an orchard with miles and miles of cross-country trails.”
Later, Heloise scolded herself for not knowing better than to spend her vacation at a petting zoo. She hated cross-country skiing. Why make a sport of the exhausting horizontal slog a downhill skier was forced to endure from the parking lot to the lift? But Mitch was too deliberate to enjoy skiing downhill. He loved getting out in the woods, pouring cups of cocoa, and watching the snow sift prettily through the trees. Oh well. You couldn’t crash down a black-diamond slope with a toddler on your back.
“We have an extra kiddie-pack you can borrow,” Deb offered. “That way, you can ski with Eunice, and Hank can carry Inga.”
Deb and her husband, Hank, were a warm good-natured couple. Heloise didn’t dislike them. They signed petitions. They volunteered. They were just a little too earnest. It wasn’t as if their lives were untroubled. Deb’s father was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s and Hank’s parents were dead. Deb was a neurologist; Hank specialized in eyes. They saw heartbreak every day. But these troubles didn’t seem to trouble them. It was as if they were standing in the rain, talking about how wet they were getting, but you could see the water rolling right off their Gore-Tex shells.
It was five in the afternoon before they left. An hour north of Albany, Hank steered the Volvo off the highway and maneuvered it past a shabby snowmobile showroom and a general store and bait shop that sat clustered around the exit like hoboes around a fire. Hank drove for another hour up a narrow gravel road that ought to have brought them somewhere more worthwhile—San Francisco, say, or Heaven—than the remains of a barn and silo and a sign that said SUNSHINE LODGE with a smiling sunflower-face below.
The buildings were squat and dull. A ski lodge ought to be quaint, oughtn’t it? Oughtn’t it have a gable or two? Some gingerbread? The man behind the desk was as round and timid as a friar; he even had a tonsure like a monk’s, although it turned out he had struck it rich with a computer start-up, then left the whole technology rat-race and gone back to simpler things.
“Greetings, wayfarers,” he mumbled, then inked their names with a quill pen in a ledger. Showing them their rooms, he barely said a word, but later, when he took them on a tour, he couldn’t seem to shut up—organic this, self-composting that, vegetables kept warm and lush beneath their Plexiglas pods, a hot-tub kept hot with power from the sun. Index cards in lavender calligraphy were tacked beside each fixture, detailing what a person should or shouldn’t throw in, the proper way to stoke a stove, what lotions and perfumes mustn’t pollute the tub.
Heloise and Deb carried their children to the game room while Mitch and Hank lugged in the duffle bags and portacribs, the collapsible highchairs, the diaper bags, wipes, and diapers, the juice boxes, bottles, snacks, and pacifiers. A mother, Heloise decided, was a woman who remembered to bring her daughter’s six favorite stuffed toys but neglected to pack underwear for herself.
“Isn’t this place just perfect?” Deb said, tugging off the hiking boots she wore whenever she wasn’t at the hospital. She settled on the rug, swirling her skirts around her. Heloise tried not to hold it against her that she still styled her hair in a pageboy and never tweezed her brows. Inga, a chunky blonde toddler nearly twice Eunice’s size, although both girls were eighteen months, grabbed a wood spindle and began setting one hand-carved ring atop the next, from the largest to the smallest. It amazed Heloise, the way Inga always seemed to know what a toddler was supposed to do. Eunice clumsily grabbed the smallest ring and jammed it in her mouth. To avoid suffering further damage to her illusion that her daughter wasn’t developmentally delayed, Heloise wandered to a table where a guest had pieced together a puzzle of a busy New England town. Heloise finge ed the centermost piece, which bore the image of a parson. When Inga began to wail, Heloise slipped the parson in her vest pocket before turning to convince her daughter to give up the smallest ring.
Another child came in. She was eight or nine, with a pasty face and lank brown hair. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Alice,” and began to tell the new arrivals about her sisters. “They’re twins,” she said. “But they’re special twins. Everyone who meets them loves them.” Something in her voice brought to Heloise’s mind a carnival barker, or God help her, a pimp.
The door to the game room opened and Alice’s sisters tumbled in. They wore identical purple stretch-pants and yellow shirts. They were hugging, Heloise thought. Then she realized their connection was more intimate than that. They were joined by a thick band of flesh from their navels to their necks; they held their inner arms draped around each, with the rest of their bodies opening outward like a book. The sister on the left seemed flushed with life and strong, but the other sister’s skin was as transparent as tracing paper and her head lolled to one side.
Alice ran across the room and threw both arms around both girls. “Here they are! This one is Sarah”—she indicated the stronger of the twins—“and this one’s Meribeth.”
“Yesterday was our birthday,” they said together. Or maybe not together. Meribeth spoke first and Sarah echoed, although sometimes Sarah spoke first and Meribeth chimed in. At other times, one girl pronounced the first few words of a sentence and her twin sister completed the idea.
“We’re having a party when we get back home.”
“We’ve got so many friends—”
“We can’t hold it at our house.”
“We had to rent a restaurant.”
“But we like to play in the snow.”
“And go sledding.”
“We can’t do that in Boston.”
“So our parents brought us here.”
“They have a special sled,” Alice explained. “They can sit on it side by side.”
“We have a special tricycle, too.”
“One of us pedals.”
“And the other one rides for free.”
Mitch and Hank came in, smelling of snow and smoke. With his curly pale hair, delicate face, and silver glasses, Hank wasn’t a bad-looking man, just surprisingly insubstantial; even at forty-two, he seemed to delight in his gawky innocence. He was followed by a boy whom Alice introduced as Jarred, the innkeepers’ son. Mitch leaned against the door and studied Sarah and Meribeth the way he had studied Heloise the day they met. The four children started playing a card game called Uno. It didn’t seem fair to Heloise, as if one sister might guess the other’s strategy. Of course this made no sense; the sisters didn’t share a head. Yet weren’t their cells patterned by identical DNA? Hadn’t they shared the same experiences from the moment they were born? What was an individual if not a single set of experiences bound inside a skin?
“It’s so upsetting,” Deb whispered behind a hand. “I see sick kids all the time. But usually there’s something I can do to help. This just goes to remind us all how lucky we are.”
Heloise nodded. How could she not feel blessed by her daughter’s brutish good health? But Deb’s view of the twins seemed limited. It was as if she thought that Sarah and Meribeth existed solely to make the rest of humankind feel blessed. But the girls weren’t symbols of misfortune; they were people in their own right. If Eunice, Inga, and Jarred were to grow up with the twins as their only playmates, they would assume that some kids came in ones while other kids came in twos. They might even be jealous that their own bodies were so plain. Besides, the twins seemed happy. It was Alice who seemed forlorn, which was probably why Heloise’s attention was drawn to her.
A bell chimed. “That means dinner is ready,” Alice informed them. “The food here is good, so long as you don’t want hot dogs.” She led the parade of guests down the stairs to the dining room, where the innkeeper’s wife, Eleanor, was ladling out the food.
Eleanor was small and neatly made but even shyer than her husband. “Hello,” she said in a voice as thin as a wisp of steam. Then she ducked back in the kitchen. Heloise got the sense that Eleanor and her husband would have preferred to run the lodge for the theoretical beauty of the self-composting toilets and manure-heated pods, as God might have preferred to run Heaven for Himself.
But the woman could cook. Heloise had never seen such food. She didn’t even recognize the ingredients. Nuts, but what kind? Exotic forms of grain. Rich velvety pools of cheese. Mushrooms nestled in flaky crusts, as sweet as pecan pie. No additives, no funny colors. This was food you needed a spiritual license to be allowed to eat. Probably, if you ate it long enough, it endowed you with eternal life.
The dining room was arranged in two long tables, with benches on either side. Heloise, Mitch, Deb, Hank, Inga, and Eunice took up one end of one table, with a pair of tall gaunt lesbians named Carol and Kim in the center, and Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and their mother holding down the other end. The twins’ mother turned out to be a soft pear-shaped woman with flowing brown hair and a face that bespoke great patience. Gently, she laid a hand on Alice’s arm and cautioned her not to eat so fast—it occurred to Heloise that Alice felt the need to eat twice as much as normal to make up for being an only child, or rather, for being only one child.
After everyone finished eating, Alice, Sarah, and Meribeth came over to pat the toddlers and admire Inga’s dress. Alice gestured toward their mom. “She sews my sisters’ clothes.”
Now that she mentioned it, Heloise noticed that Sarah and Meribeth’s shirts were cleverly designed with a sort of cloth tunnel where their bond of flesh connected them.
“She used to be a teacher,” Alice said, “but now she stays at home and takes care of my sisters and me. But I don’t really need much taking care of.”
Deb and Hank could only nod. But Mitch, bless his heart, pointed at the sliding glass doors and sang out: “Look, everyone, snow!”
Sure enough, the flakes were battering the glass like weary travelers trying to get inside.
“Snow!” Alice shouted.
“Our mom worries when we go sledding,” Sarah said.
“She thinks we’ll die sooner,” Meribeth added.
“But we’d rather go sledding now than live a long time later.”
“Girls?” their mother called. “Don’t make nuisances of yourselves. Come over here and eat your tofu pudding.”
Heloise desperately wanted a drink, but the lodge served no liquor. Instead, Eleanor lectured the new arrivals on the importance of sorting the remains of their dinner into color-coded bins for compost and recyclables. After the twins’ family had left, Mitch, Deb, and Hank reached the opinion that Sarah and Meribeth shared a single heart and Meribeth was not getting enough oxygen, which was why her lips and skin looked blue. Eventually, Meribeth’s lungs would fail and she would die, and, not long after that, Sarah would die as well. Heloise wondered if the twins’ parents knew this. They must. But did the twins?
Everyone migrated to the game room, except the twins’ father, who, despite the girls’ plot to sneak up to his bed, tickle his feet, and wake him, didn’t appear that night. Alice, Sarah, Meribeth, and Jarred played Uno while Deb and Hank traded the task of keeping Inga occupied. Mitch rarely minded Eunice, not because he didn’t want to, but because Heloise spent so much more time with the baby that she knew Eunice’s needs better than Mitch did. Mitch was fine when Eunice was happy, but he seemed unable to understand her discontent or imagine a remedy. A vicious cycle, Heloise thought. A vicious cycle that kept producing vicious wives.
Deb, Hank, and Mitch stood whispering in the corner. Their plan, it turned out, was to put the girls to sleep and get naked in the hot tub. Heloise could see by Mitch’s face that he wanted her to say she would go with them. But it gave Heloise the creeps the way Deb and Hank liked to take off their clothes. Whenever they went hiking, Deb and Hank would plan the day’s adventure to include a pond. Oh, just look at that pond! they liked to giggle. Don’t you feel like taking off your clothes and jumping right in?
They loved their naked selves and wanted Inga to do the same. How could Heloise object? But she did. “I object!” she felt like shouting every time they tried to shame her into taking off her clothes. Hank owned a guidebook that listed every nude beach in America. Heloise had nothing against swimming nude, as long as it was done at night in a forbidden place with someone you hoped to fuck. But how could she explain such reasons?
She lied and said she was reluctant to leave Eunice by herself.
What could happen? Deb insisted. We’ll be a few yards out the door.
Well, what if the inn caught fire? Heloise would be outside while Eunice would be sizzling in her portacrib.
Come on, Hank said. What were the chances the building would catch fire during the hour they were in the hot tub?
Heloise looked to Mitch. Wasn’t he Mr. Logic? Hadn’t every parent who had ever watched a baby go up in flames thought nothing bad could happen in just the one hour they had left the kid alone? But Mitch wore the defenseless pleading face that Heloise always found it impossible to refuse.
She changed tactics. What if the girls started crying?
Deb had already thought of that. They could ask the lesbians to come and get them.
The lesbians? If the lesbians wanted to be minding kids, they would have brought some of their own.
“Please?” Mitch said. “For me?”
But she was angry at how many times he had come home late and fended off her advances. He consented to sex infrequently, as a form of recreation, like a hike or a bad TV show. And it bothered her that he thought he could fix their marriage so easily, with a trip to Sunshine Lodge and a midnight dip in a hot tub.
“I can’t,” Heloise said. “I’ve got my period.” This wasn’t technically true, but she expected it at any time. And she hadn’t packed protection. This truth hit her like a punishment. She hadn’t packed tampons, and the nearest store that sold them was thirty miles away.
She put Eunice to sleep while Mitch took a towel and slumped off to the hot tub. Heloise sat on a chair outside their room, considering whether to ask Eleanor for some tampons. No, a woman like that probably used some weird environmentally friendly product like peat-moss napkins or reusable rubber cups. Heloise might have tried Carol and Kim, but they passed in the hall just then, so entwined about each other that Heloise didn’t have the heart to interrupt.
“It’s spooky,” Kim said to Carol.
“Don’t worry,” Carol said, “I’ll protect you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
The two women quickly kissed and clattered down the stairs. From the second-story window, Heloise saw them heading off. Both were dressed in thick blue parkas, identical striped wool hats, and jeans. Did lesbians still do that thing where one pretended to be butch while the other was more femme? Was it kinkier to make love to someone like yourself, or to someone very different?
The two women vanished down the path, at which Heloise discovered that the window allowed her to glimpse the hot tub; it was surrounded by a fence, but, looking down from that angle, she could just make out three heads. She heard Mitch’s laugh, then Deb’s. Oh, why not go down and join them?
She peeked in the room and saw that Eunice was asleep. But instead of going out, Heloise put on a nightshirt and crawled beneath the scratchy blanket. Sometime later, Mitch came in, but by the time Heloise had struggled up to consciousness, his eyes were already closed and his breathing as regular as if he had given himself a whiff of whatever anesthesia he used to knock out patients.
She slipped on Mitch’s boots and hobbled down the stairs and out the door. The air was so frigid it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up, or maybe that was the effect of seeing who was in the hot tub.
He was swarthy, with broad flat cheeks and a prominent crooked nose—he might have been an Indian, or an Arab, or maybe a Jew like Mitch. Even though his nipples cleared the water by several inches, the ends of his long black hair floated on the surface like some sensual ooze.
“Hi,” he said. “Join me?”
Her plan had been to yank off her nightshirt, simmer herself back to some semblance of relaxation, then slither back to bed. “I didn’t think anyone would be here.”
His shoulders lifted. “I’m not anyone. Anyone was here before. I’m nobody. Who are you?”
How could it matter if a stranger whose name she didn’t know, in a town whose name she also didn’t know, saw her with no clothes on? As she unbuttoned her nightshirt, he made no effort to look away. She stepped out of Mitch’s boots and tossed them over the fence so they wouldn’t be standing there tapping in disgust while she sat naked with another man. Without looking, she climbed in the tub. It was like lowering her body into a roiling tub of sex. She could sense the stranger’s cock twitch. Even his armpit hair turned her on. Women! Men got turned on by women’s breasts, which everyone knew were beautiful, and women got turned on by armpit hair. Or maybe only Heloise did.
“Are those your girls?” she asked. “Sarah and Meribeth? And Alice?” She could sense his cock deflate. Did he expect her to say something thoughtless? “They’re beautiful,” she said, then winced. Using a man’s twin daughters to get his cock to stand back up!
“That they are. They are beautiful. All three of my girls are beauties.” He let his head drop backward to expose a vulnerable throat; with his arms along the rim of the tub, he seemed to be waiting for someone to shoot him full of arrows. Like St. Sebastian, Heloise thought. St. Sebastian of the Hot Tub.
“So, this is your first time at Sunshine Lodge?”
Heloise said it was.
“It’s all right.”
“Just ‘all right’? I don’t think you’re allowed to say it’s just all right.”
“You have to say it’s perfect.”
She laughed. “Okay. It’s perfect.”
He ducked beneath the surface, then reappeared and shook his head, wringing water from his hair. “Don’t all the little signs and compost bins and all that healthy food make you feel like shooting up?”
“Well,” she said, “now that you mention it.”
“I have some heroin in my jeans. But you have to supply your own needle.”
“Oh,” she said, “I always bring my own needle.”
As they laughed and talked, they kept inching around the tub until they were sitting side by side. She had to remind herself this was someone else’s husband. She had a toddler named Eunice. The naked man beside her was father to a girl named Alice and twins named Sarah and Meribeth. He loved all three of them, he said. “I love all three of my daughters.” He said the sentence twice. He was just tired of being good. “People think just because you have disabled kids, you somehow become a saint.”
Under normal conditions, she doubted he would have been the self-pitying kind of man. But the hot tub brought it out, like some torture pit from Dante, broiling him until he confessed his sins. It broke his heart, he said. How could it not break his heart that his girls would die young? But every now and then he caught himself looking forward to not having to spend every waking moment worrying about their pain.
Before the twins were born, he had been planning to leave his wife. But how could a man leave a woman who had given birth to Siamese twins? Not that she wasn’t strong enough. She was stronger than he was. The twins had given her life a purpose. But it had robbed him of his. If a sacrifice was given grudgingly, in his wife’s book, it didn’t count. He taught music in the public schools. Squeaks and squawks. Lost tempers. The constant abuse of strings. Before the girls were born, he had been planning to make it as a jazz clarinetist. But with all the extra bills and the need for someone to stay home with the twins …
Heloise shifted around and stroked his knee. He put his hand a few inches below her breast, which was more arousing than if he had put it on her breast. Their nakedness, thank God, was anything but wholesome.
“I’d better go,” she said, although really, she didn’t want to go. She got out and found Mitch’s boots, clutched her nightshirt to her chest, and darted to her room. Eunice was still asleep. Mitch lay curled to the wall. She got in and sniffed his neck, which smelled like bubblegum and vanilla icing. “If I ever run away, come after me,” she whispered. She had said this to him many times when he was awake, but she didn’t trust that he would come. She would run away, remembering everything he’d ever taught her about blazing signs along her trail. But Mitch would be too proud and hurt to follow.
The next morning, she woke to the sore breasts, bloated stomach, and intense pressure to commit multiple gory homicides that indicated her period was about to come. She sucked down her pride and asked Eleanor if she had some tampons. Without a word, Eleanor pulled a cardboard box from beneath the sink. Sifting through a litter of sunglasses, condoms, deodorants, and mismatched boots, the innkeeper’s wife lifted out a single linty tampon, the old-fashioned kind that came in a cardboard tube. Heloise only hoped it didn’t date from the Age of Toxic Shock. Well, one tampon was better than no tampon. She would horde it until she absolutely needed to borrow the Volvo and drive the sixty miles to the general store and back.
After breakfast, the twins’ mother bundled them in a snowsuit she must have designed and sewn. Packed in its padded double womb, the twins went out to play. With Alice’s help, they built a snow mother, a snow father, and, thank God, instead of a set of Siamese snow-twins, a lopsided snow-dog. Then they instigated a war against Jarred; the twins windmilled snowballs at the boy while Alice packed ammunition. Heloise was so incensed at the way the twins took advantage of their Siameseness she almost enlisted on Jarred’s side. They rushed him, tore off his hat, packed it full of snow, put it back on his head and pulled it down, at which Jarred lunged their at knees and Sarah and Meribeth went over backward.
“Do angels!” Alice cried, and the girls lifted their arms and lowered them, then struggled to their feet, leaving the indentation of a two-headed angel when they went inside.
At lunch, Heloise overheard the twins’ family argue about their plans for the afternoon. The twins wanted to go sledding, but their mother insisted they were too tired. “We can do it if Dad carries us,” they said. “Like that last time, in Vermont.” Their mother shook her head; she had promised their father he could take the afternoon off to ski. But the twins’ father assured their mother that he would enjoy nothing more than carrying his daughters up the hill; while their mother zipped the girls inside their snowsuit, he turned to Heloise and shrugged.
The six of them—Mitch and Heloise, with Eunice on her back, and Deb and Hank with Inga—spent the next few hours skiing. Heloise enjoyed the way Eunice caught her breath and screeched and grabbed Heloise’s ears whenever they skied downhill. And something about the melancholy landscape—the bare apple-trees, as hunched as old women, surrounded by rows of firs like pinheaded guards just waiting, waiting, waiting, their hands behind their backs, for someone to escape—moved her more deeply than the magnificence of a vista from a mountain might have done.
Around and around she skied, and each time she and Eunice circled back, Heloise saw Vincent carrying his girls uphill, hugging them awkwardly to his chest like bags of groceries. Up and up, like Sisyphus. Alice pulled her own sled, looking wistfully at her sisters, and if Mitch could extrapolate from Meribeth’s blue lips the twins’ future, or rather, their lack of a future, Heloise could look at Alice’s expression and imagine the story she would one day tell her therapist: I once had twin sisters. They weren’t ordinary twins. They were conjoined twins. I loved them. I really did. It was just that I was jealous of the attention and love they got. The grace they had that I didn’t have.
The irony, Heloise thought later, was that she and Mitch had one of their best afternoons ever. Mitch plodded around the trail, and whenever Heloise and Eunice lapped him, he would lift his fist and curse. “You miserable rutabagas! You bungee jumpers! You foghorn leghorns!” He took to weaving among the apple trees, and every time their paths crossed, Mitch would snowplow around Heloise’s skis, kiss her, then kiss Eunice, who bounced happily in her backpack.
When they stopped for hot chocolate, Mitch leaned against a stump and poured two steaming cups. Just as Heloise took hold of hers, Eunice began to whimper. “Mumma, dog!” Heloise turned and saw a fox quivering at the forest’s edge. It lifted one paw daintily and sniffed, like a society queen uncertain if the party she was about to enter was beneath her pride, then flicked its tail and trotted off.
“It’s good luck to see a fox,” Mitch said.
“Aren’t fox’s feet lucky?”
He was so pleased with himself that Heloise didn’t have the heart to say he meant rabbits.
“Why don’t you go for one last run, without us slowing you down?” Mitch said.
She felt as if he were sending her off to sleep with another man. “You don’t mind?”
No, no, go on, Mitch said. He took Eunice from the pack— getting the baby out of that backpack required more effort than the doctors had required to extricate Eunice from Heloise’s womb. She kissed Mitch and took off, legs pumping as strenuously as if, even without the aid of gravity, she might yet achieve the blind happiness of flight.
Near the woods she stepped off the trail to catch her breath—literally, her breath was curling past her face and she snatched at it with her glove. The sun was watery pink and blue, like the colors in a nursery. Vincent passed her hiding spot, skiing backwards, encouraging someone to try to reach him. Alice plodded around the bend, red faced and out of breath. “You can do it,” he kept repeating. “Slide those skis. Skate.”
Heloise waited to give Vincent and Alice a decent length of time to ski back to the lodge, but she came upon them not a hundred yards down the trail, Alice frozen at the top of a tiny incline, her father at the bottom.
“I can’t, Dad. I can’t! I’ll give you fifty dollars if you don’t make me ski down this hill!”
“Damn it. Why can’t you be as brave as Sarah and Meribeth?”
He might as well have shot her, that’s how quickly Alice crumpled. She must have been crying, but Heloise didn’t hear a sob; the child was crying in that way that goes beyond mere sound.
Vincent sidestepped up the hill, took off his skis, and held his daughter in the snow. At first she writhed away, but then she let him comfort her. He helped her take off her skis, then carried the skis downhill and went back for Alice. He helped her put the skis back on, then towed her by her poles, bent double, like a horse. His suffering wrenched Heloise’s heart. But it also turned her on. And what did that say about her? If you fell in love with a person’s suffering, you’d never try to cure it. Deb, Hank, and Mitch weren’t nearly as shaken as she was by suffering, but neither were they attracted to it, and that allowed them to get on with the business of easing people’s pain.
No wonder she couldn’t bring herself to finish her degree. If she had ever found the courage to state her thesis clearly, it would have been this: Suffering is erotic. That was at the heart of her attraction to Christianity. Maybe it was true of most people’s attraction to Christianity. Why build an entire religion around Christ’s suffering on the cross, instead of, say, His miracles? Why the whips and thorns, the punctured ribs and palms, not to mention all the martyrs His suffering had inspired, all those men with pierced chests, the women with hacked-off breasts, the smiling, genderless innocents, flayed alive or burnt?
She shook her head to clear the images. Wasn’t that a howl she heard? It couldn’t have been. But the woods’ shadowy darkness filled her soul with dread. She forced herself to give Vincent and Alice a while longer. Even so, when she reached the lodge, he was still hauling Alice, trudge by laborious trudge, up that final hill.
By the time Heloise and Mitch had showered and dressed, everyone but the twins and Alice were downstairs waiting for their meal. Heloise and Mitch had just settled beside Deb and Hank, with the kids on their mothers’ laps, when the door at the top of the stairs opened and Alice and the twins came in.
“Watch what we can do!” they cried. With a little help from Alice, the twins ended up on the banister, not straddling the rail but side by side. Their mother shouted “No!” but Alice gave them a push. The twins slid a few feet down the rail. Then one twin tottered backward and the other twin slid forward, arms and legs flailing.
Their father leapt the stairs three at a time, scooped the twins in his arms, then sat cradling them on the step while Alice threw herself across her sisters’ backs, crying, “I didn’t mean to! I didn’t mean to!”
Everyone tried to get back to normal, but the mood was too subdued. Deb suggested charades. Carol and Kim declined so they could take their turn in the hot tub, but the twins and Alice were all for it. The problem was that Sarah and Meribeth performed their clues in unsettling synchronicity, and when it was their team’s turn to guess, they shouted “‘Over the Rainbow’!” and “‘Willie Wonka’!” in such eerie unison that the game ended after only a few rounds and each family went up to its room far earlier than was normal even for parents with children that young.
Heloise liked to think she fell asleep that night with the intention of staying asleep until morning, and it was only a case of nerves that made her startle awake at two and led her outside to the steaming tub. But when she saw no one was in the water, she admitted that her nerves had been crying out for more than relaxation. She passed the indentation in the snow where the twins had made their angel. “Baa,” called a sheep, or maybe it was a goat. How odd that the two creatures sounded so much alike in the dark.
She slid down the hill on the soles of Mitch’s boots, then headed toward the woods. Not twenty yards in, she saw Vincent against a tree, wrapped in one of the heavy blankets the innkeepers kept beside the hot tub. With his raven-black hair and the wings the blanket gave him, he looked more than a little vampirish.
She walked over and leaned against him. He moaned, then wrapped Heloise in his blanketed arms and held her. She rested that way, breathing the horsy odor of the wool, the sandalwood of his skin. Then her mouth found his chest, and—she hadn’t planned this—she slid to her knees in the snow. The cold seeped through her leggings, but the pain was almost pleasure. A few minutes later, as Vincent lifted his arms above his head and cried out, Heloise turned and saw the fox’s eyes glittering in the moonlight not fifteen yards away. She gasped and struggled up. Vincent remained against the tree, eyes closed, arms lifted as if someone had pinned his wrists to the trunk.
The fox shook itself like a dog and trotted off. Panting, Heloise looked down and saw a steaming clot of her menstrual blood. Had the fox scented it? Was that why it had come? She was tempted to reach down and taste her menses. Instead, she lifted her chin and howled.
The marriage didn’t end that winter. After they left Sunshine Lodge, Heloise never saw Vincent again. But once she started hurting Mitch, she couldn’t seem to stop. A year after their divorce, she read about the twins in the Sunday supplement of the local paper. As Mitch and Deb had said, the girls shared a single heart—a defective heart at that; it had only three chambers. Meribeth died first. Sarah survived another hour. Most conjoined twins died at birth, the reporter wrote. The luckiest lived a year. But Sarah and Meribeth had celebrated their eighth birthday a few weeks earlier.
“They had the sunniest disposition,” their mother was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it bothered them a bit. On alternate days, Sarah or Meribeth got to make decisions. They argued, but they made up. If you’re attached to a person, you have to figure out a way to get along. You can’t just stay mad.”
The girls died at home, surrounded by their parents, Kathleen and Vincent Black, various grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and their older sister, Alice. They were buried in a single casket. Donations could be sent to build a playground for disabled children in a park near where they lived.
After reading the obit twice, Heloise picked up the phone to call Mitch. Then she remembered that Mitch had asked her never to engage him in conversation unless it concerned their daughter. If Heloise tried to talk about that weekend at Sunshine Lodge, Mitch would hang up. Her infidelities had made him suffer, and his suffering had turned him into a person she could love. But Mitch couldn’t forgive her disloyalty. He refused to take her back.
She put Eunice to bed, patted her on the back until she closed her eyes, then tried to write her homily for the week. Since finishing her degree and taking her first assignment—as chaplain at a women’s college outside Schenectady—Heloise had fallen into the easy routine of using an incident from the news or her personal life to serve as a guiding metaphor for a larger spiritual truth to be explored in that week’s sermon. She wanted to compose a tribute to the twins. But what kind of metaphor could Meribeth and Sarah provide if not, as Deb had said, a reminder of everyone else’s sublime good luck at not being them? Maybe what they symbolized was the beauty of suffering gracefully. But the twins hadn’t suffered. Not until the end. Their father and sister had suffered, but not in ways that seemed particularly enlightening.
No, the twins stood for nothing. Maybe nothing stood for anything. Pain was what it was. The pieces of people’s lives fit together to make a pattern like the puzzle of that town, the central piece of which Heloise now discovered in that long-neglected vest. But there was nothing beneath the surface. No deeper, third dimension. She was left with nothing from Sunshine Lodge except a lost-and-found of images: a two-headed angel; a fox’s glowing eyes; a dark red clot of blood steaming in the snow. And she knew it would be a sin to stand before her congregation and try to weave these images into a symbol for the perversity of a woman who, for no reason she could defend, would destroy her marriage to the man she loved and, in the process, condemn herself to spend the remainder of her life with the corpse of her better self joined to her like the angelic twin sister with whom she once had shared a single three-chambered heart.
*Eileen Pollack, “Uno” from In the Mouth – Stories and novellas. Copyright © 2018. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Four Way Books, www.fourwaybooks.org.
It is past midnight and Janet is up in the oak tree. She is the bird with black feathers. When she twitches her head the tips of her black feathered braids just brush the tips of her small breasts, just lightly, just so. Her flowered blouse hangs from a nearby branch. She does not need it. She is the black bird that drops feathers like leaves. Bark cuts her knees; she can see the blood, dark in the light of the moon. Down in the garden below her, in the tomato patch, the Parrish boy barks quietly over her sighing sister Tasha. Tasha does not need her blouse either, nor anything else. The Parrish boy’s buttocks roll above her. Pulped vegetables shine in their hair. The garden stretches out around them, a full wet acre behind the house.
Their father in his gorilla suit crouches in the middle of the corn rows, maybe forty yards from their sister Tasha and the Parrish boy. Her father’s fur gleams in the moonlight. He cocks his head, listening. His dark eyes roll up towards the sky, but he does not seem to see Janet up in the tree. He sways to his feet. He moves uncertainly towards the sound of their coupling. The corn obscures his vision. They roll like seals in the crushed tomatoes.
She can see what will unfold. She wraps one arm fiercely around the trunk of the oak tree. She plucks at her shorts where they cut into her thighs. A light breeze blows up the ridges of her spine. Black leaves fall like hail.
This is not a dream. This is the dreaming half of her family, out in the garden, by moonlight.
The father wears the gorilla suit because of a lump in his left testicle. He does not know if the lump is cancerous or not. He does not know what it is. He is deeply afraid of going to the doctor. He thinks the lump will go away. He thinks that if he thinks about it, it will only grow larger. He thinks that as long as nobody knows for sure what it is, it will not be cancerous. He thinks if he tells anyone about it, black cancer will explode into his testicles the moment the words pass his lips. So because of the lump, he will not shower with the other Gorilla-Gram workers at the end of the day. He wears the costume home, driving down I-65 at rush hour in the afternoon heat, the gorilla head in the back seat, his gorilla paws working the brakes, the gas, the brakes: a furry panic of control.
Each day he comes home to what? A drink, of course, and a family that is as quiet as an Ohio sky before a terrible storm. They are waiting him out. Battening the hatches, boarding up the windows to their souls. They know something is wrong; they smell it, the electric charge of worry and sickness bleeding out of his pores. His oldest daughter is sly, secretive. His youngest is pensive, watchful. His twin sons are self-absorbed, lifting weights, drinking high-protein milkshakes, critical eyes attuned to every twitch and ripple of their bodies. His wife was solicitous, then withdrawn. Drinking just that much too much. And he, too: a drink, and then out to the garden to inspect the latest damage. A patch at a time, plants trampled, fruit despoiled, rotting, crushed. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. He vows revenge. One sunless afternoon out in the cucumbers with a whiskey-soda in his hands, he gets the idea. He will use the gorilla suit to scare the hell out of whoever is running riot through his garden. He will dress up in the suit and prowl the garden and when he finds them he will exorcise them. He will reclaim his garden. It is a drunken idea, and it will be another five nights before he is drunk enough to remember it, and act.
In among the cornstalks that whisper like winos he squats, and waits, and itches, and wishes for a drink, and hears something, a murmur, a snide mocking laugh. He rolls to his feet. He lumbers forward, dark and terrible. Whiskey fumes float and shiver in the mask. He looks out at the dark shifting vegetation. He is the gorilla, the avenger, swift and awful.
The garden is thrumming; the gourds, the vines, the leaves, the stalks, the fruit and pulp and silk, all of it thrum, thrum, thrum. She feels it all, yawning and purring out and away from her. She sees the stars above his head, through the thick blurry branches of the oak tree. And then she sees her sister, her braids hanging low, the pale skin of her flesh shimmering in the dark night leaves. For just a second Natasha is shocked and then everything rises above and beneath her and all she hears is the thrumthrumming of the garden and a rustle in the corn. So she smiles up at her little sister Janet and lets her eyes roll back into her head, where she sees nothing but a thin red humming thread waiting to burst into ribbons.
Janet is the blackbird with all of the knowing. She drops her knowing behind her, a trail of black feathers that nobody sees. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter trapped in a forest of mirrors. There is nobody to follow the trail. They will not rescue her. She is the Not-Beautiful daughter and nobody wants to see what she knows.
Natasha is the Beautiful Daughter. Janet knows things about Natasha. She sleeps in the same bedroom with Natasha: she knows. At night, as soon as Janet pretends to sleep, Natasha turns into tongue and teeth, alone but not alone in her bed, her hair swishing and swaying and silver. At night Natasha’s teeth go clicking and her sheets tangle wild about her. Her legs flash white, thrash together and apart, Natasha dreaming her body, the sheets snapping, her hand fluttering against herself, the mutter, the coo, the groan. All of this Janet hears and she knows what it means.
She knows, now, perched above the garden, that the waking half of her family is inside, sleeping with their eyes open. The doors are all closed. The lights are bright. There are no shadows. In her parents’ bedroom she knows her mother is watching television, lying on top of the comforter in her blue silk kimono, the red and gold dragons curling about her heavy breasts. She chain-smokes, the ashtray on her belly. Smoke fills the room. The house rustles. She reaches for the remote control and turns up the volume. For a while the sirens on the television say “. . . this IS your MARriage WINDing DOWN aWAY from YOU. . . .” Listen to anything long enough and it becomes nothing: words become sounds, sounds become vibrations, vibrations are just air molecules stirring and sighing, and anything reduced can eventually be ignored.
Janet knows this is true, though she would not say it that way, if she would say it at all.
She knows that her brothers the twins are lifting weights in the Steroid Room. This is what they call their bedroom. It is a name that started as a joke and now is not. They stand face to face, doing curls, expelling hot sweet breath in each others’ faces. The room is filled with their grunting, the heavy smell of their sweat. There is a full-length mirror behind each of them. Looking over the others’ shoulders they see themselves front and back, a gallery of muscled teenagers straining, glistening. They stop simultaneously, an expulsion of hot breath. They smile shyly at each other.
This is the waking half of her family, lost in themselves, behind doors that click and snap.
Oh now Natasha’s world is ribbons, red ribbons, unfurling, encircling, red, and red, they rise from their spools and entwine and wrap her, ankle to nipple, tangle in her mouth, there is nothing she can’t do, there is nothing but her, and nobody has known this, nobody, nothing, not even the Parrish boy, especially not even him who grunts, grunts, grunts above and beyond her, far away, everything slicks way out unspooling and begins just now to fall. Something outside of her roars. Something outside of her snaps shut. Something is very wrong, swaying overhead, oh.
The corn whispers; his body burns. He will not allow vandals in the whispering corn. He will not allow this to happen in his garden. He has to know: how dark, how it pulses, how it spreads, how fast, how long, how long have you got. You have to know. You have to know this. He bursts through the last row of corn. He sees white figures bleating and writhing in the moonlight. He roars. He pounds his chest. He looks down at them.
He sees the bare breasts of his oldest daughter Natasha rise, fluid. The buttocks of that boy rising too like soft stones in the moonlight. The tangle of their limbs as they leap up, the sweat running down her face. He stands and turns and watches as they dart out through the garden, back through the corn rows, separating, their white flesh like fish bellies swallowed up by darkness. He stands stunned by the enormity of what he’s done. What he’s seen.
Up in the Steroid Room, the twins face each other. Reflections, reflected and refracted. He raises his right hand (and raises his right hand) and reaches (out with it) and touches (his left bicep) still (slick) with (sweat) like (touching himself in the mirror. Who is he? Where does he stop? Something stirs. Something)
screams outside. He hears it and snaps back into they. They both bolt for the door, careful not to look at each other, careful not to brush up against the other, out the door and down the stairs, ready to do anything to forget.
She is almost dozing, the ashtray on her belly aswarm with butts like minnows. Sirens fill the room. She has worked all evening to come to this place: whatever is out there cannot get in. The sirens are other people’s disasters. The man in the ambulance is a waxy little husband doll who can be bent into shape at the end of an hour. Everything disappears in the wash of wee sirens and the small ether of her own cigarettes. This will carry her. This is the murmured no of television and nicotine. This is the lull of watery wine. This is, this is, this is:
this is the shriek of her eldest daughter.
There is then for her a calm moment like ice covering ponds. She puts the ashtray on the nightstand. She knew this would come. She has always known you cannot willfully blind yourself: the act of erasure acknowledges something was there: words, etched by a skateblade on the ice, words that say “sorrow” and “loss” in long looping letters. Then the calm groans, the ice shifts, cracks run like lightning towards the edges of something that used to be her life and she is up, pulling her robe close to her body, the dragons spitting balefully at her breasts, she is up and she is running downstairs.
She is the black crow with all of the knowing and she watches it all.
She sees her father sink to his knees, and take the gorilla head off and throw it back over his shoulder toward the corn rows. It rolls and wobbles and bumps to a stop. Her father sinks back onto his heels. He stares at the clothing scattered around him. He stares at the glistening tomatoes smeared on the dark black soil. He picks up a twisted bra, stares at it blankly, and then, shuddering, flings it from him. He buries his naked face in his bristling paws.
She feels suddenly cold, and naked, and ashamed. She pulls her blouse from the branch and slips it onto her body, buttoning it up carefully, balancing on her knees upon the wide rough limb. Below, her father begins to cry. She has never seen him cry before, and gooseflesh ripples across her body. Before she understands what she’s doing, she swings down off of the limb and grabs the trunk of the tree and slides down it, not at all gracefully, scratching her arms and legs and feet with raw red scrapes that her mother will spread first aid cream on for many nights to come.
On the ground, the smell of raw tomatoes assaults her. She can smell, too, the whiskey and sweat and fur of her father. He slaps his furry thighs with his huge paws over and over again. He kneels in the garden with his bare head looking small and breakable in the harsh light of the moon.
Behind them, up at the house, more lights come on, and she can hear her mother at the patio door, saying, “Jim? Jim? Jim?” over and over again, calling out to them. The twins join their mother, all of them moving out onto the patio. The twins peer out into the darkness, dumb-bells firmly in hand.
She hesitates at the base of the tree, and then she walks over to her father. She stands before him. She smoothes her blouse and clears her throat. He looks up at her. His eyes are swollen walnuts.
“You were there?” her father says.
She nods, mute.
“You saw, then. Why didn’t you stop me?”
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why she came down from the tree, either. Gently, she gathers up her sister’s clothes. She stands in front of him. She reaches out a hand. He reaches up a black paw. She gives him a tiny tug that rocks him to his feet. Together, they walk up to the house burning with light, readying themselves.
There is a hole in the heart of the garden, at the center of everything, a perfect exhalation: the -oh- that lies trembling at the heart of the world. It is the oh of realization, the oh of satisfaction, the void that is the self staring back, stripped bare. It is the oh that lies buried in know, and it is the moan that floats after every uttered no.
Some night you will be out walking the dog through the streets of your neighborhood, and the catastrophes that lurk at the center of every life will decide to unfold: night-blooming flowers uncurling in the dark, fists to palms. You will hear the shriek in a neighbor’s back yard and you will see all of the lights go on in the house and you will see white naked bodies darting out from the sides of the house and flashing pure and beautiful beneath the streetlights before they are swallowed up by the darkness of other yards. Your dog will bark, once. You will stand there, waiting. You know exactly what this is. You have seen it all in your mind’s eye a thousand times. If you did not have the dog with you, you might go around the house to the back where voices are raised, truths unsheathed like weapons, unwound like bandages. You might go back there if you could trust the dog not to strain against the leash, or if you hadn’t already seen it yourself, but of course you have seen this, you’ve played every role there is to play, and you cannot trust this dog ever.
You will instead pull the dog back home to your own dark house, to your own sighing secrets, to the—oh—sputtering blue in your own dark basement, to the someone you left sleeping upstairs.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Out of Time