“The Witches of Detroit” by Maureen Aitken
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her story “The Witches of Detroit” Maureen Aitken examines family tragedy and its aftermath from the perspective of two middle-school girls who form an unexpected bond.
The Witches of Detroit
by Maureen Aitken
When my mother ran out of excuses to keep me home from school—a cold, pneumonia, the flu—the principal told her I had to return or repeat the sixth grade. By then, two weeks of mourning had turned to three. By then, fall had slipped away, and the year’s first snowfall had grayed in the streets and formed an ice shell over the lawns.
“Fine,” my mother told the principal. “But if my daughter dies of respiratory failure, I’ll blame you.”
That first morning at school, when the bell rang for classes, the tan-tiled halls closed in so small, and the floor tilted so slightly. People I knew, Janice and Matt, talked to other people with dampened voices, as if their fists were cupped together around their mouths.
I sat in the same wood chair as before, saw Mr. Armstrong with his pocket protector, then walked the same Santa Maria Street toward home. One family didn’t shovel their sidewalks, so the snow turned to ice. I slipped, landing on my leg, then my hand, until all of me fell.
Above me, these huge tree limbs arced, bare, with fine younger limbs hanging in clusters. I’d never noticed how the branches reached above the sidewalk and over the street. A cardinal on a far limb flew away. The cold on my back, the sky above, and something about the utter collapse relaxed me. Someone walked around me.
The ice numbed the back of my head. I took a deep breath in, sensing where the cold met my lungs, where the chill seized my throat. When the beep of hospital monitors erupted in my brain, it froze instantly, hung there, arrested. My mother crying, my father’s face, my sadness. The memories barely whispered before they iced in mid-movement, filling me with such space, such release. I couldn’t think.
More people passed. Someone asked, “Walk much?” A boy chuckled at a high pitch, like a creaky seesaw. The numbness came as a relief. Mother Nature would ease my pain. I was about to close my eyes. More than that. Since he’d left, I saw this hole ripped in the day. Maybe it had been there all along. It could take anything. People. Cars. Mom. Me. It scared me, to feel what was there one day, gone the next. But lying on the ground, for the first time, I thought, I give up being scared of you.
Then from above, hair and a face started to arc over my sky like a moon. It took me a second to realize it was Lauren, a girl in the grade above me, who said, “I heard your dad died.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She nodded. “I lost mine, too.”
Lauren reached her hand out. I hesitated. Lauren was a year ahead of me, but she seemed twenty years older. She stood tall with big boobs and a little pudge, and she passed the halls without talking to anyone in particular, so people thought she was either cool or crazy. The school was a mix of races, with a few Filipino and Latina students. But Lauren? They couldn’t figure her out. When someone asked, she’d tell them to fuck off. People steered clear of her, and the way she leaned over me, she could have thought like a kid, and easily spit on me. But she didn’t. So I grabbed on.
We walked past the alley, the house with the red fence and the dog that long ago pushed his head through a screen, which flapped in the wind as we passed. The dog inside stared at us like we were steak on stilts, his nostrils smearing the window, his barks muffled by the glass.
People waved to Lauren as she talked about biology class and how we learned everything from the wolves. When they were sick, they went alone to die, she said, because they didn’t want to infect anyone or slow the pack down.
The rip in the sky, still there, felt less scary. “I like the writing classes, and literature. I just read A Catcher in the Rye.”
“Well, I’ve read stuff too,” Lauren said.
“Horror,” Lauren said. “I’m a big fan of guts.”
A paper turkey hung from a window of Jill Robinson’s old house. Jill and her family had moved away, like so many, in the summer, when few noticed. It was the time of Jimmy Carter, white flight, and stagnation, at least here. Every summer people moved away, with their absence not felt until fall. Jill Robinson’s old house now had another family there. The people next door had moved to California.
“Maybe you hit your head,” Lauren said. “I heard if you fall asleep, you might die.”
The street I’d known my entire life stretched out before us, the brick houses, slumping from neglect, some windows covered with sheets, the early Christmas lights, the Thanksgiving paper turkeys of brown, yellow, and orange.
At my house, with the missing bricks, we stood. I want to say I was sorry for her loss. Lauren had just started at the school, so I hadn’t known she’d lost her father.
But Lauren interrupted me. “If you trip again, don’t stay down.”
“It felt good,” I said. Mr. Johnson drove by with his shepherd running behind the car, in his version of walking his dog.
Lauren folded her arms and shook her head. “You have to be strong. Otherwise, life’ll crush you.”
Mr. Johnson turned left. “It already has.”
Lauren’s breath plumed out in fogs into the cold and then gone. “Cool.” She turned and walked toward home without a goodbye and without looking back.
On Friday, I was walking with my friend Janice when Lauren stopped me in the hall and passed me a book. “Okay, read this. You’ll see.”
After Lauren walked away, Janice said, “She’s so cool.”
The book was Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders. At home, I made Mom a chicken sandwich and did my homework at the dining room table so she wouldn’t feel alone. For two hours, she sat on that couch under the living room window, gazing into some unknown land. It was her version of being in the cold, so I got it. I made her coffee. When I brought it to her and she took a sip, she choked.
“Well, that should wake me up,” she said. She took another sip. I watched her from the dining room table, and when my homework was done, I snuggled up next to her and thought of Lauren and her guts obsession and fell asleep.
I finished Helter Skelter by Sunday morning. I wanted to know if Lauren read books like this because of her father. Maybe he’d died in some brutal way. Or was it a way of fighting off the pain? Mom hadn’t gone to church since the funeral. I thought to walk the book over to Lauren’s house, even though I wasn’t completely sure where she lived.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
“Where’re you going?” Mom asked. She reached her hand out to me.
“Just down the street to return this book,” I said. “I don’t have to go.”
“You go,” she said. “I’ll make lunch. We’ll eat in an hour.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
Four blocks over, past the barking Rottweilers, an abandoned house, and the one of stone and brick with the oboe player inside—I searched out the block where I’d seen Lauren raking leaves. The cold breeze and the snow felt crisp. A passing car with two parents and two kids in back made my heart hurt. I had to stop. I saw, then, a small rock above the snow, as if it were trying to run away. I put it in my pocket and walked slowly, searching for signs.
I heard yelling at one house and then the word “Lauren.” I stood in front of the house, trying to tell if the yelling had laughter in it or anger. Someone moved upstairs, and I thought to keep walking when Lauren opened the front door and said, “You finish it?”
She waved for me to come in, even though a woman’s yelling had grown stronger.
Lauren walked straight upstairs, and I followed. In the hallway was a picture of Mrs. Delaney, Lauren as a baby, and, apparently, Mr. Delaney. Mrs. Delaney was black. Mr. Delaney was white. But the weird thing was their faces. They didn’t match. Mrs. Delaney had saucer eyes, like Gladys Knight. Kind eyes. Mr. Delaney’s whole face was pinched, with little eyes and a mouth without lips, like a rat.
The yelling got louder. A slam of the phone.
“Is everything, like, okay?”
“Oh, that’s my Aunt Gloria with my mom.”
We were upstairs and in her room before she said, “Aunt Gloria’s a lawyer. She represents my mom.”
“For what?” I said. “Never mind. That was dumb.”
“Ask all you want,” Lauren said and sat down in the window box. “My stupid father cheated on my mom. Now they’re divorcing or trying to. Aunt Gloria said Mom will take him for everything.”
I froze. “What? I thought your father was dead.”
Lauren sprayed some Love’s Baby Soft on and sniffed her wrist. “Dead to me.”
She straightened her back. “Aunt Gloria found out the truth. He had an affair with someone five years older than me. Got her pregnant, too. That’s grounds.”
My brain tried to fix Lauren’s story, got stuck.
“He’s dead to me, too, and I haven’t even met him.”
I thought changing the conversation might help, so I said Helter Skelter was so scary, especially the parts about how crazy Charlie Manson controlled women.
“Yeah, and then they tried to take the baby out of Tate’s body.”
I put my hands over my ears. “Stop. Gross.”
Lauren nodded. “I told you I like guts. How sick or high do you have to be to do that? I’m supposed to be a doctor. So I should know. There goes Aunt Gloria.”
A woman in a blue dress walked out to her car. A quiet came over the house, and soon a gentle knock at the door.
“Lauren? Aunt Gloria said goodbye.”
Lauren’s mom opened the door slowly and then snuck into the room. She was tall, elegant, and thin in her crocheted short dress of bright colors, her hair pulled back in a bun.
“Mom this is Mary,” Lauren said. “Her dad just died.”
Mrs. Delaney sat up. “Oh, I am so sorry, Sweetie. I am so, so sorry.”
I had to think fast not to burst out into tears. “Lauren was just saying she’s going to be a doctor.”
Mrs. Delaney smiled. “Yes, like her grandfather. What in God’s name are you reading?”
“Reading about the Tate murders,” Lauren said. “It has anatomy in it.”
Mrs. Delaney shook her head slowly, turned, and walked out without saying a word. Lauren smiled. “What’s—” I started to say but Lauren put her finger to her lips. She leaned forward, waiting for something.
Mrs. Delaney came back with five dollars. “Go buy some smart books. And I want to see what you buy. No horror or astrology, you hear me?”
We both said, “Yes. Ma’am” together. She restrained a smile and went to make more phone calls. Lauren and I walked to my house. When I unlocked the door, Mom was happy to see me, but then her face fell a little to see Lauren. I knew that face, the one where it was just us, and now others would arrive back into our lives.
“Mom, this is Lauren, from school.”
“Oh, hello,” she said, brightening again. We split my sandwich and convinced my mom to drive us up to the Library Bookstore, with used, cheaper books we could afford. A droop in her face, one of such sadness, came over her. “I guess it’s time to move on, right?”
It didn’t dawn on me that this was the first time she’d left the house in three weeks. She moved as though ghosts surrounded her. Lauren sensed this, I think, because when Mom stopped to let us out, Lauren said, “We all need to find something good.”
The small bookstore had a cooking section, and my mom stayed there, looking at the jackets with faint interest. I went over to the literature section and found a cheap Pride and Prejudice. I’d heard of it but didn’t understand the fuss over the first pages.
“What’s some dead British woman going to show us?” Lauren said.
We found two books that Lauren’s mother would like: me The Grapes of Wrath and Lauren found The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
We wandered around until we found a display table called “Witches and Warlocks,” with two shelves underneath. “The Book of Spells,” Lauren read. “Sweet.” We studied the back jackets as if they mattered.
We found Witchcraft. We did the math and bought three more books, but we were still twenty cents short.
“I’ll give it to you,” the owner said. “Good to see girls reading something valuable.”
“Yeah, I hear Steinbeck is great.”
The bookstore owner was framed by First Editions, the valuable stuff, on display at the center, and stacks running two feet over her head.
“No, dear. The witchcraft books. Changed. My. Life. But don’t tell people.”
“Why not?” I asked.
She looked at me like I was some kind of new dumbass.
“People fear witches. Besides, we just find each other.”
“Cool,” I said.
Mom came back from the cookbook section with one slim book on soups and studied our selections. “This is a bizarre fixation.” She pointed to our books. As we walked out into the cold air she said, “You girls happy?”
“Yes,” we said in unison. “Thank you.” She didn’t talk about the books again. We walked over to the cake shop, and Mom bought four items to go, chocolate cupcakes for us, a dark chocolate one for Mom, and a carrot-cake muffin. It was Dad’s favorite. I held my breath when I saw it.
In the middle of the bakery, she looked down at her selections and froze, knew just then that there was no husband at home waiting for this. Not only did she have to see her home again without him; she would have to see his absence anew at every errand and event until, years later, he would be rooted out of her life.
My mother nodded. “Yes, we’ll do that.”
Lauren and I ate the cupcakes in the back seat, stamping the pages of our books with icing fingerprints, our teeth stained with clumps of chocolate.
The next day Lauren rifled through the book of spells and found four incantations. I wanted to talk to my dead father, and Lauren wanted her father to move away; Lauren wanted a protection spell for her mother; then I wanted one for my mother. We wrote them down on the back of a receipt.
“But first we need to start with a test spell, something small,” Lauren said.
We sat facing the windows and said, “Great Mother, we offer these spells, in your honor.”
We read the spells several times, with the list of all four wishes and the dollar test.
“Now let’s burn the list,” Lauren said. She went to grab it.
“No way. We’re experimenting. We need to test the outcomes.”
We didn’t wait. My mom found us lifting up the couch cushions, pulling out lint balls, a tie, and change. She gave us a bag. “Put the lint in here.”
We found $1.23 in change in the couch and stared at each other, wide-eyed. “It works,” Lauren said.
Christmas was in a week. For Christmas we bought each other rabbits’ feet, mine in blue and Lauren picked green.
Christmas arrived. Mom and I had gone to buy a tree, but that had been Dad’s job, so we bought one too late, and too small. We had four gifts, which we’d wrapped together, so the surprise was gone. Some aunts and a few cousins would come over today at three. But I made a fire and we sat there, Mom and me, in the early morning, listening to the fire crackle, watching the wood burn hard and full.
“Thank you,” I said. “For the gifts.”
Mom nudged me. “This is just one of those holidays we get through.”
I hugged her tight then, as if she might fall through the floor. I felt something on my cheek. It was a tear that had dropped from her face. Then we both cried, for a long time, just like that.
Lauren and I talked on the phone that day, and I told her I’d like us to create a potion or a spell that could take away so much death, that could pull out the grief.
She stopped by, and we walked to a nearby park, swiped the snow off the swing seats, revealing the wood with chipped green paint, with names and words scored with knives. We sat down, and she understood my sadness.
Lauren said we would remember these days when we were in high school together.
“These are the days where everything starts.”
“My dad’s dying wish was that I would go to this dumb school, out in the burbs.”
“We’ll see,” she said. “Let’s make a spell for it.”
I pushed back a little on the seat, and then forward. “A spell to be friends forever.”
She said, without even asking, “Eternal Mother, we vow to be friends forever, to right the wrongs. Send us the signs we need to know.”
Curtains moved at the house next to the park. It must have been Crazy Ethel, watching us.
“We don’t want signs,” I said. “Take that back.”
“Signs are dangerous. Great Mother, heal my mother of her grief. We vow to be friends forever, but forget what Lauren just said about signs.”
“You can’t take back a spell,” Lauren said.
“I just did.”
“It’s in all the books.”
“Still did it,” I said.
I thought of Lauren’s spell two days later, as Mom and I watched the news in the den. A picture of Jill Robinson’s face came up, the girl from grade school who’d moved away. The picture was the one taken at our school. We had a black-and-white television, so it was all hard to see.
“Mom,” I said. “I knew her.”
“Yeah, she moved last summer.”
The reporter said Jill had been shot in the face. Her body had been dumped on the side of the freeway.
The reporter stood on the side of I-75, the part in the good, rich suburb, and said, “They dumped her body here.”
“That’s horrible,” Mom said.
I saw a spot in the snow. It was gray. I couldn’t imagine Jill going with any guy. She was too shy. She’d have run. Did the man cast a spell on her? It wasn’t fair. She was the nicest person I knew.
I leaned in, trying to make out the stain.
“That’s awful,” Mom said. “But they’ll find who did it.”
“Is that blood?” I asked. Mom leaned forward, too.
“No, that’s just dirt. It’s the freeway.”
“Whoever did this moved her,” she said. “We’ll pray for Jill. Jill Robinson.”
“I’ll pray that whoever killed her rots in hell,” I said. I had done, I thought then, all the wrong spells. I’d cast a spell for a dollar when I should have cast one to protect Jill’s life.
Mom turned to me, as if shaken from a trance. “You and Lauren need to be more careful.”
“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “We have special powers.”
“Yes,” I said.
Mom stared at the television, even the corny car ads. I wanted to grab her hand, go get ice cream. She was in a daze, but I couldn’t let her go, not to my father, and not to the rip in the sky that made us all so vulnerable, that could swallow us whole.
“Maybe all the energies of this world protect you,” I said. I held her hand.
She couldn’t take her eyes away from the television. I didn’t blame her. I, too, longed for the numbness, for the cold, for grief to freeze midair. But if we went, all that would be left were the child killers, the doctors who didn’t cure cancer, the husbands who cheated on their wives. The Charles Mansons of the world would take over.
I went into the kitchen and took my father’s carrot-cake muffin, cut it in half, and brought it back to the couch. I picked up my half, “Here’s to the ones who protect us from the other side. Who show us the way to happier days.”
“Amen to that,” she said, and picked up her half. She bit into the cream-cheese frosting, the orange carrot center. It tasted so good, as if these bites conjured autumn in the rain, sweet roots fresh from the soil, as if right then the seasons promised to encircle us with wonder after wonder, in the days of our lament.
Maureen Aitken’s short-story collection, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls, won the Nilsen Prize, the Foreword Review INDIE Prize (Top Prize for General Fiction), and was listed as one of the Kirkus Best Indie Books of the Year. The collection also received a Kirkus Star and a Foreword Star. Her stories have been widely published and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Detroit and teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.
“The High Castle” by John Gu
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. John Gu’s “The High Castle” is a marvelously imagined fable about the identities and secrets–the ones we fabricate for ourselves, and the ones we reveal to others.
The High Castle
By John Gu
The one thing that might save us is a new heresy that could topple all of the ideologies, all of the political parties, all of the nations of our wretched, barbaric world.
—Milan Barajano, in an interview conducted during the filming of In the Shadows of our Ancestors
On the hill above the city sat the ruins of an ancient castle, and I would occasionally bring girls there on walks with me in the evenings. The castle had fallen or else had simply been abandoned centuries ago, and it existed now only as a scatter of evocative remnants: a crumbling wall of primitive masonry along the site’s southern flank, a raised bed of flattish stones which had once sat underneath the keep, and, most castle-like, the hobbled remains of a cylindrical tower whose disassembly had been abandoned only partway through.
The hill was fairly tall, but its summit was easily accessible, less than an hour’s walk from the city’s central piazza. A series of outdoor steps followed the hill’s rise, and these sections were not particularly strenuous, so that the castle site was heavily trafficked in the summertime, both by tourists and by local visitors. The stream of this traffic began to flow shortly after dawn, ebbed in the heat of early afternoon (the place was often empty at the siesta hour), and then swelled in the evening as the air grew cooler. In the run-up to sunset, the atmosphere was festive: people uncorked bottles of wine and passed around paper cups (a kiosk that sold beer and laid out the rudiments of a beer garden in the form of a handful of plastic chairs and tables also did brisk business here); families posed for photographs; a portable radio or cassette stereo might be brought out; and the sound of music drifted above the hubbub.
The castle site sat on a small promontory which jutted toward the city, and from this high up, the view it afforded of the city and its environs was impressive: one’s eye would first be drawn to the buildings of the historical part of the city, which centered around the central piazza and the ivory cube of the mayor’s building that rose out of it. The apartment buildings that framed the square were painted in pale, pleasant pastels: carnation pinks, canary yellows, dawn-bright blues, their slanted tile roofs a deeply kilned ochre or a charcoal-dark grey. About the piazza, grim, granite churches weighted down the scene like stones at the corners of a picnic blanket. The roofs of some of the other finer buildings that surrounded the piazza, the overturned half-barrel that surmounted the opera house, the ribbed dome of a basilica, were colored a sumptuous verdigris, and out of this pleasing arrangement of intersecting planes of color there rose various spires, chimney shafts, bell towers, and cupolae.
The apartment buildings that spread out from the square were painted a conservative beige that shone gold in the late afternoon, reddened in the evening as the sun set, purpled with the twilight, resolving finally into a powdery gray slate as night fell. Dark trees interleaved themselves among these buildings; a huddle of these trees indicated a municipal park; and as the city stretched outward these trees grew denser and the buildings thinned. Beyond the city, the druidic woods, which extended toward the horizon as a field of black and variously shaded dark green, out of which the newer housing developments, brutalist apartment blocks, lumbered like castaway giants. These woods, their far reaches, made me think of the films of Barajano: those long, still shots of rain falling in primeval woods. They existed, these woods, it seemed, only in this part of the world, and the sight of them brought to mind arboreal rites, the interstices of forest cover lit by pagan fires.
One made the ascent to the castle through a wooded park of larger and smaller trails that crisscrossed the hill—large sections of which had been terraced to accommodate the multiplicity of gravel paths—and then united at the summit. On the descent, it was not difficult, abetted by the advancing crepuscule, to find a secluded spot to kiss without the possibility of being discovered, and I was very pleased with myself at that time that I had been able to devise out of the raw elements of this city an effective romantic program whose final leg led from an alcove formed by the trees of that darkening hill to my room at the boardinghouse on B___nyv street.
My landlady was a stout, diamond-haired woman in her sixties, and her home was the only free-standing house at the end of a row of apartments on this street, which led to the city center. The house was well-appointed, bore a lifetime’s accumulation of furniture, maintained spotlessly, with enough rooms to accommodate a clique of permanent boarders as well as a rotating cast of tourists in the summer.
On my first visit to her place (this was during the waning days of the summer tourist season, and I’d found relief from the heat of the street in the cool, dark hallways of her house), Vira had showed me the rooms with the practiced, confident air of a seasoned hostess, moving and speaking like the docent of an undervisited rural museum, the script of her tour excitedly given, as though it was the highlight of her day. I nodded along with the best impression of comprehension I could muster as she enumerated the various merits of the house: central heating, hot water available at all hours, a spacious backyard garden, etc., etc., without, it seemed, any awareness that I might have some difficulty in parsing her quick, colloquial Varrenian.
There was really only one major issue that I was especially concerned about, but the subject took some delicacy to broach, and as we advanced up and down a series of pine-floored hallways and she showed me the living room (a little dark and cramped, cluttered with glass knickknacks) or laid out the terms of the board (breakfast and dinner included in the rent, a little bit extra if I wanted to take lunch at the house), I wracked my brain with how to approach the question, the difficulty lying in being forced to think across two axes: what to say, and then how to translate it.
“Yes,” she looked at me solicitously, stopping midsentence to do so, catching through the preparatory shift in my body language that I was about to ask her something.
“Would it be possible,” I stumbled a bit in forming the Varrenian subjunctive, unpracticed in the language, “to invite friends over?”
“But of course!,” she replied. “This house is your home in our country. And your friends can stay overnight if they need to. Now, the trams stop running at midnight, but we have two lines that run out here, one on the corner of K___ian street, and the other at . . .”
When she gave me this reply, it was as though I had been trying to disentangle a very complicated and deeply woven knot, and Vira had swooped in to slice the thing clean through, as unperturbed by it as any other question about what kind of food was to be expected at breakfast or the status of spare keys, smoothing over any trace of discomfort by gliding effortlessly into a discussion of the tram schedule. Later on, I would come to understand that her grandmotherly looks belied a view of and experience with sexuality that was more modern than anyone would have thought. But then, the fact that she so quickly understood that a young man might want to bring a girl over to his place of an evening rendered me almost blushingly speechless.
The room she showed me was small but neat and contained three pieces of furniture: a modestly sized bed, a wooden writing desk laden with drawers, and a large wooden wardrobe, stuffed in its lower compartments with heavy blankets. In compensation for its modesty and size, the room had the luxury of a window overlooking the backyard, and in looking out over the summery patch of greenery that extended from the house as she showed me the room, I adopted a stance I would repeat many times over the course of my stay there.
When Vira showed me the lock on the room’s door, she took great pains to assure me that it was only for the sake of privacy and that I should not feel obliged to use it (the lock), or to take its existence as evidence that I should harbor any feeling of suspicion regarding the other boarders. She emphasized that “we only have good people here.” I should feel secure in my possessions and could feel free to leave my room unlocked if I wished! Only (she explained), yes, some of her boarders, perhaps coming from places where there was more crime, where people could not be as trusted or trusting, felt the need to have a lock, and, while she herself did not ever feel it necessary to lock a room in her own house, who was she to judge?
This talk of “good people” was, I would come to decide, characteristic of her, and later I garnered from my experiences with her speech a collection of parallel phrases that would go some way in forming my view of her: “the good politicians,” “the good foreigners,” to which phrase she quickly added “like you!” leaving me both flattered and bemused, and finally, a phrase that would be relevant to me: “good girls,” which occurred in sentences such as “You have such good taste, you only date good girls.”
During the time that I lived in her house, I also thought in a very binary way with regard to people, but my binary was divided by the question of conventionality. It was this question that cleaved the world in the most consequential way for me, and it was whether or not a person was “conventional” that determined my friendships and romantic relationships and that also guided my choices and decisions. In the case of Vira, that she had no qualms about my bringing girls over to my room should have been ample evidence to place her in the unconventional group, but her talk of “good people” and so on drove her so deeply into the camp of the conventional that at that time I couldn’t help but see her only in this way. This prejudice was not diminished by the other ways in which she seemed to express an irredeemable conventionality: I winced whenever she sing-songed the propaganda from state television: “Thank goodness for the monarchy, or we would end up just like the Moiraivians!” (This was during the bloody first year of the Moiraiviain civil war, and the state news showed corpses in the streets of besieged cities, guerrillas in balaclavas denouncing the ceasefires that their own representatives had negotiated and pledging to carry on the fight, artillery pieces lugged into the hills.) Against the anti-monarchical protestors who occasionally demonstrated in the capital, she leveled the denunciation taught to her by state media: “irresponsible agitators.”
Of course, in this instance, I made the conventional choice, which was to take the room, and this hypocrisy was also characteristic of me at that time. After doing so, I would learn that the terms of the room and board at Vira’s boardinghouse were even more generous than she had initially described, that in addition to three home-cooked meals a day, housekeeping was also included in the pitifully small sum that I paid her each week, and Vira would enter my room at, it seemed, purely random intervals to change the sheets, sweep the floor, and right the charming (to my mind) disarray that I let the room fall into. The sheafs of paper and stacks of notebooks that I had scattered, she would set into neat stacks in the repulsive approximation of a government clerk’s desk. The spill of books that I let linger on the floor by my bed she stacked in order of size on my writing desk, and the easily reached prophylactics I’d lazily hidden underneath these books, I would later find, to my horror, tucked discreetly in the desk’s upper drawer.
I’d come to the city on an academic post, teaching Amarguese language at the Varrennian National Cultural University, the largest and, I believed, most prestigious institution outside of the capital. A two-year contract seemed a slice of eternity, and I felt a kind of anticipatory dismay that I would be thirty at the time my contract expired.
I’d imagined naively that I had finagled my way into the position on the thinnest set of credentials, had crowed to my friends about my feat when I received my offer letter, and had gone so far as to daydream about recounting the story years later, when, I imagined, I would portray myself as a sort of picaresque hero: Once in my late twenties, I tricked one of the national universities of a foreign country into giving me a paid post as a professor. . . not realizing that the university of an impoverished Eastern country might be desperate for any warm body to round out the vampiric ranks of its aging professoriat and would hire more or less anyone foolish enough to accept a salary paid in the form of icy dorm rooms and meal vouchers. It was the squalidness of the faculty dormitory, with its rust-streaked communal bathrooms that had driven me to seek out Vira’s boardinghouse.
I was vague to Vira about what I did at the university (to my credit, the university was also vague about what it was that I was doing there), and through this vagueness, I may have inadvertently caused her to expand her estimation of me, so that, for example, at a first dinner ,whenever a new boarder arrived, she would introduce me as “our resident scholar,” explaining that I was “doing important linguistic research at the university,” leaving me to beam like a cow-licked grandson. I was nominally attached to and sponsored by the university’s philology department, but the administration was evasive about what my research program should consist in, and, suspecting that trying to pin this question down would lead to awkward conversations for both parties involved, I left the matter unpursued. The other professors guarded their classes jealously—I understood why later—and I was relegated to teaching a single section of Amarguese conversation, which met twice a week and in which I had to do little more than prod my students along with a few prompts to shepherd us through the hour.
What I had, then, was a vast hoard of free time, which seemed an obscene luxury in Vira’s house. On those days when I had no classes to teach, no business at the university, when Vira bade me goodbye as I set out from the house after breakfast, I felt a little like those tragic husbands who, after being sacked, still put on a suit every day (“Have a good day at work today!”), still march out with a briefcase (“Don’t forget to take your lunch!”), to put on the appearance that they are employed because they are too ashamed to inform their families that they no longer have any gainful dealings with the world.
In spite of the fact that Vira’s hours were constantly occupied, or, perhaps, because of this, she seemed to be possessed of a constant, beatific serenity and moved about the house—her house—with a tireless, humming energy. Her hours were devoted largely to the kitchen, waking at some indeterminate hour while I and the other boarders still existed in a state of sleepful oblivion to fire the stove and prepare pancakes, oat porridge, and coffee and staying there through noon to begin preparations for lunch and dinner, her only excursions from this post made to sweep the hallways or do the laundry, her only rest a lonely postprandial siesta in the afternoons, which would give her the energy to mount to the kitchen in preparation to cook our dinner.
This serenity was married to a solicitousness that combined the professional hypercourtesy of a maître d’ with the almost suffocating concern of a grandmother. If I so much as hesitated when she asked me, “Are you hungry?” I was sure to find, moments later, on the majestic oak dining table, a heavy plate laden with cold cuts, dense, dark breads, sliced peppers, and tomatoes tossed with onions and vinaigrette into a quick salad.
“How was work today?” / “How were the students today?” she would ask me when I returned to the house in the afternoon or evening. And because these were conventional questions, I could give only conventional answers.
“Oh, quite good,” I would say, instead of correcting her misprision by admitting that I hadn’t taught a single section that day, or had had any dealings at the university, that while she had toiled her entire day, I had spent mine as freely as a rentier or a vagrant.
Vira’s solicitousness extended to my relationships with women. Out of a grandmotherly instinct toward the possibility of procreation or a maîtresse d’s habitual discretion, she did nothing that would endanger my relations with the girls I brought home. She never mentioned to any of these girls that they were not the first I had brought over, going so far as to tell one of them once, “I’m glad he found you; he seemed so lonely.” If I brought a girl over whom I’d snuck in overnight, I was liable to find her laughing over coffee in the garden with Vira in the morning, charmed by this matronly force.
Hard to know what to read in her expression when Vira smiled at meds. She was the soul of discretion, although I detected in the looks she gave me a wryness that was both indulgence and chastisement, encouragement and a finger-wagging disapproval.
Although she was my landlady, I seemed to always come upon her in a physical arrangement that shifted our relationship, that put her in a servile role: stepping past her as she mopped the hallway that led to my room or seeking her out in the kitchen where she was rolling out dumplings and a slight hesitation in my body language prompted her to ask me, “Yes! Tell me what you need.”
Later on, when I tried to correct the dilettantism that I had so well cultivated in my youth and I began lingering in the sections of bookstores devoted to books about correcting the mistakes one has made in life (so many!), I would find repeated the assertion that action and behavior drives personality—that by acting a certain way a sufficient number of times, a person adopts the patterns of thought, the ways of thinking, that correspond to that pattern of action. In a similar way, because I was always running into her at a moment when she was doing something servile for me—because the physical form of our relationship repeatedly took on that form—our relationship bent in that direction, as slowly, but surely as a heavy-headed flower directing itself toward the sun. And this may have compelled her, whatever her personal feelings or compunctions, to aid me in a sort of womanizing that most women of her age and generation would naturally have disapproved of.
Partly out of a desire to understand her better and partly out of simple boredom, I studied the photographs in her living room. A stern-faced, square-jawed man with a sweep of thinning hair could be none other than her late husband, Yanosek, whom she would occasionally invoke in an affectionate diminutive: “If only my Yashik could see this . . .” In another, a buxom, curvaceous blonde in an evening dress, stunningly beautiful, and as voluptuous as a fertility goddess. The smile in the photograph was the same serene beam that emanated from my landlady’s countenance as she wished me a good day at work every morning.
Summer evenings we would dine at a long wooden table set in Vira’s backyard, where she cultivated peppers, cucumbers, strawberries, their leaves punctured by insects. At the house’s maximum capacity, these dinners comprised nine, ten guests, and at these times, a serving woman came in to assist with the cooking.
Although otherwise temperate, Vira would occasionally indulge in a tumbler of the moonshine that was brought in by guests or her family. The source of this moonshine was always “the village,” suggesting that beyond the Vira’s generation, there was a further rank of forebears who worked the lands, fermented potatoes and wheat, distilled their mashes in primitive stills, into which were thrown fennel, nettles, willow bark, resulting in a drink that was both tonic and inebriant. Then, she would speak with a freeness that momentarily leveled the walls that separated her from us as our landlady.
One evening in a discussion of the film director Barajano, I heard an exclamation in a remarkably Vira-like voice, “I met him! He kissed me!” Surely too loud to have been our Vira, until I looked over—she was sitting a knight’s move away from me, on the opposite side of the table, and a pair of seats over—and saw her eyes glistening with dreaminess and drink.
This evening we were hosting, inter alia, a young married couple, about my age, who were spending a few days in town as part of their summer holidays before they continued on their tour west to the mountains, and I was eating quickly in preparation for a date, tucking into a plate of roast chicken and peppers stuffed with spiced bulgur, waiting for the potato dumplings to come round.
The couple had taken an interest in me after Vira had introduced me as “our resident scholar” and peppered me with questions that I answered hastily between bites, conscious that I had to be at the central piazza in less than an hour. By this time, my competence with the language had improved, and I could, between answers, toss off the occasional “Would you kindly pass the dumplings?” or “If I might take another piece of chicken here,” as I hungrily devoured my meal.
“What was the source of your academic interest in our country?” the husband asked me as I reached for a tureen of gravy, and I replied that I’d always admired the films of Barajano, that the country portrayed in his films always seemed so lovely, so romantic, and this had been the seed of my desire to see the country. Even this evening had a cinematic quality that reminded me of a scene in Towards the End of a Life, where the family ate dinner together outdoors on a similar summer evening.
“Yes, he’s a national treasure,” said the wife.
“Absolutely,” I said absentmindedly as I squinted to the far end of the table to see if, yes, the little jar there contained the pickled chestnuts that I liked so much.
“It’s interesting to meet a foreigner who is familiar with his work,” said the husband. “It’s a shame they banned him from making films. We know he tried to change things with his films, to say things that could not be said, about politics, about the old regime.”
Our conversation must have rippled toward Vira, and I imagine some exchange occurred that had prompted Vira’s outburst: “Now, what are those young people speaking about down there?” / “Barajano. You know, the filmmaker.” / “Ah, him. I met him! He kissed me!”
Certainly, this declaration deserved some elaboration, and I was scooping a generous portion of the chestnuts when she began her story:
“Well, this was many years ago when I was living in the capital, which was still only the provincial capital because we had not yet won our independence. And when I first came there, you could go to the labor bureau to find a job—it wasn’t like today, where employment is so difficult to come by; everyone had work! Anyone who wanted it could find work, and it didn’t matter if you were just a girl from the village; there was no prejudice.
“They asked me, ‘What are your skills?’ and ‘What would you like to do?’ and at first I went white as a sheet because I had no skills! So I lied, thinking that I was being very tricky, and said I had had some experience as a secretary at the village bureau and perhaps could do some work along those lines.
“And the clerk told me, well there is a position, and they are looking for a young woman. There was a movie producer who needed a secretary, and would I be interested?
“And I said yes! I could do that, even though,” she lowered her voice as though invoking a conspiracy, “I had never had any experience in such work.
“This producer was a Mister H___bev, and I worked for him for about one year and learned the movie business from him. Well, during the time that I was working for him, that was during the production of In the Shadow of Our Ancestors, and Mister H___bev and Mister Barajano were meeting every week to plan out the production and the budget and everything involved.
“Mister Barajano, why he looked just the way he did in the magazines. You know, with that crew cut of his and with that very intense stare, and he never smiled. And that was how he always looked at me whenever I saw him.
“Until one day. he looked at me and said something like: ‘You, I must have you,’ and he came right up to me and grabbed me, and he kissed me, right then and there! Well, I pushed him right off me, and I said to him, ‘Mister Barajano! You may not treat me like this!’ And he was a married man! Because at that time he was married to the actress Marah Sharapín.”
“A pig,” the husband in the young couple assessed.
“They do say that artistic men are more promiscuous,” his young wife declared philosophically, “that the creative gene seeks out variety in all things, including women.”
“That is no excuse. He grabbed her!”
Vira went on: “Well, he said all the things a woman would want to hear. That I was beautiful, that he could not stop thinking about me. And he grabbed me and kissed me again, and I said ‘No!’ and I pushed him off again. Truthfully, I was not afraid of him. I told him that whatever he wanted, he must treat me like a lady first, and we could begin a conversation from that starting point.
“So he took me out to a restaurant, and he offered me so many things. He would give me my own apartment in the city, he offered me an acting job, not a starring role, not immediately, but he could find a minor part for me that could give me a break. And I knew, because I had worked in the movies for a year already, how important that was, to have a break.
“And if he had offered to make me his mistress without an acting job, you know I probably would have said yes. He was handsome! He was a genius! He was Barajano! But it spoiled things when he suggested that there should be an exchange. A great man’s mistress, I could be that! But I couldn’t be a whore.”
Her gaze landed upon me when she spoke this final word, and it quieted the table when she said it, so that I felt a little bit self-conscious, as it rendered audible the sound of my mastication.
“So, I told him no. I was afraid to say no to him because I didn’t think anyone could say no to a man like him. But you know what? He was a gentleman about it. And he respected my wishes.
“And that is the story,” she declared smiling at us, “of how I almost got to be an actress.”
“Why, Madame Vira, what an amazing life you have led!” the young wife declared.
The husband furrowed his brow. “I suppose I’ll never watch Barajano’s movies in the same way again.”
“Oh, and he was such a terrible kisser! Not like my Yashik!” Vira declared, smiling. “If only he had offered me the acting job without an exchange, I might have taken it. Could you imagine me as an actress?”
She put her hands at her hips, craned her neck into a three-quarter profile, a caricature of a movie-star pose (a photograph of a woman in an evening dress, as beautiful as any starlet, flashed in my mind). And we laughed, a bit inebriated by the tonic of Vira’s sudden turn of humor.
“Acting is a skill, you know. You have to go to school, just like anything else. And work hard and apply yourself. And many great actors start off very young. By then, I think I would have been too old to learn, probably. Maybe I said no because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of the cameras.”
“I think you would have been a lovely actress, Madame Vira,” the young wife countered.
“And it wasn’t only that. When I was young, I thought that there were different kinds of people in the world, and I felt too simple to be the kind of person who could have an affair like the one that he proposed to me; I was just a girl from the village. I was so inexperienced and naive, and I thought that even to be Barajano’s mistress I had to be a different kind of person, that I had to be more sophisticated, or more ‘artistic’ or more of a ‘bad girl.’ But now, I think that I was wrong about things then. Now I know that anyone can be anything. There are no classes and no types. There’s only what you decide to do at any moment, and a person can decide to do whatever they want.”
She took another swig of moonshine, and there was a touch of brazenness to this gesture, as though it were the first thing they taught you in an acting class.
“Only, maybe you make some choices in your life, and when you are older, it’s harder to take back those choices. And people might see you in a certain way.” She burped lightly. Her hand moved to her upper chest; once again she was no longer looking at any of us, content to gaze at a point in space that was both far away and deep within herself. “Not knowing that you were not always the way that you are now. And it’s hard for them to see that a person is really very many people and can never be only one thing.”
She looked at us, unafraid to reveal that a sheath of moistness now clouded her pale eyes. “But look at me, now I’m sounding like a professor, just like Mister ___,” and here she spoke my name.
I would end up being late for my date that evening, and the recrimination that my lack of punctuality engendered spoiled not only the remainder of that evening but my relationship with the girl in question. It was the height of the summer tourist season, and as I wandered the central piazza feeling a little bit drunk and a little bit lonely amid the crowds of nighttime revelers, evening strollers, buskers, and street performers, of lost-looking tourist families and little troops of laughing teenage girls, of pan-handlers, cigarette vendors, pamphleteers and kerchiefed old women who wanted to sell me roses or tell me my fortune, I thought of Vira, laughing a little and shaking my head to think that Barajano, who existed for me only as a photograph in a magazine or a line of credits over a rush of dark trees—A film by Milan Barajano—had once propositioned the very woman who now cooked my dinners and laundered my underwear and bade me goodbye every morning with the wish that I should have a good day at work. And from that day on, although I still never saw her face clouded by distress or melancholy, I would, at odd moments, if, say, our voluble hostess was quieted by a momentary shift of the dinner conversation’s center of gravity away from her end of the table, find in her countenance a wistfulness that is the final stage in the life of a human regret.
John Gu grew up in Houston and studied mathematics at the University of Texas. His writing has appeared in the Southern Review, the Massachusetts Review, and the Chicago Review of Books. He is currently based in a café somewhere, working on his novel. He can be found online at http://johngu.io
“Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian” by Margaret Hawkins
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her taut and witty story “Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian,” Margaret Hawkins sketches the evolving friendship between a very elderly former English teacher and her former student. Along the way, we discover that both women have surprising pasts and long-held secrets.
Nothing Beats a Good Presbyterian
by Margaret Hawkins
Joan stood behind the circulation desk, checking out books to a middle-aged man with a shaved head. The man was wearing flip-flops and a stained sweat suit that looked like it doubled as pajamas.
The library, in the small Illinois town where Joan had grown up and to which she’d recently returned alone and without a plan, was full of hairless men on weekdays now. Shaving was cheaper than a haircut.
The man slid his books sideways across the counter to make way for the elderly woman behind him. They were chatting, holding up the line. The woman thumped the man on the chest and said something that made him laugh and blush.
Now the woman stood in front of Joan. Or rather, she leaned, bent so far over her walker that the belt of her trench coat trailed on the floor. She pushed a little pile of audiobooks across the desk. “Do you know Donnie?” She gestured stiffly with her head toward the pajamaed man who was now making his way toward the exit. She didn’t wait for an answer. “What a promising boy he was. Excellent speller.”
Joan smiled. They weren’t supposed to gossip. She picked up an audiobook and passed it under the scanner. Poetry—that was unusual. Kay Ryan. Underneath were two more, Mary Oliver, Mary Oliver. She took the woman’s card.
“I find myself gravitating to the lesbian poetesses these days,” the woman said, as if she were making a public announcement and wanted to be sure to reach the hard-of-hearing in the back row. She made the lez in lesbian last for three beats. “They go for the gut,” she added, spitting out the t. “Don’t you think?”
Joan looked up from her screen. “Miss Cates?” She hadn’t seen her high school English teacher in over thirty years.
Which of them had changed more? Joan wondered, sitting at Miss Cates’s kitchen table two days later. Her former teacher was making tuna salad. Joan kept offering to help, but Miss Cates insisted that Joan remain seated, clanking her walker against the cupboards so she could lean her elbows on the sink.
She’d torn open a foil pouch. Dumped the tuna in a bowl. Slopped in a forkful of mayonnaise, some pre-cut celery. Squeezed lemon over the bowl without removing the seeds. Shaken some grayish flakes out of an ancient-looking jar. Dill, possibly, Joan thought. Whatever it was had long ago lost its nature.
“Family recipe,” Miss Cates said, dealing a few broken potato chips onto paper plates. She eased herself into the vinyl seat of her walker. To drink, there was tap water, with a generous glug of gin. “We call this a Presbyterian martini,” she said, not explaining the “we”. She clamped her glass with two hands and took a gulp. “A Presby, for short.”
At the library, Joan had had to tell her who she was. “Well, well,” Miss Cates had said, peering over her glasses. “Little Miss Joan of Arc arises, like the Phoenix I always suspected you were.” Thirty years earlier, there had been an incident involving a quasi-accidental brushfire behind the garage of a quasi-boyfriend named Robert that had garnered Joan unwelcome notice as an arsonist. Joan had hoped it was forgotten.
Me, Joan thought now, watching Miss Cates scoop a glob of tuna salad with a potato chip and ferry it shakily toward her mouth. I’ve changed more. Though Miss Cates looked different, that was true. Her queenly posture was a mere memory. She’d shrunk a foot, at least. She wore big white gym shoes now instead of those staccato-sounding spectator pumps. Her hair was a fuzzy, thinning mat, no longer the elaborately teased and frosted nest Joan remembered.
Miss Cates had descended from the wide, arid plateau of late middle age, where she’d dwelled when Joan had last seen her and which seemed from the outside to have no antecedent or borders, into the mysterious, frankly decrepit valley of end times. The body she inhabited now called to mind one of her beloved ruins, the very stones of which had crumbled. She had to be over ninety. Still, she, the essential Miss Cates, was exactly the same.
After Joan had gone for lunch three times at the tiny apartment—the menu was always the same—she got Miss Cates to agree to let her bring the food next time. Joan packed a picnic. Actually, she already had packed it, had in fact been driving around with the slightly obscene collection of imperishable delicacies in her trunk for over a month, waiting for the right moment to spring it on Robert. A pretty basket held a tin of smoked oysters, a bar of the darkest chocolate, a bottle of champagne. Linen napkins, a tablecloth. She’d pictured herself spreading the cloth on a motel bed or, if need be, across the seat of his reclining dental chair. She’d tucked bungee cords in the basket, imagined affixing Robert to a stationary object and force-feeding him, or lighting a match.
On her way to Miss Cates that day she drove out of her way to buy bread, soft cheeses, raspberries, a pot of liver mousse, one ripe quince, a lemon tea cake. Joan wondered if it was too much, or too obviously a lunch intended for a different sort of rendezvous. But food was food, she reasoned. Miss Cates would never notice.
“A meal fit for a king,” Miss Cates proclaimed, sitting up as straight as she could on her walker seat, smoothing a bright napkin over her lap. “Or fit for a concubine, I should say.” She patted her stiff, sparse hair.
“Though if you’re planning to seduce me with this sumptuous repast”—she smeared a huge glob of Roquefort on a water cracker—“you’ll have to produce a time machine from that cunning basket of yours.”
Joan poured fizzing wine into two juice glasses and held hers aloft. “To Cass,” she said.
Miss Cates had insisted that Joan call her by her given name, though Joan would have preferred to continue calling her Miss Cates. “All my friends call me Cass,” she’d said. “Or did. They’re all dead now.” She’d plucked a crumb off her blouse, flicked it on the rug. “Except for Aphrodite.”
Aphrodite was an enormous white cat whose strangely loud purr could be heard through closed doors. The cat’s fur was everywhere in the small apartment, especially in the sinks, which were coated. Aphrodite liked wet places, Miss Cates said. Often the cat lounged under the kitchen faucet, staring at the drain, expecting, it seemed, something to rise from it.
Miss Cates adored Aphrodite, despite her louche ways, perhaps because of them. For a while there’d been two cats, Miss Cates said, stroking a little metal tool through Aphrodite’s thick coat. Littermates. The other cat, Athena, had died of leukemia seven years before. Athena had been quieter, better behaved.
“You notice which one survived.” Aphrodite, spread possessively across Miss Cates’s lap, emitted a loud, somewhat threatening purr. “Miss brainy was brittle. Didn’t know what to do with herself once she’d proved she was right. But love—that’s you, my crumpet,” she said to the old cat. “Little miss love and beauty here is a tough cookie. Fickle. Gets what she wants and moves on. Don’t you?” She massaged the cat’s head. “You selfish hussy.”
Aphrodite sprang from repose to land a quick bite, then dropped to the floor. Departing the room, she raised her tail. The small, dark eye of her anus winked at them.
A month later, in the fading light of an October afternoon, they ate cheese cubes and sipped the gin Miss Cates had splashed in their glasses, not bothering with water. (“When you drink it neat, it’s a Methodist.”) Aphrodite lay heavily in Miss Cates’s lap, pinning her to the seat of her walker.
“I’d freshen your drink,” Miss Cates said, during a lull in which Joan thought she’d fallen asleep. “But, as you can see, I am a prisoner of love.”
Robert notified Joan he would be spending Thanksgiving with his family and that she was not to call him. Joan roasted a turkey breast and drove it to Miss Cates. There, she mashed potatoes at the tiny stove. Later Miss Cates talked her through a brandied cranberry compote, inexactly. (“How much brandy?” “Gobs.”)
“What should we call this?” Joan was sloshing the glistening red jumble into chipped punch cups. She wanted to be inducted into whatever society owned this joke. “A Mennonite?”
Miss Cates looked thoughtful. “A Sufi,” she said.
Late Christmas afternoon, after waiting all day for a sign from Robert, Joan took the coffee cake and peppermint ice cream to Miss Cates. She presented her with a wool shawl, a CD player, an assortment of recorded books. Miss Cates gave Joan a shot of bitters over ice (a Cold Catholic), and her father’s Aeolian harp, wrapped in two stale-smelling pillowcases tied with the sash of her bathrobe. She’d kept it under her bed for forty years, she said.
“Named after Aeolus, Greek god of the wind.”
“I know,” Joan whispered. She was trying not to weep.
“It suits you,” Miss Cates said. “Passive instrument that it is. Put it in an open window. Aeolus will strum it for you.”
In January, Miss Cates stopped going out. Joan made regular deliveries of tuna in pouches, lemons, jars of Nutella, cat food in assorted flavors, extra-strength aspirin, jumbo flagons of Tanqueray. One day, after Joan had opened the cat food cans and stacked them in the refrigerator, then loosened the caps on the gin and the aspirin, while they were having what Miss Cates called tea—pound cake with their usual Presbyterians–Miss Cates told Joan about Francie Jane.
“Who’s this?” Joan had said when she noticed the photo on the bureau. She’d been folding Miss Cates’s laundry and seen the tarnished silver picture frame behind a stack of unpaid bills. There were other photos—Miss Cates as a lanky child straddling a horse, a studio portrait of what must be her parents, unsmiling long-jawed Yankees in Victorian wedding regalia—but here was a face that bore no family resemblance.
Miss Cates took the photo from Joan and held it in her lap. The picture showed a square-faced young woman in a jacket with military epaulets holding two koala bears.
“My WAVE.” Miss Cates drew out the vowel. “Frances Jane Harper Hunt. Served in the South Pacific, before I knew her.” Miss Cates clicked her yellow fingernail on the glass. Francie was older, she said. The photo was from her frisky youth.
“Gone many years. Cancer of the womb.” Miss Cates fluttered her fingers as if to rid herself of something. Turned to Joan. “Do you recognize her?” She had that look she’d got sometimes in class, posing a tricky question.
“Think, now.” Her voice had gone teacherish. “Mrs. Hunt.”
Joan did remember someone, but Miss Cates couldn’t mean that Mrs. Hunt. Could she? The art teacher, that small plump angry woman with the tight gray curls who wore too-snug plaid skirts with sweater sets and shiny nylons and little high-heeled shoes that pitched her whole body forward? The frowsy one whose slip always showed, who threw temper tantrums and gave detentions, and smelled of stale sanitary napkins, whom Gail Pastorius called Mrs. Cunt? Joan tried to sneak another look, but Miss Cates’s big hand covered the picture.
“We were great friends for many years,” Miss Cates said. After a while, she added, “Once we took my Aunt Cecelia to lunch at the Walnut Room.” She chortled at the memory but didn’t explain.
“Francie’s fellow—husband I should say, though I hate the word—had a position with some financial outfit. Something like what you used to do, I suppose.” Miss Cates sniffed. “Nice fellow, in his way. Good provider.” She chucked the photo toward a chair and missed, then stuck her spoon in the Nutella and spread an undainty dollop on her cake.
“Tell me about your fellow,” she said, another afternoon. When Joan hesitated, Miss Cates prompted her, as if to jog her memory. “Your hubby?”
Joan slogged in, trying to simulate the impression of an answer while saying as little as she could, not mentioning Robert and coming up with a garbled nonstatement about two possible, sort of, fellows, if you counted almost-exes, then gave up. “Really, probably there’s none.”
“Good girl. Place the emphatic words in a sentence at the end.” Miss Cates had taken to quoting The Elements of Style in a pinch, without citation. Her bible, she said—comfort to the old.
Now she indicated that Joan should pour more gin into her glass and not bother with water. “When you top it up like that it’s called an Episcopalian.” Recently she’d told Joan the drink names had been a private joke between her and Mrs. Hunt.
On Valentine’s Day, arriving with the heart-shaped cheesecake she’d made the night before, Joan found Miss Cates unable to get out of bed, impatient to talk about the time she’d given Francie a kitten. “I made her promise to keep his name. Gleipnir.” She caught Joan’s eye. “Rhymes with sneer.”
Joan knew she was supposed to get this reference, but she drew a blank. Miss Cates waved her hand. “Never mind. Never liked the Norse much, except for that bit.”
Gleipnir, she reminded Joan, was the name of the magic chain, made of the noise of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of stones, the breath of fish, and the spittle of birds. She gave Joan a look. “Impossible things, you see, to do an impossible job.”
Joan took a sip of her Episcopalian.
“Little Gleipnir was supposed to be our magic chain. But he ran into the street and was hit by a car. A Rambler, Francie thought. That boy of hers left the door open. The little thing got out.”
On the Ides of March, Joan broached the subject of vengeance. She didn’t mention Robert. Had she ever felt spiteful, toward Francie?
Miss Cates hooted. Oh, all the time, she said. All the time. The night Francie dropped by after returning from a three-week trip with her husband, she’d thought about poisoning her. They’d gone to Paris. She wasn’t even sorry.
“But how would I have disposed of that chubby little corpse?” Miss Cates said she’d settled for beating Francie with an umbrella.
“Did it help?”
Miss Cates closed her eyes. “A little,” she said. After a while she added, “I regret nothing.”
She took a long swallow from her drink and set her glass in the air a few inches beyond the edge of the table. By the time Joan finished sweeping up the shards, Miss Cates was gone. Soon, Aphrodite appeared at Joan’s feet and demanded supper.
Margaret Hawkins writes fiction, essays, and arts journalism. Her work appears regularly in Visual Art Source and the Democracy Chain. Her third novel (fourth book), Lydia’s Party, was published by Penguin in 2015. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, ARTnews, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Art & Antiques, The Perch (Yale), Fabrik, and many other publications. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Loyola University.
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
Equally comedic and poignant, Adam Prince’s story “Way Back, Well Before My Divorce,” winner of our 2021 William Peden Prize in fiction, examines the many faces of naivete, from hopeful crowd members betting on a rigged shell game to a young man unknowingly crossing an invisible boundary with his girlfriend’s sister.
Here’s what novelist Michael Byers, the guest judge who selected this story as the winner of our annual best-of-volume prize, had to say about the story:
“It builds a portrait of a clueless young man who thinks he has all the answers while also, and this was especially gratifying, making me appreciate the form of the short story in a new way, i.e., it never says what it’s about but is firm enough in its shape to be entirely clear; it asks questions rather than delivers answers; and it too is vivid and memorable–all while being quite short! In itself a kind of sleight-of-hand game.”
Way Back, Well Before My Divorce
by Adam Prince
There was this other thing that happened. Or really two things bundled. While visiting my then girlfriend’s older sister in New York City, I got pulled into a shell game. Then, later that night, the sister asked me to help wax her armpits.
It was a day approaching Thanksgiving—clear and wincingly bright. Just off Washington Square some guy shifted a raw pea under three shells on a cardboard box. He was balding and potbellied with a five o’clock shadow—or more like nine thirty. And something wrong with his eyes. One of them pulled toward his nose.
Five or six people gathered around: a white guy in a gray suit, a black guy in a white suit, a gypsy-looking woman with ragged flowers on her hat. Some others.
I liked their diversity. Their liveliness, too. Jumping around when they won. Throwing their hats down when they lost.
I’d just moved east for college Upstate, and remembering this now feels like watching an early-twentieth-century melodrama, with the villain twisting his mustache and the naive young man.
What happened later that night resembled no genre I’ve ever heard of.
In a narrow apartment, my girlfriend’s older sister and I were eating Ethiopian food off the same plate with our hands—which is how you’re supposed to do it—when she said, “So Gwendolyn tells me you’re into processes.”
I’d never thought about whether I was into processes or not but guessed it was probably true. Gwendolyn had gone to a better high school than me and attended a better college. And once, out of nowhere, she’d proclaimed that I was interested in the way men and women interacted. I’d never thought of it before but then realized she was right. It was one of my main interests.
So, “Yeah,” I said now to Gwendolyn’s sister about the processes.
And the sister said, “I thought you’d want to help wax my armpits.”
Which I did. But I mean, who wouldn’t? Or maybe it’s just me, interested in processes.
This shell guy had all kinds of tricks. A shift. A mix. A back-and-forth where they ended up in the same place they’d started. Still, I could tell where that pea went.
“Young man knows,” said the shell guy to himself, while the gypsy kept losing dollars, crumpled and ragged as the flowers on her hat.
“Where ya think?” she whispered to me.
I told her; she won. It made the shell guy mad. He looked me in the face—or as much as he could with his eyes the way they were—shifting the shells as he did.
“Where’s it at?” he asked.
“I don’t want to bet,” I told him.
“Never mind the bet. No bets. Where’s it at?”
I pointed. And was right.
Now, I admired my girlfriend’s older sister. She was in graduate school doing gender studies. She identified as bisexual and looked like a Norwegian milkmaid, but an empowered milkmaid who sometimes wore a beret and totally pulled it off. Blonde and broad-shouldered, a dusting of freckles on her wide cheeks.
For the record, though, I didn’t see this as any kind of sexual invitation. More like a dare.
The whole family was very open-minded. They traveled to Kenya every Christmas. The dad kept almost winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry; the mom did metal art with a blowtorch. And though I’d never actually seen it, I knew for a fact they walked around naked at home.
Open-mindedness was another thing I was into.
So, “Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
She heated the green-gray wax in a saucepan, stirring with a popsicle stick applicator, a good start for a process.
Then she took off her shirt. Stood in the middle of the tiny bathroom while I backed up against the tile wall, trying to be polite.
She aimed her sky-blue eyes at me. And casually slung off her bra. Which I didn’t understand at all, since anyone could see that the armpits were perfectly accessible with the bra still on.
I said, “Those look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.” Because they did look a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts: exact same areolae and everything. Except the sister’s breasts were bigger and firmer and honestly more appealing overall, which I absolutely did not say.
Anyway, I meant it in a friendly way, a breezy, beret-wearing casual way, like “Hey, wouldn’t you know it, those look a heck of a lot like Gwendolyn’s breasts.”
And the sister said, “Thanks. I guess.” Which could have meant almost anything.
A cheer went up. The young man was right! The beleaguered, hat throwing crowd had their hero.
The shell guy said, “One hundred dollars to this boy if he’s right again.”
“I don’t have any cash. I don’t want to bet.”
“No bet. One hundred if you’re right.”
The shells went around, circling and shifting and blurring all over. The pea ticking from one to another.
I picked the shell on the left.
“You sure?” asked the shell guy.
“No!” cried the crowd. “Not that one!”
But I was sure. The young man knew.
Shell guy tipped up the left. And there it was.
But this shell guy, he just shrugged. “No bet, no money.”
The rest of the crowd knew an injustice when they saw one. They’d thrown down hats before. The white guy in the gray suit came over, leaned close. He looked like my dad, except with a ketchup stain on his tie and like he’d made worse life choices
“This son of a bitch,” he said, “been screwing us all day.” He walked me to a nearby ATM. “You’re gonna take out fifty and stick it to this son of a bitch,” he said.
I told him the ATM only gave out multiples of twenty, and then I suggested we take out forty instead.
But this guy who looked like my dad, whom I’d always admired— very straightforward—said, “Sixty. We’re gonna go for it.
Gwendolyn’s sister raised an arm, applied the goo to a furry armpit, and told me to rip it off.
I’d peel; she’d wince. Flushed and sweating. And when she moved, her breasts moved, too. They swayed and wobbled.
The green wax came off with the hair stuck to it, standing up as if the roots grew there from this whole other Frankenstein skin.
“Let’s wax you next,” the sister said, her bra still off.
She spread hot wax over my armpits. I was running out of places to put my eyes so tried keeping them closed. But then she ripped off the wax. And sudden, burning pain forced them open again. I had to make sure my skin hadn’t peeled off with the wax, and god, those breasts were close. Sweat running down them.
She grunted each time she peeled. And I grunted, too. Sexy and gross and painful all at once—but mostly just confusing—while I tried to pretend that this was how sophisticated, open-minded grownups behaved.
The guy who looked like my dad and I strode back to the shell game like lions of Wall Street. Or anyway, that’s how I felt.
I laid my money down on the cardboard box. Real money. Ten hours at the college cafeteria where I worked. A real bet from the young man who knew the pea.
He started his shifty business. All kinds of shenanigans. Shot the pea into the middle nut. Shot it to left nut, then back. But I knew. Called out middle nut.
Then he moved it left. I saw. Or, I mean, I was pretty sure. But I’d already called out middle, and he pulled up middle nut to reveal no pea.
I said, “You moved it after I picked!”
And the crowd said, “He moved it after you picked!”
And I said, “Did you see him move it after I picked?”
But none of them could say for sure.
Nothing for me to do but give up the money. Walk away. Out into the bleary light, figuring out the con as I went and feeling as foolish and ashamed as I have in my whole life.
Except for maybe later that night, when we were all done with the wax, and Gwendolyn’s sister shrugged her bra back on.
Or maybe on Thanksgiving Day in the shower with Gwendolyn, showing off the wax job and walking her through the story—breezily, open-mindedly.
But Gwendolyn’s face didn’t seem open at all. It had this rigid, judgy look.
“What?” she said. “Wait, wait, what? She did what? And you did what? And you were thinking what?”
But all that was a long time ago. Way back, well before my divorce.
Adam Prince earned his B.A. from Vassar College, his M.F.A. from the University of Arkansas, and his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee. His award-winning fiction has appeared in the Mississippi Review, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, and Sewanee Review among others. His short story collection The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men was published with Black Lawrence Press in June of 2012. He is currently at work on a novel and several screenplays. He serves as the visiting writer for the Stokes Center for Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama and works as a freelance editor. See Dr. Adam Prince – Writer, Freelance Editor (adamprinceauthor.com) for more information.
“Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” by Cat Powell
Cat Powell’s “Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” appeared in TMR 42: 3 and was later selected by our guest judge, novelist and essayist May-lee Chai, as the winner of our annual William Peden Prize for best-of-volume-year fiction. As with so many things, the pandemic upended our plans to recognize Cat’s work and her award, so we bring it to you now. May-lee Chai says in her judge’s statement:
“I chose ‘Manifold Northeast Life & Trust,’ for the William Peden Prize because it moved me deeply. Although the story was written and published well before our current pandemic, there is an eerie sense of recognition at the opening, as the protagonist goes to work alone in an empty building, tying up odds and ends for an insurance company, haunted by memories of his wife and coworkers who have passed away. Powell’s literary craft is top-notch throughout. . . . This is a story about a haunted man, quite literally, but it is also a story that recognizes and takes seriously the emotional ties that define contemporary life—ties to family, to workplace, and to coworkers. A prescient story, beautifully written.”
Manifold Northeast Life & Trust
I wake early and water the plants. I have a lot of plants, and it takes the better part of an hour to see to them. Most are rescues that I find abandoned on suburban sidewalks, put out with the trash because they’re ugly or dying or refusing to flower. My oldest is a Ficus benjamina I’ve had for forty-five years, retrieved from the garbage room of my freshman dorm with only three dark and glossy leaves to his name. Like me, he’s thickened with age, and unlike me, he’s grown so that his crown now brushes the dining room ceiling.
I mist the broad-leafed bird-of-paradise that’s only ever flowered once; the purple-pink Hawaiian ti plant; the arrowhead syngonium; the forest of pink and white fittonia, which everyone gave as gifts the year my wife died. I soak the orchids, the flaming sword bromeliad, the tillandsia my daughter left behind when she moved out to LA. Then I get the watering can and attend to the geraniums my wife planted, now grown to Little Shop of Horrors proportions; the massive jade tree my mother left me; the spiked snake plants, the hanging vines, the calving spider plant, the gold-and-green-draped corn plant, the ZZ plants with their dark, plasticky leaves.
I make a pot of coffee. I make a tuna fish sandwich. I make a piece of toast with butter and strawberry jam. I put the sandwich and a travel mug of coffee into the satchel full of papers I cart back and forth from work each day, though I’ve never once taken out the papers at home.
The walk to the bus is cold and drab, gloom crowding the corners of the late April day. Heaps of dirty snow still line the street. I’m alone at the bus stop—too early for the students, too late for the downtown workers whose shifts started hours ago. No one else takes the bus if they can help it. But I hate driving.
No matter the hour of the day, everyone looks tired on the bus, and this morning is no different, the few occupants all grim and ground-down in the fluorescent light. I take a seat and watch the dark teeth of the roofs and the lit windows of the old houses rushing past. In one, a woman in a red dress with yellow flowers stands over a stove. I imagine a quick spiral of golden oil, the snap of the gas burner, the crisp tap and slime of an egg. Maybe she has a young son, and she shouts for him to get up, but he just pulls the comforter over his head and hides in the warmth. She goes to get him, pulls back the blankets half teasing, half exasperated; she leans over to give him a kiss, the loose V-neck slipping to reveal the line of sun-worn skin between her full breasts. My wife would have looked good in a dress like that. And now we’re nearing my stop. I put these things away.
I used to have an office with a window back when I was a manager and there were still people to manage. Now I sit alone in a cubicle at the windowless center of the empty seventh floor. No one else ever comes to the office. The other survivors prefer to work from home, and all of us work harder than dogs, the functions of a team of forty devolved to the aging shoulders of the five of us and our tyrannical machines always pinging and dinging and pressing for our attention at every moment of the day. In two years, the lease on the building is up, and a large multinational conglomerate will conclude its long, slow digesting of what was once Manifold Northeast Mutual Life & Trust. What few jobs are left will disappear down to corporate headquarters, and we’ll have to retire or relocate or find other jobs; not that there are many jobs around here to be found. I run into my former colleagues sometimes taking coffee orders or ringing up groceries, their forced smiles deepening crow’s-feet and laugh lines.
I delay opening my e-mail for as long as possible. I fold my coat carefully, deliver my sandwich to the fridge in the break room, brew a Keurig, sort and stack papers on my desk. I liked it better when we did things by phone. The agents are great talkers, true American heroes of salesmanship and bullshit. If you want to learn how to sell—and what an art that is, selling—go find yourself a successful life insurance agent. They’re selling a nonsense product no one needs and no one wants to think about, and they do it with such style that you find yourself smiling even after you realize you’ve been conned.
Take, for example, Bubba, an agent in Atlanta. He sends me an enormous policy for a guy who’s got every disease in the book—hypertension, hepatitis, heavy smoker, basically a walking diagnostic laboratory. Only he couldn’t possibly be walking, the shape he’s in.
“Bubba,” I say, “I can’t approve this; he’s dying.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Bubba says. “He’s a real tough one, a live wire; why, I had a steak with him yesterday.”
No way this man is on his feet, let alone dragging himself to the local Outback with Bubba. But Bubba won’t let it go.
“Oh, yes,” he says in that slow bass drawl that could soothe the current out of a live wire, “this man’s a medical marvel like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I don’t believe it,” I say.
“Besides,” Bubba drawls on, “he’s got a family to support.”
“He’s unmarried, no children.”
“But he’s got his niece, lovely little girl, he’s very fond of her, and a girlfriend with a young son who’s the apple of his eye. You’re a family man, my friend; don’t be coldhearted.”
“Oh, spare me Tiny Tim,” I say, but Bubba just keeps at it. Drawling along, unperturbed, a deep-voiced Weeble springing back from every damning fact I throw at him. I sigh and refer it up the chain of command, and since everyone at headquarters is a crook and a liar, most likely they’ll approve it.
I’m not saying there was ever honor in this business. But there used to be some kind of standard. My father worked here fifty years and never once had a bad word to say. And then we got acquired, and the layoffs started. They came in waves, like hangover nausea, even as the amount of work stayed the same, so that each new round of pink slips and boxed-up plants and pictures and slumped shoulders alongside security escorts meant the rest of us had to work that much harder. I never excelled at the work, never cared enough to scheme my way up the corporate ladder. Maybe in the end that worked in my favor. I never threatened anyone, kept my head down, and my number never came up. In the end, my life’s work has been surviving.
I put off lunch as long as possible because I know that once I start eating I won’t stop—chips from the vending machine, soft cookies from the café downstairs, M&Ms from the large pack I stash in my desk. It’s bad for me, especially with my heart. My daughter always asks if I’m eating right, and when she comes to visit I stock the fridge with fruits and vegetables. But the sugar is the only way I can make it through the long afternoons so silent that the occasional clank of the heating system makes me jump.
Maybe I should get another fish, for company. I used to keep a little 2.5-gallon tank on my desk with an electric pump and motor, just big enough for a single goldfish to live happily in. His name was Bob, and he was bright orange with big bulbous eyes and a black splotch on his back shaped like a handprint. This was during the third or fourth round of layoffs; I thought he’d improve morale.
I finally leave at nine pm. I wait a long time for the bus, which never runs on schedule after dark. It’s late April, and yet a few stray flakes of snow drift down as I trudge from the bus stop to my house, which in spite of it all still gives me pleasure, this house my wife and I bought just before the birth of our daughter and fixed up ourselves, a beautiful two-story Victorian with teal trim and an old magnolia tree out front.
I turn on all the lights downstairs so that things will feel more cheerful and put on the TV in the den. While my microwave dinner heats, I stare at my reflection in the dark window of the kitchen. My skin looks too gray, a few unkempt hairs sprout from the top edge of my cheek where I’ve forgotten to shave, and there’s chocolate between my front teeth. I should make more of an effort. The buzzer dings. I eat, watch TV, fall asleep in the blue glow, and wake just before midnight. I turn off the TV. I fall back to sleep on the couch.
The next morning is the same morning again. The plants. The coffee. The bus stop. The imagined lives and empty office. When I check my e-mail, though, there’s a message from my daughter, who’s in LA working shit jobs and painting late at night. She usually e-mails around two or three am with pictures of what she’s doing, even though every time I praise her work, she rolls her eyes, tells me I’m her dad, of course I like it. I hit reply.
Sometimes I wish she could have chosen an easier path, been a lawyer like her mother wanted. My daughter says if we’d wanted her to be a lawyer, we should have raised her differently. But right from the start she was wholly herself. I couldn’t change her. I just tried to help her make the best of who she is. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of wonder, the moment the nurse handed her into my arms and there was nothing in the room for me but that tiny, crumpled face. I waltzed off with her, my wife groggy with anesthetic from the C-section and calling after me to bring her back.
On Saturdays, after a long week at work, I’d sleep in and after waking late in the morning light would crack open the door to her room and find her surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals all arranged in some elaborate costumed tableau, acting out a political intrigue at the court or an epic quest or a tragic romance. Her little brow furrowed, totally absorbed, oblivious to my presence. I’m so proud of you, I write her. I’m so proud of the life and career you’ve chosen. And then I get ready to work.
Just after opening my e-mail, I hear it. The burbling sound of water. I get up to investigate. The fluorescent arrays have motion sensors; only the area above my cubicle is lit; the rest of the floor sinks away into shadow. As I walk, the lights flick on with a metallic pop and hiss. The shadows shift at my feet.
I follow the sound up and down the aisles. The sound echoes in the empty room, so it takes me some time to find its source. I do at last only because I begin to smell as well as hear it: the damp, fishy smell of a pond on a hot day. The smell of fishing with my father on summer evenings at the lake. He’d come home from work at five thirty on the dot, and we’d stop at the bait shop for a tub of night crawlers and Cokes and candy bars for me, and then we’d go sit on a damp bank as the sun drifted down toward the opposite side of the lake. I’d wander off to play in the mud, but when my father hooked a big one he’d shout, and I’d come to reel it in. We’d stay until the contours of the water were swallowed up in shadow. By the time we got home, my mother would have the grill already hot, and we’d cook the fish whole and pick the flaky white flesh from the bones with our fingers. You can’t eat those fish anymore. In the late ’70s a paper mill dumped a bunch of mercury into one of the streams that feeds the lake.
The sound is very loud, very close. I peer into each cubicle one by one until I reach the fifth cube on the right. There, in place of the floor, is a pond. No more gray stubbled carpet over concrete but a round pool, small but deep, the brown mud at the edges disappearing into black. A few strands of silted pondweed rise up from the depths. The water is circulating gently, like it’s being fed by an underground spring. I squat down and touch the water. I stand back and stare. I take a penny from my pocket and toss it in. It sinks and is lost.
Something else rises up in its place. A fish, a single orange-and-black goldfish, with bulbous eyes and flamboyant trailing fins. He rises and kisses the surface of the water. The black spot on his back is shaped like a tiny handprint. I turn and walk back to my desk as fast as I can.
When the doctor told us my wife’s diagnosis, I was immediately of two minds. One mind, the adult mind, accepted the diagnosis as true and inevitable. Of course, I thought; of course the worst thing happens. I’ve been afraid of losing her since I first began to love her. But the other mind, the child’s mind, rejected the diagnosis as impossible and fantastic. I did not want it, had not willed it, and therefore it could not be real.
The child’s mind still believed in a world made by superstitious incantation and imagination and the pure power of naming. This mud is cake. The action figure is an emperor. The floor is lava. My wife is not sick. The adult’s mind had learned that things will be done to you, whether you like it or not. It had long ago bowed to the dictates of Things as They Are.
I had always thought of the process of growing up as a metamorphosis, one mind slowly shaping itself into the next. But in that long awful moment of the doctor’s silence, I knew that this was false. The adult mind had simply sprouted and grown up next to the child’s, the two always competing for light and water, forever unreconciled. The diagnosis didn’t make the rupture—it revealed a split that had been there all along. For several days, the war between the two sides left me paralyzed, until finally the adult mind gained an edge, being after all the more disciplined of the two. I accepted the diagnosis. I did what needed to be done.
So now, having seen the pond and scurried back to my desk, I try to sit and read my e-mail as I would any other day. I make no progress. Of course, the child mind says, there’s a pond in a cubicle inhabited by a reincarnation of your dead fish. How obvious. How wonderful. Of course, the adult mind says, that’s impossible. You’re hallucinating or dreaming or going mad. You need to go to the doctor. You need to call someone to come here and go look at that cubicle with you to verify that you’re insane, that it’s not really there. No, the child mind says, how silly. You should go out and get some fish flakes. He’s probably hungry. I sit like that for a full two hours, pretending to read e-mails and all the while listening to the two minds continue their fruitless argument. I never wanted this job.
I never wanted any job at all. I wanted to be a writer. When I met my wife, I was a year out of college and squatting in an abandoned house with two friends. A fire had gutted the top floor, but the first and second were still relatively habitable. The landlord had forgotten to turn off electricity and water, and we used electric space heaters and lit fires in the old fireplace. We spent most of our days shivering in layers of sweaters, drinking tea and hot toddies, and making things. This is the house I brought my wife to after our third date. We’d laugh about it later, her looking up at the charred windows on the top floor and asking, as politely as she could, if this was where I lived. She was in the first year of a psychology PhD at the university I’d graduated from, in the same city I live in now. I liked that she was smart and capable and fearless. I always assumed she’d be the one with the big career and I’d stay home and write and raise our kids.
My father got me the interview at Manifold just after we got married. He had very traditional ideas about a man’s role in the household. I agreed to go just to placate him. I bombed it and figured that was that. Then two days later, they called and offered me the job.
I didn’t tell my father. I didn’t tell my wife. I thought I could ignore it, and it would go away. But of course HR called my father, and then my father, who was nothing if not canny and a good judge of people, called my wife. She made very little money as a student and was tired of having nothing and living in shitty shared houses with delinquent landlords. She was tired, too, of my always lurking around the house, complaining when my writing wasn’t going well and disappearing for days when it was. So my father came over for dinner, the two of them confronted me, and that was that.
I figured it would be a nice day job, nine to five, and then I’d write at night. I hadn’t counted on how tired it would make me, sitting in one place indoors for eight hours struggling to comprehend unfamiliar tasks while everyone around me plunged ahead like it was all the most natural thing in the world. It took me a full year to adjust; I wrote very little. And then my life went as lives go: my wife got offered a tenure-track job at the university; we got pregnant; we bought a house; my daughter was born; I was absorbed in raising her and working; time passed; my wife got sick.
After forty years in a job I initially disliked and in time grew to loathe, my adult mind has grown weary. Encountering the fish and the pond, it puts up what little fight it has left. Then noon comes, and when I go to get lunch, I find myself heading not to the fridge in the break room but out of the building and down the block to the pet store, where I buy several varieties of fish food.
I realize I never told the end of Bob’s story. One day I arrived at work and found that someone had fed Bob those cheesy goldfish crackers. A clogged filter, a dead fish, a rainbow slick of oil on the surface of the water.
The next day, entering the office, the smell is immediately different. Damper, earthier, with an undercurrent of fish. I go immediately to the pool and scatter some flakes. This time, two fish rise out of the depths: my old friend and a new companion, a mirror image of him but all white. Little plants are beginning to grow at the edges of the pond, bright green shoots poking through the mud. They grow with startling speed.
That afternoon, I do my best to deal with the backlog from the previous day. I make some headway but not enough. I keep turning around to watch the progress of the young trees, their nascent crowns now a good two feet above the cubicle walls. By five pm, when I go back to the pond to check on the fish, the trees are nearly to the ceiling. Their roots wind deep into the water on one side and on the other rise up to crack the floor of the cubicle opposite. The swelling trunks have toppled one divider, and another leans at a perilous angle. Moss has started around the banks, along with arrow arum, bur reed, cinnamon fern, a cluster of cattails.
By morning the young forest has spread to an area roughly five cubicles in diameter. The oldest trees, the ones near the pond, reach the ceiling; the younger ones are shoulder height. Dirt spills out from the cracks the roots have made in the floor; water drips from the leaves. There is a different light on that side of the room, too, something less like fluorescents and more like the diffuse light that emanates from thick clouds at noon. I find three fish in the pond now when I do my feeding and a frog chirping on the bank. The water has begun to overflow, soaking the carpet. And there on the carpet: a set of muddy footprints.
I match my shoe to one of them to check if they’re mine, maybe left the day before. But these prints are a good size or two larger. I spend the rest of the morning looking for their owner, pacing slowly up and down each aisle. Then I go down to the lobby and ask the security guard about the day’s visitors, if anyone has gone up to the ninth floor, if the janitor was in the night before. He tells me the janitor has the flu and the cleaning contractor has failed to send a replacement. He asks me if anything is missing, if I want to file a report. I tell him everything’s fine. I figure that whoever it is has somehow come and gone with no one noticing, not a particularly difficult feat in a half-abandoned building.
But the mystery man hasn’t gone. I feel him first, that prickle between the shoulder blades that tells you someone is near. I turn slowly. There, striding purposely down the aisle, is a youngish man in gray suit pants and a white button-down, sleeves rolled, tie loose.
“Hello!” I call. He neither turns nor slows. He walks right past me, so close I could reach out and tug on his sleeve. “Hello!” I call again as he passes. But he seems unable to hear me. I get up and follow him. He neither slows nor turns nor speeds up, just keeps moving forward with steady purpose, two sheets of paper clutched in his left hand. I follow him all the way to the photocopier in the corner. There he stops, slides his papers into the tray, fusses with the buttons. The machine whirs, hums, begins to spit pages. The man taps his foot and looks out into the middle distance. His foot makes no sound against the ground. As I watch him, I realize that I know him; he used to work here. I fish around in my memory for his name but can’t quite grasp it. I walk right up next to him, so close he surely has to acknowledge me. But he only turns, collects his copies, and returns the way he came.
I follow him back to a cubicle one row over from the fish tank. He sits, stacks the papers on his desk, and begins to clack away at the keyboard. The screen is dark. I watch him for some time, until finally I remember his name. Jim, a former underwriter. He was part of a group I was friendly with, all of us young and in our first jobs. We used to go to lunch together and share a lake house in the summers, driving up on Friday nights and spilling out of the car in hysterical laughter just as the sun set over the water. Jim was let go in the first round of layoffs, and I’d lost track of him soon after he’d left, nearly three decades ago now. And yet he doesn’t look much older than he would have been then—slender, a full head of brown hair, unlined skin.
I go to check on him again before going home. He’s still there, still clacking away, though he’s taken off his tie and slung it over the back of his chair. I can smell the pond and the plants, and the nascent forest still spreading quickly down the neighboring aisle with its musk of damp bark, dropped leaves, and rich soil. I can’t smell Jim. I reach out to tap him on the shoulder, but as my hand nears the fabric of his shirt I feel an overwhelming nausea and a prickling in my fingertips. I pull my hand away.
I consider responsible approaches to the situation. Call the building manager? E-mail corporate? Go downstairs and return with a security guard? This seems like a great deal of effort. Much more fun to see how it will all play out.
For the next two days, it’s just me, Jim, the fish, and the spreading forest. Jim continues to be diligent and immune to my presence. I check in on him at his desk several times a day, watch him clack at the keyboard and mouth silent words into his phone’s receiver, oblivious to the ringing dial tone. Back at my desk, I catch him at the edges of my vision, walking briskly to and from the copier, returning from the break room with a mug in hand. He sips at it carefully, as though overeager to imbibe its scalding contents. But when I sneak up behind him to see what he’s drinking, I find the mug is empty.
On Saturday afternoon, my daughter calls as she usually does. She’s having boy trouble again. Some idiot who won’t return her calls. I tell her to ditch him and find someone better. She sighs. She tells me I don’t know what it’s like, dating these days. Maybe that’s true, but people are people, and people don’t change.
“Speaking of not changing,” she says, “how’s the diet?”
“Oh, great,” I tell her.
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Tuna sandwich, celery sticks. Pickles. Pickles are zero points.” Then I tell her a funny story about one of the ladies in my diet support group. I haven’t been to the group in over a year, but I’ve saved up a large stock of stories about the crazy lady in a turban who interrupts everyone when they try to speak and chews so much sugar-free gum that she has jaw muscles the size of baseballs. My daughter laughs, then asks me if anything is new at work.
“Nope,” I say, “still just me. Still too much work.”
“Are you lonely?”
I tell her I’ve been thinking more about the people I used to work with. I wonder where they are.
“Don’t brood,” she says. “And anyway, if you’re really curious, you can Facebook them.”
Then she reminds me of how to log in to my account.
“I have to go,” she says. “My shift is starting soon. But Dad?”
“I’m proud of you, with the diet and all. I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.”
“I love you,” I say.
“I love you too, Dad.” She hangs up.
I sit for a little while looking at the dark screen of the phone. I’ve never liked the way the end of a phone call hollows you out—there’s the illusion that the person you miss is right there with you, but then the bubble pops. They’re gone. An echo of the feeling you have after someone dies, when you forget and remember and grieve afresh, over and over, each day. I get up and go turn on the home computer. A thin rime of dust comes away on my fingers.
Jim is easy to find. A photo of him in a hunting vest and sunglasses, smiling, holding up a large striped bass. A salt-and-pepper-haired man with an ample figure. I read the comments on his wall: I miss you. You were the best, man. Rest well.
I think I already knew this is what I’d find, but nevertheless it makes me feel—I can’t place how it makes me feel.
When my daughter was twelve and my wife was in the final stages of dying, my wife and I used to play a game. I’d lie underneath her hospital bed, the cool of the linoleum and the smell of disinfectant somehow comforting to me, and we’d pretend we were both very old and reminiscing. That time we went to Rome, she’d say, and you got us so lost, insisting you could navigate without a map. That was hilarious, I’d say, though you’re forgetting that I also got us unlost. So stubborn, she’d say; and remember that restaurant we ate at that night? That was good, you had that pasta with the squid ink. That was delicious—I’d kill for that right now, screw Jell-O. And then, I’d say, when we walked home, the night air was somehow warmer than the day had been. It’s because it had just rained, she’d remind me, and there was that fog rising from the streets; the light everywhere was yellow, but the sky was clear. And we’d go on and on like that, constructing story after story about places we’d never been and things we’d never done, memories from a life not yet lived.
One night, a new nurse came in and caught me. “Ma’am,” she asked my wife, “are you aware there’s a man under your bed?”
“Oh, no,” my wife said, “there’s no one there.”
“Who are you talking to, then?”
“I’m talking to God.”
Security was examining my driver’s license by the time my wife relented. In the morning, she told our daughter the story, and both of them cackled in delight. Neither could ever resist a good practical joke.
I go for a walk to shake off the weird feeling I got looking at Jim’s Facebook. It’s a little warmer; the last grimy snow is finally running down the gutters, damming rafts of winter trash against the grates. At the corner, I turn right, sticking to the blocks where the houses are still in good repair, with tidy lawns and lush colors on the Victorian trim— professors’ houses with children’s swings in the yards and rainbow flags in the windows and those little welcome signs in many languages.
When my daughter was little, we knew nearly every family in the neighborhood—there were block parties and barbecues, sleepovers and Halloween walks. The leaving happened the way big changes always do, so slowly you didn’t notice it. This person got a tenure-track job at another university. That family inherited a house in a different state. One neighbor took a job in New York City, another in Boston, a third in Durham. Several families bought larger houses in the expanding outer suburbs, with big insulating lawns and better schools. By the time my wife died, there were only three of those original families left to drop by with frozen Tupperwares, to watch my daughter after school, to come over in the unendurable nights with a bottle of scotch and quiet company. The others sent cards and flowers and made the drive for the funeral.
For a time, the neighborhood hollowed out. The winters sheared paint from the sidings, cars rusted in driveways, trash nested under overgrown shrubs on untended lawns. Then it began to fill back up again, with new families, new faculty, new students. But the newcomers were too young, grad students and junior professors with babies and puppies and nascent careers, and grief had fixed me like a butterfly on a board.
Before I turn home, I stop at a bakery I like and buy one of their overly sweet pistachio croissants. The kid behind the register has long brown hair that he likes to do up in colorful scarves, and he’s always telling his coworkers rambling stories about the irritations of his other job as a waiter downtown. I sit and eat my pastry and half listen to his stories and half watch two grandparents dote on their granddaughter, a tiny blond girl with a pink headband and fairy wings who is climbing up and down the couches. Their granddaughter waves to me as I leave and then, embarrassed by her boldness, hides in her grandfather’s arm.
On Monday, I arrive to find two more—what are they? They seem too solid for ghosts. And besides, they’re too young, more like replicas or reflections or shadows of former selves. Shades, I think, recalling the Greek myths I used to read my daughter; two more shades have joined Jim: Alan and Barbara. I’m particularly happy to see Barbara, who was once a good friend. After she retired, she spent her last decade living in a cabin up in the country with her husband. One afternoon, he came out to the porch where she was reading in the late-afternoon sun and found her dead. An aneurysm. Sudden, quick, painless. Reading in the sun. No tubes and beeping machines, no antiseptic linoleum, no hair loss or weight loss or loss of appetite, no medical debt, no metal beds in blue-and-gray rooms. I envy her that. Her shade is younger than when I last saw her, closer to the age she must have been shortly before she retired, though she always had the lanky build and purposeful stride of a much younger athlete. I try to talk to her, walk right up to her waving and hello-ing loudly. I block her path down the aisle so she’ll have to notice me. But she only pauses, looks off into the middle distance as though remembering something important, and then turns and heads back to her desk.
They do talk to each other, though. I catch them at it in the break room, the three of them sitting at a table clutching invisible sandwiches and raising empty forks from empty bowls. They move their mouths and nod and gesture and never make a sound. The whole thing looks like some insane high school theater exercise. I leave them be.
I begin to spend the better part of my days taking care of the growing forest. As the tree roots crack the floor, I cut away the carpet, dragging swaths of it out to the back hall so that after night falls I can cart it down to the dumpster in the service elevator. I dismantle cubicle walls as they interfere with plant growth, stack chairs and computers and desk detritus in the supply closets. The forest grows much faster than I can clear away debris. It now occupies nearly a third of the floor. Jim’s desk is almost fully enveloped by it, yet he works on, unperturbed, even as vines begin to drip over the cubicle walls.
Meanwhile, one or two new shades arrive every day. I take a census each morning. No matter how early I arrive or how late I leave, they’re always there, clacking away at their desks. For my part, I’ve given up on e-mail and answering calls. Sooner or later, someone will show up here to check on me, but I don’t let this worry me. By the time I get home, I’m too tired from the day’s work in the forest to do much besides eat and sleep.
Two weeks pass. The forest covers half the floor and continues to spread. There are thirteen shades total. I start each day by walking the perimeter and taking my census. That done, I check on the fish, crumble some flakes into the pond, let them peck at the dead skin on my fingers. Then I sit for a while next to the pond in the heart of the forest, where the trees have reached the ceiling and are beginning to investigate the roof tiles. I take off my shoes and savor the damp, spongy earth. I close my eyes and listen to the little rustles and buzzes of insects and leaves; I let my winter-parched skin soak up the humidity.
Another week passes. No one comes to check on me. I finally work up the courage to look at my e-mail and find there are no messages in my inbox. People have been telling me to zero my inbox for years, but I could never bring myself to do it. I hate nouns turned into verbs. I check the sent folder. It’s empty too. I stand up and look around the office. I listen to the whispering leaves and the clacking keyboards. Is it they? If so, they’re likely doing a better job at my job than I have in a long time. And so I shut down my computer and return to my husbandry of the forest.
The amount of waste I need to cart down in the service elevator has reached unnerving proportions. I’ve started abandoning it in unused corners of other floors, secreting bags of trash and old chairs in seldom used closets and back hallways. I take smaller bags home in a backpack or satchel to add to my own trash. I think about bringing my car with me one day and carting a load or two to the town dump.
When I talk to my daughter each Saturday, she remarks on how cheerful I sound. I tell her that work is going well, that we’ve hired some new folks, that I’m making friends. She says she’s glad. I ask her when she’s coming to visit, but she isn’t sure; it’s hard to get time off from work. I say I’ll buy the ticket; she doesn’t need to worry about money. Soon, she says.
Aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, the last time she flew out was when I had my pacemaker put in. She showed up in my hospital room dressed as the grim reaper, mask and cape and all. I laughed, and then, underneath her mask, my daughter burst into tears.
“I thought I could do it,” she said, “but it’s first time I’ve been back in here since Mom died.”
And when she said that, I started to tear up too. I’m not a crier, but the pain medication was making me a little loopy.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “I’ve only seen you cry once, the day Mom died.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“We were at the house, we’d gone home to get something. It was a gray day, the lights weren’t on, we were in the kitchen. You went to get the phone and then came back. I was standing in this rectangle of gray light. ‘Mom died,’ you said, and you picked me up and crushed me to your chest. I could feel you shaking. It took me a moment to realize you were shaking because you were sobbing.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her as she took off her mask. “I’m going to be fine. I’m part man, part machine now. The bionic wonder.”
She tried very hard to smile.
Another month. Outside, the first shoots of spring have grown into full leaves. It happens too quickly, as it always does—one day the smell of thaw, the next that electric-green fuzz, and then suddenly summer is upon you. Inside, it’s still the same: cool, damp, pleasant. The forest has now covered nearly the entire floor. The shades occupy twenty or so cubicles, each a little island lit by beacons of fluorescence; everywhere else, the light has softened into a natural glow. The shades seem to think nothing of stepping over tree roots on their way to the photocopier or dodging the vines that have begun to grow over the door to the break room. They congregate there in the mornings and at lunch, brewing imaginary coffee in the empty pot, moving silent mouths at one another. Decades of office small talk run on loop in my brain as I watch them. And what about the game last night? Fun plans for the weekend? Mondays, eh? They carefully stack their empty mugs in the dishwasher. I turn it on for them. They empty it themselves.
Realizing I’ve been neglecting my plants at home, I begin to transport them to the office, starting with the venerable ficus. The house looks naked without them, only the little rings of damp and dirt to mark where they once stood. But they thrive in the office’s humid climate, and now they’ll be less lonely.
One day, just before I leave, I turn to survey the floor. The shades are at their desks. The cubicle walls are a strange, angular contrast to the organic melee around them, bright patches of order in the forest gloaming. I’ve cleared about half the floor of debris now. At the center of the room, the trees have cracked through the ceiling tiles, their crowns disappearing into the nest of pipes above.
And then I hear a strange sound, a soft, silvery tapping. It’s begun to rain. A few round, gentle drops hit my face. Then a whoosh, like the sound of blood in your ears, and in a minute I’m soaked through. My first impulse is to curse, but I think better of that, because this is a goddamn miracle.
I strip off my shirt and my pants and my shoes, peel the cloying fabric from my skin and run out to greet the rain, my feet slip-slapping on the mud. I run from one end of the floor to the other.
I stop at the opposite wall, water running down my back and shoulders and legs, still warm from my exertion. There, in the center of the wall—a wall that, for the last forty years, has been solid and windowless, built flush against the neighboring building—there, in the wall, is a door. A normal wooden door, painted white. The kind of unassuming door you’d find on a half-dozen houses on any suburban street, with a bright brass handle.
I turn and walk back to my sodden clothes. The rain lightens to a sporadic dripping. As I dress, a bright swath of golden light breaks through the canopy; the water droplets catch the light, split it into fingers full of swirling golden motes.
I decide to walk home. I cut through the city’s center, the little patch of revitalized industrial buildings, the handful of trendy restaurants patronized mostly by students, their parents, older couples who’ve fled to the outer suburbs. Then I pass through the tall cluster of aseptic hospital buildings, under the highway that cuts the whole thing in two, and into the desolation on the other side: the empty storefronts, the convenience stores with wares behind bulletproof glass, the blocks of elegant Victorians where every third house stands condemned. I try to imagine the city as it was a hundred years ago, whole and thriving, the canal filled with traffic, the factories churning out goods, the houses new and brightly painted.
I cross back under the highway, past a long stretch of green sparsely populated with churches. The houses here are more recent, the identical prefabs of postwar America, two stories, each with a two-car garage and a small lawn, for two parents, two children, one dog. Most are rundown as well, yellowed insulation crumbling from rotting eaves, shingles replaced by holes for squirrels and birds. A few have been fixed up, converted to overpriced condos for the students who are starting to colonize the neighborhood. In one, a young man has opened the window to the spring evening and leans out to smoke, his torso bare, cigarette a bright star against the dim window. I hear music and voices coming from the window behind him. A party, maybe, and I imagine the small gathering in the glow of old Christmas lights, the plastic cups, the stale beer and vodka smell. A girl sitting in a corner observing, made nervous by the palpable tensions of youth—social anxiety, pheromones, the desire to prove oneself an entire and independent being. She watches carefully; she critiques; she notes who flirts with whom and who drinks too quickly and who is too obviously performing someone he or she is not—the mannerisms stiff, as though studied, the laughter loud and forced. I realize then that I am not imagining but only projecting who I once was onto an unfamiliar face, a new name.
And now the run-down city cedes to the wealth of the university: the gleaming apartment towers, the sprawling sports complex. I turn left, following the path of a small creek that runs between artificial banks. As I head up the hill, the houses grow in scale and ambition, and while some are in poor repair—mostly those with large Greek letters tacked above the door—none are vacant, none condemned. I pass through the small business district, with its handful of restaurants, its thrift store, its tiny grocery. I pass the bakery I like. I turn right. I’m almost home.
That night, I have a dream in which I open the door over and over. I never get to see what’s on the other side. I wake up sweating and running a low fever and spend the next two days in bed. When I do return to the office, I wait for some time outside the building, debating on whether or not to go in. Surely the shades and the forest will be fine without me.
Sitting there, contemplating the building’s entrance, I’m reminded of my very first day on the job. My wife had made me breakfast, and I’d dilly-dallied so long over it that I had to sprint to the bus to make it downtown in time. I arrived at 8:57 am and then found myself paralyzed. All around me suited men and women hurried up the sidewalk and disappeared through the revolving doors like particles sucked into a vacuum. It was late spring, a warm day, the trees heavy with neon pollen. I stood and watched the brass doors go round and round, watched the rush thin to a trickle, and still I could not move. I knew I had to go in. But the child mind in me refused, knowing that what lay on the other side of that door would blur the days, collapse the nights, swallow up my wants and fears and will entire.
In the end, the adult mind won. I had promised my wife, my father. I had committed. I took a deep breath. I walked up the steps. And so on this day, so many years later, I remind myself that my work is not yet done, door or no. There are still chairs to remove and carpet to cut up and cubicles to dismantle. And someone needs to feed the fish. I shift my bag to my other hand and start up the steps. In the office above, all will be waiting for me, just as I left it. I sigh. The door opens. I walk through.
Cat Powell’s short fiction has appeared in The South Dakota Review, The Missouri Review, New Contrast, and Action, Spectacle! She grew up in Boston and has since lived in Cape Town, Syracuse, and Brooklyn, where she currently resides with her dog. She completed an MFA at Columbia University. She is working on a novel and is represented by Janklow and Nesbit. Find her on Instagram: @mildred_investigates
“One Hundred Days” by Andrea Eberly
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her 2021 Perkoff Prize finalist story “One Hundred Days,” Andrea Eberly gives us an oncologist and new mother whose past rock-star crush comes crashing into her present professional life in the form of a dying patient.
One Hundred Days
Earlier in my career as an assistant professor of medicine, I would lose myself in charting, reading, writing. I’d imagined myself all mind, just a big brain hitching a ride in a body-machine that I kept running with protein bars, premade cafeteria sandwiches, cup noodles, all washed down with cup after cup of coffee. Now my mammal-body called me back every few hours as my breasts filled with milk, two biological hourglasses that got flipped over after twenty minutes of pumping.
Wichita wichita. The breast pump’s cicada-like chorus filled the clinic’s break room. Today was Thursday, my clinic day. Since I was working as the attending physician at the hospital this month, I spent the rest of the week I was at my research lab. I willed my oxytocin-fogged head to be up to the task of skimming over two years’ worth of chart notes during a single pumping session. I stuffed salmon salad into my mouth while flipping through the electronic chart on my laptop, reviewing chemo regimens, cell counts, CT-scan images. A couple of quinoa kernels fell onto the keyboard, and I brushed them off. I was now responsible for nourishing two bodies, so I’d given up the cup noodles. This next case was new to me; he was coming in for a pretransplant workup.
Wichita wichita wichita. Drip, drip, drip.
When the medical assistant walked in to tell me the patient had arrived, I turned around to his voice. He backed out of the room, hands held up in a Hey, don’t shoot sort of gesture. Strangely bodiless, my swollen nipples pulsed with the suction of the machine, sticking out from the cone-shaped flanges strapped onto me with an elasticized corset. Larry was filling in for Sonya. Sonya was used to the pumping.
I unscrewed the bottles and pulled off the bra, losing a few drops of milk on my pants, and wrapped up the gear before chucking it all into the fridge. I rinsed out my mouth with tap water to conceal stank coffee breath before walking into the exam room. I rubbed some alcohol gel onto my hands.
A man sat on the edge of the paper-covered exam table. Slim dark jeans and a nubby sweater covered a slim body. He appeared closer to my age than his calendar age of fifty-one. But that’s how it is with cancer—the puffiness from IV fluids and steroids can make you look unnaturally young, or the disease can eat away at you and turn you old overnight.
I introduced myself, Dr. Sydney Weaver, and he reached out to shake my hand. A tattoo covered his wrist and half the back of his hand. I’d seen the image before. A blue serpent circled his wrist, scaly body looping on itself with the head eating its own tail. I recognized the ouroboros from the album art of The Invisible City. The poster was still up at my parents’ house, in my old bedroom.
Cool tattoo, I thought, very cool. I was about to say so, when I really looked at the prednisone-puffed face and the postchemo hair fuzz. The cleft in his chin cinched it.
It was him. Mr. Polo.
One night in eleventh grade, my friends and I had gone cruising. It was the late ’80s, Phoenix. Tan desert dotted with stuccoed tract houses and green lawns. All the roads at right angles to each other.
Beth, Angela, and I piled into my Ford Escort—stick shift, plastic dash cracked from endless sun, fabric-wrapped visor disintegrating into a swirl of fine powder. We’d just taken the practice SAT and were giddy with having made the first concrete move toward getting into college, which was to say, getting the hell out of Phoenix. I pushed a Mr. Polo tape into the deck, twisted the volume nob, and felt the bass shake the air, even as the warping speakers were all rattle and static. We stopped at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and drank bottomless cherry cokes. Angela smoked some cigarettes she’d stolen from her mother. Menthols. After driving past Jim Delver’s place and launching a couple of eggs at his window, we drove over to the elementary school with the big speed bumps out front. The city had painted HUMP to warn drivers to slow down. We chalked in the word KIDS underneath. After midnight, we stationed the car in the parking lot of the Ross Dress for Less where Beth worked. It was next to the Taco Bell with the late-night drive thru. We stuffed ourselves with fifty-nine-cent tacos, witnessed petty drug deals, and ripped jokes about the creepy guy in fifth period who was always drawing pictures of wolves in trench coats. Beth and I bet on which one of us he’d ask out first. Definitely Angela. We laughed our throats raw, and then we laughed more. All the while, Mr. Polo blasted from the cassette deck and we swore to each other that even when we went to college, we’d never lose touch and would be friends forever.
Back then, I just thought Mr. Polo’s music was the best thing I’d ever heard. If anyone had asked me why I loved it, I would’ve said it was because of the way he wove together the beats and sounds, how he pushed and pulled the tempos. What a dumb and technical answer, but I cared a lot about sounding smart back then. Really, I just I loved how it made me feel, how he made me feel, like he had crawled into my skull and made sense of everything. I could listen and think, Yeah, it’s just like that. Just like that.
Not long after Marco’s first appointment, I dug around in some old boxes and found my Mr. Polo CDs. I hadn’t listened to his stuff in years. With my windows down, the volume up, and my baby Maddie in the back seat, I drove around. Maddie goo goo gah gah’d and bounced her feet to the electronic drums, the synthesizer click, and Mr. Polo’s machine-gun lyrics. The baby seemed to like Mr. Polo’s middle work best, before he returned to real drums and guitar shreds. In the delicious anticipation of the next beat, the next musical structure, feelings poured through me that were both familiar and strange.
Of course, in medical school I’d learned about dopamine and the pleasure and reward centers in the brain, so I figured music was like drugs, food, and sex—big fat dopamine hits in the deepest parts of the brain. I once shared this theory with Ben, my best buddy from med school, when we were studying neurotransmission, and he joked that I had a pretty mechanical view of the best parts of being alive.
Ben and I had ended up living together in San Francisco for our internal medicine residencies. We shared a one-bedroom—I paid more rent to get the bedroom and Ben slept on the couch-bed. We often went to the laundromat together, the nicer one a little farther away called the Lost Sock. When we washed clothes, Ben always came up one sock short. He had an old shoe box filled with the singletons taking up valuable real estate on our bookshelf at the apartment. I guess he was an optimist, believing that someday all the socks would be reunited. Me, I used to put all my socks in a mesh bag, so it was impossible to lose one. I believed in planning, not luck.
We’d watch our clothes spin around in the dryer while dreaming out loud about the next stages of our careers. Classic overachievers, both of us planned on doing fellowships following residency. I told Ben I wanted to go into hematology/oncology. Ben said he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to go into oncology, because so many of those patients were not fixable. That was the appeal of infectious disease, he said. Match the drug to the bug and cure the patient.
I told him that I didn’t want to stop just at regular oncology. I would push further. Hematopoietic stem-cell transplantation. Every patient on a research protocol as investigators trialed new combinations of medications, new methods of harvesting cells. The fucking Wild West of medicine. In transplant, the goal wasn’t just a feeble extension of life. It was cure.
I wanted to be a goddam cowboy.
On the days Mr. Polo, whose given name was Marco Schellenbach, was on my schedule, a fluttery feeling filled my chest. I wore mascara and was careful not to leave the house with a white blob of dried spit-up on my blouse, even as I was less careful about fastening up all that blouse’s buttons. My husband would sometimes even tell me I looked nice as I dashed out of the house.
On one of those days, as I waited for Marco to arrive for his appointment, I massaged the kinks out of a grant application that was due the following day. My grad student, technician, and two postdocs didn’t deserve to end up unemployed because I couldn’t get my act together and secure funding. I yawned. My kid’s first teeth were coming in, so I was getting little to no sleep, even by new parent standards. The only thing that kept Maddie from screaming was constant attachment to my breast. All. Night. Long.
Marco came in and sat down in a chair—not the exam bench—next to the office computer and stared at his hands. I started with the results of his last bone marrow biopsy.
“Your leukemia is no longer detectable.”
“So that means I can get the transplant?”
His lips pulled into a smile that gripped my heart as we hashed out some of the other details—which conditioning regimen he’d get, the brother who was a match, the sister who could come out from Waco to shepherd him through recovery.
“Do you have any more questions?”
Marco picked up one of the two photos on my desk. Since I shared the exam room, I always had to remember to take my photos home at the end of the day.
“Your baby is cute. How old is she?”
“That’s Maddie. She’s six months old.”
“Who’s the guy in the other photo? Your brother?”
He was asking about the one with the blonde in a tux standing next to the redheaded bride. A lot of patients send their doctors cards with family photos, and we put them up in our offices. I knew it blurred the lines of patient confidentiality, but I couldn’t help myself and answered Marco’s question knowing the hope that the photo could inspire.
One of my first patients.
“Did he live?”
My fellowship had just started when Jason, the guy in the photo, was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia—same diagnosis as Marco. I remember the spring in my step in those days; I’d been driven by my belief that the initial induction and consolidation treatments would work, and even if they didn’t, there was always another step, another treatment, so many different chemotherapy cocktails. I’d prescribed the clotrimazole troches for his thrush during salvage treatment. I’d optimized his antirejection meds. He survived, grew back his hair, got married, and sent me that wedding announcement—the photo on my desk. He’d been the first patient I ushered through the whole process. The first patient I cured.
Marco nodded and pursed his lips as he looked at the photo. His brow twitched. I wondered if he was imagining himself in a similar photo, hair grown back, muscles rounded out. A future without cancer. A posttreatment world.
What was I thinking, leaving the neck of my blouse undone?
During our appointments, I kept thinking that Marco would eventually mention music, like Hey, last weekend I was messing around on my Roland 808 drum machine . . .
But he never did. It became a bit like when you’ve been talking to someone at a party all night long and realize you don’t know their name. You can’t ask anymore. In this case, I wanted to tell Marco that I loved his work, but it seemed deceptive to not have said anything for so long. Maybe he valued what he’d believed was a certain anonymity in our interactions. I mean, I’d now seen him naked under a backless hospital gown, taken blood, knew his whole medical history. So intimate, and yet.
It became a secret I watered like a houseplant. But not any houseplant. Maybe an orchid, where the pleasure was married to the toil of keeping it alive.
While I waited for Marco to arrive—that patient before him had canceled—I caught up on emails. My grad student almost had enough data to write a paper, but her figures were awful, and I didn’t have the time to really get into it, so I closed the email and opened up Amazon to buy some new clothes for my daughter. No one told me it would be so sad to retire Maddie’s six-month footed pajamas, the ones with the hedgehogs.
Earlier that week, I’d replaced Maddie’s photo with a new one. My husband was holding her, and you could just see his hands. Maddie had two tiny bottom teeth. Marco noticed the new photo immediately when he sat down. He said she looked like me. That was when I asked him about his daughter and immediately felt my face grow three sizes too big, hot and red.
My leukemia patient had never told me about his daughter.
In high school and college, I’d read every article about Mr. Polo in Spin or Rolling Stone or whatever other music rag. My high school binder was covered in a collage of magazine cutouts, and the one taking up the most space was a black-and-white photo of Mr. Polo in sunglasses screaming into a mic. I still had a pair of the same aviators.
“I’m actually a huge fan,” I mumbled and swallowed and drummed my fingers against my leg, and the air in the room was jelly. What would he say?
“My daughter just finished art school,” he said. “Hard to believe she was ever that little.” He motioned toward the photo of Maddie.
“Yeah. It goes by fast,” I said. After a moment, I got my nerve up to meet his eye and asked, “What kind of art does she do?”
“She wants to open a tattoo shop.”
He paused and took a deep breath, almost like he was tired from the talking. He lifted his arm, the one with the ouroboros, and said, “She always liked my tattoos. She likes the idea of living art.”
We went over his lab results before he got onto the exam table. I placed my stethoscope over the jaguar tattoo on his back, and the tip of my finger brushed his ink. My heart skipped into my throat as I listened to his breaths go in and out.
Right after graduating college, my roommates and I took a road trip to a big open-air concert near Jackson Hole. Mr. Polo was the headliner. On the stage, Mr. Polo unbuttoned his starched white shirt. Under the stage lights, his muscles rippled, creating the illusion that the stylized jaguar tattooed on his back was alive.
Masses of sweaty bodies, moving to the beat. The violence, the raw physicality of the crowd, edged on sexy. With disassociation from caring and really letting loose, I was for the tiniest moment living life without my mind—I was just a body swimming in thereness, if there even is such a word—synched up with Mr. Polo and his music.
After the concert, we camped for a few nights off a dirt road that lay in the border region between Yellowstone and Grand Teton Park. One night in the tent, my roommate dug out a piece of paper from her bag and wrote the letters MASH on top. It had been ages since any of us had played that schoolgirl game. Mansion, Apartment, Shack, House. A game to predict our futures. The game foretold that I would end up in an apartment with five kids, working as a movie star and married to Dr. Richards, our lech biochemistry professor, whom we always saw working out at the campus gym in such short shorts I swear you could see his nut sack. My roommate got a mansion and was married to Mr. Polo. Lucky her.
Our campsite was near a stream. From our tent we heard something splashing in the water, and then it would stop before starting up again. Was it bison charging through the water? A massive grizzly bear catching fish? We’d been hitting the hash pipe, and paranoia tickled the napes of our necks. That fall I would be heading off to medical school—my roommate, too. My other roommate had been accepted to a PhD program in chemical engineering. We snort-laughed as we imagined the headline. “Young talent cut short. Eaten by bears.”
I unzipped the tent, and my bare feet felt as though they were floating over the chalky dirt as I padded toward the stream. I parted the willow branches like a curtain just in time to see a cloud of white pelicans landing in an explosion of water. They floated with the current of the creek a stretch before flying upstream to land and float downstream again. Paranoia melted into awe as I stumbled back to the tent.
Safely zipped inside the tent, we listened to the sounds of pelicans taking off and landing in splashes of creek water, and we fell asleep to the rhythm of living things.
As usual after working at the lab, I had to get Maddie from day care. The day care teacher told me Maddie had started to point.
Earlier that day I’d reviewed Marco’s chart to see how he was doing. He was two weeks out from his transplant and still admitted to the hospital. His liver enzymes were through the roof, and he was suffering watery diarrhea—graft versus host disease or maybe side effects from the conditioning regimen. We’d know more when the pathology report came back.
My stomach filled with ash.
I strapped Maddie into her car seat. Mostly I was ignoring the stream of garbling sounds emerging from her mouth, when I jammed my finger into one of the buckles. The fingernail of my left middle finger bent back, and pain seared through my hand. It was all I could do to not yell “Fuck!” to not plow my fist into my thigh. I sucked on the finger to dull the ache and inhaled a couple of times. Maddie’s long toes wriggled, taunting me. Goddammit, her sock was off again. What was it with children’s feet and socks? I leaned over, the waistband of my jeans cutting into my belly fat, and picked up the pink-and-white knit thing. Maddie stuck her thumb in her mouth and gave me the stink eye as I pulled the sock over her foot for the eight hundredth time before cinching the straps of her car seat.
One Thursday in clinic, after Marco had been discharged from the hospital, he talked to me about his garden.
“Sydney, what is your favorite apple?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well, a few years back I planted a Gravenstein tree. This year it has two apples, so next year it should really start producing. Maybe enough for a pie. Gravensteins make the best pies. My grandma had a big tree in her yard, and she baked with nothing else.”
During another visit he told me about a novel he was trying to complete. He said this in between body-wracking coughs that he tried to cover with trembling hands.
“I’m about halfway through revising it.”
“I didn’t know you wrote.”
“My head is filled with all these people—my characters. It will be weird to say goodbye when I’m done with the book.”
I kept hoping he’d talk to me about the music, especially now that he knew I was a fan. I wanted to learn about his process for writing songs, choosing samples, what it was like to stand on the stage above a sea of dancing bodies.
Somewhere inside these conversations lurked his real question: Will I get be able to get my book done?
Am I going to die?
No, deeper still.
When will I die?
One hundred days after I had birthed my daughter, my mom watched her while Craig and I went to a café for a glass of wine to celebrate having kept our baby alive for this milestone. As we walked home, the clouds cracked open with a fountain of rain. We ran the last blocks back to the house, and something warm happened between my legs. I knew what it was, but still hoped I was wrong.
My body had fallen apart to bring new life into the world.
I wanted control of my bladder back.
I’ve always wanted control.
On day eighty-seven posttransplant, it was confirmed that Marco’s leukemia was back. He didn’t get to one hundred days.
Marco paced in the office. Not the violent lunging steps of a healthy man, not the vigorous movements of that man I’d seen so many years before at that festival in Wyoming, but the nervous shuffle of a sick man. A scared man. I explained that the prognosis for people whose leukemias relapsed within one hundred days of transplant was grim.
“What does that mean, Doctor?”
He usually called me Sydney.
I met his question with silence, and that was when he started to cry.
The lights in our living room were on a timer. They clicked off at ten thirty. So did the heat. I had already put Maddie to bed. and Craig was upstairs playing on his computer. The baby cried, and I didn’t think it could be that she was hungry; she had just eaten. I hollered at Craig to go in and get her back down.
Ghost-like light from my laptop filled the room as I flipped through the PubMed database, sifting the medical literature for any option that could go after Marco’s leukemia. There had to be something there if you looked hard enough.
My breasts filled with milk.
I saved links, skimmed abstracts, printed a couple of articles, made notes. Normally I would have fed Maddie around midnight, but I kept working until the sky lightened and birds chirped outside the window. My breasts felt like they had become bags filled with stones. Finally, Craig came downstairs and asked why I hadn’t ever come to bed. I couldn’t say much more than that I was trying to help a patient. I couldn’t tell Craig I was treating Mr. Polo. You know, HIPAA and all that.
Craig went back upstairs and returned a few minutes later with the baby.
“Syd, Maddie’s hungry.”
He said it like “hawngree.” It was our joke.
I held Maddie to my breast. The flood of milk made her cough, and pain shot through me as she clamped down on my nipple.
She now had four teeth. Two top and two bottom.
Maddie’s swallows made little “kah” sounds. A recent paper outlined how something called a FLT-3 inhibitor could attack the leukemia cells, but the drug was still in clinical trials. Could I procure it for Marco? Sometimes drug companies let you use experimental therapies for what they called “compassionate use.” I had to try. I’d contact the medical science liaison at Novo Nordisk. They’d give me the drug. They had to.
The baby dozed off at my breast. A flutter of guilt rushed through me for ignoring her. I remembered the advice my mother had given me—sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t fight nature. So I picked up her sleep-limp body and carried her into bed with me. I held her to my chest and breathed in the scent of her hair. My own restlessness seemed so abrupt and harsh next to her sleeping form. Her eyelashes were so long. I had no idea that a baby could have such long eyelashes. Underneath the paper-thin lids, her eyes twitched. What was she dreaming about? What would her dreams be? My body was tired, but my mind resisted sleep, and my thoughts wove in and out and kept coming back to the same place. Physicians were just body mechanics. Why could some bodies be fixed, while others failed? What if I couldn’t patch it up and get it back on the road? A package of bones and tissues and vessels and blood—was that all we were?
How many hours did I spend on the phone or drafting emails to the drug company? But inside Marco, his cancer had a schedule of its own.
There hadn’t been time to work through the regulatory hurdle for the experimental drug, so he’d elected to try another transplant. I told him it was a long shot, that it was off protocol and that there was no way his insurance would cover it. Marco didn’t care that his insurance wouldn’t pay. After all, he’d quipped, what else was a gold album for? I tried to be clear and upfront about the risks, about how we were going into unknown territory, that his body hadn’t recovered from the first transplant. But the truth was I never suggested he shouldn’t do it. Not really.
I wasn’t attending the month he got the second transplant, so it wasn’t as a physician that I visited Marco at the hospital. He had a scarf wrapped around his head. He’d been in the room long enough that his family had decorated. A huge line drawing of Marco holding a toddler girl—I had to assume his daughter—was taped to the bathroom door. I had to blink for a moment to control myself. The image so keenly evoked how it felt to hold your child. Marco said his daughter had drawn it and was planning to have it tattooed on her calf.
“Are you able to eat?” I asked.
“Yeah, when I don’t feel too sick.”
“I brought you some pie. The farmer’s market didn’t have Gravensteins, so I got some other kind the guy recommended.” I pulled a Pyrex out of my bag and put a small piece of pie on a paper plate I’d nabbed from the unit’s nourishment room.
“And don’t worry, Marco, it meets criteria for neutropenic precautions.”
Marco smiled and took a small bite.
“I didn’t expect you’d be so good at baking.”
I wasn’t his doctor today. I also wasn’t his friend; that would be presumptuous. There was some sort of blurry relationship between us. I finally asked if we could talk about the music.
Marco had been in the hospital for over a month when it was once again my month to attend on the inpatient unit. His head glistened, totally bald from the treatment. Yellow complexion and sunken eyes, knobby hands, jutting collarbones. His skin like a loose suit over his frame. Diarrhea came next, neutropenic fever, a rectal tube, blood-pressure support. He was altered and could no longer hold a conversation. And then came the breathing tube.
His body was still there, however tenuously, but where had he gone?
Marco’s daughter came every day to visit and sometimes asked questions during rounds. Sometimes they weren’t really questions.
“Is he going to wake up?”
“Why aren’t the treatments working?”
“Isn’t there anything you can do?”
I was home in bed with my baby and my husband the night Marco coded. I found out the next day that the team had worked on him for over an hour, getting his pulse back a couple times before they called it. I was glad I wasn’t there. I didn’t want my last memory of him to be of his body getting smashed by chest compressions while blood frothed around the breathing tube and his eyes became fixed and dilated. The eyes of the dead aren’t like in the movies. They don’t stay closed when you brush your hands over them. The lids spring back open.
That last conversation, the one we had over pie, I’d literally taken notes as Marco talked about his influences. And it wasn’t just other music, but visual artists and novels too. I did mean to look it all up. But as I sat in my office and held the wrinkled piece of notebook paper trying to figure out why I’d scrawled the half sentence, most people like rubbers, I realized I was already remembering it wrong. The notes were meaningless. Sure, I had asked him some questions, but mostly I’d just gushed about how much his music meant to me and how much fun it had been to dance at his shows. Suddenly, a thousand questions leaped into my brain, things I hadn’t asked him. Would never be able to ask him.
Had it been about me all along?
Marco had been gone for two weeks when I received a letter in my office mailbox. It was from Marco’s daughter. I held the small blue card for several minutes before I had the courage to open it.
Thanks for taking such good care of my father. He said you were a fan, and I know that shouldn’t make a difference, but it did.
Later that week, on a sunny Saturday morning, I decided to take Maddie to the park. I buckled my seatbelt, turned the ignition, and stuck in a Mr. Polo CD. Maddie yelled, and I craned around. Her staccato laugh filled the car, and she wiggled her legs and feet. One of her socks hung from her toes.
At the next red light, I turned back to Maddie. Her foot was now bare. I didn’t pick up the sock. Instead, I pulled off the other one and released her beautiful baby foot. She kicked and giggled as I tickled her feet. I was laughing so hard that I didn’t notice the light had turned green until the car behind me laid on its horn.
I was laughing so hard, I peed.
And now? When I listen to Mr. Polo, it is like drinking a memory, taking a hit of the way it felt to be seventeen, parked outside of Ross and laughing with my best friends, how it felt to lie in a tent listening to pelicans splash, how it felt to sit in the car tickling the feet of my beautiful daughter, always on the jagged edge of the rest of my life.
Andrea Eberly works as a clinical pharmacist in emergency medicine. Her stories have appeared in Witness, Southwest Review, Carve, Bellevue Literary Review and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel-length work.
“Heart-Scalded” by Daphne Kalotay
Daphne Kalotay’s sensitive depiction of a terminally ill woman bravely attending a party where she knows she’ll run into her ex is not your usual Halloween-party story, but within this narrative of emotional pain and acceptance, we find intimations of magic–and mortality. “Heart-Scalded” first appeared in our summer 2021 issue (44:2). You can read our interview with Daphne here.
by Daphne Kalotay
Twilight’s hazy glow, the world covered in gray lint. Viv hailed a ride and set out toward the crumbling edge of town. Though it was nearly November, leaves still clung to branches, some in the blazing colors of life, most a parched brown. Odd how warm it is, her driver said, as they rose over the bridge that just months ago she would have crossed on her bike. A cluster of figures slipped toward them along the walkway, dressed strangely, like characters in a play. She turned to look, but they were already past.
Fun plans for the evening? her driver asked. The streetlamps weren’t yet lit, and the fading sky looked thick enough to touch.
I’m going to a pig roast.
Parties at Len’s always began early and went into the wee hours. Viv told herself she was just stopping by, didn’t have to stay long, though she had taken time on her makeup—smoky eyeliner and a thin, feathery pencil for her brows. She had even considered false lashes, since they seemed to be in fashion even for women in their thirties like her. Slid silver hoops through her earlobes, draped her favorite twisty cotton scarf around her neck, found her silver cuff bracelet and pushed it up to her biceps like a sort of amulet.
It’s here on the right, she said. A house like a wilting wedding cake where Len rented rooms to a few former grad school friends who, like him, had yet to convert to more standard arrangements. She thanked her driver and stepped out into the gloaming.
Voices wafted from the backyard, where winking orange bulbs dipped along the fence and the pig smoldered in its box. The company called it a Chinese box, Len had told her, while Viv had held back any commentary on corporate opportunism or Len’s naïveté, tried not to be so Viv; no one liked being forced to see the truth. A dozen or so thirty-somethings looked vaguely her way. There was something odd about them, or maybe it was just her nerves.
Hey, stranger! Len came to envelop her in one of his hugs. He was wearing a chain-mail getup, like a knight in armor. His embrace was awkward.
Viv didn’t find it odd that he was wearing chain mail; he ordered the new limited-edition Lego set each year and still liked to play dress-up. The orange bulbs reflected in the lenses of his glasses. On-off, on-off. He said, I love your look. You’ve got the heroin chic thing down.
She laughed, though she’d used bronzer and lip tint, had even purchased a sparkly body cream. Probably she should pull her sweatshirt on. She was wearing loose crepe pants, because they were the baggiest she had, and a silvery T-shirt, and black canvas sneakers with the anklet she still wore, even though it was from Aziz and she had rid herself of most things he had given her. The anklet had a small silver starfish that had once seemed to her to be good luck. These past two years had not caused her to remove it.
Around her, the air was sticky, smoky. She said, How long until you think it’s ready?
Should be done about now. Can I get you a drink?
I’ll get it, she said, already searching warily, though Aziz often arrived later to these things. A head taller than most, he was usually easy to spot. She wondered if he would look the same or if, like Len, he would have gone thicker in the face.
At a table crowded with bottles and stacked plastic cups and a bowl of melting ice cubes, she poured herself a lukewarm soda water, squeezed a tight wedge of lime. Up close she saw that the fence was covered in a thin fuzz of the vivid green mold-like moss that had overtaken everything after the summer of too much rain. Despite its dire warning, a stunning color. Even in the dusk, it glowed, bright with rejuvenation. A few times, she had tried mixing her paints to match it but always ended up with neon yellow.
Hullo, said a frowning man plucking a can of beer from the plastic cooler. Cyrus, he said. I work with Len.
Their parent corporation had been caught falsifying data concerning waste disposal at their factories, Viv knew from texting with Len the other night. Len said he just had to pay off his student loans and then could look for a new job.
I’m Viv. The bubbles in her glass sped upward, exploding at the surface.
Cyrus moved to take a sip of beer but had to pull down a long white beard strapped to his chin. Viv realized he was in costume, too—some sort of wizard. She said, Is this a costume party?
He laughed. A Halloween party!
But—Halloween isn’t until—
Oh! She had lost track of time. Except for her friend Laurel, who worked in New York but still hadn’t fully moved there, she had mainly spent these past months alone in her apartment, painting watercolors when she wasn’t woozy or watching movies sideways on the sofa. The institute where she wrote educational pamphlets and other communications had hired a freelancer to cover the hours she missed.
Not big on Halloween, eh? Do you know anyone here?
She nodded. She used to come here all the time when she and Aziz were together. I actually met you before, she said. I came with Len to a Christmas party a couple of years ago, up in Prudential Center.
He looked at her more closely. Ah, right, you’re the artist. You’ve cut your hair.
She said, I remember you telling me how your wife used to be a competitive ice-skater.
The man shook his head mournfully, his artificial beard swaying from his neck. He said, Viv, I have the worst marriage in Massachusetts.
He had an explanation for what had gone wrong, something to do with his wife being a descendant of Mayflower pilgrims. Viv glanced up when she could, to see if Aziz had arrived.
She had been warned that the fiancée would be with him. Though Viv had known about her for a year already, it mattered to have to see her for the first time. Just as it had mattered when, after Len broke the news, he had added, perhaps thinking it would make her feel better, She’s not as pretty as you. That was when Viv’s heart had shredded to bits because it meant the fiancée was real. That even if Viv could have her old prettiness back, it wouldn’t matter, because Aziz loved someone else now.
They had taken the pig from the Chinese box and laid it out on the picnic table. A few vegetarians acted briefly repulsed.
Will you look at that, the man with the worst marriage in Massachusetts said. A mosquito. In October. He flicked it from the back of his hand.
Perhaps sensing she was toxic, the insect avoided her. The man said, The apocalypse really is coming if mosquitos are out this late.
But she could tell from the way he said it that he didn’t believe it.
Viv! It was Joe and Jerry, Aziz and Len’s soccer friends. They were at least a decade older but never missed Len’s parties. She wasn’t sure if they were in costume or not. Joe liked to cross-dress and tonight wore a slender black dress awink with sequins, while Jerry wore a dark suit over a white shirt. Viv began to make introductions, but everyone had already met.
Viv, Joe said, I was just saying to Jerry the other day—I swear—I wondered whatever happened with that garden plot you’d been on the waitlist for forever—
I got it.
She got it! What are you growing? You always had such a green thumb with Aziz’s poor dejected plants.
It was true she had resuscitated the houseplants Aziz’s mother had bought to brighten the affectless bachelor pad, with Viv feeding and pruning them until some even needed to be repotted. After Viv moved in, an entire wall of the apartment became jungle-like, plants practically climbing out of their pots, the air in the apartment fresh, moist.
Well, she said, this wasn’t the best growing season, actually, with so much rain.
Of course, of course. God, I mean, look at this thing. Joe gestured toward the cement planter beside him, which held the stubby remains of a bare, clearly dead plant. Or maybe he meant the cement tub itself. It was covered in a light fuzz of that alarmingly bright green moss that seemed to be growing on so much else, giving an eerie glow to the decorative pattern embossed on the planter: a circle of figures dancing. Perhaps because the original cement mold was cheap, the figures’ faces were blank. The thing somehow struck Viv as sinister.
Exactly, she said, rather than add that there had been stretches where she could not make it to her plot at all. She saw the way everyone was looking at her, realizing. As if to compensate, Jerry said, Your hair looks fantastic!
Viv wanted to hide, wished she hadn’t left her sweatshirt on the folding chair by the picnic table. People were tearing into the pig now, stripping off the meat and piling it onto big oval platters. Yearning to hide, Viv lowered her gaze. There was the cement planter, the neon fuzz. It really was eerie, the way the faceless dancers glowed beneath those spores or lichen or whatever that green fuzz was, while inside the planter lay nothing but the finality of death. Desperate, trying to think of some diversion, she said, Are you in costume?
We’re that Bryan Ferry video, the one with the models! At Viv’s reaction, Jerry turned to Joe. I told you they’re too young to know it.
She saw them then. Aziz and the fiancée. They must have just arrived, because Aziz was carrying a six-pack of the hard cider he liked. He and the fiancée were dressed as Daddy Warbucks and Little Orphan Annie. Even as a joke, it still seemed to Viv repulsive; everyone knew Aziz had sold out to Len’s corporation and now had a corner office in Kendall Square. Len said it was one of those new constructions, sky high, with lunch ordered in daily, delivered by unseen couriers at a back entryway.
Just seeing them made her feel briefly dizzy. She had to remove her scarf. Jerry said, Come on, let’s eat!
Along with the oval platters of meat, there were broad aluminum trays of sticky yellow cornbread, of dusty buttermilk biscuits, vats of barbecue sauce and gravy, coleslaw, and gooey baked beans. Viv scooped clumps of the food onto a paper plate. It was tricky because she was trying to keep her arms folded to hide the bruises where the nurse struggled to insert the tube into her veins. For a long time now the nurses, beleaguered, had been urging her to get a port.
Well, look who’s here. A warm hand touched her arm.
Oh—hi, Aziz. She let herself be kissed on the cheek, Aziz bending down to her. His lips were warm.
Cute haircut! Annoyingly handsome in his crisp black suit and bow tie, Aziz did not look very disturbed to see her transformed. Len had probably told him what to expect. Hey, meet Stacy.
So good to meet you, Viv, I’ve heard so much about you! She seemed genuinely pleased. As much as Viv wanted to appear composed, she had to set her plate down. The fiancée shook her hand, her palm, like Aziz’s, much warmer than Viv’s. And Viv felt herself smiling, heard herself speaking, thought, I am chatting with Aziz’s fiancée and, later on, when the air had cooled and she had found her sweatshirt, as they sat in chairs around the woodstove on the patio and ate from the paper plates on their laps, I like Aziz’s fiancée; she’s pleasant.
The drugs made the food taste strange. The compostable utensils seemed to be decomposing in her hands. She wondered if it was the toxins, glanced around her to see if others were having trouble. Len was at least right that the fiancée wasn’t as pretty as Viv. Well, how could she be in an orange Orphan Annie wig?
Aziz told Viv she looked fetching with her eyes all circled in black like a raccoon.
That wasn’t the look I was going for, Slim, but thanks. The humidity must have smudged her makeup. She used her paper napkin to dab the skin below her eyes, secretly grateful for Aziz’s teasing, as if nothing had changed.
You called him Slim, Stacy said.
Oh—I call him that sometimes.
It gave Viv a small pleasure to know this was something Aziz hadn’t shared, that he also would have kept to himself his pet name for Viv. Sometimes she ached to hear him call her Beep again.
Hmm, now I’ve smeared it. I’ll be back. Viv stood to make her way to the bathroom, passing a woman dressed in scrubs, with gloves, protective goggles, and elastic booties, like a nurse in a toxic emergency. Or maybe that really was her job, and she had simply worn her work clothes as her costume.
There was a line for the restroom. Viv leaned against the wall, unzipped her sweatshirt. She had avoided these gatherings for a long time, but Len must have known that telling her the fiancée would be here would dare her to come. And, he had added, I miss you.
He was the only one among them to whom she still spoke. Gave updates. But she knew he told the others. There were emails from a mutual acquaintance who practiced acupuncture, enclosing a diet she suggested Viv follow, along with a mantra: You can choose bliss! Though Viv never responded, the messages continued to arrive in her inbox.
She listened to the conversation ahead of her, whispers about Len’s corporation and its ties to one of the candidates in next year’s election.
Elections don’t matter—
What do you mean, don’t you vote?
No, I don’t vote! The voice sounded offended. But the bathroom door had opened, and the speaker disappeared inside. The interlocutor turned in bafflement to Viv. Can you believe it?
It was one of Len’s renters, or former renters. Viv tried to recall her name. She was dressed, it seemed, as a sexy witch, an excuse, Viv supposed, to wear—along with the pointy black hat and green face paint— fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, and nothing across her midriff, which (this Viv did remember) she had always spent a lot of time on at Pilates classes. She said, Viv, wow, hi! I love your hair!
It wasn’t her hair, but it was true it looked better than her real hair ever had. Same bronze color, but short and flirty, with a little curl at the ends. The witch said, It looks French.
Her face paint was not the usual witch green, more like the color of the worrisome mold outside. Viv asked if she still lived in the house.
I moved to Atlanta for work, can you believe it? I’m just here for the weekend, I have to go to a memorial service tomorrow. She shrugged. I still have that drawing you did of the blue jay. I love it.
Viv said, I like the color of your face paint.
Thanks—it was actually a darker green, but I use this serum and it made it turn this color. Oh, my turn. The bathroom was free again.
Viv waited, voices reverberating off the walls.
. . . teaches this like adult ed class it’s called Time for Terrariums and like people actually take it.
We made a pact; next year we’ll go to the DR if this year he comes with me to Iceland.
Len said she has some rare kind of cancer, there’s no real treatment, they just try whatever until it stops working, then try something else.
Viv tried not to listen. Tried not to think of Stacy in her red dress with the white collar. The costume said it all, Viv supposed. Deep down Aziz must have longed for someone like that, who could be ironic and fully participate in the rituals of the masses. Unlike Viv, who on the night they met had bonded with him over having grown up in the suburbs without any sense of fitting in. As much as Aziz said he liked that Viv looked at the world askance, clearly what he had needed was a Stacy.
Stacy wouldn’t chide him for taking start-up money from a developer who opposed the bill to stop illegal fishing off the Cape. Wouldn’t dare ask if smart technology was always necessarily smart (knowing full well his company was based on the premise). Wouldn’t have set off their worst fight by calling his approach to business remorseless.
How you holding up? It was a mutual friend of Viv and Aziz, dressed as Mary Poppins. For a moment it seemed she knew how hard it had been for Viv to come here tonight, to see Stacy in the flesh, and to be seen herself, looking like this.
The truth was, in order to come here, Viv had actually allowed herself to think of the party as somehow perversely restorative: a trial-by-fire cure. Because if she could live through this—seeing Aziz and his fiancée together, and all the while being witnessed, by everyone else, seeing them—then surely she could survive anything.
I’m fine, how about you? She said it by rote.
Mary Poppins said, I didn’t realize Stacy was pregnant. I’m always the last to hear these things. Still, I imagine it kind of sucks.
The floor dropped from under Viv’s feet. Viv looked for the bathroom door to open, managed to stammer something. Oh, yeah, well. She thought of the gentle confidence she had noted in Stacy, reassessing it as a pleased smugness.
Thank god, here was the witch. Viv escaped into the bathroom, leaned against the sink. In the mirror, her face shocked her. She didn’t look ugly. But with the dark eyeliner and circles of fatigue below, she looked skinny and strung out.
There was a phrase Laurel had taught her, back when Viv and Aziz first split up and Viv, alone in the attic studio she had found, felt a despair she hadn’t known possible. When each night her thoughts followed the same looping circle—that as much as Aziz had loved her, she had not been what he thought he wanted, that she should never have expressed those thoughts that had hurt him. When her mother, trying to be helpful, said, It’s not the end of the world.
You’re heart-scalded, Laurel had explained. A term from the British side of her family. An anguished, active grief. Viv’s dictionary said it meant tormented by bitter disappointment, sorrow, or remorse.
Not just grief at the loss, but the ongoing torment of her regret. The sense that if she could have been different, could have tamped down her horror at human obduracy, Aziz would have loved her as she had loved him: wholly, unstintingly, enough to have endured.
She went to use the toilet, trying to tell herself not to dwell on what she had just heard. What did it matter? She would be gone, she already knew quite well, before any baby arrived.
Someone knocked on the bathroom door.
Be right out! Viv flushed her toxic pee into the sewers. Washed her hands. Did not look in the mirror. Time to leave. There was nothing left for her here.
She was still making her way through the narrow, echoing hallway when someone stopped her. Like Viv, he did not appear to be in costume, just dark jeans, black T-shirt, and sneakers. And while he seemed to know Viv, she could not quite remember him. How are you feeling? he asked, and the pity in his voice made her want to slug him.
He swallowed his swig of beer, not waiting for a response, said, Seeing her with him must be hard. Aziz doesn’t deserve her or you. That guy just gets things handed to him.
It wasn’t true. Aziz had worked until late every night to get his company going. Plus lunches and dinners with investors who made him feel that all he did was beg, a nonstop cycle of schmoozing. He’d even confessed to Viv that he couldn’t stand a good half of those guys, whom he suspected wouldn’t deign to speak to him if they didn’t think he was worth something to them. And now that he’d partnered with Len’s corporation, he was basically trapped.
Anyway, I put a spell on him for you.
Viv would have raised her eyebrows if she had any. What’s that supposed to mean?
A curse. On Aziz.
Um, that was actually unnecessary. I don’t harbor any ill will toward Aziz. In fact—
Sure you don’t. He gave a closemouthed smile, his eyes becoming narrower.
No, really—but the guy tilted his head and said, Be honest with yourself, Viv. It’s okay to want it.
But she didn’t want it. At least, she didn’t think so. Whenever she glimpsed the starfish anklet around her bony ankle, she still thought of how Aziz had noticed her admiring it in the shop at Wellfleet and gone back for it while she was napping on the beach. He called her Beep from early in their relationship, when he came out dancing with her, which he had pretended to enjoy, but Viv could tell he didn’t like bumping up against other sweaty bodies. She kept trying to carve out a space for just the two of them, to discreetly elbow away all the others. Beep beep! he had said when he noticed what she was doing, to which she had countered, Mister open-source communal tech guy needs his personal patch of dance floor! And he had danced with her until late, because he saw she was happy.
God, I was awful, she thought now. Shaking her head, she asked this guy who so clearly envied Aziz, What do you know about spells?
I took a class! Looking insulted, he added, I’ve been practicing.
In that case, how about a cure, huh? Instead of a curse?
An interesting premise, he said. If you had a choice of being cured but no longer having Aziz in your life, versus no cure but getting Aziz back, which would you choose?
Well that’s a ridiculous question. Obviously—
Is it really?
She nearly added that it was obnoxious, too. Instead, she just said, Look, I don’t need your help.
But he just winked and said, It’s already taken care of.
Viv did not thank him. I’ve got to go now, actually. She looked around the room as if someone were waiting to escort her out. There was the You can choose bliss woman, in some sort of superhero attire. Viv quickly turned toward the kitchen to make a beeline out the back door.
Outside, the woodstove spat sparks at the circle of guests in chairs, still digging into their soggy plates of food. On the ground around them were half-empty bottles of alcohol. The pig carcass lay on the picnic table. Viv meant to slip away—she would text Len tomorrow to thank him—but someone tapped her arm.
Have you seen Aziz?
It was Stacy. She had removed the orange wig, exposing a short hairdo not unlike Viv’s: pixie bangs and little commas in front of her ears. She said, I can’t find him anywhere.
Hi, no, I haven’t seen him. He must have gone to use one of the upstairs bathrooms.
I already asked. Frustration showed on her face, and she did not bother to continue but went to ask someone else. Viv heard Len’s voice sifting through an upstairs window, Aziz, hey, you up here?
She was glad people were huddled around the woodstove, that they wouldn’t see her slinking away and not helping to look for Aziz. Starting down the slate path, she reached up to loop her scarf.
It took a moment to remember where she had discarded it. Back at the table where the drinks had been, there were now just empty bottles and used plastic cups. Ah, there was the scarf, under the winking orange lights. She snatched it up, relieved to have remembered.
A sound startled her. She felt herself tense; she knew there were rats around. There it was again. A kitten? Not quite a squeak, not quite a mew. A small, weak sound.
She moved nearer to the winking lights and heard it again, the muffled sound of some tiny being. Less a cry than a hum. The sound seemed to be coming from within the cheap cement planter.
She bent to examine it—difficult with just the light from the porch. But she must have frightened the tiny creature. There was only silence. The porchlight illuminated the side of the planter, so that even in the dark, Viv noticed something in the raised pattern. One dancer whose shape did not match the others.
Taller and thinner. The pattern of the cement mold must have gotten cut off halfway. Viv took out her phone to turn on the flashlight, shone it on the pattern. Unlike the other dancers, covered in mossy green, this figure had a face.
A nose protruded from the cement, creases where the corners of lips met. And the edge of an eye. Viv touched the lips—quickly drew back her hand. The lips were warm.
She hurried away, out to the street. Did not linger to hire a car. She had stayed too late; her scalp prickled hot with sweat. Removing the wig, she decided to walk the three blocks to the bus stop. She would call a car there, or just take the bus.
With each footfall on the cracked pavement, the thought became clearer. That sound she had heard. It had sounded an awful lot like a beep.
Just one more hypersensitivity. A side effect, like the thrush and the fevers and nausea—some hearing mirage, with warping of vision. He was on her mind, after all. That must be why she had heard it.
Felt that heat burn her fingertips.
But such things simply weren’t possible.
She thought of Aziz’s choices. Caught in his own devil’s bargain each day, simply by going to work. The perpetual dance he had willingly entered into. Wasn’t any so-called curse one he had brought on himself? Well, who hadn’t, really, so many daily pacts and just this once-s. Little excuses on the collective march toward the end of the world—even if no one ever seemed to realize it.
The other week she had heard a conversation not meant for her. As she sat in the chair with the tube in her arm, behind the curtain that separated her from the man who had come to take his seat in the next bay, an oncologist, with the aid of a social worker, told the man that his time on earth had come to an end—the treatment was no longer working, there were no more remedies, it was time to go home and plan for the “next step.” Something about the doctor’s voice made it absolutely clear that she had never paused to contemplate her own mortality. And though Viv knew from other overheard conversations over the weeks that the man had been sick for years, it was evident even through the curtain that only in that moment did he understand that all this was to end. His voice shook awfully when he asked the social worker how best to break the news to his children.
At the bus stop, under the streetlamp, Viv took a seat on the bench to wait. She wondered if Stacy had found Aziz yet. A few meters away, two punk-looking kids, or maybe addicts, skinny in their worn-out hoodies, turned to observe her. They seemed about to approach her, maybe thinking her one of them: a lanky teen with her head shaved and needle marks in her arm. But after a moment they seemed to see more clearly and turned away.
Daphne Kalotay’s books include the award-winning Sight Reading and Russian Winter, the fiction collection Calamity and Other Stories — shortlisted for the Story Prize — and the new novel Blue Hours, a 2020 Massachusetts Book Awards “Must Read.” Published in 20+ languages, her work has received fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, Yaddo, and Bogliasco, among others, and her story “Relativity” was the 2017 One City One Story Boston pick. She teaches for Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing but makes her home in Somerville, Massachusetts.
“Keeping” by Thomas Dodson
Thomas Dodson’s story “Keeping” follows seventy-three-year-old Guy, owner of a family hive and honey business, and his neighbor, Taylor, as they make the long journey from Iowa to California to save Guy’s colonies and fulfill his contract with a West Coast almond grower. This fast-paced story takes readers on a buzzing adventure, as Guy faces crime, a fading mind, and his own sexual identity. “Keeping” won the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for fiction.
It was a humbling thing, asking for help like this, needing it so badly. But removing his hat, brushing flakes of snow from brim and crown, Guy knew there was no other way. His neighbors’ fields, already stripped of corn and soybeans, would soon be a single plain of snow, patches of winter rye the only green for acres. Cold winds would blow freely across all that flatness, gathering strength until they reached the stand of pines at the edge of his apiary. The trees would provide a break, and he could wrap the hives in tar paper to keep out the frost, but it wouldn’t be enough. His bees, what was left of them, they wouldn’t survive an Iowa winter. He needed to take them west.
He’d been standing on the porch of Taylor’s place, weighed down with what he meant to ask, when he heard the baby crying. It wailed and wailed, a helpless thing, full to the top with need. When it finally hushed, he opened the screen and knocked. Taylor’s wife answered. She had the baby with her, his head covered in wisps of fine brown hair, face pressed to her breast, sucking away. Guy coughed and looked down at his shoes.
“Come in,” Andrea said, unconcerned. “Taylor’s out back, finishing up.”
He followed her inside, ducking to avoid the transom. Forty-odd years of lifting supers filled with honey, each box heavy as a newborn calf, had stooped his shoulders. But all told, work in the beeyard had done him good. He hadn’t dwindled like other men his age, was still broad-backed and tall. He knew to move carefully in these old farmhouses.
In the dining room, his eyes were drawn to the glass-windowed cabinet. It was built to house pickled beets and bottles of homemade jam, but Taylor’s wife had stocked it with books, their spines emblazoned with words like “feminist,” “gay and lesbian,” “queer.” He could remember a time when it would have been dangerous to have such books where people could see them. “Ain’t much difference,” his father had said, “between a cocksucker and a communist.”
“You’re in your Sunday best,” Andrea said. “Business in town?” She lowered herself into a chair and settled the baby on her lap.
“The bank. Every once in a while, they like to bring you in, turn you upside down, see if anything falls out.”
She smiled politely. In truth, it was only for this visit that he’d traded his work boots for Oxfords, set aside his overalls, and retrieved his suit from the back of the closet. He’d worn it last ten years ago, at Alma’s funeral.
The back door clattered shut, and Taylor called from the kitchen, “Something got at one of the hives. Scat on the ground and some bees chewed and spat out.”
“In here,” Andrea said. “Guy stopped by.”
“Oh, yeah?” Taylor said cheerfully. She strode into the room, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans, the cuffs still tucked into her socks. She placed a hand on Andrea’s shoulder, bent down and kissed the baby’s head. The chair next to Andrea was stacked with papers. Taylor cleared them and sat down.
“Should’ve phoned first,” Guy said, shifting in his seat.
“You’re always welcome, you know that.” The tips of his ears burning, he looked at his hands. These bouts of bashfulness, they sometimes happened around Taylor. She was just so—he couldn’t think of a better word for it—handsome. She reminded him of James Dean in East of Eden and also, vaguely, of Milton Law, a high school classmate and the first boy he’d ever kissed.
“Brought you this.” Setting his hat on the table, he retrieved the package from under his arm, a square section of honeycomb in a clear plastic box. He’d selected, for his offering, a product of his strongest hive. Workers had filled each of the cells with amber honey, sealed them over with the freshest wax. It was a beautiful comb, white-capped and neatly cut. Something to be proud of.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea said. “You know, Taylor keeps trying to win me over to the dark stuff.” Her face crinkled, and she shook her head from side to side. “It’s not for me, though. Too funky.”
“I’ve always been too funky for you, mi reina.”
Taylor had seeded a portion of her land with buckwheat. Bees that fed on its white-petaled flowers made dark honey—near to black—nutty and pleasingly bitter. More traditional, Guy kept his meadows stocked with wildflowers: Shasta daisies and black-eyed Susans, clover that bloomed in shades of white, pink, and crimson. His bees rewarded him with a sweet, light honey that he sold to grocery stores, driving in each week to stock the shelves himself.
“You say you’ve got some critter nosing into a hive?”
“What do you think?” Taylor said. “A raccoon?”
“Skunk more likely. You can put up chicken wire. She’ll have to stand up on her hind legs, and the bees can sting her belly. Or you could set a trap.”
The baby began to fuss again, and Andrea excused herself. She bundled the boy in a sling and carried him away, her flip-flops slapping as she mounted the stairs. Guy sat across from Taylor in silence. Most of the time, it was easy between them. They’d known each other for going on eight years now, ever since she’d come to the beekeepers’ meeting at the VFW hall. She’d had so many questions, been so eager to learn the trade.
He’d invited her to join him in his beeyard, a kind of apprenticeship. Later, when he’d gotten a call from the fire department about a swarm hanging from a picnic table in Happy Hollow Park, they’d gone together to capture it. They’d smoked the bees, doused them with sugar spray, and shaken them into one of his spare supers. He’d given her the box and all the bees inside, her first colony. Together they’d cleared her backyard, transformed it into an apiary. She ran her own operation now, small but thriving. That was how their friendship worked, Guy offering help and advice, passing on the craft, taking pride in Taylor’s success. But this, asking her for help—real help, the kind that involved sacrifice—it felt wrong.
“Guy, is everything alright? You seem, I don’t know, bothered.”
“It’s been a hard year,” he began, “a real hard year.”
He told Taylor about the outbreak of nosema. Bees with swollen guts had deposited smears of brown diarrhea down the sides of the supers. They fell from the boxes, littering the ground with their hollowed-out carcasses. Others perished midflight, some bearing fat wads of pollen, food their spore-ravaged stomachs could no longer digest. He’d lost other hives to mites, passed from bee to bee until they reached the brood chamber. There they fed on larvae and laid their eggs, fouling whole colonies.
And then there were the bees that ranged beyond his meadow. In August, he’d found a pile of dead bees in front of one of his hives, the rest stumbling around like they were drunk. He couldn’t prove that chemicals were killing them, but during the summer months, he’d seen plenty of crop dusters swinging low over the nearby fields, raining pesticides down on the corn.
That was as much as he was willing to tell Taylor, or anybody else. The truth, he knew, was that he was to blame for the bees’ decline. Autry Honey had been a family business, his wife and sons all chipping in. After the boys went away to college and Alma passed, he’d hired help for processing and bottling, an accountant for the books, seasonal workers whenever he needed an extra hand. But the bees, he cared for them himself, alone.
It had worked out fine for a couple of years. But then, last summer, not long after his seventy-third birthday, he’d found himself standing in front of a hive, not sure what he was doing there. The cover was off, his smoker spent. Had he set out to harvest honey or check for a sick queen?
After that, he kept his logbook close, needed it to tell him all the things he used to keep in his head—when and how much he’d fed each colony, whether he’d treated them for pests. And then there was the time he lost the book, wasted a whole afternoon searching. He spotted it the next morning, scrambling eggs over the range. On the shelf by the window, the frayed binding sticking out from a row of Alma’s cookbooks.
Pests and chemicals hadn’t killed his bees, at least not on their own. Some died every year, but well-tended colonies could bounce back. His losses, enough to put his whole operation at risk, those were due to sloppy stewardship. He’d failed his charges, left them vulnerable.
“I treated the hives for mites and all,” he explained. “Had to torch the sickest ones. All told, I’m down to one-third what I should have this time of year. Not enough to make the contract out West; colonies too weak to winter up here.”
“Jesus,” Taylor said, leaning back in her chair. “If I’d have known, maybe we could have . . . so, what are you going to do? Get them indoors, a barn or something? Then buy nucs in the spring?”
Guy chuckled bitterly. “With what money? And besides, I can’t wait for the thaw. First winter storm, and I’ll be finished.” He couldn’t bring himself to look Taylor in the eyes, so he looked instead into the kitchen, at the high chair and the sink full of dishes. “I can see you’ve got your hands full here. And I hate to ask, but . . .”
“Hey, Guy, whatever you need.” Taylor reached across the table. Forgetting himself, he gripped her fingers. There was no sorting out everything he felt—humiliation, gratitude, a shameful urge to seize and cling to this sudden closeness between them, for it to mean something it didn’t. He released her hand and straightened up in his chair. He was a foolish old man.
“All the bees I have left, they’re healthy. You’ve got my word on that.”
Her lips slightly parted, Taylor waited for him to explain.
“The California trip,” he said, “the almond bloom. It’s good money. Real good money.” He retrieved his notes from the breast pocket of his suit, unfolded them, and set them in front of her. “Now inspections, truck rental, equipment—that’s all settled.” He tapped twice on the top page, where he’d written out all the expenses. “That comes out of my end. The profit, though, we split fifty-fifty. I’ve got a Class A license, had it for years, so I’ll do the driving.”
“Guy, what are we talking about, exactly?”
“I leave in three weeks, but I don’t have the hives. Not enough, anyway. I need your bees, together with mine. I’m sorry to come asking, but I need you to come with me to California.”
A rumble strip throbbed beneath his feet, and Guy nudged the truck away from the shoulder. The wind was up, and he had to keep a firm grip on the wheel. The sky was a monolith of low gray clouds, spitting needles of sleet against the windshield.
In spite of the weather, things had gone easy. He’d managed to keep his cool when tailgaters blew their horns, to swing the trailer into traffic as they passed through Des Moines and Omaha. Taking charge of a twenty-ton rig, sending it hurtling down I-80, it might have intimidated another man. But back in Vietnam he’d been the driver for a Patton tank, crashing through the jungle, taking point on thunder runs: top speed with one track on the asphalt, the other spitting dirt, all guns firing, praying they didn’t hit a mine. And anyway, he’d made this trip before, every year for the past five, and always on his own.
That morning he’d found Taylor on her porch, slumped in a rocking chair. It was before dawn, and the house was still dark. He hadn’t asked if Andrea would be seeing them off. The stars were veiled, and a rabbit flung itself into the dark as he turned his headlights to the beeyard. He helped Taylor load her hives onto the flatbed, next to his own. When they were ready to leave, he offered her the little mattress behind the driver’s seat—he’d raised children too, knew how hard it was to get a decent night’s sleep with a baby in the house. Taylor said no, promised through yawns to help navigate.
Hours later, and she was still out cold, strapped into the passenger seat, her temple pressed against the glass of the cab. There was a sign for gas, and he took the exit for the travel plaza. Taylor stirred and looked around. “Everything okay back there?” she said, putting a hand through her dark, upswept hair.
“Sure,” he said. “They’re strapped in tight. We had some weather, but that’s what the tarps are for.”
Taylor looked once over her shoulder, then drew a phone from her chore coat. Splashing sounds came from the speaker, then a woman’s voice, a rhythmic murmuring, together with a child’s happy clamor.
“Andrea sent a video,” she said. “Oscar in the tub.” The warmth that spread over her face, it had nothing to do with Guy, but watching it made him feel close to her. The brakes hissed, then sighed as he eased the rig alongside a bank of diesel pumps. She tapped briefly on the screen, then pocketed the phone.
“The tank’s on my side, I’ll fill her up.”
“Alright,” he said. “I think I’ll stretch my legs.”
“Do you know how to work that thing or what?” said the man in line behind him. Guy was staring down at the card reader, his fingers hovering over the keypad. Had he already paid for the gas?
“Your card’s run,” the cashier was saying, “just need your PIN.” Place like this, no reason to think they would cheat you. In any case, best to play along. But looking down at the blank place on the screen, he couldn’t conceive of what numbers ought to go there. He had to put in something, but if the numbers were wrong, they’d make him start all over. He could hear the man behind him breathing.
“Step aside, some of us have loads to haul.”
“Just a minute,” Guy grumbled.
Alma. The number had something to do with her, but what? And where was she, anyway? Still in the bathroom? Every damn time. And if it wasn’t her, it was one of the boys. He was always having to pull off somewhere.
But no, that was a different time. Years ago. He was here with Taylor now. The card. The machine. She needed him to pay for the gas. He glanced over at one of the display racks. Did they have that gum he liked? The kind that tasted like licorice?
“Hey, I’m talking to you.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder. A trucker. He seemed to be grinding his teeth, the muscles along his jaw visibly taut. One of his arms was badly sunburned, the pale underflesh fringed with translucent patches of dead skin. A molting reptile.
“Quiet, now.” Guy turned back to the machine, waving his hand in the air as if swatting an insect. The next thing he knew, Taylor was there, saying his name.
“And who’s going to make me? You? Your little boyfriend here?” Sneering, the trucker turned to Taylor, looked her up and down. He looked both exhausted and agitated, a man kept awake by chemicals, capable of anything. The cashier, secure behind her bullet-resistant window, watched warily but said nothing.
“Fifty on pump nine,” Taylor said, shoving a wad of bills into the metal drawer beneath the window. “Happy now, asshole? Guy, take your card, we need to go.”
When they got back to the rig, Taylor reached under her seat. She unzipped her nylon bag, packed with snacks and other essentials, and drew out something heavy and black. A handgun, trigger and barrel secured in a molded-plastic holster. “You okay to drive?” she asked, arching her back and tucking the pistol into the waistband of her jeans.
“I’m fine,” he said, not sure yet if he was. He started the engine.
“Let’s go, then. I don’t want that psycho following us.”
“Her birthday,” Guy said when they were back on the interstate.
“The PIN. Five four forty-eight.” Alma’s birthday. How could he have forgotten a thing like that?
It wasn’t until hours later, when they’d traded the foothills of Arkansas for the Colorado Rockies, that Taylor stopped checking the rearview mirror, peering into the cab of every semi that got too close. Later, they pulled into a Safeway parking lot in Grand Junction, as good a place as any to spend the night. Guy insisted that Taylor take the sleeper cab. “My truck,” he said when she protested, “my rules. And that gun, we need to talk about that, too. Can I have a look?”
Taylor considered, then took the pistol out of its holster and handed it over. “I guess I should have said something about it.”
“Probably,” he said, checking that the safety was on and then weighing it in his hand. An all-metal, hammer-fired semiautomatic; a newer model, but not so different from the Colt 1911 he’d carried in Vietnam. “This size, I’d think it would be chambered for .45 caliber. But it’s light.”
“It’s a .22. I take it with me when I go camping.”
“We’re pretty far from the woods,” he said, handing it back.
“Don’t tell Andrea, alright? She doesn’t understand about guns.”
“I guess it’s your own business.”
“It is,” Taylor said, suddenly defensive. “Two thousand miles, to somewhere I don’t know anybody, where truckers and farmers and drunks—any man, basically—can decide that just because he doesn’t like my clothes, or my walk . . . I know what they’re like, what they do. No way I’m taking a trip like this and leaving my gun at home.”
It occurred to him that his idea of Taylor’s life might be distorted: his notion that she’d had it easier, never knowing a world that expected her to hide—at least, not the way he had. But refusing to hide, even now, he imagined there were risks to that, too. Things he probably knew nothing about.
“Well, alright,” he said, forcing a grin. “So long as you don’t point it at me.”
When Taylor was settled, Guy folded himself into a sort of crouch in the passenger seat. Feet propped on the dash, he tried to quiet his mind. The incident at the truck stop had left him shaken. The way he’d fallen out of the world, it was like slipping on black ice. No warning, no chance to catch himself. And that trucker running his mouth, like Guy was nothing at all. The worst of it was that Taylor had been there, a witness to his infirmity. He’d tried to apologize, but she’d just shrugged. No big deal, she’d said. She forgot things too: passwords, birthdays, the names of Andrea’s nieces. If she suspected there was something he wasn’t telling her, she seemed willing to let it go.
No point going into it. He needed only to stay vigilant, focus on the tasks in front of him. A few weeks, that was all, and then he’d be back home with his bees. He’d kept bigger secrets than this from neighbors and friends—from his children—and for much longer.
The next morning, he took a handful of Advil to soothe the pain in his back, and they traversed the whole of Utah. A sheen of still water stood over the salt flats, an enormous mirror perfectly reflecting mountains and clouds. I-80 was a bridge that split the sky.
Just before nightfall, they took the on-ramp to the Vegas Freeway. The Trump Hotel was visible for miles, a tower of gold-infused glass, tarnished by the late-afternoon sun. They pushed on to the San Joaquin Valley, then checked into a motel outside Bakersfield. When they got to the room, they each claimed a bed and fell asleep in their clothes.
After a breakfast of coffee, eggs, and chicken-fried steak, they set out for the Singh family orchard. Guy turned off the highway and onto a rutted access road. Beyond a rail wood fence stood rows of short, sturdy almond trees, an occasional pink-white blossom ornamenting their branches. When they reached the fence line, Taylor climbed down from the cab and swung open the cattle gate.
It was hours unloading, setting the hives on pallets at the end of each row of trees, Guy’s arrayed nearer to the gate so he wouldn’t have to walk as far to tend them. Their hives looked more or less the same, handmade boxes he’d shown Taylor how to craft from wood and wire. Still easy enough to tell apart. For years, it had been his practice, after assembling each box, to brand it with a home-crafted iron, always in the same spot. An AH for Autry Honey, the rough letters encircled by a crooked oval.
When they were finished, they sat with their backs against the trunks, in the shade of the new-blooming boughs. The sun was high in the sky, and across the row, Taylor was gulping water from a plastic bottle. She’d shed her shirt, and in her tank top he could see her shapely shoulders and the hard, lean muscles of her arms. It wasn’t ogling, he told himself. It had never been her woman’s body that fascinated him but something to do with her gestures, her walk, the mix of confidence and vulnerability. His attraction to her was nothing like what he’d felt for Alma: great love, but wan desire. It was more like what he felt for other men.
He wondered if there might be a kind of manliness that didn’t belong to men at all, one possessed instead only by certain kinds of women: the butch lesbians he’d seen in bars in the city, a few women he’d known in the service, the girl in his town who’d stayed a tomboy even into high school, so bold as to take a boy’s name—before her parents sent her away. These women, gay or straight, he’d always felt that they were somehow like him.
Did Taylor excite him, he wondered, or did he envy her, the kind of freedom she had, a self-assurance he’d always wanted but had never been able to inhabit? He looked at his boots, determined not to think about her anymore. Whatever these feelings were, they had to be wrong. It had been this way since he was a boy; he kept wanting the wrong things.
“Ready?” he said and cleared his throat.
They zipped into their bee suits and lit the smokers. Guy knew keepers who burned wooden pellets, burlap, even cotton waste. Though it meant shouldering a satchel from hive to hive, he’d brough
t fuel from home: long dry needles from the pines that grew on his land. He loved the smell of smoldering pine straw, the cool, white clouds that coiled from the funnel.
He directed a few puffs into the first box, then waited, giving the guards time to abandon their posts and wander, drowsily, deeper into the hive. Outside, bees hovered and dipped, drawing looping lines through the air. Others had begun to investigate the trees, lighting on the few flowers already in bloom.
Occasionally, a bee landed on his bare hands, crawled about, and then departed. He’d stopped wearing gloves years ago. They were too bulky, and besides, if you moved slowly and with care, few bees would sting you. Removing the covers and breaking seals of dried resin with his hive tool, he lifted the frames, then searched each box until he found the queen.
He was just putting the cover back on a hive when an SUV, freshly waxed and gleaming, pulled into the grove. Taylor was at the far end of the orchard, too far to hear him call. He removed his veil and walked alone in the direction of the gate. The vehicle’s windows were tinted, and he couldn’t make out the driver until the door swung open. A well-fed man in his thirties, his face framed by a short black beard. Erjot Singh.
Guy had met Erjot’s father, the Singh family patriarch, only once. The old man had gotten his start as a laborer in other men’s orchards, eventually saving enough to buy land of his own. Erjot, the eldest son, managed things now. Guy had heard the workers call him “the Little Prince.” He lived lavishly, it was said, and would, on his father’s death, inherit the Singh empire: two thousand acres of rich, central valley farmland with almond and pistachio orchards and a vineyard for growing raisin grapes.
The two men shook hands and talked in the language of farmers everywhere: weather, soil, seeds. And, because this was California, water. Erjot gestured to a plastic bucket. A line of bees was already marshaled along the rim, others perched on chips of wood that bobbed on the surface.
“We’ve had drought here the last two years. Micro-irrigation, flyover imaging—we’ve got to watch every drop.”
“I hear you,” Guy said. “But if they’re lacking for water on-site, they’ll go looking for it. That’s time they’re not pollinating your trees.”
Erjot didn’t assent, but he didn’t argue either.
They walked along a couple of rows, Guy showing off the hives, Erjot examining his trees.
“You’re just in time,” Erjot said when they were back at the gate. “Another day or two and all these trees will be in bloom. Big money,” he mused. “Small window.”
“Well,” Guy said, trying to sound good-humored, “we sure hauled ass to get here.”
They shook hands again, and Erjot gave him the first payment, a check made out to Autry Honey.
The next day, they slept in and took their time getting ready. He’d wanted to talk to Taylor about how to divide the day’s work, but for most of the drive to the orchard, she was on her phone.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said. “Well, she’s my cousin, actually. You’re being crazy.” She was silent for a long moment, then sighed heavily. “Look, it’s just me and Guy, cariño. It’s all orchards and IHOPS out here. Sweat and dirt and a motel off the interstate. As soon as we’re done, as soon as we’ve made this money, I’ll be home again.”
“Everything alright?” he asked when she was through.
“She’s acting like I’m out here on spring break. And you know how my mom came up, to help with Oscar? I guess she’s bossing Andrea around.”
At the orchard, he went looking for a hose while Taylor got into her suit; he’d top off the buckets and walk the rows before suiting up, see how his bees were taking to their new diet. He got as far as the first tree before he stopped, confused. Two hives, ones he’d tended himself the day before, had vanished, along with their pallets.
He willed himself to concentrate. Surely, he hadn’t lost his mind completely.
At his feet, a jumble of symbols had been pressed into the dirt. Gradually, he registered the marks for what they were: indentations left by pallet slats, together with boot prints and the overlapping tracks of forklifts. Almond flowers, both flattened and freshly fallen, lay in the wide chevrons of the tread marks, the pink blossoms smoldering against the dark earth. Shielding his eyes, he looked down the next row and the next. Gone. All of them gone.
He found himself walking, as if in a trance, toward one of the remaining hives. There was a scent in the air—alarm pheromone, a smell like those hard, banana-shaped candies sold at gas stations. Bees landed on the bare flesh of his neck and arms, stinging. As they pulled free, viscera tore from their abdomens—venom and acid sacks left behind.
“Guy,” Taylor called. “Hey, Guy!”
“Who would do this?” he said. And then, for the first time since Alma died, he began to cry.
“These guys, they knew what they were doing,” the sheriff said. “How many did you lose?”
Guy leaned against the fence, his face in his hands, unable to speak.
“More than half,” he heard Taylor say. “A hundred fifty, maybe? We haven’t had a chance to count.”
The number didn’t matter. There were too few left to fulfill the contract with the Singhs or even to run his operation back home. Insurance might pay out for an injured worker or a tornado, but not for this. With no money to replenish his stocks, the only asset he had was the apiary itself, the land on which he’d lived and worked for years. In one night, he’d lost everything, and, worse, he’d taken Taylor down with him. The shame of his impotence, his selfishness, it was almost too much to bear.
Back in the motel room, they sat at the little end table with the curtains drawn. Taylor had scraped the stingers from his neck and shoulders, pressed dollops of calamine lotion onto her fingertips and dabbed them onto the welts. What he must look like to her. His bare chest, strong but sagging. Tangles of spider veins visible beneath the sagging flesh of his arms. Normally, he would have resisted, embarrassed to be shirtless in front her. But after what had happened, he was past any care for pride or propriety.
“You can do the rest yourself,” she said, tossing the crumpled tube on the table. She paced the length of the room, her boots leaving muddy prints on the thin carpet.
His shirt was hanging over the empty chair, but reaching for it seemed impossible. He’d experienced something like this before, coming back from the war, a week when all he could do was sit, slumped and motionless on the living room couch. Later, Alma had told him that he’d refused to eat or take himself to the bathroom. Whenever she tried to speak to him, he would grimace and turn away.
Their doctor, a family friend, had come to the house to examine him but found nothing wrong. The next day, he returned with release forms for electroconvulsive therapy. Alma had feared their life together was over. But then one afternoon as she was eating cottage cheese in the kitchen, he’d sat up and asked for a glass of water. He hadn’t had an episode since.
“Motherfuckers!” Taylor shouted, sweeping one of the lamps off the nightstand, sending it crashing to the floor, the bulb flaring out with a dull pop. Not satisfied, she kicked it across the room. Guy stared at the crumpled shade, crooked on its dented base, then at Taylor, hands on her hips, practically panting with fury.
“I need you to snap out of it, Guy. I need you to get mad.”
He looked over at his shirt and willed his body to move. But some invisible force seemed to hold him in place. Slowly gathering his strength, he found he was able to lean forward. He grasped the shirt and pulled it over his head.
“Tomorrow,” Taylor said. “As soon as the sun is up. We’ll get a map. We’ll go down every back road, see if they were stupid enough to put them out someplace we can find them.”
They spent the next two days driving around in a rented sedan, scanning the deserts and canyons of the San Joaquin Valley for any sign of the hives. It wasn’t entirely hopeless; the land on either side of Interstate 5 was flat for hundreds of miles, punctuated occasionally by a gas station, a fast-food restaurant, or a field of pumpjacks. There were only so many places to hide the bright white boxes, fewer if the thieves hoped to keep the bees alive and healthy for resale. Besides, what was the alternative? Locking himself in the motel room with the curtains drawn, pinned to the bed by dread? At least this way, they were doing something.
“What did you say to Andrea?” he said. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I told her the people here are assholes. I told her we’re getting sick of each other.” Taylor took a hand off the wheel and dug out some sunflower seeds from the bag in her lap. She cracked one open with her teeth and spat the shell out the window.
“And that’s all?”
“Just watch your side, okay?”
the first they’d spoken to each other all afternoon.
“I just want to fix this,” she said finally. “We fix it, finish the job, and she never has to know.” She shifted another seed from her cheek, cracked, and spat again. “You and Alma. You had secrets, right?”
“We did,” he said. “There were things I kept out of sight, or tried to.” Taylor’s anger, the silence between them, all day it had been like a dull ache in his chest. She was talking to him again, and he didn’t want that to stop. “She went through hell with me, I guess. The kind of man I am.” Taylor looked away from the road, as if trying to see from his expression what he might mean. “The kind that’s attracted to other men.”
He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it. To show her how small her betrayal really was, how much more a marriage could stand. Or maybe just selfishness, a need to unburden himself, a hope that the distance she’d imposed might be narrowed somehow if she knew that this, too, was something they shared. He could tell from her look that she hadn’t suspected. Because he was old. Her idea of him, it probably didn’t include the sorts of desires that quickened and troubled the lives of younger people.
“So, then, when you and Alma were together,” she asked carefully, “did you have other lovers? Did she?”
“Not her. It was my problem. When I met Alma, I thought I was cured. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I’d known it would happen again.”
“Sounds peculiar, I know. But back then, that’s how I thought about it. It wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I tried to stop. But then I’d be tempted again. I’d give in. I’d ask her forgiveness and make promises. Then I’d put her through it all again. We stayed together, had our children, and I kept that other part of my life, well, I kept it separate. We didn’t talk about it anymore.”
“But she knew?”
“She knew who I was. When the kids were grown and out of the house, I offered to give her a divorce. But she didn’t want it. Neither of us did.”
As the light began to fail, they broke off their search and turned back towards the motel. Pulling into the lot, they found a black Lexus parked next to their rig. Erjot met them at the door.
Taylor put herself between the two men, said her name, and stuck out her hand.
“It’s Guy’s name on the contract,” she said. “But half the bees that got taken, they belong to me.”
“I see. I have some news about that. But maybe not out here . . .”
Taylor unlocked the door, and they went inside.
“We’ve been asking around,” Erjot said, removing his aviators and hooking them onto the collar of his shirt. “Someone calling himself ‘Laki’ has been reaching out to the other growers, saying he has hives to rent. My father and I, we think this is the man who stole from you.”
Hope hit Guy like a blow to the chest. All through their search, the frantic activity of the last forty-eight hours, he’d never really believed they’d get the bees back. It was just something to keep from shutting down again.
“One of our friends was contacted. He played me a phone message, and I recognized the voice.” As he talked, Erjot fingered the little diamond stud in his ear. “His real name is Fetu Leota. Years ago, he did some work for our family. But he started causing trouble, and we had to fire him.”
“So, you know where he is?” Taylor asked. “Have you told the police?”
Erjot shrugged. “We could do that. The sheriff will want to go to a judge and get a warrant. But all that will take time. Fetu is a coward. As soon as he senses trouble, he’ll run away. Maybe he takes your hives with him.” His voice was calm and remote, as if he had more important things on his mind. “His family will hide him. Here or in Samoa. Also, my father, he’s old fashioned. This sort of dispute, he doesn’t like to involve the police.”
“Dispute?” Taylor said. “We were robbed. Those colonies are worth thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands.”
“So,” Guy said. “It sounds like you have a different idea.”
“Yes.” Erjot placed a business card facedown on the table, a number jotted on the back. “Tell him you’re growers, willing to pay a high price for the hives.”
“Set up a meeting.”
“Exactly. Fetu and the hives will be at the same place at the same time. If you find that he’s stolen from you, you can handle things however you want.” The corner of Erjot’s eye twitched, stirring his fine black lashes. He set his sunglasses back on his nose and rose from the table. “What this man did, it was a terrible thing. My father and I, we regret that it happened on our land. But the almonds won’t wait to bloom. We can give you two more days. After that, if you don’t have the bees, we’ll have to get them from someone else.”
They met the man calling himself Laki in a suburban neighborhood at the edge of town: a network of cul-de-sacs lined with beige houses, aboveground pools set up in the yards. His fenced-in compound was little more than a split-wing with an attached garage, sitting on an acre and a half of sand and scrub-grass. As they approached the house, Guy saw the uneven rows of palettes, hives stacked two or three high. Most beekeepers painted their boxes white or grey, but these were bright orange, like the tops of traffic barrels.
In the driveway, a middle-aged man in cargo shorts and a sweat-stained polo waved them over. He greeted them with a wide smile, slapped their backs as if they were neighbors arriving for a barbecue.
“Sorry,” he said, “but the A/C isn’t working right now. We’ll be better off out here.” He led them to the backyard, a court of sun-scorched grass and a few evergreen bushes clinging to life. There was a trampoline, the sagging safety net half detached from the poles. Nearby, a miniature plastic chair, the kind used in preschools, lay overturned in the dirt.
They sat at a lawn table. Fetu reached into a cooler and handed them cans of Coors Light. “We can’t go higher than two-ten per box,” Taylor said, once they’d gotten down to business. Fetu tried to hide it, but Guy could see that he was pleased.
“Make it two-twenty and you’ve got a deal.”
“That works for us.” Taylor looked at him, and Guy paused, keeping up the act, then reached out to shake Fetu’s hand.
Fetu raised his beer. “To new friends, and a profitable partnership.” They tapped their cans together. It was all Guy could do not to seize the hive tool hidden in his jacket and see how many of the man’s teeth he could pry out.
“Let’s make it official,” Guy said, setting his beer on the table. “I’ll get the paperwork out of the car.” A quick look at Taylor told him that it would be fine to leave her there.
He went back around to the front of the house. In the driveway, he bent down and tucked his trousers into his socks; a few stings were inevitable, but he could do without bees getting inside his clothes. Leaving the car where it was, he headed in the direction of the orange boxes.
When he reached the first one, he dropped into a crouch and took out his hive tool. Angling the sharp end just above one of the handholds, he scraped off the top layer of paint. Sticky orange shavings clung to his blade, and he reached out to feel the exposed wood. Someone had been at it with a sander, but his fingers could still trace the faint outlines of a four-digit number, and after that, his brand mark, just where he knew to find it.
A popping sound, like the bursting of a plastic bag, echoed through the yard. It was quickly followed by a second pop. It was only after the third shot that he registered the sounds as gunfire. Bees still clinging to his hands and clothes, he turned and ran toward the house.
When he reached the backyard, he found Taylor on the patio, both hands gripping a pistol. She had tears in her eyes, from anger or fear, he couldn’t tell. Fetu was facedown on the ground, half inside the house and half out of it. The sliding door was partly open, the glass punctured and spidered where two bullets had passed through it. Fetu was down, but Taylor kept the gun trained on him. The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
“Fuck, I don’t know. He must have figured something was up. We were talking and then he flipped over the table, tried to get past me. Go through me. I mean, what was I supposed to—Fuck, this is bad,” she said. “This is so bad.”
“It’s alright.” Guy approached her slowly. “How would you feel about giving me that gun?”
Taylor glanced down first at Fetu, then at the gun. Guy reached out and, slow and gentle, the way he moved when he was working his bees, he placed his hands over hers. Gradually, she loosened her grip, let him wrest it away.
Fetu let out a little moan. At least he was still alive. Not that Guy cared whether he lived or died. His only concern was for Taylor. The plan, if they found the hives, had been to call the police. That wasn’t going to work now. They’d have to deal with the situation themselves.
“She shot me,” Fetu whimpered. “She fucking shot me.”
“Is there anybody else here?” Guy said, looking into the house. “Is anybody coming?”
“I’m hurt. I’m bleeding.”
“I asked you a question.” Guy pulled back the slider and let it go—the unmistakable click-clack of a round being chambered. He took aim at the back of Fetu’s head, his thumb finding the safety, flipping it on.
“Up on your knees.” Reaching for the doorframe, Fetu complied. Blood seeped from his waist, running down his leg and staining his shorts. Not spurting, though. That was good. Guy had heard three shots, two of which had gone into the door. So, shot once in the hip with a twenty-two, a round better suited to killing squirrels than people. They’d caught a break, it seemed. This man wasn’t going to die; he was barely injured.
“It’s my house. It’s just me. Please, don’t—”
“You got a car in that garage?”
“You’re going to get in it. Now.”
“Guy,” Taylor said, hesitant.
“You’re going to drive far away from here,” he continued, “and forget this ever happened. We know who you are, and we know what you did. The police will too, if you don’t get out of here right now.”
Guy found himself sitting on the couch in an unfamiliar house, a ceiling fan slowly churning the air. His hands were dappled with stings and in one of them he seemed to be holding a pistol. The sound of machinery and shouting reached him, and he got up to look out the window. Men dressed for farm work, people he didn’t know, were loading hives onto pallets. Another man drove a forklift, transferring the hives to a flatbed truck.
They weren’t the right color, but somehow, he knew these boxes were his, full of his bees. He was angry, already very angry, though he wasn’t sure what the feeling was attached to. Whatever was happening out there, he was going to put a stop to it. Was that why he had the gun? He flipped off the safety.
Outside, the sun was blinding. When he could see clearly again, he pointed the pistol into the air and pulled the trigger. It was so light in his hands, made such a pathetic little crack, that he fired again just to be sure he hadn’t imagined it. The men stopped what they were doing and stared. One dropped to the ground, and another dove behind a stack of boxes.
“What’s going on here?” Guy demanded. “What do you think you’re doing on my property?” It looked nothing like his property. But his hives were here. None of it made any sense.
“What the fuck, Guy,” someone shouted. “Put the gun down!”
Shading his eyes, he searched for the source. With the sun at her back, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be Taylor, maybe twenty yards away. She was walking toward him, her hands raised. This was wrong, all wrong. He dropped the gun and backed into the house.
As he sat on the couch, certain facts surfaced. He was not in Iowa but California. His hives had been stolen by a man named Fetu, and this was Fetu’s house. The people outside worked for the Singhs; he had been the one to call them. There was a gentle knock on the frame, and then Taylor came to sit beside him.
“Guy, are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was confused.”
Without thinking, he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his suit jacket. It had begun to run.
Years later, Taylor drove her own rig, bringing her bees to the Singhs’ orchard, then moving on to pollinate plums, cherries, apples—even cotton and lima beans. By the time Guy retired, she was doing well enough to buy him out. After that, he kept only the house and a few hives, working them just for the pleasure of it. In the afternoons, he sat in a chair in the yard, the nurse inside if he needed her, and watched his bees.
His feet bare, he gripped the soft grass with his toes. All these years and his love for the bees—his admiration for their industry, the fierceness with which they defended what was theirs—it had not diminished. They served one another and harmed nothing. Was there any human being who could say the same?
One of the colonies was bearding, a thick curtain of bees hanging from the bottom of the hive. Scouts were already on the wing, looking for a new home. Left to themselves they would choose wild and broken-down places over the handsome boxes he built for them. A hollow tree perhaps, or the eaves of an abandoned barn. In the past, he would have split the colony, placed the old queen and her retinue in an empty box. But there was no need for that now. He’d let them go. A summer breeze brought the scent of pine. The sound of wings, a gentle hum, fading as he closed his eyes.
Author statement: The idea for “Keeping” came from an article in National Geographic about bee heists in Canada and the western United States. I realized early on that to tell this story, I would need to learn about bees and beekeeping, the decline in honeybee populations, the pesticides that leave them vulnerable to fungal parasites and mites, almond growing in California, and more. Luckily, as a librarian, I’m no stranger to research and enjoy opportunities to indulge my curiosity.
For help thinking about Guy and Taylor, queer people of different generations, both seeking to make lives for themselves in the rural Midwest, I consulted oral histories gathered by projects like StoryCorps’ Stonewall OutLoud, the Country Queers podcast, and LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa. There is a moment in the story when Guy considers Taylor’s gender in relation to his own feelings of identification and desire. My thinking about what is happening in that scene was influenced by engagement with drag performances by Alana Kumbier (among others), queer spaces curated by producers such as Aliza Shapiro, and scholarly work by gender theorists—especially Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinities. I’m grateful to my teachers Ethan Canin and Margot Livesey, as well as my fellow workshoppers at Iowa. This story went through several drafts, and it was greatly improved by their comments and suggestions.
Thomas Dodson is a librarian and assistant professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashville, Oregon. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Founding editor of Printer’s Devil Review, he was also the executive editor of the Best Indie Lit New England series. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.
Karen Tucker on Her Debut Novel ‘Bewilderness’
Our June 4 prose feature, “Bewilderness,” was adapted from Karen Tucker’s short story “Anklewood,” which appeared in TMR 40:4. Tucker’s recently published novel from Catapult is a story of female friendship, low-wage work, and addiction in small-town North Carolina. In the interview that follows, Matthew Zanoni Müller talks with the author about the intersection of her own experience and her debut novel. You can read our featured excerpt from “Bewilderness” here.
Following Each Dangling Thread: An Interview with Karen Tucker about Her Debut Novel Bewilderness, and Writing about the Restaurant Industry, Friendship, and Addiction
by Matthew Zanoni Müller
Matthew Zanoni Müller: Your two main characters, Irene and Luce, both work restaurant jobs. This is how they make their money, where they meet, and where they forge their friendship. It is also where they encounter a host of challenges, from sexual harassment, to low pay, to difficult customers. Your book seems very interested in exploring this industry that you worked in yourself for years. What was it like mining this territory? Were there specific things you hoped readers would take from Irene and Luce’s experiences?
Karen Tucker: It’s funny: back when I was mired neck-deep in the restaurant industry, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was write about it. Imagine working so hard your legs shake as you walk to your car at midnight, going home and having yet another waiter nightmare that leaves you stressed-out and exhausted, and then waking up to spend even more time in that world by writing a story about a couple of food servers? No, thanks. But at some point after those twenty-plus years had passed, my ruined legs and I decided to allow ourselves to be exploited in a different fashion, and together we finagled our way into grad school. In Florida, with a sizeable pay cut, I taught writing to undergrads in exchange for time to work on a novel. Of course I deeply missed my restaurant colleagues––the funniest, most creative bunch of humans you could ever assemble––and at last I was ready to tie myself into an imaginary apron and write about the lean and hungry experience of waiting tables. One thing I wanted readers who haven’t been on the other side of the table to understand is that it’s not the romanticized version of low-income work we see so often in various stories. Forget the popular customer-as-savior trope––harassment is a million times more likely. No one theatrically quits midshift in protest over harassment; you can’t afford to. Your manager probably won’t defend you if you complain, but you also won’t get fired on the spot if you say something rude to Mr. Harasser. Your manager will instead wait for you to finish out your tables, do your sidework, turn in the cash and credit card slips you’ve collected, and leave the building. Only after you’ve shown up for work the following day, hoping to earn a few more crucial dollars, will they give you the axe.
MM: This is foremost a book about addiction. We follow Luce and Irene as they score drugs, go to meetings, and experience the highs and lows of pills. How did you approach balancing the very real and specific characteristics of both Irene and Luce’s addiction with the larger and more universal workings of this world that so many experience?
KT: By no means did I set out to scrutinize the pharmaceutical industry, the rehab industry, the health insurance industry, or any other for-profit systems that routinely fail people with substance use disorder. I have no experience in that kind of reportage. My only goal was to take a close-up look at two characters: Irene and Luce. As I came to discover, peering through a magnifying lens tends to reveal something unexpected, and you can’t tell the full story about food servers in a former mill town unless you’re willing to follow each dangling thread. In the end I spent as much time researching the circumstances of these characters’ lives as I did imagining them. In this way, I often felt more like the novel’s reader than its writer. Some days it felt as though the story were being told to me. Not in a spooky mystical sense––no characters were channeled in the drafting of this story––but I learned so much about my novel and those who inhabit it by reading numerous accounts of shady pain management centers, criminal rehab centers, doctors who accept payments from pharmaceutical reps in exchange for overprescribing opioid medication, and doctors who refuse to prescribe meds to patients with real pain.
MM: At the heart of this book is the friendship between Irene and Luce. In an especially poignant moment, Irene says, “That night, when I met Luce’s eyes in the dim of her beat-up Impala . . . I sensed she understood me better than anyone, including my own mother.” This moment explains so much of what comes after. The small acts of sabotage Irene engages in to keep Luce close to her, the protective need she has to keep Luce in her life. It seems to me that friendships don’t always get the nuanced attention they deserve in our culture. What considerations did you have in mind as you chose to center a friendship in this story?
KT: I wrote this novel at a very lonely time in my life. This is embarrassing to admit, even to myself. But yes: I was an older person who had gone back to school after dropping out of undergrad years earlier. I felt ill-equipped, anxious, frightened. At times I felt excluded because of the age difference––not always, but enough for it to sting. Looking back, I think I dreamed up this intense and heady relationship, flawed though it is, because I so very much wanted a friend like Luce.
MM: Irene and Luce are constantly scraping for extra money, have to settle for the indignities associated with low-wage work, and near the end, when Luce is offered the opportunity go to a posh rehab facility, Irene cannot join her since she does not have insurance. Their town of Anklewood too, seems to have fallen on hard times: “The old Revco where we’d once filled my father’s heart med prescriptions before it went out of business, which was now E-Z Title Pawn and Payday loans. After that came a string of boarded-up buildings…” How did you approach thinking about class in this book? Is the role of the novel to describe and illuminate, or should it also advocate in some way?
KT: When I first saw Bewilderness being described as set in a world of poverty, it surprised me a little. These women have jobs, they pay rent each month. Luce has a car that needs repairs, but it’s not totaled. Irene has a thousand dollars in her savings account. These were my circumstances for years and years, and while I understand now that some people view this as impoverished, to me it’s normal. At the same time, I always intended for class to play a distinct role in this novel. By centering a low-income community and scooting middle-class earners out to the periphery, it felt like seizing hold of something vital. Power, I think is the word. Along with class, gender plays a sizable part in how Irene and Luce’s circumstances unfold, as does their whiteness. Throughout the novel, I tried to show how these three identities, inextricable from each other, work for and against them in multiple ways. And just like you can’t separate multiple identities in a set of characters, it’s impossible to extract them from an author. A white author who doesn’t engage with whiteness, class, and gender likely sees no need to because they’re already in possession of power and glad of it. Writers who insist that art should be some mythical version of neutral are––as my mom would say––telling on themselves.
MM: The previous question also brings up for me the ways in which this book tackles sexual harassment and the very real dangers that Irene and Luce face in a variety of situations, be it trying to score or working at a restaurant. You write, for example, how they get a job at a chain restaurant and how one of the major benefits of this setup is that there is “Even a sexual harassment hotline that went straight to corporate.” How did you approach writing about the dangers posed to female addicts in particular?
KT: Very few women escape harassment of some kind, and statistics reveal that many of us have experienced far worse than that. Among other delights, I’ve been chased on foot, chased in a car, serially harassed at multiple jobs by customers and co-workers, received explicit anonymous letters mailed to my apartment, and been grabbed by any number of male humans, including one who briefly and terrifyingly refused to let me leave his house. Once, a customer asked me to join him for drinks elsewhere after my shift ended. I declined, excusing myself with some made-up story. The next morning I learned that he’d shot the cocktail server he went out with instead. I won’t describe the grisliest event of all, which happened to a woman I worked with back when I was Irene’s age and she was Luce’s. She is no longer alive. All this is to say that it wasn’t difficult to weave the dangers of being a woman into this novel. It would have been impossible to leave them out.
MM: Irene’s voice rings so bright and true in the book, and so much of my experience of reading this book was propelled by that voice. Did you hear it right away or did it develop over time? I imagine you must have spent a lot of time crafting the delicate balance of her voice as both a real person and someone tasked with telling this story.
KT: Thank you for saying that about Irene’s voice! I’ve always sucked at that part of storytelling, so it makes me happy to hear. Whatever might be effective about Irene’s voice is probably the result of two things: years and years of writing, and a lot of personal fear/anger/desire finding its way into the sentences. Once I gave up trying to sound smart, abandoned the notion of pretty language, and instead harnessed those feelings, I was better equipped to fight my way through the story’s brambles, including the dilemma of how to tell it. Also, I thought a lot about readers and how short our time is on this absurd little planet. I tried hard not to bore anyone.
MM: In an epic chapter you make use of a Reddit substream and allow the reader this objective look at Irene and how she interacts with the other members of this group. This was a risky move in the book, since it took us outside her perspective. It also brought us right into one of the spaces where Irene clearly spends a lot of her time. How did you come to include this section in your book, which ends up being part of the emotional weight of your ending?
KT: Haha, that was one of the most enjoyable chapters to write and I’m glad it worked for you. It probably doesn’t work for everyone. The idea to include it came about pretty naturally, since I was already spending a lot of time on Reddit. I knew why someone like Irene might be drawn to that world. I mean, hey, if you’re marginalized and/or criminalized, as people with substance use disorder so often are, anonymous online message boards can be a great way to safely find community. Added bonus: that chapter gave me the opportunity to include a wide range of voices, since up until that point in the story, narrator Irene has been hogging the mic.
As a baby writer, I used to believe that first-person point of view is the most intimate of choices, but now I think first-person can be the most distancing, which for me is a big part of the attraction. It’s certainly one way for writers to get a lot of mileage out of that perspective, since it essentially gives readers two stories: the one the narrator is telling them, and the shadow story hot on its heels. Including the Reddit chapter was my way of hitting Irene with one of those oversized theatre spotlights, making her shadow even more prominent.
MM: We are currently living through a pandemic where issues surrounding mental health have risen to the fore. Included in this is the difficulty that so many people who struggle with addiction are facing. A student I was very fond of overdosed in his car in our school parking lot, and while I don’t know too much about his situation, I can only imagine that this pandemic did not help. It’s tough to discuss a book’s timeliness, and of course you wrote this before the pandemic, but I’m wondering whether you’ve been thinking about this at all as you’ve watched the events of the last year unfold. Do you have hopes for how it will be received?
KT: I’m so sorry to hear about your student. I came very close to losing a loved one in January 2021. Thank god for the quick response from EMTs and the paramedic. Thank god for Jack Fishman, inventor of naloxone. It’s true this global health crisis did no favors to people who grapple with substance use disorder. Recent data from the CDC confirms that overdose deaths accelerated during the pandemic. And once again, it’s impossible to ignore how race and class play into this. Research shows that Black and brown individuals receive less evidence-based treatment than white people, partly due to racial bias from medical providers, partly because there’s less community access. Meanwhile, class and income levels affect everything from the cost of short and long-term treatment, to the availability of life-saving Narcan, to the ability and willingness to call an ambulance during an overdose crisis, to living in an accessible location that allows a medical team to reach you in time. As far as Bewilderness goes, this novel was written by a person who felt a bit stranded and at sea. If it helps someone else feel less alone during this terrible era, I would be grateful.
MM: During a chapter where they’re working a booth at a fair, Luce meets Wilky, the man who poses a threat to their friendship by wanting to lure Luce away to Florida and therefore, out of Irene’s life. In a moment of jealous abandonment, Irene “Went straight to her purse and chewed up [their] last two pills.” When Luce confronts her about it later, she lies. I was taken by moments like this because we spend a lot of the novel watching Irene work through her need for something steady, reliable, for something like love. And throughout we see her struggling with this. Her flaws are what end up revealing her desires so forcefully to the reader and also set up the double-bind of her gracious act at the end of the novel. In a time where we often talk about likeable or unlikable characters, this seemed like a risky move. And yet, we wouldn’t know her at all without these moments and the book takes so much of its beauty from them. Did you worry about whether or not she was likable, or did you just write her as she was? Is this even something we should ever worry about as writers? It seems like such a trap.
KT: My favorite protagonists are sloppy, flawed people. My favorite people are flawed and sloppy. I happen to be someone who very much wants to be liked as well as someone who turns out to be quite unlikeable with regrettable frequency. It’s the neediness, I think. Not ideal in a real-life situation, but quite useful for a character. It wasn’t difficult to have Irene make impulsive, needy decisions. Besides, if she’d been anything close to a saint, I would have abandoned the draft early on out of boredom. Her constant hunger kept me awake and paying attention. Some days I felt compelled to write just so she’d settle down a little––and once I finished, I felt myself settle down a bit, too.
You ask if this likability quality is something authors should worry about. Who knows? No doubt some readers will be put off by Irene’s nonsense, and since I hope to publish another novel at some point in the future, it’s probably not the most brilliant strategy to make writerly choices that will cut into the numbers. Anyone trying to earn actual income as a storyteller has no shortage of obstacles. Maybe I shouldn’t have chucked another one onto the pile. For me, though, my primary concern was creating a real human who exists in a fantastical situation––by which I mean plopped on a watery rock and hurtling through a vacuum-packed concoction of radiation and space plasma and who knows what else. It’ll all be over sooner than we expect. I did my best in this book to slow things down and take them moment-by-moment, and although I dedicated Bewilderness to those of us who are already gone, I also wrote it for those of us who are trying to stay.
Matthew Zanoni Müller received his MFA from Warren Wilson College and published a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son (Apprentice House). He has also published shorter works in the Southeast Review, NANO Fiction, the Boiler Journal, Hippocampus, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others. Müller is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and is at work on a novel. He was born in Bochum, Germany and lives in western Massachusetts, where he teaches English at his local community college. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com
“Flying Lessons” by Melissa Madore
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Melissa Madore’s “Flying Lessons” follows the unique personal journey of a woman named Anna, in a narrative centered around self-discovery, and the acceptance of transformation.
William wakes up to the sight of Anna standing by the apartment window, her pearly-gray feathers glistening in the light of the morning sun. Her gaze is fixed on the doves shuffling on the fire escape, their wings unfolding, ready to take flight. She isn’t aware of his presence. Her eyes are open, but she is still in her dream.
At least the window is shut. Last week he found her on the floor in the early hours of the morning, a chair tipped next to her, feathers everywhere. Regaining awareness, she grabbed his legs. She told him how she had felt the weightlessness and the rush of air. He scanned her body for injuries—nothing. Her wings had cushioned her fall. Or had she actually glided for a few seconds?
Her wings emerged at fifteen. While other girls compared the swelling and firmness of their breasts, the way they turned their bodies into objects of lust and mystery, her chest remained flat. Instead, she felt the prick of something hard on her back. She stretched her arm, pinching and pulling, felt feathers slipping out, tender and wet as a newborn. The lump that swelled on her back itched at night. What came out weeks later was never intended for flight—too frail. She cannot fly. Her wings, framed by thin bones, can merely displace pockets of air: no more than a breath snuffing out a candle.
When he met her a year ago, she wore a masquerade mask of a bird and a low-back dress—the wings looked part of a dress-up. The club where he was bartending on weekends was near Broadway Centre Theatre, and they often had troupes of actors and members from bands coming to party after their show.
“I like the costume,” he said.
She let out a sound like a chirp.
The different shades of gray, their fragility, and the way they moved with her—there was something organic about the feathers. “They look real,” he said, pointing at the wings.
“What, you like birds?” She lifted up her mask, looked straight into his eyes. “Birds are unpredictable.” Her throat throbbed a little when she spoke. She had a long, very fine neck.
By the fire escape, there is a rustle of wings. Pigeons take off, and Anna’s stare is tethered to their flight. She looks skinny and pale, and he thinks this might be how her flying dream materializes—her losing weight until she becomes so light that gravity loses its grip on her, and she starts to float.
At least today, she is trying something. They are meeting up with James, a paragliding instructor who will take her for a tandem jump. They met him last week while hiking at the Wasatch Mountains. Anna had wanted to see the sego lilies, in full bloom after the wet spring. Midsummit, they came across a group of paragliders standing in a circle, heads touching. Anna pulled on William’s hand. Together they watched as the paragliders lined up onto the ledge. The tallest approached them and slipped them a business card. His name was James. The card read How about flying Utah with me?
As they head out of the city, they drive past electric lines heavy with birds. William wonders why they gather there. “They think it’s alive,” Anna says, pointing at the line as if she’s heard his thoughts. “It’s pulsing like a heartbeat.” She reaches forward, taps on his chest. This is something she does, give him facts about birds, convinced that she knows. “Birds have accents,” she once told him. “Listen.”
They have come up with many theories for her wings. Once, when they were talking about it, he said she was a hybrid, her mother actually a scientist who took pity and stole her from a lab. But her mother couldn’t even measure laundry powder—Anna spent a childhood with soap-stained dresses. And when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, years after they’d arrived in Salt Lake City, she had no answers for Anna, knew of no fancy treatments. She swallowed all her morphine tablets and called it a day. “Worst scientist ever,” Anna said.
They were drinking that day. Anna couldn’t tolerate alcohol very well. She downed her wine, and then suggested that DNA contained genetic material from all the species, everything that had ever been and would ever be. Nothing created, nothing lost—that was her theory. “Maybe we will need wings,” she said, toppling onto the couch. “Maybe our next world is somewhere high up.” She lifted her hand and pointed at the ceiling. Her head lolled, and soon she was asleep.
On nights she can’t settle against his body, he feels guilty for his mundanity. It’s not only the wings, but the fact that her desires seem so clear to her. He’s a drifter: a middle child, a college dropout, a bartender who can’t hold a job for more than a summer. His brothers both lead successful lives as lawyers in California. They send him glossy postcards of sunny coasts. He writes back telling them he would never ever trade the views here. What he doesn’t say is how the views make him feel small and inadequate.
Anna and her mother found refuge in Utah exactly because of the landscape: it was easier to hide in a place where eyes had so many reasons to be drawn to the surroundings. In Chicago, people had too much ambition. Doctors, when consulted, told them the wings were an abnormal growth. They made Anna climb chairs and told her to jump. They asked if she felt something, in that moment just before she hit the floor: a twitch in her wings, an itch. With Anna’s father long gone, her mother pulled her out of school, and they fled.
For seconds, William loses control of the car and it wanders slightly on the shoulder line.
“Are you OK?” Anna sits up straight.
“Yes,” he says as he steers the car back onto its course. He rubs his face. “Just tired.” He almost says, “because a little birdie kept me awake” but doesn’t. This happens when he gets lost between the ordinary and what she is.
James is already waiting at the parking lot when they pull in the driveway. His eyes follow Anna as she climbs out of the car. They told him about the wings. Anna didn’t want to bandage them for the flight. As with any other limbs, the effort of moving them is both conscious and at times unconscious, involuntary. When she has a fright, they flare up. When, in bed, William moves his hands up and down their length, they twitch. If they are tied up, all these impulses made them ache.
After learning about the wings, James told them he was himself a birdman. He forwarded them a picture of him wearing a wingsuit—a jumpsuit with arms and legs connected by fabric, used for wingsuit flying. The suit made him look like an odd superhero.
Now he is not wearing shoes. His skin is sunburned and thick, the blond of his hair almost white. “We’ll hike through here,” he says as they approach, pointing at a spot where the mountain yawns open. William offers his help with the backpack, but James smiles and starts to lead the way.
They hike until they reach a ledge. There James sets down his duffel bag and announces that this is where they will launch. The wings James extracts from his bag are flashy and bold— red, green, and white like a Christmas candy cane. He spends a lot of time smoothing creases and aligning strings. There is a clear ritual, and William stands at a distance.
While he sets up, Anna sits at the tip of a boulder, her head cocked as if she is listening to something. Her wings are fanned out. She looks pristine, sunlight adding texture to the gray of her feathers, like mother-of-pearl.
James calls her to him. He shows her where to sit, back to front with him on the harness seat, her wings on each side of his head. He betrays no emotion when feathers brush against his chin.
“When I tell you to run, you run for your life,” he says. His mouth is close to her ear, his hand in the middle of her wings. The skin there, right at the joint, is very soft, William knows. Sometimes Anna asks him to bite at this spot, softly, tenderly.
They take position and start running, and within seconds they are miles away.
William is to meet them back at the parking lot. He looks for them on the way down, spots them drifting gently, crisscrossing the sky as if following an invisible path. He stops to watch. James appears to be making them spin, and William wonders if this is for Anna’s sake, to give her a thrill.
When he reaches the base an hour later, Anna is waiting, sitting on a rock, arms wrapped around folded knees. James is packing the wings next to her.
“How was it?” He asks both of them.
Anna shrugs without looking up.
“She should try wingsuit-flying,” James says. He brings his hands together and makes them fly in the air. “No harness. No strings. Free. Like a bird.” He gazes skyward and suddenly smiles, as if he and the sky are in on a private joke. William looks up—clouds are starting to take shape. He remembers how James had insisted they meet him early because the weather was going to change by midafternoon. When they left, the sun was a perfect orange disk, not a wisp of white in the sky.
Anna stands up. William notices how her pixie cut is a mess, ruffled by the paraglide ride. She cut her hair last week, a spur-of-the moment endeavor.
“When can we start?” she says, looking at James.
“Wingsuit? First you need to qualify as a skydiver.”
“Can we start tomorrow?”
James lets out a chuckle as if recognizing something in her, something he expected. He lifts his hands above his head, and seconds later it starts to drizzle. He smiles.
“Sure thing,” he tells her.
It is the beginning of June. James thinks that if she jumps at least once a week, she will be ready for her first wingsuit-flying jump by winter. William wants to know if they can fly even when it snows. James jerks his shoulders, grins. “Never stopped a bird.”
James has his theories, too, about Anna. He asks William one day about whether she can really not fly—not even glide?—and hearing that she can’t, that her bones are too heavy and everything about the wings is wrong, he stares at the ground for a long time, disappointed, and then confesses how a small group of wingsuit flyers believe that what they are doing, wingsuit flying, is evolution. “Think of the flying squirrels,” he says.
In the course of the summer, William catches him on several occasions on his knees, picking up Anna’s feathers. He is aware of how James’ hand keeps returning to the pocket where he places them. Like a tongue to a wobbly tooth.
Anna has to complete two hundred free-fall skydiving jumps. James makes all the arrangements for her training. He has a friend who owns a Cessna. First William accompanies them, and then he stops. The ride makes him dizzy; he feels the rattle of the plane through his teeth, finds the interior smells of metal and old anxiety. And he stays behind also because of how Anna rises, straight as an arrow, as soon as James opens the door, how she spontaneously positions herself on the ledge, a ton of air already hitting her face, how she jumps into the void without ever looking back.
One night while she sleeps on her side and her wings part slightly, he sees the bruises. They look like ink spots, some of them resembling shapes—a heart, a leaf.
“You’re jumping too much,” he tells her in the morning.
She waits. “Do I have a choice?”
She becomes more and more agitated when she dreams, as if fighting the stillness of the mattress. Twice she jumps off the bed. When she opens her eyes, she looks wilder than she ever has before.
Her feathers, he notices, have picked up different scents since she’s been jumping. They smell like grass, leaves, or smoke from distant fires.
One morning he catches her in front of the bathroom mirror. She is twisting her head farther than he could ever reach. She frantically takes hold of feathers and starts to bite.
“Everything itches,” she says, upon seeing him. “It’s like a healing wound. Maybe it’s a good thing?”
She wants to sleep on the mountain. She argues that it doesn’t make sense for her to make the journey all the way back to Salt Lake City every time. And in between the skydive jumps, she wants to paraglide. She has borrowed James’s equipment. She doesn’t ask William if he wants to go with her. She brings him keepsakes—small stones, branches, bird feathers, not hers, that are long and stiff and asymmetrical. “Flight feathers,” she says, pointing at their ragged edges and stroking them gently. She presses them against his nose. They smell like dust.
“How does it feel to skydive?” he asks on a day she is stranded at home because it is too windy to jump.
They are sitting on the balcony. The wind catches her wings, lifts some feathers. All her home sweaters have slits in them. Outside, she keeps her wings bandaged, concealed under thick jerseys.
“It doesn’t feel like falling, more like accelerating toward the land,” she says.
He searches her eyes. There is screeching and cooing—not far from them, pigeons are shuffling on a gutter. There are youngsters, too. Their cry is high-pitched like a door hinge. She points at them. “They never get thrown out of their nest to learn to fly, you know. Never on purpose. They leave when they are ready to fly. When they know they can.”
As she speaks, two adults take off. There is the flutter of wings like a gift being hastily unwrapped. The baby pigeons’ cries intensify. Their beaks are wide open, the insides of their mouths are dark holes. None of them try to follow.
When fall comes, she goes through a molt. The feathers that grow back are long and dark. She loses a molar. Her toenails grow thick, hard to file. She accidently claws him at night. “Did I do this?” she says, finding him in the bathroom one night, a bottle of peroxide in his hand and a bleeding ankle. “It’s OK, just a scratch,” he says. But it hurts. The wound is deep and will take a long time to heal.
Sometimes when they talk, her voice suddenly rises and drops. It is as if she is seeking to imitate his voice. Soon he realizes that she can echo the calls of the red throats, the sparrows, and the mourning doves that come by the kitchen window. There are also more birds that hang around the apartment—last week he surprised a falcon balancing on the flower box. A new flock of doves nestled in the gutters.
One afternoon, he comes home to her sitting on the kitchen counter, crouched under the running tap. She is moving her head in and out of the water trickle. When she sees him, she hisses; he sees it in a flash, the ghost of her wildness. He steps away from the kitchen, carefully.
By the end of spring, she has lost the ability to speak.
“I love you,” he tells her before going to sleep.
“Drill. Drill,” she answers, staring back, unblinking. Instead of her eyes closing, a thin membrane of skin swipes horizontally across her eyes.
For a job, Anna is an assistant editor for an online travel magazine. Most of the time, she writes about places she has never visited. The details she gives are sometimes so precise that she wonders whether she might have seen the waterfalls she describes so vividly, the sequoia forests, the river brimming with rainbow trout. She once asked, “What if I have flown above them . . . in another life?”
“You’re good at your job,” William interrupted. But the truth was that he was more scared about her being wrong than being right.
When the magazine editor calls, asks to speak with Anna because she hasn’t submitted articles in days, William tells her that Anna has fallen ill, too sick to even let her know. As he speaks, he suddenly feels overwhelmed. He looks at his hand—the five fingers, the moon-shaped fingernails. Wherever Anna is going, if there is such a place higher up, he is not going.
James drops by the apartment. Anna hasn’t met up with him in weeks, and he is worried. He also has something exciting planned for her: BASE jumping, a sport that involves launching from cliffs and delaying the deployment of a parachute.
But Anna is not home, William explains. James enters the house anyway. Together they sit outside and drink beers. James points at feathers stuck between the balcony railings. “Are they hers?”
William looks at them for a long time before he realizes he can no longer tell.
The wind hisses. The mountains in front of them stand tall, solid. Somewhere in the middle of small talk, William asks James, “Wingsuit-flying, BASE jumping . . . why do it?”
James brings his fingers to his lips. He takes a sip of a beer, then another. He scratches his head. In the end, he can’t explain.
After she’s been gone a week, William drives to the Cottonwood Canyon State Park. This is where she has been camping mostly. He waits till dusk, takes the longer way heading back. The next day, he spends the night at the park. He lies awake in his tent, hears sounds—howls, shrieks—he can’t place. He hopes Anna is safe.
In the morning, he spots her. She is perched on a high branch of a bare cottonwood tree overlooking his tent. The nails on her feet have grown into powerful claws. She has lost all her hair; her body is a lattice of dark, velvety-brown feathers, except for the feathers on her face, which are bone white—he has a vision of a bald eagle.
All the time, Anna watches him with wings slightly spread, talons clutching the white bark. He inches forward; the thin remaining layer of first snow bears witness to his presence, crunching under his feet, holding an imprint.
He tries reaching a hand to her. She crouches, lets out a high-pitched cry. A feather comes loose and drifts downward. He bends slowly and picks it up, brushes it against his lips. It tastes like salt and grass and mud, like everything that is around and beyond.
He returns several times to the mountains, but never sees Anna again or if he does, he does not recognize her. Twice, he comes across a bald eagle, feels the intensity of its stare before seeing the flashes of white, the yellow feet. It crosses the sky above him, always alone, its giant wings eclipsing the sun. There is a whistle of air as it speeds. Then the sky goes quiet.
Melissa Madore is a French Canadian writer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. Years ago, she was the first-prize winner of the French competition “Les dix mots de la Francophonie.” In 2010, her story “Swallow Dive” was chosen as a Regional winner (Canada/UK) for the Commonwealth short story award. In 2019 “That’s Not the Story,” a craft essay, was featured in the Masters Review blog. When not writing, she teaches French for corporates. She has two amazing daughters, a wonderful husband, and lives by the sea. “Flying Lessons” is her first story publication.