i don’t know
if i’ve ever been happy
joy for me, a Rectory
to the real thing
i try, i do
i shovel the front steps
i feel the proximal chill
i don’t know
if i’ve ever been happy
joy for me, a Rectory
to the real thing
i try, i do
i shovel the front steps
i feel the proximal chill
Pumpkins rattling in the bed of a wagon. Paper crinkling around hot apple turnovers. Hay crunching under the weight of children crowding around the teenage girls serving them hot cider. Marjorie’s friend Raylene hummed through a bite of caramel-drizzled donut, nodding as she licked the fine dusting of brown sugar and cinnamon that clung to her lips. She’d waited over half an hour for this, inching past pies and cakes and generous jars of jams and butters made with fruit grown right there in Wilson’s Orchard. Raylene had suggested the outing—clearly intending it as a date but never technically using that word—and Marjorie, just fifteen days shy of her fifty-third birthday, had acquiesced in spite of the fact that she hadn’t been on a first date since her late husband Greg bought them tickets to Dune in 1984. She was twenty-one then, and broke, and the fact that he took her to Dune charmed her, as Raylene’s pumpkin patch charmed her, because she hadn’t expected to be known so well, so soon. She had been smiling gently since they arrived and was cradling a cup of apple cider to her chest, inhaling the warm, fragrant steam, when her phone started buzzing in her coat pocket, where she couldn’t feel it. Raylene had to tell her.
“What? Oh. Sorry, I thought I turned it off.”
“It’s been ringing for a full minute.”
“Stupid thing,” Marjorie muttered, shifting her cup to her right hand so she could take the smartphone out with her left. This particular phone was brand new—a much-needed upgrade that she’d been putting off for years while she debated getting rid of her phone entirely—so it still felt large and unwieldy to her, its smooth, flat face looking more to her like a tinted window on a car, maybe, or a sheet of thin black ice on the road. She flashed the screen. “See? Unknown. Probably just some telemarketer.”
Raylene groaned softly around her donut. “You want some?”
Its last shallow curve appealed to Marjorie, and she broke off a piece just small enough to tuck into her mouth like a marshmallow in front of a campfire. While Raylene ducked behind her toward a trashcan, Marjorie found herself longing for the smell of leaves burning inside of a steel drum and the sound of crackling as paper was tossed into the flame. This orchard was just remote enough and just spare enough for her to feel that she’d stepped back into her childhood and found herself standing at the edge of a wooded forest, crunching acorns with her boots. From where she stood, she could see hundreds of apple trees, dozens of dirt paths, and two large pumpkin patches speckled with orange fruits that appeared to glow in the soft autumn light. “Shall we?” she asked, finding Raylene suddenly beside her.
Without discussing it, they agreed to go the long way around, winding past the pond, then picking their way through the orchard itself, taking great care not to step on one of the many fallen fruits left to rot along the path. Raylene leaned close to whisper, “Smell that fermentation,” and wished aloud that she’d brought a bit of whiskey to spike their apple cider. Its warmth had begun to dissipate, but Marjorie still clung to her cup, finding its presence soothing, oddly, and familiar. In the course of their walk she’d learned that Raylene had two brothers (one older, one younger) but didn’t have any nieces or nephews and had lost both her parents to pneumonia within two months of each other. “They hadn’t spent more than a day apart in sixty years.”
Marjorie smiled tearfully. Greg had died just three years before—from kidney failure, not pneumonia—and she’d never let go of him. Sometimes, she still curled up in his big red chair and read him the newspaper. She wondered what he would say of this middle-aged woman who wore ripped jeans and bomber jackets and thought nothing of turning fifty in December. Careful. She’s the kind that likes to make herself at home.
Raylene had just picked up a pumpkin. “What about this one? I could see it with a face.”
Marjorie shook her head. “Too soft on the bottom. It’ll rot in less than a week.”
“You’re right.” Raylene nodded, turning the pumpkin over. “Good eye.”
Pickings were slim, and what pumpkins were left were typically small and misshapen, the lingering little runts that had survived weeks of culling by adults and children alike. Marjorie had thought there’d be more left, and walked around the patch with one hand in her pocket, toeing the smaller ones sullenly with her boots. Nobody else appeared to be interested in the pumpkins. The families had all gone for a ride on the tractor train, and when Marjorie heard any of them at all, it was only because a kid had tripped and skinned his knee on a rock. Raylene was kneeling, lifting a decent-looking specimen by the stem, when Marjorie’s phone started buzzing again. “Geez,” Raylene said. “Someone’s persistent.” She eyed Marjorie carefully. “Do you have a boyfriend I don’t know about?”
Marjorie shook her head, frowning down at her phone, which told her she’d received over six hundred texts from an unknown sender. I know you’re with her, the first read. I know you lied to me. Marjorie’s mind immediately flashed to Sharon, her work friend and technical assistant, to whom she’d lied in order to skip brunch and spend time with Raylene. But Sharon would’ve been overjoyed—ecstatic, really—to hear that she was going on a real date; she couldn’t possibly have written Ann said she saw you at the Co-op. Marjorie dismissed the possibility that these texts were meant for her after she read that. She didn’t know any Ann, and furthermore she’d never been to the Co-op with Raylene, so no one could’ve seen them there. Marjorie tucked her phone into her pocket, determined to ignore the texts and enjoy her time with Raylene, whose bright and complicated happiness seemed even more attractive after the little scare she’d had. She marveled at the ease with which Raylene inched into traffic and headed toward Marjorie’s house, as if she’d done this a thousand times before. This could be my life, Marjorie thought, then turned to look at Raylene and realized it already was.
It took them the better part of the afternoon just to carve, hollow, and rig the pumpkins on Marjorie’s porch with lights, and in all that time she forgot the messages only once: early, around 1:30, when Raylene gasped and said they should roast the pumpkin seeds and eat them as snacks. This prompted a bubbly half hour in which they sifted through the pumpkin pulp, plucked out the seeds, then attempted to rinse them off in a plastic colander ill-suited for the job. Cheeks flushed, hands sticky with juice, Raylene leaned in and with a faint smile invited Marjorie to meet her lips with her own. The kiss was gentle, close-mouthed, and lingering, and when it was over, Marjorie was so surprised that all she could say was, “I’ll heat up the oven.”
Raylene smiled at the jars of cardamom pods on the counter, brushing her thumb over the little red dish where Marjorie kept her plums. “You have a beautiful kitchen,” she said.
Marjorie shrugged, suddenly shy. “Greg liked to cook. I’m afraid I’m pretty helpless.”
“I doubt that.” With wet fingers, she touched the oyster shells stacked in one corner of the windowsill, where their dark, nacreous shells appeared almost bruised in the light. Marjorie liked their white ripples, their way of looking just like an eye encased in bone, and collected them like some people collect vases or coins. Greg had treated her to oysters whenever there was reason to celebrate: her promotion to Audio & Lighting Engineer at The Englert, his cleanest bill of health to date, the birth of their only granddaughter, Lily. Every occasion called for a different recipe. Fried oysters with tomato remoulade. Grilled oysters with a citrusy fennel butter. Smoked oyster chowder, and the best: raw oysters with a shallot rosé mignonette. “You ate raw oysters in Iowa? That’s brave,” Raylene said.
“I haven’t died yet.”
Raylene pointed to the pumpkin seeds, smirking. “These should go in the oven.”
While the seeds baked, Marjorie and Raylene dug around in the basement, looking for the Halloween decorations Marjorie had collected over the years. “Greg used to do all the organizing down here. I can’t find anything anymore.” He’d fancied himself a tinkerer, and the basement was littered with his unfinished projects: stalled watches halfway fixed, rocking chairs minus the rock, pebbles he’d forgotten to run through a tumbler to unlock their little gems for their daughter, Anita, the professional jeweler. “Anita was always a princess for Halloween—she loved tiaras. All those little stones, you know.”
Raylene brushed the dust off a box. “You said Anita was coming to visit?”
“She’s flying in on the 29th.” It was a tradition of theirs: dinner on the 30th—for Marjorie’s birthday—and then trick-or-treating with Lily. “It’s safer here than in New York, you know. Plus, Lily being here gives me a good reason to go out. It’s never as fun staying in and playing haunted house.” Marjorie put on a pair of slinky glasses and pulled the eyeballs straight ahead of her until the steel coils began to creak. She thought this would make Raylene laugh, and when it didn’t she finally heard the disappointment in Raylene’s question and knew she’d been hoping to ask her out to dinner for her birthday. She sifted through the decorations, searching for something to say.
“What is this?” Raylene lifted a kind of marionette out of the box.
Marjorie laughed, as if it should be obvious. “That’s Mr. Chainsaw. Greg liked to rig it so he’d dance down the steps whenever someone opened the front door; really freaked the neighbors out.” Mr. Chainsaw was a grinning, dancing skeleton standing just over two feet tall and wearing a brown plastic apron with a set of miniature gardening gloves. His chainsaw could be controlled with wires that pulled it up and down. Raylene mimicked the roaring sound as she faked slashing at Marjorie, who shielded herself with her arms. “Oh no, Mr. Chainsaw, don’t hurt me!”
“Give me all your candy!”
“But I don’t have any candy! All I have is pumpkin seeds!”
“That’s right,” Raylene breathed. “I almost forgot.”
Once the pumpkin seeds had cooled and Mr. Chainsaw was in position, Marjorie set out a pair of comfortable sienna-colored floor cushions so she and Raylene could sit on the floor of her living room and share a bottle of hard cider she’d bought at the Orchard. Marjorie was quiet then, listening to Raylene describe her job in the Admissions Office and thinking, all the while, of how loud her house used to be, of the rocks turning into gems, of Anita playing with her friends in the front yard, up in her room, and back in the kitchen, where Greg had taught them how to make pancakes, letting them clatter the bowls and whisk the eggs and spill milk on the floor; she hadn’t invited anybody new into their house since he died. It had been silent.
Raylene pointed to the sunset. “What color do you think that is?”
“Coral. Persimmon. Rust.” Marjorie’s phone beeped, but she ignored it.
“Whoever that is, they must really want to talk to you.”
“Oh, I think it just needs to be charged.” Marjorie didn’t check. She couldn’t bear it.
Her unwillingness to acknowledge her phone seemed to signal something to Raylene. She said, “Well, I should probably head out,” then finished her cider, glancing around the living room as if it were a fantasy she’d been indulging in despite knowing it could never really come true.
“You could stay a while,” Marjorie said, but Raylene shook her head, disengaging.
“It’s okay. I have to feed my dog, anyway.”
“You have a dog?” Marjorie followed Raylene into the foyer.
Raylene’s smile flashed and disappeared. “Yeah. Lucky. The dumb lug.”
Only then did Marjorie think to grab Raylene’s arm and prevent her from saying goodbye. When her fingers closed on the cool brown leather of Raylene’s jacket, Marjorie wasn’t quite sure what she’d say or how she’d fare under Raylene’s reserved yet hopeful scrutiny, but somehow she found the sense of mind to ask Raylene out to dinner that week. Her relief when Raylene said yes made it easier to face the messages on her phone.
Marjorie made herself a pot of tea, snuggled into her favorite blanket, and began the slow process of unraveling the story behind these texts: they’d been sent by a woman; this woman was dating or had dated another woman, Sophie, and it had gone badly or perhaps was still going badly (she couldn’t be sure). What she did know was this: the texts were completely untraceable—there was no name, no callback number, nothing, just that day’s date (October 15th) and the timestamp (11:42 a.m.) indicating that all 653 messages had arrived at the exact same moment, like a swarm of bees. Her phone wasn’t supposed to do that. In fact, technical support said this was impossible, and yet—they couldn’t find Unknown either. Her messages had left her phone, bounced around a satellite, and arrived unexpectedly in a stranger’s coat pocket, where her cries of love and longing and frustration were wasted. Marjorie read the messages again and again, but always came to the same conclusion: that it was over.
Whatever relationship Unknown thought she was having, it was with a void.
Marjorie never stopped thinking about the messages. On her morning walks, as the winter light stretched like icicles through the clouds, she considered the corners of her town, seeing it as if through Unknown’s eyes. Here, the store where she’d picked out a birthday card; there, the café where she’d waited two hours just to realize her girlfriend wasn’t coming. Marjorie recognized all the landmarks: the bar on Market Street, that park with the swings, even the small hospital where Marjorie had seen the very same handprint as the sender (on a window by the children’s ward, on the inside of the glass, where Marjorie thought a febrile child had pressed their hand in farewell). Unknown’s texts referred to many dinners, parties, and dates that may or may not have happened, and may or may not have been happy; one even mentioned a concert that Marjorie had worked at the theater just that spring. She might’ve seen them there, Marjorie realized—their upturned faces might’ve swelled with laughter and gone quiet without her even knowing.
She threw herself into work at the theater, preparing for four different shows: one modern jazz-inspired ballet produced by the university, one reading and Q&A with a visiting writer, and one screening each of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu with original scores performed live by the Alloy Orchestra, a group famed for composing on unusual instruments like sheet metal, garbage lids, and pots and pans. Of the four, the jazz ballet required the most attention, necessitating that she sync light cues to music in 5/4 and 7/4 time, whereas the writer just needed a spotlight and a microphone, and the Orchestra would most likely take care of itself. Matters were made worse by the ballet director, who didn’t know what he wanted. “Maybe a pink filter here?” His hands waved toward the dancer’s face. “Or the orange?”
Sharon dutifully replaced the optical filter on the third floor light stage left.
Up in the balcony, Marjorie muttered into mint tea, “Insufferable.” She shut her eyes for a moment, thinking again of Raylene’s hands: how they felt touching her own, how they’d hovered just above her cheeks, afraid to touch down for fear of smearing her with sticky pumpkin juice as their lips touched. She found it charming—that hesitation, that desire to get it right. Marjorie had made so many mistakes, when she was young and new to love, and this felt like that, like she had to relearn the rules, be careful not to get too attached too soon. She didn’t realize when her phone was ringing. Sharon had to wave up at her from the orchestra.
“Marge! Hey, Marge! Your phone’s blaring! Want me to get it?”
“Nevermind. It’s probably just a wrong number. I’ve been getting a lot of those.”
Sharon plopped herself down by Marjorie’s jacket. “I’m this close. This close,” she hissed, pressing her thumb and pointer finger together as Marjorie drew near. “I can’t stand it anymore.”
Marjorie nodded and retrieved her phone from her coat pocket. “He is tiresome,” she said, hesitating over her phone, which she’d yet to unlock. She felt sure it would be Unknown, but as it happened, that missed call was from Raylene—she’d called twice, actually, then left a message to see if they were still on for dinner. Marjorie’s pleasure at hearing this was marred by the fact that, immediately after playing Raylene’s message, her phone queued up a voicemail left by Unknown the night before: Sophie…Sophie…please, pick up….
Sharon leaned forward, worried by the strain on Marjorie’s face. “You okay?”
Marjorie shook her head. “I just need to make a call.” She retreated into the dark stairwell next to the stage, where she could ramble on in private about how work was really hectic and she couldn’t do dinner with Raylene that night. Or the next night. “I’m sorry.”
There was a long pause. “It’s okay if you’ve changed your mind.”
Marjorie sighed. “I haven’t.” She tried to make this clear to Raylene, keeping her tone low and affectionate as she explained that this just happened to be the busiest week of the season. She wasn’t lying. “Look—why don’t you come to the show tomorrow? It’s at eight.” She shut her eyes happily when Raylene said yes.
Sharon was stretching when Marjorie came back out. “I’ll need a wheelchair pretty soon.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m not infirm. You don’t know my body.”
“Indeed, I don’t.” Marjorie dropped her phone into her pocket.
“You’re blushing,” Sharon said, pointing to her cheeks. “Was that a man on the phone?”
Marjorie smirked, knowing what Sharon would do, waiting for the slow, happy smile that would spread across her face when she said, “A woman, actually.” Marjorie had been waiting for this, for this moment of comfort, and finding it made it possible for her to relax, to breathe a little after a stressful week. Time passed quickly then. Music jittered out of the speakers, dancers leapt off the stage, and pretty soon it was the next day and the show was about to begin.
Doors opened at 7:30 p.m., when Kent, their volunteer doorman, stationed himself happily in front of the theater like a shepherd guiding his flock through the gates. The show was sold out, and Marjorie had to climb up toward the balcony to pick Raylene out of the crowd. “I might have to duck out,” she said, after leading them to their seats.
“Have you had dinner, at least?” Raylene frowned, slipping out of her jacket. Underneath, she was wearing a black fringe dress with a small pearl necklace. Marjorie was so unprepared for this sight that she just nodded and blushed as one of the ushers came by with a program and gave her a wink. Evidently amused, Raylene scanned the program.
“Am I going to like this?”
Marjorie smiled. Then, when Raylene looked unsure, she said, “Just wait.”
Soon, she was enraptured of the film, of the sweet, gentle Maria who captures the heart of the young, naïve Freder, the son of a wealthy industrialist who profits off the hard work of others in his employ. Much of the plot had eluded Marjorie when she last watched the film, but this new restoration, paired with the orchestra’s score, made it very clear that this film was less about class and privilege and more about chaos—that driving force that leads men to lust, machines to break, and cities to flood where no one can escape the flooding alive. Marjorie felt the drums pounding, the metal screeching in her heart, hollowing her out to better accommodate the sound. All at once she realized that she wanted to live exactly like this: in silence, in the theater, accompanied by an orchestra that could translate her every thought into great and terrifying music; there would be no miscommunication then, no chance of her saying the wrong thing or pushing Raylene away, only this hand holding onto hers, only this touch keeping her warm and this fear of the word Sophie… Sophie…Sophie…
Hermit thrushes had built nests in Marjorie’s backyard. She heard them singing, their high notes rising through the branches and piping into Marjorie’s bedroom, which overlooked the west side of Hickory Hill Park. Raylene had commented on it early one morning, asking, “Does one of your neighbors play the flute?” while listening to their melancholy tune—Oh, holy, holy, sweetly, sweetly. Theirs was an eerily human music. Marjorie taught Raylene how to hear it right: a single whistle followed by a series of notes in varying pitches, in a minor key, so that the thrush seemed almost to echo itself. She often lingered in bed, listening to their singing, but was awoken the day of her birthday by Lily’s boisterous call, “Grandma! Grandma!”
Anita followed Lily into the room. “I couldn’t hold her back any longer.”
Marjorie chuckled, sitting up in bed. “Hey there, Lily Pad. Who’s this?” Lily was showing off her favorite doll, telling Marjorie to say hi to Mr. Toad—he was shy, she said. This was Toad from the popular children’s book series Frog and Toad, and when Marjorie saw this doll, her first thought was that it was sad to see the two separated, after all the pages they’d spent quietly sitting together. She pinched the doll’s foot. “We must get Mr. Toad a friend.”
Anita settled in the armchair by the window. “There’s a Mrs. Toad back home.”
“Is there?” She tickled Lily’s stomach. “How incongruous.”
Anita smirked; the fragrant steam of her coffee had turned the tip of her nose faintly pink. Her legs were crossed at the ankle, and she’d straightened her naturally curly hair already, though Marjorie couldn’t figure out where she’d found the time. It was wise of her to move to New York, Marjorie thought—that city was more her speed. Anita always had a million projects. “She asked me to make some dresses so she could dress Mr. Toad up.”
“That’s my granddaughter—always ready for Halloween.” She strummed her fingers over Lily’s leg. “Guess what Grandma’s costume’s going to be.”
“Talk about incongruous,” Anita muttered into her coffee. “Let me guess—Ariel?”
“Princess Wensicia, actually. From Children of Dune.”
“Ahh, yes, Daddy’s favorite.” Her smile faded at the mention of her father. “You okay?”
Marjorie glanced up thoughtfully, wondering why Anita was the only one who ever asked that question. It seemed to her that she hadn’t been really okay for a very long time—since before Greg died, perhaps before he was diagnosed—and that she had instead been performing a kind of simple diminuendo, lowering her voice, softening her vowels, in preparation for that slow, lonely glide into the unknown. Until she received those messages, she’d been content to go quietly, even peaceably, bringing nothing with her, not even music; and then came the shrill, insistent buzzing, sounding like an alarm on her hip. No, Marjorie thought, she couldn’t tell Anita about this, so she ducked the question, asking Lily, “What would you like for breakfast, Lily Pad?”
Lily flung her arms open. “Pancakes!”
“How about pumpkin pancakes?”
With a gasp, Lily jumped up and ran down to the kitchen to get started. Marjorie laughed.
Her birthdays were always more or less the same: breakfast with her family, a little cream in her coffee, a nice long walk through the park, then a couple hours in between lunch and dinner when she could just sit at a piano and play Lily some music; sometimes, she chose Shostakovich, Fugue No. 4 in E minor; sometimes, she chose Mozart, Requiem in D minor. And then again, she sometimes liked to go to Nodo inside the Ace Hardware on N. Dodge St. and order a corned beef and pastrami sandwich to eat while she walked around the graveyard and visited the Black Angel under the gray Iowa sky. This year, she traded her coffee for tea, her walk for a romp through the leaves in her backyard, and her somber fugues for the gayer waltzes of Chopin. These were some of the few pieces that Anita still knew how to play, and when Anita took over, Marjorie started to guide Lily through a neat and happy waltz, letting the girl stand on her shoes so she wouldn’t fall. In the midst of this, there came a knock at the door.
Raylene had come to take her to lunch. “Am I too early?”
Behind them, Lily ran up the steps, excited to see Mr. Chainsaw in action.
Marjorie laughed. “No, no—we were just playing. Come in.” She guided Raylene into the foyer, touching her sleeve lightly as she leaned in for a kiss. Anita saw this from the living room, and when she came and joined them, she had a look on her face like this was the most interesting thing that Marjorie had ever done. Introducing Raylene was surprisingly simple—even Lily, who didn’t always take to strangers, slowly edged up to Raylene and plucked the thin white threads on her thigh, where her jeans had frayed. “We were just going to go to lunch,” Marjorie said.
Anita was quick to protest. “Stay, stay. We’ll order in. Do you like Wig and Pen? They’ve got a carnivore pizza that has all the meats.”
Raylene glanced at Marjorie. “Sure,” she said, very carefully, in case Marjorie objected.
Marjorie wasn’t quite prepared for this, but she accepted it easily and with a kind of grace that pleased her, because she hadn’t expected Raylene to fit so readily into all the facts of her life. Raylene held up well during Anita’s dutiful interrogation, detailing how they met (at the Saturday farmers market in the Chauncey Parking Garage: Raylene had been buying fresh mustard greens; Marjorie, turnips) and what their first date was like.
Anita’s last question was a simple one: “Where do you live?”
Raylene pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “A few blocks that-a-way.”
“That’s pretty close. Maybe we’ll come trick or treat at your place.”
Raylene smiled. “I’m actually going to a party. But I’ll leave some candy out for you.”
Anita didn’t know if she liked this answer. “Is this a costume party?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be going as Annie Oakley, Little Sure Shot.” She mugged a bit for them, pointing her fingers like mock pistols and engaging in a little shootout with Lily, who aimed with one hand and clutched Mr. Toad with the other. When Raylene faked falling, Anita shot Marjorie a quick smile of approval. Yes, Marjorie thought, Raylene would do. When the doorbell rang and Anita followed Lily to the door, Marjorie paused a moment to think of her happiness, of the hand pressing hers, the receipt being signed, the plates clacking against the counter as everyone helped themselves to sausage and pepperoni pizza. It was a good birthday—the best in recent memory—and for that afternoon at least she didn’t think of Sophie or Unknown or the bright, brief joy she’d felt when she woke up in the morning and thought Greg was there beside her. Instead of dwelling on it, Marjorie took the board games out of the bureau, breezed through Lollipop Woods, and got mired in Molasses Swamp, too warm and loud and pleased with herself to hear it when her phone started to ring. This time, Unknown didn’t leave a message.
Trick-or-treating started at dusk, when the candles in Marjorie’s pumpkins lit up. Outside, wayward teenagers were roaming around, half in costume, half in jest, wearing vampire masks to hide their identities while decorating houses with toilet paper and robbing children of candy. Lily had been head-to-toe ready since 10:15 that morning (she’d dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood and required nothing in the way of real make-up), but Anita took her time, mixing her face paints and gluing her eyebrows in order to transform herself into Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty. This process was slow and methodical, so after Marjorie attached her own elaborate headpiece, she sat off to the side and watched as her daughter become the evil witch from the movie. Anita was still gluing on her nails when she asked, “How heavy is that thing?”
Marjorie brought her hand to the back of her head, where thin gold wires extended out of the crowned dips of her headband, shivering like the filaments of an incandescent bulb whenever she moved or breathed. “I’d say three pounds. Maybe four.”
Anita lifted one hand, studying her nails. “Let’s hope there isn’t any wind.”
Thankfully, the night was cool and dry, and the streets were lit with small orange lanterns flickering like ghosts in the moonlight. Marjorie walked in the grass, listening to the earth squish, while Lily walked hand in hand with Anita. “Mommy,” she said, “are there wolves in Iowa?” She was staring at a dog then, peering down his chocolate snout as he sniffed her tentatively.
Anita said there were no wolves. “Just corn. Lots and lots of corn.”
“That’s not true,” Marjorie said. “We also have fossils. And…football players; they might as well be animals.” Only last week, one of them had been caught urinating on a statue in the Ped Mall. And just a week before that Marjorie saw a group of tailgaters playing beer pong on a table they’d dragged out onto the sidewalk. It was 7:00 a.m. then, and she was walking to the river to meet Raylene. She was tired, and cold, and declined the tailgaters’ offer of a game, but gladly accepted the thermos of coffee Raylene handed her upon arrival. That was a good day, she thought.
Lily tugged her sleeve. “Grandma, can you hold my basket? My arm’s getting tired.”
“It isn’t even six yet.” She took the basket, weighing it contemplatively.
Anita tilted her head. “You’re thinking of going to that party, aren’t you?”
Marjorie smiled softly, glad that she’d been caught. “I’m just not sure I want to meet all of Raylene’s friends while I’m pretending to be somebody else. What if they don’t get it?” Marjorie’s Halloween costume painted her as a manipulative, fair-haired, middle-aged princess continuously plotting against her enemies; to look at her then, one would think she was a murderer, employing genetically modified tigers to hunt children through the desert. Princess Wensicia wasn’t who she wanted to be, wasn’t the right costume for her. She’d only worn it out of love for Greg, who listed the princess third in his top ten characters from Dune. Marjorie wished he could’ve seen her then. He would’ve known what to do.
“Lily won’t notice if you go,” Anita said. “She’s all about the candy.”
Marjorie nodded to herself, as if finding the courage. “I’ll walk back with you, then go.” It would be quite some time before Lily tired of filling her basket with sweets. Her riding cloak had pockets stitched inside the flaps and a large hood into which Lily snuck half a dozen Crunch bars and Snickers without Anita noticing. Marjorie saw their wrappers gleaming when a pale, ethereal light fell on them inside a haunted house. Poltergeists were hovering over them, she realized. The house’s architect had rigged them to descend from the rafters and glow in the dark. Like Marjorie and Anita, Lily seemed to find these ghosts soothing, their soft green glow like that of fairies in a forest clearing. Anita lifted her face, and when the light touched her cheeks it looked like she was staring at herself in an enchanted mirror. Marjorie watched Anita and Lily disappear into her house and then set out alone to the party.
It was a mile, maybe a mile and a half, across the train tracks and down by the river to the party. Marjorie wondered when the trick-or-treating would end and watched as the small children living next door toddled into the street, chasing after a golden, rounded truffle. She stopped about five blocks from her house when she saw the pale red siding of a house she’d passed many, many times before. Unknown had said she lived in a red house: no, it’s the Red House next door. I have my light on. Marjorie had imagined a tidy, one-story house, one with a porch swing and gas stove and rhododendrons out front, but this house was larger—emptier—the windows darkened as if in protest of the holiday. Just looking at it filled Marjorie with panic. Quickly, she walked down the road, turning left and then left again to check all the houses. To find the one Sophie had found on a night not unlike this one: bitter and cold and terrifying.
She stopped on the corner of East Bloomington and North Johnson. She’d been there before, on that late night walk when she’d seen the handprint in the window of the hospital. Mercy Hospital, its ambulance doors opened wide outside of its emergency room. There was a red house directly across the street—tall, handsome. Its paint was blood red. Its pale white columns as lustrous and polished as bone. This was where Unknown lived, she thought. In this house, on the first floor, in what sounded like a state of perpetual anticipation. Had it killed her? Marjorie wondered. Had all the waiting finally driven her mad? If only she knew. Marjorie wished she’d picked up the phone, wished she’d heard it ringing while she sat playing Candyland with her family. She’d changed her ringtone since, chosen something grand, orchestral, and easily recognizable: Mozart, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, the dramatic allegro cued to burst from her phone whenever Unknown called. She’d been waiting for that sound all day, taking care to always keep her phone within earshot. When it didn’t come, Marjorie turned away from the red house. She walked a block, maybe two, and then paused to listen to her phone, its silence broken only by the distant cries of children whose voices followed her into the night.
I got the call from Liam just before dusk, and the sun shut down by the time I made it back to Times Square, to that bar with the tiny sagging stage, where Liam and I stood waiting for the first joke, Short, the six-foot-seven owner of the club who had pink tattoos and a mean resting glare. (This is a comedy club? I’d asked Liam when we’d walked in days before. No, it’s a comedy cellar, he’d corrected with a smirk.) Short had been the one to call Liam, and the point of their conversation was that none of it could wait, that coming back was urgent. “Urgent” was the word I’d have used to describe the conversation I’d been trying to have with Liam for months, a conversation he had avoided with some real talent before we took our seats in that same cellar days before. For a moronic moment I thought the whole reason I was back in this place seventy-two hours after drunkenly yelling You’re not David fucking Sedaris! in the post-punchline quiet at the man I claimed for sixteen years to love was to turn back the clock and find a way to save it all. To save us. To follow Liam to the broken plate of our relationship (which okay, I had thrown), and put it back together so I could keep laughing at his archive of jokes over dinner, which were somehow both colder and deader than whatever discount bass he’d brought home from the market.
“It’s the footage,” Short said. “Come on back, I’ll show you.”
I waited for Short to walk out of earshot, his head ducking under a low partition and into the other room. I looked at Liam, who looked away.
“Do either of you need anything?” Short yelled. “A drink?” The real joke, and I let myself laugh.
The back had the feel of a photo darkroom—just enough light to see, the caustic smell of something like bleach making it hard to breathe and harder to focus on the small television monitor Short was looking into, the pixelly blue glow of it on his concerned face. I had spent the entire train ride down to 42nd avoiding the idea that I was obviously the one to blame, which had begun to metastasize out of nowhere, blunt and irrefutable, into a fact.
The video showed the audience, and sure enough, there were Liam and me, at a table in the far corner. After thirty seconds, I heard Short inhale sharply and pause the tape.
“There,” he said quickly. “You see that? On the wall—”
“I don’t see anything,” I said. I had been intently watching myself, my face, to see if it gave away my disgust about midway through the set, catching the petering trail of laughter after a few efforts at a punchline.
“Watch the wall,” Liam said. “Rewind it, watch the wall.”
Short cut the footage back fifteen seconds; I watched the wall. After a few deep breaths, in the clip, three white marks appeared over our heads, clawing in jagged lines up for a few seconds before turning a blood red hue, then vanishing.
I looked at Liam. “Do you remember this?”
“I was right next to you. I didn’t feel a thing.”
“What do you want us to do about this?” I said, turning to Short, who held one hand over his mouth, though his demeanor was oddly calm, as if he might have realized it had been nothing at all.
“Well, we saw what happened afterward,” Short said. He cut forward on the clip. “It doesn’t come back. The marks I mean. But a few lights burned out. We caught it because we were gonna put it online, the show.”
“Sorry, what?” Liam and I said, in different iterations.
“We were going to, and then we saw this, so we’re not going to. I want to know what happened the rest of your night.” Short sat back, then stood, his head hitting a hanging bulb; its flicker made us jump. “If this place is haunted we aren’t renewing the fucking lease.”
Short clicked off the small television with a fresh expression of concern. What had happened later that night, moments after those marks, was coolly blurred by the martinis the host had served, one after another, and only barely memorable now: the speeding cab howling up the interstate alone, the high pop of a cork echoing quickly in my kitchen, and somewhere among all of this, or between it—before it?—whatever lines I had said, the point of which were that I no longer loved Liam, that wasn’t it time to get honest about our lives, and give up the act? Give up the act was the phrase that hooked on me as I had uncorked that old bottle of port, a sickly sweetness sliding down my throat, like sugary blood. And later that night I was sleeping so well, but when I turned over in bed, my arm had reached instinctively for Liam and landed on a pillow, startling my body awake. As if I’d encountered a ghost.
I had moved to the West Village with Liam halfway through our twenties, in a middle-of-the-night stunt that I felt would change us. And to seem like the kind of people we in truth already were back in Western Mass: well-off, well-dressed, well-poised to, on any given Friday night, blink and find ourselves among affable investment bankers and lawyers and their children, whose idea of danger was wearing white pants to a catered fundraiser they playfully called a barbecue.
I did not return until nearly sixteen years later, after my father simply stopped breathing in a reclining chair after drinking one too many bourbons, heart racing from one too many arguments. What I’d heard from a family friend, the pitiful gossip, was that his brain had gone to dementia, and he’d spent the last few years spinning family histories, weird, incoherent stories about his grandparents; his death was a shameless relief, the small home he had left me a burden.
After a long morning drive north, Liam and I stood with a man named Greg, whom we’d hired to help with the take/toss for my father’s rusted shovels and peeling horseshoes, whose dumb obliviousness to our gayness made him seem vaguely bisexual. The oil paintings had been done on expensive white canvas and fell with a loud wooden clatter to the ground when I first pried open the old door to the shed in my father’s backyard. Liam took each painting out of the shed and laid it very gently in the grass, a few dozen squares gridding the lawn. Greg took hold of a wheelbarrow in the back and made a surprised “oof.”
“Unlucky guy,” Greg remarked at the carcass. He screeched something metal along the floor. “Raccoon, maybe possum. When’d you last get in here?”
“Few years,” I lied. I’d last been in the shed as a child, when I caught my finger on one of my father’s deep sea fishing hooks, bleeding a line of red to our front door.
The gallery of paintings growing on the lawn—their swirling browns and blues, psychedelic neon reds splashed across cream, the loud pops of yellow like splatters of blood—puzzled me. My father decorated his bedroom with heads of bucks mounted on the walls with rifles and flags. There was a long pause, punctuated by the sound of Greg sweeping up the remains. A pigeon shit on a shingle. For a while, I tried to let the purging register as cathartic, but ultimately I felt nothing. It was like helping a friend move from one side of town to another, if that friend had decided to cut out the hassle of propping their life back up someplace else.
“These all say LT, in the corner,” Liam said. He squatted to the ground, eyes flashing from one painting to another. His body registered the name, shocked alert. He looked up at me. “Oh my god, Mark. Laura. Your mom did these!”
The next morning I shuddered awake, as if shaking something off me. I washed my hands. I avoided my reflection in the bathroom mirror and then stared intently into it, two bulls locked by invisible horns. I called Liam and hung up after one ring, two rings. I texted him to be sure he knew it was an accident. I waited for him to reply. I asked him if he had noticed anything strange. I watched, from the window, a man dressed in a tuxedo walk slowly into the foggy park. I tried to make sense of this. I waited for the man to return. I sat down on my bed and noticed a long scratch on my arm. I panicked. I made a note of every trio of things in my apartment, which held their haunted charge. I became suspicious of soup bowls. I vigorously cleaned my counter and sink. I drank a bottle of cheap, caustic wine. I wrote a note apologizing to Liam and dramatically burned it with a lighter, the flame singeing my fingertips. I called Short at Comik. I listened to him tell me he was scared. I missed Liam terribly. I missed him with an addict’s love, in a way outside my own body. I sensed myself cooling, like ice. A knock came at my door—a young man holding a handle of vodka, looking for a party. He apologized and left.
For a long while I stood at the sink, my face unrecognizable in the shining metal, and then I slept on the couch. I knew Liam wasn’t coming back.
Twenty-three paintings, stacked neatly in the garage. As Greg pulled out of the driveway for a last haul to the garbage dump and we both sat down to a discount lemon cake for Liam’s thirty-fifth, Liam asked which I wanted to take. The question felt like a test. What I wanted Liam to know of my mother was what I knew: almost nothing. She was sweet, and motherly, in what I could remember of her. It seemed like a lie, that this was all I could recall. There had to be something more, underneath so much else I did not know either. Clues under clues, and all I had were a few photos in their silver frames, tinted slightly with age.
“Keep the blues, the quieter ones, the forest green?” I asked him. “The others are so loud. I still doubt she did them, by the way.”
“LT,” Liam said, communicating again the obviousness of the attribution.
“Anyway, I vote blues, maybe greens.”
“They’re nice,” he said.
“You don’t sound impressed.”
“I have secret hobbies too,” Liam said.
I’d later learn the secret hobbies included hoarding VHS tapes of old standup comedians’ late night sets, which played with a fuzzy static so many years later behind the confession that this was what he wanted to do: pursue comedy. When it finally came out of him, it was in this seriously unfunny way, so desperate it nearly made me laugh. The pursuit of anything held the edge of the ridiculous. In that kitchen, Liam embodied the pitiful warmth of someone who thought I was on his side, who would let us grow together.
I rejected the playfulness by asking about the cake. Liam said it was fine. Greg showed back up with his empty pickup, and we took three of the paintings with us—two deep ocean blues with fine gray lines as if to indicate breaking waves, a green with translucent ovals, a forest seen through raindrops—clacking against each other as we began the hundred miles or so back to the Village. When we got home, I couldn’t sleep. I walked to the kitchen and took a slice of cake from the fridge. It was awful, and when I went to spit it out, Liam was behind me, his eyes closed in sleep. As I dropped the plate, he woke from a trance. He hadn’t sleepwalked before, or since. We went back to bed. Liam lay awake as I regarded the fine waves, rising in their dark block from the corner of the room, until I could smell a salty breeze, until I felt the sun shimmer sweetly on my closed lids, until finally, at last, I slept.
Liam and I met our first day at Granite High, a collection of brick buildings that at night resembled the hospital both our dads worked at, without the orbit of screaming sirens or freak deaths from the nearby ski resort. Liam was shy in an easily ignorable way, and we successfully ignored each other often: during phys ed and pre-calculus and lunch, but both found ourselves in the same mindlessly easy home economics class junior year, taught by a jittery, white-haired woman named Suzie who frequently stopped class to talk about a summer in Paris that seemed to exist outside of time. The elements were almost absurd in their inconsistencies. The selection of Paris was the sort of desperately romantic lie you really couldn’t help but pity, and Liam got to making various references to his Parisian upbringing whenever Suzie was within earshot, testing the limits of her patience.
“These cookies remind me of the croissant I had on the top of the Eiffel Tower,” Liam said one day while stirring a bowl of over-floured dough, powder spitting from the bowl with each stir. “That time the wind blew off my beret onto the Louvre, and I was wearing black and white stripes for no reason.”
I only joined him in detention to ask him if he ever got the beret back. He told me it was run over by a wheel of brie. It felt as if I’d met someone entirely new, and later that day, we stood next to each other washing our hands in the bathroom, avoiding the dangerous desire we eventually confronted the night after prom the next year. College together, the same dorm, down the hall, roommates, all the late nights with pizza and cheap vodka that burned our fingernails and turned our eyes bright red. And then the day after that Liam was stepping out of the shower and asking if I planned to make the bed before we headed down for his set at Comik.
Sometimes, when I was in a good mood, I told him I couldn’t hear him from across the Atlantic.
A week passed since that night with Short, without Liam, and each time I began to forget, or heal, or complete whatever transformation was required of me to get from life with him to someplace where this was all behind us, something appeared, briefly and cruelly, to remind me of his gentleness, his sweetness, his love of ducks and the color purple, the way the subway doors shut so suddenly they can trap you in their grip, as they’d done just years ago with one of Liam’s leather photo bags, dragged down to Soho exposed to the dirty, frozen air. My heart spun back days, or weeks, a stranger to the breeze outside my apartment, the snow falling on the familiar trees.
I opened Liam’s bedside drawer one night to discover The Standup Standup, an annotated paperback guide to becoming a comic. I tore ravenously through the different steps one is meant to take to find themselves as a comedian. Again and again the author advised that the whole point of any joke is to flip expectation, as extremely as possible. Most of the advice to this end seemed to boil down to various broadly applicable platitudes, but Liam’s earnest notes suggested he took the text to heart. Most interesting to me, though Liam hadn’t marked any of it up, was the glossary, all these terms. A “roll” was when a comedian delivers jokes in rapid succession for sustained laughter, a “topper,” alluding to and building off a previous setup that itself had to be assembled with just enough strength to be memorable, without requiring extensive explanation. The “first story”—what the audience imagines based on a joke’s setup—and the “second story,” what they see after the punchline, when the joke is complete. I presumed Liam had not noticed the glossary or felt it was not of great value. He had scrawled the beginnings of presumably original material on the margins throughout the chapter “Getting to Know the Comic in You.”
I was driving down the interstate and I saw a [illegible]
New York apartment prices [crossed out]
My ex’s mom was a painter, let me tell you something about painters
The lemon cake disappeared from the fridge, which we forgot about easily enough. It seemed possible one of us had disposed of it, just tossed it, unthinking. But then came the nightmares for Liam, of hearing dirt fall over the thick wood of a coffin, of waking in a cold forest of pines that glowed with low, white mist when he walked. His dreams, as I began to refer to them, seemed to possess a certain unspeakable vividness that made me uneasy.
We set the paintings on the curb one night. By morning his visions were gone, and so, by lunchtime, were they.
And I had begun to think of his friends. Liam’s closest was a psychic and medium whose string of messy relationships Liam had occasionally disclosed. I’d met him several times, despite frequent efforts at avoiding him—Adaem, lanky and spikey-haired, who had amended his own name at thirty-six, “for intrigue,” and enjoyed a high-paying client roster of gay men who needed healthy friendships and wives who desperately needed to know if their second husbands were really attending this many corporate retreats. (They really are, Adaem had told Liam. It’s quite absurd.) His services were highly rated, and as much as Liam liked to play off his divinatory powers, Adaem had once been featured on a popular morning show with a grieving widow who gasped at each vague, perfunctory message from the beyond, and though I once could only ever roll my eyes at his ordering from a cocktail menu, I found I now could not summon the slightest skepticism of any potential prophecy. Whatever had repulsively magnetized me from him had suddenly, unstoppably flipped, and now, I was pulled to him. I needed to know what he knew, urgently. I found myself awake late, watching clips online entitled “Walk into your soul’s mist.”
“Oh sweetie,” he said, regarding the space he’d seen before. “I’m just going to say it. You know it. I know it. You have terrible energy. What’s been in here? This place is full of rot.”
“I don’t agree with that?” I said, certain he was right. “Can you fix it?”
He gave me a look, slow, as if to say he was getting to that.
“I was getting to that. No.”
“I’m paying you fifteen hundred dollars.”
“I couldn’t do it for five times that. Can’t. Your heart is not pure. It is, however, as I am sure you know, a very reasonable rate.”
“My heart is ‘not pure’?”
“How do you purify a heart?”
“Have you ever been in love, dear?”
He put a hand on the counter, then lifted it quickly off, as if it were a metal hotter than he had expected.
“That was acting, the marble is nice; it’s really held up. Other people will wow you with theatrics, not me. Love, my dear!”
“Yes. I’ve been in love.”
He eyed me skeptically. “I don’t think that is true. Be careful what you call things, dear.”
“What did I tell you just a moment ago?”
“You told me to listen.”
“I asked,” he said, barely concealing a deeper annoyance than he wanted known, “for you to be careful what you call things. Return in half an hour. I am starting in the bathroom. I will do what I can.” I opened the door to leave, and he added, “I really should charge you more for this, hun, but. He’s not coming back.”
“Excuse me?” I hesitated in the frame, shocked by his boldness. “Who are you to be giving me advice?”
“Ah, Liam filled you in. You know, it’s true. There’s such a thing as saying too much.” He paused for a moment, and ran the sink. Over the sound of rushing water, as I closed the door, he added, as if just to himself, “And, of course, knowing too much.”
The reorganization project was Adaem’s idea, or his prescription, to cement the bond I shared with this new space. He suggested, very briefly, that I place the old life behind me. Have I changed the lighting? My morning routine? Have I changed the shower curtains, the laundry basket, the meals I make at dusk? I’ve tried it, I had told him, but in fact I had not ever thought about abandoning those habits which were mine all along. There was no difference, or if there was, I was not aware of it, and I began to obsess over the way I had been unpacking boxes with Liam at twenty-six. The candles without their holders, the cheap bulbs busted in their box. The way I could recall in an instant the scene of that empty living room and shining wood hallway, the vine growing in through a crack in the brick, but could not remember his face then, or when I had last seen my mother, and what’s worse, very nearly did not care, as if the life I’d yanked us into had been her parting gift to me, penance for her absence, an inheritance I was owed.
I put the television on the other side of the room. I moved the desk drawer, placed the espresso machine and blender opposite their usual spots on the marble counter. I set the small fig tree with its wilting leaves in the kitchen and the steel trash can in the living room. When I was done, it looked as if I’d tossed the contents of my apartment randomly about the space.
Later, I realized the porcelain Madonna Liam had forgotten to take lay in its regular spot on the mantle. I laughed until it hurt to smile.
It was hard to make out Short’s voicemail. It sounded as if he was laughing through strangulation. When I rang him back, it was that same voice.
“Buddy,” he said, though we were in no way friends. “Buddy, too funny.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. A nervous break—I’d feared one myself.
“You know that video? Those marks.” He paused very deliberately to take a breath. “One of the interns fucked with the tape. Final Cut Pro. Can you believe. We’re all dying here.”
I heard boisterous laughter from the bar. “You can’t be serious.”
“Tell your boyfriend,” he said. “I tried to call him but he’s recording something for radio. NPR? He hung up before I got to it. Big shot. After that set we did not see that coming.”
I thanked Short and hung up. I imagined him replaying the tape, a joke behind our heads each time. I clicked open the DVD player I’d rarely used, removed an instructional cooking series Liam must have been watching, and replaced it with an intense at-home fitness plan someone had gifted me years ago during the peak of the fad. The console made a loud crunch as it processed the disc. A tan man with synthetically blue eyes appeared on the screen. “Heya,” he barked off the main menu, thrilled by his own energy. “I’m Rick. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” He said this while striking his knees against downturned palms.
For the next forty-five minutes I pressed my body to the floor in increasingly straining positions at Rick’s command, lagging every so often behind what seemed more like backup dancers than athletes. Rick never broke a sweat, but at the end of my last set, I felt a hard cramp up my chest, a tightness just under my heart. The living room clock struck midnight. I lay on the floor, pleasantly sore. A gust of wind made a fast ghost of the curtains. I fell asleep there, with the same effort I had used to punish myself into another set of pushups. I made myself think, as I watched that porcelain figure, at least now it’s the second day of the rest of my life.
Later that night, I waited on my sofa with an old radio turned to the station, listening to eccentric, lonely people phone in with wrong answers to sports trivia, eager to hear Liam’s voice come through over the air. At last, he was introduced, and the sound of applause came through behind him, one of the audiences from a recent show. I wanted to know, insanely, if Liam would mention me, if an inflection might offer a tell. But he was different. He was solid, unwavering, and warm. He sounded as if all his years had been leading to this moment, and I was shocked to find that beyond all jealousy, all the ruthless memory I could drudge up from the rotting detritus of our past, I was proud of him for what he’d accomplished, and more than that, I believe he deserved all of it.
“The show is called Three Strikes,” the host said.
“Well,” Liam said. “I am out.”
“In all seriousness, it really is uncanny,” the interviewer said with genuine admiration. “Your knack for this vulnerability that just… explodes into something hilarious.”
“Expires even,” Liam said. I was relieved to feel Liam come across charming but, ultimately, basic. The host laughed, then thought aloud—“I’m trying to think of someone with your style for this, and I’m coming up empty. But of course, my colleague and I were reminded of Sedaris.”
“I’ve found,” Liam said with a thoughtfulness that verged on condescending, “that it’s about extending the set up past its obvious punchline, its easy resolution. The joke is always someplace you didn’t think at first. Usually, if you just keep going, it’ll come to you.”
I think we need to talk, I texted Liam. I found something.
I knew his thrill at the segment made him susceptible to engagement. He replied a moment later: I can come by around nine.
Liam arrived a half hour late, proving his ability to act like me. Cold, hard rain had begun to fall, knocking the roof. If it had been a few degrees cooler, it would have been snow, melting against the warm window. Instead, brown leaves shook violently with the wind, thunder growling across the dark sky.
He hung his raincoat and sat down across from me, the formality set, like an interview. I hoped something would loosen the knot in the air between us, but each of our movements seemed to tighten it like a noose. I stayed perfectly still. A branch cracked loudly outside.
“You got all your things?” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Or I could live without them. Thanks. That was a rainy day too,” Liam said. “But not like this.”
“I was so freaked out. The thunder made me jump into the bathtub.” Liam laughed.
“I slept with the lights on,” I said, pretending this no longer humiliated me. “You left stuff though. I read the joke book. I still have it if—”
He grimaced. “I read a lot. Used to at least. Something to learn in the mess, you know.”
“I like the thing about the Second Story. About building up to a punchline,” I said. “How you can give it a name like that. I didn’t know there’s terminology. Comedy’s a science too.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s storytelling. It’s really not easy.”
“Almost hard,” I said, with a recuperative edge of rudeness.
Liam smiled, very kindly. “Did you invite me here to insult me?”
“Incredibly, no,” I said. “In that book you wrote this joke, about my mom, and painters.”
“The ex comment, god,” he said, flush with genuine apology I couldn’t pretend was something else. “I’m sorry.”
“How did you know?”
“The same way you did,” he said.
This felt true but I rejected it. Whatever happened that night had been my mistake, though I wasn’t ever able to fully recover it. I felt nauseous from the idea he had wanted it too.
“I just keep thinking. That day, in home ec,” I started, frazzled and unraveling. “Like what even was that? You never even spoke before then. I had never noticed you.”
“I noticed you,” Liam said, a bit too sadly. He wet a cloth and began to wipe down the sinkhead, then the blender in its corner. “God, I can’t believe I remember it. It’s like, embarrassing.”
“Oh, come on,” I said.
“Well, I did.”
“Why did you say that stuff?” I asked. “It was like a whole different person. It was amazing but, I don’t know. I didn’t know you at all, and I wouldn’t have, if it weren’t for that day.”
“Honestly? I knew you’d like it.”
“I wasn’t being funny,” Liam said, swiping the marble counter where he’d already polished it to a reflective shine. He turned to look at me. “That day? I know you don’t believe anything I say, but Mark. Honest to God, I was just being mean. Anyway, I need to go, but I had something to tell you. I’m moving. Sydney, next month. New job.”
“Wow,” I said. “Congrats. Kangaroos punch, by the way.”
He laughed sweetly. I believed everything he said. I wanted him to keep talking. The knot tightened one last time, and he shrugged on his raincoat and left me there with it, along with those drying bootprints I followed, later that night, pointless and imbecilic, to the foot of the elevator. He might as well have been across the ocean.
The part I have to underline is that I had intended to break up with him, in public, which I thought (I recognize the irony now) ran the least chance of having us make a scene. A few weeks before those marks at Comik, before terror streaked bright red onto the walls of our lives, I had met Liam after work at the bar next to his office, where suited men and their wives spoke over each other until the sound of a full plate dropping on the floor was rendered inaudible in the din. I had felt my desire to see him waning, inventing excuses and then dismissing them, cowardly, throughout the day. Breaking up with Liam would require, in the space, a degree of shouting that was sure to unnecessarily escalate whatever conflict was to follow, and the apathy into which I had settled became comfortable whenever I wasn’t actively considering it, like a splinter that had begun to live in skin.
After three cocktails, we stepped outside, the cold wind howling around us down to the Hudson. We walked, and he told me jokes that he hoped to try out at some open mic. They were offshoots of previous jokes he’d told at the few mics I’d attended, ones that made audience members loudly and uncomfortably “ha.” Liam confessed that he’d been placed on a performance improvement plan at work, was caught in a recent meeting smirking at something he’d written, which had then turned into something else. The casual way he disclosed these things, as if they were the setup to a joke, astonished me. He had worked for years to be at those meetings, to sit where he did at those tables, and now, he could not be bothered to care. There was an agreement here, unspoken if hard as the concrete we walked, that for as long as we were together (and it didn’t matter what I’d been about to do), we would incur the suffering and indignity and pain of the lives we’d chosen without discussion or even recognition.
The memory of alcohol stung me from the inside, lashing the back of my throat. We walked until we found ourselves in front of the Whitney, its bright lobby crowded for a newly returned Warhol installation. Liam and I maneuvered through the clusters of families inside, numb from the cold. The lights grew dim near a glow-in-the-dark installation, before our eyes adjusted to a loud pop of light. We moved from room to room, avoiding then re-seeing each other, when I heard Liam gasp. On a far wall behind red velvet rope, those three paintings. A small plaque on next to the blue: Original Lana Tristan (b. 1880). Work of the painter and murderess, who was rumored to have been buried alive. Discovered next to garbage, West Village, New York, 2019.
Bile-coated laughter rose in my throat. “OK, you have to admit,” I said to Liam, whose face had gone pale. “Now that’s kind of funny.”
Comik didn’t renew the lease, something I learned on my way to meet Clark, an overdressed friend of a friend visiting from Miami who owned a string of condo complexes and posted jokes about eviction on his social media. We were supposed to meet at a place a few blocks away from my stop; I took an accidental left out of the subway onto that wrong street. Of course I thought of the club often (cellar, I sometimes corrected on Liam’s behalf), but hadn’t expected to see it now. Its exterior looked usual but advertised a large sign in bright yellow script: Improv now! An acting school. One large room through the window, a streetlight reflecting off a long mirror, my silhouette standing dumb in the back of a laughless room.
Later than night, over a third cocktail, while Clark went on about a tenant’s cocker spaniel that had gleefully leapt into the community pool from a third floor balcony, I found myself thinking of that room with its oak floor, the groups of students learning to make each other laugh. All those years. I blinked and saw myself in front of that dark mirror, waiting—wanting?—for those marks to appear behind me, and finally mean something. I blinked again, and Clark asked me if I was okay. At his place, while he slept, I watched the ceiling change from yellow to black as the cars passed from headlights bright on the interstate. After a few hours, I got dressed and left, careful not to wake him, and rode a jostling subway home next to a discarded plastic bag that read I LOVE NY. I could see it caught between the doors, flapping wildly. I could feel Liam’s laugh inside me, or maybe it was my own.
Rick with the fake blue eyes was right; the next day it really was the rest of my life. I started visiting my mom in her cemetery, driving up the interstate late, listening to weather reports, adjusting the dial whenever the host attempted a joke. I brought her pink and yellow tulips in spring, wreaths that collected snow like sugar as it fell late one January, headlights veering out behind me, breaking the view as the headstones cut one after another with their long shadows for me to be with her, alone. I spent time looking up Liam on the internet—the little photos I could see on his profile of him with a short, wide-mouthed man named Tom whose integrity felt evident in his selection of polos and lack of online footprint. Photos of koalas and sunsets, so many memories. Then suddenly, one day, as if it were just the next, the marriage, Liam’s hand, which I was chilled to find I could recognize, on a shining silver blade making its clean cut into a large white cake. And the flowers on Valentine’s Day, all the kindnesses I withheld from him, or offered at a belated time, proof he had never been enough for me to remember, cursing me now that I could not forget him.
And that was around the time I met you, yellow crocuses and melting snow in Central Park, catching each other on the wide lawn. Coffee followed by drinks, a lifting feeling that made me aware of my body. Like thawing out, madly. I waited months for you to return, to meet you at this hotel, to be in this bed. And even though I know you’re leaving for Boston tomorrow, and to Chicago with your wife after that, I wanted to try to tell you, in this hotel room, maybe just to practice it in front of a mirror, this first story of how we never know what’s really true, or maybe just get to decide what is by living with it, or through it. And even though maybe it’s something people just say—When did you know you were in love?—you were the one who asked, and for once I want to answer. For once I know.
When you went to the bathroom for a towel, I watched the hairs on my forearm stand up in the sudden cold, the churning air conditioner compensating for that crazy heat outside making gray mirages of the street, joyful screams around a broken fire hydrant gushing water, neon lights from Times Square turning the curtains blue, then orange, then a bright, holy red. My second story—well, I guess it was easy to see now, impossible as it was to explain. It was the story of me—the man who fell in love and out of it, the whole time without a clue of what love really was, not the faintest idea he was living it. And feeling the real force of that love hit him in the gut, like a fit of uncontrollable laughter right now, out of nowhere from across the sea, all these years later. And the funny part is that even though in a moment you’ll be right next to me, and even though you asked, I won’t be able to tell you. From now on it will always be the one story, and then it’s three: you and me, and the him behind the mic—a ghost just out of my vision, shapeless marks I can’t quite see.
The deacon’s arrival was unexpected—a Tuesday morning, pounding at the screen door, trying the doorbell (which did not work). The deacon said he called Father Thomas B. Durr on the drive from Syracuse, but there had been no messages, no missed calls. The deacon sits in the kitchen, still in his boots and coat. He has come to tell Father Durr, at the request of Bishop Cunningham, that St. Matthews Catholic Church of Tunis, New York, will close.
“I guess we’ve reached a sort of…point of no return here,” the deacon says. “It sounds like the finance council has talked to you about the possibility, and of course the bishop has talked to you about it, but I wanted to get your blessing before we actually started moving on anything.”
The deacon wears a black and maroon bomber jacket and a skull cap fronted with the green shield of the Syracuse Diocese. In one hand he holds a blue folder, in the other a folded newspaper.
“Maintenance had a contractor come out just to assess the roof,” the deacon says, “and it’s, we’re talking six figures alone there. Plus sub-zero temps in the mornings, the heating this winter has just soared.”
“Contributions won’t hold up until summer?”
“They’re barely covering the church downtown.”
The diocese bungalow is spartan and cold, mostly furnished with bookshelves and plastic idols of Jesus and the apostles. There’s a clock above the sink, a gift from a parishioner in Nevada, with a different songbird at each hour. And the kitchen table is a padded folding table, the one Father Durr has carried with him since he first left Tunis, which he’s never wanted to replace because he knows the church would buy him one.
The deacon slides off his hat. “We’re looking at less money everywhere in the diocese. We’re certainly not alone in this, but we’ve got to let ourselves accept the idea that it’s only going to get worse. Plus there’s the, I’m sure you’ve seen the bill in the state legislature that opens up the look-back window for priests.”
Father Durr offers the deacon a cup of coffee, but he declines. So Father Durr makes one for himself in a machine he bought for Christmas—he lifts a lever and a small mouth appears, and this is where he puts the little cup filled with coffee grounds.
“There’s no doubt there will be effects to the diocese,” the deacon adds, “and it’s sad, really, but we’re at a point where decisions like this have to be made. All I’m asking is that you acknowledge it’s going to close, Father, and maybe just start mentioning something at Mass.”
“St. Matthews was the first Catholic Church in Tunis,” Father Durr says. He clears his throat. “Did you know that?”
The deacon opens the blue folder. “I didn’t.”
Father Durr explains that the turn of the twentieth century established the entire cultural trajectory of Tunis. In a ten-year span the city’s population had almost doubled with European immigrants, who were lured away from New York City by the prospect of more lucrative construction and manufacturing jobs (and aided west by the advent of the electric railway). In 1912 the bricks that would become the foundation of St. Matthews were laid by a handful of Sicilians and Campanians, agrarians who had fled the penury caused by Crispi’s colonization policies. Many intended to work in America for a few years and return home. Few actually did. Instead, they recruited their families to cross the Atlantic and live in a twenty-block radius around the church, a neighborhood that exploded with schools and bars and restaurants that filled with second- and then third-generation Italians who learned English at school and Italian from their grandparents—Italians who discussed the legacy of DiMaggio and the correct amount of baking powder in struffoli dough. Most of the third generation eventually moved to Tunis suburbs like Elmfield and Van Buren, leaving their ancestral homes for new waves of immigrants: Bosnians, Vietnamese, and Syrians (among others). That was partially why Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church was built downtown, really a kind of sociopolitical backhand to—
“There,” the deacon says. He slides a piece of paper across the table. “The estimate for the roof.”
Father Durr looks down at the paper, looks up at the deacon. The deacon’s head is a tuffet of white gray, smoothed back. Teeth too large, too aligned to be original. His pale neck like the melted coil of a car’s suspension.
They are all old. Every one of them, old and tired.
“I guess my point is that the church has history,” Father Durr says, “and that I’d be remiss if we didn’t explore any other option to keep it open in some capacity.”
The deacon slaps the newspaper on the table. “History! I remember Easter masses at the Cathedral, people sweating through their shirts, damn near fainting from the body heat. Part of the reason we printed out the hymns were so people had something to fan themselves with.”
“The stations of the cross,” Father Durr says. “We’ve the stations built into the windows at Matthews. How do you replicate that?”
“The bishop says not even half of Matthews was full for Christmas.”
Father Durr nods, sips his coffee. In the deacon’s hand the newspaper unfurls, in slow stretches, like a pulp snail. Father Durr looks at the clock, then out to the backyard, which is covered in snow.
“I will have to let you go, deacon. I have confession at eleven and I try to pray my hours before it starts.”
The deacon stands. “I am not trying to be cruel here, Father. These are simply hard times, you understand?”
“Then you will tell them?”
Father Durr places his cup on the counter. Inside: shattered spangles, roiling coins.
“It’s probably selfish of me to say, but if it were going to be anyone to say anything, I would…rather it be me.”
“I am sorry.” The deacon rolls the newspaper, places it under his arm with the folder. “No one, and I mean no one, is happy about this.”
The deacon opens the door. He makes a slight, respectful bow before he closes it tightly behind him.
And really it was the sound more than anything that kept Father Durr up at night. This was long before he had come back to Tunis, long before the deacon visited him on a morning in January. It was the summer after graduating seminary at St. Bernard’s; after Bishop Joseph Hogan, who had studied canon law with an ordained archbishop in Washington, had assigned Father Durr to a small church in Logandale, Nevada. Bishop Hogan had told Father Durr there was the possibility he could return to Tunis when there was a vacancy for priests, which Father Durr had recalled the first time he crossed the Arizona border, into the region called the Valley of Fire, an irony that seemed especially apposite considering the sun and the endless sky and the dark ridge of the Arrow Canyon Range that met it.
The Reno bishop was a spirited man named Norman Francis McFarland; he had round, ruddy cheeks and cotton-white hair that belied an intensity for order and accountability. The bishop had told him the biggest challenge for a priest in Logandale was the ability to blend in—the parishioners, he said, did not respond to anything that challenged their sense of alienation. So Father Durr spent a majority of his first few months trying to ape the mannerisms of the fifty or so regular men who came to Mass wearing flannels and jeans stained with tobacco chaw or elaborate suits of garish plaid. (At the same time he tried to learn Spanish from a series on cassette, tried very hard but ultimately gleaned only a handful of phrases he awkwardly deployed to his growing Latino members.) The women, meanwhile, frightened him. He was nervous of their allure and flighty in their presence, as if he needed, for his sanity, to tell them he was a priest bound to spiritual laws, and as such forbidden from any immodest propositions (as if they didn’t already know).
Which is to say that the entire transition and subsequent adaption to Logandale was brutally stressful, dangerous in how it changed him. He began eating less. He caught himself grinding his teeth at idle moments of the day, and for a few months drank gin to stop it. He spent hours on walks behind the church, on dirt roads that snaked through creosote bushes filled with cicadas and scorpions, returning when the streetlights flicked on. His prayers before bed became convoluted, inane things. Because once they were done—once he was on his mattress, in the quiet of his bedroom—he began to hear the drops.
The drops began small, a slow, hollow pluck in a dry sink. But they always grew louder, wetter, a splashy echo to them like a basin filling with something viscous. In his first few days in Logandale Father Durr would get out of bed to see if he had left a faucet on (the kitchen, the bathroom, the shower stall always dry). It started again when he sat down—became faster, the drops multiplying in number, uniform in sound. Something filling, filling, until Father Durr heard an entirely different set of drops filling an entirely different space. Another room, a farther room. The drops varied in pitch, like words he could not understand jousting each other in a busy street. Dropping and plucking and growing until they became a torrent. Pushing into invisible places, filling turbulent pools. By then the pain of digging his fingernails into his palms migrated into a band at the back of his head, creating an array of phosphenes on the ceiling—wide, vague circles as transparent as the shadows of stained glass. Pinks, teals, golds spinning in the sound of falling water, falling into a pool of inscrutable width and depth, until everything faded in the sun and Father Durr stepped out of bed, clammy with anxious sweat.
The seminary had not made him credulous to the possibility of miracles. What happened at night was certainly an oddity, an enigma. But it was not inexplicable. After Masses he waited for parishioners in the church vestibule (as he had been trained to do), but instead of the usual course of small talk Father Durr asked them about the dripping. He figured it was from planes or helicopters passing overhead, the roar of their engines warped by radiation (there were rumors of a nuclear test site nearby). At first the parishioners ignored his questions, dismissing them as tasteless jokes, but they soon became suspicious. Attendance began to drop. One woman, whose husband had borrowed Father Durr a copy of The Keys of the Kingdom, wondered if he wasn’t suffering from a prolonged kind of heat stroke.
He prayed for a way to decode the sounds, and when this didn’t work he prayed for them to cease. He analyzed his pallor in the naked light bulb of the bathroom, rubbed the hollows beneath his cheekbones, felt the novel sensation of his ribs through his skin. Perhaps God was speaking to him about his calling. Perhaps other things were happening in his head, like a psychologist had suspected when he was a teen.
The answer came to him the day he decided to talk to Bishop McFarland. What he would have told the bishop, what he would have asked if he had arrived in Reno, he wasn’t sure. On his drive Father Durr stopped for gas at a Chevron in Crystal Springs. Inside the store, on a small rack below the counter, he spotted a foldable map of Nevada. He paid for the gas and the map. In his car he approximated the location of the parish house, drew an imaginary line out of his bedroom window, through county highway markers and t-crossed railroad routes, into an intricate cross of major thruways. Within this nest was a large dot with a circle around it for Las Vegas, and to the right of this, at the end of a blue crescent that began near Logandale, a red star that marked the location of the Hoover Dam.
He laughed hysterically and turned the car around. On his way home he bought a pair of ear plugs and a cassette of nature sounds. He never asked himself how the dripping might have transmitted all the way from the Colorado River; how it might have bent and twisted over fifty or so miles of undulating land. He was simply relieved that it had stopped — relieved he could sleep again, eat again, and talk about anything else.
Modern heating, cooling systems, lighting. Sure, Our Lady of Mercy has all of that, but it has a lowered ceiling, too. Put the organ and the woman who’s practicing it in a business park for a sense of how the sounds die. Like Muzak, Father Durr thinks, listening to the muted chords from the confessional, a small room on the back wall of the church.
His second confession of the afternoon knocks before entering. Because he is behind the large screen used for anonymous confessions he can only see a small pair of white sketchers. A woman’s voice asks if he is still holding confessions. He says that he is. She kneels on the bench before the screen. She makes the sign of the cross, then places her nose between her laced fingers and thumbs.
“Bless me Father,” she says, “for I have sinned.”
The voice is young, maybe late thirties. East Coast without the nasal twang found west of Albany. He straightens in his chair. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“Ten, fifteen years, maybe, I’m not sure.”
“And what sins do you confess to since then?”
The woman says nothing. He rubs his knuckles, which are sore at the joints. They’ve been sore since noon.
“There is no need to be nervous,” he says. “There is no such thing as a bad confession, only one that isn’t—”
“I have engaged in sins of detraction against members of the church.”
Father Durr nods so that she can see. It is nothing he hasn’t heard before, nothing he won’t again. But the nod helps them get it out, helps them clear their conscience. He leans forward in false gravitas and looks directly at where her face would be without the screen.
“How did you perform detraction?”
“I am an editor at a newspaper.”
“And we’ve published stories like them before, Father.”
Her breaths gain weight. Her head vacillates. She unfastens her tongue from the roof of her mouth and inhales.
“On what?” he finally asks.
“On sexual assaults by priests of the diocese.”
The sounds of the organ fade. Her shadow collapses to a single point on the screen, as do the walls and floor, his knobby hands — form a single waving mass like a mirror on a riverbed.
“The ones we’ve written about before.”
“And the paper? The paper this is going in?”
She does not respond, which is how he knows it is local.
“A story,” he says.
“Like a look-back,” she says. “A—a retrospect, something that combines all the things we’ve reported on while also looking ahead.”
“Something big,” he says.
This is not expected, not allowed. His questions are out of the normal routine of confession. They have taken away his vestments and presented him as something simple and pathetic. Something small.
He digs his thumb into his palm.
“I mean it’s, the whole thing isn’t for sure yet,” she says, “but one of our reporters—every week a reporter has to present a Sunday story package to editors like me. And we have to decide whether it should be printed.”
“And you’re here because you think it’s fit to print.”
He thinks about the church. Thinks about any one of the parishioners leaving Sunday Mass to kitchens and living rooms, to televisions or computer screens. He imagines them all as the deacon pulling open the rolled newsprint and seeing the names and pictures of priests they’ve known. Priests that have baptized them, confirmed them, their children. The connections they will make to St. Matthews.
The editor says, “Right now the new angle is that the story will look at the impacts of the allegations on local Catholics. The reactions, the attendance. Since the abuses happened for years.”
“And the stories of the abuses need to be told, but I see the impacts they have on the churches and the dioceses, and I wonder if this is too much. I know feeling bad isn’t always indicative of a sin, but it just feels like a sin does. And it’s painful, Father, it’s all just deeply painful.”
He sits back in his chair, runs his fingers over his scalp. “What about the closing?”
“What closing?” she asks.
Really the first thing he thought of was St. Matthews. The Easter Masses full of people in pastels, shoulder-to-shoulder, the miasma of perfume and sweat. The baptisms and funerals, the weddings he’s officiated. He thinks about a night many years before Nevada, before the seminary, when he was just a boy, maybe twelve, after midnight in St. Matthews. No exit signs above the doors then, no ceiling fans hanging from the vault. There was only him, eyes closed, teeth vulning his shoulder—no sound but the blood pushing through his ears and the small mutterings he occasionally made to hear himself pray.
“I’ve gone to church for years with my parents,” the editor adds, “and all of this stuff is just killing them, which is part of the guilt, part of the reason it feels like a sin.”
“Do you believe it’s a sin?”
He was praying to forget. Father Durr remembers that. Something that happened on a farm that belonged to a soybean farmer north of Tunis. The farmer’s land bordered a clutch of acres purchased by Father Durr’s grandfather, who was in the process of building up a dairy farm (he had owned a buffalo farm in Italy). Father Durr’s dad sent him there to work over the summer. He fed chickens, cleaned horse droppings from the stalls, and sat through long, tedious conversations about Italian politics.
It was one of the weekends his grandpa had given him the day to play with the soybean farmer’s son, a boy Father Durr’s age with an almond-shaped head and bleach-blond eyebrows. Inspired by a Jean Latham novel Father Durr had read, they traipsed through the uncleared brush at the far end of the farmer’s land. This was how they found the pond—a long extant body of water that fed into the Mohawk River nearby.
“Yes, I’m sorry.” Father Durr wipes his face with his hands. “Detraction, as a mortal sin, centers around another person’s reputation. It’s like gossip that’s true, that truth being what separates it from calumny.”
“But these are—”
“Knowing that you will damage someone’s reputation, and knowing that act will constitute detraction before you do it, makes it a sin. Unless there is a more pure intention behind the act, is how I interpret it.”
She unlatches her fingers, scratches her nose, reconfigures.
“So how do you interpret the story?”
And Father Durr cannot remember whether he had wagered the boy to swim to the middle of the pond or if the boy had boasted that he could. Instead he remembers the water, black and wind-raked, and the dead tree limbs around the shore, speckled with green like moldy fingers. The way the boy had grinned and said that it was nothing to him to swim to the middle. The way the boy walked into the water in his overalls and shirt.
“In Job it is said that wicked men are tormented for the rest of their lives,” he says, “that they live in houses that crumble to clay.”
“Job,” she repeats.
The boy swam choppy and slow, his cupped hands pulling a heavy, spumous wake. Father Durr could see what would happen, how it would happen—the boy’s trajectory, the slowing rate of his pace, how his arms and legs compensated for those conclusions. A matter, Father Durr remembers thinking, of simple math. The boy had almost made it halfway before turning around. Spitting water, more and more of it, flailing, trying to lift himself above the waves he made. Father Durr saw the boy recognize the distance to the shore, saw him recognize Father Durr, who was unsure what to do. He tilted his head skyward, and the muscles in his face slackened. Like a person in sleep. It was something Father Durr would see many times again, when he was called to perform last rites—the painful recognition of the self as a mess of bones and tendons and its brief place in time.
Then the rough bark of the stick Father Durr grabbed from the shore, the water’s screaming cold as he swam to the boy. Seeing the boy’s head, and then not seeing the boy’s head, instead a knot of bubbles that had healed by the time he arrived.
“If that’s the case, do you think that sins are sometimes necessary?”
“I think I’m not in a position to really…make those kinds of decisions.”
Father Durr runs his thumb nail through a channel of palm skin. Looks up at the shadow on the screen. He asks, “Are those all your sins?”
“Are those all the sins you’ve made since your last confession?”
“I think so.”
“Pray an act of contrition and ten Hail Marys.”
She bows her head and makes the sign of the cross. She turns to the door.
The editor turns around. She walks close to the edge of the screen, so close he can see the toes of her sneakers. He considers it a miracle that she does not walk into view.
“Please be kind,” Father Durr says.
The door opens, closes. The room is quiet. Father Durr feels his fingers, the bones. Feels the joints, the bumps like beads, knobby but soft in their sleeve of wrinkled skin. He turns his wrist, expecting his watch, but instead finds a pressed mat of white hair. The watch is in the pocket of his jeans, the place he’s kept it for confessions since he became a priest.
This house we built with its abundance
Of suffering, a hundred sealed windows.
Where do your prayers find you? No, no!
The waters keep on running in this hell &
The birds were all plucked of their tongues
As if saying to all the quiet, tongue-less birds
Who’s to save you now when your rituals
Are plunged deep into the tall, red ground?
He walked for miles down a narrow hall
With no doors. His feet grew tired. He fell
To his knees without a tongue to give voice.
Foreign body, those aren’t his hands no more.
He’s building this house. God ain’t here,
Just a procession of breathing wings
Trying to find their way out. There’s no escape.
Prayer by prayer trapped in a wooden box
& spilled over Just one more time, one more.
He’s breaking a nail into his wood, one by one.
The waters keep on running, spilling into him,
One by one. He continues to drown with his
Sealed off mouth. Not a prayer to let go of.
No. Not now. Not ever. He’s too tired
Building a home with broken glass & raw hands.
Not quite out of the woods, he’s got a funny
Walk. Tender was the word I ought
Not to have used but I’m here with twigs
Scattered throughout my hair like a myth.
Wanted dead, I coughed up blood while
The man fucked me with a handful of Lubriderm
& a pocketful of change.
My voice sounds different with so many
Tongues locked inside of my mouth.
This isn’t about sex. This is about the tender
Crunch of each step I make moving toward
Something. But, first, more spit.
After, I zip-up my pants. How’s that for conclusive?
I have a pocketful of coins: the fruits
Of my labor. My thighs, mango puss.
See me differently. This tourniquet hurts.
Stop, you’re hurting me. There’s the clearing.
Three Mrs. Smiths barreled into the Duane Reade on East 2nd Street. The younger Mrs. Smiths, married three months ago, and the elder Mrs. Smith, who resented the new Mrs. Smith and preferred her only daughter, Ellie, to remain a Ms. Smith as long as possible, considered the sugar-free breath mints together. A ruse for something, the eldest Mrs. Smith knew; the newest Smith had a jittery air about her, picking up the same nougat bar and returning it to the dusty shelf again and again. Mischievous. Though her daughter reminded her to please leave her bad energy in the domestic terminal at JFK, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt certain it was actually the newest Smith who carried something off about her. The way she handled that nougat bar—demonic? Not good, not good.
Anyway, the eldest Mrs. Smith wouldn’t want them to break up now, what with her being against divorce. Even gay divorce? her husband, Mr. Smith, asked the night before she flew from Virginia to New York to visit the new Mrs. Smiths. A girl’s weekend, her daughter insisted. She missed her mom, or at least wanted her company to brave the IKEA in Red Hook for the younger Smiths’ move. She had news, too, the promise of which she floated not on the phone but over text, a choice that did not evade Mrs. Smith’s notice; news three months into a marriage could only mean so many things, which Mrs. Smith knew damned well, being both married and a mother herself.
Mr. Smith looked so flummoxed the evening before Mrs. Smith left, holding his fork and knife straight up in front of himself at the table, considering the ethics of homosexual divorce. Their church wasn’t happy about divorce, sure. The Smiths had gotten that lecture from the lead pastor more than once. But they were not so thrilled about same-sex marriage, either. So, was gay divorce actually preferable? Mr. Smith stared at his wife, whom he’d known since they were college sophomores, three decades ago. He frowned. He opened and closed his mouth, releasing hot spit to his bare chin. He adored his only child. Finally, he asked only the third woman he had known biblically: A baby is better than a divorce, isn’t it?
Mrs. Smith told her husband, Obviously, it’s better than a divorce, and took his plate away, though he had hardly started in on his meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
In the Duane Reade, the eldest Mrs. Smith pulled her favorite forum up on her phone. She intended to stand in the incontinence aisle for more privacy, but the younger Mrs. Smiths would not let up their closeness. The pair of them held hands as they trailed around the store behind her, picking up dark chocolate bars, refrigerated Gatorades, travel-size toothbrushes. All were discarded in the wrong places.
From over her shoulder, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt stares coming from not just the duo, but a young man in a black puffer jacket and heavy-looking headphones whose face carried a fixed interest. In another life, the eldest Mrs. Smith could not help but think, this might be the person her daughter had married; a man with focused, curious eyes and trimmed stubble. The eldest Mrs. Smith felt a precarious pride at watching him watch her daughter; who doesn’t want their offspring to inspire some healthy desire, after all? She would ask the forum if this sensation was wrong, or perhaps a misguided value, if only the young Mrs. Smiths would give her a moment’s breath.
Maybe someone will think it’s fate, Mrs. Smith’s daughter offered, slipping a sports drink behind a box of jumbo tampons, having seen her mother’s glare. They wouldn’t have known they were craving a light blue Gatorade, and then, there it is!
Sure, the eldest Mrs. Smith said flatly. She made eye contact with the man behind her daughters as the newest Mrs. Smith gave her offspring a kiss on the cheek. He disappeared in a blink.
If we’re going to walk to dinner, I’d like to leave with enough time, Mrs. Smith said, keeping her voice clipped and kind. She felt exposed suddenly, and ashamed. On past trips, her daughter had hustled down cramped side streets, leaving her overstimulated and spooked. Only tourists actually took cabs, her daughter explained, to which Mrs. Smith quietly swallowed that she, herself, was a tourist.
The newest Mrs. Smith piped up: I need to buy something…private. She gave the two natural Smiths a plaintive look; Mrs. Smith thought of her third-graders, the search of affirmation in their eyes when they recited lines for a class play, vulnerable and uneasy with their memories. Teacher, their faces said, tell us you love us. Not: Give me a good grade. Not: Did I get an A? Only: Show me with your face, in front of everybody in this room, that I’ve done right. Mrs. Smith wanted to ask how many pregnancy tests they’d already purchased, had they been to a doctor yet for a blood test? She sucked the skin of her cheeks and bit, figuring they wanted just one more positive before telling her the obvious.
Her daughter nodded at her wife and said, Let’s share one outside, Mom, and flicked at her coat pocket. At the automated doors, the eldest Mrs. Smith looked back at the newest Mrs. Smith and fancied herself a soothsayer. There the newest addition went, legs going like crazy down the family planning aisle.
The mother fingered her phone in her pocket, even more eager, now, to update the forum. She imagined the title she would give the post: How to support lesbian moms (30s, F, NYC?), and then the follow ups: Are both lesbian moms “mom” without exception, as well as, Let’s be honest: What do I do when child of lesbian moms (now unborn fetus) asks the big D question? (ETA: D as in “dad”!!) She imagined getting lots of comments, most positive, some not so much; the thought of a bright, bright screen warmed her with a pride she did not often allow herself to access.
Outside, mother and daughter passed a clove cigarette between one another. It’s vanilla flavored, her daughter said.
Her mother replied: Nice.
The Smith women had been sharing cigarettes since the younger Mrs. Smith was in high school. Her mother, a sprinter in youth and later a casual jogger, drove her to field hockey games even when she was old enough to drive herself; she didn’t trust other drivers on the road, Mrs. Smith said, but what she really wanted was time to sit in quiet with her daughter. Her daughter became mysterious to her in those years, confident and stretched beyond the child-self her mother understood. She went to the mall with friends, stayed up late on the family desktop, typing away to people Mrs. Smith assumed were classmates, whispered on the landline in the kitchen. By her senior year, then-Miss Smith dawdled getting into the car, sneaking off to hover in the garage. Finally, Mrs. Smith caught her smoking. She looked so young in her high school sweatpants, with all that black eyeliner. Get in the car, she said, and they did. Mrs. Smith didn’t say anything when her daughter lit the next cigarette, hunched and scowled in the front seat. When her daughter handed the filtered cigarette to her, the eldest Mrs. Smith took a few puffs, and passed it back. For months, their little joy.
Mom, her only child said as they stood outside the fluorescent Duane Reade, January’s depression thick around them. This is so important to me. A few feet behind her, a straight couple took a selfie; the man’s arm stretched long, and the woman used her gloved hand to adjust the tilt of the screen.
Her daughter continued: I know you might not understand at first, but try to stay open minded. The eldest Mrs. Smith squinted at the asphalt but kept listening; her daughter never got on the phone anymore, so how could she pass up a chance to hear that voice? She could recognize rehearsal in it, that her Ellie had practiced this, whether to a mirror or to the new addition, the eldest Mrs. Smith did not know.
Families are changing, Mom, Ellie added, but it’s the same love.
Mrs. Smith ruffled; same love? Was her daughter quoting commercials now? Anyway. Mrs. Smith found it all to be just fine. A baby, sure. A grandmother. Fine, fine, fine. She did not appreciate all of the hullabaloo over hiding this pregnancy. Probably, the eldest Mrs. Smith bet, they were going to raise the baby all gender neutral; yellow and green onesies, sure, the eldest Mrs. Smith could do that. She had gotten pretty damn good at they as a default, at risk of patting herself on the back. Mrs. Smith took an extra drag of the cigarette, knowing her daughter was watching and wanting.
I know, was all the eldest Mrs. Smith said, believing that she did. I know
Mrs. Smith looked at Mrs. Smith. Their faces just the same: brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin, both still with acne scars. Red, red cheeks in the city’s cold. The younger Mrs. Smith stood taller, like her father. The eldest Mrs. Smith knew her daughter inherited her father’s long, thin feet as well. She imagined, briefly, the newest Mrs. Smith rubbing ointment on her daughter’s scabbed heels; they bruised in new shoes so easily, and her daughter had always been impatient to break in what was still stiff. Bandaids, bandaids. Would the newest Mrs. Smith massage her daughter’s callouses, or only rub disinfectant in her blood? Mrs. Smith’s desire to know this intimacy embarrassed her more than her refusal to ask.
Mrs. Smith tried to see hot life in her daughter but couldn’t. Both women were gaunt, still. She figured it was the newer Mrs. Smith who had gotten pregnant, but she hoped it was actually her daughter, her blood. From her forum, she knew not to ask questions of biology, because it implied one mother was more real than the other. Still, while the younger Mrs. Smiths checked directions to the restaurant, the eldest Mrs. Smith typed: How to celebrate lesbian moms (31F, 33F) having baby? No, she thought. She should not have to ask that. She deleted it and typed: How to celebrate lesbian pregnancy of daughter in law when baby isn’t blood? No, still wrong. She deleted again, then switched to her not-private browser and ordered more cotton briefs for her husband.
I’m glad you’re feeling up for dinner, right after your flight and all, the newest Mrs. Smith said when she came outside. Mrs. Smith nodded and said thank you, completing the circle of polite conversion the two of them had entertained for the last few years. When the Mrs. Smiths held hands and walked down the sidewalk, the eldest Mrs. Smith stared hard at the plastic bag. It had to be a pregnancy test, she thought. She hoped it would tear, drop, spill. She only wanted confirmation of a thing she might understand, an entry point. The newest Mrs. Smith held on, held on.
At the restaurant, a third gaunt woman joined them as Mrs. Smith’s daughter confirmed the reservation with the hostess. For four? the hostess asked dully, and to Mrs. Smith’s confusion, all three stretched smiles wide and agreed.
Oh, Mrs. Smith said. Could her daughter not pity her shyness? Some personalities aren’t outgrown. I’m so glad your friend can join us, she said, giving her daughter a brief look of reproach. In return, her daughter named her friend, voice full of a funny anxiety. The eldest Mrs. Smith told the new person hello and realized she had already forgotten their name.
The three women looked at Mrs. Smith with a terrible vulnerability, causing her to experience a swing into both fear and resentment. She was trying, wasn’t she? What to say to this strange addition. The trio appeared to her as three long coats. Three sets of eyes, for once not glued to phone screens. Three mouths that had all worn braces, she could tell. Mrs. Smith repeated herself, that she was very glad their friend could spend dinner with them, and something in all of the women’s eyes shriveled into an ache Mrs. Smith could not understand.
Once at their booth, Mrs. Smith considered the seating an unnecessary tangle. In the end, she sat beside her Ellie, and the new Mrs. Smith and their friend sat opposite them. The new Mrs. Smiths tended to hold hands and share plates, which Mrs. Smith found particularly saccharine and was privately relieved to not have to witness it tonight. Still, this new woman puzzled her. Was she a surrogate? An emotional support decoy? Their couples’ therapist? The eldest Mrs. Smith wished she had a Facebook account so she could slip into the bathroom and do some digging.
When their water glasses came, Mrs. Smith narrowed her eyes in on the new woman’s layered hemp bracelets. A birth doula, maybe. The message board made living seem easy. People followed group rules. Age, relationship, one-liner summary. Mrs. Smith read the TL;DRs first, then went back and reread all of the details; people don’t always know how to pull out what was really the main issue in their lives. Mrs. Smith did not comment or post, but she did read. Admittedly, she skimmed the ones with titles she did not understand: situationships, throuples, polyams, kinksters. Fine for them, she reasoned, though she felt they should have a sub-group, so as not to clog her main page. At this dinner, she felt betrayed; the forums had not prepared her for these queer circumstances. Especially not the raw menu in front of her.
With forced cheer, she asked, When it says it’s all plant-based and raw, that means it’ll come cold? Mrs. Smith resented having to ask these questions but had stopped asking her daughter to bring her to that cheesecake place she loved in Times Square; she could only be mocked so many times for being a tourist, what with her wanting of cabs and cooked meals.
It’s room temp, the newest Mrs. Smith said. The eldest Mrs. Smith hid her grimace behind the menu; it was involuntary, she told herself, this sharp reaction to the young woman’s hoarse voice. She had intended to ask her daughter, and thought her intent was obvious. The eldest Mrs. Smith soothed her inner beast by reminding herself that the crackling young woman was carrying her grandchild.
Still, her daughter stepped in to save her. It’s all vegan and focused around plants, so fruits and vegetables, but the dishes are really very Americana, explained her offspring, who spent childhood years dipping string cheese into bowls of shelf-stable shredded parmesan. I’m going to try the queso plate, she added with an excitement her mother sensed held no irony.
The meatloaf, the eldest Mrs. Smith said. The table felt clipped, tense; too quiet, too much attention on one another’s brief movements. Had her own pregnancy announcement been so bizarre? She could not quite remember the air around her parents’ living room, when she and her husband delivered the news to them; she’d been happy, or terrified, or resting on the fine line between those states, then, she was sure, but how she appeared to those around her, she could not place. Feeling three heads turned on her, she pushed out the words, What is the meat?
It’s a pea protein, Mom, but don’t focus on that. The dish is actually just like what you and Dad like. You know, with the spices. Her daughter gestured her hands in front of her hunched chest, as she had whenever she argued a theoretical point or on behalf of getting takeout, and the eldest Mrs. Smith wanted to lie down beneath the table and spoon her, as they had on the couch when she was young. The eldest Mrs. Smith knew she could not ask for such a thing; someone would call the manager, if not the police, and so she reminded her daughter that she cooked her meatloaf, and that the spices she used were ketchup.
All except for the newest Mrs. Smith ordered a glass of organic, vegan wine. When isn’t wine vegan? the oldest Mrs. Smith asked after the sommelier, a lean, frantic-looking man with studs in both nostrils, returned and placed the glasses on the table. She had wanted to ask when he was running through the list, but her daughter looked close to ill in her nerves, eyes shifting from face to face at their table, and she did not want to irritate her into snapping.
Her daughter said, It has to do with the bugs, or something. The eldest Mrs. Smith watched her daughter take a gulp and wipe her mouth with the back of her hand. The eldest Mrs. Smith watched the newest Mrs. Smith sip at her water, and glanced to their friend, who was sniffing and staring at her wine but not ingesting it.
You can drink up, the eldest Mrs. Smith said loudly, causing the unexpected addition to the group to startle. There are no bugs to check for; isn’t that right, dear? She turned on her daughter, who held the stem of a wine glass like a softball glove.
Her daughter looked at her wife and the friend nervously, then back at her mother. The eldest Mrs. Smith was surprised her daughter did not jab back in her friend’s honor; she found the eldest Mrs. Smith’s lighthearted teasing to be baiting and rude, when in fact, the eldest Mrs. Smith felt she only wanted to be a little less kind without losing affection. Mom, her daughter said instead. We have to tell you something.
With six eyes on her, Mrs. Smith suddenly felt very important. She was grateful for her bugless wine. It tasted light and fresh, she thought. Those words were only implants, really, because she preferred box wine, and also because she felt that she did not understand the world around her. Why was the friend here? How far along was her daughter-in-law? Was this friend the nanny? Was she a surrogate? Nothing quite made sense. She encouraged the sommelier, who filtered back in as though trained to pick on such delicate family rifts, to fill her glass a little extra. He obliged without question. She took a long drink, and said, Yes?
The younger women appeared baby faced, suddenly, without much makeup. Just the flick of winged eyeliner, a bright red lipstick. Their faces looked unbalanced, unfinished; she guessed intentionally. Mrs. Smith had worn her full face, including powder, as she had for years. In the tea lights, she worried she looked like a ghost.
Well, her daughter started. The women looked at one another again when she paused, letting the eldest Mrs. Smith simmer. The eldest Mrs. Smith was prepared to simmer, simmer, until the youngest Mrs. Smith, the newest Mrs. Smith, and their strange friend held hands. Quite ceremonious, the eldest Mrs. Smith thought before feeling she was being made a fool.
I’m very happy for you, she said unhappily. And I understand this probably feels like very big news to give me, but of course I understand.
The women looked at one another, then back at her.
The newest Mrs. Smith repeated her unsteadily: You understand?
The eldest Mrs. Smith finished her wine. She drank her water glass to the bottom. She felt her bladder seize, a reminder of her infallibility.. I’m very, very happy for you girls, she said, but I am a little offended that you’re having such a hard time telling me the truth.
Her one daughter spoke to her very slowly, as though she were a child with a dirty foot in its mouth: What exactly are you happy about, Mom?
The eldest Mrs. Smith felt regret before she said, The baby. After all, it was their news to give, not hers. But why had they made the night so difficult? Why this particularly odd restaurant? Why the awkward friend? Why draw out the reveal? The eldest Mrs. Smith worried why her own daughter thought her own mother would need such buttering up; was it those bad years, the hung up calls, the mentions of the sons of her friends who were so polite, and so single, the use of friend over and over and over? The eldest Mrs. Smith put her empty wine glass to her mouth. She did not want to think about those years and their bruising.
The newest Mrs. Smith looked at the other women, then said loudly and cheerfully, as though repeating her order at the counter of a loud cafe, There’s actually not a baby.
The eldest Mrs. Smith stopped herself from rolling her eyes. She said: Okay, the fetus.
Her daughter grabbed her hand when she said, Mom, no, you don’t understand what’s going on.
The eldest Mrs. Smith wondered where her meatloaf was; how could raw food take so long? It wasn’t even cooked! She wanted to kick the table up into the ceiling. She held her daughter’s hand back. She could not remember the last time they had grabbed for one another. Speaking each syllable fully, she said: Explain it in the simplest terms, will you?
The friend leaned forward and chirped, Oh, Mrs. Smith. We’re a trio.
A trio, the eldest Mrs. Smith repeated flatly. With her free hand, she held her wine in front of her face, as though it were a shield. She stared into the bottom of the glass and swore she saw her child self staring back at her, forlorn and meager, always steps behind, always left out, the haunting of a miserable only child. She placed the glass on the table. She said, What?
Like, instead of a couple, the newest Mrs. Smith cut in. We’re a trio. The three of them nodded at one another, then at the eldest Mrs. Smith.
Behind the eldest Mrs. Smith, the sommelier explained the wine pairings to a table that had just been seated. She listened to the string of happy voices; two couples, she guessed, one old, one young, enjoying a family meal. No trios. No sad old women. Tofu, perhaps. But not all of this. She repeated, What?
No one is having a baby, her daughter said, this time, her voice all shake. We’re not pregnant, or adopting, or anything like that. But our family is growing, and it’s important to me that you accept that.
What, she thought, incredulously. She asked, A fourth Mrs. Smith?
Mom, Jesus. We haven’t talked about that yet.
The eldest Mrs. Smith turned to the new addition. It’s your baby?
There’s no baby, Mom.
No baby, she repeated, feeling dumb.
Mom, we just need you to accept…all of it, us, and the um, the lack of a baby, too.
Accept it, the eldest Mrs. Smith repeated. She hesitated, then took the newest addition’s full glass and drank from hers.
Mrs. Smith shrugged and held onto the stolen glass. She said: Accept it, and her daughter rolled her eyes.
I really appreciate you being so nice about this, the newest addition said, ignoring the pilfered wine. The eldest Mrs. Smith had gotten to know when younger people had prepared their words, irrespective of anything else that might happen before the envisioned moment became the present. I mean, the hemp-adorned woman continued, I know it’s a lot to take in, but you’re handling it a lot better than my mom did.
The eldest Mrs. Smith looked at the pilfered wine glass. Despite herself, she said, Really?
Really! And, besides, we don’t know what the future holds, any of us. The addition said this very wisely, and the eldest Mrs. Smith felt certain that this was the sort of woman her daughter was ceaselessly attracted to: lots of wisdoms, lots of organics, lots of mild emotional stressors in stimulating environments, like the IKEA she was now sure the addition would accompany them to.
Tell me more, Mrs. Smith said. Her face felt warm from the wine. She comforted herself: This is a fling, an exploration. A phase. She thought about the newest Mrs. Smiths; her daughter, just 31, and her wife, a reasonable 33. They had a few good years yet. She finished the wine and noticed her daughter drain her own glass.
You know, about having kids. I mean, who knows, none of us are parents right now, but we don’t know—
Babe, her daughter said loudly. The newest Mrs. Smith shook her head diplomatically and smiled with both rows of her teeth out. Definitely still wore her retainer, the eldest Mrs. Smith thought. Absolutely mother material.
When she did not add a just kidding, ha, ha, the three Mrs. Smiths eyed the addition curiously. The newest asked, What do you mean, the same time the daughter asked, Haven’t we talked about this, but probably no one heard them over the eldest Mrs. Smith, who simply asked: Turkey baster or IVF?
When the three Mrs. Smiths and their new addition—who her daughter pointedly clarified was named Alyssa, and wanted to be called it, instead of the friend—left the restaurant, the eldest Mrs. Smith could not help herself. She’d ordered two more glasses of wine. She’d polished off her meatloaf, which, she noted to the waiter with pleasure, was actually warmer than she’d expected. Her daughter was, in her mind, one step away from being a polygamist.
The pregnancy test, she said as they congregated on the narrow, smoky sidewalk, feeling dumb. You were so cagey in that store, she said, regarding her daughter-in-law face to face, emboldened by the wine.
The newest Mrs. Smith brought her pointer finger to her mouth and picked at her lips. Oh, she said. I’ve had some vaginal dryness.
The eldest Mrs. Smith was too focused (and too drunk) to be deterred. And you didn’t order wine, she continued.
I’m on an antibiotic, you know, she said, giving her wife a pleading look. For the dryness.
The eldest Mrs. Smith let this information settle on their walk back to her hotel in midtown, where the girls were leaving her for the night. As her daughter explained, the new addition—Alyssa, the eldest Mrs. Smith kept as a refrain, Alyssa—hadn’t moved in yet, but would when they moved to the new place.
We’re buying the furniture, the eldest Mrs. Smith said, pronouncing each word as though waiting for a stern correction. But her daughter offered none, and instead described the new home as she held her wife’s hand. An additional bedroom and a half-bathroom, a minuscule yard. A deck that could fit three adults and a tall plant. It had seemed to the eldest Mrs. Smith she had gotten one guess right: IKEA, the shopping, the anxiety.This ability to perceive a thing comforted her.
The four women stopped at a crosswalk. The wind was flat and empty, just cold air hanging steady as they walked through. The eldest Mrs. Smith longed for some city snow, but all around her feet, dirty remnants. A big, dark car slowed at the curb, and a man rushed up from behind them and launched into the backseat. The eldest Mrs. Smith had felt a presence up close behind her, and assumed it was the new one—Alyssa, Alyssa—lurking hard, but in orienting herself to the present moment, realized Alyssa had actually been holding her daughter’s other hand.
The car hovered. The man from the Duane Reade, the one who carried hot blood the eldest Mrs. Smith understood at first as a blessing, leaned his face out of the window. That hot blood looked so young, then, childish in its evil, in its disregard for empathy. Later, the eldest Mrs. Smith would understand it as worse than a lack of empathy; the intention was all cruelty, all power that was not a naive pushing of boundaries, but of choice and intent.
Her girls didn’t react when they heard the slur; it rang through all of them, no one had to ask to clarify it, or to repeat it, or to question if it was a trick of the city noise, but only the eldest Mrs. Smith reacted when the man yelled dykes from the backseat as the car merged into traffic.
The eldest Mrs. Smith ran. It came back easier than she thought, the rhythm. Feet on the ground like she controlled the pace of the present. The lungs, even, remember what it is to become mightier in expansion. When the car stilled at the traffic light, the eldest Mrs. Smith soared, vaulted, it felt like, to catch up. She kicked the trunk of the car. Her foot throbbed and she kicked again. She slammed her purse against the rear window. Inside, her Midol and chapsticks rattled.
The man put his head out of the window. Lady, he said, blank-eyed. What the fuck?
The eldest Mrs. Smith hit her purse against the backdoor of the car as he shouted at the driver to raise his window. He could not figure out how to get it up himself. Of course, she realized, this man had taken an Uber and not a cab. Of course. The eldest Mrs. Smith did not emit noise from her throat. The eldest Mrs. Smith heard noises, distantly; the driver, laughing loudly, the man in the backseat, yelling about customer service, the two new Mrs. Smiths, and, she reasoned, the perhaps soon-to-be Mrs. Smith, being loud in an emotional state the eldest Mrs. Smith could not, at the moment her purse smacked into the man’s face through his still-open window, parse out. She was beyond.
The eldest Mrs. Smith felt her bladder release a little urine; all of the momentum, all of the wine. A little urine is fine, she thought. A little urine detracts from almost nothing.
She heard herself yelling things like eat shit, motherfucker, and I’ll report you, and even, surreally, a promise that she would come for him. Come for him where? How? The eldest Mrs. Smith had no idea where such ideas entered her mind, but it did not matter. He laughed, as the driver finally turned his window up, but he looked nervous, too; the eldest Mrs. Smith taught sophomores biology one semester. She knew what nervous young people looked like. Sure, he was probably in his twenties, but young enough to feel intrinsic unease from the steady rage of an older person. Especially one that had slammed his face with the bottom of a faux leather handbag.
Fuck you, lady, he yelled as the window sealed him. Seconds later, the car merged back into traffic. The eldest Mrs. Smith yelled, The name’s Anne Marie, bitch, and believed the entire island heard her.
The Mrs. Smiths and their girlfriend shrieked around Mrs. Smith the whole walk back through the West Village, the only place in Manhattan the eldest Mrs. Smith felt she understood, a bit, though, as her daughter explained, it was also the only neighborhood not on the grid. Her daughter put a few crushed cigarettes in her hand and repeated, Mom, shit, Mom, holy shit! The eldest Mrs. Smith released a little more urine, from all of the commotion, and didn’t care at all if the odor permeated the night.
In the hotel lobby, Alyssa asked for the eldest Mrs. Smith’s phone number so she could text her the video. I recorded it, she said. In case he hit you. The eldest Mrs. Smith embraced each of the women with her eyes shut, face sucking in the scent of their shampoos: almond, summer rain, green mellow mango. Mothers know these things without asking. She mumbled, I love you, and they all murmured it, or something like it, back.
In her hotel room, Anne Marie changed into one of two hanging robes, leaving her pajamas folded in her suitcase. She left her underwear to soak in sudsy water in the wide-mouthed sink. She did not put on a new pair. She ignored the laminated No Smoking signs and hovered by the cracked window to light up. She watched the video over and over, admiring her bear self, her peculiar, cosmic domination. She opened a miniature bottle of tequila and sipped it, wincing at its punch. She opened her computer and went to the forum. She typed: I (56F) defended my daughters (31F, 33F, 27?F) against a bigot. Feedback?? Anne Marie attached the video and hit post, then closed her computer and fingered a second cigarette, victorious.
Like any good strategist, you keep an ethical
distance, stepping over milkweed and turning on
the radio. It’s hard to tell when you’re approaching—
everyone wears an orange vest over her coat.
Cooking without speaking, I feel like an actress
playing a wife—soft cheese with honey, pickled
cabbage, pale tomatoes from the roadside store.
The pond is frozen and the snow has no content.
I understand the animal only if it’s packed
in Styrofoam and thawing on the kitchen counter.
Even then, some parts are too much for me.
The bulbous head of the hydrangea hits the window.
You come in. We eat marrow and cartilage.
I wanted the snow to be like snow from television—
fat and legible. How rarely I feel I am anywhere.
I hate the animal when it looks like what it is.
Sidebrow Books, 2018.
Paperback, 59 pages, $15.00.
Winner, Clarissa Dalloway Prize, A Room of Her Own Foundation
Anna Maria Hong’s H & G is a darkly postmodern and feminist revisioning of the classic Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel” that plumbs the depths of patricidal hatred, inherited misogyny, and the unsuccessful search for a family that is more than kin and less than kind. Intensely surrealist in its warped depictions of the traditional fantasy world in which the novella orients itself, while also exceedingly realist in the complexity of its main and supporting characters, Hong’s reification of the Brothers Grimm text is a meta-fictive trek into the dark recesses of the human psyche from which readers won’t want to return.
To call this novella a work of fabulist fiction is perhaps too simplistic a label, though the text wears its magical mundanity in quite an enchanting fashion. As great fabulist fictions—and to some extent, great fairy tales—do, Hong’s writing orients the reader in a fantastical situation or setting before propelling them into ever-deepening waters of ethics, philosophy, and cultural critique through the power of allegory and metaphor. As is the case with fairy tales, Hong’s work is instructive and has a motley cast of trope-like characters to fill archetypal roles: the father, the mother, the evil stepmothers, the witches, and the two children, Hansel and Gretel, referred to as H. and G., respectively. This, however, is where most of the similarities between the fairy tale and Hong’s work end. Hong stays true to fairy tale form inasmuch as it serves her greater purposes—she plays to the tropes in order to break them and keeps true to most of the particulars of “Hansel and Gretel” until intervening personal narratives and real-world elements interpose in the story and make it decidedly not a fairy tale, revisionist or otherwise. One-dimensional character types are rendered with human complexity and qualities, so much so that even the “villains” in H & G are given sympathetic backstories and motivations that impress upon the reader their humanness without absolving them of their flaws.
One scene with a markedly fabulist bent is in the chapter titled “H. Is Praying To The Great Eye.” In this section, H. makes a pilgrimage up the mountain each day to the New Witch’s hut to nurse from her breast—assuming the role of both the sacrificial offering and the one who proffers the sacrifice to this deity-like being—in order to save the world. Bizarre and grossly sexual, the conceit is a fascinating one, exploring the depravity of codependent relationships that stem from unhealthy obsessions and childhood fears of abandonment:
Someday the New Witch will tire of me too—prayer and fate of the world be
damned—or she will die and either way I’ll be abandoned again, surmises H.
Alone with nothing but this rocky, dirty peak to climb, and empty hut at the top.
By H. nursing from the New Witch and bringing a part of her into H.’s body, two things happen narratively: the New Witch’s face is restored to youth (though H. remarks that her body is still flat and shriveled as a hag’s), and H. is rewarded with the satisfaction of taking and not giving anything back but pleasure, which, he says, is incidental to the giver. H. is a supplicant—worshipful, dutiful—not from a wholly religious or sexual desire, or even to save the world as the New Witch remarks, but because in this H. has found what he believes is a sense of belonging. In a mere three pages, Hong builds a tiny world and fills this world with searching philosophical questions—what do we make of the reciprocal, if any, relationship between God and Believer? As Hong puts it,
If the Believer stopped believing, would the world cease to exist? H. thinks it
wiser to not risk it, so he prays every day, climbing the green and brown peaks,
until he reaches the New Witch’s hut where he will suck on the Witch’s cold
tits, ripe and smooth as the flesh of pale green fruit.
What of attention misplaced and masquerading as affection or as physical and emotional nurturing?: “The Witch strokes his golden hair as she suckles him, telling him how good he has been, how sturdy he is, how well he climbed the mountain, how good he is to save the world like this . . .”. What of the emotionally scarred person who can only take and take and in the process destroys what’s left of themselves?: “H. sucks like his life depends on it, because it is what he is good at—the only thing he has always been good at—eating, siphoning dominion and beauty from powerful women who want to save him and eat him.” In posing these questions, Hong conjures the familiar fairy tale into something fierce and dangerous, something so very heartbreaking that we want to look away, yet, enraptured by the story’s unfolding, cannot.
In H & G, the story becomes the stories, a twinning effect enhanced by the meta-fictive qualities of the writing. In this regard, H & G is intensely postmodern and feminist: experimental with its points of view (first-person plural, second-person, and third-person omniscient) and its many non-prose forms (bulleted lists, poems, blocks of prose that read as poetry, and, most interestingly, the inclusion of the alternate story endings that continuously pull the reader in and out of the text in order to hone in on story implications for our real and the story’s imagined worlds). Yet it also addresses real-life sexism and abuse of a hegemonic patriarchal society. Hong writes these fractured wholes as her own trail of leading breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, from context to context, from one rhetorical situation to the next, while bringing complexity and richness and a sense of wonder with her poignant and bittersweet tellings.
Who was going at it? Who had put out the word?
When the riots popped off in South, we heard the modules filled with burning mats and brawling, that CO had stormed in, flashing riot gear, shooting bean bags, rubber bullets, and gas. We could picture it happening, vividly. We’d read all about it on a kite snuck in, passed from hand to hand. We could smell the smoke on the paper.
The populations in South would be stripped, searched, sorted, and reprocessed. Soon the world would be changing. Its politics would be shifting—into what configurations we could only guess. What we knew was that there would be consequences. We would feel them too, here in North, in our dorm, 3C.
We waited for the word to come down, for the bloodshed to happen.
We had to make plans.
We held our meetings at night, while the others lay all around us, among slanting shadows, on racks too close by, trying to listen. We knew they were trying. We wanted them to hear. We wanted them to know we’d be ready.
We looked for hitches in the patterns, how they trooped into the dayroom, regimented in red, forming up between shifts in the kitchen and laundry. Who gathered with whom, who would whisper, shake hands. We watched the red shirts swirling through our dorm along currents, into telltale dispersions and groupings.
We had to stay vigilant.
We could sense things occurring in traded glances behind us, like during count-times, when we had to hold still, while CO dotted our distant heads with a pencil, as if trying to pin us more firmly back into place.
What did they know but clipboards and checklists?
It was happening out there. It would happen here too.
We could feel it the way we could feel the weather, or the touch of a loving hand on our skin, when we would daydream on our racks about clouds, lost in memory, while we watched the inner blacks of our eyelids. We would press our hands to the concrete walls of our lockup, to feel the cold and think, It’s raining.
We would become odder, with intentions impossible to fathom—more so than the others—for our own good.
We would knock on the darkened booth and, when the man had stepped away from his monitors, snap apart plastic razors to collect the thin blades. We would hold them in our mouths, like Communion, blessed, and smile, with no trace of silver, behind the walls of our teeth.
This was how we had to be, but who had decided? Were the riots really to blame?
Was it the paisas?
Was it the ‘Woods?
In fact, who’d started this shit in the first place?
When we asked what was happening, CO would tell us, Step back. When trustees from other modules rolled in carts for our books or dirty trays, we would nod at them. Wussup? They’d lift a chin at the cameras in the corners, look away.
We knew to imagine ourselves through those lenses, our lives all flattened into dull, droning video, on whole banks of glowing monitors, for those men in darkened booths. We were learning to live accordingly.
So what would be ours to keep?
We watched the work shifts go out. We watched the work shifts come in.
We were lining up and playing cards, sitting down and writing letters. To anyone watching, ourselves included, we were behaving the best we could.
We wanted to go home, despite our bracing for the violence to come, some of us more than others, but we did. And when we would, before it had, we’d wander back into the world, feeling our way along as though our vision had dimmed, and wonder where it might be hiding—if not in the thinness of a turning page, the lightness of the rain, nor in the steadiness of the passing days—and when it would be released.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Every mornin I ask Mama,
Why do your eyes look like torn
screens? I say, Mama your flies
are gettin in the house again.
I swat at my ears, then
lift the toilet lid and find clear
wings floatin, black bellies pinned in
still water. Go on and pee, she says. Don’t
need to flush ‘em first.
When Mama scoops her coffee
grounds, she buries a family alive
while coughin antennae up onto
the shelf of her molars.
Says it tickles when she bites down.
The dog snaps at the air.
Each time he catches one, we three circle up
and howl. Our songs blanket the buzz through
the afternoon and shimmy the ash in the mantle
urn. By then we’re good and exercised,
arms quivering from reachin, palms gut sticky.
Mama, is this called slap-happy?
She tells me to go wash up for dinner.
She prays: God, bless this food to
our body. Bless those who cannot be
with us today. Amen.
I pinch a maggot outta my
pie and wonder how many get
past our lips unseen.
Every night, as she’s fallin asleep,
I lean in slow and close
and I tell my Mama,
Mama, I think we got ‘em all.