By Sarah Earle Záhořík
I don’t have an appetite for the lamb shanks, too humid, but the vinho verde is delicious. I put down my fork. Joel pours me another glass; he’s procured the whole bottle, “for the table” he’d said grandly, placing it in reach of the tottering white-haired ladies to my left, and the three surely-lacross-players to his right, slugging beers. Joel smiles. He doesn’t even like white wine, but there it is. For me.
Everyone is wearing nametags, which is how we know when Geraldine ’57 and Kay ’58 beeline for the dessert table that it’s Mick ’71 who sits down. Joel, uneasy in a collared shirt, takes one look at Mick in a sweaty muscle tee and elbows me in the ribs.
“Finally,” he whispers. “A kindred spirit.” Joel, who can find commonalities with a department store mannequin, who can make small talk with a beagle. He turns and extends a hand. When Mick says he’s a music producer, Joel bobs his head in delight. No contest. This one’s a winner.
“Right,” I say. “I’m going to the bathroom.” Joel touches my arm, but he’s already deep in conversation, which is fine by me: I’m in reminiscence mode and it does not include my husband. I leave the bluster of the reunion dinner tent, the chit chat and the paper lanterns, and walk out across the soccer field in a twilight soft as alpaca wool. It’s muscle memory. Here, where I turned my ankle in a game. There, where our class lay and learned the night sky: Jupiter and Venus, Pollux and Castor. And over there, the tiny chapel, too small for services but where we left offerings nibbled on by mice.
A sliver of thumbnail moon is just appearing above the hill. I’m headed towards the school library, specifically the library’s screened-in veranda where English class used to meet if the weather was fair. “Heathcliff!” my eleventh grade English teacher had shouted at us. “The chimneys! Phallic symbols!” But I haven’t come to watch a class of ghosts. I’ve come because this is where Len and I used to sit. I’ve come because somehow I know that Len will be here now, his blond little girl—cheeks like cream—sitting on his lap, her face up against his polo shirt.
“Daddy,” I hear her whisper as I climb the porch stairs. “Do you hear the sheep?”
“Hey Len,” I interrupt, my voice just as soft, because surrounding us is a kind of countryside evening I never see anymore. The faint pink sky and the lambs bleating from the school’s barn mix so pastorally, I could weep.
“Abby,” he says looking up, and smiles. Len was my high school boyfriend. A boarding school sweetheart. My first. I sweep my hair off my face—so hot now, only June—and my name tag wobbles: Abigail ’98. “Come sit with us,” he says, and our eyes meet and for a second I imagine we’re sixteen again, and my heart lifts off as though it’s been yanked up by a hundred balloons.
I sit. The air smells of lavender and basil and everything good.
“Who was that roommate you had, the daughter of the state rep?” Len asks me.
“Oh yeah,” I say. “Gerry—the elephant woman. She snored.”
“Hah,” he says, “Her.”
We can do this now because we’ve already gotten the reunion formalities out of the way. At lunch, I met Len’s wife, Violet, a decorator, her arms dripping with silver bands and cuffs.
“Just so wonderful to meet you,” Violet said without a hint of recognition, her Savannah accent glamorous, and I know that she doesn’t know who I am, or what I was. Len met Joel, my musician husband without any manners.
“OK,” Joel said, his big hand pumping Len’s delicate one. “You work in finance like everyone else here?” Joel only grinned wider when he saw Len nod his head, yes. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that—kids gotta eat, right? How many you got? Four, five?”
I’ve tousled the thick, dark hair of Len’s son, and cooed at this little beauty of a girl, who is now in his lap. Len has seen the empty space around Joel and me, and not asked any questions about the rest of a family.
The porch is now awash with nightfall, and from across the lawn, tiny fissures of gold: fireflies.
“Remember you wore ear plugs, because you couldn’t sleep with Gerry’s snoring?” Len asks. “And you lost one in your ear?” He’s smiling, that gentle smile all covered in groomed whiskers. “You had to get it removed by the nurse.”
“Really?” I gasp, too loudly. Len is smaller than I remember him, his eyes a different shade of gray-blue. He’s almost a stranger, really, but now this memory settles between us, intimate as a kiss. Len’s daughter turns her face to watch me, furtively, this new woman with the freckles all over. I’m thinner now then I was then, though just as hesitating.
“Well, I’d want to forget that, too,” Len says.
“Daddy!” The little girl whines, because she’s lost his attention. “Daddy! Bah bahhh!”
“My little lamb.” Len tickles her under the chin.
Len was my first, but I was his too. We have that together, him and me, if that is anything at all.
Our high school in the foothills of western Massachusetts has an intricate reunion schedule. Every year, a mix of classes from across the decades is welcomed back: the oldest clench wooden canes, and the youngest, hair hanging in their eyes, are only a few years past calculus and American history. So many are high-achievers—lawyers or actors. Two are in the Senate. One got a Pulitzer last year.
So far, reunions have not been on my To Do list. I’m really not up to snuff. I write poems, but people have rarely heard of even accomplished poets. This time though, Len had sent me a note. He said nobody from our classes ever came, too busy. He hadn’t written to me since his first year of college. It’d be fun to see you, he said. So I put it to Joel.
“Is it free?” Joel asked. He’d never seen my high school, but harbored a healthy skepticism.
“Two-hundred bucks,” I said.
“Of course.” He sighed. We operated on feast and famine times: me a freelance writer, he a sometimes-touring musician. It was a famine time.
“I’ll pay,” I said. “I want to go.” Joel looked defeated. It wasn’t exactly a compromise. For Joel, a lack of money was a challenge towards innovation. Who could make the most delicious spaghetti? Who could bike the farthest to save gas? Joel had been brought up by his grandmother in a railroad flat, so his was a well-sharpened skill. And me, well. I’d been to prep school. I still had room for improvement.
“Come on,” I said. “It’s a weekend of cultural activities.” And I read him the brochure that had come in the mail: a screening of an alumni’s documentary on the Japanese tsunami, a wild-flower hike, a figure drawing tutorial, a discussion about a new Napoleon novel, and cocktail receptions galore.
“See,” I said. “Bang for your buck.”
“No Met opera?” Joel asked. “If we’re paying, there should be an operetta at least.” He was crabby. He’d been out late the night before, playing a crummy show, and to be fair, I didn’t blame him. It’s no rock musician’s dream to play luxury hotels, taking requests for Sting from fat execs in expensive shirts. The hotel had forced him to take a background check in order to get paid.
“So demoralizing,” he’d said. “Don’t tell a soul about that.”
“Who would I tell?” I said, bored. I was trying to be sympathetic, but I’ve known Joel for six years, and Joel is always demoralized by something.
Like the other day, Joel wanted his back scratched. Joel often likes to have his back scratched: he lies on his stomach on the once-pretty rug in the middle of the mess in our living room, and calls to me.
“I’m desperate,” he says. “It’s driving me crazy, please.” The longer my nails are the better.
He talks while we do this, the red-rub I exert on his back like lava grooves coaxing the stories out of him. Like yesterday, I’d just submitted my latest article, “No Drone Zones: Where NOT to Fly Yours During July 4th,” to my content editor, who would, no doubt, be sending it back in an hour bloodied by track changes. There were more articles to write, more editing to do, but right then I was free. I had that hour! I’d peeled a cucumber and poured some gin, and then there Joel was on the carpet, pleading.
“All right,” I said, before I took a big swallow.
“This woman came up to me after the show,” Joel said, as I scratched. “She was maybe seventy, but all Stevie Nicks-ed out, you know, bangles and teased hair.”
I stared at Joel’s back. Another what-happened-last-night story. Lately, every time Joel opened his mouth, what came out wasn’t what I wanted.
Joel lifted his head. “Lower, lower,” he said. “Yeah, there.” I complied.
“So anyway, she tells me some new age stuff, like she saw my aura when I was on stage and it was turtle green—that’s what she said, no joke—like, am I ninja turtle or something? And that I had a psychic hurt somewhere, and I was like, thanks lady, and I tried to move on, but she got my hand.”
“Let me guess,” I interjected, because Joel always attracts the weirdos. “She read your life line and told you that you’d die painfully young.”
“Ha,” Joel said. “You wish.” He turned his head and looked at me. I blinked. The gold of my wedding band caught my eye and rippled like a tiny snake under a skim of pond.
“No,” he continued, “she yanked me with crazy strength and laid a big wet one on my mouth.”
“Well,” I said, “How was the kiss?” I was jonesing for another sip of gin.
“Like a swamp marsh—damn Abby! Stop. You’re scratching me raw.”
“Am I?” I said absently, and sat back on my knees. “I was just thinking, I’ve never romantically kissed someone so old.”
“Yeah, well, add that to your To Do List,” Joel said, pissed off, and pushed himself up. His back was a razor field of lines. He was handsome to me still, in an abstract way. Like a Rodin sculpture is handsome, like the new BBQ bots designed by Harvard students are handsome. A universal appeal.
I thought about my newest To Do List. It was on the refrigerator, held there by a strawberry magnet. #1. Learn to make a proper béchamel sauce #2. Visit Angkor Wat. Number three had been whited-out, but I knew what was under it: have a baby. Now, it was #3. Discover an unnamed star. Should I add “Make-out with a senior citizen?” I considered.
“I might really add that,” I said, getting into the idea. “Why do you get to have all the fun?” But Joel was already out of the room.
On our first date, we’d had just that. Fun. Joel had driven me out of the city and into the woods, and I wondered briefly if he had evil intentions. But when I looked at him, about to ask “Are you taking me to die?,” he’d turned and grinned and it had hurt, that smile; it dazzled. I thought, this person could really love a girl. I couldn’t speak after that, almost didn’t until we pulled up at the abandoned sand quarry and he handed me a picnic basket. Packed inside were Italian subs from his favorite deli. Dill pickles. He’d brought a bouquet of wildflowers and a pint of bourbon, and we hiked the hill and set it all out on a blanket at the quarry’s top, just where the edge began to crumble. The late afternoon sun was a wall of honey. A meadowlark called. A cool breeze.
“Welcome to Mexico,” Joel had said. We’d only just met. “I mean, the quarry is called Mexico,” he said. “Don’t ask me why.”
“Have you done this before?” I couldn’t stop from being suspicious, a character flaw.
“Taken a girl to the quarry with a picnic?”
“God no,” he said, and looked hurt. “I got this idea in the shower today. You said you wanted to travel, so here we are.”
“It’s perfect,” I said. I wanted to fall in love but was afraid to. I’d loved other men who’d just loved themselves. But Joel was an in-the-moment type of guy, didn’t allow me time to think. Instead, he produced a piece of cardboard and we tobogganed down the dune, shrieking, the sand filling our socks. We ate the subs, delicious and slick with mayonnaise, Joel chewing loudly, and telling me the first of what would be a thousand off-color jokes. By the time we kissed, bourbon-soaked, I’d buried my suspicions in the sand.
We went back to Mexico every once in a while. Two summers ago, we went with beers and books and a Navajo blanket. I fell asleep, and when I woke, Joel pulled a folded piece of paper from his pocket: one of my To Do Lists.
“Look,” Joel said. A thin veil of sweat hung on his upper lip. “The new number #1,” he said, and pointed to the top of the list where he’d scribbled Marry Joel.
“Wow,” I said. I rubbed the sand from my eyes and grinned. “Let’s get around to that!”
Because I loved him. Because he loved me. Marriage, I’d heard, is a logical next step. But now here’s the thing. Love—that big gorgeous feeling you got when you met someone and wanted to fuck them every second, and move into a grungy little house with them and have their babies if they were interested in that kind of thing—and they said they were, only just not now. Love—which made you sew up the holes in their shirts, and cook them pork chops from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and go to their shows to sell their merchandise to millennials who never had cash, only credit. That Big Love—bigger than Mexico could contain—had somehow snuck away, like it was tucked into the pocket of some old coat, and you couldn’t remember where you packed it, or if, in fact, you had sent it off to Goodwill. You can imagine a younger, cuter version of yourself buying the coat and unfolding the love from the second-hand pocket, and having it bloom out in front of her. But you? You’re out of luck. You’ve lost it. Or—and this is the more terrible question I thought about in our kitchen as I took down my To Do list and readied my pen—does everybody just lose it, and that’s the biggest joke of all? That Love is a firefly, trapped and held hostage, dazzling behind glass, only then to sputter and dim and die.
Kiss a man –or woman, really –with a walker. I wrote that down. Suddenly, the idea didn’t seem any more preposterous than sleeping with Joel for the rest of my life.
On the first day of the reunion, Joel and I drove up the tree-lined driveway of the school, our old Toyota groaning, in time for lunch. Joel powered down the watercress sandwiches and local chicken breasts, and needed a nap. His black t-shirt made the dark circles under his eyes stand out, and the widow peak under his frizz of hair looked so sharp in the sunlight, I was reminded that he’d soon be forty. Which meant I’d be thirty-six.
“Anyway,” he added conspiratorially, “I gotta check out these dorm cots they’re putting us up in. Gotta check out the springs.” He licked his lips and winked in a way that I used to find funny, and now just found crude. Which is when Len brought Violet and the kids over, and we did the whole reunion dance, my heart unexpectedly winging around like a butterfly in pollen.
Violet was as gushing as Len was quiet.
“Isn’t it all so quaint?” Violet said, breathlessly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so cute, except in the movies. All these little houses!” Her hair was secured under a straw hat with a floppy brim, and her dress was a scatter of roses. I looked down at my tired jeans and battered boots and breathed in the scent of her: feminine and well-cared for and probably Chanel.
“We didn’t know how lucky we had it,” I said, a bead of sweat down my back. It crossed my mind that Violet would never have survived at a school like this, all brambles and ticks.
“Yeah,” Joel echoed. “The rest of us were eating chop suey in public school trailers and you guys were talking Shakespeare in the arboretum or something.”
“I just can’t wait for our kids to be old enough,” Violet added, as if she hadn’t heard Joel. “I mean, they may want to go someplace different, but what an exciting decision.” She looked at me, her eyes warm brown, and if this hadn’t been Len’s wife, I’d have been cutting my own eyes at the ground. But this is who Len married and he looked happy, so I smiled back.
Joel took his cue to exit. I knew he’d bitch about it later—the whole reunion probably—a favorite, his bougie complaints.
“Oh how quaint,” he’d mimic, his eyes flashing. Joel, a self-made man, a talented guy. Joel, bitter towards those who’d had it easier. I’d had it easier. Sometimes he forgot that. But here, flanked by a new state-of-the-art theatre and a parking lot of BMW’s, he was having a hard time forgetting anything.
“We’ll see you at the wildflower hike,” I called after his receding form, a joke.
“Ooh, that hike looked wonderful,” said Violet.
On the library porch with the night falling around us there is no Joel and there is no Violet. Violet has gone to put their son to bed, and Joel is still deep in conversation with Mick. I sigh and know there’s no need to apologize for the privilege of this school to Len, the nostalgia so thick between us I can taste it. Together, we’re looking out at the field where a younger Len used to play Wynton Marsalis on his trumpet late at night until the dorm parents put a stop to it.
“You still play?” I ask him.
“Nah,” he says. “Hard to practice the horn in New York. Too many neighbors.” He pauses. “There’s a lot I did here that I’ve given up.” He puts his lips to his daughters’ head.
“I know,” I say. “We were renaissance. I learned to play the lute for god’s sake! You can bet I don’t play that anymore.” Len laughs.
“You were good at the lute,” he says.
“That’s very nice of you,” I say, “but untrue.”
At sixteen, I snuck out of my dorm every night to visit Len in his. He’d pull me in, kick his roommate out, and pour me contraband vodka. Then we’d pull each other’s clothes off and grope around until we got better at it.
“When we first started kissing, you were terrible,” he’d told me after we’d dated for a month. “Really bad.”
“It’s because I’d never kissed anyone before,” I’d said, crushingly embarrassed: everything I’d never done I’d felt I should have done already. I always felt so far behind.
“What a stereotype,” he teased. “Sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” Nothing he ever said was mean.
Len graduated a year ahead of me, went to school in California, and wrote me hundreds of letters. I’ve still got them all—thin squares stacked up and tied tight—love-sick, but mostly homesick, so far away. I haunted the school’s P.O. for a new letter, and when one came, ripped it open and dove into his careful metered penmanship, only to find banal stories about his day: studying, hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, drinking too much again. He missed me, he said. He couldn’t wait to see me, he said. I searched each letter for poetry, searched for some deeper connection, but he was an eighteen-year-old boy in college for the first time, and the most I could find were Jimi Hendrix lyrics, transcribed for me painstakingly in full, love Leonard.
That winter vacation, Len and I spent a week together at my parent’s house—most of the time we spent on the couch, my face buried in his flannel shirt.
“I missed you so much,” I said. His body next to mine was ambrosia. I breathed in the fabric softener, the cologne. I couldn’t bear to think about him leaving again. My mother, exasperated by our mooning around, sent us out on errands. Groceries, hardware shop, post office. I bought stamps in preparation for more letters, and Len looked at me strangely.
When it was time for him to go home, Len avoided my eyes.
“I think it’s over,” he said. It was like he’d punched me in the face.
“It’s too hard, the long distance,” he said. “I think it will be better for both of us.” It was the first mean thing he’d ever said.
“So when did you and Joel get married?” Len asks me now. Len, the older version. Len, with a few gray hairs.
“Two years ago, justice of the peace,” I say. “We had a big party, and his band played, and we had these girls doing a trapeze show. It was a lot of fun.”
“Sounds it,” Len says.
“Our honeymoon was in the Poconos—not Europe or anything, but I always hate doing stuff people expect, so we rented a cottage and had our friends up for venison roasts.”
What I don’t say is how, since the wedding, I to-do-list obsessively. Newly minted is #5: learn basket weaving. I’ve added and crossed off “have a baby” three times—crossed it off because I am never sure. Joel isn’t bothered by our current life, doesn’t want too much to change. But now I’ve been wondering if it is the child, not the man, whom the Big Love sticks around for. Perhaps that’s the kind that doesn’t go missing, that continues shining past due dates or snuff dates or a lack of oxygen.
Len is rocking ever so slightly in his wooden rocking chair.
“Did you finally lose the itch?” he asks.
“You were so restless when I knew you. You told me you wanted to date other people. You were bored.”
“I did?” It’s incredible how our memories do not align.
“Yeah, you don’t remember?” Len cracks a wry smile. “Why do you think we broke up?”
“Well,” I say, miffed, “I think we broke up because you said, ‘I want to break up with you.’”
“Hold on,” says Len. He stops rocking. “It’s a long time ago now, but just for the record, you wrote saying you couldn’t do long distance. You said you wanted to go out and experience life. So the next time I saw you, I bit the bullet. I did say that. But you planted the seed.”
“Oh,” I say, and my heart hurts a little bit. I vaguely remember my letters back to him. And had there been somebody else, an artist crush? I seem to have forgotten what matters most. “Is that true?”
“Yeah,” Len continues. “I was at reunion five years ago, and I asked after you and I heard you hadn’t gotten married—not that that’s so weird—but I just wondered if it was still that itch, bothering you.”
“Well yeah, clearly I lost the itch,” I say defensively.
“I figured you would.”
I don’t reply, can’t think of a thing, and silence blooms around us like a moon flower, even though I don’t want it to. I don’t want to be the kind of woman other people understand more than the woman understands herself. Misguided, out-to-lunch, a fool.
“So, do you like being a dad?” I ask Len, trying to shift the focus, even though I already know the answer. The way he’s placed his hand over his girl’s tummy. The way he cut his son’s lamb at dinner, carefully separating the fat from the meat. And I watched Len with Violet, how he put his hand on the small of her back and asked her if she’d like more wine. How she put her head back and laughed. I’d looked at Joel who was deep in conversation with a dude half his age, and I’d sighed. Joel was too loud, too gregarious, too sloppy. I’d crossed “have a baby” off my list because I couldn’t fathom how you could bring kids into this world when you still had a big nasty voice in your head that was hissing “Is this it?”
“Sure,” Len says now, and he sees me watching, too intensely, and he breaks eye contact. “I mean, it takes some getting used to,” he murmurs. “It’s a lot of work. The crying, the diapers, the spit up. But once they’re bigger, it’s fun.”
At that moment I hear Joel calling my name. His voice is thick with beer. I don’t say anything, but when he calls again, Len says:
“Aren’t you going to answer?” And I realize that Len would never hide from Violet like this. I realize right then what Len would tell me if I asked him the secret to a happy marriage: no secret. You make a decision and marry one person, and you love that person and you don’t listen to the hungry voice—an insatiable locust really—which is always screaming for more.
“There isn’t more,” I say aloud, and Len looks at me like I remember him doing so long ago: uncomfortably, like he doesn’t understand what he sees. My cheeks go crimson like they did in high school.
This is more.
I have always been so far behind.
“Joel!” I say, and my voice is shrill. “Joel, over here!” There is a thud, like a flower pot has tumbled, and then heavy feet on the steps.
“Thank God,” Joel says, opening the door. “Next thing I was going to do was cuddle up to the sheep, no way I can figure out this god-damned place in the dark.”
Joel’s eyes adjust to the dimness, and he sees Len hoisting his daughter onto his shoulder. “Oh, hey you’re here, too,” Joel says. “A real reunion.” The clinking of plates and glasses from the tent outside means the caterers are cleaning up.
“Time for bed,” Len answers, pointing to the drool escaping his little girl’s mouth. I’m suddenly taken over by a desire to hold her, this drowsy creature made by Len and someone else. Instead, I take Joel’s hand.
“Of course,” I say. “We won’t keep you.”
“There’s a party,” says Joel, “a bonfire down in the woods. You should come out after you put the tyke in bed.”
“Thanks,” says Len, and there might be regret in his voice, but then I think I’m getting it confused with my own. And then I think it isn’t even my own regret, but rather a current of regret that zings around the world, poisoning your heart if you let it. “I’ll probably skip it this time. But you guys have fun.”
When Len leaves with his daughter, the screen door slaps behind him. A firefly blinks.
“Good party,” Joel says, uncharacteristically sanguine. “Nice people.”
“Really?” I say. “I thought you hated these types.” I can just barely see his face, a round of bone, two dark quarries for eyes.
“Nah,” Joel shrugs, and turns to survey the hill in front of us. “It’s a beautiful spot.”
“I always thought so,” I said. Joel pulls me to him and I let him. We stand close and still like that in the dark, the breeze wafting in lazily like it will after we’re all gone.
Sarah Earle Záhořík received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire, where she is
currently a lecturer in English as a Second Language. Her work has been published in Bayou
Magazine, and The Cobalt Review.
There was to be a wedding at the old Bethel Church, which seemed peculiar. As far as Edith knew, nothing happened there these days except club meetings or funerals for families with plots in the church’s ancient cemetery. Then came a jolt, the bride’s maiden name—Cotterill.
Edith spread the paper, The Sour Springs Record, on her kitchen table, so a strip of sunlight fell over a picture of the bride, shown standing alongside a horse. A handsome girl with a self-assured smile, dark hair that disappeared behind her shoulders. Raised in Houston, the article said, her father in investments, her mother some sort of artist who ran a gallery. A grandfather, Eldon Cotterill, now of Beaumont, had grown up in the Sour Springs community. No mention of the man’s wife, but there was timberland and an old homestead on a lake in the Thickets. Among the bride’s passions was historical preservation, and thus her fascination with the little church, which her grandfather’s father had helped build “the way they did in those days.”
Adjusting her glasses, Edith tried to finish the article even as her mind clung to the name back up there, Eldon Cotterill—the Eldon Cotterill of fifty some-odd years ago, a lean, long-jawed, dark-haired, arrogant boy on a horse, a dark-faced sorrel he would ride to school like a cowboy, along with some of the other high school boys. At once, her breath gave out, a taste of bitterness. She shoved the paper aside, crumpling it into a fat ball.
Breakfast done, she heaved herself up and began to clear the table, but hadn’t the will for it right then. She took a Coca-Cola from the refrigerator and, in her bedroom, cigarettes and a book of matches from a drawer in the bedside table.
It was the first week of June, warm with crystal sparks of dew in the yard grass. She sat on the front porch and smoked a stale Winston and drank from an iced tea glass, concentrating on her Boer goats—twenty-seven of them now—grazing in the pasture that sloped down toward the country road out in front of the house. Six months after Harlan died, she had cleared the place of farm animals, went through a period of depressed boredom and finally accepted a neighbor’s offer to go into the goat business with him. It’s one of those health things, a lot better for you than beef, Max Kembro said, excited about the prospects. He swore that in a few years everybody was going to be eating goat meat. The ranch and farm magazines and a man he knew at the Extension Service were saying it.
Edith put up half the money and the pasture. Max and his teenage son took on most of the work. It kept the weeds and briers down and, after a time, she realized, offered company. Goats were clean, cheaper than cattle to raise, and liked people, at least they liked to nuzzle her. In their voices—bleating people mistakenly called it—she detected a human sound, especially the youngsters. Sometimes at night, if they were riled by something, she would lie in bed and listen to the kids and grown-ups jabbering at one another, spreading rumors, perhaps calling out to her.
In a while, Edith stubbed out the cigarette and went out among them, spreading vitamin-laced feed from a burlap bag. The babies curled in behind their mothers, and some of the nannies came up to her, shoving, baring denture-looking teeth stained green from clover, asking to nibble from her hand. Sometimes she would grip a pair of spiked horns and wrestle for a minute with one of the young ones who especially liked jostling with her. Their gentle, submissive faces and smooth coats, musty and warm under the sun, offered a simple pleasure.
There was a slight breeze. Edith emptied the bag, flapping the last of the grain from it. She tied her moss-gray hair back and then, in a fit of distraction, undid the top buttons of her blouse and slipped it free to let the sun burnish her shoulders, which were sloped and hulking now, the loose skin slightly tanned and freckled. As a girl she’d shot up before the others her age, a beanpole by the time she was twelve or thirteen, and then with little warning her figure took shape, breasts appeared, an embarrassment. The junior high boys seemed indifferent, but over in the high school next door they noticed. For a while it confused and distracted her. Around Christmas there was a school play where she and another girl danced and sang a song that was popular then—“Blue Skies”…Blue skies shining at me; nothing but blue skies do I see…Bluebirds…—and while they were performing in blue satin dresses and stockings, boys began to whistle. Seared into her mind, later on, would be the notion that Eldon Cotterill was one of them, sitting near the front of the auditorium with the high school seniors.
In any case, eventually Eldon Cotterill did notice her. There was a certain day she was walking along the road in front of the school and heard a horse coming up behind her, the leather saddle creaking. “Hey. Hey, girl,” was how he started out and then asked if she wouldn’t like to climb up. “I’ll trot her for you” are words she thought she remembered. Most likely she didn’t answer. But it sent a chill through her, a sense of wonder. She hurried on.
The next time was different. She was with some other girls and, out of something, a faked brazenness or disappointment with herself over the last time, she didn’t refuse. Eldon Cotterill leaned out of the saddle, grasped an arm and lifted her flying up behind him. There was cheering from her friends. They galloped a quarter of a mile to where the road parted around a big hickory on the edge of downtown and then trotted back, ending up beside the high school in a growth of trees where the boys tied their horses. She slid down. “Now once you’re grow up don’t forget to come see me,” Eldon Cotterill called after her, showing off for the popular crowd, boys and their girlfriends, who were gathered there. Was he kidding? Was he mocking? She wasn’t sure but knew that she would go with him again anytime.
He was strong is what had finally stuck with her—and jerky, unpredictable with the reins in a way that seemed to confuse the horse as well as force her to grasp his waist to keep her balance. It was a big horse, a long way to the ground.
Once the nannies and kids were fed and she had filled the water trough, Edith went out to the back pasture where Max had isolated two of the billies, an old one and a young buck. They would both get ornery from time to time, especially when there were little ones that stuck close to their mothers. If you didn’t watch they’d move in and try to keep the kids from sucking, and butt and pester when they began graze. Max had decided to wether the old one to quiet him down and fatten him up for the packing house. He was already plenty stout, with a long back, horns that curved to a wicked point, a brown-splotched face and beard as ragged as an old hermit’s.
The two bucks stood at a distance and pepped up only when she came in the pen with the feed buckets that Edith set well apart, so there’d be no fighting over who got what. Then as she went to work spreading hay, a car pulled up in front of the house. She heard it on the gravel drive. My god, she thought, last thing I want is company. But then it was Willa Starnes, who came striding across the backyard in a flowing skirt, waving her sunhat. A thought flashed in Edith’s mind that over coffee, which was surely what Willa had come for, she would spread out the newspaper and find a way to confide in her—and perhaps in the telling of it release some of the poison that had begun to circulate in her blood that morning. Willa was her best friend, or at least one of the few left that she cared to be around anymore.
“I caught you goatin’ again,” Willa said, still moving toward her. “I thought you were the foreman and Max was supposed to do the work.”
“Well, I get bored.”
“I brought sweet corn muffins,” Willa announced. She had them on a covered plate.
Willa was something like seven years younger, sixty-two, though still girlish at times. Her hair was cut fashionably with red highlights and her person on the plump side, but that plump that struck you as warm and inviting. She admired herself a little too much, Edith sometimes thought, but who ever had a friend they couldn’t complain about. “You want to hear something I ought not to say,” she had told Edith a month or so after Harlan’s funeral. “I’m envious, flat jealous of you living on your own. No one to have to tend to. You know what I want more than anything? To have a date. I want to go out with a man I hardly know and hear him say something I didn’t expect him to say.”
Edith cleared the table of the breakfast things, put coffee on and retrieved the newspaper from the trash can under the sink where she’d finally stuffed it. It was wrinkled, damp with food stains.
“You got a cigarette,” Willa said, twitching her fingers. She didn’t smoke but when they were together. Edith struck a match for Willa’s cigarette and then used the flame to light one for herself. She set out the corn muffins and poured coffee and laid the filthy paper folded on a corner of the table.
“I have lost fourteen pounds almost,” Willa exclaimed, without glancing at the paper. “Does it show?”
“You look good.”
“Actually, my life’s falling apart,” she blurted, deep wrinkles appearing.
“I mean it. Dear God, it’s true. I’m having an affair,” she said. “With a man, not an old man either.” She exhaled smoke, coughing a cough that quickly turned to harsh laughter. Her cheeks bunched up and then a crystal glaze appeared, brightening her eyes. She started in: He was a man from Port Arthur who came through from time to time inspecting oil field rigs and drilling sites for a state agency. Willa had met him at the Valero gas station, standing out by their cars, pumping gas side by side. An hour later he came to her table at Burl’s Cafe.
“That’s all it took,” Willa said. “He sat down. He’s not completely handsome, a little over weight too, but my god, gentle and the cleanest fingernails. All my life I’ve been sitting down to supper with a man with fingernails I can’t stand to look at.”
She wouldn’t touch a muffin, but reached out for Edith’s hand, and sniffled and opened her mouth again and didn’t close it for the next half-hour.
In the pasture under a blue sky hung with sheer white clouds, Edith led the nannie who they called Freya up onto the milking platform and coaxed her head into the stanchion and clamped the bar shut over her neck. Max or his son, Evan, usually did the milking, but this evening they had gone straight to the back pasture with the equipment to finish making a wether of the old billie they’d banded some days ago, and Edith had offered to milk. With cows, milking could be a chore, but she didn’t mind the nannies. Give them something to munch on and they would relax and chew their cuds. You could hear their teeth clicking as milk shot into the pail. And they enjoyed conversation—a little soothing talk would settle them into a near reverie.
Which was a comfort after having killed the morning with Willa. Once Willa left, the wrinkled newspaper had traveled from the breakfast table, to a far corner of the kitchen counter and finally the top of the refrigerator. Now, squeezing milk from Freya, speaking gently to her, the picture of the bride swept into Edith’s head and she thought of the Bethel church. An old relic kept up all these years by the community, it had a deep green lawn, cherry laurel lining the walkways, and a brass bell in a little steeple on the roof peak—for at one time the building was both a church and one-room school house. It was there she and her younger brother attended grade school, until the bus started running into Sour Springs.
She couldn’t deny she’d been taken with of Eldon Cotterill. The thrill and pleasant redolence of the horse, the sensation of her hands on the boy’s sharp ribs, had remained, and she looked for every chance to be noticed again. He would appear across the school yard full of energy, trading punches with boys, flirting with girls, smoothing his hair back over his head, about the most popular boy there. It took nearly a month, Easter time. She had stayed late to help decorate the hallways and auditorium, so she missed the bus home and started into town to try to catch a ride with somebody going out her way. Walking past the high school, the tall, narrow windows glazed by sunlight, a stroke of luck. There was Eldon Cotterill back under the trees. He was saddling up, the sorrel horse throwing its head. Edith hid her face with a book, imagining how to close the distance between them without looking eager and silly, what to say if he noticed her. Then a boy appeared from the back of the school. He was running hard with his head down toward Eldon Cotterill. She knew him, that boy, not his name, but who he was. His mother worked in the cafeteria, ladling out food, checking as you washed your tray, and often, in the afternoon, she cleaned the girls bathroom in Edith’s building. Her son was a third-grader with a rough haircut and, as he ran, a cotton shirt that bellowed up on his back.
She watched Eldon Cotterill smooth the boy’s yellow hair with a hand and then a comb from his back pocket. He lifted the boy into the saddle, swung up behind him and trotted off. Edith caught her breath and, in a moment of bravery, set out after them across the ball field toward the woods beyond the school. It was simple, she’d find a way to intercept them, appearing as if she had just happened along, a girl at ease in the woods. It would impress Eldon Cotterill. He’d invite her up as before, and they’d ride beneath the trees, the three of them scrunched together on the horse, and then eventually out of the shadows and on into the heart of town, the start of something.
The thing was they quickly vanished into the trees and bush. She hurried. There was a path, but she skirted it, moved on into the thickets and then beneath hardwoods, using her books to fight choked undergrowth when it rose up to block the way. Feeble sunlight fluttered thorough the trees. There was an armadillo’s ravaged shell, a squirrel on the move overhead, an unnerving silence. Edith got lost. She waited briefly, went on, and then, hearing the horse snort once and then again, followed the sound. At last, through the foliage she spotted the horse and further on there was Eldon Cotterill and the boy in a stippled clearing. Nervous as to what to do, Edith moved as close as she dared, raised her skirt and on her knees inched on through leaf mold into a tangle of vines. What she witnessed from there was more like fleeting images than reality. The boy lay flat on his back shirtless and Eldon Cotterill stripping him of his jeans, then working off his own boots and trousers. She would remember the boy’s skin white as a blanched chicken and Eldon Cotterill’s voice drifting in the utter quiet…and being at a loss, confused as to what was happening until things went on, more than she could have ever imagined. Edith grew tense as a stick, a hand pressed tight to her mouth. Full of shame and witness to a nameless crime. She might’ve screamed, or ran to stop it, or backed out of her little burrow and left. She didn’t.
After Freya, Edith milked three more nannies, enough to fill two small pails. She carried the milk to the house and placed it in the refrigerator for Max to pick-up, all but some she would keep back for coffee. While squeezing lemons, she heard them on the front porch.
“We’re too filthy to come in the house,” Max said, accepting a glass of lemonade; his billed cap was pushed back on his head. There was blood dried on his fingers and work shirt and drops in a pattern on Evan’s face. Edith came back with a warm cloth and held the boy’s chin and scrubbed his cheeks and forehead.
“He was kicking,” Evan said, his eyes squeezed shut as she worked on him.
“Don’t give me any details,” Edith said.
Max was lean, work-muscled, caring, as good a man as she had ever known. He and her own son had been friends all their lives. She had sort of hoped that her daughter would take up with Max, but Denise had ambitions that didn’t include country life. She married on a beach near Corpus Christi and was soon divorced and moved into a new existence down there. Edith’s son ended up over in Louisiana, Lake Charles, working in city government.
As he was leaving, Max asked her to go out in an hour or two to get the old billie up and get him walking. Be sure he was taking water. “He’ll be a little testy,” he warned her.
At last she was alone and she ate alone, fresh tomatoes and a stew with pork simmering in it. She wouldn’t touch goat meat—had never taken a bite of it—though Max kept offering, swore it was delicious hickory-barbequed. There was no excuse she could give. She and Harlan had slaughtered cattle and hogs and squirrels and deer and about every other wild creature, but now, maybe it was her tender old age, she wouldn’t raise her own hand, much less a knife, against one of the goats. When Max sold one or took a load to the packing house, she stayed out of sight.
Edith got to bed early, woke at three, again at four, audibly grinding her teeth. The dentist had made a plastic guard for them, but she had never gotten used to the thing, afraid she might choke on it in her sleep. At seven, Max came to check on the billie, and Janine, his wife in her tight jeans and hippy sandals, went down to the pasture to do the milking. The morning was bright, the air drier than usual, a high blue sky.
“That old buck’ll be happier now he doesn’t have females on the brain,” Janine said to Edith, as they walked up to the pen where Max was bathing the goat’s wound with disinfectant. Janine yelled out to the ruined buck, “Just wallow in your leisure, hear. You’ll get plenty of apple cores to grow nice and fat on.”
They were drinking coffee Janine had brought in a thermos jug, the expensive kind you grind at home, which was, in fact, a little burnt tasting to Edith’s mind. Max had found his wife at a community college in the suburbs of Houston, a city girl who had taken to country life.
“Come over and we’ll go to the river,” she said now, clutching Edith’s arm. “I know where there’s a ton of berries along the bank.”
“I can’t.” Edith paused to catch up her breath. “I’m going to the beauty shop in a little while and this afternoon to a wedding.”
That decision had been made sometime in the early morning, as the light of dawn forced the shadows from the corners of her bedroom. It was not what she wanted to do. It scared her to think about it. But the opportunity had presented itself and she was caught up in it—a chance to judge how the years might have scarred him, Eldon Cotterill, whose presence had worked itself as deep into her memory as a death.
In the beginning, back then, she had been too stunned, defeated to deal with what she had witnessed, do what should have been done. Pictures stamped in her head, but no words fit to utter to her best friend, much less her mother or the boy’s mother or anyone in authority who might do something about it. Without words, the anguish, a kind of self-condemnation, stirred in her. She crept about the school in an altered state, hiding her face when the yellow-haired boy—he was called Buster, she learned—appeared, or she glimpsed Eldon Cotterill going about his business, untroubled.
Then she saw them together once again, a few days or maybe a week later, the flow of time would escape her. The boy was brushing Eldon Cotterill’s big brown horse, a soda pop in one hand. There were other high school boys lounging around under the trees. Edith rushed away, but was soon drawn back to the front of the high school to check once more, and this time Eldon Cotterill and the boy were gone. A saddle lay under the trees, so they must have ridden away bareback.
Her first thought was of the boy’s mother, but then found herself heading for the grade school building, rushing, as if the structure might vanish before she got there. Through a side door, down the plank hallway with familiar smells of floor wax and unclean little bodies, past the open doors of empty classrooms. Lingering in the hallway a moment, she imagined herself entering Mrs. Pernell’s room, her former fourth-grade teacher, the one she trusted most. She saw herself sit down and explain what she had witnessed, and Mrs. Pernell’s sudden alarm and then Mr. Terrance, the principal, and others rushing into the woods to get their hands on Eldon Cotterill. That’s what she imagined, but not what happened. Mrs. Pernell was there all right, working at her desk. But, at the doorway, Edith’s throat clogged like there was a pit caught in it, her courage began to quake and she backed off. Then came the forethought that even if they believed what she said about Eldon Cotterill, she might be the one accused: “You lay there watching that? What were you doing in the woods anyway? You’ve been keeping this secret how long?”
Thank God above that he graduated in May, went off to college they said, and she never saw him again. Buster she was forced to see on occasion all through her years in high school; from afar, she watched him taking on the features of youth and wondered at the dark thoughts and feelings that might affect his growing up—and his mother, a small, tight-lipped woman in a hairnet, she encountered practically every day.
It changed her, those few minutes in the woods, or at least that’s what she came to believe. At the worst, a guilt bordering on self-hatred, as if she had played a part in it, welled up sometimes, expanding inside her not to be released. She never spoke a word to anyone. In high school she was careful with boys, suspicious, avoiding sex or anything close to it, and she developed an absolute hatred for the memory of Eldon Cotterill, and a hope that in the natural scheme of things, he would be punished.
A year after graduating, about the time she was thinking of going off on her own, maybe to San Antonio where she had a girlfriend, she met Harlan Caldwell, who was nine years older. She fell in love with him, a growing, attentive sort of love, the place they finally bought, the two good children they had, and was never sorry about any of it.
Edith wore a pale floral dress with a small jacket and black, low-heeled shoes, her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She carried white cotton gloves in her fist. It was five miles along country roads to the church. At first she drove on past, observing the crowd out front, and then a mile up got the nerve to turn around. She parked along with other cars on the roadside pointed toward home, gathered herself, and walked up the freshly cut embankment to the lawn and into the crowd. There were more dressed-up people and agitated kids in ties and frilly dresses than surely the little church could hold. All strangers, prosperous, it seemed, and chatty, voices carrying on the air. She approached a man standing a little apart, smoking.
“Are you bride or groom?” she asked him, keeping up appearances.
He glanced up and coughed into his fist and said groom, he supposed, though it was his wife that had dragged him here. He had a hesitant voice and splotched-red face, an alcoholic’s face, which made her, in her nervousness, want to reach out and take his arm, but instead, she chatted, told him about the old church building, that she had gone to school here. She pointed out the bell on the rooftop. After a minute she asked if he happen to know of the bride’s grandfather, “Eldon Cotterill it would be.”
“Mr. Cotterill? Over that way.” The man raised his cigarette. “The one with the cane.”
The man’s back was turned. Edith made her way around huddled groups toward him. At a distance, she saw a tall old man in a blue suit, sloped shoulders, with an abundance of fleecy white hair. A shock: he was deeply aged, but to a degree, sill recognizable. At an angle, she studied his face, the long jaw, sharp bones beneath his eyes, a man who might have once been in politics or overseen an estate. As the man beside him spoke, this Eldon Cotterill gripped the cane, which seemed in his red fist as much a weapon as anything else. An eight or nine-year-old girl came up and took his free hand. A woman came too, middle-aged, in an electric wheelchair. She was gaunt in a pastel dress, sparse brown hair, barely able to hold her head up. With a noticeable tremor, Cotterill leaned down to kiss her cheek. Edith watched, feeling terribly disappointed.
Music rose from inside the church and people began to fall into place to go in. She glanced around at confident faces, fine clothes and jewelry, the women’s hats…a scent of perfume that reminded her of lantana. The music, something classical that seemed familiar, came from two young women, one playing a flute, the other a guitar. Ushers, young boys wearing cloth gloves, coaxed her into a pew halfway down the aisle and she found herself at the very end, against the wall between a grim-faced woman with heavy shoulders and a huge arrangement of delphiniums. The little church was overrun with them, delphiniums, calla lilies, other white and blue flowers.
Edith pulled on her gloves and closed her eyes, absorbing the music. As the wedding march started, she grasped the pew in front of her and stood with the others, recalling those few years of school here, how the furniture had been arranged, two students to a desk, a young teacher named Miss Devane she could not quite visualize except she had bobbed hair. The minister wore a black and scarlet robe. They came together and said their vows, the enviable couple, a stout young man, a tall, slim girl barely recognized as the one in the newspaper. There was an unnecessarily long, passionate kiss and music again. The bride lifted her dress with two hands and came down from the platform to Eldon Cotterill, as he rose from his place to receive her. The whole thing was an intimate spectacle, a bright jewel of a wedding. It doesn’t matter, Edith told herself, but, of course, it did.
Outside, feathered clouds and bright sunlight blessed the gathering crowd. The bride and groom came hurrying through grains of rice to a chauffeured car, and the big black Buick pulled away, down the drive, out onto the country road heading god knows where. Edith watched all this, and then, somewhat numb, backed away to circle the crowd, thinking it was over now, that was that. She longed to go home, felt the need of it in her limbs and started for the car down a clay path lined with laurel hedges where the man she had spoken to earlier stood alone, fidgeting as he lit a cigarette. The sight of him slouched over complicit in his own destruction provoked her. She drew herself up, turned and made her way back to the crowd, then on to a circle of men, five or six of them, where stood Eldon Cotterill. Unnoticed, and without waiting to be acknowledged, she stepped forward and broke into the conversation.
“I believe I knew you,” Edith said, the strain in her voice unfamiliar to her own ears.
The small circle opened up. The man raised his damp eyes on her.
She said, “I knew you in high school, at Sour Springs High School a long time ago.”
“Oh…?” The voice was phlegmy.
“It’s true,” Edith went on. “We had a friend in common, a young boy, a lot younger than we were. You might remember his mother, she worked in the cafeteria there. His name was Buster. Buster. You were acquainted with him back then, I happen to know that.”
The old man studied her, dropped a fist over the one grasping the cane. “What do you mean?”
“He was a good boy.” Edith’s breath stopped short. “Eight-years-old, don’t tell me you don’t remember him.”
“Lady, I never saw you in my life.” Eldon Cotterill glanced around at the others. “Anybody know her?”
“You have seen me alright.” Edith was trembling now. “You used that child!” And with no thought of dignity or anything else, she pushed forward and struck him, a flashing, open-handed blow across the jaw, stinging her own palm. At once, someone was on her. Others joined in. She jerked, slapping at whatever she could reach, as they forced her back. “Don’t dare touch me,” she let out, twisting away from them. There was a brief standoff. She gathered herself, started out across the grass—fast walking and then almost running…running, loping, in those damn new shoes.
She drove home at a speed far faster than she should have on the country road, feverish. Feverish still, when she reached the house, when she sat in a slip before her dresser mirror scrubbing makeup from her face with tissue and cold cream, revealing familiar fissures and soft wrinkles, wondering at this woman before her with locks of ash-gray hair and fitful eyes.
At some point the phone rang, and as Edith let it ring, she felt all those other eyes on her, bewildered, ignorant men in white collars and ties. They would remember her, she thought, the momentary power she wielded, and this Eldon Cotterill, with those small concentrated eyes, would remember her as well. Not from back then but from this moment on. Would he recall the boy? Were there others? If there was no triumph, at least she felt some precious space, the dark haired boy she had known hushed from her mind, replaced by an impotent old man reduced to a cane.
When the phone rang again sometime later, it was Max asking her to go out to the pen and check on the old billie. He ought to be up and getting around, he said. There shouldn’t be any bleeding. It was twilight when she finally went out there in her night gown, barefoot on the prickly grass and thistles. The air was damp and fresh, shades of pink and violet fading into the distance woods. On seeing her, the old billie hefted himself onto his four feet and stood stark still in his corner taking her in. She grasped the fence rail as she had the pew in the old church and rested her chin on her hands and, with a touch of pity, watched him in his misery. He was stumbling some and, as the young buck rose up across the corral, started to bawl.
Jerry Whitus has had stories published by Ploughshares, Chicago Quarterly Review, Manoa (a “distinguished story” in Best American Short Stories), The Literary Review, Nimrod, Potomac Review, Jabberwock Review, and other journals. He studied fiction writing in the graduate program at the University of Texas and for a number of years made a living as a freelance writer specializing in film and video for education, industry and entertainment, with a large number of national awards. He has also been an administrator, teacher and teacher-trainer in universities in the USA, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam (on a USAID grant), and Colombia.
New York City: Sarabande Books, 2015.
Reviewed by Doreen Thierauf
Hurry Please I Want to Know is Paul Griner’s second short story collection, following the release of his third novel, Second Life, in early 2015. This eclectic yet wonderfully coherent collection proves once again Griner’s acute grasp of the complex and slippery emotions leading from gladness to mourning. Throughout, his characters take the reader on rich and elegiac journeys, each of only a few moments’ duration.
The collection consists of twenty-two pieces of varying (but overall short) length. The shortest piece is a 100-word surreal drabble, the longest story—the collection’s best, “On Board the SS Irresponsible”—barely runs over twenty pages. True to its title and epigraph, both borrowed from T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the collection is a forceful but self-consciously impotent plea for emotional bulwarks that may help ground contemporary experience. Griner knows that the state and its institutions have ceased to provide meaningful guidance. In “Newbie Was Here,” for instance, a private in the Second Iraq War must risk his life and sacrifice an innocent to follow an irrelevant order.
Relationships appear to be the only other means to live a meaningful life, but Griner suggests that clinging to family or lovers is equally pointless. Unexpected pockets of loneliness and despair syncopate Griner’s characters’ lives, resembling accidental knots or cuts in otherwise predictable strings of trivial events. Although we all inherit our ancestors’ physical and temperamental traits —a theme humorously explored in “Lands and Times” where facial features and habits belonging to a lately deceased grandfather are distributed among surviving family members—the one constant in Griner’s stories is that the pain of loss is inevitable and unfathomably difficult to deal with. This is not to say that the stories, with their deadpan narrators, impossible ethical dilemmas, and often bizarre and dream-like internal laws, do not also manage to be hysterically funny. Griner understands that, at their core, emotions are physiological noise, and he expertly evokes situations in which the reader is invited to indulge in almost medical self-observation before responding to the stories’ absurdities and profundities with the same narrow embodied repertoire—laughter, sadness, confusion—as Griner’s protagonists and narrators.
About half of the pieces, among them the excellent “The Caricaturist’s Daughter,” are surrealist compositions that juxtapose Griner’s smooth and contemporary conversational tone with absurd, magical, or nightmarish plots reminiscent of Murakami or Borges. The stories are disorienting, but never become self-serving or obfuscating. “The Caricaturist’s Daughter,” for instance, tells the story of Bernadette, whose aging and increasingly reckless father must draw her features every morning to replace the “shallow pool” where her face should be. Bernadette’s father causes her pain both at school and at home: he draws her a glazed donut mouth or oversized clown-feet to punish her and allows his marriage (to a made-up wife) to disintegrate amid useless material wealth. Bernadette eventually learns to draw herself and, when the tables are turned, her alcoholic father appears “only in his absence, no matter how many times she sketched him in.” It would be too easy to read the story as a parable about flawed parental interventions or children’s suffering. The surreal world Griner creates is richer, and vastly more corporeal, than allegory.
Griner’s investment in corporeal reactions or materializations allows this collection to stand out. One particularly good surreal story, “Open Season,” follows two word hunters in a world increasingly bereft of complex vocabulary. Words in this story—Kentucky, silicone, lavender, and please—bleed blue ink and smell of childhood memories. The hunters slit their carcasses “from anus to breastbone” and mount them to their living room walls as trophies. One of Griner’s two-pagers, “A Sharp Winter, an Obese Smile,” investigates the physical sensations of being let down by family members, the mother’s anger turning “bigger and bigger, all chest and balls and sulfurous cologne.” In “Hotei,” a woman traumatized by three past miscarriages observes how another miscarrying woman offers food to Buddha, hoping for better luck during future pregnancies. The protagonist eventually offers herself to Buddha, praying for impossible completion through motherhood: “I turn, kneel, lay my wet face against the Buddha’s smooth swollen stomach. It’s in there, I think. What I want, what I need, what will make me whole.” Rarely do words feel so alive, fragrant, and bloody.
The collection’s most memorable stories thematically revolve around experiences of mourning. Griner seems particularly interested in capturing the painful sensation of life carrying on in violent disregard of one’s inability to cope with having lost a loved one. In “Balloon Rides Ten Dollars,” for instance, a recently bereaved woman’s trip in a hot air balloon feels like a doomed ascent to heaven; a mourning husband must physically transform into his dead wife in order to weep in “The Builder’s Errors”; and, in “Mum on the Rock,” a son drinks up the frozen water that used to be his mother, feeling her clairvoyant wisdom flow through his body. “On Board the SS Irresponsible,” perhaps the collection’s most haunting tale, details a divorced father’s perfectly planned outing with his three children, the consequences of an oversight, and the day’s fatal conclusion. In the collection’s final and devastatingly beautiful piece, “Three Hundred Words of Grief,” a woman begins to say goodbye following her mother’s diagnosis of terminal leukemia. In all of these stories, Griner makes clear that loss has no solution: it demands to be faced and it will likely leave permanent traces. Weaving in his personal memories throughout this excellent collection, Griner is well aware that happiness is brittle, a knowledge that simultaneously elevates and burdens our all-too-brief periods of joy—as well as Griner’s stories.
We have names for everything, and they are usually in Denglish, the language we speak with each other. The bedrooms in the Wohngemeinschaften, the student housing apartments, open to balconies. Each bedroom has one—large enough for a few huddled smokers or some creative outdoor sex. These buildings look like concrete honeycombs. Some of us live in the Altstadt, the old part of the city, where the cobblestones and bedrooms smell sweet and damp like caves. And some of us live in Eppelheim, in a place called Alcatraz. We find this endlessly funny. Alcatraz is not very prison-like except for all of the exposed concrete and metal. The railings are painted blue and yellow and red.
We call ourselves the Adventure Hoodie Manschaft. Our mascot is the purple hoodie James used to wear too much. There are pictures of each of us wearing it from the night that we all tried to roll our own cigarettes and whupped two cases of Welde—the beer we use for pong—which left us feeling a boisterous sort of camaraderie. We are not exclusive, though. We are an amorphous blob that pulls in anyone who needs to belong to something. Sara is good at finding these sort of people and keeping them. Most of us are Americans, and Max and Derek argue about who is the most American. (James has been trying to be mistaken for European since he arrived—or maybe before. He bought a rack from Ikea to hold all his scarves.) But Andy is from England, and Sara is from Quebec, and Nick and Uli are German, and sometimes we hang out with some girls from Italy, and some from Northern Ireland, and we’re pretty sure Sasha is from Ukraine but it’s far too late to ask him. We are very proud of how Multi-Kulti we are. Sometimes, when we’re drinking together, Derek makes a rule that we can only speak in German. This should happen more often than it does.
We attend Universität Heidelberg as part of a one-year abroad program. We take courses in Kafka and Kleist and Rilke, in composition and linguistics. During our noon Pause, we meet for lunch at the Marstall Mensa in the middle of the Altstadt. The name Marstall refers to a time when the building used to actually hold horses for the castle, which we keep meaning to tour. We load up our plates with Schnitzel and pasta salad and yogurt and greens. We sit at the long wooden tables. Sometimes there are a lot of us and we can’t all fit at once, so we split up. There can be some resentment and grumbling about this, but Sara hovers between the two tables and makes a conversation bridge. Sometimes we go up to the bar and get a beer. Derek and Max always get half-liters of Pils, which only cost a euro each. A good deal, despite the clinging metallic undertaste.
On afternoons we don’t have class, we sit with our books under the Alte Brücke, the old footbridge that spans the Neckar River. The grass is sweet and springy, and the earth is sloped so we can lean back comfortably with our knees tucked up. Some of us take off our shirts, and sometimes bras too, nipples pointing up at the sun. Sara has fabulous nipples the color of maple syrup. We all think it’s funny how hard James tries not to look at them. We believe in FKK, the culture of the free body. Some of us get very bad sunburns and need to go to the Apotheke for aloe. We like the Apothekes. We go in and describe our symptoms at the counter, and they hand us something that works. It is best to look up words for what ails us before we go. Or, if it’s urgent, we will just point to a place and say, Hier schmerzt.
In mid-March, our lungs fill with fluid and we develop wheezing coughs that shake our bodies. Sara takes in the sickest of us because she understands none of us want to be alone like this and we huddle, sweating and phlegmy, on the cool tile of her living room. She gives us her extra pillows and endless cups of tea. There’s something about being around her, none of us quite understand, but it fills up our chests with something warm. We all tell her she should be a goddamn doctor but we know that’s not right, that she’s meant for international relations like she plans. She will do things. She’ll make real change, not the fake politician kind.
James, who seems to be immune to all illness, including homesickness, makes us hot soup for lunch and dinner. The stores do not have chicken noodle soup in cans, so he makes it from scratch with chicken breasts from the Metzgerei and vegetables from the Turkish market. He does not take off his scarf while he cooks and it dances in the breath of the steam. None of us have the heart to tell James the soup isn’t very good. The heat, at least, soothes on the way down. This is total lecker, we say. So good, James.
Our favorite food is Döner. Turkish immigrants created it in Berlin, and it’s a bit like a gyro, but better. Immigrants here are called Gastarbeiter, which means guest workers. They are mostly Turkish, and Andy and James tell us the situation isn’t terribly good. The young men from Turkey speak German with a loud gravado, yelling “Hey, yo, Alter!” to each other. Mostly Turkish people go to Yufkas for Döner, so we do too. The workers know us there, the smiling men in their stiff white aprons and their vocabulary shaped by food service. We are the Amerikaner who like our Döner extra scharf, which means they put a lot of the red spice on top of the shaved lamb for us. Max and Derek try to see who can stand the most, their cheeks wet with tears and sweat beading at their temples. They are always doing things like this together, what Andy calls dick-flexing, but at the end they clap each other on the back and laugh.
Derek and Max skip class together a lot and go for long hikes in the hills, but the rest of us drag ourselves to lectures with our backpacks tight with books. Mostly the backpacks end up on the floors of bars, copies of The Metamorphosis half-forgotten on the table, pages curling against splashes of Hefeweizen. Sara is the only one of us who really studies, but she’s never holier-than-thou about it. Occasionally, she convinces us to join her at the library to get some reading done, but the silence inside feels old, the air heavy with the sighs of generations of scholars. Also, we can’t bring in our bags because they’re afraid we’ll steal books or smuggle something in. No eating, no drinking, no talking, no using the study rooms without a reservation. We can’t bring Max and Derek there anymore after that one time they smuggled flasks in, tucked into their underwear.
The library has flyers about speaking partners, and some of us got one. We meet with them, and we trade off speaking English and German so we can all learn from each other. The Germans shame us with advanced grammar and vocabulary in their second language. When we speak German, sometimes it feels as if we are talking circles around what we are trying to say. People at home ask us if we’re fluent yet, but we’re not sure what that means. We can order Brötchen without the man behind the counter switching into English to accommodate us. If someone asks how our day’s been, we can explain that we missed the bus, and class was boring, but the cashier at the Mensa forgot to charge us for the pudding, which was especially lecker today. Whether or not this means fluency, we can’t say. We have good German days and bad German days. Sometimes the words tumble from our mouths, perfectly formed and plump with meaning. And sometimes we choke on them, drag them out mutilated and ugly. Drinking usually helps, to a point. It helps with a lot of things. We do a lot of drinking. Max is the biggest drinker among us. When he is truly and properly zerstört, he turns into Monster Max, who shouts and pisses on buildings and throws things. He has broken glasses at each of our apartments but doesn’t remember doing it, so we can’t blame him too much. Derek is the only one who can control Monster Max, though he usually doesn’t because he thinks it’s all very funny.
Derek is the only one of us (besides the Germans) who speaks perfect German. People do not believe him when he tells them he’s from America. Alabama, in fact. Derek grew up on a farm, and wears plaid flannel. He usually has a wad of tobacco stuck between his bottom teeth and his lip, and carries around an empty Fanta bottle that he spits a yellowish liquid into. And yet, when he opens his mouth, Germans still believe he is one of them. He can also do impressions of each of us; if we closed our eyes, we wouldn’t know it was Derek talking. His impression of James’ annoyed voice is in high demand, which makes James use this very voice. The Game, that book about pick-up artists, is Derek’s bible. He has sex with a lot of very pretty women, even though he has a broad nose and thick lips and a receding hairline, on top of the plaid shirts and the spitting, so we figure there is some dark magic in that book. Max keeps asking to borrow it, but Derek won’t let him. You’re not ready, man, he’s always saying to Max.
Derek once raw-dogged a girl in James’ bathroom during a party. We could hear everything, but didn’t know what to do so we stood around with our drinks and tried to talk. This was a German-only night, so we shouted a lot of nonsense at each other and poured more drinks. We could all see how impressed Max was. As far as we know, he may have never even dated a girl. No way he could get any of us, though he tried when we first arrived.
Mostly, we drink at each other’s apartments. This saves money. We are all very sparsam this way. We each bring what we want to drink, picked up from the Kaufland on the way over. Sometimes it’s bottles of cheap wine or vodka to mix with Fanta. Our German friends have taught us some drinking games, but Asshole is still our favorite. If you lose a hand, you become the Arschloch (renamed to be more Deutsch), and must wear a hat we confiscated from James, one of those large furry ones we think Russian people probably don’t wear anymore (we keep meaning to ask Sasha). James protested, because he actually thinks it looks good on him, but we assured him that removing it from his possession was a favor to humanity. It is very hot under that hat, and makes our hair sweaty and mussed. This element of the game is very humiliating, and we have discussed abolishing it, but the hat keeps coming out. Andy calls this GroupThink. He is our English anarchist friend. Very Multi-Kulti of us.
We also like drinking Welde when we play Arschloch because under the cap it says either “Ja,” “Nein,” or “?” We ask the Welde questions. Will James ever get laid? Will there be a short line at the club? Will we find happiness and satisfaction in our lives? Welde never lies, we say.
There is always a line at the club. We go before ten, because entry is free and we never pay for anything unless we have to. Our English friends, whom Andy invites dancing with us, complain about the line. Germans don’t know how to queue, they say. The line is one big clump of bodies that shuffles forward. If it is cold, we become penguins, bellies in for warmth. When we achieve the wet haze beyond the doors, we push through to the bar to shoot tequila, which James buys for us. We let him, because we know his parents put extra money in his account each month. Then we form a dance circle, like everyone else. Germans, we’ve noticed, dance at each other instead of on each other. They move their feet a lot, and we try to do the same. Derek is the best at it. The music is mostly American pop. We usually try to claim a spot on top of the speakers, large boxes cased in wood we can feel creak underfoot, from which we can see everyone dancing in the glowy half-light. The artificial fog fills the spaces between bodies, turning every head into an island. We all get very sweaty, and point at each other while we dance to indicate intimacy of understanding. Sometimes two of us will leave together to let out some of the desperate energy on each other’s bodies. We are a very incestuous group, but it is impossible to hold onto jealousies or hard feelings for long. We cling to each other. This is not our home.
Derek and Sara are having sex these days. This doesn’t really surprise any of us, what with Derek’s black magic book and perfect German and good dancing, and Sara being Sara and also the prettiest one with her long legs and shiny hair and nice nipples. Also because, we realize, they’ve been orbiting each other for a while, and we’ve been orbiting them all along. They are the unspoken center of us. And now the center has become more concentrated. This makes Max drink more, and we think it’s because he realizes, now, that he is not part of the center with them.
This is when Max puts together the trip, He gets train tickets and books hostels, surprising us all. He can be very organized and efficient when he’s sober.
An hour outside of Heidelberg, the train fills with thick black smoke that smells like a tire-burnout. It seems to be pouring from underneath the train, and after a minute Derek gets up to ask someone what’s going on. We wrap James’ extra scarves over our noses and mouths and Sara’s eyes are red and wide and Max puts a hand on Sara’s leg. Sara pulls her leg away. We wonder if we should give Max shit about this when Derek comes back, but we figure Derek won’t really mind, since he’s always saying you can never really have anyone, only borrow them for a while. Though maybe Sara is different.
When he leans back into the compartment, Derek tells us the brakes are stuck on, and we have to continue to the next stop, but that we’ll all be fine. He opens us each a beer and we sip them through the cloth over our mouths. We are all comforted by how calm Derek is.
Paris is so expensive we mostly eat cheese and baguettes from the grocery store, and Nutella crepes from the street vendors. Sara does all the talking and ordering for us, though sometimes she has to repeat herself. I think they’re hassling me for my Quebeccois, she tells us. We like her accent, the angular way she speaks French. Max managed to wrangle us a room on the cheap that we don’t have to share with anyone else, and we give Derek and Sara some alone time so they can do the nasty things they describe to us later. Max is very sullen about the whole situation, and does a bad job hiding it. He at least has the decency not to talk about what a slut Sara is in front of her. The rest of us are less fortunate. James tells Max to shut up, that it’s beautiful the two of them are making love. Oh god, we say to James. Don’t say making love. We are still trying to break him of this by making loud sexual moans whenever he uses this phrase, which makes him uncomfortable. A punishment that fits the crime, we say.
After Paris, Amsterdam. We order weed from menus with pictures and descriptions of effects, and learn how to count and say please and thank you in Dutch. Sara rolls us beautiful tight joints, and Max, who studied the maps beforehand, guides us through the tangled streets and bridges. The red-lit alleys with women in the windows in their glowing white underwear fascinate us. Derek waves and winks at the girls. Sara says she wants to interview them, to write down their stories. Max won’t even look at them. We are all very high. We eat all of the pot muffins, even though the man at the counter warned us not to in perfect English. He also told us that the Dutch are tall because only the ones whose heads would stick out of the water when it floods survive. We sleep in an enormous room with strangers, and Sara and Derek are not the only ones having poorly hidden sex. There is no use even pretending to sleep. Andy reads Sartre aloud to us. In the morning, the shower floods so we all go out dirty, our mouths tasting of ash. The smell of latex and fluids roll off of Sara and Derek, which we give them a hard time about, making a show of distancing ourselves from them and waving our hands in front of our noses. Sara finds an architectural tour for us, and we shuffle around in the rain, smoking wet joints. The guide shows us the hooks on top of the buildings—people raise furniture into the buildings on ropes because the staircases are too narrow. To support the weight they built the houses at a slight inward angle, which explains why Sara says she feels they’re all about to eat her. Or maybe it’s because Max pulls Derek aside, between buildings, and has a conversation we could all hear about Sara being trouble. We can’t hear what Derek says back, but when he comes out he puts an arm around her and we figure all is well.
At the German border, a cluster of officers fills the train with their dark blue jackets. Ausweis, they call, and we dig out our passports. When they see we are American, they grab our bags and sift through them, exposing days of dirty underwear and bags of bread and cheese we took from the hostel’s breakfast bar. They search Max’s duffel, but not his backpack, where he’d tucked an ounce of White Widow. Sie haben nichts, dass illegal ist? Nein, Sara says, confident as when she answers questions about Kafka.
We are still pretty high. We all laugh about it after the men leave the compartment, though we are all shaking a little. We are not sure what would have happened to us if they had discovered that we were smuggling drugs into the country, and we never discuss it. Heidelberg feels like home when we arrive, and James throws a party and we all get very drunk. Max turns into Monster Max and Derek has to take him outside so he won’t break anymore of James’ glassware. Through the window, we watch them in the Hof between buildings, Max aiming blows at Derek, Derek dodging them and locking Max’s hands behind his back, Max howling something indistinct.
In the reliable warmth of late April, we make day trips with our passes, getting off at whatever city sounds good to us. We go to Neustadt for a wine festival. They serve wine by the liter, and we stand and drink in the sun and become sloppy. There is live music so we dance, and when we become faint from wine and heat and dancing we eat pizzas with crusts so thin we can snap them with our tongues. On the train ride back we are stumbly and happy, intentionally falling into each other when the car lurches. Max keeps bumping into Sara, who gives him friendly pushes away until she becomes annoyed and says, Seriously, Max. Stop. He doesn’t, leaning against her and grinning until Derek pulls him off. Max looks like he’s about to yell, but Derek hands him a bottle of beer and he relaxes. Derek leads us into singing, “Wahnsinn, warum schickst du mich in die Hölle?” All of the Germans in the bars seem to know the words to this song, so we make sure to as well. Some other people in the train sing along with us. A Multi-Kulti victory. Our faces are red with wine and the bent light of the setting sun.
Our German friends tell us about the celebration of Walpurgisnacht, the night that welcomes in May. It used to be a pagan holiday, Nick and Uli say, a celebration of the arrival of spring. We load our backpacks with Welde and wine, and, once darkness settles, climb one of the mountains that shelters the city. It is a long climb, the path switchbacking for miles. In the blue-grey light, we stumble over rocks and roots and each other’s feet. A steady stream of young Heidelbergers climb with us, laughing and smoking and lugging coolers over the rough ground. It takes us over an hour to reach the top, and even before we enter the walls of the amphitheater, we hear the steady roar of thousands and see the effusive smoky glow of a bonfire against the sky. We enter a green bowl, scooped from the earth and tiered with stone and grass. A massive stage of rock with sweeping stone stairs stands at the base, and before it is the fire, throwing heat and flames fifteen feet into the air. A group of drummers has gathered at a safe distance from the pulsing heat, naked from the waist up, and a few people dance, twirling lit branches in their hands.
We find a place along the steps, close enough to feel an occasional lick of heat, since the night air has taken on a raw wet chill. We sit shoulder to shoulder, murmuring excitedly and opening our first beers. We find ourselves drumming our hands against our knees, stomping our feet against the stone. The air is buzzing, feverish, electric. We lay into our drinks, and create a line of empty bottles at our feet like a little glass fortress. A girl weaves her way over to us and drops a pile of multicolored glowsticks in our laps. You are beautiful people, she says in English. We fasten them around our necks and wrists and ankles. Max pulls a bottle of Melonenschnapps from his bag, and presents it to Sara. Your favorite, he says. A peace offering, it seems. We are all relieved, and Derek puts an arm around Max’s shoulder and another around Sara’s .
Sara takes the gift, her face already pink from the bottle of wine she polished off herself, and drains a quarter of the contents in one go. We all know that Melonenschnapps is Sara’s drink kryptonite. We all have one. But we never presume to tell anyone else when they should slow down. We are all adults, after all, and always make sure our own make it home. Sara whoops and we whoop back. We are wild. The drums are in us now, beating under our skin, and we begin to dance, kicking at our bottle fortress, and taking arms, whirling around with them. Sometimes each other’s arms, sometimes strangers’, the darkness blurring the border between our group and the vast yawn of the crowd. Chaos! Andy screams, the German pronunciation that sounds like KAH-ohz. We shout it too, and the chant ripples through masses of mouths in the darkness, rising and falling. KAH-ohz, KAH-ohz, KAH-ohz.
Occasionally a few of us slip away to piss the alcohol out, holding tight to each other with vision stained dark from staring into the fire. We stand or hunker in a clump of bushes at the edge of a cliff that overlooks the city. It shines reddish below us, castle and river and squat rows of buildings. Heidelberg is beautiful, and we are beautiful. We return, covered in leaves and sometimes a trickle of piss. In the warm press of bodies, we begin to take off our shirts and wrap them around our foreheads. It is then that we notice that Sara and Max are not with us, have not been with us for a while. The last time we saw them is briefly debated. Half an hour ago, maybe, by Derek’s reckoning. We all text them variations on Come Back and open our last round of bottles. We realize we should have been more prudent, should have saved enough to see in the dawn. James is quiet, subdued, and we tell him to buck up. Our words have become slippery in our mouths, and we laugh at our attempts to speak our Denglish. At the bottom of our last beers our fevers break, and we are suddenly cold and sweaty, and slump down onto each other. James says, I’m going to go look for them. Who, we ask, and he reminds us. No, we say. They probably got sleepy and went home. Sara was really drunk, James says. She and Max are back on good terms now, though, we tell him. He’ll take care of her, is strong enough to carry her if he has to, Derek says. I’ll check on her in a while. We pull James down, tell him to stop being such a James.
We miss the sunrise. We wake when the sun has climbed a full two fists into the sky, bathing the knots of bodies and detritus of celebration in a thick orange glow. We stretch the stiffness out of our dewy limbs and gather our empty bottles into our bags, our fingers clumsy. We’re still a bit drunk, we realize, which is fortunate because we may be able to beat our hangovers down the mountain. Derek finds Sara’s phone. Lucky thing, he says. He tells us he’ll give it to her when he stops by her place, that he’ll let us all know how she’s doing.
The news of what happened trickles through us then, a few of us at a time, heads close together as we nurse ourselves out of our headaches and nausea. Sara woke up naked in Max’s bed, her clothes ripped. Her underwear tangled around one of her ankles. She pulled herself away from Max, still snoring, and staggered home alone. She can’t pull together any memory of what happened. And then we hear about the texts Max sent Derek, the words he said changing as we pass the story from person to person, but the feeling consistent. I told you she was a slut. She was all over me last night. You gotta break up with that bitch. And we remember something Max said, one of the nights he turned into Monster Max, something about knowing he could get her to fuck him if he tried. At the time we didn’t take it seriously, the drunken yowls of Monster Max. It wasn’t supposed to mean anything.
It is Sunday, and James is hosting dinner. We all go. Sara comes, and she is smiling but there is something thin about her smiles, something watered down. Max comes too, and we all greet him as usual, and we talk about how drunk we all were the night before. He is loud, grinning, telling us a joke he learned from his roommate in German. Why do women have such small feet? So they can stand closer to the stove. Some of us laugh, but it sounds brittle. James is at the stove, mashing and mashing the potatoes so that the muscles in his arms stand out stringy. Derek opens a beer and sucks at it. It seems like he doesn’t know what to do with his body. He keeps leaning against things, and then springing up as if they’re hot. He doesn’t look at Max or Sara—doesn’t seem to be able to. Andy tells us about a mining accident, about the people who suffocated under the earth, but he can’t remember which country it happened in. Lighten the fuck up, Sara says. We all look at her, and knowledge passes among us. She knows we know, and waits to see what we will do. We do not know what to do. Or maybe we don’t want to do. Then James says, Done. Eat it, if you want. We eat, all hovering in different places around the kitchen, and talking about the next trip we’ll all take together. Sara suggests we go to Salzburg. The hills are alive there, she says. You know, like The Sound of Music?
We will go. While we’re there, Sara will say little to Derek, and then she will fuck Max again, and she and Max will tell us about it as if it were good, and we will pretend not to notice that the watered-down look has become permanent. When we get back, she will stop going to class as much and stay out late instead of doing the reading. We will be at a loss, because she is usually the one who gives us summaries on the walk across the bridge so we can answer questions. We will all do extra little kindnesses for her, like telling her she looks good in her new lipstick. James will start hugging her a lot, often at inconvenient times when she’s holding wine, and she’ll slop a little on his new button-up. Derek will make a point to hold doors for her, but will keep a respectful distance, his body always a bit hunched. Andy will stop coming to dinners and drinking nights. Afterwards, we’ll see him sometimes at the Mensa, and he’ll give us a distant sort of wave, and then sit with a group of people we know and don’t like.
And then our year will be over, and we will pack up our small rooms and close and lock the windows and jump up and down on our suitcases until they fit everything we bought. On our last night, we will drink our way through our last cases of Welde, and we will talk about what an asshole Andy is for not coming to say goodbye to us. Max will get too drunk again and smash a bottle against the floor, and Derek will punch him, breaking one of his fingers at the joint against Max’s cheekbone and this is what we will remember: Derek’s hand purple and swollen and Max holding ice to his face and James sweeping up shards of glass and Sara laughing in a way that doesn’t sound quite like laughing.
We will try to forget. But years later, our kids in bed down the hall and our mouths pressed against the naked breasts of the people we married, our bodies stale from the offices we spend too long in, we will say, I wonder what happened to those people.
Wendy Wallace lives, for the moment, in Indiana. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction from Purdue University, where she works as fiction editor of the Sycamore Review. Her Patronus is a golden retriever.
A bunch of noisy goddamn ducks were flying over the hospital as the orderly wheeled Glynda’s wheelchair out to the taxi. Geese, probably they were geese. Whatever. The orderly was a studly black guy named Lorenzo. No man should have arms that sexy. Glynda kept waiting for him to hit on her. Nothing. The swelling in her face had gone down, but the bruises uglified her. That explained it. Murphy’s fault, although he would say it was hers, she should have given him what he wanted. Easier said than done. What Murphy wanted was everything, all the time.
She hated fall. It made her feel like she was losing something and she couldn’t figure out what it was.
The cop who answered the 911 call when Murphy beat her up had come by the hospital. She knew him from high school. Mickey Garrity. Mick. He used to look at her that sexy way. Then he turned out to be a man, the genuine article. Buff, didn’t talk too much, eyes like blue ice chips. Classic cop. You want to press charges, Glynda? She had to think about it. If she did, that was the end of any possible good with Murphy. He was not likely to take care of his baby unless it was a boy— he might like the idea of having a son, and she was positive it was going to be a boy, this time. Anyway, she’d told Officer Mick she was conflicted. That was the word she used, conflicted. He never said it but he thought she was being stupid. There was no baby bump yet, and she believed he found her of interest.
Why the hell wouldn’t he?
October, and frost, had shriveled the green life of summer, and Troy was hands down the ugliest city in New York State, never mind the barking geese and the happy sunlight bubbling everywhere. The cab driver treated her like dirt because Social Services was paying for the ride. Screw him; not.
She lived on Fort Hill Street, which ran uphill, in a rundown blue duplex two houses from the top. The location was a pain, but the rent was cheap. Getting out of the taxi, she moved slowly. Things still hurt. The lung was okay, or so they told her, but her rib cage was extremely sore.
A garbage can sat on the strip of dead lawn by the curb, the lid lying next to it like a clumsily tipped hat. It was the old-fashioned aluminum kind, banged up and blackened with age. The neighbors all had those big green plastic monsters the truck could pick up and dump into its dirty maw. Glynda hadn’t signed up for service; she didn’t have that kind of money. She just kept putting out the old can, and the garbage men kept emptying it. Which was strange, if she thought about it, and satisfying.
Her apartment was on the upper floor. There was a separate outside staircase to get there. Every step made her groan even though no one was there to hear. It felt good to be home, though. She went straight for the kitchen and opened the fridge. Not much there. She had meant to go shopping when the thing with Murphy happened. I am conflicted, Officer Garrity.
I need somebody to help me think things through.
She found a box of Froot Loops in the pantry. She didn’t mind eating them dry. She filled a bowl and sat down in front of the TV and got lucky. Deputy Dawg was on. But one element of ease was lacking. She stood up and went to the bedroom. Murphy had left a canvas bag. She rummaged through it and scored a blunt in banana-yellow paper. So she watched the cartoon just high enough to be entertained by the resounding crunch of the Froot Loops in her mouth, delighted to be an animal that chomped and giggled at a cartoon dog with a cowboy hat.
Knowing Murphy, there would be more goodies in the bag, but she could not put off calling her mother any longer. Lorraine Brozick had a thing about getting out of bed in the morning: she didn’t. She said she was depressed and took pills for it, but from what Glynda could see, the pills didn’t help. It had taken some arm-twisting for her to look after the girls when Glynda went to the hospital, but Social Services was threatening to take them, and Lorraine finally came through. When the weed wore off, Glynda called her.
“So they let you out. That son of a bitch Murphy been over yet? I so much as see that piece a shit his ass is grass.”
“Let me talk to the girls. I want to hear their voices.”
“They’re watching TV.”
“You get your butt in gear and come get them. They’re good kids but they give me a headache. I can’t handle headaches, not in my condition.”
“I can’t drive.”
“What do you mean, you can’t drive?”
“That’s what the doctor said.”
He had said no such thing, and because she was her mother Lorraine knew he hadn’t. But Glynda needed a little time to get her own head together. Think about getting a job, that was the main thing. She was running on empty. She’d heard the Wal-Mart out on Hoosick Road was hiring. Anyway the conversation was a contest to see who was more stubborn. It was always a contest. This time Glynda congratulated herself; her maternal instinct was kicking in. Did that mean she was winning?
Lorraine said, “You want another day off is what you want.”
“Please, Mom. Bring them over.”
Glynda heard Tamara in the background. She was picking a fight with Brandy. Tamara never let anyone forget she had a black father. In the white world she lived in, she wanted everybody to notice who she was. Every now and then, her attitude got the best of her. In Glynda’s opinion she was milking it, making a big deal out of her coffee color which as far as Glynda was concerned was prettier than Brandy’s pale white skin, although of course she would never say that out loud. Her mother hollered at the girls to shut up, which naturally they did not.
“Are they worried about me?”
“You’re not here in the next thirty minutes, they’re out in the street.”
Lorraine hung up, which meant she would bitch and moan but bring the kids back home that evening. Nice. She had a little freedom. Better than nada. She made her way to the bathroom and studied herself in the mirror. If a beat-up woman with a bruised face could look sexy, here was one who did. Still no flab, after two kids. Her tits stood up firm as God intended them to. Her rich brown hair had natural auburn highlights. Her face was angelic and punky, the perfect combination. Even without makeup it said, ‘Come see if you’re a man.’
Murphy was not the first guy who had lost control.
She thought about calling Perk in Washington. Perk had loved her since dinosaurs roamed the earth. He wasn’t taking her calls now, pretending he was over her. Never going to happen. Perk had a big job in Congress. She had seen him on CNN, standing next to his boss, the Congresswoman, like it was up to him to tell her what to say to the camera. If Glynda had been smarter, she would be living in a big house in Washington, not this Fort Hill dump. It was funny. She hadn’t screwed Perk in years, and once she got out of the habit she never seemed to want to anymore, which did not make him all that happy.
She grabbed her cell from her purse. It had a fake leopard-skin cover she was fond of. Brandy’s father had bought it for her, or said he bought it, trying to score something she was not surrendering. She called, but Perk did not pick up. She left a message telling him what she saw in her mirror; oh, and she was out of the hospital.
Lorraine didn’t want to have to feed the girls again, so Cyrus brought them back home. They tiptoed into the apartment. Unlike Tamara, Brandy didn’t know enough to hide the fear she felt. She was delicate in every way. People came up to Glynda in stores and said what a beautiful China doll your baby is, which, surprise surprise, never failed to put Tamara in one of her moods.
“I’m okay,” Glynda told them. “Cyrus is going to run to the grocery for me, and I’ll make us something to eat.”
Cyrus was her mother’s skanky old boyfriend. He had been to Vietnam. He wore boots and leathers and had a Fu Manchu beard that made him look more derelict than he was. He liked to say he had killed eleven short men in black pajamas in the service of his country. Whether that was true Glynda had no idea.
“I can’t go to no grocery,” he protested. “I gotta be somewhere.”
“Come on, sweetie. You’ll be back in half an hour. You want these adorable little girls to go hungry?”
So he went, and paid for what he bought. He followed her into the kitchen with the plastic bags of food and halfheartedly came on to her. He took her arm and rubbed it up and down as though that would give her a thrill.
“What Murphy did to you, I mean, I’m awful sorry, Glynda. He don’t deserve you. That’s what I told Lorraine is that piece a shit don’t deserve to be in the same space as you.”
He wanted to feel her up, that was obvious, but the idea was absurd.
“What’s the matter, Lorraine leave off making home deliveries?”
He pulled away, shrugging. Glynda could never respect a man who gave up that easily.
“Do me a favor?”
“I just bought your groceries.”
“This is a little baby favor. Bring that garbage can in off the street when you go.”
He left, and she started some grilled cheese sandwiches, something the girls actually liked. While the sandwiches were in the pan on the stove she went to the window and looked down. The garbage can was still out there. Damn the man. Why it bugged her, the way it stood there, she could not say.
She made some cherry Kool-Aid to go with the sandwiches. It was her way of telling the girls they didn’t need to worry, she wasn’t going on any warpath. She asked to look at their homework but didn’t quite understand what they showed her. This was what a mother did, though, she looked at her kids’ homework. Using school next morning as an excuse she got them into bed early. They were relieved that nothing bad happened, which brought Glynda low, and then made her just a little angry.
It was not a good thing on her part, she admitted it, not her first night home, but she was bored. She wanted entertainment. She wanted company and comfort. Before she could change her mind she called Murphy. When he didn’t pick up she felt the same sort of relief the girls felt, going to bed without a blow-up. But he called back five minutes later.
“Hey,” she said
“What happened that night…”
“Let’s not talk about it. You coming over?”
“Is it worth my while?”
She didn’t feel like having sex with him. If things went right she wouldn’t mind pleasuring him, but that was far as it was going. She told him to bring a bottle of white wine. No need to mention weed: he never left home without it. As soon as she hung up she thought, this is a mistake.
And it was.
In a way Murphy was Cyrus, minus thirty years and the black pajama kills. He knew how to live off a woman, do next to no work, share his druggy riches, have a good time, and give a woman just as good a time. But Cyrus was a hairy old dog, and Murphy was hot, and vain about his looks. He had one of those gift-of-God bods and the face to go with it. Blonde in just the right way, green sexual eyes, a full-time smirk. Only the temper, which came with a will to hit, kept her from taking the good with the bad, inviting him to live in.
“I’m sorry, Glynda,” he said, coming through the door and shoving the wine at her. “You have no idea how fucking sorry I am.”
“That’s what you always say.”
Expecting instant forgiveness, he was taken aback.
“Hey,” she said. “Never mind. Let’s kick back.”
It bothered him to see the evidence of the beating he’d given her, which she supposed was a good thing. It meant he had a conscience. They sat on the couch, their bodies just touching, and watched TV and drank the wine and smoked some reefer. It was fun. They turned the sound down on a dumb-ass old movie and Murphy made up dialogue to go with what they saw on the screen. He was good at things like that—intelligent and quick. She was laughing like crazy and totally mellow on the inside so why bring up Mick Garrity. She did.
“I remember we were all seniors,” she said, not sure whether the memory had to do with a real event or simply served a dark purpose. A haze of Lake Niagara white was making it hard to follow her own thought process. She put a hand on his crotch and got the reaction she was entitled to. Didn’t turn her on, though.
“You and me and Mickey Garrity.”
“He’s a cop now.”
Murphy had been gone by the time Mick showed up for the 911 call, and he couldn’t know that Garrity had come to see her in the hospital.
“You and him, you got into it in the gym, that’s what I’m seeing.”
“No we didn’t.”
“You sure as shit did. I was there. You were fighting over me. How am I not going to remember that?”
“Now you’re going to tell me he cleaned my clock.”
“You left the gym with the cleanest clock in Troy High.”
Roughly he removed her fondling hand off his expectant dick. He was pissed.
“You seen his wife? She’s cute but she’s got a wide saggy ass. It’s sad.”
“A guy, a man, like that deserves a woman he can be proud of.”
She kept at it, provoking him until he raised a hand and she had to remind him she was just out of the hospital and there would be repercussions if she went back. He stormed out, unfortunately not forgetting to take his canvas bag of goodies. Under the circumstances she couldn’t ask him to bring back the garbage can.
There were just enough ingredients in her body to help her sleep. She lay on the couch, pulled a blanket over herself, and went out until sometime in the middle of the night when Tamara woke up with a nightmare. Glynda made her way into the girls’ bedroom. She sat on the bed and pulled Tamara close.
“I’m scared, Mommy.”
“You had a bad dream is all.”
“It won’t go away.”
“It will in a minute.”
To her own surprise, Glynda hugged the whimpering little girl until her ribs hurt. She combed her hair with her fingers. She soothed. She softly sang a nursery rhyme she had no memory of knowing or forgetting. And she stayed there, humming and hugging, even after Tamara fell back to sleep. The sense of accomplishment she felt was huge and unfamiliar. It was nothing like the phony self-congratulation she had experienced in her tussle on the phone with Lorraine. When she felt tired she slept alongside her daughter.
In the morning she had to terrorize the girls a little, making sure they got out the door in time to catch the bus. They were used to that, and the agitation they expressed was only meant to chalk one up in their column, which Glynda did. Fair was fair. Showering, she felt her tender ribs but decided she had to go apply at Wal-Mart. Her car was an old Lumina. The suspension was bad, and it started hard. But it started. The weather was shitty—raining and cold. She drove slowly, looking every which way all the time, because her insurance had lapsed. She could not afford a mistake, or the ticket that came with one.
She parked in the Wal-Mart lot but did not turn off the ignition. There was something in the car with her. A feeling. It was what she had felt the night before, comforting Tamara. She felt herself stretching, in a mental way, to grab onto and hold the feeling. It was a desperate stretch and not successful. The windshield began to fog up. Reaching and not getting, she was afraid.
She called Perk, but the bastard wouldn’t answer. She was about to blister him with the kind of voicemail rant she was great at but pressed the end button, lost in a quickie fantasy about living in Washington. Her and Perk. They would buy a house in the expensive part of the city, near the White House. Rowhouses, people called them. They would get a thoroughbred Husky, and a Lexus. Perk would adopt the girls and they would take tennis lessons. The Lexus would be purple.
A text from Murphy killed the fantasy. She didn’t look at it. She adjusted the rear-view mirror to see as much of herself as possible and was shocked by how old she looked, how haggard. And then she was crying. She was not a person who cried and didn’t know what to make of the sudden gush. It took effort, but she looked at herself as the Wal-Mart manager would see her at that moment and knew she could not go inside and say she wanted to work there. Not today. She wiped the condensation from the windshield with her jacket sleeve and drove carefully off.
She wanted to talk. If she talked, she might figure out how to hang onto the feeling from last night. She went through a list of friends and discarded them in a bunch, knowing they didn’t have the ears to hear what she had to say. That left Lorraine.
The rain was starting to freeze. Her mother lived in the lower apartment in a duplex not far from Fort Hill. She couldn’t climb stairs, or so she claimed. When she got there, Glynda skidded and bumped against the curb. A sloppy crust of slush was building up on the sidewalk and the mounded dead grass of the yard. The fear she had felt in the Wal-Mart parking lot, looking in the mirror and seeing her debility, got worse. She walked slowly through the slush and was happy to find no Cyrus on the premises.
Lorraine was in bed in her bedroom watching TV, a tray with coffee and toast next to the bed, cigarette in the ashtray giving off smoke signals, it’s getting bad, send in the cavalry. In her thousand-year-old paisley robe, her flat gray hair trapped under a bandana, she looked like somebody’s prisoner. Her face was puffy not because Cyrus knocked her around—he didn’t have the nerve—but because she didn’t take care of herself. If she forgot her blood pressure pill a couple days running, she took three to make up for it.
“I don’t have any money,” her mother warned her.
“Who’s asking for any?”
Lorraine squinted and squinched her puffy face. It was as close to a gesture of welcome as Glynda would get, so she took it as such. She sat at the foot of the bed, taking hold of her mother’s foot to get her attention. The foot was dead-body cold.
“Tamara had a nightmare last night.”
“I snuggled with her. It felt good.”
Lorraine shifted on her pillows, jamming her elbows back into them for purchase. She was trying to be sympathetic, it seemed to Glynda, but didn’t know how.
“I wish I was married, Mom.”
“There ain’t a man in Troy that’s worth the having, Glynda, and that includes the rich ones.”
Glynda gritted her teeth. She didn’t know how to say what was on her mind any more than her mother knew how to hear it.
“I want to be a good mother.”
But Lorraine was reaching for her cigarette, and if she heard she didn’t allow the words to register.
“I’m going home,” Glynda said.
Lorraine nodded. Her mother knew there was something to be said. Knew it mattered. Knew neither of them could take it forward. All that was in the way she didn’t look at Glynda, and Glynda gave her credit for something, something.
At home on Fort Hill she parked next to the garbage can. She was going to bring it back to the house, but when she lifted it, a hot pain stabbed her in the side and she left it where it was.
The apartment needed dusting. Glynda was not into maintenance any more than she had to be, but she took a rag and went room to room. She was saving space in her mind to think about what was going on. Not that she filled it, but the space was there if a thought showed up.
When somebody knocked, she expected Murphy and was tempted to get a jump on the truth. She would tell him his child-to-be was a boy and see how he took the news. But it wasn’t him, it was Mick Garrity at the door. God, he was an attractive man. Her bruises felt like scars. She was glad she had started dusting in the living room.
“I haven’t made up my mind. About charging Murphy. You want coffee or something?”
“Just had one.”
But he came in; good. Brought his policeman aura with him; also good. He was capable and cool. No fit you threw would faze him. She did not sit too close to him. She folded her hands in her lap.
“Tell me about Murphy,” he said.
“You and him, you were in the same graduating class. Me too.”
“I remember. Is he going to knock you around again?”
She lifted her hands and let them fall into her lap in a parody of helplessness he did not find convincing. She wished she hadn’t done it. Her fear was eating at her good intentions.
“You married Midge Deavers, didn’t you. Got any kids?”
“Boy and a girl.”
Maybe it was because he saw through her, saw that she was fluttering at him, trying to get his sexual attention. Maybe. But she wanted to think it was something else, something better, that backed her down. From that moment, she did not want to come on to him, or to be come at. She was tired. Lake Niagara and wacky weed together did her no good. She said something she immediately wished she could unsay.
“I don’t want to be my mother.”
He nodded as though that made perfect sense, and she compounded her mistake.
“I’m pregnant. It’s Murphy’s.”
“He came over last night. I never said anything about him beating me up.”
“Think you should have?”
“Do I look old to you, Mick?”
He shook his head, not saying no, just telling her he didn’t want to talk about how she looked.
“I won’t press charges,” she said.
“That’s your call.”
She wasn’t finished. “I won’t charge him for what he did, but I won’t let him into the house again.”
She could see him evaluating what she said, wanting to believe she meant it but not sure he should. Same with her, although if Murphy showed up today she would definitely turn him away.
Garrity wanted to go. Why should he stay? If she ran into him with Midge somewhere, the mall, say, they would have identical memories of now. Her turning it off. Her awkward honest questions. His concern, going back and forth a million times a second between professional and real life. But she would not be able to say to him, you were there the day my life changed.
After he was gone she knew she ought to vacuum but didn’t. She was restless and sad but no longer full of dread. She looked into the fridge to see what she could make the kids for supper. Eggs. And, miracle of miracles, Cyrus had picked up a quart of orange juice.
She went to the window to look at the nasty weather. It was getting colder. She put the palm of her hand against the pane and let the chill seep into her. On the ground, the slush was thicker and crustier. There sat the garbage can.
She put on a jacket. She looked for gloves but couldn’t find any. Boots. Both girls needed new ones. Their feet were way bigger than last winter.
She went down the stairs and up the walk. She stooped to pick up the lid, knocked the slush off, and then fitted it onto the can. Somebody had backed into the can, a long time ago, crunching one side, so the lid wouldn’t seal, but it was on. She lifted the empty, not-heavy can, holding it against her body.
Last summer the landlord had built a doghouse for garbage cans in the back yard. Glynda was wearing sneakers but had forgotten socks. Before she was through her feet would be soaked. The can pressed to her hip, she ploughed back. She did not feel all that terrible. She had done something, won a small prize, not coming on to Mick Garrity. In a way, it was like deliberately choosing not to come on to any of them, all of them. She wondered when she might stop wanting to.
Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Iowa Review, and The Kenyon Review. His five books include three novels and two story collections. A full list of publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com