Category Archives: Fiction

HEMINGWAY’S DAUGHTER

“We got some tragic news. My niece, Raquel, took her own life yesterday morning. She had not been suffering depression that anyone knew of. She did have a headache the past week and said she didn’t feel like herself and just didn’t feel good. My sister, had stayed overnight at their house Sunday night because she was babysitting Lucas Monday. She found Raquel who was a beautiful person inside and out.”

From an email sent Tue 8/1/2010

 

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She’s driven this far from Wisconsin across Minnesota almost to the Dakotas. There’s a smell that gathers here in the dampness of the furrows, the sweat of the Swede, the Flemish, the Norwegian, the broken soil. Dirt here chimes dry, not as rich as the black soil to the south in Iowa. The wind blows fiercer, fewer shade trees, more poplar and cottonwood, hackberry and shagbark hickory. She can drop the car off and walk into the bare trees and falling shadows. Freezing is painless. Peaceful. Seductive. Or she can drive home to Wisconsin, return to her husband and infant.

 

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I know only the bare outlines of the story so I must imagine the young blonde woman at an interstate rest stop. Named for a film star, she was my best friend’s niece. Raquel leaves Friendly’s family restaurant, lingering in the electronic doorway, as if gathering herself, letting the electronic doors almost close on her. Walking into the FOOD, GAS, LODGING parking lot, she can’t remember how long she’d sat in the leathery booth staring at the two packets of Splenda sweetener beside her water glass. The yellow wrapper and the words America’s Favorite Sweetener held a message for her. The blue print seemed to loosen, the letters floating freely and reordering themselves into new words and shapes. Toll-free became tree lol the “f” vanishing. Most of her meal still lies on the Formica table beside the menu. Ice tea sips its dreaming pale lemon. Sweet potato fries drink from a pool of ketchup. Her appetite like the “f” on the Splenda packet has vanished. She’s lost ten pounds since having the baby and Edwin says she needs to gain them back.

 

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Was it just before noon she’d left home in her Honda and headed west? Now almost dusk, she finds herself midway. Her car waits to take her farther west into the prairie, and although she stares at the keys (and Splenda wrapper) in her hand she’s unsure which is hers, the shellacked red or the bruised wormy apple vehicle. Tree-free. Her husband has left message after message on her voice mail. The baby’s missing her. I must not think of the baby as ‘my’ baby.

 

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Walking through the parking lot, her silky hair (the color of winter corn) looped in an unwashed ponytail swings through the back of her baseball cap. Petite, slender. Her fine skin, a sugar snow falling in the night, her oval face that of a high school homecoming queen. She will never mention the champagne-colored chiffon or the crown placed on her head by the captain of the football team. Neither will she speak of the St. Paul Farmers State Bank calendar that featured her as Miss April and Miss December. College dresses  her in a American Studies degree, and she shivers entering the working world wearing nothing. Her first job—party planner, her second, volunteer fireman. She meets Edwin, a farmer and roofer, and learns how to plant and harvest a garden.

 

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In toeless clogs, her feet seem not to mind the February weather. She stumbles, twisting her ankle.

 

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Edwin, Wisconsin-born and bred, thinks he’s been blessed by the Lutheran divinity. Himself a light-haired man of average looks, he’d married Raquel, a Norwegian beauty. How could he know it was the fierce Norse god, Odom, who sanctified their bond—thunderous God of blood and violent death? He and his six-month-old son, Lucas, are waiting supper on her—turkey meatloaf and beet salad from the Red Owl deli. Hadn’t she mentioned driving to her sister’s in Minnesota? “I’ve left the baby’s formula bottles in the refrigerator.” He tries her cell phone again although the ringer must be off.

 

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Outside, the day moves; inside the car, it stops. She turns the ignition, shifts into reverse, doors locking her inside. It’s better today, even if the sky is shapeless and thick. The last of the light drifts like snow birds weary of the same circle. Raquel pictures bathing her infant; setting him into the shallow warm water of the baby bath on a blue towel, his feet crinkly-pink and his toes trying to talk. The dusking sun watches her drive, east, homeward. Another voicemail: the baby crying in the foreground. Her fault, her fault. She’s turned off the interstate—Minneapolis-St. Paul, the twin cities where she grew up, falling behind her. Rustic Wisconsin welcomes her. Welcome to folks who know your face and to places where there are no strangers.

 

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Her tongue feels long, too pink, and rough like a cat’s licking at the cracked corner of her lips. What would her mother say if she had kept driving, if America’s Sweetheart simply disappeared, and left her baby behind? What would Edwin think? She pictures the first night they made love. Edwin puts his arms around her and walks her to the edge of the bed. His nose presses her lavender tank top, and then he unpeels it, lifting her arms light as bird bones. She tells him he is the golden nectar, his sex better than white cake and marmalade. She parts his lips with her tongue, washing his body with her cat’s tongue.

 

“She loved life and was so happy. She leaves behind her wonderful husband, and her adorable 1 year-old son, Lucas. Raquel absolutely loved being a mom. She was loved by everyone who knew her.”

                From an email sent Tue 8/1/2010

 

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It’s the story of an extended religious family, a loyal loving Midwestern one that saw the darkness through doilies, baby showers, and church recipe books. A world where good triumphs over bad, where family means shelter, and God answers prayer. It’s a family that can’t imagine a new mother not trusting herself around her newborn, a mother afraid she might hurt her child. A mother not aglow in her infant love-bubble, but one immersed in blackness. Raquel’s returning home, perhaps having made up her mind. A world where if you keep a stiff upper lip or confess, everything will work out.

 

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The last time I saw Raquel she was standing beside her aunt’s (and my friend’s) hospital bed, not exactly beside, but a few steps back as if hesitant or shy about being fully present. Raquel’s mother Joanne was there, too. My friend, the jokester, teasingly asked personal prying questions. Are you dating someone this time that smells normal, not like lighter fluid? Is that why you dumped that other guy? Do you think you’ll have kids? Raquel answered her aunt in a soft voice, winsome, uncertain. Then, leaning over my friend, and after she’d cut a slice of pizza into many small pieces, she fed each one to her, stopping to lift the cold Coke and bendy straw to her lips. You’ll be a good mother, my friend said. Joanne agreed. I can’t wait to be a grandmother.

 

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Raquel had just met the man who would be her husband.

 

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Raquel bought a white chocolate blueberry cake, her sister Sofia’s favorite dessert, and French macrons, for Jerry, her brother-in-law. Once, she might have picked almond cake with orange-flower water syrup for herself but now it makes her think of white cockroaches, the whiskery albino one that Edwin mentioned stepping on–the one making love to a crumb. Yes, earlier she’d almost stopped at Sofia’s house in Stillwater to deliver the sweets and say goodbye. Her sister and husband would be flying to Florida for an island cruise. But she couldn’t stop. They kept the furnace turned up too high and the heat settling into the living room smelled of rotting minnows. Raquel usually wanted to unzip her skin. The last time she visited a few of Jerry’s buddies had dropped in and he made jokes about last Thanksgiving when the sisters had hosted the dinner feast. The eggnogs we toasted were the best part. You should have seen the Thanksgiving meal Sofia and Raquel cooked. We had to give most of it to the dogs. They forgot to take the gizzards out, but it didn’t matter because the turkey was still frozen when they brought it out to the table! Jerry slapped his knee, regaling his guffawing buddies. How about the time Raquel made the soufflé with a sponge inside it? Those little yellow crumbs she said were egg yolk. Sofia had laughed so hard she choked.

 

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Seeing the familiar signs, Raquel fears something irrevocable is about to happen when she reaches her destination, she’ll commit an act that will sing down through generations. She blocks Edwin’s face, an unpronounceable grief in his eyes. The red car stops at the light near the Eau Claire Holiday Inn where she first met her husband. His friends call him Ed (handsome Ed) but she likes the lost-in-time sound of Edwin. They’re slow dancing to “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.” An oldies tune. He bends to kiss her earlobe, his lips moving to the bottom of her neck. Your voice smells like fresh cut grass, he says. He stands a head taller than Raquel, his fingers are long and she asks if he plays the guitar. Laughingly, he tells her he’s a roofer, that he has his own shake shingle business, with each shingle having to be individually and gently placed, and then nailed twice. He loves fragrant woods—cypress and redwood and cedar—he loves the weight of nails in his pocket. He owns an acreage; he raises a few chickens, too. Like Raquel, his Scandinavian ancestry shows in his hair, even lighter than hers, and his eyes. His incisors protrude slightly, and give his mouth a rabbity look that she finds endearing. Unlike her he’s not Norwegian but Swedish.

 

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She loves Hemingway’s novels and she’s read of his death, how he pulled the trigger with his toe. Later Edwin hates how he had taught her how to use the shotgun. How to handle it, when she asked him to show her, needing, wanting to know in case he were ever not home and she had to defend herself and the baby. Pointing out the acreage’s being off the beaten track. Isolated. Later, he buries the shotgun. Wishing he had buried it in the river in the first place.

 

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She may have gone on the internet and asked the question: “How do you shoot yourself with a shotgun?” Thief River Falls. Black River Falls. They called this New Scandinavia, Minnesota and Wisconsin, they spoke their language for generations, and they churned sweet cream butter. I would think the soft palate roof of the mouth; bullet passes through easily into the brain. They honeymoon in the famous Texas hill country where rivers flow in an emerald current between white tablet rocks. As the road twists down, waterfalls feed secluded pools. Rock slabs float in the middle of the green. She loves how there’s no bridge, only a slab of rock covered with moss. The water is fast-moving but not deep. You can see tire tracks in the algae. Raquel loves Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Here is where Thumbelina could boat across on a tulip leaf and oar with two white horse hairs. They drive east into Louisiana’s swamp country. She writes to tell her older sister Sofia, who looks so unlike Raquel, that few believe they are siblings, that she fought a gar fish out of the water.

 

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They celebrate their anniversary at the same Holiday Inn— Raquel pregnant, the pool shimmering in the sun. She knows it has sprouted, the seedling in the soil of her belly, as she slips off her thong, taking hold of him, his arms, as if he’s the ladder that lowers her into the deep dazzling water. Her belly kicks, almost as if the thrust is meant to push him away. Her hands let go, the rung isn’t there, and she slides into the blue eye of the peacock’s plumage. Edwin lunges into the water. He swims her in. She floats, the water warm, slippery like jelly, melting too.  Edwin, listen, she tells him, breathlessly, after the baby’s born I’ll plant wild blue lupine flowers and milkweed next to the house. The Karner blue butterfly will come. She describes the luminous and silvery dark-blue of the males, and then the females, purple-blue with orange crescent edges. The arrival of the blue butterflies will celebrate their son’s birth. Did you know the author of Lolita wasn’t just a writer but also a butterfly collector, and was the one who first identified them? Nothing under heaven or earth would the Karner blue butterfly eat other than wild blue lupine flowers. He’s listening but drifting as she talks on (in her lulling, almost singsong voice) describing the seven-spotted beetle, the evil predator of larval blue butterfly eggs. Only the blue lupine feeds the larvae, not wild lily of the valley, not starflower or sweet fern. Is that boring? she asks.

 

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Edwin has shown no one the letter Raquel left him, a letter explaining her unworthiness, telling him how she wasn’t herself, how something murky and dim had gotten inside her. She told him when her water broke, something popped in her brain. She’d come uncorked. The amniotic fluid—her champagne had lost its bubble. For months after giving birth, each time she peed something kept dripping out of her, hitting the water softly. Her body kept making her give birth again and again. And now  the thing inside her was directing her.

 

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He would never fly with her toNorway where they’d taste seagull eggs and elk and reindeer roast. Elk they say is dry and wild. The smaller reindeer much sweeter. Cloudberries for dessert—arctic gold, silvery-yellow, apple-tart.

 

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There are gifts everywhere in the living room where family and friends gather. Raquel’s mother and aunt host the shower. Deep powder-blue carpet comforts her feet fat from pregnancy. Sinking into a Queen Anne chair she watches the sheer lavender curtains lifting and billowing in the breeze. A three-tiered white cake with layers of strawberries and real cream invites everyone for a finger swipe. It’s a Boy. Raquel wears a paper hat with all the gift bows and ribbons taped to its brim. Blue stationery Thank You’s for the sail boat, the flannel sleepers, the footsie pajamas, the crystal picture frames, the crib, the stroller, the swing-set, the Three Bears bathtub. Nine months of pregnancy and how happy she’s been. A boy, inside her belly, the motion of his kicking, his swimming, comforts her. She’s safe with him there like the blue butterfly finding the wild blue lupine flower.

 

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A blacktop two-lane takes her to the acreage; the new ranch house with the cedar-shingled roof stands out, and she’s always preferred the two-lane life to the six-lane. Edwin meets her in the driveway with their son in his arms. The baby’s blue eyes appear so bright they could have been painted in. A perfect boy with blond curls. We missed you, honey, he says, not asking where she was. My sister called, Red Owl has a sale on chicken cutlets. Do you want her to pick you up some?

 

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Raspberry mouth on her nipple, the baby’s lips take hold; his tiny hands toss as though rabbit paws. Bending close, she is counting her baby’s eyelashes. Raquel has freshly bathed herself and her baby. The lamp light is shining on five-month-old Lucas, his lungs had been preparing to breathe the world, sensing the touch of her palm, his heart already beating. Now the heartbeat has its own life and no longer needs her. How easy it would be to save him.  Kneeling on the deep-soft comfort blanket to change the baby’s Pamper, (a dessert of a blanket, chocolate mousse and whipped cream) she silently calls (beseeches) God to make her a better mother. The picture window lets in more sun, and then a ladybug drops onto the blanket. She’s always loved these insects, their freckled red shell and feelers. The soft blanket must be a sea of quicksand for the ladybug, now frantic, peddling with all of her legs, and getting nowhere. The ladybug is drowning until she rescues it. The baby’s blue eyes widen, they sparkle. How easy it would be to lift the cuddly blanket and fold it over his face.

 

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She reads Being Ernest: John Walsh unravels the mystery behind Hemingway’s suicide. “I am eating blue food to try to get rid of the blackness,” she tells Ernest. “Blueberries, blue cheese, blue plums. Do you think it will do any good?” Do they really know nothing of the estrogen and progesterone faucet that pregnancy turns on, then off? In the blackness of post-partum depression she’s haunted by gar fish in the warm green water. In fragments of sleep she breathes on her wrist and the gold bracelet with three engraved hearts (Edwin, Raquel, Lucas) breaks.

 

“Edwin finally told Lucas that his mom was in Heaven. Lucas started making up stories because no one was allowed to tell him that his mom died (or that he even had a mom). I don’t know what he knows other than that. Yes, Lucas looks like his mom and fortunately has her personality!”

From an email

 

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On the last night of her life Raquel’s face has the look of calm as she lifts the sheet and slides into the bed, after all the months of sleeplessness, the night with its hinges and bearings, its wrenches tapping on the radiator of her brain. The night before she had not yet made up her mind, and ploughed her scalp with her fingers, pulling out her own hair. This night, the night she’s made up her mind, she thinks of breeze and a picnic table with a checkered red and white tablecloth. Mama, who made the sky? Who made the blue? When it rains, is God weeping? Then she’s running barefoot on a summer night through the dew-drenched long grasses, her skin drinking in the cool, her eyes chasing the moths clouding the yard light. She and Sofia roasting marshmallows playing statue and the fireflies have come out, winking into the dark, brave little bringers of light, preyed upon by mosquitoes. Tomorrow her mother comes to baby-sit, she’s told her that she is helping her friend Bev empty the clutter from her closets, her friend who lives in Madison. The baby will be better off after tomorrow. Not ready, not able, has no words, not yet. He would be miserable, hate her, and if he knew her unworthiness, he would have to bite down on the word mother.

 

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Online, she clicks Girls with Shotguns; clicks 10 Rules for Women Getting the Right Fit and Mount. Doesn’t need to know about finding her dominant eye or stock height, or whether a 12-bore holds more pellets than a 20-bore, or how the gun’s kick will affect her.No one found the letter, her letter, which (or is it that) I imagine just as I picture the letter that Edwin writes on the ceiling of his bedroom, since he’s moved into the spare room where he keeps his tools, the room that smells of cypress shingles. He can’t sleep in the bed that she shared with him, the writing was worse there, over and over the words unspoken to the living, spoken now to the ceiling, his finger scripting the words. Our son is now my son. I erase your name that bleeds across his birth certificate by the word. Mother. I’m making myself forget the meadow of your skin and lips, your gentleness. I forget my hand and how it would sink into your softness, (a hand does not sink). Raquel, you weren’t ligament and muscle but the dough of almonds, the nectarine, and the blushing violets. The pure black of your death makes it hell to think of you. His finger stops. I put those words into his mind. What he writes over and over and over. I loved you. Now you are dead to me.

 

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He’s on the roof of the house nailing shingles when the call comes. Do they tell him on the phone? Raquel’s youngish mother, a pretty woman divorced from Raquel’s father, breathes, almost panting with the news there’s been a terrible accident. Now she’s wheezing, and suddenly stops gulping air. “What’s wrong? Is it the baby?” The mother shaking can hardly hold the flip-phone to her ear. The butterfly spots, silvery dark blue spots, scattered black spots circle in blood. Her head. Her beautiful head. Someone has shot Raquel, the shotgun, next to her, against her. Why? Why? Raquel had been planning on planting wild lupine and milkweed next to the house. The paper wasp and ant strike terrible blows.

 

“My sister, Raquel’s mom, is doing well. She goes to visit her grandson about every 3 weeks. It’s only an hour’s drive for her. She picks him up and takes him to a movie or to parks to play and then out to eat. He’s now in kindergarten. He is the happiest, adorable 5-year old. He always has a big smile. His dad isn’t very nice to my sister. He just wishes she’d go away. I think it’s a reminder of Raquel. He never lets her take him to her house for a weekend.”

                From an email

 

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He finds the letter (the one I’ve pictured) before they do, in the medicine cabinet taped to his shaving cream.

Edwin: I love you and I love our son. It’s me I can’t stomach. Mom just got here and everything is black or turning filthy gray. If I could I’d vomit the bad colors, fling the puke into the toilet, and wash my hands. Minutes ago this happened to the toast and strawberry jam and green banana she insisted I eat. I gag again and throw up until my vomit runs clear. I rest my head on the rim of the toilet. Mom knocks. “Hey, kid, don’t you feel well?” Oh, Edwin, my thoughts have begun to talk in voices. A hard thing I have to do, but I have to for us, for our family.

 

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The family wants everyone to know that Raquel was a loving mother. That she adored her son. That the newborn did not terrify her and being a mother hadn’t crushed her with its weight. Some elemental hormone had been added or subtracted from her body, causing the blackness she didn’t understand, the emptiness she was ashamed of.

 

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Edwin dreams of Raquel pregnant and the Holiday Inn pool shimmering. She rolls onto her back, her hair streaming hyacinth. “A pregnant mermaid,” he says, her eyes that can spot perch in calm green water, beckoning his. They see every quiver. Raquel so beautiful, but now she frightens him. He’s afraid to breathe the air’s heaviness—frangipani, myrrh, the death of lotus blossoms that drift on the water. Come lie in the thorns with me, come with me to eat thistle. He still wakes in the night panting, sweating even as a cobweb of ice crawls over his skin, the cold cobweb creeping into his mouth so his insides shiver. Even a photograph of Raquel smiling causes the gray cobweb to start crawling. His mother hears him call out and softly knocks. In her arms she rocks his son. I make myself not think of you, pictures I’ve taken down and given to your mother, all your clothes, your books, I’ve disposed of. You would not know a wife or a woman ever lived here.

 

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 What about Raquel wearing a velvet stovepipe hat and smiling with her mouth and her aquamarine eyes, the girl clutching and kissing her dog, a lack and white mongrel named Soulman? Who will think  of that girl? Her elegant signature. Who will remember to remember her?

 

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It’s better to leave the story suspended for now, the tragedy of self-slaughter an unfinished work.

 

* * *

 

 

THE ADULTS

On Saturday morning, I sit in bed and scroll through my phone and try to remember when, exactly, weekends became something to be endured. I text Madeline to ask if she and her girlfriend, Lauren, are going to Alice’s birthday party. Madeline is the one friend I have who does not require a week’s notice to make plans. The rest are married, with an assortment of children. 

I toss the phone on the bed and consider my options. I could trim my beard. I could scramble eggs. I could research memory foam pillows to replace the sad sack pillow I currently own. Instead, I pick up my phone and go to my ex-wife’s Facebook page. My ex-wife and I are no longer friends on Facebook—all I can see is her profile picture, which has not changed in several months. In the picture, she sits in an Adirondack chair, grinning, wearing a dress I don’t recognize. The dress is blue and looks a lot like a nightgown. I look at the picture and wonder, as I always do, when my ex-wife started to wear dresses that look like nightgowns. I wonder if her life now, six months after our divorce, more closely resembles the one she wanted. 

My phone buzzes. 

Lauren’s sick, Madeline says. But I’ll go if you go.

*

At Alice’s birthday party, Madeline pulls a beer from a cooler mixed with juice boxes and hands it to me. “I did the math, Sam,” she says. “By the time Alice is fifty, I’ll be dead.”

Alice is three. She is dressed as a hotdog, though it is not a costume party, and waving an orange popsicle. From the deck, we watch as she drops the popsicle on the lawn, picks it up, and sticks it in her mouth. “Where’s Nicholas?” I ask. Nicholas is Alice’s father. He, Madeline, and I shared a house on Calvert Street a decade ago, in our twenties. Madeline refers to them as the Ball Sack Years. 

“Hiding,” Madeline says.

“He said there would be other childless people. And he promised a moon bounce.” 

“Well,” Madeline says, “Nicholas a liar.”

Seven or eight children wander around the backyard like drunks, weaving through the sprinkler, crashing into stationary objects. A handful of parents gathers around the kiddie pool, casually vigilant. One of them is a red-haired woman in a gray shirt tucked into slim black shorts. She pulls a bottle of sunscreen from a bag and slathers it onto the arms of a small red-haired girl. “Should we go talk to them?” I ask.

The small red-haired girl lets out a long, piercing scream. 

“No,” Madeline says.

*

Nicholas appears with a store-bought vegetable tray and sets it on the table next to the cooler. “Good,” he says, “you found the alcohol.” He opens a beer. I met Nicholas at a party when we were twenty-six, after I overheard him tell a girl that he was deeply interested in ancient civilizations. I have come to learn that women find Nicholas appealing, regardless of what he is deeply interested in. 

The red-haired woman walks up to the side of the deck. “Is there another one of those?” 

Nicholas fishes a beer from the cooler, twists the cap off, and hands it to her. 

“Who’s that?” I ask, after she goes back to the kiddie pool. 

“Kate Holiday,” Nicholas says. “Her niece is in daycare with Alice.”

“That’s not her kid?” I ask.

“No,” Nicholas says. “Why?” 

“Sam likes redheads,” Madeline says. “Even though they make him miserable.”

I finish my beer and open another. “I’m not always miserable.” 

“Remember the time I came over,” she says, “and you were eating yogurt with a fork?”

“I was out of clean spoons.”

“You were unkempt.” Madeline raises her beer, in a toast. “Less so now.”

*

Alice climbs onto the deck. Her hotdog costume is a red tube with a yellow strip of felt down the center. She runs past her father and wraps her arms around Madeline’s legs. “I don’t get it,” Nicholas says. “Kids love you.” 

Madeline crouches to Alice’s height. “What do you have there?”

Alice holds up a plastic cow. “A dinosaur.” 

Nicholas shrugs. “She’s into dinosaurs.”

“What’s your favorite dinosaur?” Madeline says.

“T-Rex,” Alice says. “But his little arms make me sad.” 

“Honey,” Nicholas’s wife calls from the lawn. “Could you bring out the cake?”

Nicholas’s wife is wearing an off-white dress with a leather belt knotted at her waist; she gives the impression of someone who rode horses as a child. She has excellent posture and, the first time I met her, seemed either very shy or mildly disdainful. The second time I met her, she told a long, filthy joke about a priest and a prostitute and Darth Vader, and I started to understand her appeal. 

“The birthday cake?” Nicholas says.

“Yes, the birthday cake,” she says. “For our daughter’s birthday.”

“Where is it?” 

“It’s an ice cream cake. I’ll give you three guesses.” 

Nicholas takes a sip of beer. “Should I do the candles?”

Nicholas’s wife gives a big, dazzling smile. “How about you find a big box of matches,” she says, “and ask our three-year-old to light the candles?”

Madeline and I exchange the look we reserve for when other people’s relationships seem unenviable. Nicholas finishes the beer, tosses it into the recycling bin, and goes into the house. Alice sets the plastic cow on the deck and covers it with a paper napkin. “Be quiet,” she says. “The dinosaur is sleeping.”

*

Nicholas produces an ice cream cake without candles. We sing and eat the cake and the children run in literal circles around the backyard. Someone gives them water guns, and someone else wonders aloud if water guns promote gun culture. Madeline opens two beers and gives one to me. “If I drink too much and make a scene, maybe Nicholas will ask me to leave.” 

“Do you want to leave?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “I want to complain.” 

We look at the adults on the lawn and play the game we sometimes play, where we try to guess the last time each of them had sex. “Your problem,” Madeline says, “is you think only good-looking people have sex.”

Content-looking people,” I say. 

“That’s ridiculous,” she says. “Sex has nothing to do with being content.” 

“Interesting,” I say. “You and Lauren seem content.” 

I had dinner at their place the week before last: Lauren roasted a chicken, and the three of us split 2.5 bottles of wine. We talked about how Madeline’s work nemesis talked incessantly about toxins, and how Lauren was much better at smoking pot than Madeline, and how I should find a woman on the Internet because that was the whole point of the Internet, and because I still had a full head of hair. At the end of the night, they walked me to the front door, and Lauren hooked a finger through the pocket of Madeline’s jeans in a way that made me realize, acutely, that I would be going home to an empty apartment.

Madeline picks at the label on her beer. 

“You’re not content?” I say. 

She shrugs. “It’s like a video game. I thought when I met Lauren I had won the game. But then it kept going.” Her phone chimes and she looks at the screen. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she says. “And sometimes it’s boring.” She puts the phone to her ear, opens the door to the house, and closes it behind her. 

*

I stand there, alone, and look at the yard. Nicholas sits on the lawn, arm extended, as Alice slides colorful plastic bracelets over his hand. Nicholas’s wife joins them, settling on the grass in spite of her off-white dress. She leans over and kisses Nicholas on the cheek. I watch them for about thirty seconds before I start to think about the phone in my pocket and how, if I wanted to, I could look at it. That’s when the red-haired woman climbs onto deck. Kate Holiday.

She smiles. “You look confused.” She opens the cooler, sifts through the contents.

“Oh,” I say. “I am sometimes.”

“All the beer’s gone.” She looks at me. Her cheeks are flushed.

“Do you want a juice box?” I say.

“Tempting,” she says. 

I hold out my beer. “Do you want mine?”

To my surprise, she steps forward, pulls the bottle from my hand, and takes a sip. It occurs to me, distantly, that my heart is pounding. I wonder if there is a medical term for when that happens. I wonder if there is a medical term specific to when it is induced by another person.

“Your beer’s warm,” she says. 

“Yup,” I say. 

She grins and sets the half-empty bottle on the railing. I pick it up and we stand there, leaning against the railing. There is a breeze in the air. The sun drops behind a passing cloud and reemerges. The color of the grass shifts from a dark green to a lighter one. 

Somewhere in the backyard a kid starts crying—the small red-haired girl. “Oh dear,” Kate says. I watch as she walks down the steps to the lawn. When she reaches the grass, I pull out my phone, tap on Facebook, and search for Kate Holiday. I find her profile, which is only semi-private, and scroll through her seventeen pictures. Kate next to a cardboard cutout of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Kate in sunglasses, holding a coconut drink in one hand, a champagne glass in the other. Kate swinging in a hammock, laughing, the right side of her face hidden behind a white paper fan. 

I look up and see her on the lawn, a plastic wand poised at her mouth, blowing soap bubbles. She tilts her head, watching the bubbles float above the kiddie pool, brushes a strand of hair from her cheek, and hands the wand to the small red-haired girl. It would be so easy, I think, to join her there. To ask for her phone number. 

I imagine sitting beside her at a low-lit bar, drinking a second glass of bourbon, sharing a tiny, seven-dollar dish of olives. I imagine her swiveling on the bar stool, rolling an olive between her fingers, popping it in her mouth. I imagine a series of dates: different bars, different drinks, a slow and steady reveal of our imperfections. 

I look back at my phone and tap on her list of friends. I pause. I draw the phone closer to my face. Kate Holiday has a friend who looks a lot like my ex-wife.

It is my ex-wife, I realize. She changed her profile picture. 

In the new picture, my ex-wife stands in front of a brick wall painted bright green. She wears a blue t-shirt she bought years ago, from a truck that sold t-shirts and live goldfish in tiny plastic bowls. Her smile is big, her hair unruly. Snaked around her waist is a man’s arm. It is impossible to tell who the arm belongs to, because he is cropped out of the picture. It could, conceivably, belong to no one of significance. It could belong to my ex-wife’s brother, even though he lives in Lansing, Michigan and has not spoken to her in three years.

The phone, suddenly, feels hot and slick in my hand. It occurs to me that my wife is not my wife anymore, for a variety of tangible and less tangible reasons. She will never be my wife again. It occurs to me that I am thirty-seven years old and drunk at a child’s birthday party. There is a neat, searing pain in my right temple. 

Madeline returns to the deck. “You look like you’re about to throw up,” she says.

I finish my beer. “I have a headache.” 

She reaches over and presses a finger to my forearm. The imprint turns pink. “You’re burning,” she says. 

*

The house is cool and dark, the curtains drawn, the central air humming. The kitchen counter is littered with juice boxes and plates smeared with melted ice cream, the dining room carpet strewn with towels and alphabet puzzle pieces. I follow Madeline into the bathroom and watch as she pulls different bottles from the medicine cabinet. “There’s no headache stuff.” She closes the cabinet and brushes past me. “I’ll check upstairs.” 

I go to the living room and sink into the couch. I look at my reflection in the television. I look like somebody’s sad, drunk uncle.

Alice walks into the room, holding an assortment of jumbled towels. Her hotdog costume is bedraggled, the strip of yellow felt trailing behind her. She approaches the couch, takes the beer bottle, sets it on the floor. “Lie down,” she says. I stretch across the couch. “No.” She points to the carpet.

“Down there?” I say. 

“On the floor,” Alice says, solemnly.

The carpet is plush. I lie on my back. “Close your eyes,” she says, and I close them. “You’re sleeping,” she says. She puts her hand on my forehead, and then covers my face with a damp towel. At first, I wonder why the towel is damp. At first, I make a list of all the liquids it might be damp with. But the cloth is cool, and it smells like laundry detergent, and it feels pleasant, like a spa treatment. Alice covers my chest with a towel. She covers my legs with a towel, my feet. “Goodnight,” she says. I listen to her pad away on the carpet, into the kitchen. I listen to the back door open and close. I listen to the sound of my breaths, in and out.  

City of Strays

It is after dark, and I’m waiting for Martin to return. He’s out jogging, his nightly ritual, though he’s been gone longer than usual. I’m seated cross-legged on the couch checking email on my laptop and, behind me, I hear the rain against the glass. I glance up to my left and see the top of the Space Needle glowing through a low-hanging cloud. An expensive view, but I’m an expensive lawyer. When I moved to Seattle a year ago, recruited by a law firm impressed with my track record litigating software patents, I made sure that I found an apartment with this view. 

When I was growing up in Indianapolis, my father, an office furniture salesman, would bring me pens from the cities he visited. Floaty pens. A San Francisco panorama with a trolley car that rolled back and forth. The Space Needle with an elevator that went up and down. I spent hours on the floor of my room, slowly twirling the Space Needle, making the elevator rise and fall, imaging myself in it. It became my lucky pen, the one I used for my diary, then exams, then my college application. The pen that got me out of Indianapolis.  

Now, I watch from my living room one of these elevators ascending without my assistance. I think about how far I’ve traveled, first the job in New York, then DC, San Francisco, and now here, a circumnavigate career. Each stop at a better firm, a higher salary. I wonder if this will be my final stop, or if this Space Needle is just a lighthouse I will pass on my way to somewhere else

I glance up when Martin enters the apartment, dripping on the carpet. He’s out of breath and clutching what looks like a soaked-through scarf.

“What took you so long?” I ask. Then the scarf opens its yellow eyes and looks at me. 

I follow Martin into the bathroom. He swaddles the cat on his lap in a towel I bought him as a birthday gift from Restoration Hardware. The cat is black with patches of white on its paws and patches of pink on its back and belly where fur used to be. Its left ear torn in two, partially healed over. No collar.

“Where did you find it?” I ask.

“It’s a she,” he says. “I found her on Queen Anne, by those stairs.”

“She could be feral.”

“If she was, she wouldn’t have let me carry her home.” Martin is tenderly drying her legs. The cat looks up at him with patient eyes. 

“She needs food,” he says. “Do you mind popping downstairs to the market?” 

“I could, but…” I hear my voice trail off. He looks up at me. “Martin, shouldn’t we just take her to the shelter?”

Martin stares at me the way a litigious client looks when I suggest arbitration. 

* * *

The next evening I come home to a cat reborn. The fur, combed out and shiny, covers much of the bare skin. She struts through our living room, tail erect, as if she has always lived here. 

Martin is seated on the floor as she circles him. “Isn’t she beautiful?” he asks.

I nod and watch the cat climb onto his lap, his arms surrounding her. I hover over the two of them like a mother figure. I feel my stomach clench.

“You realize that we’re going to have to pay a pet deposit,” I tell him. “Assuming this is long term.”

“We’ll pay it,” he says.

“What if she’s been chipped?” I ask. “She could be somebody’s cat.”

“I’m naming her Dido,” he says, then places his lips on her forehead and whispers something. I feel the urge to lean in. Instead, I retreat two steps to the kitchen and begin heating up some food. 

“Can you hear her purring?” he asks.

“Yes,” I say, though I hear only the microwave.

* * *

Martin is an instructor of ancient literature at the University of Washington. In his late thirties and still deep in student loans, he seems resigned to his fate. There is a novel somewhere on his computer that he claims is near completion, but I’m not optimistic. 

We have a relationship one might call modern. No marriage certificate. No kids. And, until recently, no pets. Living in a luxury high-rise in Belltown, with me covering the bills while he chips away at his liabilities. Martin carries his end in other ways. He is bookishly attractive in his black-rimmed glasses and untucked oxford shirts. He keeps the fridge stocked. He takes to the chores with a passion I find curious yet endearing. 

He gives me the room I need, not just in time and space. In San Francisco, I dated VCs who put on a show of independence but rarely ever spent a moment alone. Always in meetings, texting like teenage girls, biking every Saturday morning in spandex pelotons. Men raised by helicopter moms, offended if you aren’t there to praise their Mandarin, favorite a Tweet, offer up a hug. 

I was never much of a hugger. I have no problem with sex, but sex is transactional, temporary, and comes to a definite conclusion. Hugs are open-ended, which means someone must be the first to let go. Usually me.  

The fact that Martin and I have lasted a year is as close to happily ever after as I know. On my darker days I wonder if he’s in it for the money. But not once has he ever asked me to pay off his loans, and I interpret this as love.

* * *

A month later, I’m still trying, really trying, to coexist with our new roommate, one that leaves trails of litter across the carpet and sheds tufts of black fur that stick to my clothing like stains.

Martin speaks to her like she is a child. The way his voice rises makes my spine crawl, cooing silly nonsense about her being such a good girl, such a good little girl

At nights, when Martin is out jogging, she waits for him by the door. I could open a can of salmon and she wouldn’t look in my direction. After Martin returns, she follows him from room to room then waits patiently for him to settle on the couch, offering up his lap. 

I am now relegated to the other side of the couch as we watch TV. I first tried sitting close to Martin, but she growled at me, the same noise she made when the vet inserted the thermometer up her ass.

This used to be our ritual. My head on Martin’s lap, Martin’s hands massaging my hair. I would hold the remote control, and Martin would signal by touch the show he prefers. One tap for YES, two taps for NO. And a tender lap around my ear to signal the volume. 

Tonight, I try leaning over, to at least share this precious real estate. But as my head touches Martin’s right knee she hisses.

 “Fucking feline.” I straighten.

“You frightened her.”

“I frightened her? She’s the one with the claws, Martin.”

“She’s still traumatized,” he says. “Give it time.”

Dido stares at me with satisfied eyes and begins purring so loudly I have to turn up the volume.

* * *

“This cat is ruining my relationship,” I tell Jeremy, my paralegal and only close girlfriend. “I’m beginning to think this would be simpler if Martin was having an affair.”

“He is having an affair,” he says.

“What do you mean?”

Jeremy shakes his head. “The name he chose. Dido is the other woman.”

Martin now volunteers at the animal shelter in Ballard. He began going Thursday and Friday afternoons while I was at work. 

“Isn’t one rescued cat enough?” I ask when he tells me he has decided to volunteer on weekends too.

“There is so much need out there,” he says. 

“There is need everywhere,” I tell him. “You can’t rescue them all. What about your book?”

“I’m taking a break,” he says. “These cats. Just spending a few hours a day with them makes all the difference in their lives. You should join me.”

I tag along one Saturday. He leads me into the cat room, low-ceilinged with stainless steel cages along the walls, stacked three high, each containing expectant, pleading eyes. Some cats meow while others stare in silence. I feel like we are starring in some performance piece in the round. 

Martin puts me to work cleaning litter boxes and refilling water dishes. I yell out when one cat bites me as I’m reaching in for his dish.

Martin looks at my finger, blood beginning to bubble up through two pinpricks. “You’ll be fine.”

“Shouldn’t we tell someone?”

“If you say anything, Tom-Tom will be put back in quarantine.”

“Maybe he should be.”

Martin’s eyes narrow. “You stick a cat in quarantine and they’ll be alone for ten days. You have no idea what’s that like.”

 “I have some idea,” I say. “What it’s like to be sequestered.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Jesus, Martin, it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, which is about as rare as a lunar eclipse in this city, and we’re in here shoveling litter.”

“I didn’t force you to come.”

“No. Of course not. But how else am I going to get your attention these days? Crawl into one of these cages?”

Martin shakes his head and turns back to Tom-Tom. An overweight vet tech enters wearing pink scrubs. She smiles at Martin and passes between us. He follows her into the next room.

I turn the other way, leave the shelter, and go for a long run along the waterfront. I can’t pretend to love these creatures, and I know Martin thinks I’m abnormal. This shelter visit another failed audition for a role I never wanted in the first place. Dido brought a part of him to life I didn’t know existed, a maternal quality. I would think it lovely if I had such a quality lurking within me. If I had, like him, been raised with little animals scurrying around the house.

The only animals in my house were three gerbils, given to my older brother and kept in the basement in a cracked aquarium. I named them Ariel, Cally, and Samantha, and I visited every morning and every day after school—until my brother, out of brotherly spite, moved them into his room and locked the door. I was so jealous of him for having little creatures to call his own that I pretended from then on that they didn’t exist. 

Perhaps if I had been properly raised with pets, I’d be different now, the way children soak up second languages. Either there was something I did not soak up, or it was never there to begin with. 

* * *

I text Martin from the office, inviting him to a romantic dinner. I suggest the new Italian place on Pike, but when he replies with an offer to cook, I feel as if I’ve won a summary judgment. 

We’ve endured two months of silent cohabitation, me working late during the week and Martin absent on weekends. Tonight will be different. 

I sneak out of work and arrive home to the smell of sautéed garlic. Martin is busy at the stove. I kiss him on the neck and pour a glass of wine.

I sit at the table and look out over the city, feeling a sense of relaxation I have not felt in months. Martin used to say that cooking calmed him, gave him a sense of accomplishment absent from the rest of his day. What calmed me was my participation—chopping vegetables, washing a dish or two. But these dinners ended when Dido arrived—baked brie and risotto replaced by rescued cats. 

Martin brings the plates and sits across from me. I raise a wine glass and wait for Martin to reciprocate, but he’s staring off at a corner of the room. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask. My eyes follow his, since I assume this has something to do with the cat. “Is it Dido?”

“No,” he says, then stands and stares at the ceiling like some petulant child, and I realize I’m going to have to squeeze it out of him. Men. The closer you get to the truth, the more tightly they cling to it.

“Martin, what’s the matter?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Patent law is hard to explain.”

“I’ve met someone,” he says. “At the shelter.”

“Someone?”

“Tami. A vet tech.”

“Stop. Back up.” My mind reboots into lawyer. “You’re having an affair?”

“I’m sorry.”

“With Tami.”

“She lives in Snohomish. I’ve decided to move in with her.”

I’m trying to picture this woman. Pink scrubs.

“You mean the fat girl?” I ask.

“I knew you’d say that.” He walks to the closet and removes his luggage, already packed. Then he removes a cat carrier and opens the gate.

I want to slap the bastard. I want to push him off our seventeenth-floor balcony onto Western Avenue. 

He scoops up Dido.

“No,” I say.

“Excuse me?”

“No fucking way. Put the cat down.”

‘But you hate her.”

“I hate you.”

“I can’t just leave her here with you.”

“You can pick her up tomorrow,” I am standing. I grab the carrier away and throw it across the room. “Put her down, or help me God I’m going to start screaming.”

But I already am screaming. The cat has sprung from Martin’s arms and run under the television console, and he couldn’t get her out from under it even if I’d given him the chance. Martin fumbles with closing the door behind him. I lock the door and take a deep breath. 

I pick up the phone and instruct the front desk to change the lock. 

* * *

I’m on a conference call the following afternoon when my office door swings open. Martin’s face is burning. 

“How dare you,” he says.  “You don’t even like Dido.”

“You have no idea how I feel—just as I clearly had no idea what was going on in your twisted mind. I paid the cat fee, security deposit, food, vet bills. I have more legal right to that feline than you do.”

“I’ll take you to court.”

“Please. I’m the best lawyer you know. And I’m opposing counsel.”

I watch the words sink in. Martin exhales. His shoulders slump. He sits. He’s wearing a shirt I don’t recognize.

“Do you want me to beg? I will.”

“If you really loved Dido, you wouldn’t have left her.”

“I left you,” he says.

“In the eyes of the law, you left us both.”

Martin stands. “I’m going to get her back,” he says.

“Be my guest. I’m always up for a challenge.”

Later that night, I finish the leftovers of Martin’s meal with Dido perched at the far end of the table, back to me, staring at the door. 

“Sorry kiddo,” I tell her. “It’s just you and me now.”

* * *

Martin had identified six meows. 

The feed me meow. 

The good morning meow. 

The calling for other cats meow. 

The where have you been all day meow. 

The about to use the litter meow. 

The looking at seagulls meow. 

I never could tell them apart, but I’m quite certain that Dido is now using the full repertoire, all night long, every night. 

She sits at the foot of my bed and wails. The first night, I tried locking her out of the room, but she just stood outside the door and turned up the volume. Then clawed at the door. Then figured out how to open the door. 

I began using earplugs. That only spurred the little miscreant to position herself next to my head. 

One night, at three in the morning, nerves spent, I remove the carrier from the closet and I wave it at her. 

“You think I wouldn’t fucking do it?” 

She sits at the foot of my bed, expectantly. She knows I am bluffing. That or she is hoping for a way out.

I return the carrier to the closet and bury my head under a pillow. A few minutes later she is seated on my nightstand filling the room with one of six meows.

* * *

Jeremy hands me a coffee as I yawn into a fist. “Cat?”

“It’s like having an infant that won’t sleep the night.”

“And you still refuse to get rid of her?”

I wave him out of my office. Of all people, I know the value of a contract, and now I have nothing but this furry bargaining chip. 

“My friend Eddie has this little terror of a tabby,” says Jeremy later that day, during a break in a deposition. “Peed on their carpets. Clawed everything in sight. Then he hired Ron, and a week later—problem solved.”

“Ron?”

“They call him the cat whisperer.”

“Have you met this whisperer?”

Jeremy shakes his head.

“What did this person do? Give the cat pills?”

“Eddie says Ron just talked to the cat, played with him. Like therapy.”

“I refuse to hire a cat shrink.”

“He saved their marriage.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Plus, Eddie says he’s got an amazing ass. I’ve been dying to see it.”  

Martin took a major standard of living hit when he left me. Now he is living on the east side of Seattle in some generic apartment complex with a shitty walk score and a woman who can barely support herself. I remember her from the shelter. In her scrubs like some nurse. The way she passed between us in the cat room. If only I had spent more than one afternoon there, maybe I would have seen it coming. 

The next evening, I am sitting in my car in front of Martin’s apartment. The information Jeremy can unearth when I promise him a half day.

I watch Martin emerge from the apartment, alone, dressed for his run, right on schedule. He looks up at the mist, raises a hood, and starts. I follow in my car. 

He’s wearing the same jacket as the day I met him. It was raining then too, and I had beaten the movers by eighteen hours and was irritated to have so much empty time. I wandered the streets until I found a small park overlooking the sound. Tourists, umbrellas, selfies. I watched a ferry headed toward Bainbridge and wished I was on that boat because at least I’d be headed somewhere. 

I felt self-conscious so I took out my phone and pretended to be busy. I opened a dating app. My fingers scrolled through all the available men in my vicinity. The faces were new, but so much else felt sadly similar. Men who loved to travel, try new restaurants. Men who sailed, summited Rainier, hiked the PCT. Men who had children. Men who wanted children. Men who loved children.

I heard his voice, looked up. He was asking directions to the Sculpture Park, and I didn’t see him clearly at first because there were tears in my eyes.

He had just moved to Seattle and was looking for an apartment, living out of a hostel. And he laughed when I told him I did have an apartment but would probably be more comfortable in a hostel.

I treated him to a trip up the Space Needle. From there, I pointed out what I thought was my apartment, and I invited him to stay. For a week or two until he found a place of his own. 

I have stopped at a light, and I watch Martin getting away. I picture myself the star of a David Lynch film, the camera tight on my face, tense music. Do I accelerate and cut the runner off and yell at him in the middle of the street? Or do I accelerate and swerve into him? 

I turn the car around and park across the street from his apartment and close my eyes. And for a moment I am back at my own apartment, listening to the rain against the glass, waiting for Martin to return from his jog.

When he returns, pacing back and forth, his head steaming, glasses fogged, I lower the car window. This is my plan. I will call out to him and he will join me in the car and I will apologize. I will ask, beg, for him to return to me. 

But I am too late. The door closes behind him, and I watch shadows moving against the curtains. I get out of the car.

Then I notice the curtains moving, parting. A cat has slipped between the curtain and the window—gray with a white chest—and it studies me. All this time, I thought there was only Dido. 

I get back in my car.

Later that night, I am coming out of a dream when I hear breathing next to my face. I can see Martin’s face, the short nose and stubbled double chin and they way he stares at me. Those eyes dark and reflective, and I can see myself in them. He is talking, and I can’t hear him over the noise. I ask him to speak up but the noise is so loud, a scream.

I am the one screaming, Dido’s claw hooked into my left nostril. 

I grab at her collar and squeeze until she disengages. I toss her out of the bed and hear books falling. By the time I get the light on, the cat is limping across the living room floor, tail dragging. By the looks of the damage I had hurled her into my tower of unread books. The next morning, a Band-Aid on my nose,I tell Jeremy to make the call.

* * *

I answer the door. Jeremy is standing there, dressed for a date. 

“Is he here yet?”

I shake my head.

“Mind if I wait with you?”

“Sure, whatever.”

Jeremy looks around. “Where is the little Beelzebub?”

“Staring out the window. She took a crap on my pillow yesterday while I was at work. I believe that’s what they call passive aggressive.”

“That’s not passive aggressive,” he says. “That’s aggressive aggressive.”

I open a bottle of wine and pour out two glasses. The front desk calls to let me know Ron has arrived. 

“He’s on his way up,” I say, and Jeremy rushes into the bathroom to check his hair.

When I open the door, I see a man in jeans and flannel shirt carrying what looks like an old metal toolbox. He says nothing.

“Are you Ron?”

“I am.” He walks past me. 

Jeremy extends a hand. “I’m Jeremy. The person you spoke with. I was hoping I could watch. The session.”

“I work alone with my clients.”

“Clients?” I ask. 

“Where is she?” he asks. I point her out, now crouched on the back of my leather chair, watching us.

“What’s her name?”

 “Dido,” I say. “And, for the record, I didn’t give her that name. You think she blames me?”

Jeremy giggles, but Ron says nothing. He kneels down and opens his toolbox, which I realize is an old fly-fishing tackle box. He removes several pieces of bamboo and assembles them into a sort of fishing rod.

“Going fishing?” Jeremy asks.

“In a manner of speaking,” he says as he strings a small fake mouse, colored purple, to the end of the rod. Dido slowly approaches, tail in the air, and follows him into the bedroom.

“You think he needs an assistant?” Jeremy asks.

“If this doesn’t work out, you’ll be available.”

Jeremy follows me out onto the balcony, and we watch a container ship making its slow escape from the harbor. 

“You need to take a cruise,” Jeremy says. “Get your mind off things.”

“Too many people.”

“Must be weird to be alone again.”

“I’m not alone. That’s the problem.”

Ron emerges from the room. Dido follows a few steps behind, her tail curling upward like smoke. 

“So?” I ask.

“Dido is full of rage.”

“No shit.”

“I’ll need two more sessions.”

We watch him return his toy to the toolbox. I try rolling my eyes at Jeremy, but he is too focused on the man’s backside. And I must admit the man is built like a lumberjack. He starts for the door.

“Wait,” I say. “Is that it?”

He gives me a blank look. “For now.”

“What all did you do with her in there?”

“We played.”

“You played. And how much do I owe you for this playtime?”

“Two-fifty.” 

“That wasn’t even an hour.”

“I explained everything to your assistant.”

“I’m sure you did. I just assumed I was paying for more than cat R&R. I mean, for this kind of money I’d expect more out of this cat than a better mood. Like the ability to open her can of food. Do her own litter.”

“Speaking of that, it needs cleaning,” he says. “I’ll see you Monday.”

The door slams shut before I can respond.

“Can you believe that? The nerve of that man.”

“He is so hot,” Jeremy says. “I have to get a cat.”

* * *

I am seated cross-legged on the couch, laptop balanced on top. I feel movement and look over to see Dido sitting on Martin’s cushion. 

This is a first. Dido has never shared the couch with me. Could this be progress?

I tentatively reach over to pet her. I try to do it the way Martin did, not from in front of her face but from behind, gentle. My hand rests on her head, and I find myself smiling. I feel I have passed a test, made some sort of breakthrough, and I suddenly want to thank her for suffering me all these weeks, for letting me in. And for the first time I can imagine a life together. A peaceful coexistence, which was all Martin and I enjoyed anyway. Why can’t I enjoy this? Must my life consist only of adversarial relationships? 

I feel before I see that her head has swung around, her jaw landing on my wrist. 

I don’t push her away. I let her teeth pierce the skin, going deeper. I welcome the pain. Even pain is a currency. A point of negotiation. The absence of accustomed pain is in itself a form of pain. I watch the blood trickle down my arm. I think of the slipcover, the cleaning deposit on the carpet.

I am no match for her, and I yank my hand back. She jumps to the floor. I’m shaking.

“Martin left you too, sweetheart. It’s time you got on with your life.”

* * *

Truth is, I could have had the front desk give Ron a key to my apartment. He could do his business and be gone before I got home from work. 

On his second visit, I ask Ron to let me sit in on the session. 

He looks at me for a moment like I’m just another one of his cats. His eyes are blue, and he has a habit of massaging his neck when thinking, exposing firm biceps, which he is doing now. “I will call you in when I’m ready,” he says.

I go into the bedroom and wait. I can hear them out in the living room. Sounds of a cat galloping from room to room. 

“We’re ready for you,” he says.

I sit on the couch and watch the way he plays with her, how focused she is. A ballerina on hind legs, paws extending, twirling. It occurs to me that Ron is nothing like Martin. With Dido, Martin sought out purrs and intimacy. Ron seeks only to work the cat out, dispensing trivial doses of attention, minimal eye contact. As if he is working with a hardened convict.

“How do you do it?” I ask.

“There are no secrets—no secret language, if that’s what you’re getting at. Cats were here before humans. I think at some level they all know that. If you look into a cat’s eyes, really look, you’ll see it. Something you won’t see in a dog’s eyes.”

”What?”

“Resentment,” he says. “Which is the highest form of intelligence.”

“Everything is claws with her.”

“She hasn’t learned how to use soft paws,” he says. “She’s like you.”

“Me?”

“You’re a lawyer,” he says. 

“I don’t get paid to be gentle.”

He hands the toy to me. “You try.”

I jingle it in front of her. She is motionless.

“See. Nothing.”

“Not in front of her face like that. You make it too easy. You have to give her a challenge. Keep it out of reach. Slow it down.”

I do as instructed but Dido is now staring in the opposite direction. 

“She hates me.”

“Appears the feeling is mutual.”

“I don’t hate her,” I say. “I just don’t like cats all that much. My ex was the cat lover.”

“Why didn’t he take her?”

“It’s complicated.”

“You’re using her for ransom?”

“I’m the one with all the money.“

“How long has he been gone?”

“Six weeks.”

Ron rubs his neck again. “He’s not coming back for Dido.”

“How would you know? Martin is not a cat.” 

“He’s a man, and I know a thing or two about that species as well.”

I feel a tug on my hand and I look down to see Dido playing with the toy. 

“I wasn’t even doing anything.”

“You let it drop behind your shoe. She couldn’t see it, she couldn’t hear it, so she had to have it. Silence means more to a cat than noise,” he says. “Cats are minimalists.”

Ron kneels down and opens his toolbox. He reaches up for the toy.

“I’m not done yet,” I say.

“I have to go.” He grabs the toy and I tug on it playfully, until I nearly coax a smile out of him. 

“How about a drink?” I ask, standing by the door, blocking it. He looks at me, and I think he is considering it, but then he opens the door. Before I know it, I have grabbed the belt loop of his jeans and pulled him to me.

 “What are you doing?” he asks.

I say nothing, and now I have my right hand on his right butt cheek, holding tight, feeling it flex as he tries to turn. And I’m now one with him. My other hand on his other side, grabbing just as firmly. And my mouth on his evasive mouth until I hear the door fall closed again. 

Later, in the dark, we lie naked on the couch. He is staring at the Space Needle.

“What did you do before this?” I ask.

“Fisherman.”

“Not exactly a lateral move.”

“I woke up one morning and realized that I was on the wrong side of life.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is a right side and a wrong side. Those who kill for living are on the wrong side.”

“Somebody has to do it.”

“No,” he says. “Nobody has to do it.”

“So I take it you given up on seafood.”

“All animals.”

“Oh, I see. You’re one of them.”

“Them?”

“You know. People who try to make the rest of us feel guilty about eating meat.”

“I don’t have to try,” he says. 

He pulls away. I hear him getting dressed.

“I didn’t mean anything by that.” I sit up and turn on a light. Dido is high on the bookcase, looking down on us with knowing eyes. 

 

* * *

Ron doesn’t show the following Monday. Nor does he return my calls. 

“Typical male,” Jeremy says. 

Walking home, late, I check email. An invoice for $500 with one line item: Feline behavior sessions. Payable Net 30.

The cat has torn a linen couch pillow to shreds. She sits on the kitchen counter with a fuck-you look.

I park the cat carrier on the dining room table. 

Dido climbs on top of the bookcase. I reach up for her and grab a hind leg. She slashes me but I hold on. She is biting me now. 

Some people are cat people. Some are dog people. But what if you’re none of the above? What if you are unfit to care for any pet? 

Even gerbils.

My brother quickly lost interest in his gerbils, which stands to reason because our parents had already lost interest in us. Three weeks without food. That’s all it takes to turn childhood pets into cannibals. 

I, following the smell, was the one who found Ariel, alone and skeletal. I watched her die, surrounded with lettuce and sunflower seeds, my feeble attempt at rehabilitation. When my father returned from Dallas, he yelled at my mother, who yelled at my brother, who yelled at me. If I were a lawyer then, I would have sued them all for negligence and abuse. But I was only ten years old. The best I could do was convince my father to let me bury Ariel in the backyard. 

The Space Needle is blurry, and at first I think it is raining. My body trembles when I feel her, the fur, curling up on my lap.  The purring begins and grows louder, like an ocean. 

* * *

I place the carrier on the front porch. I kneel to look at her one more time. Her eyes are black, unblinking. I don’t dare poke a finger through the gate. 

Martin answers the door. When he sees the carrier he studies my face for sign of a practical joke. 

“She missed you,” I say.

He kneels at the carrier, and she meows at him. When he stands, Dido in his arms, I see tears in his eyes. 

“Which one of her meows was that?” I ask.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Must be new.”

The cat is purring now, and they are both staring at me with satisfied eyes. 

* * *

A month later, driving through the city at night, I see a dead animal off to the side of the road. Raccoon? Possum? I tell myself to stop asking such questions. The animal is dead. But these are the questions I now ask. Since Dido. Since Martin trained my eyes to see them. Sniffing around dumpsters. The far corners of parking lots. Emerging from under mufflers. Tails low. Collarless. Were they always there? Or was I always so blind?

I turn towards Ballard.

Tom-Tom is still there, along with the god-awful name the shelter gave him. I vow to change it.

Back at home, I open the door to the carrier and watch him take his first tentative steps, as if he is walking on the moon. Which my apartment must feel like after two months of living in that shelter. I am lying on the floor, at eye level, as he sniffs at the clawed-up couch.

“You’re an only cat,” I assure him. “But I have to be honest with you. I’m not a very good cat person. Still learning to use soft paws.”

He tilts his head and rubs against my forehead.

“But you are a good little boy,” I say. “Such a good little boy.” 

END

Bondservant

These mountains are killing me—killing all of us—though I know it’s in self-defense. Getting away from here is all I can think about as I step off the bathroom scale, skim my jeans over my pelvic bones, take up the slack inch of denim with a safety pin. Another pound has slid off me this week, even though I shoveled the last of an orange-glazed Bundt cake into my mouth yesterday. Missy’s momma baked the cake for Paw, but my father-in-law wouldn’t eat it, sent it home for Jasper and me to share. Paw won’t eat much of anything these days. He went from mining to logging when the coal dust sucked the air from his lungs, then from logging to sitting on the couch when his Crohn’s disease turned to cancer and his body started dissolving. Like mine seems to be doing.  

My ribs look more like a washboard now than four years ago in high school when they nicknamed me Bony Romie. I worry maybe I have Crohn’s, too. It’s wiping out half the mountain, what ones don’t die of cancer or black lung. The GI doc in Bluefield told Paw he’d called the CDC down in Atlanta, told them they should start tracking it. Said it wasn’t normal for Crohn’s to nest in an area like it had in Stump Branch. Paw and the doctor think it has something to do with the coal mines—something they’re pumping into the ground, or something they’re pumping out—probably the same thing that’s causing the grass to burn up and the fish to swell and lay on the bank like wall-eyed shovel heads. 

The smell of sweet cornbread baking wafts into the bedroom, and my mouth waters, but I ain’t hungry. Food sometimes turns against me these days, causes a quick rush of nausea. It always passes, though. Paw told Jasper the same thing happened to him right before he was diagnosed.

I put away the pink Myrtle Beach 2012 t-shirt from our last vacation, pull down one of Jasper’s bulky West Virginia Mountaineers sweatshirts instead. It’ll hide my ribs and the little swollen paunch that’s shown up low on my belly.

“Anybody home?” Jasper calls from the living room. Our trailer trembles when he slams the front door behind him, and I massage the dull ache building behind my temples.

I snatch the notice about the mountaintop-removal-mining protest from the dresser, shove it into the drawer before Jasper sees it. I hate the anti-MTR meetings and protests. The things they say about what’s happening to the land and to us who live here scare me, give me nightmares even, yet I can’t seem to stay away. The woman who invited me to my first meeting in the back bay of Walker’s Garage told me that what I didn’t know could kill me. Since then, I haven’t missed a one. I want to learn everything they’re teaching, see firsthand the changes taking place in the people of Stump Branch. 

I’ve watched a dozen locals become spies or environmental activists in a matter of weeks. Men and women I’ve known all my life have turned into scientists who show us soil and water samples, toxicology reports, easily pronouncing six-syllable words and reading long lists of deadly chemicals—and one of those men never finished high school. Funny how staring at death makes people smarter. 

Now I smooth back my hair and make myself smile, then head down our short hallway. “There’s my man.” I lean in to peck a kiss on Jasper’s lips, the only part of him besides his eyeballs that isn’t pitch black. “Did the nightshift treat you all right?” 

Jasper nods, sets his lunch bucket on the vinyl runner by the door, slides out of his dirty twill coat. “I smell cornbread.” His blue eyes light like propane flames, their brightness intensified by the mask of coal dirt surrounding them. 

“Can’t have brown beans without it,” I say. 

“Mmm, lady! I’d marry you again, if you weren’t already mine.” 

“Get cleaned up. Cornbread’ll be done in a jiffy.” I turn off the warming flame beneath the pan and spoon potatoes fried with onions into a blue-speckled bowl. “Might want to bring in your work boots off the porch, set them in the tub. We’re supposed to get a skiff of snow later this morning.” 

“Too early for snow. I ain’t ready for it, yet.” From the bathroom down the hall, Jasper’s voice echoes as if he is still deep in the mine. “You check on Daddy after work yesterday?”

“I did.” I add a thick pat of golden butter to the fried potatoes, the same thing I made for my father-in-law yesterday, and I think of the man’s yellowing, wary eyes. Paw—I’ve always called him Paw instead of Daddy, out of respect for my own daddy who died when I was a teenager—Paw’s sliding downhill fast. It isn’t just his sickness, either. His mind ain’t acting right. He’s not himself, and I worry he’s up to something. A no-good sort of something. 

A long pause settles between us before Jasper asks the heavy question I know will follow. “He send any more Oxy home with you?”

“On the bedroom dresser.” I set the table, stand by the kitchen window and watch the morning sunrise illuminate the miles of flat, beige scab that used to be a cloud-grazing piney mountain. I unclench my teeth and work my aching jaw. 

Ten minutes later when Jasper pads out of the bathroom bare-chested, barefoot and smelling of soap, I slide the pone of steaming cornbread onto the table. “Want milk for dunking?” 

“Heck yeah.” He flashes his white smile, and just like that, my icy mood melts.

Jasper picks up a slab of cornbread, slathers it with butter, takes a big bite and talks around it. “How many pills did he send this time?” 

I look out the window again, listen to the harsh wind whistle past the windowpane. No deep folds of mountain, no heavy forest out there anymore to hedge us in, protect us. “Didn’t count ’em.” I break off a piece of cornbread, crumble it between my fingers, watch the grains sprinkle onto the plate. “Felt like too many.” I dust my hands and take a long swig of milk to wash away the bitterness on my tongue.

“You’ll wish you had more, the day comes you ever need to sell ’em.”

I set down my glass hard enough to make my fork jump. “Dammit, Jasper, you been dying since the day you walked into that mine. I’m tired of you always planning for the day you don’t come home.” I stand, rake my food into the garbage can and run scalding water over the plate. 

“Don’t be like that,” Jasper says. “Sit down, honey. Eat.” 

“Not in the mood for cornbread,” I say.

“Want me to make you a sandwich? Peanut butter is my specialty.” 

“I’m not hungry.” I dry the plate, and I’m startled when Jasper breathes into my hair, slides his arms around me, pulls me back against his chest. I rest there, let his warmth seep into me. 

“We talked about this when I started working for Prospect. You know the chances I got of coming home in a box.”

I know. Oh, yes, I know. Roof bolting is about the most dangerous job an underground miner can do. It also pays the most. 

Jasper nuzzles my neck and whispers in my ear as his hands move lower on my stomach. “Babies cost money, and if we want a little Grodin some day, I need to stick around there a while.”

I squeeze his hands, slide them a bit higher. How I ache for a child in the hollow of my belly, pray day and night for a baby. A selfish prayer, premature, but one that, if God will answer, might help Jasper see the sense in leaving. Stump Branch might cradle Grodin family land, but it’s no longer the place for Jasper and me to start our family. The land is sick, the people are sick, and now I’m feeling sickly, too. 

I turn around in Jasper’s arms, look up into his once-smooth face, now lined and creased a decade beyond its twenty-two years. “You promised you’d quit in five years.”

He nods, and a trickle of water sluices from a light-brown curl, skims his neck and slides onto his chest. “Still got part of one to go.”

“We could get out now, Jasper, go to North Carolina. Plenty of textile jobs down there. Construction jobs.” 

“You ain’t got no reason to worry about me spending a lifetime underground. I can’t stick around there no longer than six or seven years, anyhow.”

“Six or seven years! You’d consider staying longer?”

“We’re less than a year from tearing into the last big coal seam on the property. After that, no more underground mining. Prospect’s doing everything above-ground. MTR mining all the way. I’m the last of a dying breed, baby.” He grins. 

“Jasper, nobody says you got to stick out the full five you’d promised. Besides, Stinson didn’t keep his word, neither. You still ain’t got no medical card. You have to beg for a day off and lie to take one.” 

He tilts his head, touches his lips to mine, and electricity snaps between us. I flatten my hands on his chest, push him away. “Finish eating, and get some sleep. I have to run into town. I’ll check on Paw again while I’m out. I believe he’s supposed to see the doc again tomorrow. He thinks he can drive, but I want to make sure.” 

Jasper eases onto the straight-backed chair awkwardly, gingerly, like an old man.

“Your back bothering you again?” I ask.

“Not too bad. Big slab of roof fell today.” He lifts his palms heavenward. “Had my hands up just so, caught the edge and shoved it to the side before it crushed Jimbo. I might have twisted wrong.” He rolls a shoulder, arches, then digs his spoon into the beans. “Say Paw’s going again tomorrow? Didn’t he just go a few days ago?”

I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, quietly. “They go more often when it gets to end-stage.” I watch him carefully, but he won’t look at me. “The doctor called and said the big polyp he took out last week showed more cancer. Said Paw needs to have another ten or twelve inches cut out of there, but your daddy won’t hear of it. Said no more knife.”

“No more knife,” Jasper echoes, pushing his food around his plate. 

“Sorry, Jasper. I know you hate talking about these things.”

“So . . . what’s Daddy gonna do?”

I watch my husband for a moment. He wouldn’t want me to candy-coat the truth. “He told the doc to double up on his pills if he would, but no more cutting.”

Jasper chews slowly, puts down his spoon and looks up at me. 

I hold up my hand, stop him before he can speak. “He needs them pills himself, Jasper. You know he’s got to be hurting.”

“Ain’t like I’m taking anything he ain’t offering. His idea to skim off the bottles, not mine.” He breaks off another wedge of cornbread, dunks it into the milk. “He don’t take half of what they prescribe for him, anyhow. Said if he took Oxy at the rate the doctor pushed it on him, he’d O.D. in an hour.” 

I turn away before I wipe my eyes, so Jasper won’t see.

“Besides,” he says, “I told him he ever needs them back, I got them right here, and I’ll come running. Told him I’d never sell them, anyhow. They’re yours for when—”

“For when you die! Hell yes, I know that!”

Jasper shrugs, bites off the sopping cornbread, swallows with hardly a chew. “It’s the only life-insurance policy we got.” 

I blink hard, his words stinging me like a slap to the face. I yank Jasper’s good hunting jacket from the coat tree by the door, shove my arms into it and push the cuffs over my wrists. Jasper’s words circle through my head again. Caught the edge and shoved it to the side before it crushed Jimbo. My Lord. 

“I’ll try to be back before you leave,” I say, then I catch myself and speak a bit softer. “You pulling a twelve again? What time you go in?” He doesn’t answer, and when I turn, Jasper’s eyes catch me, hold me in the way that hurts my heart. 

“Baby, come here.” He holds out an arm, and before I know it, I’m wrapped up inside him, he’s wrapped inside me. 

With the groceries bought, the electric bill paid, and what’s left of Jasper’s check deposited, I head back up the mountain, almost wishing I didn’t have the day off work. Not that I like calling patients who can’t afford their medical bills to remind them a turnover to collections is looming, but it beats watching Paw die. 

The Jeep rocks like a boat among waves as I navigate the ruts and climb the ridge toward Paw’s place. I peer into the skeletal tree-line as the afternoon sun begins to sink, but I find no colorful fall leaves, no late green shoots, no encouragement that spring will follow winter, will ever come again to Stump Branch. 

As I near the top, I slow and steer the Jeep to hug the inside of the narrow road, my stomach balling tight in anticipation of meeting one of the monstrous coal trucks that race up and down the ridge all hours of the day and night. Each year since the mine opened in ’98, someone has died either in a head-on collision or from being run over the steep embankment by a coal truck. Prospect always pays the fines, but they’ve never lost a court case, and no family has ever received reparations for loss of life. My fingers ache from gripping the wheel too tight, and I flex them, telling myself that maybe tonight I will paint my nails for Jasper, telling myself anything to get dying off my mind.

I let out a pent-up breath when I round the blind turn without meeting a coal truck. A jarring blast from the mine a mile and a half away further stretches my nerves, and I grit my teeth as loose dirt and rubble tumble from the steep shale bank above onto the Jeep’s hood and roof. You can’t ever have anything nice around here. 

Topping the knoll, I gaze out the passenger window at the bleak desolation below. Another big gray slurry pond—nearly the size of a lake—burbles and pops where once a field of Queen Anne’s lace, wild strawberries, and morning glories ambled over the ground. Nearly seven years have passed since they dug the pond, and not a weed nor a blade of grass grows within a hundred yards of it. Poison slop. Full of arsenic, copper, selenium, and other chemicals I can’t yet pronounce, but have heard named at the anti-mountaintop-removal coalition meetings. I study the pie charts, and I always pay special attention to the one depicting water quality, where the chemicals cover all but a blue sliver of the pie. A pond can’t hold in that kind of misery for long. Nothing can. 

After the turn-off toward Paw’s place, the Jeep travels smoother road along the man’s well-tended drive. I pull alongside his mailbox, reach out the window and retrieve a handful of doctor bills, insurance notices, and the same anti-MTR flyer that was in my mailbox yesterday. Paw hasn’t been outside since my last visit.

The house hasn’t changed much since the first time Jasper brought me home to meet his folks six years ago, right after he’d gotten his driver’s license. The white clapboards don’t look as proud now that coal dust stains the crevices, and though Paw usually keeps up with the ditch lilies Momma Grodin planted the year before she died, he hasn’t cut them back this fall, and they lay like heaps of wilted broomstraw along the edge of the porch. 

Paw doesn’t come to the door as he usually does when I drive up, so I jump out of the Jeep and mount the steps two at a time. He could be in the bathroom, I tell myself, trying to banish bad thoughts.

I knock at the door, three quick raps. “Paw?” I open the door without waiting, knowing my father-in-law’s front door has never been locked. As easy to lock the boogeyman in as out, he once told me. May as well let him come and go as he pleases.

“Paw?” A rush of heat wraps around me, nearly takes my breath, and I cross the wooden floor and check the thermostat. Eighty-five. “Where are you, Paw?”

“Be out in a minute.” His voice sounds strangled, and he rattles a wet cough. 

Bathroom. I drop the mail on the coffee table, shed Jasper’s coat and lower the thermostat to seventy-three. “It’s hotter than Hades in here, Paw. You got the chills or something?”

The toilet flushes, followed by running water at the sink, then Paw emerges. “I’ve been a little chilly, yeah.” 

I suck in a breath. His face has grayed overnight, and his eyes have sunk so deeply into their orbits that he looks like the plastic Halloween skull I put on our front porch last week. He offers a strained smile and walks cautiously down the center of the wide hallway, as if barefoot on broken glass. 

I rush to his side. “Paw, my Lord, why didn’t you call me?” Once a foot taller than me, Paw now walks with a stoop, and he levels his hollow gaze with my stare. “You look a mess,” I say. It’s an understatement.

Paw grins around his grimace, and his watery eyes make me want to cry. 

“Ain’t nothing you can do for me, doll baby,” he says. “If they was, I’d tell you.” He pecks a hot, dry kiss on my cheek. “’Sides, I’m getting along just fine for an old feller.”

When I slide an arm around Paw’s back, his spine presses against my arm through my sweatshirt. He feels so light I think I could carry him on my hip, like a baby. “Let’s rest a bit, why don’t we?” I say. He leans on me more than usual as I lead him to his recliner and help him sit. “Can I get you anything? Drink of water? Coffee?”

He lifts a bent finger and points toward the kitchen. “Just put on a pot about six hours ago. Ought to be stout by now. Black. No sugar, sugar.” He grins at his joke, but his lips are thin and tight, and another cough bubbles in his throat.

“Want me to take you to the hospital, Paw?”

“No. Next time I come out of this holler, it’ll be in a box.”

I can’t stifle a groan. “Great. Now you and Jasper are both talking that foolishness.” I fill two mugs, add a spoonful of powdered creamer to mine, carry them into the living room.

“What’s got Jasper dying today?” Paw asks.

“Slab of roof fell while he was bolting. I swear, Paw, between worrying about him, and you, and the mine blasting that goes on all hours of the day and night, I ain’t had a solid night of sleep in a month.” 

Paw’s gaze settles on the fluorescent pink flyer that came in the mail. “Reach me that thing.”

I curse myself for not throwing it in the trash before he saw it. “Aw, you know it’s another piece of propaganda. They’re right, of course, those protesters. But it ain’t doing no good, and it only serves to stir up trouble and hurt feelings.”

He grunts, but I don’t know if he’s agreeing or not. I push to find out. “Need to take their fight to Charleston, or maybe Washington. Only making people feel bad who have to earn a living in that mine. Ain’t like the men’s got a choice.”

“Everbody’s got a choice.” He sips the steaming brew, sets his mug on the side table. “They got a right to protest, and what they’re saying is the truth, Romie. Prospect Mining is killing all of us, what ones are working in the mines, and what ones ain’t.” He stares off for a moment, then speaks softly to the air. “I’ve had about enough of it.”

He turns and fixes me with a serious stare. “Jasper don’t know you go to them anti-MTR meetings, does he?”

His question catches me off guard, and I wonder how he knows, who might have told him. “No, sir. I’ve only been to a couple. I just wanted to see what they were about.”  

“You ought to go to all of ’em. Don’t miss nary a one.” He points again at the flyer. 

I hand the stack of mail to Paw, taking care to shuffle the flyer to the bottom. His words sound foreign to me. He’s long supported the miners, worked the mines himself in the years when men only went underground, gouged deep to get the coal instead of decapitating mountains. Used to say underground mining might not be the best way to treat Mother Nature, but it sure beat chopping off her head like Prospect has started doing now. 

Paw’s glistening eyes rove the hot-pink page, then he lays the flyer on the table, sips again from his coffee mug. “They’re going about it all wrong.” He stares silently at the dark TV for a full minute. Then he turns to me. “Say you’ll help me, if I need it?”

I wipe the dampness from my forehead, wish I’d worn my t-shirt instead of Jasper’s sweatshirt. “Think you ought to go to the hospital, after all? Let’s get you a bag together.” I stand and head toward my father-in-law’s bedroom. 

“Sit down. I told you I ain’t going to no hospital.” He stares at me in a hard way that tells me not to argue. “I want your word that you’ll carry out my last wishes.”

My throat clogs. I try to think of a joke, something funny to lighten his mood, but the words won’t come. Momma Grodin’s old cuckoo clock sounds from the kitchen, as if telling me it’s time to listen, time to do what Paw wants me to do while time is left. “Of course I will, Paw,” I whisper. “You know that.” 

He points. “Reach me that Bible.” 

I lift the worn, oxblood Bible from its place on the center of the coffee table, offer it to Paw. 

He puts on his bifocals with trembling hands, then opens the leather-bound text to the last pages. “Let me read you something.”

I try not to look surprised, but it’s hard. Paw reads the Bible, believes in the Lord above, but he’s never preached to anyone, always says a man must find God on his own terms, and that he can find Him anywhere. 

“The Book of Revelation, eleventh chapter, verse eighteen . . . ‘The nations were angry, and your wrath came, as did the time for the dead to be judged, and to give your bondservants the prophets their reward, as well as to the saints, and those who fear your name, to the small and the great; and to destroy those who destroy the earth.’” A wet cough gurgles its way out of Paw’s chest, and he snatches a tissue from the side table, closes his Bible. 

He composes himself, and when he looks at me, his eyes are puddled. “You get that, Romie? ‘. . . to destroy those who destroy the earth.’” 

I start to nod, but shake my head. “I get it, Paw. I think.”

“I want to be a bondservant.”

Dread slops over me like smothering mud, and I ache to have Jasper here to hold my hand, to pull me to fresh air. “I don’t . . . what are you saying?” 

Paw dabs at a watering eye with the tissue, points toward the coat closet by the front door. “You done give me your word. Now look in there. On the floor.”

I stand, and my feet feel heavy, like they’re stuck to the carpet. “What do you mean? About being a bondservant?” 

He points toward the coat closet, but doesn’t speak. 

I think he must have taken some Oxy that’s made him loopy, and that’s good. He needs it. I open the dark wooden closet door and stare at the strange thing on the floor. I step closer, realize it’s a hunting vest that stands rigid, rust-colored sticks of dynamite holding it erect. My knees want to buckle. “Paw.” The word comes out on a half-breath.

“Destroy those who destroy the earth.”

I kneel in front of the closet. “No.”

“What time’s Jasper go in tonight? Five?”

“No, Paw.” 

“Look at me, Romie.”

I turn my head a bit, but my stare won’t leave the hunting vest. 

“All I need is for you to drive me up there.”

“People will die, Paw! You will die. We have friends at that mine. Jasper could be in that mine!” I finally turn to meet his gaze.

His smile comes easier now; his face is peaceful. “I’m already dead, doll baby. Only a matter of timing.”

It’s a struggle, but I manage to hold back a sob.

“Jasper will be going in soon, won’t he? I could go into the mine this evening at shift change, during their meeting,” he says. “They always meet in that old office trailer. Either way, won’t be a soul underground, ’cept me.” He holds out his palms like Jesus on the cross. “You take me up there, go interrupt the meeting to see Jasper, tell him loud and clear something’s wrong with me.”

I shake my head to clear the cobwebs—can he really be saying these things?

“Say it so the others will hear. Tell them you came straightaway to get help . . . phone’s out, so you couldn’t call for an ambulance.” 

Paw lets his hand fall between his recliner and the end table, and when he lifts it again, he holds up the phone line he’s cut, so I can see its frayed edges. He gives me a white-lipped grin. “I’ll mosey down past the equipment bays while you’ve got their attention. You and Jasper will be off the ridge before I let her blow. The ones atop the ground’ll shudder and shake, but they won’t be hurt none.”

He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “The shafts will collapse . . . mining equipment will blow all to pieces. It’ll cost more to wade through the EPA and OSHA paperwork and replace all that equipment than it will to shut her down . . . clear out of here.” Fresh pink blooms on his pasty cheeks.

My racing heartbeat slows, and I chew on a fingernail. It can’t be that easy, can it? Jasper won’t have a job, a place to work. If he’s unemployed, we’ll have to leave the state for work then, won’t we? Get out of here. Have a baby in a place where the water isn’t chemical soup.

“It’s my dying wish.” Another cough breaks from his chest, and this time red dots spot the tissue. 

I lurch toward Paw, wrap him in my arms. 

“All you need to do is give me a ride,” he whispers. 

After a moment, he pushes me away from him, holds me at arm’s length. “They done killed more’n five hunnerd mountains and four times that in people. Somebody’s got to show them we ain’t gonna take it no more.” He shakes his head. “They poisoned me.” He pokes a finger at my stomach. “And they’re poisoning you. You, and Jasper, and everybody else in Stump Branch.”

I look down at the concave void just below my ribs, and I imagine a mound there in its place, a swollen womb full of Jasper’s child. I dry my wet face on my sleeve. “Don’t you want to talk to Jasper about this first?”

Paw shakes his head, and tears slip out again. “That’d hurt worse—hurt me and him both.” He looks away, wipes his sunken cheeks. “It’s better this way, he don’t know.” He motions toward the small table by the front door with a shaky hand. “There’s two more stock bottles of OxyContin sittin’ there, both plumb full. Ought to be enough to buy a new start in Carolina.” 

I follow the direction his fingertip points, look at the big, white, square bottles. Has to be more than a hundred pills in each, a dollar a milligram. Thousands of dollars rolled into little blue tablets.

Paw pats my hand, rubs away the dampness on my cheek with his thumb. “I done laid out my UMWA life policy on the bed, ready for you and Jasper to take to the lawyer. Ain’t much, but it’ll help. There won’t be no funeral, nothing left to bury.”

“I know you think you’ve thought this through, but them mine owners won’t shut down. They’ll just lop off another mountain on down the road. Jasper’s already said that’s their next plan. And that life insurance policy—it won’t pay for suicide.” 

Paw waves his hands, and his voice comes out in agitated wheezes. “I’m sick, Romie. They’ll say Oxy stunned me . . . old man wasn’t thinking right. He got confused . . . went to mines . . . thought he still worked there.” He swallows against the gurgle in his throat. “That much dynamite . . . all the gas that builds up around there . . . they’ll never know I blew the place. What’s left of that hollowed-out mountain . . . it will be gone. Insurance will pay, you bet. It’s the United Mine Workers Union.” 

“They’ll fight it. You know they’ll fight it. Insurance companies don’t care about us.”

Paw’s bushy eyebrows lift, and again I’m struck by how gaunt his face has become. “Prospect’ll make ’em pay. You think they want word to get out . . . that one of their own blowed up a mine on purpose? That miners are turning against the mines?” He clears his throat. “No, they’ll want to cover it up quick as they can . . . money’s the best way to do that. They think money’ll shut up anybody.” 

I grind my teeth, shake my head. “Paw, this is your sickness talking. I’m taking you to the doctor.” I stand and offer him my hand, but he waves it away. Instead, his gnarled hands grip the armrests, and he thrusts himself forward. 

“Get my jacket.”

I take a deep breath. Finally, he’s thinking right. I return to the closet by the door and pull out Paw’s flannel coat, averting my eyes from the hunting jacket. 

Hunched forward, Paw eases toward the door. “Not that one.” He points at the hunting vest. “That one.” 

“Humor me, Paw. Put this on.” I hold open the flannel coat, guide Paw’s long arms into the sleeves.

“Humor me, now.” He jerks his head toward the open closet. “Get it.”

It’s not a bad idea to get the dangerous thing out of the house. I can set it over the hill and send Jasper to take it apart later. I pick up the heavy vest, surprised that it takes both hands to lift it. I look toward Paw, but he’s headed out the door, trusting me to do as he said. I slide the vest onto one arm, and then I see the two medicine bottles. I look toward the ceiling. Would it do any good to pray? I heft the vest against my hip, and my hand trembles when I pick up the bottles and slip them into Jasper’s deep coat pocket. I hurry out the door to steady Paw as he ambles down the porch steps. 

When we reach the Jeep, I set the hunting vest on the ground, help Paw climb inside, and start to close the door.

He grabs my arm and tilts his head toward the vest. “I’ll take that.”

“Bumpy as this road is, we’ll blow to Kingdom Come before we get off the mountain.” 

“Who’s the master blaster here? I’ve hauled dynamite around most of my life. It won’t blow unless somebody blows it.” He reaches out his hands, and his voice is stern. “I said I’ll take that.”

I peer into the bone-dry woods on the other side of the driveway. I’ve never disrespected my father-in-law. Never spoken a harsh word to him. He and Jasper’s mother treated me like their own child from the first time I stepped into their home. 

My shoulders sag as I lift the awkward vest, ignoring Paw’s outstretched hands, and place it in the floorboard at his feet. I close the door, walk around the Jeep, and slide behind the wheel. 

The pills clatter inside the bottles in my pocket, and Paw looks at me and smiles. “Good girl,” he says, his voice hoarse. “I hate it’s come to this. Shame you two got to sell them pills to make a life, but the Good Lord always provides, don’t He?” He clears his throat, sinks backward into the seat and sighs. “I’m looking forward to meeting Him.” 

I press my lips together to keep from cursing. “Hope you know we’re going to the hospital.”

I glance toward Paw, but he won’t look at me, keeps his gaze on the homeplace as I head down the graveled drive. 

“Last time I’ll be seeing this place.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Romie, I won’t last another day or two. I don’t want to die in no hospital.”

“You can stay with Jasper and me.” I reach the end of the drive, brake, and the clock on the dashboard reads 4:44. The numbers seem like a message, one I can’t decipher. I turn to look at Paw. “I’ll take care of you.”

“No pride in that. I’m a strong enough man, still got one more job to do.” 

I look out across the rutted road, once smooth blacktop, now fractured into a million pieces by the too-heavy trucks hauling out tons of mountain soul. What was once the rising mountain where I picked blackberries, chewed teaberry leaves, and made love to Jasper among blooming dogwoods is now low-lying scarred craters—sterile, desolate, and barren. No place to live. No place to birth a baby. Only a place for dying. A place for destroying those who destroy this good earth.

I take Paw’s hand in mine, kiss his palm, let him go. I hold tightly to the wheel, turn onto the road and drive toward the mine.

“I love you like a daughter, Romie. You’re a real good girl. Thank you for doing this.”

“I ain’t doing nothing but taking you to see Jasper, let him talk some sense into your head. Lord knows I can’t.” I flinch when Paw’s fist slams the dashboard.

“I told you I didn’t want Jasper in on this.” Red-tinted saliva flies from his lip, and he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, glares out the window. 

“When you brought me in, you brought Jasper in.” Another blast at the mine causes the Jeep to vibrate, and I grip the wheel tighter, shoot a sideways glance at the hunting vest standing in the floorboard between Paw’s feet. “You sure that thing won’t blow?” 

“Got to light the fuse, first.” Paw pulls an old Zippo lighter from his pocket, flips open the metal lid. 

“For God’s sake, Paw! Put that thing away.” 

Paw shoves the lighter into his coat pocket, speaks with a soft voice full of hurt. “I would never lay harm to you. You ought to know that.”

I reach the entrance, drive past the Prospect Mining sign. I want to throw up, rid my stomach of the nerves writhing like snakes inside it.  

Paw touches my arm. “Stop here and let me out.” His voice warbles, and he clears his throat. “By the time you get to the trailer, I’ll be at the equipment bay entrance. You get Jasper, and y’all get off this mountain. I figure it’ll take me four or five minutes to get to her belly. That’s where I’ll . . . you know . . . let her blow.”

I set my jaw, press the gas pedal, and cut the wheel, slinging red-dog gravel and coal dirt in an arc across the wide parking area as I drive toward the office trailer. “I’ll do no such thing. I’m going to get Jasper, all right, but only so’s he can straighten you out. You’re going to sit right here while I do it, you hear me?” I turn off the Jeep and snatch the keys from the ignition. “If you can look your son in the eye and convince him to go along with this fool idea of yours, I’ll stand with you on it. But I won’t let you put this burden on my shoulders to carry alone.”

I step out, turn, and glare at Paw. “You staying put?” 

I want him to say no. Want him to sling that heavy vest onto his shoulder, march like the soldier he’d once been into that mine, defend his family, defend this land, even at the cost of what few days he’s got left. My face grows hot, fired by coals of shame smoldering inside of me. 

Paw’s lower lip thrusts outward, and he reaches into the floorboard, tries to lift the heavy vest onto his lap. 

I hold my breath. 

Paw grunts and strains. “Help me put this thing on.”

I look skyward, blinking hard and fast. Overhead, a lone red-shouldered hawk screeches, searches the gray strip mine in lonesome circles, moves on. I look again at my father-in-law, wonder if maybe I should do this God-awful thing that he asks of me. “Paw?”

Another rattling cough shakes his body. He lets the vest fall against the floor, leans back to catch his breath. He presses his steel-blue lips together, stares straight ahead, won’t look at me.

Ahead of us sits the trailer, and I know Jasper’s in there, know this is the place where he spends his nights and part of his days making a living for us, making a life for us, and in a way I can’t pretend to understand, he likes mining coal. How can I take that away from him? 

Paw drops his head, stares at hands curled like dead leaves in his lap. He sniffs and turns to me, lets out a long, jagged breath. “Useless,” he whispers.

I climb back into the Jeep, pull a handful of tissues out of the console and offer them to Paw. When he won’t take them, I put all but one in his lap and dab the blood-tinged spittle from the corner of his mouth. “This ain’t the way you want to go out of this world, Paw. You’re too good for that kind of destruction.”

He looks out the window, surveying the wasted mountain. “I’m a foolish old man.” His chin quivers.

“No. No, you’re not.” 

A wet cough rattles Paw’s body, and I turn my face away. “What say we go, before the men come out of that trailer?”

He picks up a tissue and swabs his damp face. 

I wipe my eyes as I drive past the Prospect Mining sign. 

Paw stares out the window toward the eight-mile fissure where once stood a mountain. He reaches over, pats my hand where it lays on the gearshift. He lets out a ragged sigh, turns his ashen face toward mine. “You done the right thing.”

I try to smile at him, but can’t. “It ought to feel like it then, oughtn’t it?” I glance at the dynamite, push away second thoughts, and drive down the broken road toward home. 

ENJOY THE CLAMS

When Claire traveled, which she did often, she left a message in the bathroom of every hotel room she slept in, for the eyes of whoever stayed there after she had gone. She would write it on the mirror, in big letters, with a bar of soap, smearing the soap thickly onto the mirror, then gently cleaning most of it off, with the care and precision of an art historian cleaning a painting, or anyone cleaning something that actually mattered. When she was done, it looked as if there were nothing written on the mirror, but left behind was a residue that would be invisible until the next guest took a shower, filling the room with steam that revealed to him the hidden message. That person, whoever he was, would pull the shower curtain back and see what Claire had left for him to read.

Sometimes Claire would write just one word, whichever came to mind when she had the idea to write a word, like LIAR, maybe, or PONTOON, or NOUGAT, or RAPIST. 

More often, she wrote entire phrases, like LEAVE IT BEHIND and IT MIGHT BE BENIGN.

YOU KILLED THEM, she wrote on a hotel room mirror in Ann Arbor, to excite the conscience of whoever saw the words she wrote. Who knew? Maybe the next guest was an actual murderer. Maybe he would be moved by her message to confess his crimes to the authorities. 

He might be guilty of a figurative murder. Maybe he had killed someone’s hopes and dreams.

She’d had the idea to start doing this thing one morning in Sacramento, when she’d emerged from the shower to see streaks left in the mirrorsteam. The streaks she saw did not form words, they were mere streaks. But she formed words there, after searching online for the best method for writing words on a bathroom mirror that would be invisible until the onset of steam. The best method involved the use of soap, said the internet. And so she used soap.

The first words she wrote, in that Sacramento hotel bathroom, weren’t much to look at. She wrote CLAIRE RULES. 

It was the first thing she’d thought of, when she had the idea to write something. 

It did not communicate much. It communicated CLAIRE RULES.

She knew that sometimes the women of housekeeping must have cleaned her words off the hotel room mirrors by washing the mirrors as soon as she was gone. She also felt confident that at least some of the time they didn’t clean the mirrors. So often, when she stepped out of the shower herself, streaks were left there, providing no meaning but offering evidence that someone had touched the mirror with greasy fingers and the mirror had not since then been cleaned. 

At a Radisson in Cleveland, she left behind a mirror message that read, HOPE IS BAD, which she hoped would be seen by someone who knew a woman named Hope. It wasn’t what she meant when she first wrote it; she had only meant to communicate that hope is bad, not for any particular reason.

In the bathroom of a room on the 4th floor of a Hilton in Chicago, she was met with a mirror much larger than the ones she was used to. Surely, she’d thought, when she’d seen the hotel on her itinerary, there has been some mistake. This room is too much. It cost too much. Just look at this mirror. SURELY, she wrote on the mirror, THERE HAS BEEN SOME MISTAKE.

Claire traveled often. She had to, for her job, which was to travel to different offices across the country and hire people on behalf of whatever company had hired her to deliver the news. She was an intermediary, a middlewoman, a professional hirer. Her job was to give good news to people who needed good news—not to give them jobs, but to tell them they now had jobs. She was a messenger who only ever delivered one message, to many people.

She liked her job. She got it when the recession ended, just as she finished college and people started getting hired again, usually for less money than they’d made when they lost their jobs at the start of the recession. 

She never thought for very long about what message she would write. It would have been contrary to the spirit of the thing. She had to write the first thing that came into her mind when she saw the mirror, just before she wrote on it. If she did it any other way, it would mean that she was taking the whole enterprise too seriously. It would mean that what had started as a lark had become a hobby. 

Claire had no hobbies. Her only hobby was not about to be the writing of messages on mirrors that were meant for strangers she would never see.

And she wasn’t the only one who did this thing with mirrors. She learned as much after months of mirror writing, at a La Quinta in Kansas City.

She took two showers in every hotel room she stayed in: one as soon as she arrived, usually, to get the plane grease off her skin, the other the next morning, before she left to do her work and left on a plane later in the day, to whatever city someone was to be hired in next. 

In Kansas City, she was especially eager to leap into the shower, for a woman on the plane, or a man on the plane, had left some hand sanitizer on the handle of the door to the airplane bathroom, for the next plane bathroom patron to deal with. It had gotten on her fingers, on her way out of the facilities, and she was deeply worried that it had traveled to other parts of her body, when she later put her hand on her neck or her leg or her face. Claire was no germophobe; she was reasonable; but she had no proof that what had been on the door handle was in fact hand sanitizer. As soon as she’d felt something on the handle, she’d wanted to go back in and wash her hands again, and again and again, but another woman had already pushed past her and shut the door. 

JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE, the Kansas City mirror said. 

She hadn’t written it. She was not the author of JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE. 

What she had done, upon bursting through the hotel room door, was wash her hands for the second time since exiting the plane, and with the soap write EATING IS BAD FOR YOU, elsewhere on the mirror. She would have known it if she’d written EATING IS BAD FOR YOU and JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS together as a kind of if/then statement, like, as long as all eating is bad for you then you might as well enjoy the clams. 

She stood in the shower, dripping and watching the words slowly disappear from view as the steam left the room. As the words faded, her own body appeared before her in their place, fuzzy at first and then less fuzzy. She watched the words go for a long time, and she didn’t especially like to see her body, enough that before dismissing the idea as absurd she wondered for a moment if writing messages on all those mirrors across the country was a figurative way for her to write over the space where her body would otherwise appear, a means for her to claim authority over a space where she was otherwise faced with her lack of control, with her body the features of which she’d had no hand in deciding. 

In spite of the man she’d brought back to her room at a Holiday Inn in Seattle, three months prior, who behaved toward Claire as if she had revealed to him at last what a woman was, she did not consider her body to be something to admire. She felt strongly that her hips didn’t quite match her legs, and found she could not explain just what she meant by that in Seattle, to her gobsmacked admirer, who said her body was perfect, which made her laugh.  

She couldn’t explain to him what she meant; nor could she explain to herself convincingly the presence in the La Quinta of the words she didn’t write. 

Did someone else have the same idea she’d had? It was possible. It seemed likely that someone else would think, at some point, to write things on bathroom mirrors. 

It seemed less likely to her that whoever this person was would choose to write messages as nonspecific yet evocative as hers were. That’s how she thought of them, at least.

Did another guest write the other words? Was it a hotel employee who’d done it? Was the hotel itself sentient; had the La Quinta become self-aware, or been outfitted with an artificial intelligence that had predicted she would write something, not knowing what that would be, and preempted it? Was the place fucking haunted?

All of these things she considered as she dried off and wrapped the towel around her weird hips. As she continued thinking—something she did more or less constantly, even when she’d tried and failed to meditate, with that guy in Seattle the second time she went to Seattle, looking him up before she arrived, since she was going to be in town anyway—the words disappeared from what then appeared to be a plain mirror without any writing on it.

When she returned to the room, later that evening, after hiring an ecstatic man who overreacted to being granted a customer support position at a corporate headquarters where, without a college degree, he would never make more than $28,000 a year—$30,000 if he was lucky—the mirror still looked like nothing. 

When she emerged from the shower the following morning, no new words had been written there.

She bid them goodbye, and left for her flight to somewhere North Dakota, where a fracking company was hiring a new engineer. 

Engineers were the most fun to hire, because they rarely seemed very pleased to be hired. Almost to a man they were stonefaced, and they were nearly all men.

For another eight months, she continued to write messages on hotel room mirrors.

In that time, she stayed at 111 hotels in 28 states. She hired almost 200 people, and was growing tired of her job. As joyful a thing as it was to hire people, she was beginning to feel a little pointless, to feel somewhat or very purposeless, like a tool that was invented not because there was any need for it but because it hadn’t been invented yet. She felt like the human equivalent of a piece of metal that would help screwdrivers drive screws.

She felt also like a midwife who delivers a thousand babies but never has any of her own. After hiring so many people, she wanted to be hired herself. She wanted to partake in some of the satisfaction she saw on the faces of the people she hired. It had been long enough since she’d been granted her current position, she’d forgotten what it felt like.

Mostly, she wanted to get a different job that made more sense to her. 

She had asked men and women at the companies that brought her in why they’d bothered bringing her in, why they hadn’t just done the hiring themselves. 

It’s not hard to do, she’d said, imperiling her livelihood. You just tell them they’re hired.

Most of them said it was something they were required to do by their corporate higher-ups. Others explained that it was just better this way, that many of the people they hired wouldn’t be with the company long, and so if an intermediary did the hiring it would make the separation easier, later on. Not much later on. 

Having you here, said a man to Claire in Albuquerque, is like pulling off a Band-Aid. It’s always better if you can get Mom to do it. 

Claire didn’t like that the man had essentially just said that she was playing the role of his mother. There was nothing about it that she liked. But she knew she would never see him again. So, whatever.

She had had enough, by then, of the job and of the travel. 

It was no coincidence that she had gotten tired of writing messages on mirrors. Usually, now, when she looked at a mirror, she felt utterly uninspired. 

At a Holiday Inn in Columbus, she had written on a mirror I AM OUT OF IDEAS. 

Soon, somewhere in America, she would probably end up writing CLAIRE RULES again. 

At a La Quinta in Kansas City, the last La Quinta she would ever stay in for work, she wrote on the mirror EATING IS BAD 4 U. 

The news of Prince’s death had just arrived. She was trying to process it.

She looked at what she’d written, sighed, and took a shower. 

When she stepped out of the shower, minutes later, the entire mirror was covered with writing. 

Holy shit, she said aloud, brushing back her hair. 

DON’T TELL ME THAT EATING IS BAD 4 U, it read. JUST ENJOY THE CLAMS AS THEY ARE. The words overlapped in some places; it was a clumsy mess, up there on the mirror. 

But the message was clear.

The message that lay behind inside the written message grew even clearer, the longer Claire stood there, the more the words and the steam faded and her hips and the rest of her body grew less obscure. If she had stayed in this room three times in the nearly three years she’d had her job, and had written on the mirror on each visit, and hadn’t recognized the room on her return visits, and in all that time no one had cleaned the mirror thoroughly enough to remove the words she had written, then it was time to switch careers, to settle down and stop staying in hotels, or at least to find work with a company that would put her up in better hotels. 

There would be no tip for housekeeping that morning. As she waited for the Uber she ordered, she gave notice in a terse email to her supervisor, whom she had only met once, when he’d hired her. He had done it himself. The rest of the time, she had been on the road. 

She would travel to hire only eight more people in the two weeks that followed, at the end of which she would be done hiring people on behalf of the cowards who couldn’t face the temporary employees who didn’t know they were temporary. 

Her final mirror message, written in the bathroom of the apartment she moved into in St. Louis after quitting her job, because she had family in St. Louis, was written for herself. 

It was EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ. It was a word she had made up on the spot, but she swore that when she found a job she wouldn’t travel for, except when commuting, she would decide what it meant. 

Or maybe she would have someone over. Maybe the guy from Seattle would visit, and he would take a shower in her rented bathroom, and see the message, and together they would decide the meaning of EGGENPLATZENSCHLATZ. 

It probably wouldn’t be the guy from Seattle. 

There was no telling what might happen, though, in St. Louis.

PHONE CALL

When the phone rang, Connie froze as if she’d been caught, her arm elbow deep in a family size bag of Skinny Pop. No one ever called Connie, and as she stared at the offending device she wondered, ironically, what type of person still called a landline. She ignored the jangling until it ceased and understood that this was a sign from whatever god was in charge to finally, two years after her mother’s death, get rid of the hard plastic touchtone with its clunky handset as her mother would certainly not be calling from where she was now. Just as Connie flipped the popcorn bag upside-down, yanking one side into a crease she would use to funnel the crumbs into her mouth, the phone rang again. Maybe it was her mother, calling from beyond the grave to remind Connie yet again that she needed to lose 20 pounds, that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses, that Connie would die alone and unhappy.

When she leaned over the small table to unplug the plastic mouth of the cable from the wall jack, the telephone burst to life once more, screaming into her ear. She stared at it. Maybe something was really wrong. Mr. Bevel at the office always emailed if he had a problem or a question, but perhaps the building had burned down, the company had been sold, she was being let go. Connie reached for the receiver with a trembling hand and lifted it from its cradle with greasy fingers.

“Hello?” Her voice was a whisper, dust choked from lack of use.

“Edie?” 

“Who is this?”

“Edie, please don’t hang up. Please. Just listen. I’m really, really sorry. You know you mean everything to me. You have to forgive me.”

Connie’s heart thumped in her chest. She had never been apologized to by anyone, let alone by a contrite man.

“Why should I?” she ventured.

“I’m sorry. I will never do anything that stupid again.”

Connie did not recognize the voice but she heard the desperation, and it excited her. So this is what love did to you.

“Do what again?”

“You sound funny. Are you all right?”

“How would you sound if you’d been crying for hours?”

“Oh, Edie, please let me come over. I need to see you.”

“Not until you tell me exactly what you did. Everything.”

The ensuing silence produced a small panic in Connie; clearly Edie already knew what he had done.

“I want to put this behind us.”

“I can’t put it behind me until I know everything. All I know is…but I’m sure there’s more to the story.”

“There isn’t, Edie. It happened just once. At her apartment. I was drunk. It was stupid. I don’t even like her.”

Connie was speechless. Was this a teenager? A gigolo? A divorcee?

“I don’t believe you.”

“That it happened only once or that I don’t like her?”

“Both.”

“Please, let me come over so we can talk.”

“I’m too upset to talk.”

“I know you’re hurt. I promised not to bother you at work and I haven’t, but when you changed your number. Well, I freaked out. That’s when I knew I loved you. People don’t always arrive at love at the same time.”

“So you had to sleep with a bimbo to realize you love me?”

“No, forget about her. Please. I guess once I lost you—”

“How did you get my new number?”

“Promise you won’t be mad.”

“I’m not promising anything.”

“Josh. Last night at the bar. He was drunk and I was pathetic and he took pity on me. He agrees that we belong together.”

Connie wondered who Josh was, how drunk he must have been to convey the wrong number, what would happen when she was found out, though it didn’t matter. She would be getting rid of the phone, the evidence, anyway.

“I’m glad you’re feeling good enough to go out to the bar while I’ve been home crying myself a headache.”

“No, no, Josh felt sorry for me and took me out to get my mind off things. I had a terrible time. Until he gave me your number.”

“Why did you wait until tonight to call me?”

Silence. Connie wondered if she’d given herself away this time. Perhaps he worked the afternoon shift at a hospital and was just getting off, though that would not explain his ability to go out the night before. Maybe he was a freeloader who had relied on Edie’s money and was just waking up now.

“The damn project. But it’s almost done. Dave’ll be taking over next week.”

“You certainly found time to spend with…her.”

“I told you it was bad judgment. I was tired, drunk, stupid. And you were mad at me.”

“So it was my fault?”

“That’s not what I’m saying. Not at all. What I’m saying is that Janie is irrelevant here. She doesn’t matter to me. We don’t even speak anymore.”

Connie was now indignant on Edie’s behalf. Janie? The name alone made her furious. She thought of her mother then, eternally riding the spectrum from annoyed to incensed, and worked to channel her rancor.

“Well,” she said sarcastically, “that’s a relief. What about next time you’re tired, drunk and stupid, a combination you seem to have mastered? What then?”

“I love you, Edie. I don’t want to have a life without you in it.”

“Prove it.”

“What?”

“Prove you love me.”

“I’m trying, but you won’t let me. Look what happened when I waited outside your building. I won’t do that again.” He chuckled.

“You think this is funny?”

“If you call almost being arrested funny, then I guess so.” There was a pause, after which the pleading voice on the opposite end of the line said, “I know how upset you are. Changing your number, calling the police, threatening a restraining order. I get it.”

Connie wondered if the guy was a lunatic, a stalker, someone Edie had never loved, but then reconsidered. Edie changed her number after he had hurt her and as a result of feeling jealous. No, Edie had loved him, she decided, though she wondered if Edie had moved on, was now dating a man who sat with her on the torn cushions of the loveseat eating Skinny Pop while watching classic movies, a man who rubbed her feet despite their prominent corns, a man who insisted she wear her glasses while they made love.

“You don’t have to be near me to prove that you love me.”

“All right.”

“Write me a poem.”

“I thought you hated that romantic crap.”

“So now you’re making the rules? Now you know what I need? This is exactly what I’m talking about—”

“Okay, okay, I’ll write you a poem.”

“I want an original poem.”

“Sure. Of course. I will write you a poem tonight. Can I call you when I’m finished?”

“You’re going to finish it in one night? I’m sure that will be one deep and heartfelt poem.”

“My feelings are all on the surface now. I’m in touch with them.”

“It doesn’t have to rhyme.”

“Okay.”

But Connie did not want him to hang up. She wasn’t sure yet if she wanted this man and Edie to reunite or to be separated forever, but she saw an opportunity to influence someone’s life and enjoyed the heady feeling it gave her. Perhaps this is what her mother felt when Connie apologized, begged her not to be angry anymore.

“If your feelings are on the surface you can speak them now. In poetry form.”

“Boy,” he said, “you don’t even sound like you anymore.”

“You don’t believe this has taken its toll? After all we meant to each other? I mean, I thought we meant to each other?”

“You know what we had—have—is real. You know that I love you. Now you just have to let me prove it to you. I’ll write you a poem. I’ll take my time and make it perfect. But I need to see you, Edie. I love you. I miss you. I crave you.”

Connie went from feeling protective of Edie to feeling envious. She wondered who Edie was, what she possessed that made a man crave her. “Tell me what you love, what you miss, what you crave.”

“I love your eyebrows, the way you laugh when someone falls, your green lentil curry.” Suddenly Connie wanted to learn to cook. “I miss dancing in the shower and your jasmine perfume, I miss Ken.” Ken? A son? A friend? A ménage à trois? “I crave your supple tongue on my—”

“Well you can keep craving,” Connie interrupted. He had not earned the right to be so familiar with her after what he’d done.

“Meet me at Gould’s.”

“Now?” she said.

“Yes.”

She could hear the hope in his voice. Things were moving too quickly. “Things are moving too quickly.”

“Coffee. A quick coffee. That’s all. We don’t even have to talk about this.”

“I guess I can’t blow this off so easily.”

“Edie. We had something good. Something great. I know I have to win back your trust, and I will. I’ll do anything. I love you.”

“All right,” she said. “What’s my favorite candy?”

“Pop Rocks.”

Favorite food?

“Celery.”

“Guilty pleasure?”

“Godzilla movies.”

Favorite animal?

“Land, air or sea?”

This guy, this guy who asks Land, air or sea? in response to his girlfriend’s favorite animal question seemed to deserve something. 

“Sea.”

“Sand worm.”

Who was this woman? Connie wanted to know more about her, this person with compelling eyebrows who shared her feelings about sand worms.

“Favorite song.”

“Our song. Remember when we first met, how we spent hours texting these questions, how ridiculous they got?”

“Sing it.”

And without delay he launched into a wholly discordant rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” stammering through the opening lyrics, which recommend that old acquaintances be forgot and never brought to mind. “That’s—”

“That was nice.”

“Not really, but thanks. Edie—”

“Here’s what you do. Write me a poem. Call it ‘Edie.’ Include the eyebrows and the curry, the shower dancing and the jasmine What the hell, throw in the tongue.”

“What about Ken? Does he miss me? Can you bring him to the phone?”

Connie realized she was gripping the receiver so tight her hand was sore. “He can’t right now.”

“Well, don’t wake him if he’s sleeping. Or is he in the litter box?”

A cat named Ken? Connie wished she had a friend like Edie and understood why the man on the phone was miserable without her. “Put him in the poem. Put Ken in the poem.”

“This will be too easy. You’re practically writing it for me.”

“I know,” Connie said. “Write the poem, buy some Pop Rocks and bring dinner to my place tomorrow night. Don’t talk about this phone call. If you bring it up I’ll act shocked, pretend it never happened. That’s how we start over. I mean, I will try and start over but I can’t guarantee anything. If I open the door just smile at me, though tears can’t hurt. Push past me if you have to and put the food on the table. Read me the poem, then look into my eyes and ask me questions: my favorite mineral, my favorite continent, my favorite constellation.”

Connie set the receiver gently into its cradle, running her palm down the length of the molded plastic before dipping her finger into the shallow valley of each button, the looped cord gathering beside the boxy relic into tidy pile. 

What Shines From It

 

We’re in bed when I say it, he on his stomach, eyes closed, me stretched out next to him, watching his fists clench the pillow.

If you lost your wife because of this, would it be worth it?

Something I’ve asked myself over and over, in those dark hours between midnight and 5 a.m., which is about when I exhaust enough to drift into an hour of sleep before the alarm.

Unsure, still, whose answer I fear more.

Michael strums his fingers over the curve of my hip and thigh. She won’t find out. She can’t.

Quiet falls over the room, only the occasional creak of the sign outside interrupting it and Michael’s hand lingers, starting the familiar swirling in my center. That feeling like when I first start forming a new piece on the wheel, how the clay yields to my hands and the centrifugal force, as if already aware of its shape.

I say nothing, wait for him to return the question, but his breathing levels out and I know he’s drifted into sleep. An indulgence allowed to him only during our few hours together—he has a three-year-old and seven-year-old at home, and a full course load, and other obligations I don’t question. When he wakes, he’s hungry, like a bear emerging from hibernation. These post-nap, second-round fucks are worth the wait—slow and wide-eyed, inhales and exhales matching, our connection ferocious and deep, a wild blurring of our bodies into one taut gold thread of ache.

She won’t. She can’t. His sureness doesn’t surprise me. But, I wonder.

I slide toward Michael, away from my thoughts. He shifts so our bodies are flush. I bury my face into his neck, nipping at his skin. He murmurs something I don’t quite catch, but I think he says, You’re asking for it.

 

Winter solstice Michael came through my open studio looking for coffee mugs. He picked up a salt-glazed bowl, ran his fingers along the mottled surface. He asked what type of clay I used in my stoneware, where I sourced it. Then his gaze strayed to the wall of shelves in back. What’s with the broken stuff? he asked.

That— Pieces returned from friends and customers, pieces cracked in the kiln; I’d been saving them all. Kintsukuroi, I said.

He raised an eyebrow. He wore a thin silver wedding band. Like mine.

Golden repair. I led him to the shelves, held out the practice bowl. Real gold, in the lacquer. You won’t break it, I said, laughing. Again.

He thumbed the shimmer where cracks had been. What a noble concept, he said. Cherishing the broken. He handed the bowl back to me, and our hands touched and neither of us pulled away quite as fast as we should have.

We talked as people floated in and out, no one brave enough to interrupt us till the woman with the long gray braid hair and brilliant-watt smile started asking a million questions about my firing process, my temperatures, my underglazes. Michael winked, took a card and bowed out.

The woman said, He’ll be back.

Lots of browsing today, I said.

She cast her gaze toward the door, then picked up a bud vase, pot-bellied with a tight-curled lip, so thin as to be almost translucent. Is this for sale?

Not really, I said. I took the vase from her hands. It felt fragile as an egg. My first foray into porcelain. I’m not sure how they’ll fare.

I’ll take my chances, she said with a wistful smile. The soft skin of her face was deeply lined, like she’d walked a long way in the sun to arrive at my place. I wrapped the vase in kraft paper, said, Happy Solstice.

She cradled the bundle in her palms, and said, To the return of light.

 

We dress without speaking, unhurried and efficient. As I pull my socks on, Michael opens his wallet and tosses a twenty on the night table. If no one else knows, the maids in this hotel do, I think, because who else leaves such a tip for a few hours use?

After our first afternoon together—in a much fancier place—he left a fifty. Luck had it that both Dot and Anne were out of town and we spent hours naked between the bright white sheets, the electric fireplace roaring, unrushed and tender, the way it is when you first discover somebody—new skin, new fingers, new taste, new breath, new rhythm—coming together and apart once, twice, three times, till we joked about my needing one of those donut cushions.

It’d been years since I’d been with a man and I bled. Am I hurting you? he asked. No, no— We pressed together like we wanted to dissolve our skins, and fell asleep tangled. I woke to find blood smeared everywhere: sheets, pillows, fingers, sticky along my thighs, a fierce stripe across his lower belly.

Look at this mess, I said.

Michael got a towel and we sat cross-legged facing each other while he cleaned us. He slid the terry cloth over me, gaze on me as he did till I filled all over with desire. I said, It’s like I’m a virgin again.

He laughed his rusty grumble of a laugh and called me Artemis.

Why? I said.

The virgin huntress no man can tame.

I eased the bloody towel from his fingers.

Besides, you don’t seem like a Christine to me.

Only our knees touched. He traced a line from my bottom lip straight down my center into my pubic hair. I’ve never felt so exposed.

I’d been glad, that dusking evening, to go home to an empty house. Michael’d gone to pick up his kids, had made them dinner and read them bedtime stories. What did it feel like, I asked, to do that? He only said, Hard.

Now it’s easier. Now the bland rooms are familiar, our habits familiar. We shrug into jackets, I rummage in my purse for keys, he hands me my hat. We hug, bodies straining against all that fabric, and though I usually go first, tonight I say, I’m not going to leave yet. If you don’t mind.

He tilts his head, like he wants to ask why, but says, I have to run. Otherwise I’ll be late.

He kisses my forehead, my nose. His lips on my lips and I want to whisper, Stay with me, so I pull back and say, Go.

Alone in the inky twilight of the room, I draw back the curtains and watch him cross the parking lot to his truck. Does he do this for me?

On the nightstand next to the twenty is a notepad and pen and I write: Call us selfish and dishonorable, but nothing has ever felt this pure.

 

Dot doesn’t look up from her laptop when I come in. I toss my keys into the bowl by the door, slip out of my coat. How was yoga? she asks, eyes on the screen.

Backbends and arm balances, I say. A good class. How was your day?

Long. I’ve just got to answer these emails. Then I can help with dinner.

I can handle it, I say. Want anything special?

She says, I’m not very hungry.

Do you not want me to cook? I can graze.

She sighs and snaps her laptop shut, taps out a beat on the table, looks at me over her glasses. How about stir-fry? she says. Then, Your arms look good.

I open the fridge door, rummage through the crisper drawers. What I want and don’t want is for her to come touch my biceps, to hug me without my asking, though I count on her not doing this, not coming close enough to smell where I’ve been. Thank you, I say. All that throwing for the craft fair, I guess.

Nothing to do with your new yogini lifestyle?

I’m half turned toward the counter with a tub of tofu in my hand and we catch eyes. For the first time in what seems like ages, we smile. Maybe a little, I say. You want wine for fortification?

Not right now, she says.

She heads upstairs and I pour a glass of red and turn on the radio and stand at the counter, staring into the dark backyard. I think about my question in the curtain-dim light of the motel, wonder if it was unfair. Dot must be on the phone, the floorboards overhead creak as she paces—the clomp of her boots against the old wood even though I ask her to take her shoes off at the door. Have always asked that, since we first met, to keep the floors clean. A pair of slippers unused in the front closet. My own feet are bare—it is late April, and still cold, but I like to feel the ground beneath me.

What would it be like, to have Michael here? Does he sit in the kitchen with Anne while she cooks? Help her chop? Play with the kids instead of zoning out on the computer? Not that it matters. He isn’t mine. I put the wine down and close my eyes. He is not mine. But I imagine him slicing peppers, talking about minerals and aquifers, how water filters through rock, the nostalgic look he gets when he talks about digging in the earth, and there’s that question again.

My answer spins like an unruly vessel, mouth too wide, walls too thin, unable to support its own weight.

I cube and sauté, I season and stir. As if I might build, with the mundane rhythms of my life, a sort of scaffolding.

Dot doesn’t appear till I call for her. She rubs her eyes, says she’s sorry.

For what? I ask. I pour more wine.

I’ll have some now, she says, getting one of my small tumblers from the cabinet. She never uses a glass; she insists wine tastes better drunk from clay. One email after another, she says. I can’t get on top of things.

I managed fine alone, I say.

As always, she says. Smells delicious.

We clink, say Cheers. I hesitate, about to add more, but Dot’s already drinking, and what would I toast to right now anyway?

 

I see the note before Michael does and slide it into my purse while he stares out the window before pulling the drapes. Has housekeeping left that note for the last three mornings? Has no one been in the room since we were last? Is our schedule that predictable? We’ve only been coming to this motel for a few weeks. Before that, we used the house of one of Michael’s colleagues, on a research trip to Istanbul. Before that, another motel. Before that, others.

My youngest has a fever, Michael tells me as he unzips his vest. I was up all night with cold cloths and Gatorade. I said I had a department meeting I couldn’t miss.

We could have canceled—

He slips his fingers beneath the hem of my t-shirt. And miss this?

I missed you, too, I say.

He grasps my waist, holds me a little away. Looks like he’s trying to memorize me. And then he says, We shouldn’t— he reaches for my jeans zipper, tugs, eyes not leaving mine. Talk this way. It makes things—

I stop his words with my mouth.

We move slow today. Michael lets me lead, on his back holding my hips, he stares up at me, eyes half-closed. He whispers, You’re exquisite.

Shhhh, I say.

No, I mean it, he says. You should be bronzed. I lean forward to kiss him and it must be how I tilt my hips—he tangles his hand in my hair and draws me down so our stomachs, our chests, our mouths seal, seamless. He breathes into me, says, I’m going to—

He falls asleep almost as soon as I roll away. I trace the dark smudges below his eyes, stroke his sandpapery cheeks with the back of my hand. Naked, mouth open a little, snoring—this is what makes things difficult, I think—how much he trusts me.

I pad over to my bag and pull out the note.

I’m not God, I just clean the rooms.

What had I expected? Advice? Understanding? Absolution?

I tear the note into small squares and take it to the bathroom and toss it in the toilet, squat and pee before I flush. Michael sleeps. I do a few sun salutations but the carpet grosses me out so I spend the next hour thinking about my kintsukuroi project, if I’ll get it done for the fair.

I get in to bed and whisper, Time’s up. Without opening his eyes, Michael wraps his arms around me and holds me to him. He shivers. You’re warm, I say. Better get home and have some chicken soup.

He moans a little when he sits up. Sweat beads along his temples. If only you could bring me chicken soup, he says. In nothing but an apron.

I toss him his underwear. He doesn’t budge. Here, I say, picking his underwear up from the bed, lifting his leg, then the other. Let’s get you dressed and out of here.

He pulls me close again. The heat of his skin presses through my t-shirt. Not yet, he says. Those department meetings always run late.

But we don’t make love. Instead, he holds me, his chin buried in the crook of my neck, one of his legs over mine. His heart thumps against his ribs, my ribs, my heart, our flesh and bones softening like clay as we form a new body.

 

The craft fair and the yoga are honest, in their way. Every week I hit the Wednesday advanced class at noon, and I’m at the wheel most spare hours—my wrists ache—which is normal enough. Dot doesn’t question my whereabouts or distracted state. She has her own packed schedule: fundraisers and staff parties and volunteering and potlucks; these last I’m invited to, but have to decline and she comes home with rinsed-clean bowls and hugs from the hosts, wishes for my presence next time.

She falls asleep before me. I’m up most of the night, searching for things online that only leave me empty once I see them. Dot’s gone by the time I drag out of bed. I can’t remember the last time she kissed me goodbye or even left a note. Maybe I’m silly; maybe I should have stopped expecting love letters years ago. Drinking coffee alone before I head to the studio, I haunt our house. The silence, the unmade bed, the pile of magazines on the coffee table. Someone lives here, we live here, but the place feels vacant. Dust on the picture frames and a pile of unopened mail and unpaid bills—my chores, neglected.

This morning, frost laceworks the windows and sunlight wavers along the walls. Winter should have let us out of its grip by now—first week of May, and by mid-afternoon it’ll be warm enough to lose a layer or two—but things remain frozen. I trace the crackled ice with my fingers, try to memorize the fractals. On the back of an envelope, I draw a heart and leave it where Dot will see.

By the time I get to the studio, the sun’s high, and there isn’t time for me to throw before I meet Michael. The broken pots hunker on their shelf, surly and jagged. Might as well.

In my tool cabinet sit the resin and the lacquer in their squat little jars with tiny, tight Asian characters on the label. Little bag of gold powder with a price tag that made Dot shake her head in disbelief. The process increases the object’s value, I told her. An ancient practice. But she’s never been one for metaphor.

And it is a process. Caught up in the filling, the smoothing, the dipping of the brush into the gold—how decadent to devote such energy to repairing what others might toss away—I lose track of time and don’t come to till my phone buzzes. A message from Michael: where are you?

I’m a half-hour late and don’t want to leave. I text back: studio. lost track of time. come here?

Ten minutes later he’s locking the door behind him. We’ve been here together two or three times—that balding maroon velvet chair by the window finally making itself useful—but we try to avoid personal spaces, places where our spouses might appear without warning.

I almost checked in, he says. And I got this strange feeling.

Sometimes he talks like this—though he looks like a lumberjack and doesn’t believe in his wife’s God, he swears by a buried intuition I can’t help but be crazy for.

I’m waiting in my truck and who walks out of the lobby but one of my colleagues. Straightening his tie and looking rather satisfied, followed a few minutes later by another colleague, dazed and her shirt buttoned crooked.

We’ll have to switch motels again, I say.

Michael shakes his head like he’s clearing some thought he doesn’t want. I wondered, he says, if that’s what we look like.

I put down the vase I’m brushing and stand. He stares out the windows, his mouth tight. He doesn’t move toward me as I do him and I have to turn his face. Limn his lips with my fingertips, edge him in gold. No, I say.

You weren’t there, he says.

No matter what they looked like, I say. That’s not us.

He turns my hands over, revealing the life line and head line and fate line, all the creases bright with gold. He says, How do we look?

Like this, I say, leading him to my work table. I sweep the gold brush over his palms, close his fists, reopen them. I slide my palms next to his so our heart lines align. A long road. If I blur my vision I can close the gaps between.

How is it you’re so wise? he asks.

I’m not, I want to say. It’s just how I feel. That some turn at a crossroads or crossed-stars brought me to you. Words mean nothing. We stare at our palms.

Michael says, Let me help you with your pots.

I hand him clean brushes, show him the steps. Kintsukuroi, he says, savoring the word. He learns quick and fits the pieces together with great patience. He gives over his entire concentration to each bowl, each vase, puzzling the shards together, gliding on the gold.

No one will forgive us. No one will care how my heart swells with the sight of his clean fingernails, the dark hair curling on his forearms, the wrinkles radiating out from his eyes. He catches me watching, says, What?

Nothing, I say. You’re good.

I always wanted to work with my hands.

Why don’t you, I almost ask but there’s no reason to poke a sore spot that has nothing to do with me, so instead I say, You are rather talented in that department.

First smile of this afternoon and my ribs feel like they could shatter.

 

We don’t go back to the motel.

Part of me regrets this, part of me is relieved. I wonder if there are unread notes in the waste basket—notes other guests ignore, or read and interpret as they need to, like a horoscope.

We go to a different motel, but it’s too shabby, too depressing. We drive up to the waterfalls and park where no one can see us. We use my studio, more often than we should.

Dot’s musical goes up and I miss all three performances because of how behind I am. She accepts my profuse apologies with icy sadness. She says, more than once, You have to get your work done, I understand. But she doesn’t. And why should she—I am plainly being unfair. She tells me after the final show that the kids got standing ovations, that it was one of their best, and I say, Next year, I’ll be there. Next year, she reminds me, she’s handing the reins to the assistant director. Maybe someone videoed it, she says, drumming her fingers on the counter. I’ll ask around.

The next weekend, Michael and Anne go on holiday and I throw until my wrists turn stiff and fiery and I have to strap on ice packs. I doze in the velvet chair and wake as the sun sets, the clear almost-summer rays spilling in the windows. I’m not usually here this late. The light illuminates the kintsukuroi pots—all lined up in a mirage of perfect wholeness.

The weekend of the craft fair my wrists burn like they’ve been in the kiln and when I drop the coffee mug Dot hands me and scald my foot, she digs my wrist braces out of the medicine cabinet and says, I’ll come with you—you’re going to need help wrapping and handling the money.

I don’t, I think, but say nothing, go upstairs to my closet and find the arm warmers she bought for my birthday last year. It’s awkward to wear them over the braces, but at least the comments will be about the pretty yarn rather than questions about what I did to my wrists.

Dot hovers while I get ready, asking me what she should wear, like she’s never been to a craft fair, like it even matters. She asks if she can bring anything out to the car and I tell her the boxes by the back door, but when I come down, she’s gotten distracted by a phone call, she’s laughing, standing by the window. I heft the boxes, slam the screen, wait in the passenger seat for her to finish, and we drive across town in silence so thick we’d need a chainsaw to cut it.

But once inside the drafty old building, I’m glad she’s there. I shoulder the bags, and she unloads the car into the dumbwaiter, makes several trips to the booth, unwraps my wares and helps me with the display. Just before the doors open, she says, I’ll grab us some coffee.

I vow to be nicer; I vow to say thank you when she returns.

She’s gone for a while—probably bumped into someone from work—and my first customer is Anne. We’ve never met, but I recognize her the moment she appears. She’s smaller in person, more delicate than I’d imagined her. The room falls quiet and blood rushes in my ears. Act normal, I tell myself.

She picks up a kintsukuroi vase—I brought only a few, I haven’t even priced them—and says, This is gorgeous. How much?

I debate: tell her it’s a display? name an outrageous price, five-hundred, maybe? but Dot walks toward me, holding our coffees, and the sounds of the room return, chatter, coins changing hands, kraft paper wrapping breakables—and I say, They’re $50 each. Real gold in the lacquer—but they’re not functional. You can’t put water in it.

Anne turns the vase over, runs her fingers along the base. She says, But with a few lunaria pods—it’d glow.

I want to hate her. I want to say, I know your husband, I know that spot on his thighs that makes him quiver. But she’s standing there, holding the vase out to me along with a fifty, and her face is so wide open and graceful; she has a crooked eye tooth and a lopsided smile.

Dot takes the vase and the money, says, Christine hurt her wrists.

Anne points at the arm warmers, says, Great cover-up.

And like I’m possessed, I extend both arms to her, palms up, and say, Cashmere. Anne touches one wrist, then the other, says, Exquisite. And look at that wishbone stitch.

You’re a knitter, I say.

Anne looks surprised, but nods. A hobby, she says. Nothing quite this lovely.

Dot hands Anne the wrapped vase and Anne gives a little wave. She weaves through the now crowded room. Her slim hips, the perfect straightness of her hair across her t-shirt makes me want to weep. I want to call after her: I didn’t mean to love him. I never wanted this to happen.

Dot says, Here, drink your coffee. It’ll help you wake up.

 

Michael comes to the studio Monday morning. I’m surrounded by half-unpacked boxes, my hair unwashed, my hands dusty. What a nice surprise, I say.

He roughs his hand over his chin. Did you sell any of the pieces I did?

I didn’t bring yours.

He says, It’s on our mantel. First thing I see when I come in, last thing I see before leaving.

Michael, I say. It’s just a vase.

Your vase. In my house.

Break it, I say. Say it was an accident.

Michael shakes his head. I can’t do that.

Then what? It’s not like I had a choice—

I know, he says. I’m sorry. It must have been awkward.

I remember Anne’s fingers tracing the stitches of my arm warmers, her smile as she took the vase from Dot.

Complicated, I say.

I never answered your question, he says, and though it’s been a couple months, I know exactly which he refers to.

It wasn’t fair of me to ask, I say. Loosening the straps of my braces, I tug one, then the other, off, massage my wrists, my palms.

It was fair, he says. I owe you that at least.

We lock eyes. I hate the unknowing, the fear, I glimpse there.

I’m not in any rush, I say.

He takes my face in his hands and kisses me, soft as the first time, lingering way too long before he lets go.

 

Michael parks the truck overlooking the waterfalls. He hasn’t looked at me during the entire bumpy ride out here. The ticking of the engine and the water crashing down on the rocks fill me with dread. I wish we were at the motel. I wish Michael would undress me, reveal the lace bra I wear, the new underwear.

Last night was summer solstice and an almost full moon but Dot was too tired to sit out back with me and I spent hours on the porch steps alone, gulping rosé with the words where the light pours in running through my mind. My head hurts now, the wine bottle empty and Dot grimacing as she tossed it into the recycling bin.

I could write a fifty-page list of reasons not to feel bad for myself—food deserts and abandoned children and pit bulls trained to kill, GMOs blighting our agricultural landscape and fresh water going scarce, drone attacks and homeless veterans and stray cats—but here I am in the passenger seat of this F-150, wishing I had aspirin and a soft pillow, wishing Michael would pry my fingers apart and kiss me instead of clenching the steering wheel.

He says, I’ve been thinking—

I stare at the riot of green leaves, sunlight filtering down in watery bars.

He says, We have to stop.

You could leave Anne, I say. I’d leave Dot, for you.

Christine, he says. We can’t be responsible for that kind of wreckage.

A woodpecker takes up hammering somewhere nearby. In my peripheral vision, I see Michael reach for my hand, but draw back when I make no motion. I hear him say, I’m sorry.

Please, I say.

I can’t, he says.

I know, I say.

I’m sorry, he says again.

Please, stop saying that.

We’ve been reckless, he says. Selfish.

I crack the window, afraid the heat inside my chest will ignite, send splinters flying.

Michael hits the steering wheel. Damn it, he says. Nothing feels right.

Stop, I want to say. Stop.

When I first set eyes on you, in your studio, I thought some piece of me might crumble if I never held you or tasted you or breathed you. I shouldn’t have—I couldn’t resist you.

Don’t.

I can’t leave Anne, he says. I need to be there for her, for my family. And I want to be there. I couldn’t live with myself—knowing I’d hurt them.

How then? I want to ask. How?

Christine, he says, turning in his seat, cupping my cheek so I have to face him. Please forgive me. I wish I trusted my heart the way you do.

I lift my hand to cover his, pressing my cheek into his palm. For a long time we stay like this. Until I release him and say, Take me back.

 

In the studio parking lot Michael cuts the ignition and we stare into the thicket of brambles that edge the pavement. We do not kiss; we do not say goodbye. I hope he’ll do something, anything, to change this moment. He takes my hand in his and turns it, traces the lines of my palm. We’ll find a way to live with this, he says. I meet his eyes—they mirror my own, exhausted and shell-shocked and dry.

I’m not so sure about that, I say.

We will, he says. We’ll scar up.

But how deep the line he cut down the center of me, how long it will take to heal. I think of our new body, cracked in two. The gold we smeared on our life lines, our fate lines, our heart lines.

We’re strong, he says. We have to be. He closes my fingers and holds my fist between his two hands. With my free hand, I press a finger to my lips, then to his.

Don’t leave me, I want to say.

But already I can see how we shine.

I climb into my car, arrive home with no recollection of the drive, compose my face in the rearview.

Dot’s on the couch, bare feet on the coffee table, watching a music video on her computer. She glances up at me, says, You’re early. What happened?

Nothing, I say. Not feeling well.

Too much wine last night, she says with a ghost of smile.

Not that, I say. A cold, maybe. Summer flu.

You’re pale, Dot says. Go get in bed, I’ll bring you tea.

I don’t need tea, I say, closing my eyes against the sunlight flooding the room. All I want is to go upstairs and draw the shades and slip between the cool sheets of darkness. I need to rest.

Dot turns her attention back to the screen. You should have come home sooner.

 

 

 

—end—

Communion

 

I’m alone, on my blue couch, waiting for my ex wife. I play a record on our old turntable because I feel like being nostalgic. I remember we discovered a beach made of glass. It made my heels hurt even through my sneakers. That night we peeled shrimp and ate them like oil barons lost at sea.

 

A man talks to a woman. The man is married. The woman cut her hair short, platinum blonde, above the neckline. She has a tattoo of a circle. She is learning French in the mornings. The man buys her flowers and cucumber-scented water.

The man stares at the tattoo above her panty line.

“Porquoi,” she says. “Do you know what that means?”

“Why,” he says.

“Yes, exactly.”

 

My ex wife drops off her son. It’s peculiar that she trusts me with the boy. I’ve killed so many houseplants.

“This is a good opportunity for you,” she says.

She’s dressed up to go out somewhere, not in her usual brand name yoga pants. She’s wearing the earrings I bought her when we went upstate, and I spent twenty dollars at the carnival trying to knock down wooden milk bottles.

The kid stares at me from the couch. He’s more interested in me than the “zookeeper” movie she put on for him. I can’t say I blame him.

“He likes radishes. Don’t ask me why,” she says, shuffling through her pocketbook. She doesn’t find what she’s looking for and snaps it shut.

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

She scrunches her eyebrows the way she used to when I’d say the c-word. “Do with him?”

“Yeah like I can’t take him to a titty bar or a party right?”

The kid giggles. He raises his hips and cups his buttocks firmly over his green corduroy pants.

“If you could take one thing seriously you’d be ruling a country,” she says, approaching the child for a kiss.

“Yeah, but it’d be Bangladesh or something stupid like that.”

“Bangladeshis need leadership, too,” she says in a kind of prattle as she hugs the boy goodbye.

She walks over to me and gets close with her finger. She’s just done her nails, emerald. “You know what to do if he hurts himself?”

“Bail. First train to Mexico, live under the name Caesar Malone. Grow beans, meet someone decent, prove I’m more than just a bean farmer to earn her respect.”

“You’re a dick.” She kisses me flush on the cheek.

I can’t even feel her lips through all the gloss. It feels like leather pants on my skin. I liked her lips natural when I could taste them.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she says.

The kid has removed the couch cushions, and he digs his tiny fingers into the cookie crumb seams. My ex wife shuts the door behind her. I remember when she’d lock it with our keys.

 

She works in finance. She is ashamed of the way he dresses. Like a “bummy artist.” The man wipes his sweaty hands on his only pair of black slacks. Her father would never approve, except he does.

The man sits next to the girl’s father. They watch a Russian movie about a submarine. He doesn’t understand Russian, but he can’t believe his luck. They take a shot of port together.

“He is basically saying that if they’re wrong the whole world will die,” says the father, through his accent, pointing at a sailor on the T.V.

“Oh, ok,” says the man.

The girl watches them intently. “You don’t even drink port, Papa.”

“When you have guests, you drink port,” he says.

The man imagines the girl tied up in a big red bow.

“It’s like I don’t even know you,” she says.

 

The zookeeper in the movie falls for a girl “out of his league.” The boy has disassembled the couch. He pulls raggedly on the foldout bed. Crumbs and nickels quiver under the sheets.

“So what do you usually get up to on the weekends, kid?” I ask.

“I like baths,” the boy says.

“Yeah, I’m more of a shower guy myself, but I see where you’re coming from.”

The boy slaps his hand against the hard base of the couch.

“You hungry?”

He nods.

“Are you past the milk stage?” I should’ve asked that. “What do you like to eat besides radishes?”

“Fig Newtons.”

“Do you know who I am?” I ask.

He shakes his head.

“Does your mom talk about me?”

“Sometimes if I eat too many Fig Newtons I poot.”

“I have a feeling you’re not the font of information I hoped you’d be.”

He rubs his little boy belly like a beer drunk.

On the way to get Fig Newtons, a funeral procession passes by. I involuntarily make the sign of the cross—a vestigial compulsion of my childhood. Everyone seems to be in good spirits. Maybe it’s one of those expected things. Everything happens for a reason: Jesus said that.

The deli is just around the block. The counter girl smiles when she sees the kid. She’s Lithuanian or something equally sexy. I bet everyone in her village looks like that. She’s one of those girls you can’t believe is wearing an apron. I want to know what sadness brought her to this moment in time. I want to be a part of it.

“What’s your name?” she asks the boy.

“Thomas,” he says, shyly. Little boys are innate cowards around pretty girls—an instinct attempting to shield us from our fate.

“That’s a cool name.”

“Thanks,” he says. “My mom gave me it.”

I’m half searching for the Fig Newtons, trying to figure out a way to tell her he’s not mine. I’m as free as a Lynard Skynard pigeon. Thank God I didn’t say that out loud.

“You guys carry Fig Newtons?” I ask.

“Next to the flower and dog food over back,” she says.

I find the crinkly pack and bring it to the register. I hand her a twenty. She gives me change. I hold up a five, fold it, and stuff it into the coffee can slot on the counter, which reads: “WE EXCEPT TIPS.”

“That’s for you,” I say.

“Thanks.” She looks past me as she says this, to an arriving bus out on the street. The ground is a little wet, and the bus makes that swishing sound when it stops.

I cradle the Fig Newtons. I hold open the glass door, and the boy follows me out.

“When was the last time you felt good, kid?”

“Today,” he says.

“Thanks, I really appreciate that.” I pat him lightly on his miniature back.

Around the corner from the church, I hear an old hymn. It emanates through the stained glass like morning or firelight.

“You ever been to a funeral, kid?”

**

 

Porquoi had known all along he wasn’t quite right. He couldn’t imagine floors existed without her anymore. That if she were suddenly gone one day, he’d fall straight through his bedroom and into the earth and become a latent diamond some millions of years later. She had created him. He knew in that moment he’d lost them both.

It’s a Catholic mass like those from my childhood. Immaculate Conception. We sit in the back next to an old man in a trench coat who looks like he also shouldn’t be there.

“It’s important to whisper here,” I say, preemptively.

“How come?” whispers the boy.

“Because God has the hearing of a dog.”

The boy nods as if what I said makes perfect sense. I feel like I can tell him anything, and he’ll approve. This must be how CEOs feel.

The church isn’t that old. Nothing in America is as old as we think it is. We tear down our monuments and build them back up in their own images. The stained glass is vibrant, not faded, as I’d like it to be. Little fake red candles flicker next to my pew. I wonder if they are still operated by quarters.

Three bells ring.

 

The man confesses to a small Vietnamese priest. The man is frightened because he has forgotten the words to the Hail Mary. There is no screen between them like there used to be. Just him, the priest, and liquid sin boiling like chicken stock.

“I am unfaithful,” he says. “And the worst part is I didn’t regret it until I had to.” She does not belong to him anymore, he tells himself.

When her father dies, she asks him to be there anyway. He can’t understand any of the words at the service. All he can think of is that submarine.

 

“My peace to you,” says the priest from the pulpit to the mourners.

“My peace I give you,” I say, not knowing why. My hands sweat. I rub them on my black slacks.

“Let us show a sign of peace,” says the priest.

I turn, reluctantly, to the old man in the camel-colored trench coat. He smells like cooking. He extends his leathery palm to me. It’s shaking. I steady it in my own, then look down to the boy.

“Peace be with you,” I say, lowering my hand.

The boy is scared of the man in the camel coat, his hands out, discolored and dry. I rip open the Fig Newtons, clutching the box in my armpit. The bag’s crackle makes me wince. I offer a single Newton to the boy. He cups his hand, and I place it in his pink, interlaced fingers. He takes it in his mouth whole.

“Let’s get out of here,” I say.

When we get home, he and I polish off the bag of Fig Newtons and the zookeeper movie. Its abject hollowness makes me sleepy.

I give the kid my bed and a glass of milk by the side of it on my crooked modernist nightstand. I take the couch. I feel as though I am under the surface of the earth. I drift off, thinking of my ex wife and where she must be, all gussied up like that. I try to dream of her.

The next morning she comes by right on time. She has the humanity not to wear the same clothes. I put out orange juice and cereal and fresh strawberries on the sticky kitchen counter. The truth of the matter is that the kid and I ate Fig Newtons for breakfast. I went out to the deli before he got up and bought him a fresh bag.

“How was it? What’d you boys get up to?” she asks, pulling the kid’s puffy red coat that I forgot about, over his head.

“This and that,” I say. “The kid’s a real charmer.”

“Oh yeah? Want one of your own now?” she smiles in a way that tells me I should not give her the answer.

I smile back. “You know me.”

“I certainly do.”

The boy hugs my ex wife’s leg. I can’t think of a single valuable thing I own. I look at my stupid toaster that I don’t use.

“Everything ok with you?” she asks. “You look more morose than usual.”

I think back to a time when the world still belonged to us.

“Porquoi—do you know what that means?”

“Why,” she says, gently stroking the boy’s hair.

“Yes.” I say, “Exactly.”

 

That Kind of Trouble Isn’t This Kind of Trouble

Wednesday, 7:45 PM

They leave the car running and duck into Kwik Trip for what Nate insists on calling “necessities.”

He and Melanie walk the aisles slowly, trailing fingers over nonsense items: foam beer koozies, ping pong balls, flip-flops in the shape of Minnesota. Athlete’s foot medicine. Paper clips. Mints whose flavor is identified as “fart-taste.”

There’s an aisle of candy and an aisle of chips. They float down each, and Melanie is certain the man behind the counter, old and tough and sick of everyone’s shit, assumes they’re going to steal something. He raises to his toes to watch them.

Near the beer cooler there is a small display of remaindered clothing. The t-shirts would fit an obese person, yet Nate holds one to his chest as if to check its fit. The hem hangs by his knees.

“Breathtaking,” Melanie says.

Nate flips through the choices. John Deere. Golden Gophers. Minnesota State Fair.

“That one,” Melanie says. She holds the state fair t-shirt to her chin, modeling. It is poorly silk-screened with the words

Everything’s Better on a Stick!

Nate takes one of the Gopher t-shirts, and nearby finds a matching baseball cap and two pairs of heart-shaped sunglasses. All of this he deposits in front of the old man behind the counter, who frowns at the pile.

“You here to yank my chain?” he asks.

Nate shakes his head solemnly. “No, sir,” he says.

“Pete send you?” the man asks. “Is he behind this?” “No, sir.”

“Nobody wants this stuff.” The old man holds up Nate’s t-shirt then looks at Melanie. “You in some kind of trouble, Miss?”

He’s probably imagining the worst of what he’s seen on TV— tortured prostitutes, kidnapped ex-wives, human trafficking rings—but that kind of trouble isn’t the trouble Melanie is in.

Hers is a more usual kind: she’s flown here to be with a man married to someone else.

“No trouble at all,” she says. She smiles and hopes it looks convincing.

The old man touches a pair of sunglasses with the tip of his finger, as if he’s afraid it might snarl to life. “Something’s fishy about this,” he says.

“It’s all right,” Nate says. “I’m a cop. This is police business.” He digs his badge out of his coat.

The old man squints. “That for real?”

Nate hands it over so he can examine it. It’s for real, and just being in its presence makes Melanie uncomfortable. When Nate broke up with her at twenty-six, both of them fresh from graduate school, he cited his career as one of the reasons they couldn’t be together.

“Our life paths just don’t mesh,” he’d said as Melanie lay weeping on her bed. He stroked her hair. “Mel, we’re so different. A cop and a screenwriter? What will that be like in five years? We couldn’t ever have kids.”

“What does that mean?” Melanie demanded. “Why the fuck not?”

But he only frowned, as if the answer were obvious, and continued to comb his fingers through her hair.

Now he gestures to a rack of chips. “Do we need snacks?” he asks.

The two of them are already a couple of gimlets in, and they have a bottle under the front seat of the car. “We have the gin,” Melanie says.

“Okay,” Nate says. He looks back at the man. “We’re good on snacks.”

“Well, that’s fine,” the man says, pushing the badge to Nate.

He rings up the t-shirts, the sunglasses, the baseball cap. “It’s $17.95.”

Nate hands him a twenty and waves off the change. “Have a good night,” he says. He puts his hand on Melanie’s lower back— it’s the first time they’ve touched since he picked her up at the airport—and guides her toward the door.

Wednesday, 8:10 PM

They drive for a while, passing the gin back and forth, taking a tour of the blank land stretching between towns. She is careful not to touch Nate when she takes the bottle from him. She doesn’t want to confuse touch with something else, like decision. She still isn’t sure.

They’d taken pains to avoid promises or plans beyond the most basic: Melanie would fly to Minneapolis and Nate would pick her up. No one else would know. Melanie’s friends think she has a speaking engagement in Colorado; Nate’s wife thinks he’s training in Duluth.

Nate pulls into the parking lot of another gas station and cuts the engine. Melanie studies him. He looks different, like a slightly inflated version of himself. He’s put on weight. He’d warned Melanie about it before she came, breaking news with a bunch of fat cop jokes.

“Maybe it’s happiness,” Melanie suggested. “Maybe your life agrees with you.”

“Maybe,” he said, managing, somehow, to sound neither incredulous nor convinced.

Now he passes her a t-shirt and a pair of sunglasses. “We’re nearby,” he says.

During the first round of gimlets Melanie decided she wanted to see his house. This was a concession; what she really wanted was to meet his wife and two year-old daughter. But how could that happen? What would she do—pretend to be a Jehovah’s Witness stopping by to preach the Good Word? A local politician glad-handing for votes? A lost courier? Ridiculous. There was no way. But at least she could see the house, see the place where Nate lived. Maybe that would help her, one way or the other.

Melanie shoves the shirt over her head. This isn’t anything like how she’s imagined an affair to be. Movies, television, other people’s stories—all so sexy and dramatic. Those scorching looks. Those dark alleyway kisses. How does anyone decide so quickly?

If only she hadn’t written the movie, that stupid film she’d first imagined as post-apocalyptic with a twelve year-old heroine but, in a side-tracked, wine-soaked fit, had actually written as a dark, dreamy movie about what would happen if Nate came back to her. Wine was also to blame for her sending the script to her agent when she should have stuck it in a drawer. But before she could truly process these events, the movie was cast and shot. Then came the Oscar buzz and, later, the Oscars themselves— two for the lead actors and another for Melanie’s script.

During all of this, Melanie never told Nate about the film. She’d never called to run it by him or ask how he might feel seeing a version of himself on screen. She convinced herself it wouldn’t be a problem because it wasn’t a movie he would ever see. There was a lot of crying in the movie, a lot of drawn-out lovemaking, and a subplot involving a mother with Alzheimer’s. Nate would rather die than pay to watch those things. Plus, they hadn’t spoken since his baby was born, so he had no idea what she was working on. Melanie figured there was a good chance the whole thing could be released and go through its press cycle without Nate knowing a thing about it.

But at three A.M. the night of the Academy Awards Nate called just as the hired car dropped Melanie off at home. It had been a long night of champagne and tiny appetizers that, despite her best efforts, Melanie couldn’t cobble together to stave off bone-shaking hunger.

When she answered, she knew immediately he’d been drinking. “That actor was really good-looking,” he said. “You must have had a handsome muse.”

She slammed the car door and watched it pull away. The night had turned chilly and somewhere along the way she’d lost her wrap, so she shivered, teeth chattering. Her mind felt slack from champagne and terror, and she scrambled to find something to say. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I hope you aren’t mad.

“Did you like it?” she asked.

“I did,” he said. “Stephanie too.”

It seemed terrible, the idea of Nate’s wife—a dental hygienist from Nebraska—gazing up at the screen and thinking how romantic it was, how beautiful, how lovely—when the story was about her husband and what could have happened if he’d come to his senses.

“Does she know?” Melanie asked.

“No,” Nate said. “She’s doesn’t know a thing about you.” Melanie slides the heart-shaped sunglasses up the bridge of her nose and consults the mirror. It is dusk. The empty bowl of Minnesota sky is flooded pink and purple. There is no need for the glasses anymore, but the anonymity feels appropriate.

How could Stephanie know nothing about her? After all, Melanie and Nate had been together for three years. And surely Nate and Stephanie must have talked about their own past relationships. Wouldn’t they have compared notes? Revealed the sorry state of affairs that had led them to each other? But apparently not. Nate had made it so Melanie never existed at all.

Nate plucks at his giant t-shirt, blousing the fabric around his waist. “The house across the street from ours is for sale,” he says. “We’ll park there. It won’t be suspicious.”

He drives them through subdivision after subdivision, each of the streets named after a fruit: Persimmon. Peach. Lingonberry. But there is no fruit to be found, only scraggly saplings bending in the wind.

Nate turns onto Crab Apple Street and slows, easing the car to the curb in front of a palatial Colonial. A for sale sign sprouts near the edge of the lawn.

“That’s my house,” Nate says, gesturing across the street. “Steph’s SUV is in the driveway.” His own is sitting in the Hertz lot at the airport; the one they are in now is a rental, another disguise.

Melanie turns slowly, taking it in piece by piece. Tiny tricycle in the driveway. Purple ball on the lawn. Rocking chairs on the porch. Melanie leans closer. The edges of the dusk sky have dimmed to black, and it’s easy to see inside the lit-up rooms. At the far end of the house, Melanie sees movement near one of the windows and then the tip of a bushy tail as a dog snuffles by.

“There’s your dog,” she says.

“A Pomeranian,” Nate says. When they were together, he had fantasized about his future dogs, retrievers and setters and pointers, smart dogs with aristocratic faces and lust for blood. “A fucking Pomeranian,” he says. “Can you believe it?”

“What’s its name?” “Dog.”

“Come on. Dog?”

“The toddler’s choice,” Nate explains, shrugging. “When I write it out, though, I spell it D-A-W-G. Thug him up a bit.”

And then Nate’s wife is in the room, perfectly illuminated and glowing. She is the basic nightmare: slim and sylvan, a Shakespearian wood sprite.

“Don’t turn around,” Melanie says. “Your wife.” She leans closer and puts her hand on Nate’s thigh, a move she regrets immediately. How long has it been since she’s touched him?

“I’m getting out,” she says and steps outside before Nate can protest. To keep up pretenses, she nudges one of the pamphlets from the cylinder near the for sale sign. It’s partially waterlogged, but she glances down at the home’s selling points: indoor lap pool, game room, stainless steel kitchen. She raises her eyes and makes like she is taking in the home’s possibility, then turns to examine the neighborhood. Would anyone notice her gaze lingers longest on Nate’s house and the woman inside, bending to heap her arms full of toys—both child’s and dog’s—before leaving the room?

Melanie ducks back into the car. Nate’s face is frozen in an odd way, as though he’s had a minor stroke.

“This was a mistake,” she says. “We need to get out of here.” “Yeah,” he says and has the car in drive before she can get the door fully shut.

Wednesday, 9:38 PM

Another bar. That’s what they decide they need. Nate drives through the suburbs—Edina, Eden Prairie, Chanhassen— and stops finally somewhere in Chaska. The bar is a hastily-constructed clapboard structure lit with a Leinenkugel’s sign, its Indian princess logo poorly translated into neon. She looks lipstick-smeared and demented.

Inside, the crowd is sparse. A few men play pool in the back corner, and a few more grimly watch the History Channel. The only woman in the place is asleep on the bar, snoring in the nest of her folded arms.

Melanie finds a table in the back, partially obscured by dart machines. Nate comes back from the bar with a tray of drinks: a set of shots, a couple gin and tonics.

“I think I arrested one of those guys,” Nate says, settling in next to her. Her jerks his head behind him, toward the guys playing pool.

“This is probably reckless,” Melanie says. “Us being out in public.”

“Nah,” Nate says. He leans back to grab a bowl of peanuts from a neighboring table “For all he knows, you’re my wife.”

Melanie closes her eyes and tries to let that remark slip into nothing. Away, away. But it doesn’t go.

They sit quietly for a while. Melanie can’t figure out where to put her hands. She tries her lap, the table, her chin. Every pose she makes feels like crappy stage direction: Girl fidgets, unsure of herself.

What are they doing? Aren’t they smarter than this? Between the two of them, they have degrees and awards and accolades. Nate even received special commendation from the governor after pulling dozens of people to safety when the 1-35 bridge collapsed. She’d seen still shots of him in the national coverage— Nate dragging screaming children out of the water, one under each arm. It seems to her that people capable of such bravery should also be capable of restraint, though, really, what does one thing have to do with the other?

“Your house is lovely,” she says finally.

Nate sets down his drink. “You don’t have to do that,” he says. “We don’t need to do niceties.”

Across the room, one of the men playing pool makes an impressive shot and the rest cheer and clink glasses.

“We have to do something,” she says.

It is strange they suddenly have nothing to say after so many months of late-night phone calls, conversations that ended as the sun came up, first for Nate, then for Melanie. Melanie felt breathless those mornings, her chest cracked open from the pressure of her longing.

“What are we doing?” she asked once, afraid of the answer. None of the ones she came up with on her own were very good.

“Just remembering,” Nate said. “That’s all.”

Melanie is warm from the gin and shifts, uncomfortable, in her chair. Nate won’t look at her. He pretends to study the dart machine’s instructions for Cutthroat Cricket.

“You can go,” Melanie says. “At any time. I can get a cab.” Nate shakes his head. “No,” he says, “I’m not leaving.”

They are quiet again, and the noise of the bar overtakes them: the crisp click of a pool cue hitting its mark, the television’s chatter about Nazis, an amber trail of whiskey snaking into a glass.

The night’s momentum has faltered. Another bar, more drinks—it had seemed logical, but, really, what are they doing? Somewhere, somehow, the night had split along it seams and left them in a place they didn’t belong.

“I’m going to splash some water on my face,” Melanie says.

She heads for the hall, which pulses in the flickering light of the emergency exit.

In the bathroom, she stares at herself for several long minutes, until the door swings open and the only other woman in the place—the one who’d been napping on the bar—comes in. She pauses near a stall door, appraising Melanie.

“I don’t see a lot of women in here,” she says.

“No?” Melanie asks, smiling, trying hard to look like she hadn’t been seconds from crying.

The woman shakes her head. The dress she is wearing—a cheap black shift, sequined and feathered—rustles against her skin. “Do you have a cigarette?” she says. She holds out her hand before Melanie can respond.

Though she has never smoked, Melanie pretends to look in her purse for a pack of cigarettes. She shakes her head. “I’m out,” she says.

“Maybe a mint?”

Those she has, in spades. At LAX, Melanie killed time before her flight standing in front of the personal hygiene wall of the kiosk near her gate. She’d bought everything that seemed even vaguely associated with adultery: lotion, mints, mouthwash, Excedrin, a beard grooming kit, wet wipes.

She hands a whole package of mints to the woman. “Keep it,” she says. “I have plenty.”

The woman clutches the package under her armpit and swings open the stall door. “He’s handsome,” she says, turning to look again at Melanie, who can, out of the corner of her eye, see her own reflection in the mirror, and it is stricken. “Your man out there,” the woman says. “Handsome.”

“Oh,” Melanie says. “Thank you.”

The woman changes her mind about the stall and lets the door swing shut. “You two having an affair?” she asks.

Melanie isn’t sure what happens then, but it feels like what she imagines a stroke to be. A jumble of words explode soundlessly in her head and jagged lines of lightning cut across her vision.

“No!” she says. “God, no! Not at all!”

The woman removes the container of mints clutched beneath her armpit and pours out a handful. She crunches into them savagely. “Honey,” she says, and the room is awash in spearmint, “you need to get better at lying.”

Melanie’s heartbeat careens into a desperate, militant rhythm. “It’s obvious?” she asks.

The woman smiles. “Oh, sweetie,” she says. “But how?”

The woman tugs at her hemline, which is far too high for her age. She smiles again, extra sweet, the way you’d smile at a baby or a dumb dog.

Melanie’s cheeks burn. The woman’s dress, the nap on the bar. It’s suddenly clear: she’s a prostitute. A working girl waiting for business to pick up.

The woman comes over to the sinks next to Melanie. “Is this your first?” she asks.

“My first?”

“Affair.”

Melanie nods. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” she says. “You’ve got some guilt?”

Melanie isn’t sure what she’s got, really. Stephanie was a fixture in Nate’s life a mere seven weeks after he’d ended things with Melanie, and because of this Melanie had spent years planning elaborate scenarios in which she would exact revenge. But for a while—at least before the baby came—Nate tried to keep in touch, to keep things friendly, and this way Melanie learned things about Stephanie that made her seem less hateful. Melanie knew, for example, that Stephanie had lost her virginity in the parking lot of a Days Inn. She knew Stephanie called Nate “Pickle,” something he’d vehemently tried to dissuade early on. She also knew that Stephanie had crippling anxiety and sometimes Nate came home to find her in the car, still in the garage, weeping and paralyzed, never having made it to work.

Melanie sort of liked Stephanie, or the character of Stephanie she’d built from these details. And Melanie definitely liked the idea of the little girl, Opal, who liked to ride the dog like a horse—yelling yee-haw! every time she clutched his scruff and clambered onto his back—and slept each night in the shadow of a giant stuffed armadillo. Shouldn’t knowing these details make it harder? Shouldn’t they override the stupid, brutish argument that keeps clattering around her head: but he’s mine.

“I don’t know if it’s guilt,” Melanie says.

“You’ll have to get out there and figure it out,” the woman says. She leans in to examine her own face in the mirror. It’s heavily made up, the foundation at least two shades too dark for her. “That’s the only way.”

Melanie washes her hands. Despite having turned only the cold knob, the water comes out painfully hot but Melanie keeps her hands beneath the stream, watching them turn red. She begins to cry.

The woman reaches over and turns off Melanie’s water. She yanks away a paper towel and wraps Melanie’s hands tenderly, almost like a bandage, and presses them between her own.

“I’m going to tell you what I think,” she says. “You’re here. That means you’ve already made up your mind. Don’t pretend you’re waiting around for permission. You already gave it to yourself.”

Melanie cries harder.

“Your makeup,” the woman says. She unwraps the towels and blots until the tears stop. Melanie blows her nose and wipes her eyes.

“You’re all right,” the woman says. She opens Melanie’s purse and digs until she finds a small pot of blush and a tube of mascara. “Hold still,” she says. She blows her minty breath across Melanie’s face to dry it. She works quickly, feathering the blush across the apples of Melanie’s cheeks and applying two coats of mascara. “There. You’re good.”

Melanie turns to look at her reflection. Her skin is puffy, but her makeup is back on and she looks marginally less terrifying. She can’t remember a time she has felt more grateful. In this moment, her love for this woman is immense. “Thank you,” she says.

“Now we’re even,” the woman says. The mints stay tucked in the crook of her armpit even when she waves Melanie out the door.

When she steps into the hallway, Nate is there, leaning against the wall, waiting.

“Have a good time?” he asks, grinning. “Make some friends?” He reaches over—slowly, as if she is a skittish horse—and lifts the purse from her hands. “I think it’s time to get out of here,” he says.

Melanie nods. “Yes.”

“Let’s go to the car,” he says, moving his hand to the small of her back. He leads her down the hallway, which seems longer now and darker. The light from the exit sign beats erratically, matching perfectly the cadence of desires in Melanie’s dark heart.

Wednesday, 10:48 PM

While Nate drives to Melanie’s hotel the radio plays quietly in the background. “Silver Springs” comes on, seeming like a sign, Stevie Nicks’ ragged voice howling You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you.

At the hotel, Nate puts himself in charge of Melanie’s bags and loiters near the elevators while she checks in. They ride to the fifteenth floor and say nothing. They haven’t said much since they left the bar. Nate made a few offhand comments about restaurants or galleries they passed, but other than that it was quiet.

“You still have time,” she says. He has her large suitcase in one hand and her carry-on slung over his shoulder. “To back out,” she says. The key registers and the door opens loudly, the lock sounding like teeth unclenching.

“I know,” Nate says.

While she shoves her suitcase in the closet, Nate fixes them a drink. He fills the ice bucket and pours the gin. From his pocket he produces a lime—boosted, probably, from the last bar.

They sit on the bed. The room is nice, expensive—she’d sprung for a suite, thinking an affair would be better suited to a large room.

Melanie sets aside her drink and curves her body toward his. He turns off the light, and comes down next to her. They are bathed in the beatific glow of the city, a light silver and forgiving.

“You’re sure?” she asks him. She doesn’t want to be presumptuous about his choice. Hers, she knows now, was made long ago. It feels ancient and heavy, something she’s been carrying since the moment he told her they could no longer be together. Her choice was always—will always be—yes. She can sense other choices, smarter choices, moving around the periphery of her brain, dragging their reasons—the wife, the girl, the disaster that is sure to follow—but how can they be expected to compete with the choice that will bring her back to where she’s longed to be?

Everything about them had, right from the start, felt fated. They met in line to get ID passes that allowed graduate students to stay in academic buildings long after undergraduates had been shooed elsewhere. They’d exchanged only hellos in that line, but then, over the course of the first month of school, they ran into each other everywhere: the bus stop, the coffee shop, the sculpture garden, the laundromat, the Ethiopian restaurant at the edge of town. Then one night they found themselves in line for the bathrooms at a damp, disintegrating townie bar that occasionally brought in good bands, and Nate stuck out his hand.

“This is getting ridiculous,” he said, and they shook. “How many people are at this school?” “Forty thousand,” she said.

“And here you are,” he said. “Again.”

When she came out of the bathroom moments later she found him waiting for her. He bought her a drink, and they spent the rest of the night huddled in a far corner, trying to be heard over the band. After last call, they were herded out, caught in the crush of the crowd, and Melanie lost sight of the friends she’d come with. Nate called a cab for her, but by the time it arrived she and Nate were hidden in the alley, pressed against the cool brick of the building. He kissed her in a way that made her feel savored, known. He bit her, catching her lower lip in his, but gently, and Melanie moved closer, memorizing the feel of him. Back on the street, the taxi beeped once then drove away, its lights washing through the alley, illuminating them, throwing languid shadows against the wall.

“This is exactly what I knew it would be like,” Nate said. He framed her face with his hands and pressed their foreheads together.

“Oh, you knew?” Melanie asked, teasing.

He smiled and kissed her, lightly, on the cheek. “Hoped,” he said. “Really, really hoped.”

From then on it was easy. Their relationship was insistent and steady, right up to the day Nate left. Afterward, Melanie’s friends badgered her. Weren’t there signs? Surely there were signs! He must’ve given some kind of indication. But he hadn’t. Melanie had a stack of dog-eared wedding magazines under her bed, and they’d recently spent an entire Sunday touring each jewelry store in town—his idea!—discussing payment plans and the virtues of asscher-cut over square.

But. That word—but!—so small and terrible. It invaded her life, became an echo, a litany in her head: He loved me. But. We were so happy. But. We made plans. But. Everything hinged on that one word.

Now she moves even closer, pressing her forehead into his. Up close, his eyes are remarkable, great pools of icy, Nordic blue, but it’s difficult, suddenly, to look at him. There’s so little left to say. In a moment, they will be kissing and it will be just like it always was, and the room will light with different colors— blue, red—as outside sirens wail down the avenue. And there will be another sound too, one only Melanie can hear, subtle, a different kind of wail. It will roll toward her across the prairie, gaining speed, gaining momentum—the sound of exquisite misery coming her way.

My Last Splurge

May 30, ‘09. My last splurge in NYC was this 30-pound slab of wax. I paid $150 for it, and made this mystic writing pad. I thought I had enough trust fund money left to buy it, but I didn’t. Turns out I spent most everything on pastry trends: Bundt cakes, boxes of rainbow macaroons, cronuts, donut holes shaken with powdered sugar, pastel mini-cupcakes. I had an Etch-a-Sketch as a kid. It did the same thing as this $150 DIY, but my therapist practices in Brooklyn so I had to use beeswax.

July 5, ’09. What I write here will stick until I push the words back down into the wax and write something else. I sometimes tilt the wax all around, in different lights and at different times of day, to see if I can read what I wrote a week or month ago because I don’t remember who I was then. Mystic writing pads were Freud’s idea. I’ve already been assigned to read Freud six times at Sarah Lawrence, no joke. I get him because sometimes I have penis envy. If I had a dick, I could say a lot of bullshit in a low, gravelly voice, and idiots would be like, “Yeah! Wow! Your dick’s so smart!” I wouldn’t mind a following of idiots.

July 20, ’09. Dave is such an authentic and original writer. His selfhood, his soul are so accurately represented on the page! What he does is pure, unmediated, a true expression of his mastery.

September 8 ’09. Dave listens to a lot of didgeridoo music…

October 15 ‘09. My mom works as a registrar and all of the books on the bookshelves in her house are alphabetized. I think I should alphabetize our books, but we don’t have any bookshelves in our apartment because it’s tiny (Prospect fucking Heights). I moved in with Dave, why why why why? BECAUSE YOU LOVE HIM YOU TWIT

January 3, ’10. I haven’t gotten my period for two months. I cut out gluten and am doing a lot of Pilates. I think that might be why??

February 12, ’10. It’s still hard to believe that this is my life at 23. If you’d asked me a few years ago what I’d be doing, I would never have imagined that I was going to be a mom. But it is my fate. Dave and I did an Ayahusca ceremony in Harlem, and I had a vision where I felt my baby kick. I found out I was pregnant a week later. When I called my mom to tell her, I said that the Amazons had come to me in a vision and planted Chullachaqui in my womb. She said, “No, Caro. Dave did that.” That’s the difference between New York and Wisconsin. I’m about to graduate, I start work at this artisanal soap distillery in Bushwick, and then, bam: here’s Chullachaqui! (That’s gonna be her name). Dave suggested it. He says it’s the name of a Peruvian forest nymph. He put it in one of his stories. It’s beautiful.

April 2, ’10. I get bad morning sickness, and sometimes I listen to the sound of the ocean on YouTube videos. The East River smells like something dead. I listen to the sound of rain on the ocean because I’m so sweaty and my stomach flips around all day. Sometimes I stumble onto videos of other people’s dead, other people’s grandparents. My grandma’s voice is only on VHS at my mom’s house, speaking at Passover, at my fifth birthday, but my mom doesn’t have a tape player anymore.

May 8, ’10. I graduated from college today. I was so pregnant I just felt nauseous and couldn’t wear stupid cute pumps like the other girls.

August 12, ’10. When I read Wikipedia after I got out of hospital, I found out that Chullachaqui is the name of an ugly creature in a Peruvian folk tale, a masculine humanoid thing with one leg that’s shorter than the other. I guess Dave didn’t read the Wikipedia page or maybe Dave can’t read. Grandpa thought we were saying Chulla’s name was “Tchotchke,” and he couldn’t get over what a terrible name that was for a little girl. He kept saying, “Caroline, tchotchke means a tacky little thingamabob! Tchotchke! A tacky thing! This precious angel is not TACKY.”

September 2, ‘10. Now that I’m back home in Wisconsin for good, I’m not sure I want to leave. My mom is rich because of the grisly nature of my dad’s death (it involved a boat and the Mosinee River Dam), and she would have paid our NYC rent if I’d asked. But Dave was too proud to take a handout, so we took my mom up on her offer of a nearly-free place to live instead. This is how she sold it to us (we who were not too choosy in the first place), basically verbatim:

“It’s cheap considering you get a clean, well-kept home, furnished,” my mom said.

I was like, “Mom, I’m not disagreeing. It’s a great place. You’re very generous.”

“I was going to rent it anyway, but I’m picky about who moves in,” she said. “No riff raff.”

We, Dave, Chulla, and I, live in my mom’s mother-in-law apartment now, a place in her backyard that I used as a spy hideout when I was a kid. We’re supposed to pay $100 a week, but Mom’s so happy to have her granddaughter around that she’ll never collect. We don’t really have the money anyway.

September 10, ’10. Dave says he feels a fissuring between his concept of himself and the way that he inhabits this particular space. He’s like, “Brooklyn was my place.” OK, but he made like zero dollars as an adjunct, and only published one book in 1997 called A Natural Outcropping of an Internal Subjectivity, about sexy twentysomethings in crisis. The newspapers lauded him as a wunderkind. Dave says being a wunderkind was a terrible curse because he’s never published another book. I convinced him to leave New York because I wouldn’t raise a baby without green space in an apartment so tiny that even the stove was miniature. But Dave doesn’t like the Packers or Midwest kitsch or Midwest Gothic or fall leaves or parades or mock brick facades or coffee shops serving enormous frosted cinnamon buns or strip malls or regular malls. He also doesn’t like Pan-Asian restaurants because he can’t tell the ethnicity of the proprietors so he can’t say “Ni hao!” like he did in Chinatown. He said “Ni hao” to some Korean-American kids who were fucking jogging the other day.

September 15, ’10. My mission in Wisconsin is to show people that there are pencils that write so much better than the standard No. 2’s—ash pencils made from fallen trees taken out of the suicide forests of Japan that draw unsmudgeable lines, clay pencils designed in the 15th-century and made by the same Russian monk order they were back then. I’m selling Ludwig van Wodka pencils—Phillip Lopate’s favorite—for $100 apiece. When I open my pencil store, people will be able to write with these pencils, smell them, hold them. I don’t have a shop yet, just a cart that I wheel to the Saturday farmer’s market. A lady picked up the Russian monk pencil, let it weigh down her palm, and said, “It’s hefty.”

September 20, ’10. My psyche is easier to communicate now with now because, like Wisconsin, it is slow, calm, dull, palatable.

September 29, ’10. In Wisconsin, every sensation is new and precise. Pregnancy changed my eyes, I think, made them too demanding, made them expect too much of my attention. The leaves on College Avenue are crisp. They look like they stand still when I see them from certain angles, from too far away, from down the block and across the river. The dogs in my childhood neighborhood bark like they’re vicious, and when I see them, my eyes tell me that they’re moving faster than they should be, bouncing higher, even though my brain disagrees. My memories are exploding. I look at my high school and see my English teacher, the kids in my homeroom, the hairs I found twice in my lasagna. I see the first boy I ever kissed in the second-floor window of his parents’ house. I can see that the river is full of bodies and branches and car tires. I breaststroke through the stagnancy in my mother’s house. I puzzle over the pair of shoes I once threw over a phone wire. They are grey, not brown. They are Nike, not Adidas.

November 20, ’10. Dave was my writing professor at Sarah Lawrence, and when I took his introductory fiction course, he said that we were meant to be together, even though I was 21 and he was 43. I thought we should have sex, sure, but he thought we should get married, instantly, per the level of passion he felt. When I said, “Maybe later? Like, when I graduate?”, he clung to me, his fingers lingering on my arms and slipping down the sides of my shoes. He cooked me eggs and baked me lasagna, he drifted behind me with his hands on my shoulders, my back, my knees until I decided that his convictions could lift up my convictions until I had some. We didn’t get married, but I moved in.

November 27, ’10. Dave might apply at Lawrence down the street for a teaching job, but those liberal arts professors all have doctorates. He just has an MFA. If he did get the job, the girls there would probably swoon for him like I did at 21. I didn’t swoon, I guess, I coalesced. Midwestern girls might be easier to seduce because we’re, on the whole, fatter. It seems so insane that I have a boyfriend who lives in my old super-spy hideout with me and wants girls to cream at his thoughts and a little daughter who is named something unpronounceable and incomprehensible and an expensive writing pad that I talk about as a metaphor for my mind and a converted hotdog cart that I sell expensive pencils out of, but that’s the life I’ve got. Until I press my hand into this wax to make it go away, I guess.

December 4, ’10. Dad died almost 10 years ago and Mom is online dating. She is! We made her profile. She looks beautiful in a string of blue beads in her picture. She wrote that her three essentials in life are as follows: 1. Family 2. Food (guilty pleasures: chocolate and pizza!) 3. Long walks on sandy beaches. There are no sandy beaches here. “It’s winter in Wisconsin, Caroline,” she said. “I’ve gotta give the guys something to dream about.”

March 8, ’11. I told my mom about the pickers who had all gotten lupus in Apopka, Florida, about how they’d sued but the state wouldn’t pay them anything anyway. She said she knew that part of Florida, that it was rough there, that they were probably all illegals anyway.

March 17, ’11. Dave sometimes writes his stories with the suicide forest pencil, even when I ask him not to. He doesn’t think that I know he does it, but I do. He re-sharpens the lead with a penknife, but I can see the shavings on top of the apple cores and spoiled rice in the garbage can, and I can tell the pencil is getting shorter. I tell him to stop using it, but he always shrugs, grins by only lifting up his one side of his mouth. I think he thinks it makes him look like Harrison Ford. He’s always shrugging, grinning like someone who’s recently had a stroke. Always always always always He doesn’t look like Harrison Ford. Dave is probably writing with the pencil, his stories, his thoughts, on pieces of paper that preserve them, rather than on a piece of wax that isn’t supposed to.

April 9, ’11. Dave says that my work, like his, should be my heritage to myself, and our daughter’s life should be an expression of our essential beings, a continuous, reasonable, and natural outcropping of the truthfulness of our love and our union. Chulla is a little baby who clings to my sweater in a way that makes her feel like insulation.

June 21, ’11. Dave believes in relating the particularities of local experience and the specific to a larger cosmic order. “More precisely,” he said once as he put his fingers to his chin.

“I would label this concept ‘tradition.’” Chulla was asleep when he said it, and I just wanted to watch Gordon Ramsay yell at some poor schmo on the TV and discover new pencil brands on obscure, poorly-translated international websites. Just pencils, nice, precise, and easy. But Dave wanted to talk about the linkage between locally-based creations and universally-relatable lineages. Dave likes to pretend. He knows he’s really only interested in good food and malleable women, not in serious intellectual pursuit. Dave hates himself really.

August 11, ’11. Dave’s moving to California. I MUST I MUST I MUST he said over and over again like he was Juliette Lewis playing that retarded girl in The Other Sister. I must I must I MUST He says he wants a new place to write, a place that isn’t mired and stagnated in the traditions of the past. LOL. California’s not a place of its own, I don’t think, but at least he won’t be here. I bought a new pencil today. It has a white gold cap and is carved from repurposed wood from an abandoned country church on the Saskatchewan plains. The lead was mined piece by piece, separated from the dark mud of the Appalachian forests. The man I bought it from was a Christian, he said the pencil was supposed to make Jesus write through you. I laughed on the phone, but I bought it anyway. I might sell it at the farmers’ market this weekend. Or I might write with it myself.