Autumn: A Short Story

There’s something wrong with my hands. Lately, I’ve taken to squeezing them into fists at the most peculiar times. When I’m checking out at the grocery store. Face timing my daughter who is away at college. Making love to my husband. My thumbs ache and I’ve noticed the knuckles on my right swell to the size of cumquats in the morning. When that happens, I hide my hand. From myself I suppose. In case I notice and make myself see a doctor.

 

The weather is dull, washed out, not yet fall but already finished with summer. That first circle of hell Dante called limbo. It pushes me down into the bed every morning burrowed like a mole, unwilling. Eventually, I emerge. Eyeballs first. Pushing back the too heavy duvet licking at my dry lips-nobody warns you that with age comes increasingly foul morning breath-and debate whether to make coffee before or after brushing my teeth. Sometimes, overwhelmed by ambivalence, I have to crawl back into bed. I’m careful to pull up only the sheet so that I’m not tempted to give in completely.

 

This morning when I get downstairs, my husband is already awake. A great big thick bear of a man, he is dressed and eating cereal which he prepared himself. He has not however made coffee. He does not do that, although he does drink coffee. He’s a man of strict routine although not obsessive. I like that about him. Quiet, confident, comfortable, consistent. I am none of those things. Morning he says. Morning I say. And he goes back to scrolling through emails on his smartphone and I open the cupboard where we keep the coffee. I fan the flame of my long-standing resentment over the fact that he never makes coffee, as I fill the carafe with filtered water from the fridge door and scoop grounds into the machine. I lean against the counter and wait for the brew cycle to finish, intentionally not sitting down. My husband ignores me.

 

I open the cupboard where we keep the coffee mugs and study them carefully before choosing the fat purple mug because it holds the most coffee and means I won’t need to make another trip downstairs for a while. I pour myself a cup. Have a good day, I say over my shoulder. You too I’ll see you later, he says without looking up from his phone.

 

I’m sitting perched on the edge of my bed, sipping at my coffee, careful not to slip back too far since that might result in a full retreat in which case I’d never be able to get up again.  I can see into the backyard. I can see my tomato plants are becoming overgrown and three of the iceberg bushes are badly in need of pruning. I’ll get out there today, I tell myself. The same thing I told myself yesterday. And likely the day before, although I cannot remember. I think about how much I used to enjoy a few hours in the sun with my pruning shears. The prickly sensation of sweat on my neck. The sweet young ache along my thighs; the result of repeatedly squatting and bending over at the waist, something I’m not sure I can do anymore. Nowadays I use a pruning bench despite all the yoga.

 

As I watch, a hummingbird buzzes forth. It’s unusual to see one this high but the bougainvillea has exploded up the side of the house, purple blossoms now fluttering and falling around the edges of the window obscuring my view. The little bird stops at the window, hovering, its wings moving so fast they’re invisible to my eye. I wonder how old it might be? You can’t tell with hummingbirds. I’ve never seen a slow one. An achy one. They’re not like dogs. Or people. I don’t think they’re hands hurt or they’re breath goes bad as they age. Do they just go and go like the devil and then drop dead?  I think maybe I’d like that. Or maybe not. Probably not. No, dropping dead would be terrible. Like the cops showing up in the middle of the year’s best party. Nothing worse.

 

The alarm on my phone splutters suddenly causing me to jump and I wonder for the millionth time why I do this to myself. I don’t set alarms to wake myself up. I’ve been an early riser for years. My brain switches to GO mode long before the sun comes up and it’s a rare day that I can turn it off, or even get it to pause again for more than a few minutes. Those days of lolling around in a dreamy half sleep disappeared not long after the days of waking up naked feeling sexy and gorgeous in spite of a hangover. Nowadays I set alarms for getting things done. Lately anyway. This particular alarm, which I’ve set to something called “circles” although it sounds more like “shopping mall doorbell” is supposed to remind me to get into the shower. I have another one that tells me to check the mail.

 

By the time I come downstairs my husband has left for the day. The kitchen which, by design, is, unfortunately, large-I do not cook- is quiet except for the soft whir and whoosh of our new dishwasher which cost more than some people spend on their automobiles. My husband says it is state-of-the-art, a phrase I’ve always detested. I’m not sure how one dishwasher can be any more state-of-the-art than another.  They’re not rocket ships. But, my husband makes all the decisions about things like appliances. He spends hours, days even, reading Consumer Reports and whatever else people read when they want to know about things like dishwashers.  In the early days of our marriage he would share all of the carefully mined information with me; pamphlets and advertisements and reports and magazine articles. Spread out over the dining room table. He’d take my hand and lead me enthusiastically around the room, pointing out the various features, excitedly reciting the pros and cons of different models while I feigned interest. Sometimes we would go to the store together, me running a finger over the glossy white surface of five different Kenmore dryers and making obligatory noises of approval as he opened and closed each one’s steel door, smiled and pointed and spoke and laid out his chunks of knowledge for me like each bit was something he’d killed and dragged home to be placed bloody at my feet.  After the ritual, he always told me which one we should choose and that’s what we got. I’m not sure when it happened but, at some point, I just figured out it made sense to skip the part where I went along altogether. By then I think we both felt relieved.

 

I slip on my tall black rubber boots and head outside. In the shed, I find my tools and thick purple gardening gloves. They are sprinkled inside with old dust and beads of fertilizer and the occasional thorn. I could wash them, but I like the messiness. It’s familiar. I push open the gate that separates my garden from the rest of the property, with its well-tended lawns and swimming pool and neatly trimmed boxwoods. It’s easy to forget how much I love this little part of the world. It is thick with lavender and white roses and the smell is powerful even this time of year. The redwood planter boxes overflow with tomato vines and strawberry plants and green peppers.  The sun is almost always out back here, even when the rest of the world seems pale in comparison.

 

I work for two hours. Pulling weeds, trimming vines, moving plants that seem unhappy. I sweep and scoop and haul and water and wind up with a basket filled with at least twenty-five fat green tomatoes and a dozen bell peppers by the time I’m finished. I head back indoors, muddy and sticky and happily exhausted. The malaise of earlier nearly forgotten.

 

It’s noon when my daughter calls. Facetime which I hate. I fiddle with the phone trying to find a lens angle that doesn’t make the skin of my neck look loose and frightening. Finally, I give up and focus on her beautiful nineteen-year-old face. She’s calling to tell me about nothing and everything and she is infused with the glorious energy and desperation and immunity of her youth and she carries me so far away from myself I think for a minute everything is ok. She says oh Mom you should have seen it, the whole thing was crazy, and she says do you think I should get the red one or the redder one?  and she says so I’ve been kind of talking to this boy but don’t get all excited because it’s totally not like that and I can see by the way even her teeth are twinkling that it totally is like that. I’m so in love with her voice and her face and her words that it’s difficult to breathe as I listen. I change my mind and decide that I love face time and screw the fact that my neck makes me look like a dead chicken.

 

After we hang up I do the thing I should never do. I open up the photo ap on my phone and scroll back nearly twenty years, to see her baby pictures. Her teeny tiny baby pictures. She’s curled snail-like on her father’s bare, hairy chest, both asleep. At a wedding, I barely remember who’s, she’s two months old dressed in a ridiculous velvet get up-who picked that? -and soft ballet slippers no more than two inches long and my husband, so young holds her tight against him and stares at the camera, dark-haired, straight-faced and handsome as a movie star. Two years later, sitting up on my lap in the bed, smiling at her father who takes the picture. She is naked except for a diaper, and wild-haired and laughing.  A piece of raisin toast in her chubby fist. She’s grabbed it from the tray sitting next to us. I’m robed, in bed. On bedrest. My belly a bare half-cantaloupe protrusion beneath the terrycloth. I click the phone closed, suddenly nauseous.

 

We’d wanted more children, but it wasn’t meant to be. Incompetent cervix they’d called it. They hadn’t known they said. Not until it was too late. There were procedures. They could prevent it the next time, or at least reduce the risk. We’d had huge fights about it. I think the marriage would have ended over it if we hadn’t had my daughter. I couldn’t go through it again I told my husband. He didn’t understand. If at first, you don’t succeed and all that bullshit. He’s an engineer after all. But there was no way. For a long time, every time we made love all I thought about was dead babies. My resentment grew. He wasn’t the one who gave birth to a dead baby. It was me. He couldn’t know. But I thought he should. I still do.

 

I shoved my phone into the mail drawer in the kitchen. My girl said she’ll come for a visit at the end of the month. That makes me smile.

 

In my office, I sit down at my desk. It’s a wide wooden surface, smoothed from years of sliding books and papers across it but also scratched and dinged all over from use. I’m careful to clear it each night even if that means stacking my work off to the shelves that cover the walls surrounding it. I like to sit down to a clean desk each day. Earlier this year my husband helped me move it under the big picture window on the office’s south wall. For years I kept the desk against a windowless wall so that I could pin various articles and projects to a giant corkboard above. A writer friend suggested the change as a way of shaking something loose. I’m not sure it’s worked to loosen me up but I’m enjoying the dappled light coming through the pink-flowered Crape Myrtle trees. We have a small little-used brick courtyard off this side of the house and a gecko has taken up residence between the cushions of the patio furniture. Occasionally I see a flash in my peripheral vision and, if I’m quick, I’ll catch him scooting across the bricks from one chair to another.  If I tap at my window glass, he ignores me completely. I like his uncompromising autonomy. His independence. I’m trying to think up a name for him. My new pet.

 

I try and focus on the piece I am writing. I keep a small calendar in the drawer to my right and in it is marked the deadline for each assignment. This one is coming up sooner than I’d like to admit. I’ll get it done. I always do. But not without stressing at the last minute and creating anxiety for my editor. I stare at the computer screen. I’ve written not quite two hundred words. I am less than inspired. The piece is supposed to be a humorous look at fashion over fifty. Sort of tongue-in-cheek commentary on the industry. The thing is, after doing the research, and probably even before that, I don’t find anything funny about the industry’s cannibalizing the very people it claims to be courting. There was a time I bought into the idea of fashion as art or even fashion as an empty promise. It’s not. Fashion is fear. It’s a vicious, destructive, malignant conspiracy bent on terrifying middle-aged women into spending more than they can possibly afford. Nobody believes they’ll look like Elle Macpherson if they buy a piece of cloth. But everyone believes they’ll look like the Wicked Witch of the West if they don’t.  To write about it in a funny, even sharply, sarcastically funny way, makes me feel like Judas. I slam shut the computer and stand up. The gecko is frozen on my patio. Staring at me accusingly. I stick out my tongue and he skitters off. I don’t think he cares about my feelings.

 

In the afternoon I go out to meet a friend, Kate, for coffee.  The place is packed. My town is like that. Everyone feels the need to pay five dollars for coffee all the time. At first, I don’t see Kate in the crowd but then I spot her in the line near the front. She is spectacular looking even as she approaches fifty. More so in some ways. Tall, formidable figure with lovely pale skin and dark hair. Always dressed in a style I believe is termed casual hip although I’d never be able to define what that means. Nor would I be able to pull it off. Today she’s wearing jeans and boots and mirrored sunglasses and a black cashmere sweater that looks soft as butter. Her hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail and she wears little makeup. She waves at me over the crowd. I feel sort of flattered that she knows me. It’s like being flagged down by a celebrity.  Or a queen.

 

We juggle our coffees and oversized, overpriced, bags until an undersized table opens up. Then push past a shapely mother with three extremely attractive little children to grab the seats.  Kate and I talk a great deal about our children-the good stuff- and almost none at all about our husbands. I think that husband talk is off limits. The intimacy of it too enormous. The vulnerability. At a certain age, the weakness of it becomes suffocating. She makes me laugh with stories of her sons and their adventures in college.

 

I watch two well-dressed older men with laptop computers lean towards each other across a small table. They both wear wedding rings but their conversation seems soft and secretive. Suddenly I think perhaps they are married to each other and I feel impossibly dated for thinking otherwise.

 

Kate and I do not talk about ourselves. Except to laughingly complain about our weight and wrinkles, as if those are not really issues at all.  We do not acknowledge the other things that stress us out. Her daughter is sullen and angry, involved with the wrong kids, and all her impressive wealth will not alleviate the problem. She has four kids. I have two, but one is dead. We do not talk about it. But we both know. There is a comfort in the mutual avoidance of certain topics. A weird sort of honesty and I feel sad when it’s time to go. Kate and I have been friends a long time. Since our kids were small, in school together.  Perhaps, I think, our friendship is based mostly on what is not said rather than what is. But we both have places to be. We kiss kiss and bye bye and see you later and I feel a strange bittersweet nostalgia as I am leaving. Like I might not see her again.

 

I stop for gas on the way home and a homeless man approaches me at the pump with a story about running out of gas and needing a loan. He has no car. I give him money.

 

Afterward, I text my husband although I’m not sure why.  I don’t say anything specific in the text. Just hello. He doesn’t respond which isn’t unusual. He says that during the workday he doesn’t get my texts, which I suppose I believe although sometimes I wonder. There was a time when I would have been frantic if he hadn’t returned my call. That was long ago. Before texting was a thing of course. I would have called repeatedly. I might have gone to his apartment and banged on the door. Curled up on the step like the Little Match Girl. But it’s different now. I look at my phone, in my lap. I’m texting while driving. I’m wishing for something although I’m not sure what. For him, I guess. There are times when I feel too light. Untethered, unmoored and he grounds me.  I suppose I resent him for that. For being the only one who can. I want to be able to do it for myself.

 

I push the radio button and the music comes out too loud and I swear and turn it off. Motherfucker. The next light turns red and I curse again. Motherfucker. Now I just want to get home. Then I remember my yoga class. I glance at my yoga bag sitting on the passenger seat. I look at my phone, mentally admonishing it for not reminding me about my class and at that exact moment it blip blips with an alarm called “bamboo.”

 

I make it to the yoga studio with ten minutes to spare and go into a stall to change clothes. I’ve never been one of those women comfortable in my nakedness-stepping out of the shower, towel in hand, covering nothing, wet and shining, cellulite bared to the world, post-baby belly shimmying as I cross the locker room. Not even when my body was young and relatively unblemished.  So, into the stall, I go, to change in the cramped, darkened space where only the toilet can judge.

 

Women come and go, unaware of my presence and I listen-eavesdrop really-to them chat about their lives, their children, their appliances. It amazes me what people find worthwhile to say. They are discussing laundry strategy and one woman, her voice young and loud and nasal and full of enthusiasm says I always wash my brights with my whites, and the second woman, softer, less confident, Asian accented, says oh no you wash whites with brights, and the first says yes I do I wash whites with brights, believe me, it’s the best way, and I already feel aswirl in too many words on the topic.  But, still, they go on. I hurry to finish changing and, in my rush, I bump an elbow hard against the stall door, causing significant discomfort. “Shit,” I splutter, without thought. The nasal-voiced one rushes the door making a string of startled noises and offering to help and I’m forced to open the door half-dressed and show her that I’m not having a seizure so that she’ll leave me alone. She’s actually a nice young woman, if not particularly bright, and I suspect I am becoming an unfriendly person.

 

When I arrive home, I decide to try writing a bit more. I sit at my desk, open my computer and check my email.  I often start writing by checking my email and surfing the web for a few hours. It’s extremely inefficient. There’s a group message from one of my classmates from graduate school. I haven’t heard from her in years. She wouldn’t have my cell phone number.  One of our colleagues-a woman I’ve not seen in over twenty years has passed away, she writes. Brain tumor. Came on quickly. She leaves behind a husband and three children, two are still in high school. The family, she says, is shattered. I’m taken aback by that word, shattered. Of course, I think, how could they not be. I lean back in my chair and stare at the screen. Breathing in and out, keenly aware of twilight enveloping the room. I stare at that word. Shattered. I say it out loud. “Shattered.”

 

Dead, I think. Gone, I think. It’s not the same as an empty space which is what you have when something has never been filled. Empty has potential. It can be full one day, fixed, repaired. That’s what my husband thought about having another baby. He thought we could fill her space. He thought I’d get better if we started again. He didn’t know, and I hated him for it.

 

But death is different. Death leaves a terrible, achy, gone place. Dark and cruel. Shattering in its stillness. My baby left that place inside of me. Now these children, this husband will know this place too. There is no photograph accompanying this email. I try to picture the woman’s face from long ago, but I can only remember a few details about her. A small woman with a halo of frizzy light brown hair and two rows of large overly white teeth. She smiled all the time. I remember that. The smiling. I didn’t know her well.

 

I look out the window at the Crape Myrtle which is beginning to drop tiny pink blossoms to the ground in preparation for the coming fall. In not too long it’s leaves will be bare, and the winter sun will stream through, no longer dappled by its leaves. I rub at my hands, which always ache a bit this time of day, close them into fists and squeeze at the knuckles of my right hand.  Tomorrow I’ll go ahead and make an appointment with Dr. Hensen. Tonight, I’ll get out one of my two cookbooks and make dinner for my husband. We will sit together at the table and I will tell him all about the things our daughter said today including the boy who totally is not like that, and he will smile.

 

In the kitchen, I’m running the tomatoes under cool water and I notice that hummingbird from this morning has come back, and I smile when I see him.  I pull two ripe fruits from the sink and pile the plump green ones with stems still attached, into a big blue bowl and set them by the window. The sunniest one in the kitchen. I think perhaps by the end of the month they’ll be ripe enough to eat.

 

 

 

EDEN – Novel Excerpt

Prologue

January 6, 1982

There is a fear I live with all the time.  It’s like a shawl around my shoulders that I cannot remove. Today has been a hard day. Gray skies and a chill in the air that bites like razors. Clothes refuse to dry on the line, and a particular angry whistle passes continuously through the house.

Perhaps it is only the memory of seeing him this morning. It wasn’t intentional. He was in town with his family, and I saw him across First Street heading to lunch perhaps. Or shopping. My mind raced in all the directions he might have been going. The pain was excruciating, but at the same time it made me happy to see him looking good.  He was smiling, reaching down to lift his smallest child to his shoulders. The last time we spoke he was devastated.  I think in my life there will never again be a love like him. I am now resigned to it. When I think of the damage our love has caused, the responsibility we bear for the lives of others, I feel ill all over again and yet, I am once again fortified against my weakness for him.

I’ve not been right since I got home this afternoon. I’ll say the truth only here, in these pages. I cannot trust myself to speak it aloud. Or perhaps it is that I cannot trust others.

 An icy terror sits within me. A feeling, or more than that, a certainty that something terrible is about to happen, maybe has already occurred. Some form of destruction, an unraveling I suppose. I see shadows following me at times. Objects are moved, no longer where I left them. Sometimes gone for good. Yesterday, I went to get the mail, walked down to the box, a solid five-minute trek and found the box empty. Upon my return I found the mail stacked neatly on the kitchen table. John says I must have forgotten I’d gone to fetch it. I’m certain I would remember if I was the one who’d put it there.

 I mention to my doctors that I sense I am being watched, but, when they only want to give me more medication, I stop telling them. I’m sure this is not sickness. I’m quite sure this is real. Why will no one listen?

-Gwen

 

Chapter One

Eden, Louisiana- Present Day

The day they found the dead girl, the sky was the color of marble and the air stank of rubber and mud. Spring had escaped Bonfante Parish early that year and it was much too hot for early June.   Ray Lee Beaumont was thirteen-years-old, skinny as a jackrabbit and brimming with the sweaty, excited, newness of burgeoning adolescence.  He stood, with the self-conscious, impatient, cool, peculiar to young adolescent boys, under the shade of a live oak, half-moons of damp staining his T-shirt underarms, and smoking a stolen cigarette. Legs slightly apart, shifting weight one foot to the other, head down and cocked, peering out from under a lock of shaggy black hair. One hand to his lips, holding the Lucky Strike between his first two fingers, the way he remembered his Daddy had done-when the man still lived with them.  A thin curl of smoke wafted into the still, hot air and hung there for a long time before breaking up into nothing.  Occasionally he held the cigarette away from his body and tapped at it, letting the ash fall to the ground next to his feet.

All at once, he flicked the butt away, took two steps forward until he was standing just outside the shade of the tree and he shouted. “Basco, what in the hell is taking you so long?”

Genie Basco twelve, just four months younger than Ray Lee, but six inches shorter and lacking the peach fuzz that darkened Ray Lee’s upper lip, emerged from the woods, pulling up his pants.

“I don’t know Ray Lee. I don’t feel good. I think I got the diarrheas.”

“Oh, shoot Basco. You ain’t got the diarrheas. You’re just scared I’m gonna shoot you full of holes before you get one round off,” Ray Lee said, laughing.

“I ain’t scared,” insisted Gene. He approached, and Ray Lee studied his face. Pale, big-eyed. “I’m telling you, I don’t feel too good.”

“Yeah.  Well don’t be thinking we’re going back now that we’re all the way out here and I got my brother’s gun and all. No way. Like my Daddy says, time to man up.”

Ray Lee gave the younger boy a hard stare, so he’d know there wasn’t a choice. Not now. Ray who’d been practically shooting out of his shoes with excitement since waking up this brilliant Saturday morning to find Mack’s paintball gun, and all his gear, sitting by the back door. Mack never left his gear, or anything else he cared about, out where Ray Lee might get into it.  Must have come in drunk or too tired to think straight. Or both. Ever since Mack made sixteen and started driving and got a girlfriend, he thought he was all that. Ray Lee had quietly snatched up the gun and the half-full box of yellow paintballs and made his way out of the house. He’d ridden his bike straight over to Genie’s since Genie was the only other kid he knew owned a paintball gun. Which, Ray Lee was pretty sure, the little softie shit never even used.

“And look,” added Ray Lee, picking up the weapon from where he’d laid it on the ground. “I gotta get this gun back before Mack wakes up or he’ll kill me. So, get your stuff and come on. I already loaded yours for you.”

They started out back behind a wood structure that looked like, once upon a time, it might have been an outhouse.  Everything out here looked like it came from another century. As far as Ray Lee knew, nobody had lived out at the Crazy Yates Place since the old man died and that was almost before Ray Lee was born.

“Ray Lee,” came Genie’s whine. “Are you sure we should be doing this? I mean, what if we get caught? My mom says the Sheriff will arrest you for shooting outside. In, like, the wild.  I don’t know.”

Ray Lee turned around.  Peering at his friend. “See, I told you, you were scared.”

“I ain’t!” Gene took another step.

“Well then, quit jabbering.” They trudged across the field about a hundred yards before Ray Lee stopped just on the edge of the forest. “Ok. Here’s good.” He looked at Genie. Softening. “Hey, look, I won’t aim at your face ok? Or your neck. And I’ll give you first shot. Ok?” The twelve-year-old nodded, looking reluctant. Ray Lee felt a little badly for him. Getting splatted with paintball hurt like a bitch and Genie knew how good a shot Ray Lee was too.

They crept into the forest in opposite directions, counting off before they turned and began. Almost immediately, Genie started firing. Randomly. Aimlessly.  Almost all Genie’s balls hit tree trunks or rocks, leaving neon yellow and green paint splatter everywhere. He’d be out of ammo in five minutes, thought Ray Lee. Idiot.

Ray Lee avoided the shots and snuck deeper into the woods and was circling behind the thick, gnarled trunk of a live oak, when the toe of his runner clipped a fat root and sent him sprawling, face first, into the earth. The gun spilled from his grip and went skittering off into darkness. Once he’d caught his breath, he pushed himself up onto hands and knees, peering around for the weapon. A tiny kernel of panic seeded itself in his belly.

Mack would murder him, literally, if he lost that gun.

He screamed back at Genie to quit firing and come help him. Continued to scrabble around in the half-dark. Finally, there it was. Brown plastic sticking half out of the mud. Reaching for it, Ray Lee wrapped his palm around the hilt and knew immediately the thing in his grasp was not the plastic gun. Fear shot through him like black ice water and he yelped drawing his hand back so quickly, droplets of mud splashed his face. His eyes. He scrambled back away from…whatever it was, and leaned against a rock, panting. Peering into the darkness.

He pulled a penlight from his jean’s pocket and, using it to navigate, he took a few steps. It seemed suddenly darker inside the cypress wood. His foot sank into mud so thick it overflowed the top of his shoe. He felt it oozing through his sock. Like fingers.  Inside the jungle of plants, he was momentarily disoriented.  He swung his head this way and that, panic rising, suddenly, he saw it. Sticking out of the wet earth.  It was small and appeared dipped in layers of earth and rot. Picking up a branch, he used it to poke a bit. Trying to separate the thing from the gun. No way did he want to touch it. He pushed some of the filth away and leaned in for a closer look. He jammed the branch underneath the thing and as he did so, a brownish bowl-shaped object emerged from the earth.

He stared as a clump of long hair fell away in a thin stringy sheath.  He made a garbled gagging sound, dropped the stick, turned and pushed his way back past a giant palmetto plant. Emerging from the edge of the forest, he stopped abruptly, bent at the waist and vomited into the dirt.

 

Chapter Two

San Francisco-Present Day

It was happening again. The sleepwalking. Or whatever it was. When Evelyn was a child she’d called it dreaming but that wasn’t right. Dreaming was that thing people did while remaining stationary in their beds. And dreaming had a sort of pleasurable connotation. The word nightmare wasn’t right either. Evelyn’s ex-husband, Stuart, had called it her “Linda Blair Thing,” and thought it hilarious. Of course he was a prick and had only witnessed two episodes both of which had involved copious amounts of alcohol followed by nakedness combined with something having to do with mud and nocturnal enuresis so, Evelyn wasn’t even sure it had been the same thing. But these more recent events: these were too familiar; occurring too frequently.

 

Evelyn   picked up the tweezers and leaned into the beveled glass over her sink.  The marble vanity edge dug painfully into the soft flesh of her abdomen. She pursed her lips. Tilted her head and expertly plucked at an errant eyebrow hair, while casting furtive glances at the reflected image of her daughter, Libby, who stood behind her across the large bathroom. Scowling.

The teenager was fidgeting from foot to foot, arms folded across her chest, ready for battle. The pale skin of her face, nearly shrouded in a mass of black clothing. Her fierce dark eyes laser focused as she spoke.

“You said it, and if you take it back now, I’ll hate you,” she spat, pressing her lipstick-blackened lips together so that the baby fleshiness of her mouth became a hard line. Evelyn leaned away from the mirror, set the tweezers down on the marble counter, and turned around. Then she folded her arms and stood to wait for what would come next.  “I can’t stand it here anymore,” Libby continued. Her eyes wet. “You do this all the time. Say things. Then say you didn’t.” That, Evelyn thought, was unfair. It happened. But definitely not all the time. Did it? “I’m going anyway. You should say ok and let me do what I want.” Libby was breathing heavily.

“Uh huh,” Evelyn said, weariness rolling over her; a thick, grey, muck.  “Look, Lib there’s no way. There’s just no way I would have approved it. So…no. You can’t go. Sorry.” She hoped she sounded…what? Parental? Certain? Like an adult?

“I am,” said Libby. “I am going. You said I could. Last night, you came in my room, totally fucking blotto and you said I could.”

Evelyn considered which part of that sentence she should address. The curse word? The accusation she’d been intoxicated (which was true of course)? The claim she approved her sixteen-year-old daughter could attend an overnight party for graduating high school seniors? Hmm. Parenting provided so many opportunities to screw up. There seemed no good choice here so she gave up.  Tossing about in her mind for something to say. To change the subject. “You know, Libby, I think that thing is getting infected. It’s pretty awful looking.”  Evelyn uncrossed her arms and reached a hand, forefinger outstretched, toward Libby’s right eyebrow, which sported a small silver ring surrounded by a quarter-sized bruise the color of a ripe plum.

Libby ducked out of the way. “You are not even listening to me!” Evelyn jerked back against the sink, banging her hip bone on the porcelain.

“Fuck, ouch,” Evelyn said rubbing at her hip, fighting the urge to say what she should not. She really wasn’t good at this. At least not first thing in the morning.

“Whatever, I don’t really care,” Libby hissed, rolling her eyes. She ferreted in her purse and pulled out her phone.

A more direct approach, Evelyn said. “Look, Libby, I listened. I said you couldn’t go. You’re barely sixteen. It’s a ridiculous request. I don’t have time to argue about it. I don’t even know what you guys would be doing all night in a hotel.” She fumbled around in her cosmetics drawer for something although she was not entirely sure what.

Libby’s reflection in the mirror stopped texting. Evelyn turned around to look at her. “Mother, again, you are not listening to me. I told you what we would be doing. We will be doing nothing. We won’t be out all night. We will be at the hotel.”

Evelyn sighed, the breath coming from a deep, tired place all bone-dry and withered and lost; a place where remorse and guilt and something incomprehensible lay. Her mouth tasted like stale chardonnay. She tried to remember how much she’d had to drink.  It had started with the voice mail message in the early afternoon. I’m calling from Eden.  Please call me back as soon as possible.  She’d already been reaching for the wine bottle as she listened to it but, in fairness, she’d seen the area code when the call came in. She’d known. It’s important, Mrs. Adamson. Please do call me back. Mrs. Adamson? She hadn’t been Mrs. Anybody in over five years. The name hit hard.  Then there was the other name:  Eden. It conjured images she’d thought had evaporated from her brain. Or been drowned out. Her father at the kitchen table. His long narrow face, eyes sliding over her like she didn’t exist, knobby fingers gripped around the neck of a beer bottle; Sunlight and dust on pine floors under bare feet; and Carolyn, there was always Carolyn.

She reached out to touch Libby’s shoulder with the tip of one finger. Her daughter jerked backward, both arms up as if preparing to defend herself from attack. Evelyn snapped her hand back. Rivers of eyeliner ran down Libby’s cheeks, and there were slashes marking the inside of her left arm from wrist to elbow. Some delicate white lines like embroidery cloth, and some new ones, freshly scabbed. Evelyn tasted vomit in her mouth. Libby followed her mother’s gaze and quickly dropped her arms allowing the layers of fabric to cover her skin below the wrists again. They both looked away.

Evelyn checked her watch. “I’m late. I have to go to my office. I’ve got that Clark thing to finish.” Only a part-lie. She did have to go to her office, just not at any particular time. “What if we talk about this when I get back? Tonight?”

Libby rolled her eyes. “Right, whatever.” A car honked.

“It’s your carpool.” Evelyn nodded her head toward the window.

“I’m going on Friday. You can’t stop me,” Libby said over her shoulder as she walked out. Evelyn closed her eyes and sucked in air through her teeth in long, tough strands like twine.

Then she heard the front door slam and felt a cool relief pass over her like a prayer.

#

It was early summer, and the city was pale and chilly. A gray mist hung low obscuring the neighborhoods and erasing street signs. The Honda was freezing, colder than the street outside, and Evelyn fiddled with heater knobs. She headed down toward Market Street where pedestrians lurched off sidewalks without warning like carnival surprises. The sky, occluded by the architecture, left the streets feeling airless and claustrophobic. She poked her fingers into her right temple, which was growing angry with hangover pain. Fighting with Libby didn’t help. A drink would help. She shooed the thought like a picnic pest.

One hand on the wheel, one eye on the road, she reached into her bag on the passenger seat and fished around for the Tylenol. Not there. She pictured herself placing the medicine on the bathroom counter after the fight with Libby. She tried to remember if she’d taken any of the pills. Likely not, given the pain in her temple.

She thought about the trellis of scars on her daughter’s lovely arm, her eyes simultaneously radiating guilt and accusation.  Evelyn had considered just letting Libby have what she wanted. Anything to be left alone with her pain. Her thoughts. Eden. Eden. Eden.  Instead, she’d tried to hold her ground.  Be some version of a good parent. The resulting fight had not been worth it. Anger rose in her chest when she thought about Libby intentionally choosing that moment for a confrontation. What did you expect? She’s angry. You drink. You lie. You sleepwalk (or whatever). She’s pissed off and you have no right to be surprised.  Probably it was only partly about going to the party Friday. It was also about Libby’s resentment of Richard. Libby detested him. Thought he was a player, whatever that meant. Libby had chosen to confront her in the bathroom this morning specifically because she knew Evelyn would be feeling awful. Hungover, sleep-deprived. Vulnerable to giving in.

So, she’d made a promise. Another one she wouldn’t keep. Shit. She told herself she’d genuinely forgotten about her evening commitments when she promised Libby they’d “talk about it” tonight. But it wasn’t true. A familiar pang of guilt hit, squeezing her gut into a tight ball. She shook her head as if she could dislodge the thought. What choice did she have but to make promises? Libby pushed her into corners all the time. She was practically a single mom. Doing the best she could. Are you? Doing your best? What did it mean that thinking about Libby sometimes made Evelyn feel far away as if she were floating high above the ground looking down upon the scene? Like a witness.

She’d had to practically shove Richard out the door. He’d been so nasty.  What had he said to her? Something awful. Something Libby had heard no doubt. There was a space in her head where memories seemed to be missing.  It happened like that. Was it getting worse? Maybe. Probably. It was like the tape recorder had run out of batteries and just lay dormant in her brain for a few hours until someone dug out the double A’s and replaced them. Then the recording started up again as if nothing unusual had happened. Often she found herself filling in the blanks: “I was home at ten,” or “Sure, the movie was great,” or “My car? I left it at the office. Too tired to drive home.” Not lies as much as best guesses.

The last thing she remembered was her anger at Richard for being such an asshole when she asked him to leave. Looking around the kitchen this morning, it appeared she’d finished off a second bottle of wine after he’d left. She’d gotten into the good vodka as well but had no idea how much she’d consumed.  It was after two in the morning when her brain resumed full operations. She knew this because she’d found herself standing in the kitchen, in the dark, leaning into the digital clock on the stove trying her best to interpret the numbers in the LCD. A two, a one and a five, in that order. 2:15 am. Fuck. Last she remembered, she’d swallowed a couple of sleeping pills and gone to bed. She wished she could recall what she’d said to Richard exactly. What he’d said to her. On second thought maybe the not remembering was better. He’d finally left but not without slamming the front door. For some reason she had this one isolated memory.

The whole day had collapsed after that goddamn phone call. A man’s voice. Eden. Please call me back. Important. He’d left a number. She’d stared at the phone in hand. Told herself it was nothing. Just as her finger hovered over the button to delete she’d changed her mind. Left the message there. Infecting her phone. Her life.

She’d woken up this morning with a head heavy from hangover and the weight of the phone message she’d never returned.

Carolyn’s small fingers dancing like butterflies across her scalp as she braids Evelyn’s hair. Mama hanging laundry from the sagging cord stretched between the house and the shed, her skirt flipping in the morning breeze…Carolyn on that last day…the man from social services carrying her past the sheets fluttering there on the line…his broad back, her flailing arms and legs, the soles of her shoes sticky with mud. Moving away and away… into the distance…into the glare of morning sunlight…until they both simply disappeared.