The Bones of Things-Prologue

PROLOGUE

Guangzhou, China

Three Years Ago

Li Jing stands holding a sheet of soggy cardboard over her head and looking down into the deep muddy ditch that separates the factory owned dormitory where she lives from the narrow road.  Overnight terrible rains have flooded the streets and water has overflowed the gutters and entered the lower levels of some of the sleeping quarters. A woman, soaked to the thighs, carries a green plastic basin back and forth from door to street bailing flood waters from the building.

In the grey and stinking water, garbage floats.  A young man she’s not seen before, pushes past suddenly, nearly knocking her into the filth of the street. He is carrying a rotting plank of wood and he lays it down upon the narrow strip of concrete outside one of the dormitory doors. He positions it perpendicular to the gutter and slanted across the flood waters as a makeshift bridge.  He returns to the building and a minute later he emerges wheeling an armless office chair which carries an older woman wrapped in blankets. Her head is bowed as if she is sleeping. As the man hurries past with his charge and Li Jing steps carefully away, she catches a glimpse of the woman’s face; shrunken and greyish beneath the cloth. She is so ill, Li Jing thinks.

The bus is late today, and everyone is tired and wet and irritable. The crowded dormitories are very cold, and the workers are forced to keep the windows closed to conserve heat in the winter. The humidity and stink of sweat and dirty bodies and cigarette smoke becomes overwhelming and nobody sleeps.

Still, thinks Li Jing, this is a good job. Doing inspections on an assembly line for an American company. The hours are long, and the factory is noisy and crowded but she is meticulous and careful and has earned respect from her bosses. Li Jing has health benefits and she is paid two dollars an hour, the minimum wage, most of which she sends home to the family she has not seen since her seventeenth birthday over one year ago.

The cardboard is now thoroughly water logged and has disintegrated nearly completely. She lets it fall to the gutter where she watches as it floats away in shreds and chunks beside a balled baby diaper and an empty shopping bag and clumps of weeds and mud. 

The rain falls in droplets the size of fat peas and she turns her smooth face to the sky.

The bus arrives at the factory before seven am and the workers disembark. Li Jing lockers her few possessions and quickly dons the badge and hair cap and covers her clothing with the white paper gown she is required to wear and takes her position on the line.

She will work twelve hours today and have thirty minutes for lunch. She does this six days a week.

Today is a difficult day.  She fears she might be getting ill. Her throat pains her when she swallows and there is a deep ache in her back. She thinks about the woman in the office chair. So many workers in her dorm have been sick recently and missing work means not being paid. She is distracted by worry.

She bows her head to her work.

The backpack she is inspecting is deep purple with black stitching. She examines the condition of the stitching on all sides of the pack inside and out. She checks the zipper and the zipper teeth, opening and closing it several times. This particular pack, however, has one additional pocket on the outside edge and that pocket has a zipper as well. Perhaps because Li Jing is exhausted or maybe because she is distracted by worry, or perhaps for no reason at all, she fails to detect the defective zipper closure on the little pocket on the outside edge of the pack.

She places her bright yellow approval sticker on the inside of the pack and sets it down on the conveyer belt and watches as it disappears around the edge of an enormous steel mechanism she’s never noticed before.

Bythe time an exhausted Ji Ling is on the bus headed back to the dormitory, , the deep purple backpack with the faulty zipper pocket will have been labeled and shrink-wrapped and boxed and crated.  She will be deep in a feverish sleep while it waits with a thousand others almost exactly like it. In a crate, on a dock beside a roiling black sea.   

Years later, long after the people in Guangzhou have ceased to talk about the terrible water sickness and have gone back to their work instead, a girl, not much younger than Li Jing, will discover the backpack. Dusty now and forgotten, marked on the inside by an uncapped ballpoint pen, it will sit undisturbed in the back of a secondhand store in the low rent section of a suburb just outside of Los Angeles California. On a low, narrow shelf, it sits beside a plastic Smurf toy and a stack of old phonebooks from places like Houston and Boca Raton. It is half covered by a pile of off-brand sweatshirts and miscellaneous T-shirts. The young girl will pull away one at a time, fearful of spiders but curious about what lies beneath.  She will pay just two dollars for the used backpack but, unlike Li Jing, she will take note of the broken zipper pocket. She will rationalize that it is a minor problem and will be easy to fix and, given the price, the pack is still an excellent deal. She’ll leave the store with every intention of fixing the broken zipper.

She never will.

FAST CAR

 

Her brother called me last night. He has this voice, like a radio jazzman. Low and round. Makes you feel like you’re swallowing it right through the phone.

“Valerie?” He says. “It’s Allen,” he tells me. I already know because, unlike me, my phone never forgets a name. “News isn’t good,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say.
“I’m not gossiping,” he tells me. “I just need to talk to someone.”

“Go ahead,” I tell him, feeling shitty for being curious.

The eggs are burning. I grab the rubber spatula from the ceramic crock next to the stove. It’s persimmon colored. The crock. That’s what the tag said. I bought it at Target for eight bucks to add a splash of color to the kitchen, but it just looks obnoxious. I flip the eggs. It’s too late. They’re brown and crusty underneath; flecks of charcoal sprinkled over top like pepper.

I do this. I get distracted thinking about yesterday or last week and forget all about what I’m doing. My husband says I do it driving. That’s why people honk, he says. I don’t think so.

I chuck the eggs in the trash and get the box of Cornflakes down from the cupboard. My son hates Cornflakes, (he says they taste like wet cardboard), and he will complain. I put the entire gallon of milk next to his cereal bowl. At least the cardboard won’t sit in milk for ten minutes while he pushes his hair around on top of his head. Apparently, there exists some secret requirement that 8th-grade boys must mold their hair into a specific set of gravity-defying geometrical angles before school each morning.

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I sip from my coffee cup and look out the window over the sink. The roses are coming. A bud here and there. Peeking pale white among the thorny greenery. I love the early season. Full of potential.

I wonder if she thought about that. Potential. I’m trying to remember back in the beginning how it had been. When we met. The soft, dewy part, early spring. Before the kids and the husbands. Before even earning a living. How did we manage? Loans, I guess. Parents. Yes, before we were the parents.

We are somewhere, but I’m not sure the name of the place. Gabrielle maybe, in New Orleans. It’ll be gone later, with Katrina, but we don’t know that in the 90’s. We’re at a table with a booth on one side and I’ve taken the booth. I like to sprawl a little, make sure my legs are on display, and I take up as much space as possible. Like a Macy’s mannequin. That’s how I am. She likes attention as well only she’s loud. That’s how she does it.

She’s talking and I’m not listening. It doesn’t matter because what she’s saying, it’s not for my benefit anyway. The restaurant wants to know about her. She’s leaning back in her bistro chair and waving her Virginia Slims-you could smoke then-and her blonde hair falls so far down her back pieces get tangled in the spirals of the chair. She’s wearing a ridiculous California style leather mini-skirt and those Come-Fuck-Me spikes I hate. She should look like a hooker. She does look like a hooker. But this is Gabrielle. It’s the 90’s. There’s a zillion-year-old woman directly behind her dressed like a goddamn nun, wearing diamonds and a fox fur. No shit. An actual honest-to-God fox fur.

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We’re not eating, although the food on our plates is supermodel food it’s so damn beautiful. We are, however, drinking. And drinking. Pretty much that’s what we do. That and be in love; with the world, with ourselves, with each other. We are high on it. We could lick our sweat and bathe in our own piss we love ourselves so goddamn much.

“Come on Mom. Gotta go,” says my son. He’s standing over me now, backpack slung over his shoulder.

“Sorry baby,” I say and collect up my coffee mug and put it in the sink. “Did you finish your cereal?” A useless question since I can look right at the bowl and see he did not.

“I’ll eat at school Mom. We have to go.” He’s already headed toward the garage.

I sigh to myself, mostly for effect, as I put the bowl full of cereal in the sink. The reality is I’m relieved he rushes off to school every morning. It makes me want to take out a classified ad, scream to the neighbors, call everyone I know: I HAVE A MIDDLE SCHOOLER WHO WILLINGLY GOES TO SCHOOL. I feel like I’ve accomplished something enormous. Like I’ve raised a Nobel laureate.

I’m easily amused.

The drive to school is short. I try not changing out of my PJ’s, but my son gives me a soft, “Uh, uh, are you, uh, gonna wear that mom?” I look in the mirror. The middle-aged homeless woman staring back at me needs to try harder. So, I try harder. I brush my hair. Slide into my fat jeans.

He’s out of the car. Like always, very quickly and then, abruptly, his movements slow. Like all the other boys. No racing to meet friends for these guys. Not anymore. Head kicked

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back, chin jutted forward, one thumb hooked in the jeans pocket, backpack slung easily over the shoulder and the dreadfully self-conscious casual stride. These guys are all so cool they don’t even have a bell schedule.

I flip on the radio and pull out of the parking lot behind a dozen other parents, all driving SUV’s, exactly like mine.

What about her kids? How old are they now anyway?

“Her kids,” Allen says. “I’m especially worried about the kids. You know I don’t think they know.”

“How can they not know?” I say.

“Well the older one, Matt, he’s away now. He joined the Navy and they’ve got him stationed somewhere. I think it’s the Middle East. I’m not sure.”

“Jesus,” I say.
“And, Kaitlin, she’s in high school but she’s not-”
“Not what?” I say. I’m feeling sick at this. Remembering the last time I saw little Katy.

There’d been something wrong. Her eyes. “She’s not right. Exactly.”

I turn up the radio. It’s classic country music. Sometimes I can’t tolerate the station. Not because I don’t like it but because of the memories. There’s a traffic jam on the narrow residential street that fronts the school. Nothing new but I have more trouble with it today. Banging my

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fingers on the steering wheel; mouthing curse words to myself, secretly hoping the driver in front of me will see them and be offended. Finally, for no reason at all, because I know that it will save no time and probably make things worse, I whip out of the line make a tight U-turn, wincing as my tires squeal and probably leave rubber streaks in the smooth asphalt behind me. Shit. Who am I?

I had planned on stopping at the grocery store but decide it’s safer to head straight home. In the garage, I turn off the engine and close the garage door. I can hear the dogs barking inside but I sit, unmoving.

I think again, what about her kids? Allen called me a year ago as well.

“Valerie? It’s Allen Lohman. I’m X’s brother. Do you remember me?”

“Sure, yes I do,” I tell him although at first, I’m not sure I do. I’m thinking he better not be calling me to sell me something because I’m busy and I hate the telephone anyway. Then I get a picture in my head. A tall man at X’s wedding. Thin, gaunt even. I wasn’t drinking then. So, I remember. “Yeah,” I say again. “How are you, Allen?”

We talk a bit, catching up. Although we were never really friends so it’s more like getting to know each other. Turns out he gave up booze about a year after me.

“I’m worried about X,” he tells me. “I don’t know who to talk to about it. Have you had any contact with her lately?”

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I feel embarrassed. Worse. Ashamed. I live less than an hour from her. “No,” I say. “Not in a few years.” I correct myself. “She’s called a few times. Drunk I think. Not making sense. Really late. But otherwise no.”

It’s not the whole truth.

“My family won’t listen. Everyone thinks she’s fine,” he tells me. I can hear this crack in his voice. Like my son trying not to cry. Allen must be near forty by now.

“What is it?” I ask. But I know.

“She’s maintenance drinking. I saw her a few weeks ago. Her hands shake. She can’t work without a drink. But she maintains you know.” He goes on, but I know the details. How it always goes. “Our sister died you know. And our mother.” I tell him I know. Pancreatitis. Bad. Alone. I was close to X then. I remember.

He wants something from me, but I don’t have anything. We are far apart. Me wrapped up tight in my house in California with my children and my dogs and my husband. Him, in another state and a different life, invisible from where I’m standing. He might as well be on the moon. And X? She’s been gone for years. From my life anyway. These terrible things he’s saying about X should make me feel something. There should be tears. But nothing comes. I’m safe now.

I tell him I’ll give her a call some time. Maybe check-in. I’ll try I think. I don’t.

It’s a long time when I push open the car door and step out into the garage. I only know it’s been a while by the cramp in the back of my legs. I shake them out a bit and make my way into the house. The dogs, (I have an outsized black lab named Meatloaf and undersized mutt

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chihuahua named Killer), rush me at the door and I have to brace myself against the wall to avoid falling. I crouch down and finally give it up and sit on the floor near the laundry room. I let them have a lick party on my face.

There’s this guy we know in L.A. He has a limo and drivers and coke. We have his number and whenever we want we just dial him, and he shows up. We’ve never tried calling him during the day but if we’re out, partying and we call, he shows up. Not him. His limo, with him inside, in the back. He’s not a big man. Maybe thirtysomething. Older than us. Always in black clothes. Black hair. Hard to make him out exactly. The limo is dark. Middle eastern I think. No accent. Sometimes there’s another guy with him, but never other girls. We can bring other girls if we want. We have this one married friend who comes along sometimes. We have to hide the limo around the block, so her husband doesn’t see, and she sneaks out to meet us. He’ll drive us around wherever we want. Just doing lines, getting wasted. Whatever. Sometimes he runs errands. I saw a gun once. I guess we don’t think about it.

I like coke. I like being awake. A lot more than smoking weed which always results in very long naps which generally put an end to the party. This guy, this friend of ours, he’ll give us coke all night. We drive to Hollywood. Up Sunset and the Walk of Fame. Check out the Frolic Room. We spend a lot of time in there. We like the way the red disc lights make our bodies glow and the drinks are seriously hard. He never goes inside. Just waits for us.

I’ve had a few more than necessary and I start dancing with some dude like sixty. X tells me to cut it out and drags me over to the bar and sits me down on one of the red leatherette stools. I whirl around and scream at her. Coke does that to me sometimes. Makes me

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mean. I tell her she’s not my fucking mother and then we’re just staring at each other kind of squeezed onto those stools up against the mirrored bar in the middle of the Frolic Room. We both twist our stools away from each other and then catch sight of ourselves in the mirrored back bar. We glow bright strawberry red under the lights. I try to open my eyes wider and straighten my face into something less fucked-up-looking but it’s useless. Suddenly we both start laughing like there’s an inside joke.

I push the dogs away and haul myself to a standing position. I should eat something, I think although I won’t. I’ll have more coffee. My fourth or fifth cup. I can’t remember.

That’s how we got along, I think. Loans. Parents. And the Blanche Dubois thing. We laughed about that.

I go in my study and settle down at my desk. There are three neatly stacked piles of papers waiting for me. Labeled: Bills; Current To Do; To Be Filed. These days I enjoy organizing. Probably to an obsessive degree but my vices are few, so I give myself permission to go to town on that one.

I flip open my computer and log on to Quicken. Numbers are good. They absorb me. I pull a stapled document off the top of one stack and unfold it. I click to open our checking account on Quicken. Hit reconcile and enter the balance from the bank statement. My mind immediately drifts.

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“Yeah someone is going to get talk to the kids I’m sure but it all happened so fast. So goddamn fast. I don’t know,” says Allen. “Oh, God. None of us knew,” says Allen. His voice sharper now. His tone escalating. “We all should have taken better care.” The words through the phone jagged and mean. Not something I’d want to swallow at all. I hold the phone away from my face. Swallow hard and bring it back. “Right?” he asks.

“Uh,” I say because I can’t come up with anything else. I feel my heart pound in my chest. I’m not liking this conversation. I’m being pulled into his pain. I stay away from this sort of thing. Does that make me a coward?

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “Unbelievable.” What is he talking about? I didn’t say anything.

“Allen,” I say. Whatever this verbal interaction is, it’s going to shit, and I’ve been trying to come up with a way to ask this question without sounding macabre. I figure I’ll just throw it all out there and ask. Fuck it. “How? I mean exactly how?” Once I say it, I realize it’s not something I need to know at all. Jesus, I think. It’s schadenfreude. My thoughts are zinging around inside my skull and he’s already started telling me.

The second time I get arrested, she’s with me. I know she feels bad about it. In the morning, when she picks up from jail, she keeps saying she should have been the one driving. Not because she was sober-she wasn’t-but because she’s a better drunk driver. That’s true. She keeps on about how many times she’s been pulled over and gotten away with it and how she can talk her way out of it and after a while, I’m just annoyed. It’s not going to help me now. Plus, I’m feeling pretty sick. It’s like that with me. I get hangovers. She doesn’t.

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The whole way back to our apartment she’s saying how it’s going to be fine and it’s no big deal and fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. But I’m not feeling it. Those blue lights and the two cops and my nearly naked butt on the cold cement waiting for another police unit to arrive because I was too loaded to even do the stupid drunk test; none of that felt like a joke. And I ask her if she knows police cars don’t have handles on the doors in the back? And when that bulletproof partition thing goes up you are pretty much locked inside a little tiny box. It’s like being buried alive and it freaked me out.

She says I’m being dramatic.

And spending the night in a cell with a girl limo driver who is drunk and pissed off and smells like puke, that sucks too. And, by the way, I tell her, that one phone call thing? That’s bullshit. If you’re wasted they can just shove you in a closet and ignore you. Apparently.

She tells me to calm down; what I need is a drink.

I spend the morning at my desk clearing out paperwork. I get a little writing done. Less than five hundred words. Around 11:30 I take a break and wander into the kitchen. Think about eating. Give it up. Open the drawer that holds the dog leashes and set to untangling them. For some reason, we’ve had trouble pitching the leashes that no longer fit our dogs. Despite my commitment to organization, this is one area in which I’ve failed badly. The result is a kitchen drawer crammed with enough dog paraphernalia to start a doggie daycare.

I finally locate the appropriate equipment, leash the dogs and head outside. The day is brilliant. Cool and sunny and crisp. Really perfect. I should do this more often, I think. It’s generally my husband’s job.

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My neighbor is outside in his garden as we pass by. He’s wearing thick gloves and waving enormous pruning shears. The garden is a hilly patch planted thickly with fruit trees and flowering plants. He’s old. Has one of those faces, so deeply creviced, his eyes nearly disappear when he smiles. He’s lived in his house all his adult life, he says. He hands out persimmons and lemons and sometimes pomegranates to the lucky passersby. “Hey ho,” he says and waves. “Nice out.”

“Yes sir,” I say. “Perfect day. How ya doing Max?”
“Oh good, good,” he says. “And all you?” He always asks about the whole family. “Terrific Max, thank you.”
He turns back to his work-Max is not one for long conversations- but adds. “Be sure and

pick up some lemons on your way back.” He gestures at the little basket he’s left down by his mailbox.

“I will, thank you. You have a good day.” He waves his shears up over his head.

I think about Max. He was alone when we moved into the neighborhood fifteen years ago. But his house is large and covered with the touch of a woman. A little embroidered sign in the kitchen window says: God Bless this House. The garden is scattered with miniature fairies molded from concrete and ancient turquoise gazing balls. On the front porch, two old rocking chairs each with a faded and dented calico pillow. He sits out there sometimes. Rocking. Always in the one on the left. I’ve never asked him. I’ve never seen children or grandchildren. Mostly he keeps to himself.

But maybe that’s our fault.

We turn right at the end of the block and head through an opening in the chicken wire fence allowing us access to a trail. In all the years we’ve lived in the neighborhood I’ve never

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been sure why there’s a fence here. It’s tipped over now, nearly touching the ground in some spots. Held up by six-foot posts of varying vintage. The land it fails to protect is private, but nobody has ever shooed me off its gorgeous trails or told me I couldn’t let Killer and Meatloaf happily pee among the eucalypti bushes and jasmine.

We walk along a while, the dogs zigging and zagging across the path. I see a little nest of bottle caps and cigarette butts a foot or two ahead and nudge the dogs away hoping to prevent them from swallowing any of it. I bend down and begin dropping the bits into one of the extra poop bags I carry. I always bring extra for just such a task, figuring this is the least I can do. A couple of cans, the tall ones, empty but sticky on the outside where the beer has congealed with the dusty terrain creating a sort of gluey brown muck. I stick my hand inside a plastic bag and use it as a glove to pick up the cans.

I’m reaching for a bit of trash further back, under the penstemon bush and meatloaf is nudging my elbow. Drooling a little. I’m pushing him away, but he isn’t giving up. I look at him. In his mouth, something soggy. I recoil. Lose my balance and land on my butt in the dust. “Fuck Meatloaf, what the fuck?” I say as if he’ll answer me or at least be sorry. He steps closer with the thing dangling from slurpy, foamy jaws. Cujo. He’s fucking Cujo.

I back away slowly, sort of slithering on my backside.
Oh God, Oh my God. There were kids out here partying.
“Meatloaf,” I say, trying to sound calm as if this will help him understand English. “Just

put it down, ok? Drop it. Drop it.” Meatloaf, in his entire life, has never obeyed a command other than “Come get your dinner.” He stares at me, drooling, the horrible thing hanging from his mouth. He takes a step toward me.

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Killer is behind me, popping up and down, making these ear-splitting yeep-yeep-yeep noises. I think seriously about thwacking her right out of mid-air. I do not.

“Cujo,” I say and correct myself. “Meatloaf! Drop it.” He suddenly bounds forward-a thing I have rarely seen him do-and drops the THING in my lap. I scream. Jump up and back up several feet.

I know what the THING is. Oh my God. I know.

Meatloaf was still a puppy, maybe eighteen months old, when he brought us a hunk of deer. We found the rest of the animal, dead by SUV for sure, up on the highway behind our house. It’s what retrievers do. It’s a gift.

I’m peering down at the slobbery thing on the ground. Covered with mud and dry leaves. Whitish blue. About the size of a small foot. Yeah, I decide, that’s what it is. A human foot. I can see the toes defined and sticking out with mud between them.

I taste vomit in my mouth.

I yank at the dogs’ leashes and we get back down the trail and out past the fence and up the street and back home as fast as our ten legs can carry us.

We’re going to die. It’s too dark. We’re on Kanan Dume between the beach and god knows where. Some guy is having a party. The fog has dropped thick as goose down. I’ve got my feet braced up on the dash like maybe that will save me in a crash. My stockings are torn at the toes. Rips running up my shins, like scars. When did that happen? I think randomly. I’m not wearing shoes.

“Jesus,” I say. “We should stop.”

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“Stop what?” She laughs, kicks her head back. “Stop tripping? Too late baby.” She’s not looking at the road. Dashboard light on the skin stretching over her clavicles. Up one jagged shoulder. She’s too thin. I’m going to throw up. She’s going too fast. I hate Kanan Dume.

“I mean it, I say.” You can’t see a fucking thing. She tells me to shut up, it’s not a problem and we’ll be there in like five minutes.

“You’re just tripping,” she says. “Seriously. You’ll be fine. Close your eyes.” I don’t.

She’s right. We’re both tripping. But I’ve done shrooms before. I don’t like it when she talks to me like I’m twelve. “Fuck that,” I say. But I have no follow up.

She tells me to quit being such a baby. “You gotta see this guy’s place,” she says. “You’re gonna love it, Val. He’s got a fucking pool on the roof. You can see all the way downtown. The lights baby, you can see the lights.”

I’m staring at her mouth, not moving as the words come out. A torn black hole in the middle of her face. It terrifies me. I close my eyes.

There’s a concrete divider and we’re on it. Inches. I can’t breathe and she’s laughing. Screaming almost. I close my eyes and I’m trying to think how to pray. I’ve never done it, so I make it up. Like dear God don’t let me die right now. I’m not ready. I’m fucked up. I don’t want to be dead right now. Or if I have to be dead make it not hurt please.

I’m blowing air out of my mouth in quick little hoots. Hyper ventilating noisily, I guess. Because she looks at me. I’m clutching at my seat and hunched forward. I look up at her. Barely.

Jesus Christ, she says. Whatever. She slows down
She tells me I’m not her fucking Mama. Then laughs. Just kidding, she says. Inside joke.

The cops don’t find a body. Nothing more. The foot? Not a foot. Weenie roast.

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“Package of Oscar Meyers, still in plastic. Guess that’s why old Spot there couldn’t just eat ‘em up.” The heavy-set officer tells us cheerfully. I am annoyed that he’s having such a good time. Also, that he’s addressing his comments to my husband. I’m thinking about telling him the fucking dog is named Cujo, not Spot. “Folks go out there with those little whatchacallits?” he says. “George Foreman’s?” He smiles. I think it’s at himself for recalling the name.

My husband is a patient man. After the cops leave, he makes me tea and tells my son it would be better to “let mom have some alone time right now.” He sits beside me on the little loveseat in my study and watches me sip tea and says, not for the first time, perhaps I might see someone. I don’t tell him about the call from X’s brother.

She’s calling me. I check my phone. We both have families now. Kids. Things are different for both of us. It’s probably 3 am wherever she’s living. It’s been a long time and it’s too weird an hour, so I worry. I answer.

“X? Is that you?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she’s breathing into the phone and I know immediately. “God,” I say. “What the hell? Are you ok?”

She says she’s fine. Totally, she says. Sorry, she scared me. Just wanted to say hi. She misses me. Don’t I remember? Yeah, I say I do remember.

She talks for a while. Makes plans. Promises things. It’s nice. Even though I know she’s drunk. I think maybe she’ll do it. She’ll come visit like she says. She has ideas. Good ones. That’s how she is. So smart. Funny. I feel something in my stomach.

“Where are you,” I ask her

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“You don’t want to know,” she says, and I can hear she’s smiling. But she’s right I don’t want to know. Not now.

We say goodbye and I’m standing on an edge. I take the coward’s way and step back from her. I can’t do it again, I think. I can’t love her. Next time, I know I won’t answer.

“It was her husband,” says Allen.

“Her husband what?” I ask but I really don’t want to know this part. I just don’t know how to stop it.

“He found her.”
“Shit.”
“She’d been in the hospital. Did you know that?”
I shake my head into the phone. Not thinking that he can’t see. But I guess he can.

because he says, “Yeah, right, of course, you didn’t. You said that. You haven’t had contact with her in, how long did you say?”

“Three years,” I lie.

She’s calling again. I don’t answer. It’s happening more and more. This week almost every day. I tell myself it’s ok. She’s a drunk. Just like me. Only it’s been almost twenty years since I quit, and X doesn’t want to quit. It would different if she wanted my help. That’s what I keep saying.

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Now she’s texting. Friday night. I don’t know where she is now. Probably out east somewhere. Maybe it’s 2 am in her city. That’s what I heard anyway.

I pick up my phone and switch on the bedside lamp. Cryptic messages. Poems; songs we loved once. One or two words I guess I’m supposed to decode.

The phone buzzes.

City lights lay out before us…

A pause then:

I got a plan to get us outta here…

This is coming from an unfamiliar number. A strange area code. But I know it’s X. The only person in the world who would send me those lines. I shut down the phone; keep my thumb on the off slider so long it starts to hurt. No more.

“Yeah,” says Allen. “In and out of the hospital last six months I guess. They told people different things. Female troubles, whatever.” No way I think. Not X. She didn’t have troubles. Didn’t believe in them.

Checked herself out AMA last time. Just went home. Said she was fine. He went away a few days on a business trip.”

“Who?” I ask. Stupid question.

“Her husband. You know how he travels.” A pause. “I mean, he still travels, like he did, a few years ago.” We’re both embarrassed over my failure. “Anyway, he was gone about a week. Found her when he came home.” It Sounds as if he’s moved the phone away from his mouth.

“You still there?”

Schwartz / Short Story / 18

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just really awful Val.” Why is he calling me Val? She called me that, but I don’t know him. “She’d been dead for a while.”

I squeeze my eyes shut. I do not want to know this. I send him mental telepathy willing him to stop talking.

He keeps going.
“In their attic. They’re out in Nashville now. They were, I mean. I forgot to tell you. I

mean I didn’t know till I heard.” His thoughts are fragmenting. This whole conversation disappearing into the ether and he keeps talking. Nobody knows…doing up there. Going through…photos…empty whiskey bottles…That’s what they think.

Stop it. Stop it. I lay the phone down on the bed next to me, but I can still hear his voice. That round voice carries. I pick it up.

“Some idiot …kind of animal trap. Oh, Jesus, I don’t know.” And like that, I see it. As clearly portrayed as if I were watching a high definition replay on my husband’s widescreen television right now.

“Rattrap,” Allen says. “She caught her foot in it.”
I’ve stopped breathing. I know the rest. I’m watching it happen.
“They found her up there. She’d been dead maybe three days. Lost too much blood, I

guess.”
“Three days.” It’s a statement, not a question.
“She passed out Val. Too drunk to call for help maybe. Fridays were always bad for her. I

got terrible drunk texts on Fridays.”
Me too. Oh shit, me too. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh my God. Me too.

Schwartz / Short Story / 19

My son is waiting in the car and I am still not ready to go. It’s been a slow morning. I am in the downstairs bathroom staring at myself in the mirror. I’ve discovered if you stare long enough-I suppose ‘long enough’ varies from person to person-your face starts to break down into its component parts: nose, chin, eyes, lips, forehead. And then further: left eye, bridge of the nose, right eyebrow, upper lip, freckle on right temple. Pretty soon your face is no longer a face. It’s an infinite series. A succession of smaller and smaller parts, which never lead to a core. Never tell you who you are.

X is dead.

What sort of person does that? What sort of person turns off the phone and lets someone die? I look in the mirror at my dry eyes. Left eye, then right.

You, I think. You.

My son blows the horn. On a normal morning, I would say something snarky to him. Tell him he’d be walking to school for the rest of his life if he did that again. Today, I ignore it. Climb into the driver’s seat, turn on the ignition and open the garage.

Before I pull out, I look over at him. He’s a beautiful boy. Long muscled, fine-boned, streaky blonde hair and one of those elongated foreheads that make men look as if they are thinking serious thoughts all the time. He looks up from his phone. Crinkles his brow. “Mom what?”

“Nothing,” I say. “It’s ok.” I smile at him and reach one finger out to touch his ear.

“So, I was thinking,” he says. I can hear it in his voice. A boy with a glimmering secret in the palm of his hand. “There’s this party on Friday at Jamie’s and I…”

I smile to myself.

Schwartz / Short Story / 20

All the way to school, my baby boy talks to me about child things and grown-up things and sweet teenage things. When he gets out of the car, I watch him do his coolest cool boy all the way across the quad. I don’t drive away until I can no longer see him.

I’m parked on a leafy side street not far from the school. I think about the things in my life that are true and the things I wish so badly were not.

The memorial will be next week sometime, Allen had said. Will you come, he’d wanted to know.

I’ll try, I told him.
I think about that word. Try. Try to be a friend. Try to call. Try to love. Try to forget. Try

to stop.
I wrap my arms around the steering wheel and let my head sink down onto the back of

my hands. The sun warms my left arm and I concentrate on the way it makes my skin prickle. After a long while, I sit up, turning slightly so that I can hold my face to the light.

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.

 

 

For D. on the Occasion of her Graduation

For D. on the Occasion of her Graduation
06/17/2017

The day was ours
The sun it shone
We were young
I borrowed you

Your baby arms
Your silk white hair
Your pale eyes
I borrowed you

Your skin like cake
Your heart of pink
Your tiny jeans
I borrowed you

Your chubby feet
I saw your soul
Inside your toes
I borrowed you

Your radiance
Soprano laugh
Butterfly mouth
I borrowed you

Evening came
I let you go
You took my heart
Away with you

Now you’ve grown
A woman stands
Reminding us
We borrowed you

Thank you sweet
For all you are
My love is yours
Forever more.

Hat

 You were wearing this hat that made you look like a kid.

Your car keys hung round your neck on a child’s lanyard.

It was dark and you stood with one black boot

pointed at the door, telling me that you were going and

don’t worry and you’d be back, later.

It’s raining I said.

No you told me.

It’s only wet.

Please I said.

What you asked.

Drive slow I answered.

Willing myself not to make a big deal

because we had been getting along so well.

You laughed and rolled your brown eyes.

The door slammed and I never got to say,

“I love you,” and the whole night,

I knew it would never be the same again.

Scissors

A laugh with the boys
Ribs getting a poke
A run round the place
She can’t take a joke

He always said
He don’t like short hair
Why the hell would she cut it
She’s puttin on airs

His words she keep saying
do nothin’ but cut
like a serrated scissors
just tear up her gut

A night on the town
A punch in the eye
A belly full of rum
ten or twelve lies

He touches her hand
She pulls it back through
The filthy brown glass
of the Ford ’92

His words she keep saying
do nothin’ but cut
like a serrated scissors
just tear up her gut

“You aint leaving” he screams
through the passenger side
and he pounds on the hood
Till there’s blood on the drive

“I aint scared” she screams back
looking up at the sky
Prays theres a God
to cover her lie.

His words she keep saying
do nothin’ but cut
like a serrated scissors
just tear up her gut

“Please” he is begging
in a quieter tone
“I can’t do it myself
I can’t do it alone.”

Now she is tired
No words left to say,
Sadly she smiles
and just drives away.

And all that he said
did nothing but cut
like a serrated scissors
aimed straight at his gut.

Blood from old wounds
stains Valentine red.
With her hand on his heart
He’ll soon lay down dead.