summer 2012

“Oh, not this now.”

He paused to fasten the collar button of his new Barbour jacket.

“It’s snowing!” she shrieked.

“Did you like the drawings? I’m not sure you liked them!” he called chasing after her as she scampered down the museum steps.

On the sidewalk he wanted to talk about the drawings. “I thought some were magnificent, didn’t you?”

She was twirling and sticking her tongue out, intent on catching flakes.

“Don’t eat the snow,” he said.

Thank goodness no one knew he was out with this nitwit again.

“They’re strangers, bud, strangers,” Becca warned when he confessed to her over a hamburger lunch one day that he had succumbed. He’d better learn to toughen up to the plague of disappointments that come with online dating. Oh boy. She could see it was wearing him down already. And what about the whackos? There were certainly enough of them, dear Lord, “and let’s not even go into the subject of diseases, shall we?”

Becca, pal of pals, my bestest friend, do the math. He was running out of time.

Someone new and sultry had posted Istanbul on her list of favorites. Istanbul, where he had quite an experience with that one-handed cute Australian girl, wee haw! It practically catapulted him into the Bosphorus!

But in an attempt to pussyfoot out of the office early to meet her, curious and optimistic as a dog, he ran into Becca pacing back and forth in her cherry high heels along the bank of elevators.

“Don’t forget to tell her you’re not Jewish,” she said.

The last cab in the line-up drove off as she pulled from her coat pocket the sad pilled corpse of a pink knitted hat.

“Let’s walk back through the park! Oh, yeah!”

“I wouldn’t,” he said in a tone he hoped would stifle the obnoxious enthusiasm.

“Why?”

He gazed past her standing there in the ridiculous hat to almost zero visibility.

Genevieve, we’re in the midst of a blizzard. We may never emerge.”

She was married once and briefly to a David, a small potatoes kind of guy – copy-cat writer, refused to clip his toenails – who ended up leaving a goodbye note on the bed after she mooned the night before as they lay under the new duvet and imaginary stars, “Now, all we need is a child!”

He moved to Brooklyn and had twins with someone else not long after.

“You know,” she began to say as they passed the ghostly silhouettes of apparatus in an abandoned playground, “I’m not sure if this was such a good idea. The insides of my boots are wet, it’s really coming down, and I just don’t think…”

“Genevieve!” he hollered, the vapor of his breath spewing forth like a dragon, “it was you who wanted to do this! It’s too late to turn back now!”

It was only a month ago that the sun was shining after his class at the League and afterwards, on this very path, he put his hopes in the slim black coat walking ahead of him.

She hit the ground after slipping on some ice. “Ouch!” “Are you alright? he asked after rushing forth. Some snow was pressed to the back of her.

“Absolutely.”

Leaping on to the absolutely as if it were a great white steed, he suggested she regain her composure on a nearby bench.

“Deirdre? What a pretty name, Deirdre. There was a lovely Deirdre years ago up at college. Her mother was not too bad-looking either if I might add, and her father was one of those ruddy-complexioned stout mugs of beer, you know. He owned the Chevy dealership in town and gave a new one to the dean every year. Yes, Deirdre. Hmm. Whatever happened to Deirdre?”

After half an hour of this kind of encouraging chat, he persuaded her to meet him for coffee, on him of course, the next day.

Not only did she show up late, but had in tow two idiots so the four of them squeezed around the table he had chosen just for two. The sleeve of his nicest sport jacket kept bumping up against the bare tattooed arm of the man who would metamorphose into a cannibal whenever a young female of a certain type passed by. His companion didn’t mind. She kept talking in circles about someone named Grill while smashing her knife into what remained of her Klimt torte, in spite of disapproving glances from the waiters.

“I can’t stand it anymore! My feet are soaked! Find a bench! Find a bench!”

“There are no benches, Genevieve. The snow has wiped them out. We need to keep moving.”

They kept at it with his good cashmere scarf wrapped around her head as they struggled arm in arm, their bodies bent against the ferocious wailing wind.

“I can’t! The wind! I can’t breathe! I can’t take it! Stop the wind!”

He thought he might have to carry her until they came upon the frozen shelter of a foot tunnel where as soon as they entered a rat scurried away. She sat down against a wall that stunk of pee.

Reluctantly, very reluctantly, he sat down beside her. The acrid odor stung his nostrils. She leaned her body against him and he wondered in the melancholy of self-hatred how he ever got himself involved with this one.

While shivering, she began to clue him in to what it was like to grow up on Park Avenue as the only lonely child of a big shot father and his fourth wife, her mother, who was always reading newspapers rather than spend time with her. Although she managed to find time to scoot off to the south of France one winter to be in a movie with Catherine Deneuve.

Her father, a philanderer if there ever was one, wore garish expensive suits which were way too much style for such a little man.

She despised them both, these rich hillbillies, for letting her grow up hollow.

A stronger man could have pulled her out from the avalanche of their raging narcissism but that putz ex-husband of hers couldn’t.

“Was it a superiority-inferiority complex, or an inferiority-superiority complex?”

“Who your father,” he asked. “No, my husband,” she said.

Yeah, he agreed, what a putz.

By morning, a record-breaking snowfall had blanketed the city. A sanitation worked plowing a path near Seventy-Second Street found two people under a sweep of pines, entwined and frozen to death.

Denise Falcone

There’s something vaudevillian
about a polling place—

something queer: voters shrouded
in booths except for their shins:

Wizards of Oz conjuring politicians
via levers and buttons:

pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!
The Republic’s illusionists

whose legerdemain makes incumbents
                    disappear.

Joseph Dorazio

Ancestral spirits waver above the most abstracted woman in the room. She is pretty in the way of peasant girls painted by the pre-Raphaelites. An ideologue is speaking to her about his “powerful impact on the Brooklyn political scene.” Listening, the abstracted woman silently revises his sentences in the manner of her laptop offering predictive text: “did you mean fictional impact?” His chin juts uncomfortably close to her left tit. On the table beside her prepared foods give off discordant odors while snatches of conversation wash around her. “We should go out some night after work.” “Did you hear? He transferred to the Singapore office.” “There’s plenty of vodka.” A tide of menace flows in and out of the room with each of the hostess’s entrances and exits; she describes herself as “accomplished.” Evading the hostess, sipping sweet wine, the most abstracted woman in the room wonders what her great great grandmother felt when first arriving in New York. And did her hair smell of the sea? The woman lifts a hand to touch her own hair, soft and hazy about her face. She wonders, briefly and a little sadly, when her heart will next swell with overwhelming emotion.

Glancing across the room, the abstracted woman, Hester is her name, finds her attention snagged by a tall man standing beside a woman who is petite and precise and wearing a critical smile. The man throws Hester a meaningful look she can’t quite interpret — did they meet here before? (This is the second time she has attended this annual Thanksgiving party.) Hastily, she returns her attention to the Brooklyn ideologue. He is saying: “… and presumably the city council has veto power.” There is some kind of abnormal passion in this man’s strangely pale eyes; he frightens Hester and bores her at the same time. All at once the man from across the room is standing beside her, dipping a single shrimp into red cocktail sauce. When he smiles, peering into her eyes, she sees ocean blue. A distant, circling fin appears on the dark waters of her memory. Squinting she says, “Have we met some—?”

“Years ago.”

Briefly the feeling behind his eyes intensifies. He lifts the dripping, fetal-curled shrimp to his lips, consumes it, then turns and returns to the others across the room. Swirling the wine in her glass, inhaling its warm scent, a memory surfaces: she fooled around with him once. Reddening, Hester nevertheless glances back across the room at him (at Jason, she reminds herself of his name) and now he is nodding his head, commiserating with the hostess, while the small, precise woman beside him is staring directly at Hester. In a brilliantly swift perusal, Hester assesses the woman, notes her “tasteful” neckline, her slender wedding band, the possessive and presumably cool hand she places on her husband’s arm. Just then Jason glances down at his wife and smiles in a way that appears forced. He has changed, Hester thinks: unexpectedly gaunt now and somehow slowed-down. Yet he retains an echo of laughter in his oh so beautiful eyes.  

At that moment, a former colleague bursts into her reverie with talk of sudden, ecstatic departure from a Hell’s Kitchen walkup and, gratefully, Hester rejoices in her friend’s exciting news. Nearly an hour after this, it is time to say goodnight, to wish the hostess well. Hester’s gaze sweeps the room but she does not see Jason, her former…

Partner? Friend? Acquaintance? The subway is strangely crowded and, leaning against the door as the train speeds through the dark, Hester wonders: Who was I then? Glancing around at the other subway riders, noticing only the guys, she feels excitement, dormant yet familiar, spike within her. Outside again, she walks through a chilly, splattering rain. Entering the apartment, she watches her husband’s cat sidle along the wall. Hester stamps her boots, removes her wet coat. The foyer painting, an abstract cliché in yellow and blue, hangs crookedly but she doesn’t notice; she’s still high from the glasses of wine, the sighting of Jason, the oddly provocative subway ride home. She greets Dan with a brief, though real kiss; his mouth tastes familiarly sour, as if he’s been puttering about the place without speaking for hours. (He has.)

“Was it fun?”

“A little.” She smiles, an unconscious mimicry of her husband’s habitually “wry” expression.  “Saw a friend—”

“A friend?”

Briefly, Hester’s pulse speeds. “I don’t think you ever met her. She and I worked together before we met. She just moved out of the city and seems happier.” As Hester speaks, the look of interest on her husband’s face continues; in fact, he appears enthralled by her and she preens so very much like his cat. As her spirits rise, her face tilts gracefully within this light-without-being-too-bright room, which is unmistakably that of a couple who still have no children. It has all the signs: a laptop sleeps on an open desk; books, CDs and DVDs alphabetically line shelves; “art” not only hangs on walls but sits on tabletops; and two recliners are placed diagonally within conversational range.

“So how did your day go?” Hester’s face is most appealing when registering concern. She sinks into the plush comfort of her chair.

“Okay. Got some stuff done.”

“Were you at the studio all day?”

“Umhmm. It was very, very busy.”  

His martyred tone works as a Pavlovian bell within Hester’s psyche. She responds in the same way each and every time she hears this note in his voice: she stiffens. “It’s great so many people request custom jobs.”

“Even when those jobs keep me from my real work?” He gestures expressively, his strong and callused hands vaguely threatening, he is a potter who refers to himself as a “ceramic artist.” He earns a living by teaching as well as making custom bowls and large, elaborate serving dishes, as well as the occasional complete dinner set. Sometimes one of his pieces will appear in a group show at a gallery in Brooklyn (as opposed to one of the galleries on Fifty Seventh Street, where he’d really like to see his masterfully-glazed craftwork exhibited).

Avoiding his eyes, Hester says, “But you like the income.” She is breathing shallowly, sitting unnaturally tall; deep within, somewhere close to her heart, unknown muscles constrict. She knows all too well that he would like to give up the teaching and commercial work—the parts of his occupation that pay. Poised, waiting, Hester remains motionless yet her eyes move around the snug home they have created together. In Hester’s mind, his oblique complaints raise a fist against this: her hard-earned comfort. Dan would like her to support them both. Although she earns a decent salary as a pharmacist, her paycheck is not exorbitant, and she fears, even dreads carrying the entire financial burden for the two of them.

Taut silence follows another of his sighs.

Then Dan mentions an article discovered on the web. He quotes, “In 2009 China had the second-largest economy in the world. Yet in per capita terms the country is still lower middle-income.”

Hester nods her head, wondering once again at his fascination with statistical China, pleased with his perverse interests since it seems to distract him from his discontent.

“And how will they register on the world economy when the average person in China is living at a middle-income level?” He says as if offering a challenge. Hester merely smiles, she has no intention of arguing… why would she rise to such unappetizing bait? Minutes later, she is laughing easily at his story of an averted kiln disaster. As they ready themselves for bed, she is humming some snatch of familiar melody she can’t quite place. Their sex is a hurdle routinely but barely cleared; nevertheless closed-eyed intimacy is achieved and along the way Hester recalls the tune (if not the lyric) she’d just been humming — an old pop-song, ever-present in the bodegas, the gym, she’d hear it in the street on her way to and from the subway around the time of her hook-up with Jason. 

Afterward, as she twists her nightgown back into place, she is thinking: But what are the words? Hester senses Dan also awake, but continues to feign sleep. A carousel of memories revolves in her mind; of all the painted, prancing ponies, Jason most persistently returns to view. Seeing him, remembering him there at the party, an unexpected jolt shoots through her. (“I’m like a bird, I’ll only fly away, I don’t know where my soul is, I don’t know where my home is,” the forgotten lyric fills her head.) Yet now she feels a pang of remorse recalling the period of her life in which she met him. Her time of sine wave libido, when promiscuity and celibacy alternated like a current during the three years following her thirtieth birthday. 

Her twenties had been demarcated by distinct boyfriends, only randomly satisfying relationships that sustained her in conventional ways: Saturday nights occupied together, birthdays and holidays shared, friends and families introduced then entertained. Each ended once the boyfriend began discussing marriage, breaking the spell of Hester’s vague dissatisfaction. Each time she unpredictably revolted, bolting as soon as “forever” came into view.

In fact, she most definitely wanted to be married but first she wanted love. Love: an obscure, unscientific notion yet also the drum beating her heart. And with this thought, came others; that love-making constituted more than either discontent or bedroom commandeering… didn’t marriage mean everything finally came together for once and worked? (Even in her thoughts Hester adhered to euphemisms.) And wasn’t she still discovering how to do that—make things work?

Although she had hoped to be married by then, on her thirtieth birthday she remained alone. Months before this crucial birth date, she’d once again failed to agreeably agree during a discussion of marriage, in this case one inspired by her boyfriend’s impending transfer to a new job, a new city. She couldn’t help it, she had misgivings about him. Her wannabe fiancé sometimes interrupted her when she spoke, corrected her in conversations among friends. But worst of all, when he touched her, she clenched. She’d lie in bed thinking of all the women’s magazine articles she’d ever read and feel inferior. Frustrated. After Hester rejected his offer of marriage, he left town hurling a single insult behind him: “You think you’re nice. But deep down you’re a cold bitch.” 

Hearing his words, something shriveled inside her. Unwilling to repeat this scenario with another guy, she more or less gave up. But giving up did not look like what she imagined. She’d go for months alone, gradually becoming more and more depressed, and then she’d burst out, get drunk and fall into bed with some stranger. Unafraid, she’d go try someone else. Disgusted by her own behavior, she’d withdraw again into celibacy until another outburst occurred. 

And then on a Thursday night this changed:

Having stayed late at work, Hester walked the few blocks west to Hudson Yards and drank a round with her co-workers. A tall guy, lit within a constellation of his own colleagues, smiled when she happened to look over at him. As she left, squeezing past sodden regulars, he followed her outside and offered to buy her a drink. A single pinpoint star within a sliver of dark sky showed beyond his right shoulder. She suggested they take a walk instead. Companionably, they strolled toward the Hudson and looked out across it, listening to its gurgling waves, inhaling its sea scent underscored by decay. They came to a pause beside Intrepid.  Never had anyone kissed Hester like this; sensation tingled throughout her body. Un-drunk yet confused by all the new that was happening, she had no thought, no worries. And then, releasing her, Jason confessed to living with someone, a girlfriend he’d dated for years. “I’ll leave her for you,” he said before he disappeared into the now dark night.

The next day, noon temperatures survived into the evening and Hester decided to walk home from her garment district office to her concise apartment near Lincoln Center. On Eighth Avenue, she waited on a corner for the light to change. Her head overflowed with memories of Jason; she believed she could still smell his cologne, feel his warm exhalations against her face. There on the corner, a woman of the streets leaned into the open window of a car with Connecticut plates. A masculine shout came from inside the vehicle, an unusual and vociferous refusal: “You’re immoral!” The car lurched forward with a squeal and the woman stumbled; falling backward, she landed at Hester’s feet, knocking a garbage can onto the sidewalk. With a “fuckin’ jackass,” the woman picked herself up and unceremoniously straightened her tits in the small harness-like halter top she wore. Coolly she approached another car, glancing back at Hester, who still stood among the trash, self-consciously pulling down the hem of her own skirt. Her eyes, Hester thought, appear no more hard, no more depraved than my own. 

In that moment within dusk’s fading light, something inside her shifted. Hester felt strong and sudden remorse; she needed to stop her compulsive search and simply stay put with one solitary guy. She needed to make things work. Arriving home, she pulled Jason’s card from her purse. Memories of his kisses overruled her reason but then the cascading doubts—about his sincerity, about competing with another woman—tripped her up.  She ripped up the card. When he called her a week later, she told him she was dating someone else now and turned off her phone without saying goodbye. 

The fact is, in the interim, a married friend had proposed a blind date for her and she had unwillingly agreed. Although she’d found their first date awkward, refusing a second seemed impossible; Hester feared her well-meaning friend would be offended (judgmental) if she so quickly brushed him off. So she dated Dan again and once more after that, not particularly caring for the way he bit off his words, the way his eyes moved across her body, the way he kissed. And then she didn’t say “no” to another date and this time they slept together and she allowed him to satisfy her with earnest and prolonged effort and it held none of the excitement of kissing Jason but it was… functional, she said in the euphemistic language of a former roommate (a Biologist). 

Time passed, she continued to date Dan and although still uncertain, Hester felt herself to be in too far to end things diplomatically; wouldn’t her friends thing her too picky—too full of herself? Besides, had trying to meet guys ever been enjoyable? “No relationship is perfect,” she repeated, unconsciously mimicking her mother’s voice for the Biologist. Deep down she knew she just couldn’t be out there searching again. Now she knew exactly what it looked like: drunk sex with random guys. Bile rose in her throat at the memories.

And so she married Dan, beneath her veil her eyes as wide as those of a muzzled dog, and then she sank into comfortable, if never passionate coupledom with him. Each morning she woke first. She would remain in the shower for an unusually long time, scrubbing her skin with exfoliating soaps then rush to her job where she buried her disappointments in work. She and Dan liked the same movies and food. Sometimes he brought home African daisies, placing them in a favorite vase beside his own chair. 

After re-meeting Jason at the holiday party, Hester has been overly quiet for a few days running (as she is from time to time). And as he does from time to time, Dan cautiously questions her, he is a bloodhound on the trail. Nevertheless, a shadow continues to darken the space between them and now Dan has become disagreeable, disparaging the spices she chose for the twin omelets she has cooked for their supper. Wanting to avoid a fight, Hester repeats a joke overheard at work. Something in Dan’s face goes tight as it does whenever sex is mentioned. Hester backtracks:

“It’s not about us. We aren’t like the couple in the joke.”

“From what you’ve told me, you were once quite the slut.”

Stung, Hester turns from him and faces the wall, which is smooth and blank and white, the vision of the perfect past she believes he believes she ought to possess. Instinctively (unconsciously wishing to hurt him back, make him think), she puts words to the ill-formed thoughts in her head: “At least I was honest then, back when I was a slut.”

“And you’re lying now?” Peering into her face, his hazel eyes narrow and silently Hester makes an unfortunate comparison to Jason’s laughing gaze. “You’d never abandon this,” he gestures awkwardly all around, “and all your familiar routines. You think there’s no honesty in comfort?” He moves from the room with unhesitating step and Hester thinks how transparent he has become to her: she knows he’s hurt by the discordant sound of his steps. It is only when they are getting ready for bed — she has emerged from the steam of the bathroom, her skin moist with lotions, she wears her usual abstracted look when she is thinking too much about herself— he says, “I can think of so many worse ways to live than the way we do.”

“What?” she says before understanding she has in fact heard what he said. Distinctly, she heard his words.

Patiently, with great effort, he tries again to reach her: “Our life together may not be perfect, but I can think of worse. And I know you can, too.”

She is silent as the verbs line up in her mind. “You don’t understand me. ‘Think’ is exactly what I don’t want to do.”

“But that’s what you always do.” He smiles at her in his ironic way and within his smile she sees his patient love, his effort, his need, and recognizing these traits in him she feels them in herself and this is enough to close this discussion and prevent her from voicing what is in her mind: I can’t help thinking all the time — it’s because I feel wrong all the time.

***

Three years pass. Once again, Hester attends the Thanksgiving party in which a forgotten apparition from her past briefly appeared (eating shrimp) then swiftly vanished. Wearing a modest charcoal-colored dress, the hostess, who had canceled last year’s party due to a brief, though triumphant encounter with one of the milder forms of cancer, welcomes Hester with a most sincere smile. And perhaps because of this, this annual reunion of acquaintances surrounding the accomplished hostess has begun to feel truly neighborly. Warm. Oh, yes, hello, how are you! Once again here is the political ideologue from Brooklyn, and there, right over there is Hester’s former colleague. Each has changed, greatly or ever so slightly, just as in the passage of time Hester has changed, too. 

In fact Hester has transformed in a significant and substantial way; unexpectedly, for she is far too young for what has happened, her body has hurled itself into early menopause. So what had been a theoretical half-decision meant to be considered more deeply at some later date—to not yet have a child of her own—has suddenly and irrevocably become an accomplished fact. The signs of this change, this new detail of her singular, mortal life, are at once everywhere and nowhere apparent. She maintains her slim dress size, her hair is no more and no less brown, and her moist skin continues to glow. Still, there is a new and peculiar cast to her eyes, a previously unseen expression to her face that seems most obvious at dusk when the sky begins its daily shift from cerulean to indigo. During that perplexing, uncertain hour, Hester’s imploring eyes suggest portraits of the female saints at their hour of martyrdom.  

This annual party, though, occurs long past dusk, and after greeting the hostess, Hester, who is looking extremely pretty in a somber shade of green, turns and finds herself staring directly into Jason’s gaze. He stands across the room talking (more accurately, listening) to the Brooklyn ideologue. Jason’s mouth forms the merest and meanest of smiles. Hester knows, she absolutely understands that this malicious mockery of the ideologue is intended for her benefit and when Jason’s eyes turn to hers once again, she is laughing. Within an eye blink, he stands beside her and just then the hostess appears next to her as well to compliment him on his tie. A gentleman, he offers the cancer-surviving hostess a neat ode to her figure (his eyes travel the length of her dress). The well-flattered hostess then says, “Have you two met? Oh, the ice bucket! Excuse me a moment.” 

And abruptly Hester and Jason are alone within the whirling motion of a party. 

Jason speaks, but Hester, who is entranced by his presence, does not hear his words, she simply says, “I was hoping you’d return.”

“I wasn’t able to get here last year.” With a cocky smile, Jason touches the silk fabric of his Merlot-colored tie. 

“And I couldn’t make the one before that.”

“How do you know our most accomplished hostess?” Jason’s eyes move all over her face; Hester feels their touch.

“We worked together years ago. What about you?”

“My brother dated her.” 

“Is he here, too?” She is prettily looking around.

“No, he lives in Seattle. I ran into her at a Duane Reade three years ago and for some reason she friended me. Since then I have received endless announcements for dance recitals and cultural activities of every stripe, none of which I ever attend.” His gently mocking smile is thrilling to Hester and she makes some obligatory comment about the food, the bountiful shrimp, to cover her nervousness.

Quietly Jason says: “You’re just so beautiful, you know?” 

Tears fill Hester’s eyes, she is moved and somehow saddened by this astonishing gift. She stands before him without speaking as Time hangs suspended like a sparkling ball on a Christmas tree. Her face reflects her memories as moist longing rushes through her. Somehow the taste of his mouth is on her lips. Dazed, succumbing to a kind of trance, she reaches forward to prevent collapse and her fingers graze the warm skin of his face. Static electricity creates a spark; instantly she withdraws her hand.  

“Not here,” Jason grasps her receding hand and speaks in an intimate voice unheard by others: “Can you leave?”

“I just got here but I’m sure I— ”

“Tell her,” he nods toward the hostess, “you feel sick. I’ll be waiting outside.” Gripping her hand, he speaks once again in a natural voice, “Nice meeting you,” before turning to make his final farewell to the ice bucket-wielding hostess. 

Left alone, Hester’s smile is tremulous, she wonders if her nerve will fail. She briefly sidesteps a political discussion then moves down a narrow corridor lined with bookshelves. (In bold typeface, The Scarlet Letter pops out at her as she passes.) In the bathroom mirror, she studies her face. The lines in her brow are few. Lifting a hand, she plucks a new strand of gray from her hair. Dan gave up the money-making aspects of his craft just after her early menopause began. These days she carries the full financial weight of her household. Returning to the party, she contrives a sudden headache and begs leave of the hostess in a shaking voice. 

Minutes later, she descends in a crowded elevator. Once in the street she glances left then right. Seeing no one, panic begins, a ripple along her spine, then she steps forward, starts to walk, her rhythm jumpy. Footsteps sound behind her and before she can turn, a hand is placed on her shoulder. 

Gasping, she says, “I felt like Eurydice. Or was it Orpheus who could not look back?”

A question lights Jason’s smile. She begins to answer then shakes her head to dispel thoughts, thinking, words and just then Jason reaches for her and kisses her mouth and the experience is sweeter than she could have imagined. She clings to him there in the street as he kisses her again and again.

Eventually he is murmuring, “We have to go.”

He has stepped away yet still she leans like a flower toward the sun of his face. “Where?”

“I know.” Jason leads her away.

The Brooklyn ideologue crosses the street within a few feet of them. 

“Did he see us?” Hester whispers.

“Possibly.”

“You’re not worried?”

Jason shrugs. “It happened.” Flagging a cab, he gives the driver an address in Queens. As the car races through the streets, he simply holds her hand as he stares through the window on his side of the back seat. When they arrive, Jason insists on paying; grateful tears begin in her eyes once again. When they enter the small hotel, Hester is careful to note whether the woman at the front desk knows him. (She appears not to, much to Hester’s relief.) Again Jason pays (in cash) and they rush upstairs to a viewless room with a double bed. 

Slowly, Hester loosens her coat as she glances around the small, imperfectly clean room. The color of the bedspread is the same orange as the plastic subway seats on the F line. A clock radio, identical to the one she shares with her husband, sits on the bedside table; the time changes from 7:59 to 8:00 as she stares. Infinity, she thinks tilting her head slightly sideways at the figure “8.”  In silence, Jason touches her arm; the warmth of his hand, this small gesture meant to soothe, reignites the flame within her. Together they sink onto the gracelessly sagging bed. The creaking springs evoke a shared laugh and soon they begin to kiss. His touch is somehow familiar yet also eloquent as his hands move along her flesh and she feels that her body, her strange and unaccountably barren body, which has so cruelly betrayed her, is for the first time truly being loved. When it is finished, she lingers within the warmth of his arms and no words, no phrases, not a single thought travels the surface of her mind. 

For a long time Hester remains there. Trucks rumble through the street below, a siren wails someplace far, far away. Jason shifts on the bed. Looking up at his smiling face, Hester understands that he, too, is feeling euphoric, maybe just as astonished as she. Without speaking, he lifts and kisses her hand and she responds to his touch and this time it is so very slow and so unaccountably tender and together they find their way back. When it is done, Hester is not laughing but crying.

“We’re both married now.” Jason’s voice is mournful.

“Yes,” Hester answers, vaguely conjuring Dan in her mind. 

“I have a son.”

“Oh.” She wonders for a moment. “I’m surprised you’re here.”

He says nothing for a long time and she wonders if he regrets what has been done. Finally, he says, “Has marriage been good for you? Or is he…”

After a pause, she says, “Not bad. I think marriage has been more or less exactly what I expected. I’d been a little wild before that and couldn’t stand to live that way, it just— ”

“Yes.” His eyes flare with understanding. “I married for pretty much the same reason.”

She nods her head, remembering, regretting. “That woman I saw you with.” 

“Yes.” 

“My husband doesn’t like parties.”

He laughs. And then it is over—they have safely skirted this conversation and are free to begin a discussion of anything else, why not their most accomplished hostess? “Did she serve her famous latkes again?”

“You didn’t get any?”

“No they were gone by the time I arrived. I was so upset.” Looking around the room, which now feels cozy, Hester says, “Speaking of which, I’m hungry.”

And so they dress and leave the hotel and walking along the streets of Long Island City, they discover a Greek diner where they order salads with feta cheese and grape leaves and they laugh with the waiter who brings them ruby wine in water glasses. They talk in a way that is remarkable to Hester; they each, in turn, give an accounting of their lives without embellishment, without self-pity. And then it is nearly midnight and both awaken, once again, to what they’ve done. Such thoughts quickly accumulate in Hester’s mind and looming, they diminish her. Her voice is childlike when she speaks: “I need to go.”

“Me, too.”

“Will you be all right at home?” This is whispered.

“I’ll make an excuse.”

“Me, too.” With an automatic gesture, she fishes her wallet out of her purse. “Let me get this, please.”

“Are you taking a cab back to Manhattan?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll take the subway.” 

They say goodbye. Outside the diner beside plastic bags of neatly piled trash, Hester’s eyes briefly express a new pain, a suffering without saintliness, as well as fresh joy. Alone in a taxi, Hester immediately invents her excuse for Dan; after the party she went out with a former work friend. She believes he will never suspect a thing. She relaxes against the backseat of the cab, which smells of another woman’s perfume.

As the taxi approaches the bridge, weathered steel and concrete rise up before her eyes, she sees the aging, looming infrastructure of her city, her home of many years. Failing to trust her instincts all those years ago, she made a choice and went with Dan instead of Jason. Nothing she can do will alter the magnitude of that mistake. Jason is tied to a wife and child now. As the cab on the bridge rises above dark and churning waters, she tells herself all the worst things she can imagine: that it is possible she may never see Jason again and, at best, their love will be an illicit, barren thing. Suspended above the islands of the city, this haunting spirit of time run-out, one more ghost of uncertain repose, the abstracted woman presses her burning brow against the freezing pane and wonders if her great great grandmother ever loved or was loved for being exactly this — a losing cause, though one with full heart and eternal soul?

I still believe
it was a good thing what we did
that Saturday.
I clutched at strings that
might have snapped without my pull,
and you dug your heels
into a second that
wanted to fling itself backwards.
However it might have ended,
that Saturday shines
like a newly lit match
every time I turn to it,
its echo of light ever brighter.

– Valentina Cano

The man,
visible even through the curtain
of rain that covered
the street like chainmail,
called for a cab.
It neared him like an
underwater beast.
He raised a hand
which trembled
with unspent fears
that swam up his fingers to the tips
of his nails.
Blinking like tired light-bulbs
in the dark.

Valentina Cano

I am able to do
what I promised,
what I told you that
day when the sun pressed
through the cracks in the wall
like lemon rind.
I can do as I whispered
that night in a cavern of a room,
submerged in antique silence.
But I don’t want to anymore.
The moments, the extremes of texture,
have passed,
trailing a veil of bones,
a sigh of ashes.
Leaving me behind.

– Valentina Cano

I happened to see him
as I walked to class.
A figure of smoke,
undulating with darkness,
he stood against a door,
looking in.
My eyes dug like nails
into his hands,
overturning the thoughts
and vials of blood
suspended from my wrists.
There was something I needed to say,
a word to grind out like meat,
but when I opened my mouth,
my teeth fell out,
tinkling to the floor
like pins.

Valentina Cano

Small and thin
like a piece of drawing charcoal,
she looked at me.
Her eyes were large
with the knowledge
of the hard ground
I’d never travelled.
The scent of weeds in her nose.
I smiled and she blinked
lids of confusion.
I’d just taken her life
in that second.
She knew it.
I did not.

Valentina Cano

What it’s like is

The day of your first son’s wedding
When you glance at your email in the morning
Before your nervous wife is even awake
Just to put it out of your mind
To get it behind you

And feel happy at first to see only five new messages
From minor people
Who can’t hurt you much
Until you begin to read a forwarded article from a college friend
About an old classmate who has just published a book
To outstanding reviews in several papers

And find yourself forgetting to check about getting your sister-in-law a better room
Watching a golf tournament of no consequence for an hour and a half
Re-reading the article to make sure it is as good as it seemed
Deciding that you’ll wing it on your toast
Pissing off your wife because you’re not ready yet and
People will be in the tent in a half hour, for Christ’s sake

And watch your son make a new, holy commitment
Before his family and God
While you strain to find emotion
And finally decide to fake it by rubbing your eyes
Pursing your lips then
Looking off into the distance forlornly to signify remembering him when he was just a boy

And drink a bit too much champagne
“On porpoise”
So that you can turn in a bit early
But not before checking your messages one more time
Googling the guy to see what others will find when they search for him
And then starting the outline of your own novel which you should have written years ago.

Charles McCannon

Outside the call, it was an ordinary day. The phone cradled between ear and shoulder, Mae watched through the kitchen window as two blackbirds balanced on a string of patio lights. On the phone her mother was crying. Through the sobs, words were indistinguishable.

“Your grandmother is dead. I was a horrible daughter. Your grandmother is dead.”

Outside two blackbirds built a nest in the crux of the patio covering.

When Mae did not respond, her mother said, “What is wrong with you? Don’t you have anything to say? You’ve always been so ungrateful.” One last shriek and her mother hung up. The dull dial tone murmured on.

It was 1993, and Mae was in the back of a minivan with six cousins, Grandma was driving, her mother in the passenger seat. It was after another baby blessing, the third in two months, and they were on their way back to Grandma’s house. A new spirit added to the Bedford clan, a Mormon family is only as good as the children it bears. Mae’s cousin, Christy, ten years old, far superior to Mae’s mere eight years of existence, was going on about the children she was going to have. She would have seven and marry a prince in the Salt Lake City Temple. She asked Mae, “How many will you have?” Mae said she would have no children. She did not want children. Christy was incredulous.

“If you don’t have any children, you can’t go to the highest heaven. You can’t go to the celestial kingdom.”

The memory tasted metallic. The phone rang. Doubtless, it was her mother calling to guilt her for the silence. She answered. It was her little sister, Charlie.

“Mom’s a mess.”

“I know. That’s Barbara for you.”

“She says you didn’t say anything.”

“What can I say?”

“The funeral will be in Las Vegas. Will you go?”

“Should I go?”

“Of course.”

They had not been Mormon for twenty years. When they first left the church, their grandmother, their aunts, their uncles, their twenty-seven cousins thought it was merely a phase. They believed Barbara would come to her senses. She would return and repent, bring her family back to God. Barbara never went back; she wore the hair shirt. The family would not let her have it any other way.

Mae grew up feeling defensive. They were called “inactive.” Missionaries showed up at their house mid-week to coax them back. Mae’s father answered the door with a beer. He converted to marry Barbara, and when they left the church, he picked up his old drinking habit. He loved to offer the missionaries a Coors. Mae would listen to the rehearsed dialogue from the couch, resenting the young men in their bike helmets. She turned the TV up louder hoping the robots at the door would feel her seething.

Every summer of Mae’s childhood there was an event known as Grandma Camp – a week at Grandma’s house, just for the girl cousins. After Mae and Charlie stopped attending church, Grandma still demanded that every granddaughter bring her Book of Mormon for scripture study and attend church on Sunday. Mae complained in the weeks leading up to camp; she did not want to sit through three hours of church, she hated bringing her Book of Mormon. Packing for her final Grandma Camp at twelve years old, she removed the worn book from her duffel when her mother was not looking.

At camp, Grandma’s lips pursed, “What do you mean you didn’t bring your scriptures? Lucky for you, I have an extra.” The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price landed like a brick in Mae’s lap; Grandma, victorious over the insurgent, sat smugly on the piano bench facing her obedient granddaughters. She commanded Mae to read the selected verses aloud. Mae saw her sister’s tiny blonde head over the pages, tears in her great green eyes. Her eyes said, “Why did you shame us? Couldn’t you just play along?” Charlie. Little Charlie, here it was rushing back, a wave sucking her under. She rolled. She never knew which way was up. Where was the surface?

Barbara pulled her family from the church after the affair. When Mae was nine and Charlie seven, Barbara slept with another man for a year while their father worked the graveyard shift as a police officer. This man was a Mormon too with his own family, a pair of teenage twin girls who would occasionally babysit Mae and Charlie. Mae’s father forced Barbara to sit down with their daughters and take responsibility. He didn’t want his children thinking this mess was his fault. It was two days after Christmas, the tree still in the living room, the stockings hanging on the fireplace. They sat on the couch. Their mother stood in front of them. Mae remembered Charlie asking, what’s an affair? On the green carpet, beside their dangling feet, were two expensive dolls they hadn’t expected to receive in tiny wooden beds their father built in the garage. One Christmas, too many secrets.

Their mother turned from the only life they had known. They stopped going to church on Sunday, Family Home Evening on Monday was off calendar. Wednesday night pot lucks were done. The subject was closed. The picture focused slightly when Mae was fourteen. Going through a junk drawer in the kitchen, she came across a folded letter. Opening it, she read, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” It was a list of classes and counseling appointments Barbara was supposed to attend to regain her salvation. The list was profuse, the language harsh. Mae approached her mother, letter in hand, Barbara’s face flamed. She said she would never talk about it, don’t ask again. 

Mae’s most infamous standoff was during a family dinner at Grandma’s. Barbara’s six siblings convened once every two months for a dinner of skillet fried pork chops, canned green beans and Jello in wine goblets with clouds of whipped cream on top. The table was set, butter softening on a crystal plate and baby dill pickles in antique dishes. The family waited for Grandma to take her seat. She always wore clip on earrings. They smacked her neck as she walked. Her hair dyed black, teased in a high, curly nest on her head she came in, hovering over the enormous table.

“Well, there were twenty more of them today!” She was furious.

“Twenty more of what?” Barbara said.

“Twenty more of those gay people getting married in Massachusetts. Disgusting. It’s a sign of the times.”

Mae dropped her fork with a clang. The entire table turned. 

“How can you! How can you say that? Are you listening – I can’t believe what you just said. You are basically saying that these people can’t love each other- they can’t…I just.”

She was angry, young and intimidated. Barbara was next to her, pinching Mae’s arm. She shook off her mother and pushed her chair back, smashing into the antique credenza behind her – the credenza where Grandma kept butterscotch candies and Dum Dums. It was a loud crash. Grandma’s hand flew to her chest. She staggered back into the kitchen looking like she’d been shot. She called for Daniel, the loyal son, she was about to faint. The adults jumped up from the table. Mae was revolted by the dramatics. It was laughable, Grandma lying there on the kitchen tile fanning her face.

Now she was gone. Mae would face family she cut many years ago. She was tied to the tracks, waiting for a puffing train to rip through her. She heard her husband unlock the front door. She tried to think of a way to tell him they were going to Vegas.

Marriage in a Mormon family is the most sacred event, but when John and Mae married, it isolated her from the family further than a defense of homosexuality ever could. They had a twenty year age difference and at the engagement news, Grandma said, “Well, I hope you know you’ll be an early widow.”

There were these things Mae could not release, fiery balled up moments of energy comprising her core.

Grandma’s funeral was scheduled for Saturday. They planned to get on the road early Friday morning. As she packed their bags, Mae realized she was nervous. She worried what the family would say when they saw her. 

Charlie called Friday morning as they were getting on the road.

“You still coming?”

“I’m sitting in the car.”

“I’m relieved.”

“Thought I’d chicken out?”

“It crossed my mind.”

“Ha. Well, we are driving through Fontana now.” There was silence. Charlie chewed on her lip.

“All the usual suspects?”

“All except Ben and Alex. They’re still on their missions.”

“I’ll make you a deal. I’m showing up for the final act, but I am not going to the viewing. I am not going to stand around and bullshit. So make sure you tell Barbara. I don’t want her nagging me because I didn’t go to that morbid display. And! I want to sit in the back.”

“Mae? Come to the damn viewing, the luncheon…all of it. I don’t want to do this alone. I can’t always be the one taking care of Mom.”

“She doesn’t need you to-”

“She does. She’s wallowing. There is one more thing.”

Mae groaned.

“All of us, the grandkids, great grandkids…”

“No.”

“You don’t even..”

“Yes, I do, and the answer is no.”

“Please?”

“Christ!”

“Please, Mae.”

“They’re not going to want me…”

“They do want you. It’s tradition. We did it at Grandpa’s funeral. All the grandkids sing – you know how it is. It’s important to Mom. The cousins are meeting at Grandma’s to rehearse. Will John drop you? He can go back to the hotel and get settled.”

“Charlie. I don’t want to go in that house. It’s weird.”

“There are two pianos. We’ve got to go through it at least once. Everyone is excited to see you.”

“HA! I don’t even remember how to get there.”

“I bet you do.”

“I really don’t want to fucking do this. I want to sit in the back of the church. I’m here for you, not even for Mom, for you.”

“I know. So you’ll come to this rehearsal for me.”

“Give me the address, just in case.”

“1123 Shady Pine.”

“There isn’t one fucking piece of shade on that street.”

Charlie sighed.

“Try and watch your language when you get here. We don’t need anyone else dropping dead. I’ll see you in a couple hours.”

“Wait. What are we singing?”

“If I tell you, you have to promise you’ll still do it.”

“Jesus. Okay.”

“Families Can Be Together Forever.”

“Fuck me.”

“I thought you’d like that.”

Charlie hung up. Mae turned to John, squeezing the phone in her hand.

“She wants me to go to Grandma’s. She’s making me sing with the cousins. They want to rehearse.”

He chuckled.

“I don’t have to stick around – do I?”

“You can go back to the hotel while I suffer.”

He put his hand on her knee, “You don’t have to do this.”

When they got off the freeway and rolled into Grandma’s suburb, Mae was irritated. They passed the elementary school and the park where they picnicked during Grandma Camp. The place looked like a dirt bomb went off. The neighborhood was run down; it must have taken a beating during the recession. When they turned onto Shady Pine, John laughed, “Not a tree on the street.” He parked a couple houses down. There were already four mini vans and two suburbans in front of the looming brown house with Spanish arches. 

“How many years since you were here last?”

“Fourteen.”

“You okay?”

“I’m good. I’ll be better when it’s over.”

She kissed John, checked her hair in the mirror and got out of the car. Half way up the walk she turned and waved. He would wait until she was inside. Good man. Knocking on the door, she noticed a distinct smell. Even with Grandma and the dogs gone, the place reeked of poodle farts. She had to knock twice. Inside, there were at least two screaming babies. Her cousin Christy answered, wrapped around her legs were twin boys with ketchup stains on their shirts, a newborn at her breast.

“Oh my gosh! Well dang! It’s you! Come here and give me a hug, Mae.”

“Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”

Christy shook the boys off and hugged Mae with the unoccupied side of her body. Mae saw Charlie over her shoulder, a smirk on her face.

“You made it!”

“Sure did.”

“Let’s go to the living room.”

They walked through the foyer. Mae tripped over children. The place was a disaster; toys strewn everywhere, someone had gotten into the music basket and three little girls were running up and down the hall with tambourines, two boys had maracas and Christy’s twins were banging on mini drums. The living room was surreal, exactly as it had been. The only difference was now all twenty seven of her cousins were grown, the youngest must have been eighteen and Mae could not remember her name – was it Tina? There were ten different conversations and each was competing. Six more children were in the living room, including two toddlers. It was impossible to tell who belonged to whom. They all looked alike, creepy. Charlie was gripping Mae’s hand as they entered.

“Look who we found.”

The group fell silent. Christy said, “It’s Mae. Aunt Barb’s oldest.”

Clint, the eldest cousin, said, “We know who it is. Been a long time. Glad you could take some time off from your fancy teaching job to make it.”

Mae had expected something like this reception and turned toward the door. Charlie gripped her hand harder, and Christy ignored her older brother.

“Now that she’s here we can start. EMILY!”

A six year old girl came running down the hall and into the living room. She pointed and said, “Who are you?” Christy handed Emily the newborn and buttoned up her blouse. “That’s my oldest. This is your second cousin, Mae,” she said. Christy sat down to the piano and her skin pooled around her. For such a young woman, she was worn from birthing so many cubs.

There was talk of dividing into sections – altos stand here, sopranos there, and baritones behind them, a mini choir. Mae wasn’t sure where she fit, so she stood next to Charlie in the altos section. Peter, another cousin, suggested they pray, and the cousins bent their heads and folded their arms. Mae stood eyes open, watching her cousins repeat a scene familiar and strange. It was like when they were children. Grandma at the piano, an uncle praying, kids fidgeting, practicing mild reverence at the words “Dear Heavenly Father.”

Before rehearsing, parents tried to corral kids, a hopeless attempt. Mae thought about how Grandma would have handled this scene. She would have gotten down the fly swatter and made spanking threats. Michelle, Christy’s younger sister, suggested they begin. Each child knew the song, it was likely they would calm down and join the adults once they heard what was happening. Mae felt momentary panic. She realized it was possible she no longer knew the lyrics. It was awkward enough; the last thing she wanted was to request sheet music to a hymn etched in the brains of all forty-two well-trained people gathered in the old house. She whispered to Charlie, “I don’t think I remember it.” “You will,” she said and patted Mae’s hand.

Christy began to play against the soft tick of the metronome and the words fell out of Mae’s mouth. The children gathered on the floor, yelling the song.

I have a family here on earth. They are so good to me.
I want to share my life with them through all eternity.

Families can be together forever
Through Heavenly Father’s plan.
I always want to be with my own family,
And the Lord has shown me how I can
The Lord has shown me how I can.

Once at Grandma Camp, they made a chain of bird seed. They strung cranberries, raisins and nuts on a white string and hung it like garland on the fence in the backyard. The birds flocked. They ate and shit all over the metal rails. Through the bay window, next to the piano, Mae could see remnants of a bird seed string. Was this the same chain or a new one?

While I am in my early years
I’ll prepare most carefully
So I can marry in God’s temple for eternity.

Families can be together forever
Through Heavenly Father’s plan
I always want to be with my own family
And the Lord has shown me how I can.
The Lord has shown me how I can.

They ran through it three times, working on harmonies. Afterward, everyone broke off into their respective units and piled into vehicles. For the first time, no one was staying at Grandma’s.

Charlie, Mae, Christy and her four children remained. They were talking quietly in the foyer. Christy’s children exhausted their energy, and now they were hanging all over her whining, demanding Burger King. Over the newborn’s screams, Christy kept saying she missed Grandma. Her eyes welled and Charlie hugged her saying, “I know. We all miss her. She was a strong woman.” Christy grabbed her diaper bag. Turning to Charlie, she handed over the house keys, “Feel free to hang around as long as you want. I’ll get the keys back to tomorrow.”

Both sisters plopped down on a settee older than them. Charlie was pleased with Mae’s performance.

“You did good. After tomorrow, we can go home and move on.”

“Weird. This place is just weird.” Mae shook her head.

“It might be me, but it smells like bacon and dog farts.”

“You read my mind.”

Charlie’s eyes lit up.

“I wasn’t going to do this. I thought of it at first, but then I felt bad. Aw hell, we’re the only ones here, and let’s face it we both have some demons to exorcise.”

Mae watched Charlie go into the dining room and return with two Mickey Mouse glasses that were once jelly jars and a bottle of Jack Daniels. Two Dum Dums were stuck behind her ears. There had been a time, a fleeting transom, when these glasses were filled with cold orange juice and sitting beside a Mickey Mouse pancake with a chocolate chip face.

“HA!” Mae said, “What the? We can’t. Not here…in Grandma’s house?”

“Mom says there was a brief time that Grandma drank Tequila Sunrises in secret. Think of it as paying homage to her younger days.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Either way, I’ve been with the Mormons for three days now. If I don’t get a drink soon,

I might as well go back to the church.”

Charlie poured the whiskey and handed Mae a glass, dribbling on the carpet. They both panicked. Charlie once spilled an entire Coca-Cola on Grandma’s carpet. The soda was retrieved on a mission to the kitchen during siesta time at Grandma Camp. Grandma got down the fly swatter and chased Charlie down the long hallway. Mae scurried under long adult legs and stood like Pocahontas over her crouched baby sister. Remembering there was no one to punish them now they stared at the brown liquor mark on the carpet.

“Speech, speech,” Charlie said.

“You want me to make a speech?”

“You’ve always been the eloquent one.”

“I raise my Mickey glass to Wilma Bedford, the woman who inspired my every revolt, even this one now, and to my sister Charlie, for bringing booze into Grandma’s house and surprising the shit out of me.”

They clinked jars and downed the whiskey. Mae stood up.

“I want to have a look. She never changed a thing.”

Charlie trailed behind Mae. Mae opened cupboards, pulled out pickle dishes and examined needlework hanging on the wall. In the dining room, above the antique credenza, was an old painting of Moroni, the angel who first appeared to Joseph Smith and revealed the golden plates to him. Next to Moroni, the scouting badges and pins their uncles earned. She circled the dining room as Charlie poured another glass of whiskey. Mae was feeling mischievous.

“What will the hallway bring? I bet she’s got that old mirror up. Don’t tell me there’s a waterbed in the sewing room, still.”

Charlie was nervous. “Mae, I don’t think…maybe we should go now.”

“Charl! I am buzzed in Grandma’s house. I refuse to leave. You worked so goddamn  hard to get me here.”

Mae wandered down the hall where decades of pictures hung. Every year Grandma demanded family portraits from all six of her children. Mae approached the last frame. It was their family and the first one taken without their father, the summer Mae turned fifteen. Her mother stood behind the girls, but where Mae’s face should have been there was an old stamp. It was Mae’s fifteen year old body with a stamp head.

“Charlie.” Her voice quivered, “Charlie, there’s a stamp. Over my…”

Charlie ran down the hall.

“I can’t believe I drove all the way out here for this, to see this. I told you. I didn’t want to come.”

“Mae, I haven’t been here in a long…honest. I didn’t know she’d – the picture. I only saw it yesterday.”

“They love us when we play along, don’t they? I have a fucking stamp over my face.”

Mae ripped the picture down, leaving a white square on the aged wall and a hole where the nail had been. Somehow, she cut her knuckle open. The blood flew and she stormed to the backyard patio where Grandma kept old golf clubs. The picture slammed to the cement and Mae went inside to the antique credenza. She pulled out the pickle dishes and went to Grandma’s room where she kept her collection of gaudy clip on earrings. There were three plates of earrings, Mae grabbed them. She piled all of it on top of the picture and snatched a golf club. She raised the club high over her head and paused.

“Just do it, Mae.”

At her sister’s command, the club flew down shattering dishes and earrings. The picture frame splintered. She heaved and grunted, smashing all the pretty things to bits, crushing the grand act that was families forever, family dinner and fake earrings because Grandma couldn’t stand to put holes in her body. She beat everything into oblivion until the picture was shreds and the rest was fine glitter on the patio. Tossing the golf club to the side yard, she bent over breathing hard. Charlie was behind her. Mae’s hands were a bloody mess. Mae said, “This is not my family.”

“I know.”

“Ever since Mom fucked around…” She choked on spit and looked at her hands.

“I’m bleeding.” She was surprised.

“You are. Let me take care of it.”

“Call John. We are going the hell home. I’m not sticking around. Why am I here? Why am I here?”

Charlie took her sister’s bleeding hands into her own. Their eyes met, and Mae saw Charlie’s green eyes full.

“You have cried too much here, Charl.”

“I know.”

She took Mae inside and washed her hands at the kitchen sink. Once bandaged, Mae lay down on the settee and stared out the bay window while Charlie called John.

“He’ll be here soon. I am going home with you guys.”

The house was an antiquated place, full of ghosts, time passed, memories that would always feel like shards in Mae’s hands. Charlie pulled the wax paper off a pineapple Dum Dum and handed it to her sister.

“You know, if you dip the pineapple Dum Dum in whiskey it has an even more tropical taste.”

“Does it, Charl?”

They curled together dipping Dum Dums in whiskey and staring out the window at the old line of bird feed. The birds danced on the rail, pecking at remnants of nothing.

N. M. Bailey