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Room for Me

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Room for Me
Crystal Lynn Root
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Master of Fine Arts
Creative Writing
Thesis Committee:
Diana Abu-Jaber, Chair
Maude Hines
Paul Collins
Portland State University
UMI Number: 1487944
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1487944
Copyright 2011 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
789 East Eisenhower Parkway
P.O. Box 1346
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346
This collection of interwoven short stories revolves around a small Southern women’s
college and its inhabitants. Written in first-person from various perspectives, the stories
combine, much like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, to create a final cohesive work
that is not quite a novel.
Main characters include the gentle, introspective teenage son of a faculty member, the
garrulous student with whom he is enamored, and her skeptic of a half-sister. One parallel
narrative involves a search for self and story through music and musicians, the other via a
campus ghost. The focus, as with Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, is character-driven rather
than plot-based. Shared experiences—an ice storm, a betrayal by college trustees—are
viewed through multiple characters, leading to a decision each, though searching for
connection, must make alone.
This short story collection is dedicated to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, which guided
me through my irritating youth and set me on a path to my future. May she rest in peace.
Table of Contents
Pirate Confessions
Narrator: Tabitha
Tipping the Canoe
Narrator: Teddy
Winter Light
Narrator: India
Things I’ll Take the Blame For
Narrator: Julia
Narrator: Teddy
White City
Narrator: Julia
Bede in the Original
Narrator: Teddy
Narrator: Anna
Labyrinthine Legacy
Narrator: Teddy
Belly of the Boat
Narrator: Teddy
Pirate Confessions (Tabitha)
T.S. Eliot is a fucking genius.
Seriously. I mean it. If the man were alive today, I’d stalk him. Then I’d be
arrested, and it would be on the news: COLLEGE STUDENT VOWS HUNGER STRIKE UNTIL
wrote it. I was going to say that somebody else did, to make it sound more realistic, but I
decided not to. Not that I have a problem with lying per se—I can lie like a low-down
Alabama bastard, which is really what I am. My sister Jennie hates it when I bring it up,
but it’s true. We have the same daddy but different mamas, and not one of them has got a
wedding ring. I don’t want one, either. I already have enough jewelry. When people ask
how many piercings I have, I pull out my standard answer—ten, but only nine of them
are anybody else’s business but my own.
When I pull out this answer at VMI, the boys try real hard to make that last one
their business. Jennie says I’m asking for trouble. I say: bring it on.
I’m a member of a secret society on campus. We’re too small to host national
sororities, and I’m glad because we have too many blond Georgia bitches here anyway;
no reason to recruit more. But we do have secret societies, and mostly they really are
secret. Some of them are for dumb things, like the group that gets together and reads
Oscar Wilde on the roof of the museum during full moons, or the group that’s for firstyears because first-years aren’t allowed into any of the other societies. But I’m part of the
Moaners, one of the oldest societies on campus. We’re so old we don’t even know how
old we are, but we know that we’re really old. We’ve been part of campus for a long, long
time. When T.S. Eliot was writing poems, the Moaners were here, doing their thing.
I got a message from our society president in the afternoon, when I went back to
my room after lodging formal complaint against my residence hall’s fire monitor. She
confiscated the black velvet curtain I had hanging in front of my doorway, claiming it
was a fire hazard. She also makes us leave the hall lights on all the time, twenty-four
hours a day. I argued that letting those fixtures stay on and get hotter and hotter and hotter
is much more of a fire hazard than any stupid velvet curtain.
We always leave messages for each other the way the original Moaners did. It’s a
complicated and secret code they worked out way back in the ’twenties, way before sitesecured email was even thought of. It’s a scavenger hunt, and I found the first clue slid
under my door, where I live on the second floor of Austen House. Austen is a small
residence hall built in 1911, and now houses students studying music and the arts.
Supposedly, anyway, but my roommate Kyoko is from Japan and is only minoring in
musical theory; she’s majoring in biology with a secondary emphasis in inorganic
chemistry. Even at small schools, the residence staff can’t get roommate matches right.
I dumped my bag on the rickety wooden chair, circa 1945, that we all get with our
study desks, and grabbed the little square of parchment that had been slid under the door.
It was sealed with dark red-black wax, and I heated the seal a little with a lighter so it
would break evenly instead of crumbling. Inside was a quote scribbled in haphazard
longhand by someone who obviously didn’t know her way around a glass pen. I mean,
come on, people. Even I can write with a glass pen, and my handwriting’s shitty. It’s
called practice. If you’re going to do something, learn to do it right.
Even though the script was terrible, I could still read it. It was a quote, like this:
Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls losed
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.
Which was, as anyone would know, the opening lines of Chapman’s Iliad. I bundled the
quote into my backpack and headed for the library.
The library is one of the best buildings on campus, in my opinion. It’s built into
the side of a hill, so there are two entrances. The entrance that looks like the main
entrance has three wide, shallow steps that go up to a colonnaded porch where a set of
impressive white double doors gleam against the old brick building. Hardly anyone uses
these doors anymore, though. They’re set on the wrong side of the building, facing the
street instead of campus. Mostly we use the side entrance which, because of the hill, is
two stories above the fancy one but still at ground level. That’s where the reserve desk is,
which isn’t the same as the circulation desk. You have to go down two flights to the desk
near the big entrance to check books out, then come back up the stairs—the elevator is
for handicapped use only—to leave through the convenient door.
In spite of this, I love the library. Technically it’s five stories, but there are also
two secret half-floors built between the second and third stories. If you find the right
staircase, the little recessed one just before the popular-periodicals nook, it doesn’t take
you down from the third floor to the second. Instead, it takes you to a little half-floor
hanging between floors, a cubby of a room where they keep bound copies of old
periodicals arranged by year. There’s a little ladder set into the wall in a back corner, and
if you climb down this, there’s another little half-floor below the bound periodicals. This
is where they hide books that aren’t quite rare enough to go in the Rare Book Room but
they don’t want just anyone checking out. That was where I found the fat little red-bound
volumes of Homer, two per epic, 1881 imprint. A thick, creamy piece of folded
parchment, its seal already broken, fell to the floor. This one read,
The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the
beauties of the ancients. While an author is yet living we estimate his powers by
his worst performance, and when he is dead, we rate them by his best.
Johnson’s 1765 preface to Shakespeare, naturally. To find that one, I crawled sideways to
the S section near the bottom of the third shelf. The college had real, honest-to-god
second folios in the Rare Book Room, but unless you’re a senior working on an honors
project, you can’t touch the books in there without a really good reason. I think secret
society tradition is a pretty good reason, but the college doesn’t.
Some people who didn’t know any better might think that I should look for my
next clue in a book of Johnson. The college doesn’t have a good, old copy of Johnson
here in the hidden stacks, though, and it just wouldn’t be right to go flipping through
some fucking Norton anthology or Penguin edition barely thirty years old to find the right
quote. I pawed through the S’s, and found that there wasn’t a copy of the right edition of
Shakespeare, either—the one with Johnson’s preface. I opened the biggest edition, bound
in worn brown leather gone soft along the edges. It cracked, the sound sharply muffled in
the tiny hidden room, as I stretched the binding. There was Queen Elizabeth, the first one,
obscured behind an onionskin veil. Tucked behind her portrait, at the front of the book,
was another little folded piece of parchment. “I am made all things to all men, that I
might by all means save some.”
I stared at it for a long time. I didn’t know it.
Was this a test? Okay, look, I’m just a sophomore which means it’s the first year
I’m allowed to be in a secret society. I haven’t been part of the group very long. So,
maybe this was something really, really obscure and they were just testing me and the
other newbies, seeing if we really did know as much as we said we did. One of the other
sophomores dropped out of the group already. Well, she didn’t drop out exactly. She just
couldn’t crack the code, so she missed the last meeting. It’s okay to miss meetings, but
not as a new member and not because you couldn’t figure out how to get there.
I dropped from my knees to my ass and sneezed at the dusty books. It was a small,
close room but there were still hundreds of books here. No telling which one was right.
Or maybe it wasn’t even in here; maybe it was a big joke. I considered breaking the rules
and looking in a dictionary of quotations, or searching for it online. No good, though; we
live by a very strict honor code at this school and I’d feel bad if I really broke the rules,
even if nobody else knew about it.
There wasn’t a rule about asking other people—but that was always awkward. It’s
not like you can slip it easily into conversation.
I made sure the little slips of paper were back in the right books, in case I wasn’t
the last girl to come looking for the clues, and put the books back where they belonged
instead of on the shelving cart like the library wants us to. Christ, it’s not like I can’t
figure out the Dewey Decimal System; I’m capable of putting my own books back
without help.
The lower floors of the library smelled good, like old paper—sweetly vanilla,
maybe a hint of old water or powdery mildew. I wandered for a while, reading titles, head
crooked at that angle that always gives me a headache. Sometimes this helps me think,
but eventually I was spat out of an aisle of Italian poetry next to the circulation desk, no
better off than I’d been before.
The girl at the desk was reading Aristophanes with her jaw mashed into the palm
of one hand. She was my sister Jennie’s friend, and I marched up to her. “I am made all
things to all men,” I said.
She didn’t tell me to get lost, but she didn’t close her book either, and she leveled
me with a long-suffering look. Another student handed her a book and her library card,
and as she turned away from me to check out the book I caught a glimpse of someone
else drifting in our direction, wandering with his hands stuffed deep into his pockets,
crossing back and forth between the circulation desk and the microfiche machines. I
almost ducked behind a pedestal when I saw who it was—that boy who’s been following
me around since I met him at some poetry reading I was required to attend for class. He’d
been there willingly, I guess, and during the intermission I talked to him. He was easy to
talk to, because he’d believe anything. He just looked at me with big brown eyes, and
said nothing. I told him that Eliot was a genius, and that I was planning on setting
Prufrock to music as my senior project.
It’s true, too. I don’t know if they’ll like it as an honors project, but if they don’t
then I’ll just do a regular project. Fuck the honors system—half of the people who try
don’t end up graduating anyway because they bit off more than they could handle. I’m
not that stupid. Anyway, I mean it about Prufrock. It’s the single most genius work of
literature ever, in any language. There’s this Irish lady who keeps making CDs by putting
Shakespeare to music, so why shouldn’t I try it with Eliot? So I don’t read music—I’ve
got plenty of time to learn. Like, two years or so. Practically forever. And I’ve got a great
chorus melody already, I just have to find the right spot for it. Maybe with the mermaids.
“That I might by all means save some,” the boy said quietly. “First epistle of Paul
to the Corinthians. New Testament.”
“New Testament?” I said, “New Testament?” and maybe I got a little loud for the
library. Someone back in the stacks hollered for me to shut up. The girl at the desk didn’t
bat an eye. “That’s not fair! I do literature, not religion.”
“What do you think the bible is? What do you think literature is?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I challenged him. “It’s not the same thing at all.”
I wasn’t sure what to do about this boy. There was nothing wrong with him, but he was
just a kid. He graduated from high school last year but didn’t go to college anywhere, so
he’s a year younger than me in age and two years younger in brains. He said his dad
works on campus, so maybe it wasn’t a good idea to ditch him completely. But come on.
I mean, seriously. At least the boys at VMI were learning things—whatever it was they
taught them up there. But this boy was maybe working, maybe doing jack shit just sitting
at home. And he wasn’t interesting.
The girl at the desk looked at me like I was a particularly obstinate chunk of…oh,
I don’t know…Hermann Hesse. If anyone who read Aristophanes could be expected to
know anything about Hesse, that is. Jennie told me a few days ago that she thought this
girl was sleeping with one of the twins on the swimming team. It wouldn’t surprise me.
People who like the Greeks do weird things.
Ten minutes before ten I opened my blue footlocker, covered in band logos and
bumper stickers, and pulled out the long black robe that Darcy, our president, gave me
when I first became a Moaner. I thought it was silk until someone in the theater
department told me it was really taffeta. I bet the original ones were silk. I bet the original
ones were embellished, too—maybe with black thread on black silk, so that you could
hardly tell where the embroidery was unless you saw it in just the right kind of
I rolled the robe up and stuck it in the kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt. Sure
people could tell I was carrying something, but they couldn’t tell what. Kyoko was still
probably down in the science building. Sometimes I think she sleeps there, I swear to
god, because she doesn’t come home. And she doesn’t have a boyfriend at one of the
other colleges in the area, because I asked her.
I closed my door without locking it, just like normal—we never lock our bedroom
doors, and why would we? We’re all safe here. Except on Stomp nights, that is, but the
supposedly-secret dates of Stomp nights are always somehow leaked. Nobody ever gets
caught in the open. Okay, maybe sometimes one or two people, but if they don’t have
friends willing to warn them about Stomps, that’s their own fault.
It took three minutes to get down the stairs to the main floor of Austen House,
then three more minutes to cross the skinny end of campus to the statue of General
Jackson. The statue sits on a giant pedestal, and there’s a locked door in the back of the
pedestal. Campus tradition says that the General raises his sword to salute when a virgin
crosses in front of the statue. Campus tradition also says that the General’s never been
known to salute 1. I don’t think it’s very funny, but it’s supposed to be. Professor Davison
says that you know it’s time to replace the campus joke when twelve-year-olds think it’s
clever, and I think this one’s long past due.
As far as I know, only two people in the world have keys to the door under
General Jackson and Darcy is one of them. The other is her proxy, Anna, the skinny twin
from the swimming team. If for some reason Darcy can’t make a meeting—if she had a
breakdown, maybe, and was locked up down the street at Virginia Memorial Baptist—
then it’s Anna’s job to let us all in. Girls disappear on campus all the time, and then we
find out a week later that they’ve been admitted at the hospital for severe intellectual
burnout. This is the only women’s college below the Mason-Dixon Line that was never a
finishing school, and our college presidents take that very seriously. Ever since our first
president who swore he’d turn out girls better educated than their male counterparts,
we’ve been dared to be smarter, more well-rounded, better. Girls who can’t hack it end
up at the hospital, and usually eventually get sent home. Transferring doesn’t really
Insert laughter here.
happen; when girls transfer to other schools, it proves that they can’t handle it here. They
fail. That’s not going to happen to me.
I looked right and left, feeling like Nancy Drew; there was nobody coming, so I
knocked on the door under the General. Two heartbeats later a green light showed under
the jamb, and Darcy let me in. Hey, did you know Nancy Drew—and the Hardy Boys,
too—were corporate literature? That’s what I call it, anyway. There wasn’t any real
author, just a bunch of editors working for the publishing house, vomiting bad prose as
fast as Stratemeyer could print it.
Behind the door, on the inside of the hollow pedestal, there was a tiny open space
and a steep stairway heading down into the tunnels. The campus tunnels were built when
the college first opened, as a way for servants to get from building to building without
being seen. Mostly they’re now closed off, but students at various points stole keys from
the groundskeepers, so now several secret societies on campus have our own entrances.
Darcy was holding a green light bulb on an extension cord. She brought it back
down the stairs with us, and when we reached the round cement tunnel at the bottom she
hung it on a little hook in the wall. There were six other girls—two seniors, one junior,
and three other sophomores—all wearing their black robes. I took mine out of my
sweatshirt pocket, shook it out, and pulled it over my head. We were still missing Anna.
Normally if someone doesn’t show up we go on without her, but Anna never missed
“We’ll give her three more minutes,” Darcy said, looking at her watch. “We really
can’t wait any longer than that. Some of us have studying to do.”
Somebody knocked on the door above us just as I got my robe properly settled on
my shoulders. Darcy took her light, leaving us in the darkness for a long minute. I could
see the green glimmer above, and then Anna’s voice saying, “Well, I had to wait until she
went to sleep.”
“Everyone ready?” Darcy called down, and we nodded to each other in the dark.
She dropped the light bulb part of the way down to us, so we could see to climb out. It
illuminated one of the strange, spiderlike cave crickets that lived in the tunnels.
I was closest, so I took hold of the metal railing and started to climb. A junior,
who had almost gone to Northern Ireland this year but chickened out at the last minute,
came up behind me. At the top of the stairs I pulled the cowl-like hood of my robe up to
hide my face. Darcy and Anna were already hooded, the sleeves of their robes falling
over their hands.
“Let’s go,” Darcy said, and the green light below our feet lit the curve of her
bottom lip as it arced into an unholy grin. I wish I could grin like that. I followed Anna
out of the doorway under General Jackson into warmer, fresher air, looking carefully
down at my feet and keeping my face completely hidden.
We paced into a line, Anna at the front and Darcy at the end, locking the door
behind us. After we heard the heavy thud as the old lock engaged, we waited five
heartbeats. Then Anna took two slow steps forward, toward the main line of buildings on
campus, and began to drone the school song, in Latin, in something I think resembled
actual Gregorian chanting. We joined in after the first line, nine of us chanting as we
paced slowly across campus.
When we reached the first bank of windows at the nearest dormitory, Anna
paused. We crowded around her in a half-circle, took deep breaths, and began moaning.
Not just any moans. Not sex-moans, or even fake sex-moans, or hangover moans or
midterm moans. These were big, wild, awful, cacophonic moans. I like to think Mary
moaned like that, at least once or twice, before she threw herself off the top of the Curlies
all those years ago. I like to imagine that, like a good Southern belle, she clasped a
handkerchief and wrung wrinkles into it, maybe beating it against her breast as she
wailed and moaned, before taking that final step into nothing.
We moaned under that set of windows until Anna moved us away, pacing again,
resuming the Latin chant. After we had paced the entire campus we would return to the
tunnels for celebratory tequila shots and bottles of Zima, then creep back to our rooms
and pretend nothing had ever happened. This was what we did in our secret society, at
least monthly. I loved the feeling of swimming, pleasantly buzzed, down the golden-lit
halls of the college after a meeting, the tequila burning in my stomach but my blood still
singing in Latin, a low hum that I didn’t understand but could follow phonetically.
Earlier that evening I’d been invited to go bowling with the crazy girls from fifth
Eliot, and I went ahead and joined them. I was supposed to be working on my logic
homework—the religion requirement could be substituted with philosophy instead and
logic counted, so screw dogma. And there would be time, there was always time, to do
homework later.
I hadn’t known Teddy would be there, and I wasn’t too sure I liked it. I bet he was
watching me the whole time, but I don’t know for sure because I certainly wasn’t
watching him. When we made accidental eye contact every once in a while I grit my teeth
and made myself hold it. He always looked away first.
“Teddy,” India said gently, obviously trying to make conversation in this awkward
group, “How’s working for Coach Talbot?” India’s forever trying to smooth wrinkles and
make everyone happy. I can’t stand it about her, but I bet that’s why my sister likes her.
My sister likes anyone who’s too polite to argue.
He thought before he answered, tapping one toe of his bowling shoe behind him
where he stood. When he spoke I could barely hear him over the music and bowling
noises, though they weren’t loud. “He’s not so bad,” he said. “Once you get used to him,
“Well, he’s the reason I won’t ride,” Rigsy said, putting a ball in India’s hands.
“You’re up.”
Teddy seemed to consider this, too, though I couldn’t see any possible reason to
take Rigsy’s comment so seriously. “He knows what he knows,” he said finally. Julia,
who did ride, looked up from her book for what was, I swear, the first time all night. She
didn’t say anything, but I could see her thinking.
“So does the new comp lit professor,” Rigsy said, “and he’s an absolute doll.”
“I think it’s different,” Teddy said, but he couldn’t elaborate. “I just think it’s
different, is all.”
See what I mean about him? What good is it to hang around with someone who
can’t express himself well? I wouldn’t start a correspondence with someone who couldn’t
use proper grammar, and the same goes for talking. Shut the hell up if you can’t say what
you mean.
Jennie-love bullied me into taking linguistics by telling me to stay the hell out of
that department. You know what I learned? Way back, way way back in the medieval
times, scholars used to translate shit into Latin and then back into English, just to make
sure they knew what they were saying. That’s serious rhetorical dedication. I wondered if
Teddy knew any foreign language, or if learning one would help him at all. Even if it
helped with speaking, I didn’t think it would do much for his personality. If he had one.
Now we swung left around the building, Darcy choosing the next set of windows
we would serenade. As we stopped under them I heard a noise ringing from the parking
lot, from behind us. Someone was laughing. I balled up my fists, ready to turn and defend
this tradition. I’m Southern; it’s what we do.
“Ignore it,” Darcy ordered, and we paced along the wall, away from the parking
lot and the lone voice, unseen, laughing. I couldn’t help but notice that we didn’t chant
quite as loud. There was a stumble, a hesitation, in the voice to my left. I wanted to sock
her in the stomach, in the diaphragm where her voice sounded, to tell her to quit acting so
stupid. If someone wanted to laugh at us, that was their problem. We were following
tradition, an old tradition. What the hell was the point of any tradition if it wasn’t solemn
and faintly menacing? At the prissy girls’ college up the pike they tie poems to a weeping
dogwood in the springtime. I couldn’t think of a worse tradition if I tried. Well, maybe if I
tried really hard. But, come on, they’re a weak target. It almost makes me embarrassed to
practice on them. I mean, those girls still have to dress for dinner. In their dining hall. In
pearls. And their school colors? Pink and white, for chrissakes. It’s hardly worth—it isn’t
worth—making fun of.
The voice behind me faded, faltered, and I leaned backward, stepped out of time
just a little bit, and purposefully put my heel down on her toe.
The rhythm of the group wavered; girls turned. I looked straight ahead, pretending
not to be a part of whatever had happened. The girl behind me kicked at my ass, but
missed because of the wavy folds of our robes. Someone else in the group snickered, and
we straggled to a stop. The chanting died.
We peered at each other from under our hoods, standing in wet grass along the
dark corner of a building. The atmosphere was ruined. I could see some of the girls
shrinking farther into their hoods, as if they could melt into them and therefore not be
“Whoever’s fault this is,” Darcy said, “is going on report.”
Nobody spoke up. I certainly didn’t. We live under an honor code here, but there
was no way I was admitting any guilt. Was it my fault that some idiot had laughed at us?
Was it my fault that other people in the group needed prodding to get back with the
program? Of course not. I was only doing what needed to be done.
There would be no tequila tonight, I could sense, as we hovered in our semicircle,
nobody wanting to be the first one to leave.
“Screw this,” Darcy said finally, pulling off her robe and rolling it into a black
cylinder. “We’ll try again next month.”
As I trudged back to Austen House I mentally cursed everyone—everyone—from
Jennie-love to Darcy, from the unseen mocker in the parking lot to Professor Davison’s
idiot boy. Kyoko too. And Julia, for what happened in the library. And whoever it was
that wrote the fucking New Testament. And Freud, Jung, and Foucault, just for good
measure. These people never did anything, never made anything happen. They just talk,
talk, talk about other people’s actions. Not me. I’m not afraid to act if something needs to
be done. I wasn’t sorry for stepping on another society member’s toes. Julia would
probably ask me, “Literally or figuratively?” if I told her. Ha, ha. So funny, figurative
toes. Except a figurative action isn’t an action at all. It’s like being a critic instead of an
artist. And me, I’d rather be the artist. I’d rather make the world than bitch about it.
Tipping the Canoe (Teddy)
It’s nine-thirty in the evening on October the twenty-second, and it is forty-two
degrees outside. I am in a long narrow white room on the long narrow third floor of Olin
Hall, which is itself on the eastern edge of the long narrow campus of the local girls’
college. Above are two floors of dusty offices and a twelve-year-old copy machine; the
history and Classics departments bicker perpetually over sole possession of these items,
says my father, though the offices are infested with termites and the copier smells of
burning rubber and rancid ink.
I smell food-service coffee. Tall white pillars in two horizontal rows cut the
narrow room into vaguely-equal thirds. There is a tall podium and a microphone, and six
rows of folding chairs—enough room, that is, for sixty people. A fluffy gray woman, so
short she is on tiptoe and still barely visible, stands behind the podium. The microphone
tips toward her and she turns her face up to it, as if speaking into hanging cups of
unnaturally tall foxglove.
Of the sixty seats perhaps twenty are occupied. Seven students soberly perch on
their black folding chairs, taking solemn notes as the tiny woman reads from a book of
essays that, she says, are marginally true. I do not remember the name of this woman; I
am here looking for the girl who swore to me, last spring, that she was putting Prufrock
to music. She was at the reading of Eavan Boland and I have not seen her since.
The woman at the platform, who is old enough to be my mother, is talking about
her erotic dreams. I hope this story is more marginal than true; I don’t want to hear this,
though the language is poetic. She is telling a story about mermaids and midnight
gambols in the Pacific Ocean. I know nothing about the Pacific; it is not my ocean, but I
am not sure they have mermaids there any more than we do. My father says it is good to
know the voices of our western counterparts, but then, he expected me to go to Stanford.
Instead I work as a stable boy and, at night, attend readings at the girls’ college where my
father is Assistant Dean of Student Affairs and I stick out like a sore male thumb.
Besides the girls taking notes I see four professors—they have all been home to
dinner with my father at least twice—and two old couples who come to every reading.
Three of the professors are young, and women; they came to this reading late and arm-inarm, laughing at a joke, probably literary, as they strode through the oversized wooden
doors that seem to shrink this narrow room into something even smaller than it actually
is. The fourth is a thin man in a gray beard and green Georgia Review cap.
The girl I want to talk to is not here. The other students all whisper to each other.
They think I should become an honorary member of the English department because they
have seen me at every reading since Eavan Boland, since that girl swore she was putting
Prufrock to music and would give me a copy when she was finished. The girls think I am
cute. They want a pet boy for their department.
The reader’s voice is giving out—she says from illness; I say from smoker’s
lungs—and she pleads permission to end the reading early. The bearded professor says
she may stop whenever she likes, and we all applaud. He has a comforting South
Carolina accent that is welcome to me—the other professors in the room are all from the
North. The reader beams, a bear cub of a woman, and as she steps out from behind the
tall podium I see for the first time that she has two moles hidden in the crease of her jaw.
I get up and leave.
The thermometer says it is still forty-two degrees when I clatter down the stairs
and out the swinging doors of Olin Hall. Hanging chandeliers, misted by folds of thick
cobweb that the grounds workers never bother to scrape away, light the wide brick porch.
It is a clear night.
One of the girls from the reading strolls out of Olin Hall. She is blond, and has
very erect posture and big feet encased in ratty gray running shoes. She looks at me as if I
am a pleasing arithmetic problem. I have seen her before.
She tells me she is from Florida and we laugh extravagantly. I wonder if this is an
inside joke she has told me before, or thinks she has. If so, I don’t remember it. The night
is cold, very cold, but I am wearing three layers and I do not mind. The girl who might be
from Florida shivers and tucks her sharp fists up under her armpits, curling in on herself
as if the bones of her chest might fold up tight against her spine. She has crooked front
teeth and what my father would call an engaging smile.
“It’s cold,” she tells me.
“It is not cold,” I say.
“But I’m from Florida, remember,” she says, and she laughs again. I laugh too,
though she might merely be making fun. This girl seems friendly enough—friendlier than
the one who promised me Prufrock. She is looking at me in a hopeful sort of way.
I do not invite her to walk with me when I leave.
I run the deserted sidewalk, past the dim bulk of the music conservatory and down
the hill. Here grand old houses frame the avenue, though they are slowly falling down
around the families, mostly black, who live crammed into their many small rooms in
spiraling waves of extended family. In one house, its original porch pillars gone and the
roof held up by produce crates, a small child leans out an upstairs window and watches
Even this late on a cold night some of the porches hold old men, smoking and
leaning on the matchstick railings. They lift their hands as I pass by, but only one talks to
me. His name is Johnny and he mows the college lawns for a living. I stop when I reach
his yard, and he beckons me up the rattling porch stairs.
“Evening,” he says, and he spits a thick yellow wad over the railing. “’Nother
“Hello,” I tell him. “Yes. Another reading.”
“Any good?”
Johnny knows by now not to ask me who is reading—I know he doesn’t care and
he knows I don’t remember anyway. I shrug at him and he offers me a beer by kicking a
slippered foot at the open twenty-four pack of Pabst leaning against the house. Johnny
has been offering me beer since I was fifteen and started running the six miles between
home and my father’s work by myself. I am nineteen now and have never once taken him
up on the offer; the refusal has become habit.
“Mermaids,” I say. “All I remember are the mermaids.”
The old man grunts. “My daddy went to sea,” he says, crushing the ashy end of
his cigarette against the porch railing. “To the Navy. A war your daddy don’t never
remember. Never heard nothing bout no mermaids, though, far as I know.”
“I don’t imagine they follow naval fleets,” I tell him.
“Well, and who else is out there anymore?” he demands as he pats his pockets for
a new cigarette and his matches. “Who else would know?”
There’s a moment of silence where Johnny finds his matches but no more
cigarettes and I wonder what would happen if I dared to break my ritual and take a beer.
It would be cold, I think, sitting outside on a night like this. I almost tell myself that I
will, but I know I will not. Johnny leans over the side of the porch and lets out a stream of
uncreative cussing. He has found a pack of cigarettes in a pile of junk mail and managed
to drop them to the damp lawn below the porch. “She there?” he asks, not wanting the
cigarettes enough to lever his frame out of his chair and fetch them.
“That girl—the one you been asking me about.”
“Oh. No. No, she wasn’t.”
“Once is enough.” Johnny sinks further down into his rusty folding chair, white
painted lettering on the side almost obscured. It says Property of, but the institution’s
name has been rusted out. He lets out all his breath in a big grunt.
I decide to try one more time. “You sure you don’t know who she is?” I am
wheedling. But Johnny either doesn’t know or isn’t talking. “She’s short,” I tell him
again, like I told him before. “Alabama accent. Sandy hair. Lots of earrings.”
Johnny spits again; I am not sure he’s really listening to me.
“I got to be getting home,” I tell him. He nods, as if to himself, and goes right on
nodding. I could go or stay and it wouldn’t, just now, make much difference to him. I
Johnny continues to nod and I think about that girl. She was exactly what I had
told him—short, sandy-haired, from Alabama. She wore lots of earrings and she had the
tattoo of a tiny blue lizard crawling out of her belly button. She said she was putting
Prufrock to music, and had whistled five notes for me. That is all I know about her. I
refuse to ask my father, though probably he could tell me who she is.
“Second year you out of school,” Johnny says. I know this. I am reminded of it
every time my father sees me, like he is surprised I am still here. Where is your drive, he
always asks me. Where is your ambition?
Johnny is much more literal. “You heading to California any time soon?”
“No,” I say. “Not this year. Not ever.”
“Not California, you say. But somewhere?”
I sigh and head down the porch steps. “Yeah,” I say, trying to sound sure.
I turn with the gentle downward curve of the street, walk across the new overpass
and into the dying downtown of the city. The problem with the reading, I think as I plod,
is that I am swimming in my own bad dreams and that western lady’s mermaids can’t
save me. Sometimes I’m not sure why the thoughts in my head aren’t as tangible as the
thoughts of those girls up in their red-brick institution. I decide I am in love with the
Prufrock girl, but even if I walk all night I know I will not be able to explain why.
I cut left on Center Street and up the five blocks to the end of downtown. Now on
my right is another old residential neighborhood, the white neighborhood, where the
houses are restored to brilliance with attention to aesthetics if not actual period detail. I
was born here, on this wide street full of oaks and magnolias and senior citizens. The girl
who might be from Florida would approve, I believe, of this street and my parents’ red
and white house that is not on a corner lot. There is just enough back yard for an ancient
apple tree and a rusty old swing set that used to be mine; there is no room for mermaids,
Pacific or Atlantic. There is no room, in the tall red and white house, for Florida or the
west coast.
I whistle all I can remember, all five notes, of that girl’s rendition of Prufrock.
Then I go into the house and lock the door behind me.
Winter Light (India)
The empty wooden spools were from Anna. Lola had contributed the wood
shavings, probably from the shop inside our campus theater. Rigsy donated several spikes
off her ruined cleats, and the acorn hulls were mine. But there were other things that
could have belonged to anybody: five dimes, a broken red marble, a dirty fork from the
dining hall. Deep, shattered bits of a Skyy bottle. A wheat-head penny from 1943. Some
chapstick. An unsmoked cigarette. Two Food Lion receipts for less than twenty dollars.
Some candle-wicking. A plastic horse. Nail clippers. Green mint floss. A doorknob with
no keyhole. Seven scratched Lotto tickets, none of them winners.
I called from a dusty payphone just south of Raleigh while my daddy filled the
tank and scrubbed nearly two states’ worth of mosquitoes off the Range Rover’s
windshield and front fender. I called my own room, and if anyone else with a single had
tried that I’d call her crazy myself, but I knew better. Rigsy answered on the third ring
and informed me that I was witheringly lucky that she had decided to plug in my
telephone before attempting to assemble my computer.
“Don’t you touch that,” I told her. “I got a new laptop from M’dea after
Clambake, and when I get back I’m going to sell that old thing. Don’t you go messing
with it, maybe breaking it.”
Rigsy said that it was too late now, she’d already started, and anyway it would be
good to have it set up when people came to look at it, if I ever did get around to selling it.
“Where are you?” she asked. “Lola and me, we’ve been here hours.”
Neither of them had as far to drive, so that was hardly a fair statement. Rigsy
lived just out county, and Lola flew in from New Orleans every semester because her
daddy wouldn’t drive her. My daddy wouldn’t let me fly, so at the beginning of every
term we drove up from St. Helena with a cooler full of M’dea’s cooking to keep us.
“Look,” Rigsy said, and she sounded tinny and faint. I squelched an abstract
desire to plug more dimes into the coin slot. “Look,” she said again, “where are you?
We’ll order pizza when you get back; the dining hall just announced that they’re serving
nothing but sandwiches tonight, on account of classes haven’t started yet.”
My daddy tapped my shoulder and handed me a container of M’dea’s cayenne
shrimp salad. The Tupperware was dripping with ice from the cooler. “Look, I don’t
know how long it’ll be,” I said. “Three hours? Four? I have to get going.”
“I got to tell you something.”
“Well, what?”
“Even right from summer, you don’t sound Gullah at all.”
“Well, it was supposed to be a compliment. You don’t sound like that lady from
TV, the late-night psychic lady. The one with the crazy turban?”
“Rigs. Miss Cleo was born in L.A. And she wasn’t even pretending to be Gullah,
she was pretending to be Caribbean.”
“Well, I can’t hear the difference.”
This was one of the reasons I never asked my hallmates to come home with me.
M’dea would try to talk proper English but Rigsy—even Lola, who grew up bilingual—
wouldn’t understand her. I was tempted to let loose a rich string of Gullah creole at Rigsy
now—nomannussuble, like M’dea would say—but I didn’t. What would it prove,
anyway? That one or the other is a fake, a farce? That I can ape culture like the white
boys with giant jeans belted around their knees? It’s not like that, not at home, but how
would it look off the islands?
The first person I met on return to school was Jennie-love. She lolled in the
oppressive humidity of August in central Virginia, the air heavy and deep. Even the
smells were different here than on the islands, the sharp bitterness of spent cicadas
balanced against the thick syrup of old oak trees and spice of brickwork crumbling in the
sun. Jennie-love, a Midwesterner still not used to August in the South, gleamed bluewhite against the brick steps of Eliot Hall’s wide main porch. She leaned heavily on her
elbows though she had little in the way of actual substance, and the limp hair pooling
around her ears was almost colorless in the sunshine.
“All right there, babydoll?” my daddy said, glancing at her as he heaved one of
my red suitcases up the shallow stairs and onto the porch.
Jennie-love opened her eyes and lifted the corner of her thin mouth. “Hell,” she
said, with no particular intonation. “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. How are you?”
“Fine, fine,” my daddy said. He put a five-dollar bill in the hand of a boy in a
yellow t-shirt, one of several hired by the college to help with moving-in day. Most were
gleaned from the city high school, but this one I knew. Teddy belonged to someone on
faculty, and kept hanging around the humanities departments looking for Jennie-love’s
baby sister, Tabitha. And she knew it.
Teddy took over unloading the Rover and my daddy bent to kiss me goodbye. It
wouldn’t take but a minute to fish two boxes and another suitcase out of the car; most of
my things had been left here at the college.
“Daddies been doing this for over a hundred years now,” he told me, “saying
good-bye to their little girls on these steps.” He folded me into the crook of one arm and
put his lips against my hair.
“Hundred and fifty-four, now,” I said. It was too hot to be so close to anyone; his
arm was an oven.
“You be good, now, and call your mother sometimes.”
“M’dea knows I’m busy.”
We said good-bye, Jennie-love watching us. She’d told us once our first year that
nobody thought they needed another Jennifer around to keep straight from all the others,
but that she’d prove us all wrong. “What?” Lola had answered. “You expect to make
everyone love you?” The name had stuck, but not Jennie-love’s prediction. Lola and
Rigsy couldn’t stand her.
“You’ll fry out here,” I told her now, by way of greeting. “Come on up, and help
me unpack.”
Teddy shifted his weight from one sandaled foot to the other, waiting for direction
as he held one of my cardboard boxes in his arms, balanced against his chest. “I’m on
fifth Eliot,” I told him, and immediately he put the box down. “What? You can use the
elevator as far as the fourth floor; it’s not like I expect you to take the stairs.”
“Oh, no,” he said, and took my daddy’s bill, crumpled now, out of his pocket. He
reached it toward us. “I’m haunted enough already, thanks.”
I refused the money and turned again to Jennie-love, who slanted her eyes at
Teddy as he retreated. “He’s right, you know,” she said.
“Oh, come on. Not you, too.”
“It’s your fault for choosing to live up there. Nobody but me will ever visit you.”
It was useless to say, but Jennie-love had been right about the humidity—though I
wouldn’t usually call central Virginia hell. I was ready to get inside and turn my air
conditioning up full-blast. “Mary’s just one ghost,” I said. “How bad can one ghost be?
Come on; I’ll buy you pizza.”
There were exactly five ways to reach the fourth floor of Eliot Hall, but only one
to the fifth. The East or West Curly Stairs spiraled up four stories, but the East were
closed from eleven-thirty to twelve-thirty every night to stave off traditional suicide
attempts. The back staircase behind the dining hall was nice if I was already outside, but
useless otherwise. There was, of course, the caged elevator—when it happened to be
working. And then there was the main way, through the student union and up to what
used to be the chapel, through the secret panel and into the fourth floor Short Corridor.
The only way to the fifth floor was through the door at the very end of Short
Corridor. The door opened onto a landing, and the only way to go was up. The stairs were
wide and wooden, the balustrade the only one in the entire college never polished. We
went up five broad, shallow steps, turned, and climbed seven more. At the top was a
short, dark, vaulted hallway with four doors. Three of these were student rooms, one
college storage. At the end of the hallway was a small, inset window that never closed all
the way, the glass so old that it had long since streaked, the view a perpetual bad
watercolor. At the top of the stairs sat Mary’s bowl.
It had been cool and dark up here in mid-March when we selected our rooms for
the coming year, the view out the watercolor window bright and promising. The old wood
smelled secretive. Now it was merely hot and damp, and oppressive after an island
summer. Jennie-love helped me wheel two suitcases up the shallow, scuffed stairs to my
room. Someone, probably Lola, had started taping my name in red tagboard cutouts to
my door. She had gotten as far as the D, but no further. I’d rather have had blue.
I bent down and scattered a handful of island sand into Mary’s bowl—my first
offering of the year. Last spring, when we’d decided to live on fifth Eliot, Lola and I had
agonized about what to put in the bowl as a visitation offering. I gave a tumbled beach
agate, deep yellow and opaque. Lola wondered if paper money mightn’t be acceptable,
but Rigsy argued that, as bills had changed since the 1890’s, Mary probably wouldn’t
understand them. I agreed, but for a different reason. Green paper, I had argued, was an
arbitrary form of wealth and had no intrinsic value of its own. Whether this was Marxist
or not I couldn’t say; I’d spent most of that semester of introductory literary theory
persuading Rigsy not to throw our shared textbooks down the West Curly Stairs onto the
head of the professor as he passed.
Someone on the maintenance staff had cleared away last year’s offerings to Mary
during the summer. The only things in Mary’s bowl now were my sand, a clouded glass
marble, and the head of a long-dead Barbie. It stared vacantly at me, plastic hair ashy and
colorless as Jennie-love’s. I could hear Lola and Rigsy giggling behind my door, number
“Aren’t you going to give anything?”
Jennie-love tilted her head. “I’d thought you were smarter than that, India.”
“Smarter than what?”
“Offering things to a ghost.” She drew my suitcase up next to her and leaned on
the tall handle. “Just think—you live up here now. It’s your chance to stop the bullshit.
You and me—we could do it. Nothing will happen.”
Was there an attic above us, reachable by some hidden means? The hall was very
quiet; I couldn’t even hear the cicadas.
“I know nothing will happen.”
“Then why don’t you stop?”
“It’s tradition.” I didn’t have any better reason, but I didn’t think I needed one,
“Convocation is tradition. Marriage proposals during spring formal are tradition.
Leaving tokens for Mary is a load of shit dreamed up by some crazy girl years ago who
thought she was haunted. It’s practically Catholicism! Maybe your ancestors practiced
voodoo or whatever, but that was generations ago.”
Actually, they didn’t.
“If I were Mary,” Jennie-love said, “I mean the real Mary, the poor girl who died
here, I’d be horrified to see what’s been done to my good name.”
I reached for my door handle. It had gone quiet in there; Rigsy and Lola were, I’m
sure, listening. “Maybe she didn’t even have a good name,” I said. “You don’t know
anything about it.”
“And you do? You talk to ghosts now?” Jennie-love’s voice was full of false pity.
It was something to wince against, like that feeling when you bend a fingernail backward.
“I think a summer in Carolina’s scrambled your brains, girl. Where’s your logic? I know
you took some sophomore year.”
“That logic course was really math in disguise, and had nothing to do with
“Want to bet?” She opened the door to my room and went in before me. “Where’s
Rigsy gave her some without a word, her eyes on me, daring me to say something.
I didn’t. It was better to let Jennie-love talk herself out than argue with her.
“Look.” She sketched a table on the looseleaf. “Let N stand for No Ghost and F
stand for Fucking Insane, which is what you all are.”
“F is the constant for False.” I didn’t know my voice could get quite that dry, but I
liked it.
“Fine. N for No Ghost and G for Ghost, then.”
“Can’t you do that somewhere else?” Lola threw a Frito at Jennie-love’s head and
missed. It disappeared through the doorway. “The semester hasn’t even started, and
already you’re making my brain hurt.”
“I’m trying to prove to all yall, once and for all, that there is no such thing as
ghosts, and there certainly isn’t one on the fifth floor of Eliot.”
“Which is where we are now,” Rigsy said. “If you’re wrong, Mary heard you, you
know. How do you feel about curses?”
“Hallucinations and religious paranoia.”
“Of course.”
“I could be wrong,” I said. “It’s happened before. But I’m not sure you can use
logic theorems to support existential conclusions.”
“That’s just what I’m saying!” She pointed a dull yellow pencil stub at me. “It’s
not existential at all when you look at it my way.”
“If it’s not existential, then you can’t use your biconditional logical connective.
Apples and oranges. Square holes and round pegs, or whatever. You can’t do it.
Mathematically it doesn’t work.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Just playing by your rules. That’s all I’m doing.”
“Why’d she do it anyway, I wonder?” Lola hated confrontations, and her attempt
to change the subject was clear.
“For want of love.”
We whirled, poking our heads out my doorway, but it was only Teddy standing
five steps below us. He held my box in his arms and ducked his head behind it. “Sorry.”
“How’d you get all the way up into the dorms without a female escort?” Jennie-
love demanded.
He shrugged. “I’m harmless.”
“The hell you are. Just leave my little sister alone, hear?”
“Come again?”
I swept an arm in front of Jennie-love, cutting off her words. “Come on up.
What’d you say about Mary?”
“Her diary’s in the library, in the Rare Book Room. I found it under a cabinet
when I had to go looking through the folios.”
“They let you into the folios?” Jennie-love raised one eyebrow. “What could you
possibly want with Shakespeare?”
“No,” he said, flushing a little, “the Jacobeans. Ben Jonson? Inigo Jones? I was
helping my mom with some research. All those old-fashioned esses hurt her eyes.”
“She really did commit suicide by throwing herself off the top of the East
Curlies?” I took the box from him and set it on the floor.
Jennie-love snickered. “More than likely just took too much laudanum.”
“She didn’t say.” Teddy shifted uneasily, and I regretting having taken the box
away. Now he had no reason not to bolt, if he so chose. He was a nervous boy; we’d seen
him do it before. “But she was very unhappy.”
“Weren’t all Victorian ladies?” Jennie-love stalked away.
I dreamed about St. Helena that night, as I always did the first day back to school.
The colors were deep and penetrating, and I could smell the salt marshes. Long sea grass,
crayon-bright, waved in the tan water. From away I could hear the highway, and the rush
of silver sedans making their way toward summer homes on Hilton Head. Two hundred
years ago nobody wanted these islands, so escaped slaves hid here and made a home, and
nobody bothered them. Now St. Helena is the only island we have left.
In my dream M’dea told me to be gracious, not bitter. We sat under a spreading,
weeping tree and she waved at the mosquitoes with a paper fan purloined from church.
My daddy is from away, but M’dea is pure Gullah and so am I. She said it didn’t matter
the way I talked when I was at school; that talk was only part of it and not even the
biggest part. She said not to worry. I always worried anyway. My ancestors never
practiced voodoo, no matter what Jennie-love thinks, but they surely did believe in
ghosts. I could remember hair-curling tales of fancy ladies dead from love unrequited and
hog farmers torn to pieces in their own woodlots. M’dea still spoke, sometimes, as if her
own mother were alive and well.
But none of the stories were about people like Mary. To die at college, I thought,
was a very desolate thing. To die without a story, even more so.
“That’s dumb,” Rigsy informed me when I ventured the hypothesis next morning.
“Whoever heard of a ghost without a story?”
“But that’s just it. Who would?”
Teddy met me outside the Rare Book Room with a key to the folio cabinet
purloined from his father’s office. “Just don’t tell them it was me,” he said, and
disappeared. The library, kept chilly and dry to protect the books, was virtually vacant so
early in the school year. I opened the cabinet where copies of the Second and Fourth
folios sat next to each other, on display behind document-preservation glass. On the
shelves below the display panel sat a welter of other materials: various copies of
Shakespeare’s plays up through the Edwardian era, including a red-bound first edition set
of Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare. There were also, oddly, several newer volumes of T.S.
Eliot’s scholarly works. I reached down to the lowest shelf, almost at floor-level, and
pulled out a slim little cardboard-backed booklet. Upon opening, it was filled with
anonymous, feminine longhand penned in blue-black India ink.
The rain is pouring in torrents, and the wind sobs and sighs as if in sympathy with
the desolate looking little figure who has just got off the car and is being lifted across the
mud, that awful, sticky, red Virginia mud, by two gentlemen, the one Dr. Smith, the other
her father.
And where was her mother? I remembered Teddy’s first comment on the subject. I
read that diary all afternoon, shivering on the warped wooden floor of the Rare Book
Room while the world sweated and the cicadas dropped dead outside the window.
Sometimes Mary signed her entries; more often she had not. She had liked drawing and
French, and despaired over her math and elocution scores. She had been engaged, but
never once in her diary mentioned his name. A brother, the favorite child, died near the
end; a casualty of the Spanish-American war whose body would never be recovered.
Mother will not write. No word from home in three months. Near the end the sentences
were shorter, the thoughts terse and clipped. M’dea called me every Sunday—would not
let me have a cell phone, even, so she knew where I was when we spoke.
Teddy poked his head in the door. “Still here?”
“Is this it?” I waved the book at him. “Nothing else?”
“Not much of a story, is it?”
“Not much of anything.” I didn’t ask why he’d said what he had about Mary’s
death, and love. We all have our reasons, some unknowable even to ourselves. I snapped
off the overheads and we stared through the window, oak boughs swaying muddily in the
dim evening light.
I wondered about Jennie-love’s parting words about Victorian women. Were they
all unhappy? Weren’t they? Where was the dividing line—who could say across the
board, one way or another?
“I hated Little Women when my fourth-grade teacher forced it on me for a book
Teddy didn’t look at me as if I were crazy. I wondered when I’d previously
received that kind of willing credulity consistently from any one person. Never, that I
could remember.
“One line stood out, though. I remember it, even now. Marmee says, ‘I am angry
nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it.’”
“What’s the copyright date? Do you remember?”
We got up, stretching, and I heard Teddy’s knee pop. It was a weirdly intimate
noise in a library, a noise you could almost touch. Not like Mary’s journal; there had been
nothing in there with which to grab hold of her, no knob of character quirk, no jag of
dialect. I followed Teddy down the worn wooden stairs to the second floor, where we
dug through the children’s corner that nobody ever tried to organize.
“I remember coming here as a kid,” Teddy said, his voice unexpected. A line of
ants trailed across the cracked paint of a shallow windowsill.
“Faculty brats can’t put books back where they found them, looks like.”
Teddy flipped the pages of a battered paperback Maniac McGee, sending up a fan
of cold air. “I don’t see why you’d expect us to be any better than any other kid.”
“Don’t your parents worship books?”
“Does that mean they’re necessarily neatniks, too? We’re tidy about diction, not
I laughed, the sound rolling out along the empty aisles. In another week or two I
wouldn’t dare make noise like that in here, but Teddy had made a joke. Come on.
He was failing badly at hiding a smile when he reached out, tipping a hardcover
with scuffed gold edging off a shelf. It fell open to the title page; down at the bottom was
a date.
1868. How different was Marmee’s advice from my own mother’s, now, at the
turn of the millennium? Be gracious, M’dea told me. What’s the difference between that
and learning not to show anger?
Teddy didn’t just shrug off the question; Jennie-love would have. “Appearances?
Maybe it’s worse now, I mean.”
“Just what I said. Marmee wasn’t telling Jo not to be angry.”
I weighed this for a minute; I couldn’t quite remember, but I thought maybe in a
larger context she was. “You think Mary couldn’t handle disassociation?”
Teddy shrugged. “I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter,” he quoted.
“Has Tab been on about that to you, too?” I still held Mary’s little book and I set it
side by side with Little Women on the sun-splotched green carpet. “Have you seen the
moment of your greatness flicker?”
“Greatness? Who can claim that anymore?”
“And Prufrock could?”
“He seemed to think so.”
“Or Eliot. What was he like?”
Teddy chewed on a blunt nail. “Anything we could say about that would be
“And Mary?”
He nudged the little diary with his knee. “Find any anecdotes? Good ones?”
“You know I didn’t.” It was as good an hypothesis as any, Teddy’s fantasy of
keeping up appearances leading to tragic suicide. “So you think corsets are more
damaging than anorexia? Figuratively speaking.”
“Well, when was the last time anyone threw herself off the stairs?”
Teddy laughed—I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard that before. Through the liquid
window the sky looked swampy as it turned toward evening.
“You think she’s really going to do it? Manage to set Prufrock to music?”
“How would I know?” Teddy sounded wistful to me, and I pitied him this. Tab
would never understand.
Things I’ll Take the Blame For (Julia)
My mother always said that college was a rite of passage and it didn’t much
matter exactly what I got out of it, so long as I went in a girl and came out a woman. She
didn’t overly care even if I majored in underwater banana-peeling as long as I learned
how to behave and how to smile that smile. You know that smile. And if you ask me, it’s
not working. Am I supposed to smile that smile at lunch with the twins and India and her
crazy hallmates? Biting into fried chicken, sucking under-carbonated Coke through
striped straws, as we complain about the limp lettuce and spotted tomatoes on the salad
bar, the faint pale strangeness on the outside of the processed shreds of carrot? How am I
supposed to learn to smile that smile when my friends are so different from Mama’s
friends? When the only men I see on a regular basis are professors (hypothetically offlimits) and Ammy’s boyfriend (really off-limits)?
I’m the official asinine-question answerer at the library on Tuesday and Thursday
afternoons, and Sunday mornings. I like Sundays best, because I can get up before
Anna—before the rest of the school—and walk the sidewalks or the hallways in the kind
of quiet that blows in after snow. That’s how I feel on Sunday mornings, when I shower
in someone else’s wet footprints from the night before. The wide, white arched hallways
of the original buildings throw back noise from the tiled floors; even Converse sound like
business heels. But when I’m the only one making those sounds, I try to tell myself
they’re not so frightening.
It wasn’t Sunday, though; it was Tuesday and I was wrestling with Aristophanes
when Jennie-love’s little sister slammed a notebook down on the circulation desk and
said, “I am made all things to all men.”
We’d almost got used to Jennie-love our first year, and then her half-sister from
Alabama showed up as a loudmouthed little eighteen-year-old the next fall. It wasn’t
Jennie-love’s fault, I guess; they didn’t even live together and she swore she’d had
nothing to do with Tab’s decision to matriculate. Normally I wouldn’t call Jennie-love the
most reliable person in the world but in this case I believed her, if only because Tab was
even more of a demon than her big sister.
Professor Davison’s kid, Teddy, finished the quote for her, and she grew irate.
“New Testament?” she demanded. “New Testament?”
She was disturbing people trying to study, and it was my job to stop her. Telling
her to shut up wasn’t likely to work, though; with Jennie-love that only made her louder
and I wasn’t willing to bet that Tab’s response would be very different. I almost insulted
her to see if she’d leave.
“What do you think the Bible is?” Teddy said before I could formulate a response.
“What do you think literature is?” It sounded like the posturing of an adjunct, but it was
the most words I’d ever heard out of his mouth at any one time, I think, and it stopped
Tab short.
“It’s not the same thing at all,” she said, and left. Later I saw Teddy wandering the
stacks looking for her. It was the only thing I’d ever actually seen him do, with the
exception of his part-time job as a stablehand in the riding center, and it seemed to make
him mournfully happy so I left him alone and went to harass Lola into helping me with
my homework.
Lola, Rigsy, and India are the craziest girls in the entire school. There’s always a
couple of crazy ones willing to live on the fifth floor of Eliot, but Lola and India had
good room-draw numbers last year and still chose to live up there. Every good college
has a ghost story or two, no matter what Jennie-love says, and as I passed through the
Student Union and climbed the tall staircase to what used to be the second-floor loft
chapel I saw signs of ours—students had started pasting the gold wrappers off chocolate
coins to the outside of their doors. Bad test scores were generally blamed on poor Mary,
our resident ghost. Whether the wrappers actually counteracted her curse, I couldn’t say.
Lola was home, which was good, but not inclined to be helpful, which wasn’t.
“Why,” she demanded, fixing me with a wide, brown, disapproving eye, “do you feel the
need to understand what you’re reading? Nobody understands classical philosophy—”
“It’s a play.”
“—and anyway, even if we did—” She broke off. “What?”
“It’s not philosophy, it’s a play.”
“What the hell are you reading plays for?”
“Because,” I said, “my foreign language is Greek.”
“I hate tzatziki,” Rigsy said, limping in and throwing a soggy grocery sack to the
floor. She collapsed on Lola’s bed smelling strongly of chlorine. “It’s all Greek to me.
Ha, ha.”
If Rigsy was done with swimming practice, that meant Anna likely would be
looking for me soon. I had the sudden intense urge to stay up here as long as possible but
I wasn’t sure I could handle late night comedy on BET, which was how Lola spent the
evenings her fiancé wasn’t around. I picked up Rigsy’s grocery sack, which held a
dripping swimsuit, cap, and goggles, and threw it at her. “Bad joke.”
“Hey y’all,” India said, coming into Lola’s room tossing her little silver turtle
figurine from hand to hand, “I’m bored. Let’s do something.”
“What I’d like to do,” said Lola, “is stop you guys from using that damn word.”
Lola was from New York, and had been instructed multiple times on the dialectal
differences between you all, y’all, and all y’all, but refused to attempt the use of any.
“What I’d like to do,” I said, leaning against Lola’s illegally-painted pink wall, “is
make Tab stop being so obnoxious to poor Teddy.”
India started laughing. “Let’s take them bowling,” she said.
“No, I’m serious. It’ll be fun. If he doesn’t run away, that is.”
“Count me out,” Lola said, flopping down on her bed. “I can’t take a night of
Jennie-love’s little sister any better than a night with Jennie-love.”
“We have an odd number of people without you, can’t make teams,” Rigsy
argued. “India, me, Julia, Teddy, and Tab.”
“We’ll put Mary on their team,” India said, tossing her turtle high and catching
him again as he spun in the harsh light of the florescent fixture. “It’ll be good for her to
get out.”
I’m supposed to learn other things too, things I couldn’t seem to cultivate at my
mother’s knee, hanging on her crisp linen pantsuits or colorful cotton dresses. Somehow
in four years, between classes and dances, riding lessons and field hockey, drinking and
trying to gain an appreciation for Fine Art and High Literature, I am also supposed to
learn to eat my spinach, to drink iced tea instead of Coke, and to trade firm orange cheese
for soft ones veined with blue and green. I’m supposed to learn to stop crying, to breathe
soft and gentle and normal no matter what happens instead of getting angry and hollering
like I want to. I’m supposed to stop waking up at night, shaking from nightmares I do not
remember and cannot name.
How am I supposed to learn, in this old, old place where India swears she sees
ghosts and everyone believes her, to sleep peacefully through the night?
India shook her head when I insisted on using an eight-pound ball. She asked me
whether I expected to knock down any pins or just make them laugh. I had a Schiller
translation with me and instead of joining in the back-and-forth banter between turns, I
tried to read. It was hard, though, with the din of balls sliding against lacquered lanes and
crashing into pins, the MIDI-esque synthesizer whistles and pops from the arcade
machines, and the hazy swirl of smoke around everything. Below so many years of
tobacco and nicotine I could smell wood polish and something that smelled like nothing
else but bowling alley. My mother would kill me if she knew I was here. Bowling alleys,
skating rinks, and most sporting events were forbidden in our house—too white trash, she
would say; activities like that confused children when it came time to grow up and leave
them behind. My mother didn’t approve of adults who couldn’t let go of childish habits—
with me, she’d tried to not even let those habits form. I’d never been on a Slip n’ Slide or
a trampoline, never played laser tag or miniature golf. I could haltingly reproduce some
Mozart on the piano before I was six, but even now I’m not sure I could match any
popular band from my teens with their radio hits.
I was glad I had sidestepped the issue of dealing with Anna that evening, but
wasn’t sure that my chosen alternative was really any better. Teddy had actually shown
up—Lola would be ecstatic to learn she’d won Rigsy’s bet when we returned to
campus—and was sitting in a molded-plastic chair across from me, the energetic exhaust
from the automatic ball return ruffling his middling brown hair. Incongruously, he had his
own bowling shoes.
“Ten,” Tab was saying to India as she waited for her pins to reset, “but only nine
are anybody’s business but my own.”
Though she was talking to India, it was clear she expected Teddy to listen. I didn’t
know why she bothered—it wasn’t like she had to try with him at all. Maybe she found
the game more interesting than the outcome.
“Of course,” she said, “I can’t stay long. I have other things to do tonight.”
Rigsy hefted a sixteen-pound ball in her hand and heaved it down the lane without
using the finger-holes. There was probably a name for a throw like that. I didn’t care
enough to ask. The ball spun as it rolled, but Rigsy turned away before it hit the pins, not
waiting to see her score. In the attached bar there was a mechanical bull that anyone
could ride, regardless of age, and that was exactly how Anna walked away from it when
she’d been thrown—an immaculate study in attempting not to care.
India grabbed for her ball, but Rigsy held her back. “Wait,” she said, “it’s Mary’s
“Then she’d better get a move on.” Tab tapped her foot against the chrome chair
leg. “Some of us don’t have all night.”
“Who’s her proxy?” Teddy asked.
Everyone turned to look at him. He met no one’s eyes, but he reached Mary’s ball
out to India.
“I don’t think nice girls in the 1890s bowled,” she said.
“That’s why she needs a proxy.” He stretched his arm farther, shaking a little
under the weighted ball. “It’s probably better for a ghost to live vicariously than not at
“How would you know?” Rigsy demanded, but I looked at Teddy thoughtfully.
This kid was one of the few people I was willing to believe on this subject. Vicarious
living, that is. Readers know all about that. Maybe stable boys, too. Did he even know
how to ride?
India set down her own ball and took Mary’s. It was purple, swirled slightly with
silver. Nobody argued her right to bowl for the ghost. She sighted, released, and four
pins fell.
Rigsy picked idly at a hangnail. “Maybe you should let Mary bowl for herself.
She’d probably be better than you.”
“Shut up.” India peered into the darkness of the ball return, waiting for it to spit
Mary’s ball back at her. “You maybe want the poor girl to get a bad reputation, being
seen in a place like this? What would her mother say?”
What would my mother say, I thought. It was impossible to tell whether India was
being serious.
“Who was that guy, the one kicked out of both heaven and hell because he read
too much?” Tab asked.
India bowled again: two more pins.
“Tomlinson.” Teddy’s voice sounded clipped, even a little strained, and he didn’t
“Well, so maybe Mary’s like him, yeah? Like, she needs to rack up more points
one way or another to get into heaven or hell.”
This from the girl furious about a New Testament reference earlier in the day.
“Tomlinson wasn’t punished for reading too much.” I took the green ball Rigsy
held out to me, folding down my place in the Schiller with one hand. “He was punished
because he tried to take credit for other people’s actions.” I quoted a line of St. Peter to
Tomlinson: “‘By the worth of the body that once ye had, give answer—what have ye
“Isn’t it the same thing?” Tab asked, but Rigsy cut her off.
“Under no circumstances,” she said, “are you to argue existential philosophy with
that one. Not while anyone else is around.”
“Who wrote that?” India asked, poking me forward toward the lane.
She made a disgusted face. I turned my head and bowled, and managed to clip
one pin before the ball landed firmly in the gutter. The pin rocked twice but didn’t fall.
Nobody said anything, but I could feel their pity; it crawled unhappily against my skin.
“Not a fan?” I said to India.
“Of Kipling? God, no.”
“But the meter—” Tab started.
“I don’t give a damn.”
“It’s some kind of post-colonial anger, isn’t it?”
If Tab is found dead tomorrow, I’ll know who did it.
I had fallen asleep in my bed with my desk lamp still on and Schiller leaning
against my forehead. I woke up, not recalling having slept at all, when Anna slipped in
and crawled over me to lie next to the wall. She was long and sharp, her frizzy hair
cropped close to her head. Probably she had showered, but she still smelled like chlorine.
That smell was the only thing the same about the twins—even their supposedly identical
faces looked different because of Ammy’s added roundness and Anna’s razor-sleek
“I don’t want to hear about it,” I mumbled.
“Move over, at least,” she said, and I did. The window was cracked, and through it
I could hear the faint sounds of laughter spilling over from the residence hall next door.
An orange glow flowed over the scuffed hardwood floor from the wrought-iron path
lights outside, and now that I was somewhat awake I could smell a distant cigarette even
past the clean chemical smell of Anna’s chlorine-soaked hair. Anna settled against me on
her stomach and threw Schiller to the floor. My arm automatically went around her and
my hand slid beneath her tank top to rest against the sharp dip in her back. She threw one
bare leg over mine.
I didn’t ask her if she had her own bed, her own room, and why she couldn’t sleep
there. I never did. But I didn’t ask her to stay, either, and I had never invited her.
“I never offered to tell you about anything,” she said.
“Mm.” It was a noise of acknowledgement without capitulation. I was good at
noises like that, from long practice with my mother.
“I thought you were asleep.”
“Really?” She laughed, but it was a dry sound. “Disbelief is a sign you’ve been
reading too much classical philosophy.”
“Schiller isn’t—”
“Whatever.” She raised her head, and I could see the shine of her eyes in the
orange glow of the outside lights. “Don’t you want to know where I was?”
I took a deep breath. Her hipbone dug into my side. “You’ll tell me anyway,” I
“I know that.”
“Then why did you ask?”
She dropped her eyes and I was glad that the challenge had passed. She was hard
and sleek, even in repose, and I traced a hand down the knobbed line of her spine. How
different was this really, I wondered, from what my Victorian grandmothers, some four or
five generations removed, just called normal female friendship? My mother, and her own
mother, would be horrified by the suggestion that anyone in our family could possibly do
anything so indecent. We’re supposedly Baptists from way back. I’ve had enough social
history to know better, but it isn’t any use to tell her so. Facts aren’t so important in our
For all their pedantic posturing, I think the Victorians knew better.
“I’ll tell you something else, then,” Anna said, and she kissed me. She twisted
sharply, her hipbone digging again into my belly, and I pushed back, one hand slipping
between us to find the smooth, angular knob of bone. I cupped it in my hand, curled my
fingers around the side of her hip, and held her there, her belly breathing against mine. I
combed my other hand through her short hair, dry and brittle with too much exposure to
chlorine. She jabbed a sharp patella into the mattress, the springs protesting as she rose to
her hands and knees. “Why don’t you ever ask where I’ve been, when I come back late at
My hand was still in her hair; I curled my fingers into a loose fist. “Does it
“Which?” She righted herself, sitting on my knees.
“Either. Where you’ve been, or whether I ask.”
“Well, why don’t you?”
Now was when a decisive person would tell the truth—about how I didn’t care
whether she was part of a secret society or not, or what they did during their meetings. It
had no bearing on anything else, on tomorrow’s classes or next year’s graduation. It
seemed almost cruel to break the illusion of intrigue, though. “You didn’t ask where I
was earlier, either.”
“I know where you were. Tab told me.”
“What did she say?”
“That you bowl worse than Mary.” She grinned pityingly. “It’s okay. I know you
had a warped childhood.”
“Everyone has warped childhoods.”
“Not like you.”
“If they were all the same, they wouldn’t be warped. Foucault says—”
She clapped a hand over my mouth. “I have an excellent idea. Let’s change the
I pulled the hand away. “To?”
“New Zealand.”
“What about it?”
“Come with me.”
“No.” Reflexively. Then, “When?”
She rocked back on her heels and put her hands on my hips, drawing them up my
sides. I didn’t have the shoulder and back muscles she did—horseback riders don’t need
them. She snorted loosely through her nose when she saw that I had fallen asleep with a
bra on. “How you can do that,” she said, hooking her long fingers under the band and
pulling it over my head without unsnapping it, “is beyond me.”
“It’s not uncomfortable.”
I lay back, sheets cool against my skin. “New Zealand,” she said, “This summer.
You really should come with. It would make you feel better.”
“I don’t need to feel better.”
Her mouth dipped into the hollow of my collarbone. She wore a sterling star on a
silver chain and it dragged against my sternum, heavy and cold. She drew her sleek self
higher, sliding her cheek against mine before turning her head, her nose behind the curve
of my ear. She took the lobe of my ear into her mouth for a long moment, pulling at it
gently with her teeth. She bit at the little diamond stud in my ear. Dave, at the Art House,
told me once about a guy with a fetish for swallowing jewelry. “His girlfriends never
knew where their missing earrings went,” he said. “Bracelets with those little square
charms, too, and sometimes whole chains of gold. What would Freud say to that?” I
didn’t know. Philosophers don’t talk much about Freud anymore; he’s really relevant only
to literary critics, like some messiah they’ve just discovered.
“You’re too tense,” Anna said now. “It would get you away from your mom.”
“I’m not tense.” I raised my arm to put it around her and she ducked out from
under it, biting the insensitive spot just at the elbow joint. “Don’t do that,” I said, rubbing
my arm. She just laughed.
I kissed her then, quietly abandoning the idea that I would be able to tell her no,
that this was not what my mother had planned for me. I wouldn’t be able to tell her
tonight. I could tell her that I wasn’t going with her to New Zealand because she expected
me to say no, and because she never believed me anyway. I wasn’t sure I believed myself,
wasn’t sure I could say no to this girl who had never been denied anything in her life and
thus did not comprehend the finality of denial.
“You are.” She sat up, her eyes dark in the ambient lighting, her head cocked
slightly to one side. “You’re tensing up. What did I do?”
“No, really.”
“Nothing.” I put my arms around her, under her tank top, against her skin. I could
feel the tension in her back and shoulders as she held herself there above me, absolutely
still. I traced the smooth maze of tendon along her back, her jutting shoulder blades, and
tried to make my own muscles relax. “I was thinking.”
“What a filthy habit.” There was something in her voice I could not define,
something behind the droll humor. I felt her legs as she straddled my lower back, her
sartoria defined, but not as strong as mine. Swimmers don’t need their inner thighs as
much as riders. Her hands were warm and damp, the tips of fingers rough with little
edges of torn calluses. Looking at them, I had a sudden vision of Ellison’s hands
drumming against the Art House kitchen tile in a night-darkened room. They were really
nothing alike. “Come to New Zealand.”
She was leaning on one elbow, propped partly against my back. I couldn’t go to
New Zealand with her, but this I could handle. Brief laughter floated to me from another
building, but it seemed hazy, and very far away. I was lost to the world, and Anna was the
solid physical tie holding me to it. I wanted to tell her that I loved her, but I didn’t do it. It
wouldn’t have been fair, because I didn’t know if it was true and it didn’t matter anyway.
It just seemed like the right time in a song or story for that kind of confession. Bridge, I
thought. Repeat chorus.
Kudzu (Teddy)
There’s a dildo in the gutter.
It’s just outside the red brick wall dividing the girls in their school from the rest of
the town, and their gutter is usually clean, but for the past two weeks that thing has been
lying there, bright orange plastic or whatever they’re made of, the color of constructioncrew vests. It probably rolled out of someone’s car, parked briefly at the curb, but what
kind of person would have something like that just rolling around in the car? And what
kind of person wouldn’t notice that it had fallen, wouldn’t retrieve something so bright
and costly, from the opaque rust-colored canal next to the curb?
I have to pass that thing every day when I run the early streets, before the high
school buses and most of the commuters roar down on me, making me try to hold my
breath while still keeping pace as the shockwave of exhaust rolls by.
Some of the
campus maintenance crew is awake, brushing a night’s worth of spider webs from
doorways and windows, but other than that I am alone as I jog across the jutting front
lawn, duck through the alley between two brick buildings, and descend the hill toward the
playing fields and, after that, the stable. Heavy fog lies between the craggy trees and
hides the college bell tower.
The stable is located behind the academic buildings and the soccer field, near
where Heatherdale Hill slopes down to meet the James River. An old railroad trestle
spans the muddy river; they say a girl died there the year I was born and that’s why the
old footpaths were allowed to grow over. You can still find them if you look hard enough,
back behind the prickly undergrowth and trailing kudzu, the red Virginia clay crumbling
under your feet as you scramble down the hill to the riverbank. They say the James used
to be a proud river like the Potomac or even the Ohio, long before dams and the need for
drinking water turned it into a puddling trickle. Every year, my father says, some new
students ask if the James is safe for swimming. My mother’s quick answer, always, is that
it is safe enough—provided you are up-to-date with your tetanus shots.
I used to play the violin. I was never any good. My fingers wouldn’t bend
correctly, and I could never get the gently rhythmic, almost tidal movements of the bow
that my tutor wanted. Instead I was like someone with a manual saw who doesn’t know
what he’s doing—back-and-forth awkwardness, hiccupping pauses between the downand upstrokes. I played with as much grace as a five-year-old brushing his teeth. And yet
I wanted to play. The instrument, even my cheap Korean student violin, was beautiful. If I
could, I would have teased or wrestled out its secret and been able to play with more
success. Instead I sat in my room when I was supposed to be practicing, tracing the
whorls and curlicues of the violin’s perfect design, inhaling the smell of varnished wood,
learning the mechanical precision of each placed part.
I feel the same way at this job, too, though I never handle anything quite so
delicate as a violin. The stable manager has this way of looking at me that reminds me of
my middle school violin tutor. Is it something all grizzled old men who know their art
share, that look? I ache, sometimes, to know something—anything—in the absolute way
a craft master knows his craft. All I can really do is run, and that doesn’t take knowledge.
I can’t be said to know anything, really. Not like that.
Coach Talbot, my boss, used to compete nationally until his injury. We’re not
supposed to talk about it, but one of the riding instructors told me the story as we taped
up the legs of a mare so she could be transported elsewhere for a show. It was a freak
accident, she said, the sort of thing that could happen to anybody. He’d been on a green
two-year-old, a big old stud colt, and wasn’t paying enough attention. The horse smashed
through a post-and-rail fence before Coach could stop him. They took a fall; Coach’s hip
and knee were splintered so badly that he can’t bear weight on that leg any more—at least
the kind of weight he’d need to ride.
I know next to nothing about horses, but the college is always desperate for stable
hands and they pay more than the state minimum wage. I have worked at the college
stable for three years now and I still know just about as much about horses as I did before
I started. Coach wouldn’t condescend to train his stable boys and nobody else has any
time. The stable is hopelessly and perpetually understaffed because nobody wants to
work with Coach Talbot. There are just two under-coaches and five part-time stable boys,
myself included, to run a fifty-horse barn.
In three years I’ve gotten pretty quick at cleaning stalls, which is my primary
responsibility. There are also masses of tack to be cleaned, trailers to be washed and
loaded or washed and unloaded, maintenance on the stable itself, and plenty of other
things to do during my six-hour shifts. I hardly ever touch the horses, and I’ve worked
here three years without ever riding one.
It is a cold morning, and very foggy. The horses in the arena are misbehaving; I
can tell from the reverberating squeals and crack of crops. Coach will not be in a good
mood; I know better than to get in his way on days like this. My barrow slowly fills as I
move down the first aisle of stalls, pitching manure and wet sawdust in, adding clean
sawdust as needed. Invariably Coach—or one of the girls who boards her own horse
here—will complain that I’ve put in too much, or not enough. This is not a mathematical
art, flinging sawdust. Each stall wants something different.
But the dildo in the gutter. Probably one of the girls left it, but the thought leaves
me squirming. I much prefer to imagine it’s one of the old men who, on warm spring
afternoons, stand just outside the brick wall and photograph the girls sunning themselves
on the front lawn. It would make sense, I think, for a man who takes unsolicited
photographs to own something so garishly orange.
Even with Coach Talbot as a boss I would rather be working here in the stable
than at the crumbling post office downtown or any old big department store. On these
clear cold fall mornings I can run the six miles to the girls’ college with sweet central
Virginia air falling behind me with each step. The cicadas have finally stopped their
summer buzzing, and in the creaky old houses I can smell the same things I did the night
before—bacon, toast, tomato sauce—the same things I will smell the next morning, and
the next.
As long as I keep out of Coach’s way it’s okay, this job, and at least I don’t have
to pretend to be polite to people all day long. All I have to do is keep out of everybody’s
way and clean up as much as I can during my shift.
I am on my sixth stall, the wheelbarrow full of sweet sawdust waiting for me in
the walkway, when my father’s voice swims around a corner and I jerk up in time to see
him halt in front of my stall. Marietta, the new city planner, is with him. My mother is out
of town, and I don’t think I like the way the city planner stands so carefully still, her
hands at her sides, revealing nothing.
“Teddy,” my father says, and I imagine his voice is, as always, full of a strange
and arid disappointment. “You remember Mary? I told her we could be her next
challenge, if she wants one.”
She smiles, not at my father but at me. She is dressed in very bright red and has
very short hair. Her business suit does not quite fit her, and without it I would never guess
she was in business at all. She does not wear makeup—that I can see, anyway—and as far
as I can tell all her skin is her own, including the lines that will be wrinkles in three or
five more years. She is very tree-like.
“Mary wanted to discuss some things with Coach Talbot,” my father tells me, “but
I don’t see him.”
“I don’t think he’s here yet,” I say, and I shovel some sawdust into a pile at the
back of the stall. “It takes him a while to get going on cold mornings.”
“That bum leg, huh?” My father smiles, a joking smile, the smile of a man who
has just said something he would never say to Coach’s face. “Well, we’ll just pour
ourselves some coffee and wait in his office.”
They are probably planning something grand, I think, as I watch my father and
Marietta move off toward the short row of closed offices where Coach, the instructors,
and the riding team captains have private space. It will probably fail just as miserably as
everything else they have tried. This city will never grow into the kind of urban center
that Marietta is so good at building elsewhere.
I hear the rumble of my father’s voice and the clearer words from Marietta as they
move down the stable aisle. I shuffle the sawdust around a little and I listen.
“…nationally competitive…” my father says.
“It can’t hurt to try.” Marietta’s voice much more distinct than my father’s wheezy
grumbles. “Any publicity right now, frankly, that doesn’t come from that damn church is
a good thing. Frank, how am I supposed to help this city if none of you will admit that
there’s something wrong?”
I go back to my shoveling. It doesn’t mean anything to me what they are planning,
I decide. I won’t be involved. I am never involved.
I smooth the sawdust and make sure the automatic water dispenser is clean and
working. I check the stall’s mineral block to make sure it doesn’t need replacing, and then
I move on to the next. There is a horse in it, so I open the sliding door carefully and lead
the horse out and clip him to the crossties before I start to clean the stall. This is the most
contact I have with the horses—taking them out of their stalls for a few minutes and then
putting them back in when I am done. They move like big lumbering robots when I do
this—they go where I lead them and stay where I put them. I wonder how hard it could
possibly be to ride, and whether I really think it is much of a sport at all. Surely it
couldn’t be that hard? But the truth is, I don’t really want to ride. I don’t really know
what I do want to do and this is what my father despises. He does not understand
I think about my house tonight, quiet and dark with my mother out of town. There
is no reading on campus, no excuse to escape. If it doesn’t rain, maybe I will go running.
Maybe I will run downtown to the last wilting city park and find the riverbank. Maybe I
will try to follow the river back up to the school, try to find the old kudzu-covered paths
that have been obscured since before I was born.
“My horse has to go there.”
I look up. It is one of the girls, just another blond or brown ponytail. She is
wearing tan breeches and swinging a black helmet in one hand. Her other hand grasps a
lead rope, on the end of which is a dappled mare.
This makes no sense, I think. I just took a different horse out of this stall. Her
horse doesn’t belong here. I open my mouth.
“Did you hear me? If you aren’t done with that stall I’ll leave her in the crossties
and you’ll have to put her back. I can’t wait around, I have class in ten minutes.”
She does not, something in the back of my head says, because she would never
show up to class in half-chaps and dirty breeches. But how could I ever say so?
“Sorry,” I mumble, “but you’ve got the wrong stall.”
“I’m not stupid,” the girl says. “This horse goes here.”
I point through the open stall door at the horse I put in crossties. “That horse goes
“Didn’t you read the charts this morning? That horse doesn’t even belong in the
stable, he’s a temporary boarder and he’s supposed to go to turnout today.”
I haven’t read the charts; I never read the charts and neither do my coworkers. We
just clean things.
The clatter of heavy, solid boot heels rumbles up the cement walkway and then I
see Coach turn the corner with his uneven gait. “Teddy,” he says, “don’t argue with the
students, just do your job.”
The mare turns her grey head, lays back her ears, and very deliberately bites the
horse I took out of its stall. It squeals and kicks. The mare swivels out of the way,
shouldering the girl into the stall door. “Hey!” she yells, and Coach’s expression turns, if
possible, even more sour. He takes the mare from her and gives one quick, hard jerk on
the lead rope. The horse flattens its ears again but stops dancing. The girl slips away and
Coach’s watery blue eyes turn to me.
Coach Talbot is a thin man. I can see streaks in him, like old windowpanes. He
looks as if he is slowly but inexorably melting, his brown mustache stuck in his pocked
skin like broom straws scratching at muddy water on a slate floor. The mare is watching
him speculatively, as if trying to figure out the best part to bite, but I’ve never seen Coach
bitten before. Probably it has never happened. Probably he tastes bad, like watered
bourbon and sour smoke.
“I’m sorry about the disruption, Coach,” I say sincerely. I am more uncomfortable
now, even though most of the situation has already passed. Before I felt numb, like I was
watching things on TV, like it wasn’t really happening to me. I didn’t do anything wrong,
I don’t think, but now that that girl has left I know I am somehow in trouble. I have to
remember words, search for them syllable by syllable. The ticker tapes in my head are
spinning out of control, too fast for me to snatch anything useful. “I didn’t read the
charts,” I manage to say. There is no sense in trying to defend myself. I couldn’t give a
proper defense anyway. Maybe I am guilty. Maybe it is my fault and I just don’t know it.
Coach coughs and hands me the horse.
My mother is in Pennsylvania at the annual American Association of University
Women conference. She’ll come home with double armloads of shiny new books from
university presses, abstracts of articles published in journals no one ever reads, but for
now the house is quiet. It smells like it always has—like old wood and lemon floor
polish, a subtle undertone of garlic and tomato from last night’s spaghetti. I flip on the
kitchen light to pour water from the pitcher in the refrigerator. Last night’s dishes are still
sitting in the sink, scraped but unwashed—we are tidy about our diction, not our
housekeeping. I pour water in a brown-tinted glass tumbler and make sure the refrigerator
is securely shut before I go upstairs.
My room looks just the same as it did when I was eight. The floor is bare wood, a
little blue rug my grandmother hooked for me sitting next to my bed. I have the same bed
the girls do at the college, purchased from overstock when I was four. It’s plain wood,
twin-sized, with curved head and footboards and sturdy corner pegs so that,
hypothetically, it could be bunked by stacking a second bed on top with a joining peg. I
have an old almond-colored computer that swamps my little student desk, a clothes
hamper at the end of my bed, and a low bookshelf full of biographies and the complete
works of J. F. Cooper. Nothing else.
Johnny has throat cancer. He hasn’t told his wife yet.
I turn on the computer and decide to take a shower while I wait for it to boot. I am
nineteen, and have had this computer since I was twelve. It’s past time for a new one, but
I’d feel bad getting rid of it. I know the computer wouldn’t care, but I can’t do it.
I get a clean hand towel from the linen closet, go into the bathroom, and put it
over the heating grate. Then I unlace my sneakers and put them on top of the towel,
because if the heat comes on while I’m showering the towel might shift. I know there’s
nobody down there watching me, but I feel better with the vent covered.
I try to forget the feeling of being scolded, of someone demanding something of
me that I was unprepared to give. I fiddle with the faucet, turning the water hotter, then
colder. I decide I like the word “sluice.” Sluice is what I wish I could do to that girl and
her horse, and Marietta too, for good measure. Sluice them with something opaquely
foul—maybe buckets from the James River. Once at summer camp I filled up another
boy’s water bottle at the swimming pond while he was sleeping, after he made fun of my
underwear. It wasn’t quite as good as a sluicing, but the next morning, when I saw him
drinking, my anger swirled away.
When I step out of the shower, the computer is finally ready. I want to join a
message board for people with social anxiety, but I know I never will. I haven’t been
diagnosed. How are you supposed to be diagnosed if talking to a doctor scares you?
Instead I search for Marietta.
All that comes up are the obligatory articles lauding her achievements with other
cities. How she successfully lobbied for bike lanes, and concerts in parks, and farmers’
markets on sunny Saturdays. How she lured trendy shops to town with bright paint, and
leased upper-floor condos to artists and hipsters, then to yuppies. Somehow, I don’t see
that happening here. What isn’t owned by the local megachurch isn’t worth owning; what
they haven’t already appropriated isn’t worth saving. This is nobody’s destination. It’s
familiar to me, and so I stay. The girls in their red-brick institution never do. They’re
never local girls; they’re always from somewhere, headed somewhere else. Marietta does
not understand this. I wish I could find a way to tell her that didn’t sound defensive. It
isn’t just that my mother is out of town, or that I haven’t seen my father without the new
city planner in at least two weeks. It’s also just that this is my town. This is how we are.
White City (Julia)
It was a strange, four-storied building, a turn-of-the-century orphanage that had
been abandoned before the Artists Cohousing Coalition bought it in the late 60’s. I’ve
asked Ellison what she initially thought of the house, hoping for dramatic insight, but the
thermometer hovered just this side of zero when she first saw it and she claims she
doesn’t remember much except the cold. I can fill in some details from my perspective: a
tall green American foursquare, large windows gleaming in the darkness and setting the
driving ice to light like flying sparks.
I felt a dismally joyful melancholy whenever I visited the artists in their
orphanage. Most people lived on the second and third floors; one hermit had the run of
the attic. The main floor living room still held the original floral carpet tacked down with
removable carpet tacks. Once every summer I helped move all the furniture out of the
living room, untacked yards of the threadbare burgundy carpet, and hung it in the back
yard to beat a year’s worth of red Virginia dust and black cat hair out of it.
Most students at Sherwood Women’s College are required to live on campus, but
those—mostly New Englanders or West Coasties—with more alternative proclivities can
petition to live at the Art House instead. It’s not owned or run by the college, and was
thus a welcome relief to me. My mother would never have let me live there, and would
be horrified to know about the hours I spent, sometimes with Rigsy in tow, around the
musicians and writers there, the mixed-media geniuses with Fruity Pebble hair who
probably should have been in New York or Berkeley but were, for some reason, here in
central Virginia for an undetermined length of time. Never very long, though. The Art
House wasn’t ever a place people stayed.
It had been a bad winter already and threatened worse. Snow fell in the eastern
Carolinas and didn’t melt; here in Virginia the sky rained ice. Towns that never see so
much as sleet called in huge shipments of road salts and shoveled it out of the back of
volunteers’ pickups onto the streets. India felt the snow prophesied something deeply
troubling and portentous; she refused to walk the four residential blocks from her
residence hall to the Art House with me. I wrestled in the snow like a child with Dave and
Adam, artists in residence, until the first wet, sloppy spatters of ice hit our jackets and
froze solid.
Rigsy—who had none of India’s reservations regarding snow—was reading next
to the fire in the living room when we trooped in, peeling down to layers of wool and
fleece. “I’m staying the night,” she said. “Radio says the whole town will likely be
without power soon, and my room doesn’t have a fireplace.”
“That’s the South we know and love.” Dave draped wet socks over the mantel. “A
little flurry and civilization disappears.”
“I hope the college staff gets home all right.” I toweled my hair, looking through
the window at the gathering dusk, a heavy, laden darkness that seemed fuller of undefined
shadows than strictly necessary.
“Oh, they closed the campus down and cancelled classes ages ago.” Rigsy glanced
up from her book. “The riding center staff is stuck at the stable unless they want to try
walking home. There’s a skeleton kitchen crew staying on. Everybody else left before
Something I learned here is that you get away with a lot when people think you’re
smart. Rigsy’d never been called before a dean for disciplinary action, regardless of how
often she slept through classes. I never quite dared to join her, even when I’d been up all
night, pacing my dorm room with a pencil in my hand or sitting on the sloped, jutting
ledge of roof just below my window. I yearned for the quiet of three a.m., the breathing,
listening, very much alive silence of a building full of sleepers. I loved to sit in that
silence, to reach with my ears past the walls of my room and the echoing drips in the old
dormitory bathroom, to try to hear life at its most vulnerably honest moment. In this
house full of artists or at the university, though, it wasn’t often silent even at three in the
morning, or four, the night owls and early risers overlapping their sounds of wakefulness.
Even the hushed, muted noises of movement—rustling of paper, hissing of kettle, skittle
of cereal into bowls—ruined the overfull silence of a sleeping house.
Ellison pulled into the driveway sometime that evening, the red van crunching
over frozen gravel just before hitting the tiny detached garage. I looked up from watching
Rigsy and Dave argue about dinner, wondering how much time we had before the power
went out. It wasn’t unusual for strangers, other artists, to couch-surf as they passed
through town, and so we threw on random clogs from the pile in the mud room and ran
into the yard to help her.
The doors were iced shut; Ellison held the latch and slammed herself hard against
the metal. It groaned, but didn’t give; the sound of a body making contact with the iced
metal, very flat and final, intrigued me. Rigsy and I grabbed the outside handle, and
Ellison slammed against the door again. Together we wrestled it open, and Ellison fell
against our ice-spattered sweaters. Dave caught her and held her upright.
I recognized her, but vaguely only; I had never seen her in person. People think
musicians are a friendlier lot than, say, novelists. I couldn’t say whether that’s true for the
profession as a whole, but I generally preferred them over academics.
I don’t remember if she tried to greet us, ducked sideways against the wind, but I
do remember what Dave first said. It was, “Do you have a death wish?”
“Not usually.”
Rigsy, as always, was more practical. “What equipment needs to come inside and
The van’s back doors were hopelessly frozen, so Ellison climbed through the
driver’s door and handed things out to us: Gretsch and Gibson, pedals, duffel bag full of
cords, mic stand and case—before jumping down and following us toward the house.
Can I tell you a story? In 1893 the United States hosted a World’s Fair. The
previous World’s Fair had been in France, and the French unveiled the Eiffel Tower to
great fanfare and acclaim. I can’t say for sure what went on in the minds of the Chicago
World’s Fair planners any more than I can claim to know what was inside Ellison’s funny
head the night she came to the Art House, but I’m going to tell you anyway. The U.S.,
being the U.S., wanted to kick France’s ass. So they built an entire city full of
neoclassical monstrosities, and they painted the city white and littered it gratuitously with
these new-fangled things called light bulbs. I imagine the glow must have radiated for
miles. They called it the White City.
What’s better—one great thing so massive it becomes an eternal cultural icon, or
the accumulation of many smaller curiosities? Patrons of the White City rode the world’s
first Ferris wheel, ate the first ice cream cones, swapped the first postcards. They
exclaimed over how well Chicago had overcome the destruction of the Great Fire of ’71.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s city plans influenced later dreamers Walt Disney and L. Frank
Baum—his is the alabaster cities of “America the Beautiful,” the Main Street and central
hub of Disneyland, the Emerald City of Oz (which, incidentally, is really white).
Chicago’s White City introduced the public to Quaker Oats and Milton Hershey to
chocolate. Does that add up to more than the Eiffel Tower? Who gets to make that
If I were Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is where I’d say that my life is like one or the
other. I’m an Eiffel tower, or I’m a White City. To him, these things were black and
white. My problem is just the opposite; I can’t make any sort of definitive statement
about shades of gray.
Rigsy piled the sensitive equipment in a dark corner near the fireplace, and
Ellison, Dave and I studied each other for a long minute. She was a funny-looking little
thing—five feet if she was lucky, and that’s counting the playfully-spiked hair. At the
moment she was blue-white, encased in a puffy red parka that leeched away any color
that might have remained in her face and made her big muddy eyes darker than usual.
“Ellison Parker. Am I in the right place? The highways aren’t passable anymore.”
“Dave. If you mean can you stay, certainly.”
“I didn’t see a sign,” she said, wrestling with the zipper of her jacket. It was iced
over. I pulled off my wet socks and iced sweater, laid them over a bench next to the long
dining table. “The Artists Cohousing Coalition is supposed to have a house here.”
“That’s us.” The lights flickered for the first time that evening, and we all looked
up at them for a long moment.
“Where’d you come from?” I asked.
“Today? Raleigh. It’s just as bad down there.”
She misunderstood, but I let it pass and when she asked if she could shower while
there was still electricity for hot water, Dave waved us upstairs. We climbed slowly,
Ellison craning to stare down shadowed hallways and into cracked doors. The house was
a labyrinth of stairs and corridors, built and remodeled and added onto by different hands
with little regard for the original floorplan. The bathroom, when she stepped into it and
snapped on the light, was tiled floor-to-ceiling in poodle-skirt pink and contained three
showerheads, three pedestal sinks, three toilet stalls, and a long mirror warped and
discolored with age.
“Is this place divided up by stories?” she asked, slinging her duffel bag to the
cracked pink-and-white checkered floor. “You know—beat poets in the attic, interpretive
dancers in the cellar?”
“No.” I opened a door of the white armoire. Its bulk blocked one of the windows,
but they didn’t open anyway. “People come and go too quickly for that.”
“How long do they stay, usually?”
“Some a day. Others longer. The hermit in the attic has been up there almost six
months now.”
“What’s he do?”
I shrugged. We’d never met, and I certainly didn’t know what he—or she, for all I
knew—did up there.
“You sure he’s still alive?”
A black cat was curled on a low shelf above the radiator, and she reached out to
rub its head. “How about you?”
“I don’t live here.”
“And the other girl?”
“Rigsy. Her, either. We’re stuck by the storm.”
She grinned. “Same as me.”
It wasn’t the same, but I didn’t say so.
“Rigsy’s an interesting name.”
I wanted to leave her alone and get back to the fire downstairs, but I never was
able to master my mother’s murmurs that somehow permitted departure. “It’s a last
name,” I said instead. “Without it she’s just an Ashley.”
“Or a Lauren, Lindsey, or Elizabeth. I get it.”
Like I said before, I can’t claim to know for sure what she thought or how she felt
in a strange house in the middle of an ice storm, knowing the power would fail and
startling at each flicker of the old wiring. I can’t know, but I’m telling you now anyway
because I didn’t ask—never would have asked—for the real story.
The trip had been unplanned, a desperate act after sitting too long trying to write
songs about a breakup she didn’t have enough distance from yet. India says that when
artists get their hearts broken, they feel the need to express heartache in a way that’s
beneficial to the world. And mostly what comes out is fuck you. I can see Ellison
perfectly in my mind, in a Boston loft with exposed brick walls, how she tucks a phone
into the cradle of her neck and ducks to scribble on a yellow legal pad, telling someone
on the other end that she’s determined not to harass the sometimes-girlfriend who left for
Europe and hasn’t called.
“I’m trying to write an album about not just heartbreak but the hope on the other
side of it,” she tells the ephemeral person on the phone. The album isn’t going well—slim
on the hope, you know? So she leaves.
Without regard for weather forecasts or pre-booking, she piles her signature
Gretsch and vintage Gibson, a couple of amps, three pedals, and a mic stand into the back
of a van with no functioning heat, and heads south down the coast. She hits a handful of
receptive venues: the Shangri-La in Atlanta, Cattle Annie’s in Charlotte, and Some New
York Pub in Wilmington, North Carolina. Eventually high wind warnings push her to
retreat. She turns the van north and heads back up the Southern seaboard.
How do I know this? It’s the old story I’m listening for in the middle of the silent
darkness, the story that leans its rhythm against my eardrums with a pressure I can almost
hear, and if I could just listen hard enough, I think I could turn it into music. That’s how I
know that when I left her alone Ellison turned on a stream of water and then dug through
the tall white armoire, pulling out dry towels that smelled strongly of fabric softener and
rifling through various baskets of soap and makeup. She was used to this feeling, used to
unfamiliar tile under her feet as she stepped out of her vintage bowling shoes, used to
unfamiliar terrycloth and bewildering shower knobs. The lights flickered again, and she
hurried because she didn’t want to be stuck alone in a night-black bathroom when they
died. I’m used to these things too, in my own way, living now in a college residence hall
and spending so much time here at the Art House, and sleeping in hotels when the riding
team is out on the road. Hunt seat equitation is a proper sport for a young lady, and my
mother condones it wholeheartedly.
There was a large bottle of concentrated soap in the shower, and the eye-watering
bite of peppermint extract was a sharp, familiar touch that reminded Ellison of home. She
smiled at the familiar bottle covered in tiny script and was considering soaping for a
second time, just to prolong the sense of familiarity, when the lights died.
Ellison immediately shut off the water and stumbled out of the shower. She
fumbled for a towel and stood very still in the dripping darkness. Instantly she felt the age
of the building creaking around her, the deep melancholy not only of an orphanage, but of
any building which had seen so many tenants come and go. The frailty, she thought, of
those little lives, unwanted and unseen as they grew. For the first time now, sight
removed, she heard the sounds of other people in the house. She swathed herself first in
terrycloth and then in wool, and felt rather like an orphan herself, stepping out of the
bathroom in a secondhand sweater with turned-up cuffs, treading along a cavernous
hallway she did not know, bare toes shivering on warped floorboards. She did not pause
to peer into doorways this time, unpleasant shadows hanging around corners and
I return to safer ground—not any more factual, I contest, but certainly more
academically precise—where I rejoin the story, in the kitchen as Ellison followed the
dim, red-toned flicker of candles to where Rigsy, Dave, and I sat on tall barstools, leaning
our elbows on the counter and watching the little flames. Everyone else was huddled in
the living room, in a pile on the floor in front of the glowing fireplace; we were
hypothetically helping Dave prepare dinner on the old wood-burning stove that usually
gathered dust in the expansive pantry.
Ellison climbed on a stool next to Rigsy and settled her chin on her folded
forearms. “Thanks.”
“Any wanderers are welcome here,” Dave said, scooping up liquid wax to watch
it cool on his fingers.
We sat in silence for a long minute, candles lighting warm shadows along the
countertop. Outside the ice hissed as it fell, no longer glopping sloppily against the side
of the house. Ellison slouched against the counter and played her callused fingers over
the night-darkened surface. Two of her knuckles had split in the cold, dry air. I saw dark
crevices that in better light would have been raw and red. Rigsy pulled up the lid on the
rice pot; billows of starchy steam floated toward the ceiling. I pushed her aside to stir the
lentils, a candle in my left hand. Three drops of wax fell into the simmering pot. No one
would ever notice.
The warm, mellow tone of a nylon-stringed guitar sounded from the other room,
but here, with our not-quite stranger, all remained quiet. It was an uncomfortable silence
spun from unvoiced thoughts, the weft of learned mannerisms holding firm. What were
we supposed to talk about—the weather? I studied the silence as it stretched deep into our
movements, how we drew physically closer together as the room lost heat. Into this
silence I knew our heads were separately screaming, and I could almost—almost—hear
the words by holding very still and looking into the darkness, into the reflection of
candlelight in the blank windows.
The Chicago World’s Fair, on the shores of Lake Michigan, lasted for six months
before it closed and the White City was completely dismantled. There’s nothing left of it
now. I like this story for its impermanence, for the fact that the builders went ahead and
made something grand, then let it go. There’s a song in that. I would find it immensely
funny if I don’t happen to be the one who writes it.
Did you know they displayed premature babies in a Hall of Incubators, right
alongside the freak shows of the midway? I’d rather talk about the lights—that’s what the
White City was famous for, anyway. Miles and miles of glowing electric lights. I bet the
first neon signs debuted in Vegas, but the electric marquee was born in the White City.
Out the window, along the curve of the street, a bank of houses still had
electricity. When I pressed my face to the cold, wet windowpane they looked like I
imagine the White City must have to country crowds. Light gleamed gold from every
window, watery and vague, yet solid, seen through the driving ice of the storm. If I could,
I’d wrap my hands around that light, the unmelting ice, and open my cupped fists in my
mother’s lap, spilling this thing into her world that was never meant to be there. If we
can’t say which is greater, the conglomerate White City or monumental Eiffel tower, then
how can we know what small, deviant thing might tip the scale? Could hundreds of
apologies erase one great disappointment, or one weighty act of fidelity make up for
many disloyal ones?
Is the Eiffel tower the reason we still mistrust the French, even now?
The rice burnt to the bottom of the pot and the lentils were bland and crunchy, but
there were plenty of saltines with which to spoon the resulting mix into our mouths.
Rigsy covered her bowl with a thick layer of dried oregano. I couldn’t stand that smell; it
reminded me too much of the food my mother served when company was over: stuffed
grape leaves, flatbread baked with olives or onions, chickpeas, chickpeas, and more
chickpeas. My mother tried to make me eat chickpeas by calling them garbanzo beans,
but I was never that gullible. One thing doesn’t turn into another with just a word; you
can call it an F-sharp or an E-flat, but it’s still the same note.
We all sat on the old carpet, dropping cracker crumbs and undercooked lentils; I
watched the mouths of the guys stretch wide as they took in whole saltines mounded with
rice and then pause, as if only afterward planning a chewing strategy. This was not how I
was raised to eat, using crackers as utensils, scooping the plainest food imaginable out of
an old margarine tub, watching the men bulge their cheeks and swallow two or three
times to get down a mouthful. I can’t say my mother would kill me to know I was here,
because she could never even imagine a place like this. It’s too far out of her realm of
understanding—the poetry scrawled across the kitchen walls, the bathrooms that are
never really clean, the absurd group of us sitting on the floor without talking. People
think artists are a boisterous bunch, but here in this house, spending so much time
squirreled away in their own rooms, they might as well be novelists. We had nothing to
say to each other.
At least we had the sense to keep quiet, not press for conversation when there was
no point to it. Even Ellison seemed to understand the way we worked together as a unit.
Eventually someone picked up the old nylon-stringed guitar again, but the music was
neither more nor less oppressive than the silence. It was just a different kind of solitude.
Anna won’t ever understand why I spend so much time here with these people
who are patently nondiscursive. She’s said before that it’s like visiting Mr. Bean, but her
simile didn’t hold up. Mr. Bean, at least, reaches out to the world around him. These
people weren’t hiding; they just didn’t seem to care whether or not they were ever found.
I admired that. It was refreshing after the college, all the girls clamoring for the attention
of the faculty and each other. If I were Hawthorne, I’d argue that Anna’s Moaners were a
symbol of that clamor. There was an order to the Art House, despite its cellophane
anarchy, that was missing from the college. Maybe they didn’t know exactly who they
were, didn’t quite know their places yet, but that was okay. It was almost as if they had
rounded edges, fitting together in a way that left them all room to grow.
Ice was still falling early the next morning when I opened my eyes to weak blue
light. We slept in a loose tangle on the floor, all of us, the pile of fleece and flesh turning
and moving slowly against the floral carpet as those on the edges sought middle ground.
Though we had fed the fire most of the night, one or two people opening an eye and
tossing logs into the hearth, it had died to sullen embers. Rigsy’s head lay pillowed on my
legs; I pulled away and stirred the coals, added curls of cardboard and kindling. One of
the boys snored damply.
Ellison was at the window, staring at the flat gray sky. She huddled under a
crocheted throw, her bare toes propped up on a side table.
“Who was she?” I asked, leaning against the table.
“I’m the one that quit.”
I tucked a jersey knit blanket around her bare toes, which made me feel warmer
though she didn’t seem to care. She had her Gretsch in her lap and fingered chord
changes with her left hand, her right palm muting the strings.
She took her right hand from the guitar and picked up a pencil, made some
incomprehensible notations on the back of an ad rescued from the kindling box. Then she
looked at me, the milky blue daylight falling unflatteringly against the bones of her face.
In her promotional material she looked closer to thirteen than twenty-seven, but the icy
morning showed me touches of sun damage and the trace of a comma carved, curiously
sharp, against the side of her mouth. “Have you ever been left?” she asked.
“Certainly. The ultimate betrayal.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“It was my dad.”
“Oh.” She said nothing more. We were strangers still.
“Come back to the fire.”
“Not yet.” She put her hands on the guitar again, but did not play. Rigsy mumbled
something in her sleep, then subsided. Ellison stroked the curved, gleaming wood of the
guitar, ran a fingertip across the perled seam where the sides and top joined flawlessly. It
was very cold.
“What’s it like, on the road?”
She turned the guitar, iced light falling against the lacquered surface; it almost
didn’t look like wood anymore. “Depends.”
“The company. The reasons. Sometimes even the music.” She stretched as if sore,
arching her neck to the side. “It can be fun, incredibly freeing. On the other hand, touring
is never a pleasure cruise. There are always appointments to keep, deadlines to make.
Can’t stop if you’re tired, can’t call in sick.” She scribbled on the ad again, not words,
just blunt lines of graphite. “Still, there’s motion. If something goes bad, you know,
you’re leaving in the morning anyway.”
“Does that make it easier to forget?”
“It should.” Her voice sounded like this was an old riddle whose answer did not
“You won’t tell me who she was?”
Ellison looked up from the Gretsch. “Does it matter?”
“It does to you.” This was the sort of thing I could never tell Anna; it was too true.
Had I ever lied to her? I can’t remember, but I’d never said something so baldly honest
that it might be mistaken for insight. The problem was, I knew what she would say if I
tried and I’m sick to death of Freud. And Jung. I don’t dream, so how am I supposed to
“She eats ice. Do you know how much that drove me crazy?”
“The sound?”
“The sound,” she agreed.
“There’s a word for that, people who eat things that aren’t actually food.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t remember.” If this were Anna, I wouldn’t have brought up the topic
unless I could answer that crucial, obvious question. “Pregnant women do it a lot.”
“Chew ice?”
“Eat dirt. Same thing.”
She nodded—thought, not agreement. “I heard of that around where I used to live,
but I never connected the two.”
This surprised me, because she sounded blandly Midwestern but it’s Southerners
who are known for eating dirt. “Aren’t you a Northerner?”
She shook her head. “I grew up in Alexandria—five, six hours from here. Once
you leave the D.C. sprawl it gets rural pretty quick. Why do they do it, I wonder?”
I refused to invoke Freud, and wished I had something intelligent to say instead.
Schiller was no help with ice-chewing.
“I thought it was funny, when I first met her.”
That I could understand completely.
Would you be irate if I told you this wasn’t the real story, or the whole story?
What if I told you that my heavy-handed edits were to purposefully make the
story less interesting? If instead of silence and lentils there was sex with a stranger,
unnamed and utterly confusing as we lay together, layered in sheets and blankets, edges
tucked around twined legs, breath hissing blue in the ice-light of an Art House room? If I
told her a comforting story about the desert—a place I have never been, and so might just
as well be a lie—about funny little horned lizards that seemed to swim across the top of
the tall, dry grasses when they ran or the smell of wild mint steeped deeply in sunshine?
Would it upset you if that were a possibility? I ask only rhetorically; I don’t really want
you to answer. This is the question I ask at three a.m., listening intently to the darkness,
feeling unspoken life hum around me.
Bede in the Original (Teddy)
Ice is falling, and I stand and stare at it. There’s nothing else to do—the power is
out and I’m stuck at the girls’ school. Perched on top of a hill, there’s no way I could run
or even walk home now. I’m sure my mother is safe in our house, but my father is on
campus, working late with Marietta. Very late, now. It’s almost two in the morning, but
even his Volvo isn’t leaving this parking lot any time soon. I image how it looks in the
staff lot, a shapely tan lump glazed with an inch or two of ice. There might be some pale
key-scratches where he attempted to break the ice crust, but I doubt it. My father is very
pragmatic. If he has to stay in the office all night he won’t try to fight it; it will just save
time on his commute in the morning.
I have a key to the library but there’s no light for reading. The only fireplaces at
the school are in the old date parlors, and I would bet half the student population is
huddled around them, lamenting the loss of their computers and hoarding their laptop
batteries. We’re lost without the Internet, even me. I keep thinking of things I want to
look up—the rules of curling, or if anyone with a doctorate has something new to say
about anxiety disorders, or whether antidisestablishmentarianism really is the longest
word in the English language. And why do so many people believe so deeply in a book
written two thousand years ago when it has no references?
I know what she would say, Tabitha. I know what my father would say, too. I’m
not sure I want to see either of them right now.
The school’s backup generator only powers the green exit signs, and they don’t
light the cavernous entrance hall at all, where I’m currently kneeling on an antique
couch—did they used to call them settees?—and looking out a single-paned window that
lets in almost as much cold air as an open one. I’m alone except for the security guard in
his little booth by the door. I doubt he’s on duty; he looks like he’s trying to sleep. Every
now and again I hear the hesitant tread of tennis shoes on the polished floors of the giant
main hallway, but I don’t see anyone. In the darkness that seems blacker inside than out, I
smell the tired, waiting school. It’s a smell I’d remember no matter how far away I could
ever go; it seems like it’s not worth bothering.
It’s boring down here, staring out the window, and I’m almost never bored. I like
to run, but I was never a restless kid. I consider going to my father’s office, where I know
he is sitting in the near-dark with a little emergency flashlight, Marietta, and one of his
coworkers. No.
Instead I climb the back staircase by green exit lighting, all the way to the fifth
floor of Eliot. I’d hoped the girls would all be down in their old date parlor and I could sit
alone up here with Mary, but they weren’t. India and Lola huddled near her bowl, piled
high with irrelevant curiosities, burning illegal candles. I don’t know what I was
expecting, exactly, but they didn’t seem surprised to see me. Maybe in the middle of a
freak ice storm anything seems plausible, at least to students stuffed with way too much
comp lit.
“Stuck in the storm?” India offered, scooting a little toward the window so I could
join them. It wasn’t quite a circle we made around the candles dripping wax onto the old
wood floor—can you make a circle with only two points, or three? I’m not so long out of
high school, I feel I should remember.
“Where’s Rigsy?” I manage to remember the swimming girl’s name, which makes
me happy. So often I can’t tell them apart, these girls. They come and go so quickly while
I stay still. Also, they always seem to roam in packs.
“Stuck at the Art House,” Lola says, playing fingers through a thin candle-flame.
“I wish I’d got stuck at UVA.”
“Why?” The minute it leaves my mouth, I wish it hadn’t. I don’t think the
question is inappropriate; I just think a normal guy would probably have said how come.
Lola doesn’t seem to notice. “That’s where my fiancée is.”
I watch her for a minute. She’s a few years older than I am, and looks more
because of the uncertain light, but she doesn’t look old enough to be married. The
pendant on her necklace reads Puerto Rican Princess, but when we went bowling Tabitha
told me it’s only her stepfather who’s from Puerto Rico.
“Maybe you can help us,” India says, hauling a glossy college publication into the
light. It’s the new Alumni Bulletin, which comes out quarterly, and for some reason the
college distributes to current students as well. She already has it open to an article that
looks just like ones in every other bulletin from every other college and university in the
country—a plea for donations. Training a little keychain LED on it, she skims down with
her finger until she finds the offending passage. It’s threats from the administration—
what they might do if they don’t make quota for this capital campaign.
“They’ve been saying that for years,” I say, wondering what’s got them so upset.
It’s not like any of the threats would ever happen. The worst thing the college has done to
the students, funding-wise, was when they stopped printing menus and using waiting staff
for dinner; even that happened before I was born. The school still owns houses in Prague
and Barcelona, where students can stay if they wish to travel or study abroad—these girls
have nothing to worry about, but they like to do it anyway. I guess everyone wants to
rebel at some point.
“Shifting to a co-ed institution?” India says, eyebrow lifted in a skeptical grimace
I wish I could pull off. “Selling off the art collection? Closing the riding center?”
I hold my hands out to the light, almost in supplication even though she’s the one
asking questions. “I’m not worried about losing my job.”
India seems to lose interest and hauls the campus’s twenty-year-old copy of
Trivial Pursuit out from the gaping black maw of her doorway. “We can play now that we
have more than two people,” she says, doling out plastic pies. In the dim candle
flickers—there isn’t even an exit sign up here—it’s impossible to tell some of the colors
apart. I wonder if that’s illegal. The exit sign, I mean. My pie could be brown, black,
blue, or purple; she didn’t ask which I might prefer.
“What if you did?” Lola’s eyes snap up from her hands and the candle. “If you
lost your job and we went co-ed. Would you apply?”
I can tell she doesn’t like the idea, so I say no. I can’t tell what India thinks about
it either way as she shuffles the cards and picks out some that are facing the wrong
“With guys around, we wouldn’t be able to leave our mailboxes unlocked
anymore,” Lola says. “Or our doors. No offense.”
“None taken.” I’m used to hearing the girls gloat about a male-free student body.
“Our crime-free campus record would be shot.” India this time.
“Girls would start wearing makeup to class.”
“And clothes to Sunday brunch—no more pajamas and slippers.”
“Boys would take over discussions. Our faculty isn’t used to monitoring gender
“We could say goodbye to a female-led student government.”
“And valedictorian,” India finishes, chin resting heavily on her fist.
Lola pounces on me again. “What do you think?” she asks. “Would it be a good
Answering the question with any definite statement is the only thing I’m sure
wouldn’t be a good idea. “Well, it would take a lot of work,” I say instead. “I mean, the
application forms don’t even have a gender checkbox.”
Lola nods slowly.
“And there aren’t more than a couple of men’s restrooms on campus. None of
your training machines in the rec building are made for men, either. It’d take a lot of time
and money to fix all that.”
“Fix?” Lola demands. “Why fix? We don’t need fixing.”
I grope for a better word or an apology, but before either come her fist lands on
my shoulder. “’S okay, Ted,” she says. “We like you.”
Nobody has ever called me that before. It’s always been Tedd y.
“If they try, Mary won’t stand for it,” India says. One of the candles has burnt
itself down to a puddle of wax on the floor. She lights another from a small pile next to
her. This one is red, and smells overwhelmingly like manufactured cinnamon.
“I’d thought you were smarter than that,” Jennie-love says, climbing the stairs
behind me. She trips on the top step and lurches forward; I duck, but she doesn’t come
close to crashing into me. “Teddy-boy, how many things have you sacrificed on Mary’s
misguided altar?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, that’s not true.”
“You didn’t today,” Lola observes, so I dig in my pockets. I have a Velcro
reflector my father recently gave me, so I can be seen when I run at night. I place it in
Mary’s bowl. Jennie-love snorts her opinion of my action, and I try to ignore her. I dump
out the wedges someone had left in my Trivial Pursuit pie. They are cool and slick in my
Jennie-love eyes me as she accepts a pie from India. I’m not looking, but I can
feel it. “You’re not attached to campus,” she says. “You don’t need to give offerings. You
could be the one to start acting sensibly—it’s not like there’s a curse that will follow
“I know there’s no curse.”
“Then why?”
I have brown, yellow, and green wedges. “It’s tradition,” I say. Someone,
sometime, dropped a red crumb of something inside the yellow wedge; I can see it
glowing when I hold the wedge to the candle. Congealed ketchup? An old scrap of
pepperoni? “There’s something in here.”
“What do you care about campus tradition? And anyway, aren’t your parents
secular humanists? Like I told India, offerings are practically Catholicism.”
“Maybe it’s pimento.”
Jennie-love is silent for a long, calculating moment, though the other girls laugh. I
didn’t mean to be funny, or upset anyone. She moves her finger along the soft, battered
edge of a trivia card with long, forceful strokes. “You really do believe in her.”
“I don’t think I do,” I say, trying not to make a definitive statement that might
alienate anybody.
“You do.”
“I just don’t think it’s ketchup, is all.”
“Your logic is faulty.”
“So is yours,” India snaps. “Can we play?”
Jennie-love doesn’t answer. I can’t see her very well, but I know she and Tabitha
look nothing alike. Tabitha is shortish, darkish—almost like a demonic pixie, the kind
Spenser warned us about. When she looks at me I can never tell what she’s thinking—
like a biology major presented with Bede in the original. Jennie-love’s just the opposite.
She looks like she doesn’t fit into her body very well, which to me seems strange—to
have a body that is not an extension of self. As much as I don’t fit anywhere else, I never
thought of myself as fitting wrongly into my own body. Jennie-love looks culled from
different body shops, though, and if my father heard that pun he’d probably be pleased.
She’s colorless, washed out—light hair, birch-white arms—and limp. Not really like
cooked noodles, but more like she’s never really thought about her joints and muscles and
tendons as belonging to her. I remember my cousin’s baby, when we visited last year,
grabbing his toes and watching his own arms as he flapped and stretched and jostled. It’s
like Jennie-love skipped that part and went straight to watching other people, trying to
guess what they might do next.
India I don’t know about yet, and I watch her roll dice and count spaces, settling
on something that could be either green or blue. “What does it say?” she asks, leaning
toward Lola, who’s squinting at the card in her hand.
“Which one? Green or blue?”
“Whichever one you can read.”
Jennie-love exaggerates a sigh and leans back on the palms of her hands; they
stand out almost ghostly against the uninterrupted darkness outside the faint circle of
candlelight. Lola moves closer to one of the candles, and with a little flare the card’s soft,
battered corner catches light. She makes a strange sound, almost like a hiccup, and drops
the card; reflexively, I assume, because I know she is not afraid of fire. Earlier I watched
her pass her fingers idly through the candle flame, looking both bored and intrigued—like
someone watching a foreign film without subtitles.
India snatches the card, smoldering against the floorboards, and pinches out the
little flame. Her actions are so matter-of-fact that I wonder if she has a younger sibling at
home. Sometimes I also wonder if things might be different for me, now, if I had one. Or
an older sibling. It might be nice to have an older brother, I think. Then not as much
would be expected of me; he could take the lion’s share of the load.
Later, Lola and Jennie-love having retreated downstairs to the fireplace in Eliot’s
date parlor, India packs away the forgotten Trivial Pursuit game. I’d wanted to sit up here
alone with Mary, not with India, but I don’t think she’s leaving. Sometimes she likes to be
alone, like me. The problem is that you can’t be alone with someone else, unless it’s
someone like Mary who fills a purpose, not a space.
“Do you really think we shouldn’t be worried?” India asks me, her voice sudden
in the silence. There is only one candle left burning, now, and without the other girls it
seems very dark.
“If he knew anything, would your dad tell you? Would your mom?”
“Teaching faculty are the last to know anything.” I’m honestly surprised by her
assumption that my father might tell me anything, work-related or otherwise. We know
the steps of courtesy, but there’s nothing behind them—like a high-schooler trying to
write poetry in his second language.
“Well, could you ask?”
I don’t exactly know why I say it, but I tell her I could try. She studies me—or am
I imagining it, in the poor light?
“Where is he, anyway? Did he make it home all right?”
“He’s in his office.”
“Why aren’t you there with him?”
I want to give a witty answer that is not true, but I can’t think of one. Instead I
give a half-truth. “The city planner’s with him.”
India puts the game box at the top of the stairs, where she’ll hopefully remember
it whenever the student union opens again and she can return it. It’s also, helpfully, the
perfect place to trip anyone climbing the stairs. I doubt she knows who the city planner is.
“Where do you live?” I ask, pulling the question from a list of safe topics I’ve
memorized; I’m hoping it will move the talk away from my father.
“St. Helena,” she says, easily enough. “You ever been there?”
“It’s in South Carolina. Only Gullah live there.”
“Are you Gullah, then?”
I slouch against the shaky banister at the top of the stairs; it’s too cold to sit still
anymore on those floorboards. “I wouldn’t have guessed it.”
“My daddy works in Washington.”
“I might have guessed Washington,” I say, but I’m not sure if it’s true. Her accent
is Southern but almost indefinable, and usually I am better with voices than this. “What’s
St. Helena near?”
“Nothing. Everything.” She shrugs. “It’s a sandy, marshy sea island. From my
grandmother’s back yard I can see the shiny cars on their way to Hilton Head.”
“I’ve never been to the North Carolina beaches.”
“Penn School’s just a short walk from my house,” she says, leaning next to me.
“You know what that is?”
I have to shake my head, and I feel stupid admitting I have no idea what she’s
talking about. Usually I’m good with facts.
“It was the first school for freed slaves in the entire South.” I expect to hear her
voice drip with pride, but it doesn’t. She sounds instead very matter-of-fact. “But the
Gullah, we were never slaves at all.”
“Well, escaped early—hundreds of years before Lincoln, or whatever. A long
time. We ran to the islands and lived apart, and nobody bothered us.”
I notice her inclusion of self with the people of the past, her ancestors, and I
wonder at it. I would never talk that way. It would never occur to me, the only we that
I’m part of is the family I still live with.
“You sound like you like it there.”
“It’s my home.” Her voice flattens and she looks at me oddly. “Why are you
asking me all this?”
“Why not?” I wonder if I sound nonchalant, which is my goal. Probably not. It’s
not an easy affectation to pull off.
She shrugs with her face—I don’t know any other way to say it—and takes the
still-lit candle in her hand, prying it from its puddle of hardened wax. “Just wondering. I
lived in the same house all my life.”
“Well, so did I.”
“Not mine, though.”
“Granted.” She grins, the candle held at her sternum lighting her face ghoulishly
from below. If she were Tabitha I’d say she did it on purpose, but she’s not. I remember
borrowing a key to the Rare Book Room from my father for her. I’d do it for Tabitha too,
I know, but I might not feel as sure about getting it back. So much whirls through her
head so fast; she’s bound to lose things.
“This is the part where, if you were a student, we’d ask each other what we miss
most about home.”
I miss my cue and come in several beats late, but I manage to ask the question.
“Nothing more than anything else, really,” she says, and I can tell that she’s
practiced this answer. “It’s just different here. Not a lot of people leave the island.”
“Didn’t you say your dad does, to work?”
She nodded. “And I miss him when he’s gone, and M’dea boils clams for him
every time he comes back. It’s his favorite.”
I feel almost relieved when my mother or father leave town to attend conferences,
and my mother has never—never—boiled clams for my father. Not that he’d ever ask her
to. The house is so quiet, and I don’t have to worry about my noises bothering anyone
else if there’s no one there to bother. When I was younger my parents made me stay with
Johnny and his wife when they left town, and Johnny never nagged about homework or
tooth-brushing. He said a person has to learn by making choices, not by fear. It had never
occurred to me to miss my father, and guilt bubbles in my gut for a minute until I quash
it. There is a reason I hadn’t missed him. He’s my father. India, on the other hand, has a
Swimming (Anna)
I pushed past wires and stuff, and I couldn’t see it but it all felt black, and my
hands found something that felt like a cervix. Don’t believe me? I know what one feels
like held in my hand, buddy, but this time I was pushing past lots of plastic—some metal,
some glass, but mostly black plastic—looking for a hand, something human, that had got
stuck in there. In my dream, anyway. Jennie-love calls me morbid and Rigsy calls me
boring, both for talking about these dreams.
It was my swim coach I was looking for, you know; Coach Terri Scholes, and
she’d got stuck first in her mobile phone and then in the computer we jacked it to. Half of
the team, we were clustered around—wet, gleaming, that familiar wobbly sensation in
our limbs from a good workout—and staring at that old, fat monitor where Terri’s life
kept flashing past with a click of the mouse. Sugared texts to her husband, damn him.
Rants about funding, to Teddy’s dad and his co-workers up at the top of Sawyer Hall.
Some of her, now so many characters on false paper, was bitter as spent coffee grounds
and, to me, just as fascinating. None of her was very sweet, except what wasn’t printed.
And, of course, nothing wasn’t printed. If I believed in God, I would say that nothing is
anymore sacred. I don’t, of course. India would argue with me, if I brought it up. This is
why I don’t argue with her in front of Rigsy.
Rigsy was not with us when I closed my eyes and put my hand through the
monitor’s glassy gleam—what is it, anyway? Some sort of plastic, I’m sure. I wouldn’t
know; I’m a bio major. I don’t do chemistry. Oh, and just in case you were wondering,
that old weak joke about how biology is really chemistry, chemistry really physics, and
physics really math? Not true. Well, ninety percent not true, anyway.
See, we’d been in conference at some swanky place, the room meters below the
surface of a giant pool. The walls were glass; we could see everything. My sister
Amelia—Ammy—loves the silence and glimmer of being underwater. I try, but I’m too
claustrophobic. I knew that room was going to breach, and when it did, well, somehow
we all got free—even the lady from the Chinese restaurant down the street, who was
there as a kind of hostess—but Coach Terri. I went back down, meters down, the water
pressing against my eardrums, but she had dissolved by then and all that was left was her
phone. I took it, of course. She was in there, as much as she was anywhere.
When I told Julia this, pillowed in that house that was somehow never quite a part
of campus, or really apart from it, she said my unconscious was deep. Like a diving well,
where Ammy's is a hot tub. Is that wrong to say about a sister? You can say it is and you
won’t make me mad. We’re just too different. We were never like normal twins, you
know. Never made up a secret language, never knew or particularly cared what the other
was feeling. When I fell out of the apple tree and broke my right femur, five years old,
Ammy didn’t know. Didn’t feel a thing. We’re like…like a homozygous white horse. Two
whites, for reasons unknown, cause spontaneous abortion. There’s no such thing as a
homozygous white horse. That’s us, me and Ammy. Incompatible in a matched pair.
I mean, what would you say about a pair of twins like us? Forget that we ended up
at the same college or that we both swim. Stuff like that doesn’t matter; this place gives a
sibling discount, and I think all of us land creatures have a fascination with the place
where, ages ago, we came from. I’m talking about…well, Ammy’s engaged at twenty,
and I like girls. A lot. That’s not supposed to happen with twins. It’s supposed to be one
or the other. She hates the heat; I bask like I’m cold blooded. She’ll always be chubby
even though she swims; I can’t sit still and have trouble keeping weight on. When we
fought as kids, I kicked. I pulled hair. I pinched until I learned about fists. Ammy used
other weapons: blackmail, guilt trips, lies. I remember one time she convinced me that I
wanted to drink water instead of the last juice box, because she’d colored the water with
blue food dye. The joke’s on her: blue curacao is my favorite mixer now, and she can’t
stand the bitter, pretty stuff.
I know lots of girls here who think it’s almost romantic to be a twin, but let me
tell you, it’s not. How much fun is it to be half of something? To have to go to parties
with kids you don’t like, because they’re your sister’s friend? And TV caused the worst
fights. We both watched reruns, but Ammy insisted on The Cosby Show. Everyone in my
house agrees, from the time I was a toddler, my first and only love was M*A*S*H. For
the longest time, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to marry Alan Alda or be him. I even tried my
best to learn to swill gin, but it didn’t take. I can’t stand olives either, so martinis are out.
Darcy and me, the two highest-ranking Moaners, and sometimes Jennie-love’s little sister
Tab, still watch late-night reruns and play our own drinking game. So many drinks for
every mention of twelve-year-old scotch, for instance, or for every time someone calls
old Frank a ferret-face. I know it all by heart, almost, and can gauge how much booze
we’ll need by looking at the TV Guide. Like I said, I’m no chem major, but it’s good to
be prepared anyway.
I don’t remember if I found Coach Terri there, in that computer. Well, I take that
back. I remember grabbing a hand, but I can’t remember if I actually pulled her out. I try
to write down all of my dreams when I wake up but it’s gone so quickly, that second
before your superego kicks in and clamps a lid on your dreaming id. My dream journal is
full of rushed scribble scrawls that I can’t even sometimes read. I guess in a way it
doesn’t matter much, though; most of my dreams are stress-dreams, ones any decent
psychoanalyst wouldn’t stoop to interpreting. I dream about fighting with Ammy and
telling her exactly what I think, which is something I almost never do. I dream about
telling my mom it wasn’t fair that I was never allowed to go to summer camp because
Ammy couldn’t hack it, and I’m still mad.
I’m not the only one with family drama, though, and I know that. Julia’s got some
major issues with her mom, way more than me, and I’m sleeping with her so I have to
hear about it. Some of it, anyway. Can’t imagine what her mom would say if she knew
about me.
Hey, last night I dreamed I went out for barbecue with Ammy and our parents and
a whole mess of aunts and cousins and their husbands. The waitresses were all Asian
women, like everywhere I went that one time we took a trip to Seattle. And when they
came to our table they couldn’t tell me what kind of meat there was, because they didn’t
know from barbecue. I asked about pulled pork or burnt ends, but all I got were smiles
that flickered like underwater lights in a nighttime pool. I don’t know how it happened
exactly, but somehow I ended up sitting on the head waitress, tugging at her aqua-print
shoulder pads and demanding to know if the cook was as clueless as the waitresses. I
didn’t bother asking if they had a pit master.
That’s a more normal kind of dream, I think. Not like that one with Coach Terri.
If Julia dreams, she doesn’t tell me. Half the time she’s awake most of the night
anyway, or over at the Art House with Rigsy, playing canasta with Adam and Dave. I’d
say the canasta was a front if it wasn’t so absurd, and even if she is lying to me, it doesn’t
make much difference. Not like there’d be any future for her and me anyway, not with
her mom. Some Southerners, I’ve learned, like to sweep things under the carpet. Others,
like Julia’s mom, say no and mean it. Not that I’ve met the woman, but I’ve heard so
much that I almost don’t have to.
The night our Moaners’ meeting ended in a sophomoric giggly disaster, I returned
to Julia’s room where I’d left her asleep with a Schiller translation spread across her face.
She was still there, and I climbed over her to reach the coveted spot, the side of the bed
pressed up against the wall. When you share a twin-sized mattress, every shred of
stability counts. I always felt a little guilty leaving her to go to Moaner meetings, because
I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone where I went or when I’d be back. And while she does
this to me all the time, up and disappearing to the library or the Art House without a note
or text, it doesn’t feel the same the other way ’round. She’s always done that. I can’t hold
a long-standing personality flaw against someone.
Is she pretty? I don’t honestly know. There’s too many girls around this place to
keep an objective head. It’s almost like being at a beauty pageant, where everyone’s
dolled up exactly the same. Except here, it’s the opposite. With no guys around, lots of
girls stop wearing makeup. They throw up loose, shaggy ponytails or frizzy French
braids, and wear old jeans and khakis. I think this is how girls look best, when they’re not
trying too hard, but that’s just my opinion. And, come weekends when lots of VMI boys
are down, everything goes back to the same old stupid pop cultural norm.
We argued about my trip to New Zealand—argued without arguing, because it’s
impossible to fight with Julia. She manages to sidestep everything I throw at her, no
matter how confrontational I try to be. I think for us the verbal spats ease the tension of
touch. I know she’s not down with what we do, and she knows I know. If we argue about
something else, it’s easier to ignore the awkwardness. I hate the games, but I don’t think
there’s any other way to have a relationship. I’m sure Ammy and her fiancé do the same
thing, but I wouldn’t ask her in a million years. We’re not built like that.
After Julia fell asleep for the second time, I climbed over her and went to smoke
out the window. I watched a thin trickle of other science majors pass as the lab officially
closed for the night and they were sent back to their dorms. From Julia’s window I could
see the glass walls of our Physical Education building, and the pale underwater lights in
the pool, left on all night.
Jennie-love told me a rumor earlier that afternoon, that Teddy’s dad and his
cronies were talking about a proposal to turn the college co-ed. I’m sure it’ll never
happen; they talk about shit all the time that never happens. One year the rumor was that
the deans wanted to sell off the riding center and all the horses. Another year it was the
contents of our art museum. They never threaten the swim team, though. Coach Terri
admits that it’s because we’re the only team, other than the equestrians, that ever wins
Can I tell you a secret? Sometimes the Moaners, we play a game we call “That’s
Fucked Up.” We sit in a circle in the abandoned tunnels, mostly with tequila, and tell
about our awfullest skeletons. Last time we played Tab almost won with her confession
that she’d decided to seduce Teddy. I beat her, though, by admitting that I’d drop Julia in
a heartbeat if I could have Coach Terri. Don’t judge. I already know it’s fucked up, that’s
the point of the game. But I think my problem is that Coach Terri reminds me of my first
girlfriend. If that’s even the word to use. I was fifteen when I went to work in her organic
bakery back in Vermont; she was twenty-seven. You can call it statutory if you want; I
don’t care. We tried our best for almost two years, but then I was ready to go to college
and she was already done with all of that. It’s not age so much, I think, but accompanying
experience. That’s how I know even though Julia and I are only four months apart in age,
we’ll never be able to make a long haul of this. I’d already fucked more women at fifteen
than she had at twenty, and she’s still stumbling over the question of nature or nurture
where I’ve learned not to care. Like me and Ammy, why we’re so different, I think the
answer’s unknowable. And maybe Coach Terri doesn’t need rescuing, but neither does
Julia. It’s just a question of holding the truth in your hand.
Labyrinthine Legacy (Teddy)
Johnny has moved temporarily into our guest room. He says that at this point
everything in life is temporary, including his wife’s anger. Eventually, he says, she will
forgive him for keeping the cancer a secret. Eventually he will go home. He wants to die
there and not in a hospital or nursing home.
I realize now, as I run homeward on a dingy, ice-free afternoon, that I have never
asked why or how Johnny came into our lives. He’s always been a constant; my chainsmoking babysitter when I was young and now a family friend. In my parents’ world of
academic political correctness, he does not quite fit. But then, neither do I. Manual labor
was not what they expected or planned for me.
“Got something for you,” Johnny tells me when I jog up the stairs. It is strange,
having him in the house. We so rarely have houseguests, and the sound and smell of
someone other than my parents is unsettling. The reminders are small—a whiff of
tobacco on the porch, the violent popping of the old stairs as heavy footsteps inch down.
Beer in the refrigerator, Tabasco on the counter. The worst is the incessant cough. It isn’t
loud, but it sounds painful.
“What is it?” I pause on the landing. I have not entered the guest room since
Johnny moved in, and I don’t want to now. It makes no sense, and I know that. I have
been inside his house many times, but this doorway inside my own now feels
“Was cleaning out the basement,” he says, dragging himself out of the armchair
my father has placed near the window, so Johnny can smoke inside without the whole
house smelling. “That’s how she found out, y’know. Caught me coughing. Couldn’t stop.
All the dust.”
“Probably mold, too,” I say, though I know it is not helpful to remind him of all
the things that irritate his throat. Cigarettes are the worst, my mother says, scolding a
little. She is unhappy about the smoke inside her house. But Johnny has smoked since he
was twelve and will not stop now.
“Mold, mildew, dust, pollen. All the same to me.”
There shouldn’t be any pollen this time of year, but I don’t say it.
He is holding a box of thin, sagging cardboard in his hand. Pale, powdery mildew
swirls across one side. Johnny coughs; it is a wet, dragging sound.
“Seen that girl lately?” he asks, leaning on the doorjamb. Whether he’s forgotten
that he meant to give me something or merely wants to talk, I can’t say.
“Tab,” I tell him. “Her name is Tabitha.”
“So yes?”
“Yes,” I say. In fact, I am seeing her later tonight, but I do not tell him that. There
is another reading at the college, and while we are not going on a date, we have both
confirmed that we will be there. The reader is a poet; at least his pieces will be short. I
used to think I had an unusually long attention span and, if not that, at least a good
amount of patience. Now I am not so sure. I keep seeing my father and Marietta, the city
planner, everywhere on campus, and I have lost patience with the two of them. They fill
me with an entirely new kind of anxiety. She prowls the crumbling brick walkways and
arched halls as if puzzling out a secret to this place. My father strides a step or two
behind, hands in his pockets, at leisure. This is the way he has always walked the
campus; he knows it so well that he does not have to look to know where the few holes in
the brickwork are. He has measured his steps by some algorithm so that he does not have
to reach or break stride; he knows each cog, each grinding gear of the campus so well.
My mother is a teacher and, like the others, she seems at home on any college or
university campus. But my father is part of this place and it is a part of him, like the
wisteria vines that clutch and scrabble at the mortar of the main entrance. The vines will
eventually pull the building down, brick by brick, if they are not contained. For now, they
stay. The students like them.
“And what?” I say, stalling. I know what it is Johnny wants me to tell him, but I
do not think I have the words.
“You smarter than that,” he scolds, shaking his head. With a groan he pushes away
from the doorjamb, returning with measured steps to his armchair by the window. It is my
turn to lean in the doorway; I do not want to enter the room.
“She’s not quite what I thought,” I tell him. They are honest words; I could never
have imagined Tab.
“You like her?”
I mull as Johnny shakes the box in his hand a little bit. Something inside rattles.
Somehow, it is not that easy. Tab is not to be liked or disliked, I feel. She is to be
experienced only. I would call her mercurial, but I do not remember where the word
comes from, exactly. Is mercury a terribly whimsical element? I think about asking India
but that would require a return to campus; I am not good on the phone.
I remember when we went bowling, Tab and a couple of the fifth Eliot girls and
me. Ten piercings, she had said. I couldn’t imagine sitting through even one. Who
purposefully punches holes in her body? Plenty of people, I know, but it still doesn’t
make sense to me. Tattoos make more sense, at least theoretically. At least a tattoo is art.
Cutting out a piece of a person to hang a ring on him is not art.
I understand that I am not a normal person and I do not have normal fantasies. I
know this. But my most vivid fantasy is this: I am in Tab’s dorm room with her. She must
have a roommate, though I have never met her. Whoever she is, she’s not around. Tab is
shirtless, wearing a bra. Her bed is the same as mine. I lay with her on the twin-sized
mattress, on my stomach. My eyes are level with her belly button, and I stare at her little
jewel-colored lizard tattoo for an entire afternoon. I watch it move as she breathes and the
nuances of its scaled flesh shift and change as the light dims. Just at the moment the
campus lights come on, their orange glare washing a square on the floor, I kiss the tattoo.
This is where the fantasy ends; I do not know what a tattoo would feel like under
my fingers or mouth. Is it flat, like regular skin? Would I know, if I closed my eyes, that I
was touching one? In my mind it is slightly raised, and I can trace the whorled line of its
curled tail with my tongue. I think I would like to know something the way my father
knows his campus, bodily and by heart, so that there’s never any question of surprise.
That lizard tattoo is not a large thing to know, but it seems as good a place to start as any.
“I like her,” I say.
“Mm.” I am sure there is opinion in this sound, but I cannot tell you what it might
Johnny pulls something out of the box. It looks like another box, wooden and
pale. “You know the labyrinth?” he asks me.
“Like the movie with David Bowie?” This is a pop culture reference I know—my
mother holds a very secret and very intense obsession with Bowie. If I breathed a word of
this on campus, my life would be forfeit.
“No,” Johnny says, and reaches the wooden box toward me. It is three steps
away—three steps I do not want to take into that room. I hold my ground. Johnny shakes
the box a little bit, cajoling. “The game.”
This is Johnny’s room. It is his space now, not my parents’ and certainly not mine.
He stands, waiting for me to move, but I can’t. It just isn’t possible.
“Make an old man work, huh?” he says, and groans with the task of walking
though he is not obese. It is like a trek as he takes the three steps—with his legs, more
like six or seven shuffles—to the door. As if we are on opposite sides of a mirror, staring
out at each other, he reaches the box slowly through the doorway.
It is made of cheap softwood, and a three-dimensional maze is laid out in perfect
right angles, gridding the square of wood. Along the path a series of holes drops down
into a lower compartment. I shake the box, and a silver ball bearing drops into my hand
from a spout leading to the lower compartment. Pegs on the sides control a leaning
motion of the game board, tilting it on both axes.
“Thought you might like it,” Johnny says. “Takes a sure hand, and an old man like
me? Don’t have that no more.”
I am intrigued by the little box and would like to take it back to my room to
investigate, but I know Johnny would rather I try here. So I do. I kneel on the floor just
outside his room and set the ball bearing inside the maze. Grasping the pegs, I set the ball
to flight.
Johnny is right. This takes a sure hand, and I don’t have it. The ball wiggles,
moving choppily from one vertical wall to another, bouncing and settling with finality
into the concave side of a right angle. When I twist the pegs, jostling it free, it
immediately slips into a hole. I hear it rattle down there, in the black inside of the box.
Johnny hums, an amused little sound that does not hurt his throat the way a laugh
might. “What’d I say? A steady hand. That’s what it takes.”
Before the poetry reading I borrow my mother’s seldom-used car and drive to the
tattoo parlor on the other side of town. It is the only one inside the city limits.
The place smells like sweat and antiseptic. The floor is probably clean, but the fat
black and white checkerboard tiles are so old and cracked that it’s hard to tell. I can see
the cement—mortar, whatever it is—in places where tiles have broken. It is drab gray,
and smooth. I do not know how old this building might be, but it is old enough that I can
see wattle and daub where plaster has worn off the one wall that is not exposed brick.
“You know what you want?” the lean man behind the counter asks. He’s wearing
a tight black t-shirt and his arms look tight and stringy, like the drawings of muscle and
sinew in biology textbooks.
I show him my lizard. It’s bigger than Tab’s and not so cartoonish.
“Where you want it?” he asks, nodding over the black and white printout.
“Just the normal tattoo color. That blue-black.”
“Take an hour and a half—two hours. Hundred and fifty, cash only.”
“Can you do it now?”
He grins and I see missing teeth. “You see anybody else in here waiting?”
I fill out a form, show him my I.D., and then I am sitting in what seems like a
modified dentist’s chair. The vinyl covering is ripped—red sparkles. I pick at the jagged
edge with my left hand as he peels up my right sleeve, exposing bicep and shoulder.
“Yes,” I say. That’s where I want it, my own lizard. A belly button tattoo would
not look good on me. The shop is not hot, but I start to sweat. I am nineteen years old and
this will be my first tattoo. I have no idea what it will feel like. I didn’t even know I
wanted it until last night, when I was rubbing my shoulder and staring at the unresponsive
screen of my computer. I wasn’t copying her. I found my own lizard after hours of online
searching. He looks nothing like Tab’s.
“I’m Hector,” he says, rubbing an alcohol wipe across my arm. It’s cold, but it
doesn’t stop the sweating. “This your first tattoo?”
I nod, the fingers of my left hand digging into the yellow foam inside the ripped
chair cushion.
“What made you decide to do it?”
I don’t have a ready answer, so I tell the truth. “There’s this girl.”
Hector laughs. He’s squeezing my arm, holding it to the light. “Say no more,
man.” I watch as he squirts a heavy line of shaving cream into his palm, lathering my arm
from shoulder to elbow. There’s hardly any hair but he shaves anyway, using a disposable
razor. I feel stupid; I should have known enough to do this beforehand.
“What was your first?” I ask, uncomfortable with the silence, the faint buzz of
florescent lights overhead.
Hector rubs a band of barbed wire encircling his arm just above the elbow. Stuffed
animals are caught in the thick black lines, impaled by inked wire. One, a blue bear worn
pale with age, has fallen free but it is mangled and torn. “He’s not gonna make it,” Hector
says, pointing to the bear.
“No escape?”
“Even if the medics find him.”
I look up and down Hector’s arm but find no medical insignia. Whatever he
means has gone over my head. I dislike this feeling; it is the feeling I get every time I am
in a place like this—a new place, one I was not brought up to understand. My father, I am
sure, will smile indulgently when he sees my tattoo. He will not care that I have
permanently marked my skin with a symbol that even I do not understand.
“That’s sad.”
Hector swipes my arm with a clean rag, then another alcohol wipe. I am surprised
at how clean he is, despite the dirt and decay of this place. He snaps on latex gloves and
bends over his machine. I watch, but cannot see much. Even if I could, I wouldn’t know
what it was I was looking at. Hector does not volunteer information.
“Is that Hector like from the Iliad?” I ask.
“It’s Hector like from my dad,” he says. “I’m Little Hector, really.”
“What’s your dad think about your job?”
“What’s yours think about yours?”
I don’t answer.
Eventually Hector turns to me. He pulls a desk close—one that looks suspiciously
like elementary school overstock—and on it he sets a little cup of shiny black ink, a tall
stack of paper towels, and a few more individually packaged wet wipes. He changes his
gloves, wipes my arm again, and nods at a low table covered in grimy magazines. “Read,
if you want,” he said. “Help take your mind off the needle.” He pauses. “Not drunk, are
“No,” I say. I’d had to sign a waiver that said as much.
“Good.” Hector presses the machine’s pedal with his foot experimentally. It
makes a high, keening noise and immediately the hair on the back of my neck rises. “Got
a drunk piece once. Never a good idea.”
I want to point out to him that it’s only late afternoon, not nearly time to be drunk
yet, but I do not. I pick up a copy of the local paper instead.
Marietta is on the front page.
The whirring whine of the tattoo machine picks up again, and Hector grasps my
arm. He pulls it away from my body and rests it against my knee. "Don't jump," he says,
"or you'll regret it for life."
She's not the main story, but a sidebar on page one is still significant. And I don't
know what to do when I read the accompanying headline.
The jabbing needle touches my skin for the first time, and I want to pull away but
Hector's holding my arm so tightly that I can't. It's like fire—like electricity, really, like
touching a hot fence at a feed lot. I feel sweat on my shoulders, running down my back.
My face is sweaty, too, and I wish I was outside, running.
The needle hurts, but I don't know if I would rightly call it pain. It's such an alive
feeling—too alive, almost. I can almost feel the dopamine slathering my brain. I'm
swimming in serotonin, in good chemicals. I want to scratch my arm, but I don't. I do
look, and it's fascinating. The needle moves too quickly to really track with my eyes, but
I can see the track of dark ink it leaves. Hector pauses and wipes away excess ink,
leaving a dark smear across my arm. On his paper towel the ink is mixed with blood.
"Outline's hard because it's the darkest," he says. "Boldest—hurts more. The
shading won't be so bad."
"It's fine," I tell him, and it's true. I'm hooked. It hurts, and I like it.
I don't like what this headline is going to do to my life.
Three hours later I'm up at the college, my arm swathed in plastic wrap that's held
in place by what feels like yards of masking tape. Something's going on. It's dark out, but
there are hundreds of students outside—and with a student population of only 700 or so,
that's a significant portion. I pause at the black iron gates.
The girls do not seem to notice me, so I go ahead and walk forward. They are
facing the main building, not the red brick wall that surrounds the school, and I slip into
the reading building without being seen.
It's my father. I stare at him, unsure what to say. He's standing by the glassfronted doors, watching the girls as they swarm the front lawn and brick walkways. They
hiss as they talk—I think that maybe they have not yet decided whether or not to be
angry. They're just...I don't know...processing?
"They're going to kill you," I tell my dad, and I do not go to stand beside him.
"Teddy, it had to happen. Y2K is over, and it's time to pull this place into the
twenty-first century. Women just aren't looking for single-sex education anymore, not in
the numbers they used to be. Marietta has assured us that it will work out for the best.
The girls will be angry for a while, but that will pass."
I do not say anything else to him, but turn to find the stairs.
"The reading has been canceled," he tells me.
He does not answer, and I realize I do not need him to. None of the girls will
come, and it's better for the poet's ego just to cancel.
"What happened to your arm?" He tugs at my thin jacket sleeve, where the bulge
of Saran wrap and masking tape shows.
"Nothing." I turn to leave.
"Teddy," he says, stopping my movements. I do not want to stand here and listen
to him defend Marietta any longer. I have no personal investment in her decision one way
or another, but I do not want to hear him anyway. Lola has asked me point-blank if my
father is sleeping with the city planner. I don't know. I don't want to know.
"Teddy," he says again, "you need to think about this. It could be an opportunity
for you. With both your mother and I working here, it would cost virtually nothing for
you to attend."
Money has never been a reason to put off college. I say nothing.
"Just think about it," he says. "The longer you wait, the harder it will be to return
to school."
I know this. I've read the research. I am not stupid.
I leave my father in the lobby of the building and return to the milling students.
Tab is barreling toward me, and I stop, waiting for her. She plows to a stop, a little
awkward, as if she is not a regular runner. Her cheeks bell as she blows, and she leans
forward a little, her pale face pinking.
I swallow, waiting for what she will say. It is impossible to tell, with Tab.
She straightens, and before I can do anything she raises her hand and slaps my
"Fuck you, little boy!"
There's nothing I can say. I blink, words fleeing from my brain.
"How long did you know?"
I cannot answer. I open my mouth but don't manage to say anything.
Tab glowers. It's terrifying.
"Your fuckwad of a father did this! Him and the other trustees. How long did you
I want to tell her that I only learned today, when I picked up that
newspaper at the tattoo parlor. I want to pull up my sleeve and show her my lizard, greyblack, the skin around him raised and red. In my head, ticker tapes of words swirl but I
can't catch any of them. I hear the dull, plunking sound of a ball bearing falling into a
hole in the maze. I remove my hands from the pegs. The game is over. The maze has
Belly of the Boat (Teddy)
Is this how drowning victims feel, near the end? Do they know—accept, even—
that the water will take them? Long, possibly, for the quiet that comes after?
Because I have no quiet. Nobody will be quiet and let me think, although I
probably asked for it in this case. But when Tabitha invited me to Va-Beach, part of an
April caravan of students and artists who couldn’t stand one more day of muggy central
Virginia rain, I went. I don’t like Virginia Beach and I don’t like the guys from the Art
House, but Tab is Tab and I couldn’t say no. She promised we were heading to the more
secluded southern beaches of Sandbridge, not the cluttered boardwalk monstrosity of VaBeach proper. India almost didn’t come, but I asked if she would change her mind. Anna
and her twin aren’t speaking to me. Neither is Rigsy. Lola isn’t speaking to anyone right
now, but India says this happens from time to time and I shouldn’t worry. Ever since the
board of trustees made their announcement last month, I’ve been trying to keep some
distance from the girls. My father sits on the board. He brought in Marietta. I know I’m
the perfect scapegoat, but I can’t say no to Tab. I don’t think I’m in love with her
anymore, but I still can’t say no.
She told the truth, though, about the beach; we stumbled through deep sand, past
some shuttered condos and beach houses, and onto a wide stretch of blackness, of
absolute nothing. I can see lights from ships—little orange specks, like the sodium glare
of streetlamps—and a haze farther north, where I know there’s a naval base. Here in
front of us, though, there’s nothing.
It’s hard to think sometimes with so many people around, too many—people
everywhere. Even now, late at night on this stretch of sand, some guy from the Art House
has a guitar and Anna’s twin’s boyfriend is banging on an African drum, and they’re
trying to sing as they pass a fat, badly-rolled joint between them. I’ve never actually seen
one before; the subjective descriptor is all Tab’s.
It isn’t the smoke that makes me want to think…I think. The smoke is funny. We
made a fire out of spurned trash and driftwood and it’s smoking cleanly. Smells like wood
and salt and sometimes spinach-like burning kelp. The smoke, which has been in my
face all night, turns away from me, toward Ammy on the other side of the fire, and her
boyfriend says that smoke follows beauty. I want to ask what beauty is, really—I don’t
understand Ammy’s appeal—but I haven’t been smoking with the others and I think this
means I shouldn’t ask. Is there such thing as a secondhand high? It would be nice to have
an excuse for my strangeness. I don’t really think I’m high; all I have is a headache. That
stuff smells, when I catch it over the wood smoke. But it’s nice to know an escape route
if I need one.
Quiet is beautiful, I know that much. But why does Ammy’s boyfriend like her? Is
she really beautiful, wrapped in a baggy canvas coat, head ducked against the smoke?
Why is she more beautiful than the guy with the drum, or the gleam of fire on the guitar?
Sometimes the smoke is beautiful, too, becoming things as it moves—raptors, sleek river
otters, slices of pizza, wedges of pie. “Metaphorical pie,” Art House Guy says, and
Ammy’s boyfriend taps out a punchline beat against the drum. How do you slice
metaphorical pie?
“I knew a cat named Pie once,” Tab says. She invited me but she’s not sitting
next to me, and I already know I won’t get up to move next to her. “Or maybe it was
pi—like the number.”
“Anna named her old cat Amoeba.” Ammy blows smoke, and it twists into the
general haze. There’s a breeze, but not much. “I used to call him The Meebe.”
We had a little gray and white cat for a while. My father named her Maybelline,
but shortened it to Maybe. When she ran away and didn’t come back, my mother said it
was because her name gave her an existential crisis. I don’t volunteer this information.
Rigsy and Anna aren’t here. Neither is Lola, and nobody’s seen Julia for a while.
When India asked, Art House Guy just shrugged.
“That reminds me of this poem.” Tab stands up to recite, and she hangs from her
frame like the elastic in her joints has loosened.
“It isn’t Shakespeare, is it?” Ammy’s boyfriend asks. He taps the drum, not
wanting to listen to poetry. “I hate Shakespeare.”
“Christ, no. Listen. It’s a science poem. Johnny was a chemist's son, but Johnny is
no more. What Johnny thought was H20 was H2SO4.”
Art House Guy and Ammy’s boyfriend laugh. Ammy does not. “What’s H2SO4?”
“Who cares?” Tab’s looking at her and her eyes are squinty. “It’s a joke.”
“Yeah,” India says, leaning back on her elbows in the cold sand, “but you forgot
the punch line.”
“Fuck you.” Tab’s voice is strangely pleasant, but when she wanders away from
the fire I don’t follow.
“Ted?” India is the only one who calls me this. I think I like it. “What
did…sorry.” She looked like she might be thinking hard. “Your dad’s on the board.”
I nod. I don’t like where this is going. Everyone knows my father sits on the
board of trustees, and there’s no need to state it unless it’s a cushion for something else.
“Just…when did you know?”
At least this is a question I can answer, even though it’s a sore topic. “I read it in
the paper.”
“In the paper? The Advance?”
“Yes.” It feels like she’s waiting for something else, something more, but there’s
no quiet and I can’t think. The guys have started drumming and strumming again, but
they’re out of synch with each other, discordant. Art House Guy’s chords sound wrong—
bitter, almost, like a twinge you want to fix. Like almost finding the itch you’re trying to
scratch but never quite getting it. I can’t think with all that noise.
The only time my father spoke to me about the decision was to ask if I planned to
apply. He assumed I already knew about the trustees’ vote—and I did, but not because of
“Didn’t we bring beer?” Ammy’s boyfriend asks.
“Left it in the car.”
“Fuck.” It’s a long, drawn-out sound, and he looks back at the street and the silent
summer homes. Does he think that’s too far to walk, even for alcohol? He lays next to
the drum, staring at the fire.
Art House Guy finally puts down the guitar, and there’s quiet. Not silence—
there’s still sounds of tide and wind—but a better quiet than I think I’ve heard in a long
time. India and I follow him toward the water.
It’s not so black as it was when we stumbled down here, but light is deceptive.
Shadows hide coarse ridges of sand, and the light turns flatlands rough. The wind gusts,
and I hold my breath against stinging grains of sand. I bite and hear awful crunching in
my molars and I wonder if this is worse than an unexpected pit in a milkshake cherry, or
an unknown quantity in a fast-food nugget. We’ve found Tab, but she pretends we are not
I wade into the sucking water. The Pacific woman with the mermaids spoke
about an ocean too cold to swim in, but I don’t think my imagination is strong enough for
this. Here the water is always wade-able—it’s not Hawaii, but it won’t give me
A wave smacks me in the chest and I drop. India grabs me before the rip does,
anchors her ankles in the liquefied sand and pulls. I return to the surface, salt in my nose.
I’m a runner, not a swimmer, and I’ve gone out too far, out of my element, but India says
nothing so I swallow the need to apologize.
There’s noctiluca in the water—tiny twinkles of phosphorescent phytoplankton.
Art House Guy dances, and everywhere the ocean lights with green and blue. Green like
witchfire, like the stuff of Disney nightmares, like translucent jade held under florescent
light and backwashed with blacklight. And blue, too, blue like unnatural swimming pools,
and cold blue—the blue of light through ice, through miles and miles of glacier caverns.
Cold light, wet light—we swim in light. I don’t dream colors like this.
“My mom was a surfer chick, yeah? Did the Endless Summer thing.” Art House
Guy bobs with the water, gentle as a manmade wave pool. This is not a surfing beach,
though people try.
“She any good?” India asks.
“It wasn’t about competition back then. Like, contracts with Billabong or
whatever. She was a surfer chick. It was, like, her life.”
I want to ask him where she was now, and why he had ended up here of all places,
in a dying city along the James River. My father laughs because our city sits on seven
hills, like Rome. It isn’t funny.
I like the quiet here. We’re concentrating too hard to chatter, concentrating on
staying upright, on keeping with the tide and out of the rip. I can do this and think at the
same time, but not talk. It might be nice to stay and matriculate; I believe it would please
my father. If I wouldn’t go to Stanford, he could at least someday say I helped with his
school’s PR. I might like college with India, and Rigsy, and Julia if they ever find her.
But would they want me? They don’t want boys, but I’m not a faceless boy. I think this
makes it harder for them to claim objectivity, and for that I’m sorry. I think I’m learning
the value of this.
We head back into the shallows, where it’s possible to stomp down, hard, and see
phosphorescence fire into the sand. It looks like drowning sparklers that don’t know
they’re dying in the silence beneath the waves.
Tab finds a jellyfish washed up on shore. She runs it down her arm, the gelatinous
flesh full of noctiluca. Her skin glows.
Out of the water the wind hits us, and I shiver. India shows us how to dry off,
throwing herself on dry sand. It prickles; it hurts. But we roll and roll, sand sucking the
water away from skin. And I do feel warmer, though the sand is no longer silk, but
needle-y. It makes me remember that it’s all just jagged particles of rock shrunk down.
Tab has skinned her knee, and she sits on the sand, straggles of end-wet hair
blowing in her eyes, to lick it clean. Nobody tells her this is dirty. I remember last fall and
winter, watching her. She’s not what I thought she would be, but this doesn’t mean I’m
able to turn away.
I daydream—is it still a daydream, in the night?—and in my head I’m not afraid
of touch. My body is around her, my legs on either side, and we are sitting on the strand.
The sand hurts, it hurts, when she grinds her back to my front and twists her head around
to see me. Others are stealing away.
There is sand in places I don’t want to think about, and yet I do. I want to think,
want to know the pain of sex in such an uncomfortable place. Rocks, sand, ocean, salt,
Tab wants it too, and she lifts a finger and places it in my mouth. Blood, salt,
sand. One of her arms still glows from the jellyfish, and smells of something rotting. I
pick her up and carry her to a tidepool, and we don’t wonder about what might be lurking
in the foot-deep water.
I think I’m not terribly good at this fantasy thing, if we’re bitten by sand and she
smells like rotting jellyfish. But there are other things, too—the wind gusts and I imagine
that inside her body is a safe, warm place to crawl. There’s no wind, but I can still hear
the tide.
I turn from Art House Guy and Tab and India, head back toward the fire. Ammy
and her boyfriend are a lump of wool and canvas, the drum on its side a yard or so away,
forgotten. They remind me of how Rigsy described waiting out last winter’s ice storm in
the Art House, sleeping in a pile on the floor. I never slept over anywhere when I was a
kid, and Rigsy’s pile sounds…nice. We haven’t brought sleeping bags with us, but I try to
imagine what might happen if we had. All of us would be there—the three fifth Eliot
girls, and the twins, and Ammy’s boyfriend, and hell, even Art House Guy. Tab and
Jennie-love. And Julia, I pretend she’s been found. We unzip sleeping bags, lay them out,
and crawl under the warm mess. Nobody sleeps alone, or even paired. By twos and threes
we all return to the communal pile, add more polar fleece and synthetic down. We lie
curled around each other, on top of other people, arms wedged tightly against backs and
bellies. Nobody asks for his clothes back. No one complains of cold feet.
Tab is next to me in the pile. Her hand rests against my stomach, and her grip is
firm and still. Her knee is still bleeding; I can feel it pressed tightly against the back of
my own. It must hurt, but she says nothing.
We say nothing.
The tide ebbs, moon wanes.
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