Jones, Louisa. What’s Bad For You (Under the direction of John Kessel)
What’s Bad for You is a collection of ten short stories, set in locations as varied as
Edinburgh, Vietnam, and North Carolina. The narrators range from an imaginative but lonely
eight year-old girl to a “depressed” thirty-something male to a middle-aged Chinese man
trying to recapture his past culture and the spark that has dwindled from his marriage. Family
plays a powerful role in each of the main characters’ lives, and they must all come to terms
with who (or what) is really shaping them—is it themselves? Is it someone or something
else? Travel and clashing cultures/ideologies are also important issues in these stories.
What’s Bad For You
A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of
North Carolina State University
in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the Degree of
Master of Fine Arts
Chair of Advisory Committee
Louisa Jones was born in a village called Coldstream in Scotland. She moved to North
Carolina with her mother when she was ten and has been there ever since. She got her B.A.
in English from N.C. State and then worked as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in
Eastern North Carolina, then as a technical writer, and then she decided that she’d had
enough and went back to school to study what she’d secretly been interested in all along—
I would like to thank my thesis committee—John Kessel, Angela Davis-Gardner, and Wilton
Barnhardt—and all my HOWL friends in the creative writing department at N.C. State
who’ve been so supportive and helpful and who’ve inspired me to keep writing!
And thanks to my parents, Marianne, Elizabeth, Ha, and David for putting up with all my
complaining and whining and for always telling me that I should keep going and that no, my
stuff wasn’t terrible!
What’s Bad for You …………………………………………………………………..1
High Tea ……………………………………………………………………………..14
Traveling Textiles ……………………………………………………………………33
Pigeon Head ………………………………………………………………………….45
Paper Money …………………………………………………………………………65
Port of Leith ………………………………………………………………………….78
The Mood Detectives ………………………………………………………………...98
Human for a Day ……………………………………………………………………143
What’s Bad for You
Mom found the negligee about a week into my senior year of high school; it was one
of a long list of things I’d done to upset her since I’d become a teenager, like cutting my hair
without asking and wearing too much black eyeliner and hanging out with the kids who
sniffed rubber cement in the stairwells. I’d hidden the negligee under my mattress, not
realizing that was the first place she checked on her weekly search.
“You want to screw up your life, Jody?” Mom yelled, shaking the negligee in my
face; it was a pink nylon thing with long silky ribbons that laced across the middle and held
everything in place. Tony had bought it at Wal-Mart for our two-month anniversary, along
with a jumbo bag of Tootsie Rolls.
“Mom, it was a joke. We haven’t done anything.”
She walked over to the closet and pulled out my plastic storage box of journals. “It’s
no joke when you get pregnant. And then you have to get an abortion and the abortion goes
wrong, and then what?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Ruining your life.” She bent down and lifted the rectangular box by its edges. I tried
to block the doorway, but she pushed into me with her hip, sending me stumbling backwards
onto my butt. I got up and ran after her, grabbing at her sweater, but she jerked her shoulder
“You’re the one ruining my life!” I screamed. She opened the front door and jogged
outside in the street to the garbage dumpster, her flip flops slapping against the asphalt. I
stopped at the door and watched as she tipped my poetry journals on top of all the leftover
frozen dinners and tampons and damp kitty litter. Gone were all the poems I’d been writing
since I was six, the little snippets about me splashing in the lake with Mom and Dad, the
ditties about second grade and the yellow Easter dress Mom made me, the darker preteen
verses carved in no. 2 pencil.
“Honey, you know your mom’s a little unstable right now. You need to be on your
best behavior,” Dad told me that weekend. I was visiting at his new apartment across town. I
guess I’d hoped things would be better with Mom when Dad finally left—no more screaming
at me because I’d bought the wrong type of orange juice and forgotten to add fabric softener
to the sheets, fewer plates of my “inedible” spaghetti smashed against the wall. Did she
deliberately throw pasta, I wondered, because it stuck better to the pink wallpaper in the
“She’s searching my room every week.” I’d found Mom’s legs sticking out from
under my bed one evening when I got home early from science club. “She’s looking for
condoms. She threw out all my poetry journals.”
“Jody, you’ve got to be patient with Mom.” We were in the laundry room, and Dad
was tossing his white work shirts and red golf towels into the same washer. “She had a hard
time when she was your age. Had some bad stuff happen to her.”
“Like what? Nobody ever told me.”
He poured fabric softener, instead of detergent, into a little plastic globe and threw it
into the machine. “It’s not something we like to discuss with you. You’ll have to ask your
“She doesn’t talk—she just yells.”
He stared at the dials and buttons for a few seconds, his finger hovering above
“hot/cold wash.” I considered telling him that all his shirts were going to turn pink and
probably get mangled.
“Jody, it’s only a few journals, what’s the big deal?”
I kept quiet about the shirts.
That evening, I walked to the convenience store across the street to get Dad a carton
of milk for his coffee. I picked up an Evening News and flipped to the classifieds section.
Uncle Mack had run away from home when he was fourteen, got the train all the way up to
Maine and would have lived up there in a tent, he’d told me, had his parents not met him at
the station when he arrived. Uncle Mack would co-sign the apartment for me.
Three weeks after I moved out, Mom came to Sal’s Diner. I was behind the counter
filling up the saltshakers when the little bell on the front door jingled. I looked up, and she
was flicking her head from side to side, taking in the red Formica tables and yellow plastic
ashtrays. She strode past Becka, who stood on a wooden chair washing the tall front windows
in slow circles.
Mom put her navy purse and newspaper on the counter, not looking at me. I tipped
the salt canister halfway, letting the salt drizzle into the little glass shaker. Then I screwed on
the silver cap.
“Coffee, black, no sugar,” Mom said, sitting down on a stool and resting her hands on
top of her purse. She wore the Christian Dior suit with the brass buttons Aunt Tracy had
given her four Christmases ago. And she’d just had a manicure, French tips. Must be a big
day in Secretary Land.
“Hello, Denise,” I said, my voice not as steely as I would have liked for her first visit.
Not as harsh as when I’d practiced in front of the mirror, standing at an angle, mouthing the
words as though I was on television.
Mom glanced up. “What the hell did you do to your hair? I didn’t even recognize
I touched my ponytail. “It’s red. I like it.”
She shook her head. “You look like a punk.”
“What about you?” I wiped my sweaty hands on my apron and jerked my head at the
patchwork of short puffy layers hanging around her shoulders. I knew she’d paid Maurice,
her stylist, at least forty bucks for it, plus a five-dollar tip. “Looks like someone stuck a
poodle on your head.”
Her shoulders twitched, and I turned round quickly before she could reply.
“Since when do you talk to your mother like that?”
My hands shook as I unscrewed the rest of the saltshakers and lined them up in a row
on the tray, their silver caps beside them like lifeboats. Mom waited a few moments for me to
reply, but I kept my back to her.
“I came to tell you I got promoted,” she said loudly, as though she wanted Becka to
hear. “I’m the head administrative assistant for the whole department.”
“Good for you,” I said over my shoulder.
Mom paused. “So, things are looking up. Things might be a little easier at home
She wouldn’t come right out and ask me to come back. Mom wouldn’t do that. “No
more frozen dinners?” I asked.
“Turn around, Jody!” Mom slapped the counter; her rings clanged on the fake black
“Mom, I have to work. I’ll get fired.”
“I could talk to the school for you. We’ll say you were sick. It’s your last year.”
I poured the rest of the salt quickly; some spilled onto the tray, some of it onto the
floor. I’d sweep it up later. When all the shakers were full, I screwed the tops back on and
wiped them with a damp cloth. Then I wiped the tray. The doorbell jingled again; that would
be the “Old Guys,” a group of men in their seventies who wore beige windbreakers and white
sneakers. They would crowd into booth six and order scrambled eggs and toast. When I
turned around, Mom was gone.
That evening, I walked home to my studio apartment above the Indian restaurant.
Cardboard boxes full of my schoolbooks, the yearbooks, and prom photographs were stacked
up against the wall like a testament to my failure. I stared at my reflection in the cracked
vanity mirror Mom had gotten me when I was six—she’d chucked it out the back door after
me. I was a pale-faced, anguished Bette Davis, my body divided into unrecognizable pieces
as I swayed from side to side.
A few weeks after Mom came by the diner, the weird guy started showing up. I was
in the back, helping wash dishes while Becka watched the front. I was trying to think up little
jingles about the food on the menu, something I did when I was bored. My notepad was full
of them. Our key lime pies won’t stick to your thighs.
There were soapsuds on my nose and in my hair when Becka tapped me on the
“Guy to see you up front.”
“Huh? What’s he look like?” I pretty much kept to myself since I’d dropped out of
high school; I didn’t know any guys. Maybe he remembered me from class.
“Probably in his forties, messy hair, old ripped-up hunting jacket.”
“What the hell?”
I wiped my hands and arms on my apron and went to the front. The guy stood by the
counter, near the cash register. Under a bright orange hunting jacket, he wore a blue tee shirt
with a red logo on the front that said “Pizza Man,” instead of “Super Man.” The curve of his
belly peeked out the bottom of the shirt like a pregnant woman’s early bulge. I figured he
must have a question about the menu.
“Yeah, can I help you?” I stood opposite him, putting my hands flat on the counter.
He had an older face, lined and tanned, but something about the way he held himself
made him seem younger. His arms and shoulders looked tense, like a dog when he’s seen a
squirrel, and they sort of hung off him like they didn’t belong there. I hoped he wasn’t a
He began pulling things out of his pockets. A stack of photographs, a box of candy no
bigger than a matchbox, a roll of tape.
“It’s my house…anyway.” He was babbling; I could only catch bits of mumbled
phrases. “This is mine. Every time I saw it. Boxes and boxes…”
He slid the photographs towards me, and I picked them up, thinking maybe he didn’t
speak English properly and these would help explain. But they were all meaningless—an out-
of-focus wooden chair, a blurry back yard, a pair of bare feet, the white tail of a cat or dog,
half of a tree, an orange work boot tilted on its side.
“I don’t know what this is,” I said. “What do you want?”
He was mumbling. “Free birding... Park I lost the car. Empty every day.”
He pointed at me and nodded, and my stomach suddenly felt queasy. I put the
photographs back on the counter and pushed them towards him.
“Boxes of it…empty every day. Mom’s bad car….Jody.”
I took a step back. “I don’t know who you are, and I have to go now.”
“Every night in that free birding park.” He picked up the little box of candy and
waved it at me.
“No thanks,” I said, shaking my head. “Don’t want it.”
“Lots of wording and cars…” He held the box between his thumb and index finger
and stared at it so hard, that I began to stare at it, too, wondering if it held something alive, a
little glowing creature, some sort of mystery. I slowly lifted my hand and took the tiny box
from him. According to the label, it contained “fiery” red gumballs that were “spiced with
lava,” but the box was lighter than it should have been, no little candy dots rolling around
inside. I used my fingernail to ease open the flap, a trickle of fear slipping down my stomach.
What the hell was inside?
It was empty. I peered into the corners in case some microscopic object was stuck
between the cardboard flaps, but there was nothing there at all. I threw the box down and ran
into the back. My hands shook as I pushed open the door to the alley. I pulled a pack of
cigarettes out my apron pocket and sat down on a blue milk crate. Becka came out after a few
minutes and crouched down to my level, the green hem of her apron scuffing the ground.
“He’s a nut,” she said. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye out for him.”
“Scared me half to death,” I said, sucking in smoke.
“How’d he know your name?”
I shook my head. “Beats me.”
The crazy guy started coming to Sal’s a few times a week, just hanging around the
counter, waiting to see me. If Becka saw me first, she would yell out the signal—“two rotten
eggs up ahead”—and I’d hide in the back, washing dishes or sweeping until the guy had left.
Three times he called the restaurant and asked for me. The first time, Becka didn’t know who
it was and handed me the phone. All I heard was a jumble of words and an echoing sound,
like he was talking in a bathroom. Then I realized who it was and slammed the phone down.
“You’ve no idea who he is?” Becka asked me one day as we folded the clean
dishtowels and put them on a shelf in the kitchen. “Maybe a long lost relative?”
I shook my head. He had green eyes, like mine, but I wouldn’t know what else to look
“Wonder why he’s so obsessed with you.” She handed me another pile of towels to
The only thing that helped me concentrate at work was writing those little rhymes in
my notepad while the customers were trying to decide whether to have sunny-side up or
scrambled. Becka liked my rhymes. She told me I should go back and get my GED; then I
could go to college and maybe go into advertising afterwards. It sounded good but unreal,
something a grown up person with normal friends and family would do, not me.
Weeks passed at the restaurant, and the weird guy—I dubbed him “Agent Orange”
because of the hunting jacket—kept visiting. I was getting jumpier by the second. At my
apartment, I tacked a sheet over the window in case he climbed up the fire escape and spied
me through a crack in the blinds. I thought about changing my hair color again, making it
darker and less obvious, but I couldn’t spare the cash. I wore sunglasses in the street and a
baseball cap to try to blend in with the anonymous city crowd. My rhyming menus got
weirder and weirder as I checked over my shoulder every few minutes to make sure Agent
Orange wasn’t there.
Our egg salads are fine, but I wish I had some wine.
We beat our eggs until they’re fluffy and as appealing as a helpless puppy.
One time, I accidentally asked Sal for a “flattened flapjack” with “beaten to a pulp
O.J.” instead of a pancake platter and large orange juice. He didn’t appreciate my poetry
skills. He got tired of me jumping three feet in the air whenever the door opened and darting
into the back when I saw a man in his forties with messy brown hair.
“The guy’s harmless. I see him wanderin’ all over town, talkin’ to pigeons,” Sal told
me one day. We were in the kitchen washing out the coffee pots and drying dishes. He stood
beside me, splotches of Thousand Island dressing and tea stains on his knee-length white
apron. He was a whole foot-and-a-half taller than me with a frame like Santa Claus but no
fluffy white beard.
“Next time this guy shows up, you tell him to get lost for good,” he said.
I held a glass carafe under the cold tap to wash off the last soapy remnants.
“I don’t have time for this shit.” He threw his towel in the laundry basket by the door
and stomped out the room. I held the carafe in front of my eyes and watched his wavering
figure disappear down the hall; I imagined throwing it at Sal’s head. The glass would shatter,
and there’d be thousands of shiny slivers exploding in the air. It would be beautiful.
That evening, I sat in the kitchenette of my apartment and smoked a whole pack of
cigarettes, my week’s supply. Then I painted my toenails pale yellow and stretched out on
my mattress, half-watching an old Cary Grant movie on the black-and-white TV I’d gotten
for ten bucks at the flea market. At midnight, the movie finished, and I flipped through my
junior yearbook, getting more and more depressed as I saw the scribbled messages.
“Jody, Baby, sleep with me!” Billy Solder had written in blue capital letters. He’d sat
behind me in algebra, always wore faded jeans, tight around the crotch, and had a cowlick
like a wave. My friend Stacey had signed four times—once in each corner of the page. Abby,
a girl I hardly knew, wrote, “Thanks for the gum in Mrs. P’s class. LYLAS (love ya like a
sister).” My ex-boyfriend Tony had written upside down in pink ink—a long message that
started in one corner and gradually sprawled across the entire page. I tried reading it but got
stuck halfway through the fourth sentence; it was about school and classes and how we could
get jobs together at the pool that summer.
I wiped my eyes on the bedspread and put the yearbook back in the cardboard box
under my bed. Dad would be asleep by now; I could call him, but what would be the point?
He’d only act all friendly and sympathize, saying that yeah, Mom was unreasonable, crazy.
And, oh, too bad Agent Orange was stalking me. I’d hear his latest girlfriend calling for him
in the background, and he’d say he’d phone me back when he wasn’t so tired from work.
Then I wouldn’t hear from him again until the next time I phoned, crying.
There was no one else to call. Tony had dropped off the face of the earth when I told
him that Mom had found the negligee. I was too embarrassed to call any of my old friends. I
lay facedown on my bed, listening to the Indian family upstairs thump around—two kids and
three adults living in two rooms. I’d seen them all waiting at the bus stop together, bundled
up on windy days. The grandmother wore an old green trench coat over her sari and the kids
wore thrift store blue jeans and drew on the sidewalk with rocks. But they were happier than
I rolled onto my back and covered my face with my arms. There was always Mom. I
was surprised she hadn’t tried to call me this whole time. Surely, she could have gotten the
number from Dad.
I dialed her number slowly, licking my lips.
“Hello?” She was abrupt, angry at being woken up so late.
“Mom?” I imagined her sitting up in bed, pale faced with lemon and yogurt
moisturizers, hair clipped to the top of her head with the tortoiseshell clasps I got her when I
visited Florida in sixth grade. She always wore those clasps when she put her hair up, said
they were her favorites.
“Jody! What on earth are you doing calling me at this hour?”
“Mom, there’s this weird guy at work…”
The words withered as I said them. I pressed my hot cheek against the cold plaster
wall, suddenly knowing exactly what she was going to say and why I had not called her
“Weird guy? What do expect? Working in a place like that, dyeing your hair red like
some kind of prostitute. I don’t know why you thought you’d be better off without me...”
The next day, Agent Orange showed up early in the morning, just as I was wiping
crumbs off a table by the front window. When I saw him, I jerked upright. But I didn’t flee to
the back again; I remembered what Sal had said. The guy walked jerkily past, not seeing me,
one leg lifting higher than the other. He didn’t have the jacket on this time and instead wore
army fatigue pants and a yellow tee shirt with the words “Born to Be Wild” in purple letters
across the back. There were the beginnings of a bald spot at the back of his head, a circle of
pink skin that I hadn’t noticed before.
He clutched the glass jar of drinking straws on the counter and waited. Becka was
talking to one of our regulars, Mr. Jenkins, an old black guy who always wore a blue suede
cap and ordered cheeseburgers. I began half-heartedly flipping the cloth across the table just
in case Sal was watching, skimming crumbs onto the floor. Eyes glued to Agent Orange, I
began making up rhymes under my breath.
Our omelets are thick and cheezy!
And getting out of here would be so easy.
As I wiped the table, I imagined that someone else outside the restaurant was
watching me, maybe from an upstairs apartment across the street. A tall woman in a red pants
suit, stirring half-and-half into her coffee while she strolled past the French doors of her
townhouse. She’d stop when she caught a glimpse of me, filthy cloth in hand, knees quaking,
face white from nicotine and sleep deprivation, dyed red hair hanging out everywhere. She’d
sigh and put her hand to her mouth and think what a pathetic sight this girl was with her hair
all straggly. And who was this girl’s mother? Who was letting her go out in public in such a
state, looking like she’d escaped from drug rehab?
Agent Orange turned around. I held my breath, flicking my eyes toward the front
door. Then I looked at his shoes, polished brown leather boots with the laces tied tight;
someone was taking care of him. His eyes bored into me, and I finally looked up, expecting
to see a flash of something—recognition, sorrow or hatred even. But he stared right through
me as though I was translucent and he saw the street instead. I was just a streetlight or a car
in the way of what he really wanted to see.
I followed his gaze out the window, but there was only the office building across the
street; the windows were mirrors in the sunlight. All I saw was the reflection of the
submarine-shaped diner with its peeling silver paint. There was no one out there.
Becka was at the cash register, still talking to Mr. Jenkins. I reached into my apron
pocket and touched the metal rings of the notebook, imagining all my little rhymes lined up
like graphite guardsmen. I walked slowly toward Agent Orange and then veered left to go
behind the counter. I took out my notebook and pencil and waited for him to sit down on a
stool. For a second, I thought of Mom, sitting in that same spot a few weeks ago, smelling
like lavender and mint, her French tips shining.
“Can I take your order?” I asked and then licked the end of my pencil like I’d seen
waitresses do on TV.
Linda was sitting on the couch with Geoffrey and their daughter Rachel when the
telephone rang in the hall.
“I don’t believe ye even want to be my friend any more, Linda,” said a woman with a
lilting Scottish accent. Linda blinked a couple of times, and the white walls faded and she
was back in Edinburgh, in the top floor flat with the orange carpet and the Bob Marley poster
on the living room wall.
“Is that you, Michelle?” Linda asked. She could almost smell the patchouli incense
and cigarette smoke from the tiny two-bedroom flat they’d shared years ago, one bedroom
being a glorified cupboard.
“Aye, it’s me. I thought I’d better give ye a ring before we both get too old tae
remember each other.”
Linda laughed. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” She looked at the ceiling, trying to
count back the years in her head. Phase Two of her life had started sixteen years ago on the
bus to England one freezing Sunday morning in December, before it was even light. She’d
been wrapped up in a mohair shawl, a long thick coat, and a blue knitted maternity dress.
Linda had taken a job as a live-in nanny at a large estate. Then she’d met Geoffrey and four
months later had Rachel. They’d gotten married when Rachel turned two.
“Time certainly flies,” Linda said.
“Aye, it certainly does. I bet ye forgot all about me.”
“Oh, now, that’s not true!” Linda twisted the curling telephone cord around her index
finger. Michelle had been at the back of her mind for the past year.
After Linda moved down to England, she and Michelle had vowed to keep in touch.
Gradually, Linda had found it increasingly hard to make the effort to pick up a pen, to press
the buttons on the telephone; it had been like running through mud. There was too much she
didn’t want to talk about. There were times when Michelle called that Linda had told
Geoffrey to say she was at an aerobics class or was working late at the shop. They talked less
and less until the only things connecting their old friendship were the signatures on shiny,
conspicuous Christmas cards.
“Still working in the flower shop?” Michelle asked.
“Actually, you know that I own the florist shop now, don’t you?” Linda said. “I
bought it off Mark when he retired. And business is still fairly good. Just yesterday we had
an order for six bouquets of Easter lilies—”
“Oh, that’s lovely, Linda. And how’s Rachel?”
Linda closed her eyes and saw Rachel sitting in the back of the car last February, a
blanket over her knees, her eyes blurry and red. They had stopped for a burger and milkshake
on the way back from the hospital, but Rachel hadn’t eaten anything.
“She’s fine. Just turned seventeen last month. She’s going to start taking driving
lessons next year.”
“Good grief, the last time I heard she was only seven! And now she’s getting her
Linda was about to add that Geoffrey had changed jobs and was now working at the
car dealership, but Michelle said quickly, “I’m getting married.”
“What? I thought you were married to Stu. What happened?”
“Ach,” Michelle sighed. “That ended five years ago.”
“I’m so sorry—” Linda felt her face getting hot.
Michelle breezed on, “I met Jim at a yoga class. Actually, he was my instructor. Very
sexy, I might add.”
“Really?” Linda raised her eyebrows. She imagined Michelle delicately stretching to
touch her toes, brushing her hair off her face, and all the while making sure Jim got the best
view of her new sports bra. “When are you getting married?”
“Next month in Hawaii—I’m having my hen night this Saturday, and ye’d better be
“This Saturday?” Linda looked at the calendar hanging on the wall next to the phone.
It was a bit soon to be gallivanting off to Edinburgh. The dust was only starting to settle at
“It would be good tae see ye again, Linda.” Michelle’s voice softened on the other
end of the line. “It won’t be the same without ye.”
“Oh, go on, you old flatterer!”
Linda smiled, warming up the way she always used to with Michelle. The woman
could charm a penguin into moving to the desert. Maybe it was time to make some effort.
They’d both been married, both lived through the last seventeen years of changing political
landscapes. There was easily enough to delve into, without having to dredge up the past.
Geoffrey would keep an eye on Rachel.
“Well, I suppose I could get Maggie to cover for me for half the day—”
“I need ye up here early, around noon.”
“Noon? There’s no way, Michelle. The earliest I could leave is two p.m., and then I
still have to get the train up.”
“But we won’t have a chance tae talk! I haven’t seen ye in ages.” Michelle sighed
again. “Come on, wumman, live a little. Take the day off.”
“Give me a moment! I haven’t even had a chance to remember what day it is!”
“What happened to the auld Linda?” Michelle’s voice was getting higher. “Don’t
have time for yer old pals? Well, I’m busy, too, ye know, but I make the time to see my
Linda laughed. “I see you still like the theatrics.”
“All I know is I haven’t seen ye for ages, and ye can’t even take the day off.”
“Some of us have to work, you know!”
“Och, all right.” Michelle made a grunting noise. “I’ll meet ye at the station. Call me
when ye get about half an hour from Edinburgh.”
“But I don’t have a mobile phone.”
“I don’t know…” Michelle sighed melodramatically. “These friends I have. Ye live in
this day and age and don’t have a mobile?”
“Good grief!” Same old Michelle, Linda thought.
On Saturday afternoon, Geoffrey drove Linda to the station. The train was on time for
once, and Linda felt a twinge in her chest as she walked with Geoffrey to her carriage. He
was wearing the brown corduroy jacket she’d bought him for Christmas eight years ago; at
the time she had thought it made him look like a professor. Now, the elbows were worn out
and there were tea stains on the sleeves. When Linda had complained about this once, he had
replied that he liked his clothes as he liked his women—comfortable and a bit rough at the
“Keep an eye on Rachel,” she said, squeezing Geoffrey’s hand.
“She’ll be fine, don’t worry. Mum’s going to take her to see that new teen romance
flick on Sunday afternoon.”
“Oh, good.” Her mother-in-law would be a calming distraction. As a toddler Rachel
had thrown her food against the wall as a show of power. Now as a teenager, it was as though
she was reverting back to early childhood. Every day was a different battle.
“Don’t forget to give me a ring when you get in,” Geoffrey said, handing Linda her
“Right.” She gave him a quick kiss and turned toward the train.
“And remember what I told you about strange men in overcoats.”
He grinned. “Get going then.”
Linda pulled her suitcase onto the train and sat down at an empty seat by the window.
The train began gliding slowly out of the station, and Linda could see the hills behind the
town, green and blue in the afternoon sun. Past the little shops, where she went every couple
of days to buy food. Every morning, people lined up outside Smith’s bakery to wait for the
fresh baked rolls. It was quiet here, peaceful, far away from everything. Linda folded her
hands on top of her handbag. But she felt she owed Michelle something. There had never
been a “thank you for not telling on me,” or “thank you for being there when I couldn’t cope
Linda remembered sitting up late with her those nights Stu didn’t bother to show up,
the both of them laughing at old Vincent Price adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe on television.
During the adverts, Michelle would start crying again, and Linda would pour a little more
vodka into her orange juice and tell her that Stu was genetically flawed and only good for
one thing—free booze. Linda grinned, remembering how they always laughed at that, and
Michelle would change the punch line to “free Chinese take aways” or “a good laugh when
he pulls down his trousers.”
Two hours later, as the train pulled into Edinburgh station, Linda jolted awake. She
waited until the train had stopped before moving toward the exit. The air was warm, and it
was still bright outside. Linda walked slowly along the platform, scanning the crowds for
Michelle’s short figure.
She spun around, and Michelle was standing there behind her, looking all of twenty-
five years old. She wore a simple brown leather jacket that stopped just above a red chiffon
skirt, cut at an angle. On her feet were brown leather sandals with straps that reached around
her ankles, making them look slender and as delicate as porcelain. Her long hair was crimped
and dyed a golden color, instead of the dirty blond it had been. Linda found herself patting
awkwardly at her own short black hair, as though moving a few strands around would hide
the cheap cut from Tina at the Beauty Bus.
“Wow,” Linda said. “You look nice!”
“Finally, ye’re here!” Michelle gave her friend a one-armed hug. Then she hooked
her arm through Linda’s and led her away from the train.
“We’ve got tae hurry. I’ve made reservations for us at the Peacock Lounge.”
“The Peacock Lounge?” Linda stared down at the black trousers and yellow cotton
shirt she’d worn to work that day. “I don’t know if I’m dressed properly. I thought we might
stop at your flat first.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Michelle said. They’d reached the street, and Michelle was
waving at passing taxis. “We’re just going tae have a quick supper there, and then we’ll meet
the girls for a few drinks. Ye remember Pauline and Lynn and Becca?”
“Aye, vaguely.” Linda gulped. The last time she’d seen them she’d been twenty-one,
wearing unflattering green trousers and beads at a party, slumped over the toilet after Pauline
or Becca had handed her a glass of something strong and blue. Surely, they wouldn’t
remember her after all this time.
“So, tell me about this Jim character you’re marrying,” Linda said once they were in
the taxi. “And what on earth happened to Stu?”
Michelle unwrapped a piece of chewing gum and stuck it in her mouth. “He got a job
at a museum in Lincoln and turned intae a complete snob. Decided I wasn’t cultured enough
“And?” Linda stared.
“And he found himself a girlfriend half my age. And that wis that.” Michelle chewed
the gum on one side of her mouth, her lips twisted in a smirk.
Linda sucked in her breath and touched Michelle’s arm. “Oh, God. I’m sorry,
Michelle. If I’d known—”
“Well, what can ye do?” Michelle shrugged and looked out of the window. She began
to fiddle with the engagement ring, turning it round and round. Linda watched her, trying to
think of something witty to say about genetics or small penis sizes. Stu had always been a bit
of a flirt, touching your knee during conversations, coming up behind you and rubbing the
back of your neck. And those nights, he’d stood up Michelle… Well, he’d never explained
where he’d been, and no one had ever asked.
Linda suddenly felt guilty for enjoying Geoffrey and Rachel and their little stone
house with the apple trees in the front.
Latino music was thumping through the doorway of Club Cabana. Michelle had said
they should wait outside for the “girls.” They’d been standing there for a few minutes when
Linda heard laughing and some high-pitched shrieking from a group of about eight women in
their thirties and forties.
“Girls!” Michelle yelled and ran toward them. The women gave a collective cry and
enveloped her in their glittery sequined tops and black polyester bell-bottoms. A couple of
the faces looked familiar. There was Pauline from Linda’s botany class, still a bit overweight,
and Lynn who used to wear the pink horn-rimmed glasses but had somehow managed to look
hip. Linda wondered how many of them had kids.
“Get over here.” Michelle was waving at her. “Ye remember Linda, don’t ye?” She
patted Linda’s arm.
“Hello,” Linda said, feeling like a hedgehog on display at a zoo for boring animals. “I
think I’m underdressed,” she murmured to Michelle, who was applying another coat of
lipstick. Michelle glanced at her and nodded.
“That’s all right.” She handed Linda the lipstick.
They swarmed into the club, Michelle leading the way with her arms around Linda’s
and Pauline’s shoulders, and sat down at a group of tables near the dance floor. A couple was
dancing nearby, their bodies pressed together at the hips. Linda brushed the cigarette ash off
her chair and thought briefly about faking a migraine.
“What do you want to drink?” Michelle yelled. She was standing over Linda, hands
on hips, hair swept back, like some comic book superhero who’d come back from the past.
Before Linda could answer, a tall sinewy woman with a mouthful of enormous teeth
materialized beside Michelle.
“Bloody fantastic!” she cried, slapping Michelle’s rear end. Michelle laughed and
turned around and slapped the woman’s bottom. Then another woman appeared—she was
wearing a see-through shirt with a black bra underneath. Linda could see a roll of abdominal
fat hanging over the waistband of her purple satin trousers. This woman pinched Michelle’s
“How about THAT?” She shouted over the music. All three women started cackling
and slapping each other’s bottoms. Linda shifted in her seat. She picked up a drink menu and
glanced around to see if anyone was watching. A man in a black suit with an open necked
shirt sauntered over, beer in one hand, and watched the cavorting women. He sat down in an
empty chair next to Linda and crossed his legs.
“Interesting scenery around here,” he said, tilting his head. Linda pretended to be
immersed in reading about the Tequila Sunrise Special. “Don’t suppose ye want tae dance?”
She looked up. He was young enough to have acne. His hair was dark brown and
curly with a light coating of hair gel. She smiled.
“No thank you.”
“Ah, come on. It’s ma birthday,” he said, grinning and laying his hand on her arm.
What had Geoffrey said about meeting strange men? She looked around for Michelle
and the other women; they were now lined up on the dance floor, squashed together like a
giant caterpillar, weaving around the floor. If Rachel had been there, she’d be rolling her
eyes. How lame are you, Mum?
“Why not,” she said, getting up. She followed the young man—his name was Barry—
onto the dance floor and let him take her hand. Barry put his arm around her waist and
dipped her backwards as the trumpets blared.
Six dances later, Linda was sitting back at the table with the rest of the girls, grinning
and fanning herself with a menu. Lynn was drinking some sort of purple concoction and
poured half of it into Linda’s empty glass.
Linda laughed. “I’m going to pass out at this rate.”
“Even better,” Lynn said. “We’ll get young Barry there tae see ye hame.”
They all snorted over their drinks, and Linda shook her head. “You lot are terrible!”
Pauline leaned over, her silver bracelets scraping the top of the table. “Just like auld
“Aye, a great laugh!” Linda said, wiping her forehead with a napkin. “But I never
used to get asked to dance by anyone as good-looking as Barry!”
“That’s not what ah heard,” Pauline said, winking. Her thick red curls had turned
frizzy and limp, making her look like a second-hand rag doll.
Linda paused and then smiled. “Oh, yeah, I had the lads lined up at the door!” She
shook her head. “No such bloody luck.”
Pauline wagged her finger at Linda. “How’s Antonio, by the way?”
Linda had been about to take a sip of the purple stuff. She held the glass in mid-air.
“Ye know, Antonio. The auld Casanova.” Pauline laughed, slapping the edge of the
table. “The Italian Stallion.” She winked at Linda again.
“How should I know?” Linda put her glass down on the table and looked around.
“D’you know where the loo is?”
“He’s in jail now, by the way” said the woman with the enormous teeth who’d first
slapped Michelle’s bottom.
“Hmm? I really don’t remember him,” Linda said.
“Hard to forget, ah would imagine.” Pauline raised her eyebrows.
Linda wiped her forehead again. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She stood up. “Back in a minute.”
Linda walked quickly to the other side of the club, looking over her shoulder once.
Pauline and Lynn were talking, their heads close together, arms folded on the table. They
were just joking about Antonio, she told herself. Michelle had gotten the bus timetable for
her, had told them all a story about Linda’s sick granny in Coventry.
The bathroom floor was black and damp. Two women stood at the sinks, laughing
and spraying perfume into each other’s hair. Linda picked the stall at the end, closing the
door and hanging her handbag on the little hook. She stood for a few moments, absent-
mindedly pulling her hands through her hair. Michelle had lied to Linda’s parents for her,
saying that Linda was going through a rough patch at university and needed a change. Later,
when Linda was married, it didn’t matter any more. Geoffrey had always said that it was in
the past. She didn’t have to tell him about the father, but she would have to eventually
explain it to Rachel. And then all that trouble last year.
Linda leaned her head against the door and squeezed her eyes shut. Every woman in
her year had wanted to get into that man’s trousers.
Something bright shone into Linda’s eyes. She pulled the blanket off her face and lay
for a few seconds, feeling her mind roll quietly along. There was sunlight streaming through
the blinds and lying on her blanket. She let her eyes wander around the room, taking in the
white carpet, Michelle’s framed Picasso prints, and the glass coffee table beside her.
Normally, she’d have to get up right away to make breakfast for Rachel and get the coffee on
The windows must have been double-glazed because she could barely hear the traffic
in the street below, not like at home, where they were woken up every morning at four a.m.
by the milk van screeching around the corner. The air was warm and still. At home, there
were so many gaps under doors that drafts of air flitted around the house like spirits, touching
the backs of necks and bare legs.
She sat up, propping herself up on her elbows. The spinning had stopped, and her
head felt clear and light. She grinned at the ceiling, remembering the dancing and Barry’s
nice smile. There was a creaking sound, and the bedroom door swung open. Michelle swept
into the living room, wearing white jeans and a white cardigan over a tight pink tee shirt. Her
blond hair was tied up into a ponytail. She looks about fifteen, Linda thought, suddenly
thinking of Rachel at the beach last year.
“Good morning!” Michelle chirped, switching on the coffee maker. “Had a nice time
last night, catching up on auld times with the girls?”
Pauline’s flushed face poked into her brain. “Yeah, brilliant.” Linda slid her legs over
the edge of the futon. “Just going to have a shower.”
“Saw ye out there with the young Casanova. Just like the auld days, eh?” Michelle
“Har har. Very funny.”
Linda slipped into the bathroom and closed the door. Her hair felt like stale pasta,
encrusted and sticking out, and her makeup seemed to have sunk into her skin during the
night, creeping into every crevice. In the shower, Linda watched as trickles of water ran
down her stomach, curving with the stretch marks on her hips and dripping off her nipples.
She remembered Antonio’s dark hands and arms with black hair, warm against her skin, his
large eyes swallowing hers. When he’d left, she’d been asleep. Linda’s stomach contracted.
Michelle suggested that they have lunch in the tearoom at the Botanical Gardens.
They used to meet there once a month, walking through the rock garden and the Asian
landscapes and then having a pot of tea and scones. They’d both been struggling to pass
classes and working minimum wage jobs. Linda had been a bar maid at night and a bakery
assistant during the day, while Michelle had forced sweaty feet into shoes at a tiny
fluorescent-lighted shoe shop. The Botanics had been their treat, “high tea” they’d dubbed it.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Michelle hooked her arm through Linda’s as they walked past
the rock garden.
“Aye, it’s nice,” Linda said. The air had a golden haze to it, and she suddenly wished
she could stay an extra day and just walk around the rest of Edinburgh with Michelle. They
would skirt through the closes of the Royal Mile and snicker at a bizarre art exhibition at the
Fruit Market Gallery and buy a pot of tea in the cafe. She’d missed that.
“Remember when we hid from that bloke you were supposed to meet for a blind date
here?” Linda asked.
“That was a laugh! And you tried tae sneak behind a rose bush and tore up yer fishnet
“I’d just bought those, and then they were ruined!”
“Ach, Linda,” Michelle said, squeezing her arm. “Don’t worry, now I can afford tae
buy ye a new pair of fishnet stockings.”
“Pah! A bit late in the day.”
They grinned at each other and turned towards the tearoom. There was one empty
table at the back of the room, beside the tall windows that stretched to the ceiling. Michelle
and Linda held their trays up high, weaving through the tables of mothers and children and
buggies weighted down with plastic carrier bags and little jackets and jumpers.
“Do ye even wear fishnet stockings any more?” Michelle asked, once they’d
squeezed past a woman with twin boys and were finally able to put their trays down.
Linda hesitated, sipping her tea. Geoffrey would probably have a heart attack if she
showed up wearing fishnet stockings and a short skirt. His idea of excitement was opening a
bottle of red wine on a Tuesday.
“Ye do not! I need tae take ye shopping, get ye some sexy clothes for that man of
“Geoffrey is quite satisfied, thank you,” Linda said.
“Hmmm. Never hurts to spice things up a little. Ye know, keep the marriage from
Linda wasn’t sure what to say. She watched Michelle spread strawberry jam over a
“Men like tae be surprised every now and then. Jim loves it when I try something a
wee bit adventurous.”
Linda stared out of the window. She thought about her old blue nightie that came
down to her shins. An image of Michelle posing for Jim, wearing only red fishnets and black
stilettos flashed across her brain. She imagined Jim to be tall and slim with toned arms and
legs. He would be a young John Wayne, chiseled cheekbones and shapely eyebrows. Then
she thought of Geoffrey’s stomach, which started at the top of his chest and didn’t end until
past his belt.
“You know,” Linda ventured, “you’re probably better off without Stu.”
Michelle put down her knife and looked out the window at the fishpond. Children
threw coins in it for wishes. Linda always wondered how the fish stayed alive.
“He changed for a while.” Michelle turned her ring again, slower this time. “I thought
we were doing better. And then I found out he wis seeing this twenty-two year-old.” They
sat, staring down into their teacups. “It’s not everyone can have a good man, Linda.”
Linda opened her mouth to say something reassuring, but the words sounded stale
before she had even said them. Michelle picked up her knife again.
“So, what’s been going on in your happy, peaceful life?”
Linda bit into her scone. She’d forgotten to add cream, so the scone tasted dry and too
“Well, let’s see… I did have a sort of falling out with my parents.” Linda hesitated.
She hadn’t told anyone outside the family.
Michelle raised her eyebrows. “And….”
“It was over some problems that we’ve been happening with Rachel. Haven’t spoken
to either of them in over a year.”
“Good grief!” Michelle stared, grasping the teacup with both hands.
Linda felt the words mulling around inside her, poking around, taking up space,
filling her up to her tonsils. She hadn’t wanted to tell anyone in case it got back to Rachel.
But Michelle didn’t know any of the same people, didn’t even live in the same country. And
it would be such a relief to talk about it. Michelle, of all people, would understand the
“It was about a year ago when it all started,” she began. “Rachel was sixteen and was
starting to get a bit restless around the house, being a real monster, to tell the truth—” she
stopped. Michelle leaned forward, holding the teacup to her lips but not drinking.
Linda swallowed. Her face was getting warm, and she touched one cheek. It felt as
though she were giving a speech.
“There was this one particular male friend…” She cleared her throat. “We thought it
was harmless fun…”
Michelle put her hand on Linda’s. Her nails were pink and lined up perfectly in a row
like tiny piglets. She remembered how Michelle had helped her after that party years ago,
feeding her crackers and rubbing her back until she stopped shaking from the alcohol.
Michelle hadn’t asked about the pregnancy kit on the bedside table.
“What happened?” Michelle blinked several times, and Linda felt something hot and
red streak across her brain. Pauline’s flushed and sweaty face popped into her head again.
There was no way, Linda thought. The girls didn’t know anything.
Michelle nodded knowingly. “She wis pregnant, right? If he wis anything like
Antonio, he wis a smooth talker. “Aye, like mother, like daughter…”
Linda shut her mouth abruptly. Michelle was leaning forward, smiling slightly with
her mouth open. She reminded Linda of a thirsty dog, lapping up water.
“You—you didn’t tell anyone about Antonio, did you?”
Michelle poured milk into her tea, not looking up.
“You knew how upset I was about that.” Linda felt wet fingers of sweat on her back.
“I was humiliated, you know that.”
Michelle stirred her tea. “Well, the girls kept asking me why ye left so suddenly.
They didn’t believe the sick granny story for a minute. I just assumed ye’d want me tae set
things straight…” She patted Linda’s hand and gave an odd, sideways smile. “Your Geoffrey
didn’t mind, did he? Ye could’ve slept with ten men, and he wouldn’t have left ye.”
The tea in Linda’s throat seemed to double-back on itself. Linda coughed, covering
her mouth with her hand, and tried to swallow it back down. Someone’s teaspoon was
clinking against the side of a cup, making a light tinkling sound. Behind her, one of the twin
boys asked if he could have another Kit Kat. The light brown puddle in her saucer would be
cold if she touched it with her finger. Linda swallowed again; her throat was scratchy. The
brown puddle was blurry now.
“The tea must have gone down the wrong tube,” Michelle said, standing beside her
and patting her back. “Don’t cry. Ye just got a fright.” She put her arm around Linda’s
As the train neared the Scottish border late Sunday evening, Linda leaned her head
against the window and tried to spot the sign that marked the line between Scotland and
England. It was important that she see it, the demarcation point between past and present. But
the train sped by too quickly, and she missed it.
That night, Rachel leaned against the doorframe of the bedroom, while Linda picked
up different colored socks, straightening them and laying them side-by-side like wobbly
soldiers. She folded her yellow shirt into quarters and put it on top of the pile.
“So, how was Michelle?” Rachel picked at the woven bracelet on her wrist.
Linda laid a cream-colored bra on top of the yellow shirt. “Michelle’s an extremely
outgoing, frank person.”
Rachel smiled. “Is that good or bad?’
Linda looked up. Her daughter’s dark hair was caught up in two short ponytails that
stuck out on either side of her head. She wore a pink frilly shirt, and on her feet were pink
sandals with white bows. That was the fashion now, Linda thought, to look like a little girl
when you were a teenager and a grownup when you were twelve.
“That’s a good question. I’m not actually sure.”
Linda remembered how her mother had looked the day they told her about Rachel’s
abortion, lips clenched around a cigarette, the smoke hanging in the air like gray curtains.
Her father had stood in the doorway, fiddling with his belt, jingling change in his pockets. He
said nothing, just stared at the women in the kitchen as if they were actors in a soap opera,
plastic pawns that could be moved around on a chessboard. He wasn’t all that different from
Michelle, Linda thought, rubbing her eyes. But Linda was tired of secrets.
“Come over here and sit beside me.” She held her arm out. Rachel hesitated and then
sat down on the bed. She kept a pair of socks in her hands and rolled them into a ball as
Linda put her arms around her shoulders.
“God, Mum, I’m not eight years old!”
Linda held on.
Mom said it was good to be a volunteer, to help out. A couple of weeks after she quit
her job at the hospital, she joined this organization called "Traveling Textiles," where knitters
and weavers visit the homes of people who can’t walk. For the first lesson, she picked me up
from school and dragged me along, since we’d had to let the babysitter go. The house was
out in the suburbs, a huge brick thing with green shutters and a front yard the size of my
school's soccer field. But instead of white lines and goal posts, there were dark green
magnolia trees with shiny leaves, and a long driveway wound around the yard like a flat gray
ribbon. Mom and I lived in an apartment downtown across the street from the place where
pregnant ladies go to stop being pregnant. We moved there a few months ago when Dad went
up to the mountains for his new job.
Mom let the car idle in the driveway for a few seconds. The double garage doors were
closed, and there were no cars anywhere.
“I left my math book in my locker,” I said.
“Convenient.” She pulled in front of the garage and cut the engine. “Well, you can
help me with the knitting lesson instead.”
I groaned and Mom said, “You know, it’s not supposed to be a trial to help people.
It’s supposed to make you feel good.”
“How is it supposed to make me feel good if we drove for half an hour with the air
She ignored me and sat there for a couple of minutes, sucking on a cigarette. She
started smoking more after Dad left. I stuck my head out the window and made gasping
sounds, heaving and choking.
“All right, all right. Don’t have a heart attack.” Mom stubbed her cigarette out into
the ashtray and popped a piece of Juicy Fruit gum in her mouth.
We got out, Mom carrying a blue sports bag full of knitting needles and patterns, and
me with a grocery bag stuffed full of yarn. The front door was big and red with a brass
doorbell; Mom pushed the button and there was a ding-donging sound that rippled through
the air like church bells. We grinned at each other.
"Pretty fancy," Mom said, shifting her bag onto her hip.
We waited. After a minute, Mom pressed the doorbell again. We continued to wait.
After the third ring, Mom was starting to get antsy. She shifted her bag to the other hip and
began tapping her foot.
“Isn’t anyone going to get the door?” she asked in a loud voice.
I sighed and looked over my shoulder at one of the windows, but the blinds were
"Okay, here we go," Mom said, nodding at the door. I hadn't heard anything, but a
few seconds later, someone began fiddling with the lock. The door creaked open, and a
woman in a wheelchair appeared in the crack. She had short brown hair cut close to her head
like a man’s hairdo, and her face was the yellowy color of milk going bad. One bony hand
was curled under as if she was trying to tug at her sleeve. She looked younger than Grandma
but older than Mom. I smiled, and Mom’s face turned pink under her face powder.
"Hi—Ms. Aubrey?" she said.
"Yes?" The woman tilted her head up, not smiling.
"My name's Moira Smith, and I'm with Traveling Textiles." Mom held out her hand.
Ms. Aubrey just sat there. “I want to enter a knitting contest,” she said. We stared at
her for a few seconds, but she didn’t say anything else.
"Uh, that’s great,” Mom said. “This is my daughter, Katie." She touched my arm, and
I gave a small wave. The woman glanced at me. She didn’t look down at my shoes like most
grownups did—I had on the purple and green sneakers I’d found in a bin at the flea market.
Mom had said they were filthy and made me wash them in a bucket outside, but I liked them
because no one else at school had green and purple sneakers. They were different, made me
feel cool, like I was something.
"Well." The woman sighed and pressed a button on her motorized wheelchair. The
chair made a “zoom” noise like a remote control car, and she spun around to face the other
direction. We followed, and I watched, envious, wishing I was that coordinated on my roller
The air smelled like wood polish and mothballs trying to cover up a whiff of cigarette
smoke. She led us through a boxy room with wooden panels on the walls. An old desk was in
the corner, scraps of paper and pencils poking out of cubbyholes like tiny pointy animal
heads coming up for air. The end of a big gold key stuck out of a keyhole. Rows and rows of
black film canisters were stacked on top of each other. Lots of secrets hidden in that desk, I
Then we went into a brighter room with tall windows that had stained glass at the
top—rose-colored pictures of women in robes, like something out of my Arabian Nights
book. There was a television set in one corner, faced by a green sofa, and against the back
wall a hamster cage.
"You can wait in here, while your mom and I do the knitting," Ms. Aubrey said. She
had a high-pitched whiny Southern accent that reminded me of the noise my cat Snappy used
to make when he wanted attention. He'd slink along the windowsills at our old house,
balancing on the edges. He was black with a white nose and a white patch on his chest. My
dad used to say he was a snappy dresser, too.
Dad was standing in the kitchen one night after Mom had been yelling at him,
sticking his head out the door to smoke a cigarette, and Snappy slid through his legs and
disappeared. It took me a long time to stop seeing his black shadow against the window. Dad
sent me Snappy’s red collar after he went to the mountains, and I put it in my jewelry box.
"What's your hamster's name?" I asked, before Ms. Aubrey could roll out of the room.
She stopped in her path and turned in her chair.
"Fluff," she said, looking at me.
"Oh," I said, "That's a neat name."
She almost cracked a smile at that point and raised a skinny arm slowly, pointing
toward the hamster's cage.
"His ball is under there if you want to play with him."
"His ball?" I imagined her bouncing a ping-pong ball across the floor, and the little
guy balancing on top of it like a circus acrobat.
Ms. Aubrey rolled over to the hamster. His cage was on top of a wooden sideboard,
and she opened one of the doors and pulled out a large plastic globe. I’d seen ones like it in
the pet store. Mom said we couldn’t have a pet because the apartment didn’t allow it.
"Oh, wow!" I said. "You put him in there, and he runs around?"
She nodded and scooted over to me, the engine in her chair humming. I took the
globe from her and held it up in front of me, imagining a hundred little hamsters scampering
Mom and Ms. Aubrey went into the next room, and I could hear my mom saying, "Be
careful now. Those metal needles are sharp… That’s right, tuck it under your left hand and
hold it with your wrist…”
There was a grunt from Ms. Aubrey.
“Now, we'll start off with a very basic knit stitch and then go on from there."
"I already know how to do plain and purl."
"Oh? Well, aren’t you the fast learner!” Mom gave a little laugh.
"Let's just get this over with," Ms. Aubrey said in a deeper-than-usual voice, and I
didn't hear Mom say anything after that.
I looked down at Fluff. He was digging through the sawdust at the bottom of his cage,
poking though it with his pink nose and shuffling around like a little busy bee. I tapped the
cage, and he looked up and waddled over. He put his front paws against the plastic and
looked up at the sky.
"I'm here, silly!" I said, laughing. Then I reached down and carefully scooped him
into my hand. His whiskers tickled my cheeks as I held him close to my face and looked into
his black eyes. Maybe I could sneak him home in my pocket—it’d be nice to whisper secrets
to him at night when I was supposed to be asleep. Have him tucked under the blanket beside
me, safe and sound.
Dad had used tell me the story about King Midas every night before I went to sleep. I
always asked for it, even though he’d tell the same jokes, wiggling his eyebrows up and
down when he got to the part about King Midas sticking his toe in the bathtub and turning the
water to gold. Mom wasn’t good at telling stories; she’d just pick a book off the shelf and
read it to me in her let’s-just-order-pizza voice. So, after Dad left, I figured I might as well
read my own books.
"Wouldn't you like to go for a ride, instead of being stuck in that boring cage?"
I picked up the plastic globe and gently pushed him through the little opening at the
top. He slid down the side, holding on with his paws, and landed at the bottom. As soon as I
placed the globe on the carpet, Fluff took off, hurtling toward the leg of the green sofa. I
crawled alongside him, giggling and giving commentary.
"And they're off! Fluff in the lead. He sure knows how to run! He takes the corner; he
misses the edge of the cliff. Ooh! Through the tunnel of Doom…"
I turned Fluff around before he hit the wall, and he dashed away again, pedaling his
tiny feet. We played the racing game for a while, and I wondered if he could run on other
surfaces besides the floor. I put him up on the green sofa, and he seemed to like that just as
much as the carpet. Before he reached the edge, I grabbed the plastic globe and put him on
top of the sideboard. How about a slippery surface?
He bounded along, not fazed by the slick wood. And when he got to the end of the
road, I turned him around and sent him off in a new direction. I watched him, his head
bobbing like a bobble-head doll you see in the backs of people’s cars.
“You’re a smart little guy, Fluff,” I said, grinning. I looked around the room,
wondering what piece of furniture to try next. There was the television set and that table in
“CLANG!” When I turned around, Fluff was on the floor. He’d fallen three feet.
"Fluff!" I bent down over him; he lay there on his side, legs sticking out. I kept my
eyes open wide so I wouldn’t start crying. Mom and Ms. Aubrey had stopped talking, and I
heard the hum of the wheelchair.
"What's wrong with Fluff?" Ms. Aubrey rolled toward me. She leaned over in her
chair and picked the globe up off the floor. "What happened to him?"
"He banged into something," I said, my ears getting hot.
She opened the escape hatch and shook Fluff out onto her hand. He wasn't moving.
"What did he bang into?" she demanded. Mom stood over me, her hands clenched
around a pair of knitting needles and parts of a glittery blue hat she was knitting for
"He-he just ran right into the wall," I said, swallowing.
Ms. Aubrey touched Fluff's back with her index finger, softly stroking him as though
he was a baby bird. He just lay there. The blood churned in my head, and I stared at the
carpet, wishing I were an ant that could crawl down into the threads and hide. Suddenly,
Fluff twitched and shook his head. We all took a breath at the same time.
"He's alive!" I cried. “He’s alive!”
Fluff was fidgeting, shaking his whole body as though he’d just had a good sleep.
"He must have knocked himself out," Mom said.
"He's never done that before." Ms. Aubrey’s lips were hitched up on one side as she
squinted at me. I stood up and put my hands in my pockets.
"I guess he was excited. We were playing racing games."
She put Fluff back in his cage and put the globe away. "You can watch T.V. until
"Actually, Katie could help us with the knitting, Ms. Aubrey," Mom said. "She's quite
a good knitter, and she often assists me with my beginner classes."
It was true. I knew the basics—how to pick up a dropped stitch, how to cast on and
off—and had started helping Mom with her night class at the community college. She said
she was glad I was there to keep her company, but I knew she couldn’t afford to pay the
“Sometimes it’s nice to have another beginner along,” Mom was saying.
Ms. Aubrey stiffened. "I have already told you, that I am not a beginner. I have
knitted two sets of baby booties and several scarves. I know stocking stitch and how to cast
on and off."
Mom smiled and nodded. “All right, that’s fine then.”
"And I do not expect a child to teach the lesson for me, Mrs. Smith!" Ms. Aubrey was
getting worked up. "How am I supposed to win the knitting contest with just plain and purl?"
I shifted from foot to foot, glancing towards Fluff’s cage every now and then. He
seemed fine, now, scooting around in the sawdust.
"Well, let's go back to the dining room, and I'll show you something a little more
intermediate," Mom said, winking at me. When she worked in the psychiatric ward at the
hospital, people would spit up on her and scream curse words at her because she wouldn’t let
them get out of bed and go home. She always told me that if patients were rude, it usually
meant that they felt bad about themselves. You have to treat them with extra respect, she
said, let them know they’re special. I wondered about Ms. Aubrey; she seemed to have it all
together—a big house, a huge yard, a cool hamster with his own toys. She couldn't walk, but
she had that neat chair that was like a go-cart. It seemed to me that she could still do a bunch
of stuff. How was she more special than anyone else?
Ms. Aubrey was staring at me again. Suddenly, she whipped past my mom, speeding
toward the television cabinet. She opened one of the doors and took out a video.
"I have a movie you can watch, a cartoon," she said, slipping the tape into the VCR.
"Cool." I sat down on the green sofa. “I love cartoons. My favorite is Scooby Doo.”
She pressed the play button and rolled over to Mom, who was smiling like she was
starting to get a headache.
"All right, time to knit!" Mom said in a sing-song voice. They went into the other
room, and I heard Ms. Audrey complaining that the colors of the yarns were too bright.
“And who on earth would wear this jaundice yellow? What is this ghastly orange
supposed to be?”
“It’s supposed to be auburn,” Mom was saying in that sing-song voice again. “Why
don’t you try the green? It goes nicely with the lovely sofa you have.”
“No, I’ll make do with this hideous purple.”
“Oh, that’s a nice shade…”
I focused on the movie. It was a Japanese cartoon of some sort; it looked like one of
the shows that played on Saturday mornings. There was a woman with long legs and blond
hair, wearing a weird sort of black shiny outfit and holding something that looked like a
whip. But she didn’t seem to have anything on top. I squirmed on the sofa. What kind of
cartoon was this? Then a man, wearing sunglasses and a blue suit came over to the woman
and started smacking her on the bottom. Then the woman started wiggling around like a
mermaid and took off her pants—
“Katie, do you remember where I put that pattern for the blue and white sweater? The
one with the little triangles on the collar?”
I quickly pressed the mute button, my fingers sweaty; it was like the time Dad took
me to the video store. He told me to pick something out from the children’s section while he
went and looked at the video game rentals. I picked out “Spy Kids” and then ran into the
back room to look for him and saw all those pictures of naked women and bare butts. Dad’s
face turned purple when he saw me, and he grabbed my arm and yanked me out of there. I
asked him what video he wanted to rent in that room, but he told me that it was “silly grown
up stuff” and not to tell Mom about it.
“Hold on a second,” I cried in a high-pitched, croaky voice. Mom said something to
Ms. Aubrey and there was a loud noise, as if someone had slammed their knitting needles
down on the table. Mom poked her head into the room.
“Do you know the one I’m talking about?” She looked first at me and then at the
television screen. “Oh my GOD!” She ran over to the television and began pressing buttons,
changing channels, increasing and decreasing volume.
“Mom, here’s the remote.”
But she had already yanked the plug out the wall. The woman with the black
underwear disappeared just as Ms. Aubrey glided into the room.
“What on earth was that?” Mom was waving her arms in the air like a mad conductor.
“That had to be X-rated!”
Ms. Aubrey didn’t look embarrassed or angry; she glanced at my mom and then at me
“I wouldn’t know anything about it. One of my neighbor’s gave it to me. I thought it
was a children’s cartoon.”
Mom pulled a hand through her brown wavy bangs. “Well, I think it’s time we were
leaving, Katie. Come on. Help me pack up.”
“But I’ve only knitted four rows.” Ms. Aubrey rolled toward us. “I thought you were
going to show me Fair Isle knitting.”
“Not today. I’m afraid we have to be getting back.”
I followed Mom into the other room and helped put yarn back into the bag. Ms.
Aubrey watched us from the doorway. Mom scooped up the patterns and knitting needles,
not bothering to fold the patterns like she usually did. They were going to get all wrinkled.
We walked through the den, passing Fluff. I gave him a little wave, feeling a bubble
of fear in my stomach from earlier when he hadn’t moved and that look Ms. Aubrey had
given me. It was just as well I hadn’t tried to sneak him out in my pocket. She led us to the
front door and opened it with a handle that was just the right height for her.
“You wouldn’t have had this problem if you’d come by yourself,” she said. “Next
time, leave the child at home with her father.”
I knew I should have gotten mad at that, but for some reason, I didn’t feel angry with
Ms. Aubrey. If Mom had asked me why, I would have said it was because I still felt guilty
about nearly killing Fluff. Or because Ms. Aubrey was disabled; Mom says you should try to
understand the disabled and put yourselves in their shoes. But, to tell the truth, I was thinking
about how Dad used to sit cross legged on the bed beside me, telling me about King Midas.
He’d lean forward sometimes, and I’d stare at the pink bald spot that was growing at the back
of his head, wondering if the hair would ever grow back and wanting to put my hand on it
and cover it up. And then I thought that Ms. Aubrey was right; none of this would have ever
happened if I could have stayed at home with Dad.
Mom’s face got even redder, and she squeezed my fingers together ‘till they buckled.
She stood there, staring at Ms. Aubrey as though she had just figured out who she was, even
though we’d spent the afternoon with her.
“Next time, I don’t expect you to show an X-rated movie to an eight year-old!”
She jerked me forward, and we began walking toward the car. I glanced over my
shoulder at Ms. Aubrey, thinking she’d yell at us not to ever come back and slam the door.
But when I looked, she was just sitting there with her good arm folded on top of her bad arm,
watching us leave, a little smirk on her face.
Ming and his family drove through a town much larger than Sam Sou, or “Three
Waters,” the village where he and his wife Pam used to live years ago. Rows of motorcycles
and bicycles were propped up against each other on either side of the street, like dominoes
about to fall. None of the shops had front doors; they were open right down to the sidewalks,
some displaying racks of dresses and pants, others had shelves of chrome motorcycle parts.
Pam asked the van driver to pull over and let them get out to stretch their legs.
“Now?” Ming asked, tapping the face of his watch. “It’s nine thirty already.” They
still had to drive to his father’s grave, at least another two hours away, and then there was the
detour he’d secretly planned with the driver earlier that morning.
Pam nudged their daughter, Ashley, with her elbow. “Come on. Before he has a heart
Ashley gave him a half-smile, tilting her head the way American children did when
they learned to be cute. “Thanks, Dad. You can take Matt for a walk, show him around.”
Ming grunted. “Don’t take too long.”
He pushed his grandson in the lightweight canvas stroller while the two women
walked on ahead, ducking into one of the clothing stores. He heard Pam tell Ashley in
English, “Let me do the talking.” And then, loudly in Cantonese, Pam calling out, “Hey, how
much for these brown pants? Not more than fifteen, right?”
Ming stopped at a teashop and leaned his elbows on the counter. Remembering his
father’s favorite drink, he asked for a cup of yi sup sei mei, “twenty-four different roots” tea.
The young woman handed him a white paper cup, and he bent down and held it in front of
“Hey, want to try some of Ghung Ghung’s tea?”
Matthew squinted at the cold dark brown liquid.
“It’s good for you,” Ming said. “Try a little.”
Matthew put both hands on the cup, fingers sticking out, and opened his mouth as
Ming helped him pour.
“Well?” Ming stood up. Matthew’s cheeks bulged for a second and then, as if in slow
motion, he gradually opened his mouth, and the trickle of tea came tumbling out, a brown
stream down his chin and all over his shirt.
“Ah!” Ming grabbed in his pocket for a napkin.
“Yucky! Bah!” Matthew had all his fingers in his mouth, pawing at his tongue as
though he’d swallowed a hairball.
“Okay, we try something else.” Ming finished dabbing up the tea and then ordered a
coconut-flavored milk. He tasted his own tea and grimaced—it was so bitter it made the back
of his throat want to close up.
“The milk’s good, huh?”
“Mmm good-good.” Matthew grinned up at his grandfather with sweet white lips.
When they made it to the base of the mountain, it was already 11 a.m. The driver
parked at the side of the gravel road, pulling far into the long grasses so that they wouldn’t
block the way. Although, Ming thought, there wouldn’t be much traffic out here in the
country. The driver stayed behind, leaning against the hood of the van, smoking a cigarette
and staring up into the sky through his purple-sheen sunglasses.
The trail was about four feet wide, shrouded by tall brambles and grasses and bamboo
taller than the van. They stopped every few minutes to drink water and wave their hats in
front of their faces. Ming had gotten the directions from an old friend of his father. He
worried about not finding the place, what he’d say if they got lost and started wandering
around in circles in a rice field somewhere. But then they reached a cluster of squat mud
houses, low to the ground and half-hidden behind the bamboo. He recognized the path from
photographs his father had sent when his grandmother died—it had that same curved-
upwards look to it, the thick banana tree at the corner. Pam bent down beside the tree to tie
“Isn’t this amazing?” Ashley was peering at one of the mud houses. “It must be a
farm of some sort.” There were five pigs snuffling in a bricked-in muddy pen at the back of
the house. Matthew leaned forward in his stroller, trying to grab the tail feathers of an orange
chicken scuttling past.
“How much longer?” Pam was unscrewing a water bottle.
“Not too far,” Ming said. They’d only been walking for twenty minutes, and Pam was
already scowling under her white cotton hat. And this was before she knew about the detour.
After paying their respects to his father, they would drive to the old village where he and
Pam used to live before they’d escaped to Hong Kong. The idea would seem spontaneous, as
though the thought of returning to their roots had just popped into his head.
“Hey, I think this is it,” Ming called over his shoulder. Up ahead was a muddy
opening, about the size of their bathroom at home. The graves were no more than three
mounds of piled yellow earth—one for his father, grandmother, and grandfather. The earth
seemed so bare with no marker or sign; he stared for a second, imagining his father’s face
imprinted in the dirt.
Ming began unpacking his bag quickly, before Pam could say something snide about
how she didn’t travel twenty-fours hours on a plane to look at mud. But she was quiet as he
took out the candles, incense, and fruit. She placed the whole boiled chicken on the plastic
dish. Then she helped arrange the fruit on a plate and lit the candles and incense. Ming
unwrapped the bundles of fake money—half gold and half silver—and put them in the small
metal bucket. He dropped the match, and the tiny licking flames caught the edges of the
money and curled them black. Smoke circled upward and spread out toward the mounds like
soft hands nudging the spirits awake.
Ming began bowing, talking quietly in Cantonese. He told his father about Matthew,
how he was already learning to recognize numbers, how he could almost say “Ghung
Ghung,” and that he hoped the child wouldn’t get food poisoning. They’d been careful with
the drinking water and washed their forks and chopsticks in tea before eating, but you could
never tell. And Pam, he whispered, was just as bad. Now, she didn’t even want to bother with
the New Year ceremony, said she didn’t have time to boil a chicken and run around Salt Lake
City, searching for Chinese bacon. She’d gradually gotten worse—one year, forgetting to buy
the extra fruit, so they’d had to do without. The next year she’d left it until the last minute
and couldn’t find a whole fish anywhere. She was getting so flippant about it all. He hoped
this trip would jog something loose in her head, show her that some things were worth taking
When Ming was finished, Pam stepped forward and bowed three times to each of the
mounds, quicker, Ming thought, than was necessary. She didn’t even move her lips. She’d
gotten on well with his father—he’d been a quiet ear for her to complain into—and hadn’t
minded when he came to visit that time for two months, bringing all those herbs and roots
and rearranging her kitchen. She hadn’t minded him.
Ming gestured to Ashley. “Go on. Bow and tell them what you want to say. Tell them
anything you want.”
“I don’t know…” Ashley shifted her weight, Matthew on her hip. He pulled his hands
through her long black ponytail, his fingers getting stuck on a tangle halfway down. “It’s not
like it’s my religion. Maybe it would be hypocritical. I’m thinking of taking Matt to Sunday
Ming sucked in air through his teeth and looked at his feet. He didn’t want to see her
face, that expression she conjured up whenever he cooked squid or sea cucumber. The look
when he’d spent days building the crate and the arbor for her to plant winter melons. You put
it at the edge of your deck and the vines creep all the way up over the metal railing, he’d told
her, stretching his arms upward to demonstrate. “You didn’t have to,” she’d said. “I didn’t
ask you to.” She’d raised her eyebrows and given him a little half-smile. That deprecating,
trying-to-be-nice expression that made him feel like a geriatric idiot. He’d almost torn the
thing down again.
Pam slid him a glance that said, “hold your tongue,” and folded her arms. He
swallowed and pulled his fingers into fists.
“Oh, all right.” Ashley put Matthew on the ground and bowed three times quickly.
Then she put her hand on Matthew’s shoulders, and helped him bow. Ming smiled and
slowly let the breath out, loosening his fingers as though he was letting go of air.
They had arrived in Hong Kong two days earlier, wilting like spinach in the
September sweat of the city. The hotel was to his family’s liking, cool and clean, the
bathrooms white with plastic shower curtains. Ming unpacked his suitcase while Pam was
taking her shower. Then he walked next door to Ashley’s room.
“Faai-dhi!” He banged on the door.
“Dad,” she yelled back. “I haven’t even finished washing Matthew yet!”
He went back into his room and sat on the edge of the bed, staring out the window at
the tops of buildings. So many rooftops. Not enough time to see it all. The water in the
shower had finally stopped.
“Faai-dhi!” He yelled over his shoulder. There was the sound of cabinet doors
slamming. Then a toilet flush. Pam came out of the bathroom ten minutes later, hairbrush in
one hand, short black strands of hair sticking to the sides of her face. Her short-sleeved
blouse was un-tucked, her pale face shiny with white blotches of lotion she hadn’t wiped in
Ming stood up. “Let’s go.”
Pam put her hands on her hips. “You want me to put on shoes? Or you want me to
walk barefoot?” She sat down on her bed and pulled on her socks.
Ashley had looked rather shaky that first day, her knees wobbling under her pink
denim shorts as she walked slowly down the front steps of the hotel. Her wet hair was
brushed back and showing the ear with the five hoops and studs. Ming clicked his tongue;
she could at least have taken those out and tried to look respectable.
“You okay?” Pam stood at the bottom of the steps, wearing all white and her usual
solid frown of indifference.
“Yeah, but I feel like the ground is moving.” Ashley held on to the black metal railing
until she’d reached the street. Then she stood with her back against the wall of the hotel,
Pam reached out and took Matthew’s hand, helping him down the last two steps. He
was lively, having been able to sleep through the turbulence and bent down to pick up a shiny
“Honey, don’t. It’s dirty.” Ashley sighed when he put the wrapper in the little pocket
on the front of his denim dungarees but didn’t bend down to take it out.
Ming tapped his heel against the base of a litter box. “Let’s go!”
He had tried to keep his mind open, waiting for all those floating memories to slip
back into place. But he kept getting distracted by all the flashing signs and the people
pushing past them, thick as ants. Buildings seemed to have sprouted up everywhere like
bamboo shoots, taking over the sky and blocking out the sun. Ming pushed back his baseball
cap and scratched his head, trying to loosen the old memories of tram routes, favorite
restaurants, and hidden back streets with outdoor markets.
Pam was no help—she just sulked and kept saying that she wouldn’t be surprised if
she’d lost her job when she got back. Ming retorted that he hadn’t forced her to go on this
trip; it was just his father who had died, after all. If she was so obsessed with making money,
she could go back on an earlier flight. Sure, she had replied, giving him a look with her
They walked past the harbor, and he stopped in the middle of the street, remembering
a hazy feeling, the way the evening sun glowed on the water, pockets of gold in the dappled
waves. Once, when they’d had a moment on a weekend, he and Pam had sat on the wall,
watching the patches of brightness slowly fade with the setting sun. He remembered that
she’d been wearing a green linen dress made from a roll of fabric he’d found in a bin. It was
funny how that memory stuck in his head and made a tiny ache inside his chest. He walked
quickly to catch up with the others.
“You remember how we used to sit by the harbor?” His breath jerked the words
shorter than he’d meant. Pam turned and stared out at the water. Ming squinted and tried to
point his eyes in the same direction. There was a large Sony building and then the ferry
“I remember puking on the ferry,” Pam said in Cantonese, “and you telling me to
clean up my face in case we bumped into someone you knew.”
His chest ached again. Ashley was a few yards away, pushing Matthew back and
forth in the stroller.
“That was years ago,” Ming said. “I can’t believe you’re still holding that against
me.” He tapped the brim of her hat. “What else you got stored up there?”
Pam swiped his hand away. “Don’t be stupid.” She walked over to Ashley and lifted
Matthew out of his stroller, began talking quietly to him and gesturing toward the black
They took the side streets because there were fewer people and it was easier for
Ashley to push Matthew in the stroller. Finally, Ming started to recognize the place; a criss-
crossing of alleys, indoor and outdoor markets, makeshift butchers and fishmongers,
wriggling fish and hanging slabs of meat. Blood speckled onto their clothes as a butcher
hacked an eel into quarters. Ashley cried out and covered Matthew’s eyes. Ming shook his
head. This was more natural than the lumps of plastic-wrapped meat in the supermarket in
Salt Lake City. Or the fish nuggets with no heads and no tails at the restaurant. He watched
Pam staring at the empty fish eyes and wondered what she was thinking.
Ming looked up at the bamboo scaffolding, attached to the buildings in the street like
a second layer of skin. When they had lived in Hong Kong for those five years, he’d worked
as a construction worker, eating boxed lunches up in the sky, legs swinging over the edge.
Pam had worked on the assembly line of a toy factory, not far from their refugee camp,
fitting bits of plastic together to make cars and boats. Now, in Utah, she was assistant
manager at the supermarket on the edge of town, and he ran a furniture delivery service.
They met in the middle every evening after work, eating together on the sofa in the living
room. But Pam always ate faster than he did and then went upstairs to read. He touched her
“You remember when you would make chong for me for lunch? And the one time,
when you forgot to add sausage, and I was pulling apart the rice, looking for the meat?” He
laughed. “And all the time I thought it was buried somewhere, but it wasn’t there at all!”
Pam spoke without turning her head. “We ran out of sausage. I couldn’t afford to buy
“I know. But it was funny, how I kept looking and looking.”
She was staring at a display of shoes in a nearby window, red and gold silk-covered
heels arranged in a giant eight-sided star.
“I could get those shoes if I wanted.” She placed her palm on the window. In the
reflection, Ming saw Ashley bending over Matthew, taking something out of his hand. A
piece of dirty paper, trash, it looked like.
“You have plenty of shoes.” He started walking again.
They ate lunch at a restaurant Matthew had discovered. He’d leaned over and pointed
at the giant carp swimming in the aquarium. Ming had said that was as good a reason as any
to eat there.
Without looking at the menu, Ming called out his order to a shiny-faced man standing
“All right!” Ming rubbed his hands together. “Now you get some authentic Chinese
Ashley smiled. “So, what did you order?”
“Don’t get him started,” Pam said, hanging her red leather purse on the back of her
It wasn’t long before the waiter came back with their food, balanced on one hand on a
“Oh my god! What is that?” Ashley pointed at a small head in the middle of a dish of
brown meat. The eye sockets were black and the beak was still attached.
“Pigeon,” Pam said, picking up a piece with her chopsticks.
“Try it. It’s good.” Ming squeezed the head between his chopsticks and wiggled it up
and down in front of Matthew. “Hey, are you my little pigeon head?”
Matthew giggled and clapped his hands above his head.
“My little pigeon head, pigeon head…wheeee!” Ming sang, jiggling in his chair.
“Dad, cut it out! He’s going to have nightmares.”
Ming laughed. “Come on, try some. Sik-faan, sik-faan.” He bit through the oily skin.
The meat was a little dry. He glanced nervously at Pam.
“They probably overcooked the pigeon.”
“Maybe next time you let me order.” Pam split a square of fried tofu in half with her
chopsticks and dipped it in a small bowl of soy sauce.
“I think I’ll stick with soup,” Ashley said.
“What about these?” Ming pointed to the pink steamed shrimp, each one bigger than
his thumb. “Can’t get them this fresh back home. These ain’t frozen.” He laughed.
“Ugh! The heads are still on.”
“That’s the best part. Suck out the brains!”
Pam had snorted at that. “You can’t put the Chinese back inside her, Ming.”
Ming bit down on his tongue to keep the words in his mouth.
“Ming, this isn’t the right road.” Pam stared out the window at a concrete factory.
Ashley turned around to face them, pieces of blue and red Lego in her hand. Matthew was
saying, “yhat yi, one, two” over and over again in the front seat.
“God, it’s ugly! I don’t remember seeing that on the drive over here,” Ashley said.
It looked to Ming as though the concrete factory was composed of boxes that had
been stuck on top of each other, the sides not quite meeting. Black smoke churned out of
three chimneys that were different heights; they stuck up in the air like stubby fingers. A fine
layer of yellow dust covered everything nearby.
“I’m giving you all a treat,” he said.
“What?” Pam and Ashley said in unison.
“We’ll go by our old village, show Ashley and Matthew where we used to live.”
Pam closed her mouth and stared straight ahead. Ming gazed down at the floor. There
were empty water bottles rolling around and potato chips Matthew had dropped. Ming raised
his head and found Pam’s eyes boring into him. Ashley had disappeared behind the front
seat. He heard her tell Matthew not to put the pieces of Lego in his mouth.
“I don’t believe you.” Pam folded her arms on top of the seat in front.
“It’s a nice surprise.”
She shook her head. “Ti-sihn!”
“Well, it’ll be interesting.” Ashley reappeared over the top of the seat. She was
wearing her fake, half-smile. She had always been the unofficial peacemaker of the family,
seemingly able to tap into an undercurrent, nudging and placating her parents into an uneasy
calm. This same intuition told her exactly what would infuriate them—the dyed pink hair a
week before the prom, the nose piercing unveiled the day before graduation photographs.
Ming was relieved when the concrete town was far behind them.
They passed by rice fields and a distant village made up of dark gray stone houses
packed closely together. Ashley and Matthew waved at the children in the fields walking
through the grasses towards the village, some carrying red and pink umbrellas to keep off the
sun. Gradually, the road got bumpier and narrower, and the grasses turned into trees and
more bamboo until Ming couldn’t see anything through the vegetation. The driver steered to
the side of the road into a patch of papaya plants, and the branches scraped the side of the
“Can’t go any further or we’ll get stuck,” the driver said in Cantonese, winking at
Ashley and draping an arm over the back of his seat, his purple sunglasses propped on top of
his head. He waved a hand at the road ahead. “It’s not far, anyway, a few feet only.”
“Okay, m’goy,” Ming said.
He took out his camera and opened the van door, holding back tree branches for the
others. Slowly, Pam climbed out, followed by Ashley with Matthew asleep across her
shoulder. They stepped over rocks and piles of dried cow dung, not talking. The air was still
hot, although they were in the shade, and Pam poured some water on a napkin and dabbed
the back of Matthew’s neck.
“Look!” Ashley grabbed her father’s elbow and pointed. A brown cow with white
nostrils and a round belly like a hanging water balloon was tied to a tree up ahead. The road
climbed upwards, and small rectangular buildings with slanted orange roofs poked up at the
top of the hill.
“Home sweet home!” Ming cried, waving his arms like a conductor. Pam made a
groaning noise. Ming put his arm around her shoulders. “Come on, it’s fun, going back after
all these years. You think anyone will recognize us?”
“Oh, shut up.” Pam jerked his arm off her shoulders. Her cheeks were pink and she
dabbed them with the wet napkin.
Ming stuffed his hands in his pockets. “What’s wrong with you?”
“It’ll be good to see where you guys used to live,” Ashley said quickly. “It’ll be fun.”
She kept touching the top of Matthew’s baseball cap, tapping the little nub with her
index finger. Ming often wondered how Ashley would have turned out if they’d stayed in the
As they neared the village, Ming’s steps got smaller. There was the main street, no
more than a rocky path, pock-marked with craters and boulders. He could have sworn he
once rode a bicycle down that road, carrying two chickens in the little basket on the back,
laughing as they squawked and flapped around.
The slab houses, once freshly painted white, were now a grimy red. Chipped bricks
showed through the worn-away plaster. It was quiet, except for the rustling of branches and
grasses in the hot wind, and seemed emptier than he remembered, no one sitting outside the
houses, telling jokes, or rushing from one home to the next to borrow salt. One old man sat
on an overturned wooden crate, about fifteen feet away. He was skinny with shiny brown
skin that stretched across his nose and cheeks and forearms.
“Nai ho mah!” The man stood up and waved.
Pam nudged Ming in the ribs. “That’s Kwan. You recognize him?”
“Don’t be rude.” Pam walked up to Kwan and smiled widely. She started talking to
him, and he nodded, his head bobbing up and down. Then he came over to Ming and took
both his hands in his. Ming replied automatically, trying not to stare at the four yellow teeth,
the furrows around the man’s eyes. They had been neighbors, used to fish together. He was
only a couple of years older than Ming.
Kwan told them where to find their old house—he’d changed homes since then, had
gotten a bigger place for his three daughters. A young woman poked her head out of the
doorway. She looked at Ming and his family, and they all smiled and waved, but her eyes
were clear and empty, like the fish eyes at the market, as though she, too, had been flopped
down and left to dry.
Ming held on to Pam’s arm as they followed Kwan, stumbling along like a child with
his parent. He stared into darkened doorways, looking for signs of life, but the place seemed
deserted. Then they passed a shack with the blue flash of a television screen inside, rows of
canned food along one wall. Ming thought he made out the dark outline of a head and
shoulders in the back of the room, but he wasn’t sure.
“That’s the shop,” Kwan said in Cantonese, tilting his head. “We got that a few years
ago. Not much in it, but it’s good for rice and canned vegetables.” He laughed.
Ming looked out at the surrounding farmland, pushed up close against the village like
the sea around an island. There were purple flowers and lush green patches of sugar cane and
peanut crops, tall stalks bending gracefully in the breeze. It should have been beautiful
countryside, but covering it all was a coating of desperation. Had that always been there? He
remembered having to eat his peanut seeds when it was too dry to grow anything. Then the
time when their friend from another village had visited. Pam stopped by every house, but all
she’d been able to borrow was one egg. That’s when she said she’d had enough; it was time
to get out while they were still young. He hadn’t wanted to at first, told her that they should
try to wait it out for a while, but honestly, he’d felt strange about leaving China. His father
had always said that he wanted to die in his homeland, and he’d instilled something in Ming
that clicked out of place when they finally made it to Utah.
Pam seemed at ease with Kwan. She asked him questions about his wife, how she’d
passed away, and his farm. She introduced him to Ashley and Matthew, awake now but
groggy and pink-cheeked. The words floated in the air above Ming’s head, like empty puffs
of sea foam. Pam seemed younger here, like a fresh flower in a meadow of dusty twigs. It
was as though she’d been prepared for the village, even though she hadn’t known they were
coming. He squeezed her arm, wanting her to look at him, but she wouldn’t turn her head.
Kwan led them up to a house with only half a roof. He and Pam stood back while
Ming walked slowly forward. The main room was a shambles—shards of concrete and
plaster everywhere, old wooden crates, the rusted metal frame of a single bed, a solitary light
bulb hanging from the ceiling. He couldn’t even walk into the next room because that was
where the roof had crashed in; orange curved tiles spilled through, lying on top of each other
like discarded clam shells.
They had lived in the house for three years, had gotten married in the kitchen where
there was the heat from the clay stove. In the winter, Pam had wrapped her long black hair
around her head like a scarf, and Ming’s heart had beat faster whenever he saw her coming
across the field at night, flakes of white on her flushed cheeks, carrying all that wood, not
He realized that Pam was standing beside him, her red purse dangling off one elbow.
Ming brushed crumbs of plaster off an old three-legged stool and sat down on it. Pam
stepped over a pile of empty boxes and peered through the glassless window.
“Why you want to come back to this?”
Ming leaned his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin in his palm. He’d thought it
all out—while he was loading desks and coffee tables into his delivery van, as he was
watching Pam through the window of the grocery store when he came to pick her up from
work. He had seen the flat gray look in her eyes as she caught sight of him, the way her
fingers fumbled with the plastic bag handles. She was slipping away from him.
“You can’t forget who you are,” he said through his hand.
They’d gotten the train to Guangzhou, sneaked aboard the trading boat to Hong
Kong. Then lived for five years in the Hong Kong refugee camp, saving money and waiting.
Pam had been like a kid then, skinny but as hardy as old nails. Her water had broken while
she was at work, just as she was screwing on the wheels of a yellow truck. She’d managed to
hobble down the street and get a bus back to the refugee camp. While she had stumbled
around, looking for him, he’d been out drinking with some of the other construction workers.
A couple they knew at the camp had taken her to the hospital, where she’d had Ashley. An
aunt of Pam’s in Utah had managed to sponsor them when Ashley was three.
“I wanted you to see…” The words were failing him.
It wasn’t that the past was better—he would never re-live that journey on the boat to
Hong Kong for anything—but Pam was pulling the other way, edging her feet further and
further away from him. He’d thought Ashley would help, someone to connect them; they’d
teach her together. But Ashley had been separate, distinct, wanting to follow her own path.
They’d saved up all that money for college, and then she’d shocked them both by announcing
that she wanted to go to cosmetology school instead. Then she dropped out after one
semester and married an American, had Matthew. Sometimes Ming felt like everything was
working against them, like the tide flowing the wrong way. The only thing they had left was
this old house.
“You can’t forget your past.” Ming looked up at Pam.
She turned to him, the top half of her body in shadow. “I can forget. I can forget
shitting in a field.” She waved an arm at her daughter, standing in the doorway. “Ashley, you
sorry you missed all this? This lovely traditional Chinese housing?”
Ashley was quiet at the door, holding Matthew’s hand while he wiggled around,
leaning over and trying to grab at the dirt. Pam’s shoulders started shaking. Ming looked
quickly up at the ceiling. A dusty spider web stretched from the wire of the light bulb to the
other side of the room. Even the spider was long gone. He stared down at his hands and saw
Kwan’s cracked skin. How long had the man been living in this town? Ming’s chest felt
heavy, as though someone were pressing their head against it.
He stood up and put his hands on Pam’s shoulders. Her eyes were downcast and black
in the dim room, her face paler than it used to be, pale from the supermarket lights that kept
her away from him. Her short black hair was tucked behind her ears. Short for convenience,
she always said. Ming took a few strands between his fingers and rubbed them, feeling the
She looked up at him for a second, and he felt a quiver in his chest, that old flutter
from when they used to lie on the couch together, stir fry vegetables in the back yard, using
that big wok she bought him for his birthday. That was before work had picked up, when
they spent their free time together. Pam flicked her head, and the hairs slipped through his
fingers. Ming swallowed, tasting the dust in the room, the mildewed plaster, wisps of the
spider web, and the light lemony scent of Pam’s lotion. All the past in that one taste.
“I’m not coming back,” she said.
Ming closed his eyes.
“This is our last trip,” she said, and he knew that part of her was gone; it was not
coming back even for him, no matter what they saw or did here.
Ming’s white sneakers felt clunky and too bright as they walked back to the van, and
he put his camera in his pocket. He stumbled down the road, feeling as fat as the cow tied to
the tree. They kept their heads down. Matthew was draped over Ashley’s arms, his open
mouth cupped toward the sky, his hands waving in the air like two dancing birds.
Kwan was sharing a cigarette with the van driver. They all shook hands, and Ming
told Kwan that if he ever made it to the States to look them up. Kwan laughed at this and
slapped Ming’s shoulder hard.
It was hot inside the van; their legs stuck to the vinyl seats like double-sided tape.
Ming leaned his head against the window and stared at the back of the seat as they left the
village behind them, the driver maneuvering around potholes and ditches. Ashley suddenly
“What’s wrong?” Pam bent over the seat, holding a water bottle. “Heat stroke? You
sick?” Ming leaned around the side to look at his daughter.
“Nothing,” Ashley moaned. She wiped her eyes and pushed hair out of her face. The
other arm was curved under Matthew’s neck. He was sweating in his sleep.
“Come on,” Pam said. “Toh-tung?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Ming got up and sat down beside her. He took Matthew and held him on his lap. No
one spoke as they bumped along the dirt road. By the time they’d reached the highway, Pam
had fallen asleep, stretched out on the back bench, and Ashley had dozed off, her head
drooping forward like a limp blossom. Ming held Matthew, watching the smooth little face
with the thick dark eyelashes. He tugged gently at the tiny blue tee shirt to get out the
wrinkles, pausing when he felt a round bump in one of Matthew’s pockets.
Ming opened the pocket and stuck two fingers inside. At first he twitched, but then as
he took out the small brown object he smiled. He tapped the beak with his finger. Then he
laughed and put it back in the pocket. He straightened his grandson’s baseball cap.
When I opened my office door, I saw reams of white computer paper stacked high on
my desk, the kind my colleagues and I had been fighting over since the budget crunch was
announced six months ago.
“Rocco,” I groaned.
There were two locks on my door—a deadbolt and one of those flimsy ones that stops
you from turning the handle. Last night, I hadn’t bothered turning the deadbolt. It would have
been easy for someone to slide a credit card past the latch and push open the door. Rocco and
his friends once broke into a parking meter when they were in sixth grade; a puny door lock
wouldn’t pose much of a challenge.
I quickly closed my door and slumped down at my desk, lying my head on top of my
purse. There was a quiet knock at the door. I bit my nails and didn’t get up. The person
knocked again. Slowly, I got up and cracked the door open. It was Rocco. I grabbed his arm,
pulling him into the office, and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Did you do this?” I waved my arm at the paper explosion on my desk.
He grinned and stuck his thumbs into his jean pockets. He even rocked back on his
heels. “Maybe I did, and maybe I didn’t.”
I thumped my fist on the desk. “Rocco! Where did you get all this?”
He sat down in my chair and rubbed his hands together, grinning like a kid who’s just
caught Santa Claus in the act. “Here and there. A little from the computer lab. A little I
borrowed from Dr. Bernstein.” He started laughing, snorting and shaking as if he might wet
himself. “He had stacks and stacks of it hidden under his desk! Probably stole it from all the
I groaned and covered my face with my hands. Dr. Bernstein was a pompous tenured
professor who’d taught Chaucer for about eighteen years. He had a habit of being in the area
when office supplies went missing.
“He deserved it!”
“Are you nuts?” I cried. “You could get kicked out for stealing. What were you doing
in his office, anyway?”
Rocco looked at the floor. A few seconds went by.
“And how did you get in here?”
“Rocco, I don’t want this to happen again. If I catch you breaking into any offices,
I’m going to have to report you. It’s illegal. Did you take anything else?”
He raised his head, face flushed. Someone knocked at the door, and we both jerked
forward. Rocco looked at me, and I stared dumbly back at him.
“Dr. Brown?” Bernstein’s low voice rumbled behind the door. Rocco’s pupils were
tiny black specs. I bit my nail and tried to think.
“One second,” I trilled.
I motioned for Rocco to stand on the other side of the room. Then I placed a hand on
my forehead and opened the door. Bernstein’s purple face was the first thing I saw.
“Can I help you?”
Bernstein stared at me for a couple of seconds, his bunched eyebrows resembling a
bushy brown caterpillar. Then he grunted. “Someone broke into my office this morning and
stole a large supply of computer paper. Have you seen anyone suspicious loitering around?”
Yes, you, I thought. “Wish I could help you.” I twisted my lips into a tight smile.
“But I’m busy working on an essay.” Bernstein grunted again and stomped off to the next
Rocco had his hand over his mouth when I turned to face him.
“This is not funny!” I hissed. “What the hell am I going to do with all this paper?”
“Use it,” he said. “Or give it back to Bernstein.”
For the next hour, Rocco and I stuffed paper into every drawer, corner, and crevice of
my office. We stashed paper in empty binders, piled it under my seat cushion, hid it behind
the recycling bin, but there was still one huge stack left. We decided to divide the stack into
smaller piles to be secretly placed into the mailboxes of my closest colleagues. Rocco offered
to do this job for me, but I shooed him out of my office, first checking that no one was
lurking in the hallway.
I met Rocco three months before the paper incident, at the beginning of my second
semester teaching at the university. He’d been standing in the hallway with the other
undergrads, one foot propped up against the wall, hands in his pockets. His short brown hair
was gelled and flicked up at the front, and he wore a denim jacket and red flat-soled
sneakers. All he needed was a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, and he’d have won the
competition for “Best Modern James Dean Impersonator.”
I smiled politely at him and walked into the classroom. I expected James Dean to sit
at the back of the class, perhaps snapping his fingers and leaning back in his chair, nodding at
all the females and winking. But he took a seat in the front row and brought out a black
binder and two blue pens and sat with his hands clasped, waiting for me to begin. As I gave
the lecture, he took notes and nodded along with me, and I felt at times like I was making my
case to him, telling him my points and looking to him for approval.
“I’m Rocco,” he said after class, holding out his hand. I looked at his hand for a
second, and then, remembering my manners, grabbed it and shook it firmly.
“Glad to have you in my class,” I said. “You’re an English major?”
“Yeah, concentration in technical communications,” he said with a heavy accent that I
classified as the New-York-City-Brooklyn-type I’d heard on cop shows.
“Really?” I said. “I was a technical writer for several years. If you need any advice or
information about the field, let me know.”
He looked a little surprised at that, like I’d stepped on his foot in a busy street. But he
smiled and said, “Yeah, that would be cool, thanks.”
After that, Rocco came up to talk to me almost every day after class. As I put my
papers and notebooks into my bag, he’d ramble on about Walt Whitman or whomever we
were studying at that time, his arms waving in the air as he pointed out the significant details,
the character development, the symbolism and the imagery. I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Most of my students slunk off immediately after class, trying to avoid eye contact and my
questions about how their reports were coming along.
“I’m a second generation Italian,” he told me one day as he walked me to my office.
“I lived in Queens all my life until I came here. My dad’s a programmer. Got a job over in
the Research Triangle.”
“Oh,” I said, jiggling my bag, hoping the keys to my office would float up through
“Are you from around here, Doc?”
“Not even that exciting, I’m afraid.” I opened the door and dumped my bag on the
desk. “I’m from a little town in Eastern North Carolina, which consists mainly of a
crossroads, a post office, and a tiny antique store.” I sighed. “It’s called Big Speed.”
“HA!” Rocco slapped his leg.
“It’s not funny!” I shook a finger at him. “My mom thinks the earth revolves around
that town; she loves the name, says it’s ‘powerful.’”
“But now I live here, in civilization—with three cats, a dog, and a goldfish.”
Rocco laughed, hitching his book bag further up his shoulder. “You like animals
better than people, huh?”
“Better than some people,” I said, grinning and pushing him toward the door.
My mother was visiting me when I brought home my third cat, a year ago. She’d been
staying for the week while my father played in a charity golf tournament in Pinehurst. When
she wasn’t telephoning her friends to arrange long weekends in Hilton Head, she worked on
her plan to gradually “upscale” my home. I would come home from work and find magnolia-
print runners on every smooth surface and matching trashcans in all the bathrooms, my own
hand-painted baskets tucked neatly under the bathroom sink. On blind impulse one day, I’d
stopped by the animal shelter on the way home from work and had spotted Max, an exotic
and irresistible find.
“Another cat?” My mother watched as I pulled a blue carrying cage out of the car. An
enormous ginger and white Maine Coon blinked at us, its whiskers sticking through the metal
grate. “You’re not going to turn into one of those old spinster women with 60 cats, are you?”
I held the case high in front of me as I walked past. “No, thank you very much.
‘Spinster’ is an outdated, sexist term, and in case you’d forgotten, I’m 35, not 85.”
My mother raised her eyebrows and wrinkled her lips at me, creasing thin lines into
her mauve lipstick. This was her favorite “subtle” expression, the pious pursing of the lips
and raising of the eyebrows. She would never come right out and say that I should hurry up
and re-marry. She’d drop little hints like nuggets of cheese for me to gobble up—long stares
at my scuffed sneakers and faded tee shirts, little shakes of the head, and long sighs all told
me I’d “let myself go” since the divorce.
“It’s funny how you keep filling the house up with animals,” my mother called after
me as I placed the cage on the kitchen floor. I wondered if I should close her bedroom door
first before letting the cat out, in case he had an accident on the carpet.
“I happen to like animals,” I said, stroking soft hair above the cat’s nose with my
index finger. “They’re good company.”
My mother huffed behind me, and I turned to face her, still kneeling by the cage. She
leaned against the kitchen counter, her bright white sneakers gleaming against the faded
green kitchen linoleum. “Human company’s just fine, too,” she said, picking up a napkin and
folding it into little squares, not looking at me. “Well, I expect it’s hard at the university, so
many married men and widowers.” She gave a little laugh. “Well, you just keep filling up
this house with animals, don’t you!”
I opened the cage and let my Main Coone out into his new home.
Some days, Rocco would keep me company while I graded quizzes in my office.
He’d tell me about his childhood in New York, his low voice like the warm, comforting hum
of a heat pump. He’d tell me how his dad used to take him to Chinatown to get fried octopus
on a stick. And one day, how he and his dad had gone fishing at Coney Island and had drug
up used condoms instead of fish.
“Sounds lovely,” I had said, grimacing. “What other treasures did you find? Mutant
mollusks? A severed hand?”
He laughed. “You’re just jealous because your hometown doesn’t even sell fishing
“Excuse me? Eastern North Carolina, fishing capital of the world?” I flicked my hand
at him, my eyes on the multiple-choice quiz I was grading. “What about your mom? Did she
ever join you on these delightful little nature expeditions?”
I looked up. Rocco was standing, stretching. “My folks are divorced. Been divorced
since I was six. My mom and her family are in Texas.”
“What’s Texas like? I’ve never been there.”
He’d shrugged. “She never really sends me an invite, if you know what I mean.”
I frowned. “Never?”
“I gotta go,” Rocco said and picked up his book bag.
I stood up quickly. “Well, if you ever need to talk...” My face flushed. “Since you’re
so shy and all.”
He had grinned and waved as he left the room. “Thanks, Doc.”
It was almost 3 o’clock, by the time I’d finished sneaking “contraband” computer
paper into my colleagues’ mailboxes, and I still had to stop by the grocery store and pick up
some sodas and snacks for that evening. To celebrate my second year of teaching, I’d
decided to host a potluck dinner for my students. It was partly to reward them for enduring
my papers and take home tests and partly to show off my pets, whose antics I’d bragged
about all semester. There was Mr. Peeps, a white poodle who liked to grip the hall rug with
his teeth and get pulled around on the slippery hardwood floors, and my cats who each had
endearing little tricks. Max, the Maine Coon, found it fun to pounce at my ankles as I walked
past, causing me to stumble over his fluffy, beanbag-like mass.
In preparation for the event, I swept the dust off the floors, mowed the patchy lawn,
and hid all the magnolia paraphernalia my mother had deposited over the years. Rocco came
early, cradling in his arms an enormous “New York style” cheesecake that he’d strapped to
the back of his motorcycle. I held open the screen door for him, eyes glued to the cheesecake,
“My dad knows a guy,” he said, turning to face me and raising one eyebrow. “He
made him a deal he couldn’t refuse.”
I rolled my eyes and pushed him into the kitchen. “Oh, please!”
He grinned and put the cheesecake on the counter. “Actually, I got it at Food Lion.
But I did get a pretty good deal.”
Two hours later, the evening was swinging along nicely; several of the students had
formed a circle and were arguing about the possible sexual symbolism of Captain Ahab’s
pipe in Moby Dick. Others were playing with Mr. Peeps and the cats. I was sitting on the sofa
with Rocco, showing him the photographs from my trip to Paris. I pointed to a photograph of
my sister Jackie and me standing under the Arc de Triumph, waving at the camera.
“We drank so much wine that trip; I thought I was going to get liver poisoning. Mom
still thinks we went over there to look for French husbands.” I laughed. “Jackie actually had a
fling with a waitress! But that was over real fast.”
“Do you think I could live with you?”
I blinked and then took a gulp of wine. “Pardon?”
Rocco leaned forward, head turned toward me, his large hands cupped over his knees.
I stared at his hands for a few seconds, suddenly thinking of something my mother had said.
She’d told me once that the hands, not the eyes, were the windows to the soul, how you could
trace a person through their hands. Rocco’s were dark, olive-colored like the rest of his skin,
and the outline of his knuckles stood out clearly. Rocco had unique hands, I thought, hands
“I don’t mean live together like that,” he said, straightening up. “I want to rent a
room from you. My lease ends in December, and I don’t like the guy I’m living with.”
“Oh, right.” I exhaled slowly and then said, “So get a different roommate.”
“I can’t. He owns the place.”
I closed the album and held it on my lap. My knees were shaking.
“I mean, you got an extra bedroom you’re not using, right? And we get along great
He was smiling as if he’d just figured out how to solve the hunger problem in
Ethiopia. My face was blank.
“Why don’t you look for another place to live? There are tons of rooms to rent all
Rocco looked at the floor. “I know, but I thought it would be kinda cool.”
I breathed out slowly. “Rocco, I think it would be a little awkward—”
He was still looking at the floor. “So, basically, the answer’s no.”
“I’m afraid so.”
Rocco stood up and stretched his arms above his head, leaning to one side. He let the
arms fall down and slap against his thighs.
“Well, I guess I’m going,” he said, turning away. “It’s late.”
I followed him down the hall and then stood in the doorway, watching as he slid a
black helmet over his hair. He started the motorcycle, head bowed downward, and after a few
minutes, disappeared down the driveway.
I was jittery getting ready for class on Monday. I forgot one of my textbooks and had
to run back to my office to get it. When I got to the classroom, Rocco wasn’t in his seat. I
waited for a couple of minutes to make sure he wasn’t coming before I started the lesson.
While I talked, his empty seat seemed to stare back at me. My lecture felt thin and hollow
without his head nods and vigorous bursts of commentary.
When he missed the next two classes, I called him at home. A croaky young male
“Nah, he’s not here.”
“Um, well, do you know when he’ll be back?”
“He’s visiting his uncle up in Jersey. Might be back Friday.”
“When he gets back, can you tell him to call Dr. Brown?”
I spent the rest of the week numbly going through my classes, checking my email
every few hours, cocking an ear toward the phone. At night, I kept replaying the conversation
in my head, rewinding my response, picking it apart and reconstructing it. I could have called
my sister—she’d helped me with other crises, times with Jake, the months after Jake—but I
kept catching reflections of myself, the side of my head, the curve of my back, and I’d shut
my eyes and curl my fingers into my palms.
On Friday afternoon, my office telephone rang, and I snatched it up. “Dr. Brown
“Hey, it’s me.”
“Rocco?” Suddenly, my mouth was dry. “Where’ve you been?”
“I thought Mike told you; I had to visit my uncle in New Jersey. He’s got cancer,
probably won’t make it ‘til Christmas.”
I felt myself turn red. “I’m really sorry.” There was a silence on the other end of the
line. “Why didn’t you let me know you were going? I could have given you the assignments
ahead of time.”
He was quiet for a second. “It was kinda last minute, you know?”
There were a few more beats of silence.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Him and my dad are the only family members I actually like.”
“Oh.” I paused, feeling like I was dangling from a wire. Usually, Rocco helped me
along. “What about your mom?”
He snorted. “She’s got her own family. She doesn’t care what happens to me.”
“No, I’m sure she cares, Rocco.”
“Yeah, that’s why she forgot my last birthday. Real caring mother.”
I sighed and let a couple of seconds go by. “Let me know if there’s anything I can
“Yeah,” he said.
“I mean it.”
I felt my insides get hard and hot. This is why I have pets, I thought.
“I gotta go, Dr. Brown.” His voice was flat, and I felt my stomach clench.
“I’ll see you in class Monday?” I asked.
I hung up, my hands cold and white. Through my window, I could see tree branches
being tossed back and forward, moving wherever the wind took them. The icy blue sky
reminded me of the time Jake had taken me fishing to Lake Macintosh. We’d caught two
catfish from the bank of the lake and had then walked over to the pier to try for more. But we
didn’t have any luck; we’d gotten our allotment of fish. Walking back to the car, Jake
wrapped his arm around my shoulders and kissed me, his cold nose pressing against my
“Want to get married?”
I’d swallowed and stared ahead. We’d only been dating for six months, although it
felt like a few days.
“I know it’s sudden, and I wasn’t planning on asking you just yet. But this seemed
like the right time.” He stopped and dropped a knee to the ground. He held my hand in his,
and I stared down at it. I liked his hands; they were brown with lots of creases in the palm,
and the tops were wide and smooth. Strong hands, my mother would have said.
As he looked up at me, I thought of the years to come, building up like layers of
leaves, red and brown and colorful, thick and crisp and textured. The two of us together, like
the catfish in the bucket, bobbing and gently pressing mouths up through the water. I had
looked down at my own hands, white and pink and uncut.
It was getting dark outside, so I got up from my desk and switched on the light. I
shivered and pulled on my jacket. The university apparently didn’t like to turn on the heating
until after the first frost, so I kept a small electric heater in my closet. I opened the closet and
saw a cardboard box full of binders, each stuffed with blank white paper. At the sight of the
paper, I felt a twinge in my chest. I thought of Rocco, rocking back on his heels, smiling, and
balancing the huge cheesecake on one hand. And my eyes following his motorcycle as he
drove off in the dark, disappointment mingling with relief.
I pulled the box out of the closet and dumped it on my desk. Then I slowly began
opening each binder and removing the white paper that Rocco and I had hidden from Dr.
Bernstein. When the cardboard box was full of paper, I elbowed my door open and staggered
down the hall toward Dr. Bernstein’s office. I dumped the box in front of his door and
walked back to my office, rubbing my cold hands.
Port of Leith
Eleanor looked out over the scenery below. She recognized the mossy green and
brown patchwork of the fields, and as the plane passed through a thin puff of dirty clouds,
she entered the familiar leaden atmosphere that would surround her in a cold cocoon once
she stepped off the plane. The plane started its descent, and she closed her eyes tightly and
grasped the ends of the armrests.
“Not long now,” she thought, and her stomach lurched sideways as the plane tipped
toward the angle of the runway below. And then she was falling, circling with the plane,
keeping her eyes shut until she felt the thud of the wheels hitting the runway. She held on as
the plane shot forward, engine screaming as the captain tried to slow the plane down.
Gradually, the speed diminished, and Eleanor opened her eyes. The concrete blocks of
Edinburgh airport faced the plane, and she tried to spot Martha at one of the dark windows,
waving at her, but she was too far away.
Martha trotted towards her across the baggage claim area, yellow scarf streaming
over one shoulder, and her cheeks pink from the cold. Her long blond hair looked a bit
thinner than five years before. They stood facing each other for a few seconds, until Martha
draped an awkward arm over Eleanor’s shoulder.
“Here’s the New Yorker! We were wondering when you were finally going to make it
Martha illegally double-parked on Leith Walk, outside the same fish and chip shop
that had been there since they were kids. “Sorry I can’t stay, but I’ll stop by tonight, and
we’ll get a pint.”
Eleanor looked around. Leith hadn’t changed much, except for a couple of new
Chinese take-aways and an Asian supermarket. There was still that air of weariness, that aura
of dirty chipped paint and overflowing rubbish bins. The area was gradually improving, but
its younger, more prosperous days of shipbuilding and whiskey distilleries were long gone.
People carried plastic bags of groceries from Scotmid to their dented cars, past the empty
crisp packets and beer bottles on the concrete pavements, avoiding suspicious puddles and
It was three flights up, and with each step, Eleanor got more nervous. She hadn’t seen
her parents since she and Jake got married five years ago. Martha had warned her that their
mother had lost quite a bit of weight since then.
Her father, Frank, opened the front door, looking surprised as usual. Gray bristles
covered the bottom half of his face, and his hair was white and fluffy, not slicked back like it
used to be. Eleanor swallowed and then gave him a hug.
“Come in, come in! Your mother’s having a wee rest.”
The air smelled of cigarettes and beef stew. Yellow and orange stripes covered the
walls of the dim hallway, and when Eleanor looked up, she saw that the ceiling was a profuse
“Good grief, Dad! What did you do to the walls?”
He laughed and waved an arm toward the bathroom.
“Aye, nice bright colors. Take a look in there, love.”
Eleanor peered into the bathroom—it had gone from bright yellow to eye-popping
pink. On the wall above the claw-footed tub were three embroidered pictures with black
frames; each held a quote from the Bible in thick dark yarn.
“What’s all this?” Eleanor asked, pointing toward the Bible quotes. “You don’t even
go to church!”
“Ah, well,” her father looked down at his feet. “Those were a present from Martha, so
we didn’t want to hurt her feelings.”
They went into the living room, a calming olive green. Her mother, Ruth, sat on the
couch, head tipped back as she dozed. She wore a thick white robe, and a wool blanket was
wrapped around her shoulders. When Eleanor saw the hollow cheeks and dark shadows
under her mother’s eyes, she had to bite down on her thumb to keep the stinging in her eyes
from turning into something more.
That night, Eleanor and Martha went to the Shore for a drink. Eleanor chose the Malt
and Hops, remembering how they used to go there together after the aerobics class years ago.
Undoing all the good work of sit ups and leg lifts, Eleanor would order a Guinness, while
Martha, more health conscious, would order a cider or a lager. There was always that man in
the wheelchair with the shaved head and red glasses; he sat near the piano and lifted his glass
with a gangly group of men who flitted around him, smoking and ignoring all the women.
Eleanor thought her older sister looked especially haggard. The lines around Martha’s
mouth and eyes were etched into the skin, and all the fine blond hairs stood up, highlighted in
the yellow glow of the pub lights, like rebellious spirits.
She wore the same old green wooly sweater Aunt Flora had knitted her ten years ago,
now pilled and faded. Eleanor flicked a hair off her black silk shirt; she would say this for
Martha, the woman didn’t waste money. She probably still had those black velvet heels she’d
worn to their first dance uptown. God, what a couple of eejits they must’ve looked! Martha in
her black lace ensemble, pieced together from the second-hand shops, and Eleanor, hobbling
around in the red plastic heels, attempting to look like a vixen in the red dress she’d made
from the old upstairs curtains. Luckily, the fashion scene had been eclectic in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know Mum was that bad,” Eleanor said, clasping her hands around the half-
pint glass. “She looked awful.”
Her sister touched the gold heart around her neck—a gift from a woman at church—
and twisted the chain around her finger, shooting wistful glances at the cigarette smoke
drifting in from a nearby table. She’d stopped four months before when they discovered
Mum’s cancer, but Eleanor wondered how many cigarettes Martha was secretly smoking at
the bus stop on the way to work.
“I told you she’d gotten worse.”
“Yeah, I know. I just didn’t realize... Mum’s always been so healthy.”
They sat, looking into their drinks. “Dad’s been great,” Martha finally said. “We’ve
got a system worked out. I’m helping him with the cooking and cleaning, and he’s doing the
laundry and keeping an eye on Mum during the day.”
“I wouldn’t mind helping out,” Eleanor said.
“No, we’re fine.”
“But Dad’s idea of helping is carrying a cup from the living room and putting it in the
kitchen sink,” Eleanor said. “I could get the shopping in or something.”
“It would just be a chore, trying to figure you into the system.” Martha closed her
eyes and sighed, still clutching the gold heart. Wouldn’t want to be a chore, Eleanor thought.
Heaven forbid she mess up Martha’s special system!
“I’ll pick up Mum’s medicine tomorrow,” Martha continued. “Oh, and the hospice
nurse will be coming twice a week, starting Monday.”
“Hospice nurse?” Hot air from the radiator under the seat gushed out onto Eleanor’s
ankles, creeping up her trousers like warm fingers. She started to sweat and wished she had
worn her short-sleeved shirt instead. She’d forgotten how you needed layers of clothing in
Scotland; the people were like sheep, peeling off their fleece in the over-heated pubs,
sprouting it back when they stepped outside.
“I didn’t realize it was bad enough for the hospice.”
“Dad thinks it’s home-help. He keeps saying, ‘Aye, that’ll be good to have someone
tae help with the dishes.’” Martha twisted the necklace around her thumb.
On her wedding ring finger was a large oval turquoise stone. Eleanor stared at it,
tracing the little blue-green veins back and forward, until she realized that it was Mum’s ring,
the one Dad had made during his jewelry phase. After that class at the community center,
he’d dashed out and bought a second-hand polishing machine and a bag of dusty rocks. He
made each of the girls a ring—Martha’s had a big black stone, and Eleanor’s was tiger-eye.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier about all this?” Eleanor pulled at the collar of her
blouse, smoothing the curled edge. Mum had worn the turquoise ring every day, even when
she was washing dishes.
Martha tapped her fingers on the table. The turquoise stone gaped up at Eleanor, an
open blue eye, misplaced. “I thought it would be better to tell you in person.”
“It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.” Eleanor imagined the coffin sinking into the ground,
laden with Mum’s old jewelry, her one fur jacket, the mother-of-pearl hairbrush, the
collection of antique teddy bears, Martha diving in after it, rummaging around and piling
things over her elbow, stuffing them in her pockets…
“It wasn’t the right time.”
“But it’s not fair on me to have to wait until somebody decides on the ‘right’ time.” It
was the same with the old photographs; Martha had been right there, digging her paws in
when Dad had dragged the suitcase down from the attic. By the time Eleanor had arrived at
Christmas, all the good pictures of Mum in her Sunday school clothes were gone. Martha had
that brilliant one of Mum in her wedding dress.
Martha took a sip of wine and then ran her finger around the top of the glass. She’s
lost some weight, Eleanor thought. When they were younger, Martha had been the attractive
one, tall and blonde with a light, airy personality that won over all the boys. Eleanor was
short and squat, like a pigeon, with a sharp tongue—she’d punched her first boy when she
“It’s a bit hard to keep you up-to-date on everything when you live three thousand
miles away, Eleanor.”
Eleanor took a deep breath and focused on the bubbles rising in her lager.
They didn’t have enough change for the bus, and ended up walking home. But
Eleanor didn’t mind. She walked all the time in New York, anonymously observing people’s
clothes, the way they glanced casually at their reflections in shop windows. Outside had
always been her refuge, an escape from the chattering family, their worries about
unemployment and the water pipes freezing and whether Martha would finally get that
promotion and if that man from the Job Center would ask her out. And would it be better if
Mum and Dad stayed with Martha when they got too frail to fend for themselves? Or should
Eleanor move back to Scotland and take care of them? When she got on the plane to New
York, she would feel home pulling at her fingertips and toes, like clinging weeds. There
would be that terribly light feeling for a few weeks afterwards, as if she was swinging around
in the air with bare roots.
She got up early the next day and stood in the kitchen in her nightgown, watching the
kettle boil, smelling the smoke from the toast burning when it was already too late. She
scraped the black bits off the toast and ate it with a thick coating of butter and marmalade,
while looking out of the window at the private school’s playing fields. Frank walked into the
kitchen, whistling and holding an empty mug. He put it in the sink and then pulled a cigarette
from behind his ear and lit it on the gas stove.
“Dad, can I do anything? Take out the washing?”
Frank turned around and puffed on the cigarette, looking down at it, which made him
cross-eyed for a few seconds. Then he leaned a hand on the kitchen counter and crossed his
legs. If Eleanor closed her eyes, she could see every gesture, each puff of his cheeks and
grimace after he heaved in the smoke. She could see her parents acting out their own dramas,
oblivious and whirring like battery-operated toys while she was miles away.
“I’ve given your mother her cup of tea, and she’s got her magazines and romance
novels—some god awful stuff, mind you. You could maybe go for a wee walk and have a
wander around town.”
"I don’t want to wander around town,” Eleanor said. “I want to help you and Mum.”
“Och, there’s nothing to do! Martha’s done everything.”
Frank walked into the living room, whistling again. He lifted a model ship from the
top of the bookcase and put it on the living room table. Then he brought out his oil paints and
brushes and began painting the sails of the ship three different colors, still whistling. It’s a
hard life for some, Eleanor thought, shaking her head.
At 10 o’clock, Eleanor brought her mother a cup of tea and a slice of toast and butter.
“Thanks, love. Sit down beside me.” Ruth was propped up with pillows, reading a
gardening magazine. She put the magazine face down and laid her hands on top of the pages.
The purple veins bumped up beneath the white skin, and the bones were sharp points at the
knuckles. Her eyes seemed to have sunk even deeper into her face. There was a yellow hue to
her skin, the color of stained cotton and old pee.
“How are you feeling, Mum?”
“Och, not too bad.” She had tied back her long gray hair with a blue rubber band.
Ruth took a sip of the tea. “I might get up later and check on auld Mrs. Mackay. She’s aye
throwing bread out the window for thon seagulls. They make an awfy mess with their
“Aye, but take it easy, Mum.”
“Aye, I’ll just stick my head out the window.”
Eleanor smiled. Her mother liked to sit by the window in the living room, watching
the children across the street kick glass bottles around. She’d comment on the neighbor’s
clematis vines that wrapped around the edges of her window box and tutt at the young
woman from upstairs who refused to wear a proper jacket, even when there was a gale force
wind blowing. But she had never once shouted at Mrs. Mackay, who lived by herself and
saved all her old crusts of bread to feed the gulls that swooped down every afternoon.
“I need you to help me sort a few things out.”
Eleanor frowned. “What sort of things?”
Ruth leaned over and opened a drawer in the side table. It was made of pine with the
image of a ship carved around the stainless steel knob; Frank had made it during his
carpentry phase. She put on her reading glasses and then held up a tiny spiral notebook,
touching the page with her index finger.
“First of all, I want you to have my wedding dress.”
“Oh, don’t be daft, Mum!” Eleanor waved a hand.
“I’m not being daft. I want you to have it. I want you to have it when you and Tim tie
“But it’s yours. I couldn’t take it. And it might be ages yet before we get married.
You know what he’s like.” Why does Mum have to be so damn practical, Eleanor thought.
Ruth had never liked to pretend. The only lie she’d told them had been about Santa Claus,
and she had explained him rationally when they each turned seven. Eleanor thought it had
probably been a relief to her mother, to clear the air, to put everything right in order again.
“No, I dinnae think it’ll be much longer now.”
The words hung in the air like cigarette smoke. A couple of crows were cawing to
each other outside the window. The birds sat on the washing line, a huge pair, black against
the winter sky.
“Besides, Martha’s getting the Oriental rug in the hall. Frank’s aye hated it—I don’t
know why; it’s worth about three times more than those drab ship paintings he brought
home.” She shook her head.
“But she has a rug already,” Eleanor said. “Why does she need another one?”
Her mother stared over her glasses, her white wispy eyebrows almost nonexistent.
“Because I’m giving it to her.”
“Did Martha ask you for it?”
It was just typical of Martha, Eleanor thought. She probably already had a suitcase
packed full of Mum’s old cocktail dresses. “She didn’t have to ask you for it.”
“Eleanor.” Mum’s voice was sharp. “I’m giving it to her.”
Eleanor stared at the footboard. Next door in the living room, her father had turned up
the television and was singing along to a musical number—it sounded like “Climb Every
Mountain.” Just then the doorbell rang, and he dashed down the hallway, calling out, “That’ll
be the postman with ma new paints.”
“Come on. Let’s go through the list. It would be a big help to me.”
“No, I can’t.” Phlegm was building up in Eleanor’s throat; she tried to swallow it
down, but it felt like wallpaper paste. Frank ran back toward the living room, whistling this
time, now performing a rendition of “Donald, Where’s Yer Troosers?” On the sideboard by
the window was a pile of Mum’s clothes, ironed and folded; Martha had written, “For Aunt
Flora,” on an index card in large red letters.
“It’s better to get all this sorted out now. You know, while I’m still around.”
“For God’s sake, Mum!” Eleanor stood up, her legs cold and wobbly.
“What?” Ruth took off her glasses. Eleanor looked down at the blankets on the bed; if
she met her mother’s eyes, it would all be over. She’d spill out onto the carpet and never
“I don’t belong here,” she said and left the room.
Eleanor stepped off the bus and walked towards Leith Links. The first game of golf
had been played in the park, she often reminded Tim when he got too annoyingly patriotic
and “American.” She did not mention, however, the mountains of dog shit and the chipped
yellow fiberglass slide covered with blue and white spray-painted Scottish flags.
She rang the doorbell and called through the letterbox, “It’s me, Eleanor, Auntie
After a few seconds, she heard the shuffling footsteps, and the door opened a crack
Aunt Flora wore the same brown knitted cardigan with the two missing mother of
pearl buttons, and she’d obviously just been to the hairdresser, as her short gray curls were as
tight as coiled wire. Aunt Flora took Eleanor’s arm and led her across the thick carpet into
the living room where the gas fire was blazing and giving off a familiar chemical tinge. A
mangy brown and white speckled cat strolled across the room, its fur clumped on its head
into little spikes. One of Aunt Flora’s strays. Eleanor leaned over to pet it.
“Oh, I wouldn’t, dear,” Flora said, holding up a hand. “Malcolm is a wee bit
Eleanor pulled back quickly, just as Malcolm hissed and snapped the air where her
hand had been. Flora made tutting noises and picked up the cat around its middle.
“He just needs a wee treat, don’t you, dear? I found him outside by the rubbish bins,
poor wee soul. And how’ve you been, Eleanor? It’s been so long, hasn’t it? Five years, yes?”
“Right, five years, Auntie Flora,” Eleanor said, crossing her legs.
“And are you enjoying your visit so far, Eleanor, dear?” Flora sat down on the sofa
next to Eleanor, stroking Malcolm’s head.
“Well, to be honest, no.” Eleanor felt her face getting hot. “Everyone’s either acting
as if there’s nothing wrong with Mum or as if she’s about to pop her clogs any minute. And
there’s nothing for me to do at all.”
Flora nodded, her smile fading a little. “Ah, yes, dear. You’ve been away an awfully
long time; it’s hard to jump right back into the middle of things again, isn’t it?”
“Maybe if Martha had let me know sooner...”
They sat for a few moments, Aunt Flora rubbing Malcolm’s ears and Eleanor staring
into the blue flickering flames of the gas heater. Then Aunt Flora gave a little gasp and stood
“I forgot to put the kettle on!” She put Malcolm down, making sure he had all four
paws on the floor before letting go. “And I found some nice old photographs for you,
Well, at least somebody was saving the old photographs for her. Eleanor folded her
hands on her lap. On the mantelpiece above the heater was a row of greeting cards, and on
top of the television set was the framed photograph of Eleanor and Tim, standing in front of
their condominium in New York. God, I should call him, Eleanor thought. She’d given him a
brusque “I’m okay” phone call at Edinburgh airport, put off by the patronizing way he’d
kissed the top of her head before she got on the plane.
Flora came back into the room, carrying a tray with the same old teapot—pink
begonias—and two cups and a plate of chocolate biscuits. The photograph album was under
her arm. “I’ve put all the photos together for you.”
The old photographs were almost gray, instead of black and white, and some were
torn at the edges. They’d been pasted down onto the black paper pages.
“Look how skinny we were back then,” Flora said, pointing to a picture of herself and
Frank standing in front of a baker’s shop in Leith Walk. Flora had on dark lipstick and her
brown glossy hair curled out from under a smart 1940s felt hat. Eleanor’s father was smoking
a cigarette and had his hands in his pockets, looking mildly surprised as usual. “Of course,
during the War, everyone was skinny.”
They flipped through the pages, past the yellow and orange ones from the 1970s, the
ones with bleeding and faded colors, the Polaroids with only faint outlines of people and
patches of images left. There was a great picture of her father holding up an odd basket made
out of pine needles and tree branches.
“Frank made that when his plane was shot down,” Flora said. “He was trapped in the
forest for weeks, had to wait for his brigade to pick him up again. There was nothing else for
him to do, so he started collecting branches and building that basket.”
Eleanor laughed. “It’s a funny-looking thing, isn’t it?”
“He had to keep busy or he would have lost his mind.” Flora took a sip of tea. “That’s
how your father is, Eleanor. It’s how he handles the bad things that happen.”
Another photograph was of Ruth washing dishes in the old flat they used to have,
down at the bottom of Leith. The sink was right under the window, and her father had snuck
up behind and snapped the photograph just as she was turning around. Mum’s mouth was
tightly closed, and she had this stubborn look on her face, as if to show Frank that there was
no way he was going to interrupt her work with a silly joke.
“Look at that!” Aunt Flora laughed, her voice husky from too many cigarettes. “Your
mother’s aye been a hard worker.”
“Aye,” Eleanor said, “and hard-headed, too.”
She stared at the white foamy arm holding the plate—the hard line of muscle, the
knobbled fingers permanently pink from wringing out sheets in freezing cold water in the
bathtub. Her mother’s small waist was made thicker from the knitted sweater, the cotton
apron, and the blue anorak she’d found cheap in a second-hand store.
The harsh dark eyes that stared back at Eleanor filled her with an ache that started in
her own eyes and spread out through her head and filled her chest and ebbed down her legs
and into her toes.
“Och!” Flo clapped her hands together. “There was another bonny photo of your
mother and Frank dancing at the Assembly Rooms. But I think Martha took it last time she
Eleanor snapped the album closed. “This was very kind of you, Aunt Flora. But I
can’t take it right now. Maybe Martha would like it.”
“It’s all right, dear.” Flora dropped another sugar cube into Eleanor’s tea. “We all
deal with things in our own way.”
Outside, Eleanor blinked into the wind, squinting and wiping her eyes with the tips of
her fingers. She put her head down and walked past the bus stops and the huddled lines of
people with red noses and faces set in worried frowns against the cold. It could be just as
bleak in New York, during the winter, but Eleanor felt it was grimmer here, the people more
stoic from years of battling the sharp North Wind. Even the buildings looked gaunt, stones
blackened by the past smoke from thousands of coal fires trying desperately to heat small
When Eleanor looked up again, she saw the park, and across from that, the primary
school where Martha worked. The pink building was acrid and artificial against the gray slab
sky. Eleanor marched through the glass doors, the gush of warm air hitting her face like a hot
breath. A woman with a white shirt and rosy cheeks sat at the front desk in the main lobby,
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, thanks, I’m here to see Martha.”
The woman told her to take the third door on the left. Eleanor looked through the
little glass window and saw Martha reading something at her desk, her head titled to one side
as though she was trying to catch a far away sound. Eleanor knocked and went in.
“Hello? What are you doing here?” Martha sounded tired.
Eleanor sat down in the red vinyl chair opposite the desk. “Just a quick visit.”
“Okay, but I have a meeting later this afternoon.”
“Right.” Eleanor looked at the row of photographs on the shelf behind Martha’s desk.
There was one of them as kids, arms around each other’s waists, standing at the bottom of the
Scott Monument. And a Christening photo of a black-haired baby that Eleanor had never
seen before. She nodded at it. “Who’s that?”
Martha turned around. “That’s Mum! Can you believe she was ever that small and
“It’s a great one.”
“Aye, Mum gave me it last week.”
“Oh, right.” Eleanor twisted a thread that was hanging off the end of her sleeve. A
child shouted in the hallway outside the office and then abruptly stopped, intercepted by the
hum of an adult male voice. “Mum seems to be giving you a lot of things lately. First, her
ring, then her photographs, then the Oriental rug.”
“Aye, I’ve been helping her sort things out.”
“Sort things out?” Eleanor folded her arms. “More like commandeering.”
Martha leaned her elbows on the desk. “If Mum wants to give me something, that’s
her business. Why are you so bothered about it?”
“I’m bothered because you’ve taken over everything.” Eleanor waved an arm at her
sister. “There’s nothing for me to do because you’ve done it all. Then I don’t find out about
the hospice nurse until yesterday. What else has been happening that I don’t know about?”
Martha stared at her. “Probably quite a lot, since you don’t live here.”
Eleanor flushed. “Just because I don’t live here, doesn’t mean I don’t care about
what’s happening.” A bell rang, and a few seconds later, there was the sounds of children
pattering through the hallway, squealing and rustling past the door.
“What do you want to know?” Martha clasped her hands on her desk as she might
have done with one of her young students. “Just tell me.”
“Oh, shut up!” Eleanor stood, grabbing her handbag from the back of the chair.
“Don’t be so damn patronizing. You know what I mean. You didn’t even bother to phone me
when Mum went into hospital for those tests.”
“It takes two!”
“Aye, but you’re here, seeing Mum every day, borrowing her jewelry,” she stared
pointedly at the turquoise ring, “and all her stuff. You’re cleaning and cooking, doing
everything with her. You know better than me what’s going on.”
“And do you think I like that, being the only one here with Mum and Dad? Do you
think I have a better time of it, Eleanor?”
Eleanor pulled her bag close to her chest.
Eleanor’s tongue felt dry in her mouth, a furry piece of cotton lying there uselessly.
“You know what?” Martha got up suddenly, twisting the turquoise ring. “You can
have the damn ring.” She pulled it roughly off her finger and banged it on the table. Eleanor
blinked at the little circle of silver and blue.
“Well? Take it!”
“What?” Eleanor’s fingers were numb, digging into her leather bag. “I don’t want it.”
“Well, I don’t want it, either. Take the stupid thing and flush it down the toilet. I can’t
be bothered with this rubbish any more. TAKE IT!” Martha threw the ring, and it bounced
off Eleanor’s shoulder and rolled onto the carpet. Eleanor stepped clumsily back, her feet like
wooden blocks. The ring lay under the corner of the desk, caught between the tufts of the
“Anything else you want?” Martha waved her arms in circles, encompassing her tiny
office. “How about the photos?” She jerked her arm across the wooden shelf behind her desk,
knocking the frames onto the floor. “Here, take them all. Who needs them anyway?”
“Stop it!” Eleanor jolted backwards as the frames clanked and slipped against each
other, reaching toward her feet like rough waves.
“Fucking photographs!” Martha began to cry, her body shuddering. “Here!” She
kicked the picture of Ruth in her Christening gown toward her sister. “You had your eye on
this one. TAKE IT!”
Eleanor dropped her bag and reached for the picture. “Stop it!”
Her sister slumped into her chair and covered her face with her hands. “Do you think
I want Mum’s old junk?” Her voice was muffled through her fingers.
Eleanor slowly lowered her self into her chair, gripping the picture frame.
“There’s nothing, Eleanor. My whole life’s been hanging around, waiting. As if Mum
and Dad are finally going to come over and say, ‘It’s okay, Dear. We don’t need your help
Eleanor leaned over and picked up the photograph of them at the Scott Monument.
Martha’s long blond hair was in pigtails that came past her elbows, and Eleanor, chubby at
eight, had a bowl cut that made her head look like a mushroom. It was funny how time had
reversed things; back then, Martha was the “glamorous” one.
“You were smart.” Martha rubbed her eyes. “You left. I was the stupid dolt who
stayed behind, Eleanor. Me!”
Eleanor began picking up the picture frames, gathering them in her arms like flowers
from a bouquet or loaves of bread. She put them back on the shelf, rearranging them, shorter
ones in front, bigger frames further back, at an angle so that they could all be seen.
“You weren’t stupid,” she said. “You were just less self-absorbed than me.”
Martha shook her head. “Bloody stupid!”
Eleanor walked around the desk and sat back down again. “No, you’re not.”
“I’ve not got anything. Not even a fucking dog!”
“You’ve got Mum and Dad, and you’ve got me…”
“But you’re leaving in a few days.”
Eleanor stared at the photo of the Scots Monument. That was the day Mum had taken
them uptown as a treat for Martha’s twelfth birthday. She had waited at the bottom while the
girls helped each other climb the steps inside the monument, leaning against the black sooty
stones as the space grew narrower, crouching melodramatically as they neared the top.
Martha said they should close their eyes so that the view would be a special treat. It was
terrifying, stepping forward into blankness, clutching at the stone for guidance, the wind
dashing through their hair.
They held hands and Martha counted to three. And when they opened their eyes, it
was just as Martha had said it would be—all spikes and green hills, smoke and haze, bustling
and moving. And straight ahead was the Port of Leith, the masts of ships poking up into the
blue sky like soldiers’ bayonets, the water smooth as melted gold in the afternoon sun,
spreading out to the Firth of Fourth and Fife and beyond. And to the left were the gray slate
rooftops of Leith, where Mum and Dad and Aunt Flora lived and struggled and knew every
crack in the pavement and every baker and butcher and fishmonger. The skin on the back of
Eleanor’s neck had prickled.
She picked the ring up off the carpet. “Maybe I could stay a bit longer.”
Could she stay and help Martha? Stay as long as it took to help Mum. Take a leave of
absence from work? But then, what if Dad got sick, too? She thought of her father whistling
while he stuck a half-smoked cigarette behind his ear, the smell permeating the room, her
clothes, her hair. Mum staring at her, dark eyes unrelenting. She’d left eight years ago, why
was she back now? Only returning when the chips were down. What about all the other
times? The birthdays, the Christmases, the long dark, December afternoons when it was too
cold to walk outside, too stifling to stay inside? What about the trudge to the supermarket
every other day to buy potatoes and milk?
And then there was Tim. Whenever Eleanor thought about Tim and the tall splendor
of New York City, a feeling of lightness filled her up and lifted her above the grim, dirty
streets and kept her floating.
Martha watched her, eyelids puffy and making her look sleepy. She worked hard, her
sister. She was used to it here. This was her home. She fit in. Eleanor put the ring on the
desk. “I’ll be back to visit.”
Martha stood up and put the ring back on her finger. “Right.” She walked over to the
door and opened it for Eleanor. “I’d better get back to work. I’ll see you tonight for dinner?”
Eleanor gathered her bag, her coat and her scarf from the chair. “I’ll make a steak pie.
Give you the night off.” She paused in front of Martha but couldn’t think of anything else to
“See you later then.” Martha began to close the door.
Eleanor turned and quickly put her arms around her sister’s shoulders, pulling her
close. They stood still, letting the door bump against them. Eleanor breathed in Martha’s
apricot and mango shampoo, felt the soft prickle of her sister’s angora scarf on her cheeks.
They hadn’t hugged since she’d first left for America; they weren’t a hugging family.
Eleanor blinked into Martha’s fine blond hair, watching the strands move with each twitch of
The Mood Detectives
We were at the mall with the kids, my little girl Julie in a sling around Ann’s chest
and shoulders, and Mikey was running ahead to look at the model trains in the window of the
hobby shop, his sneakers flashing as his feet pounded the floor. I saw the book in the window
of Walton’s on a purple satin background and slowed down to read the cover. The Deepest
Eye, it said, Staring Down Your Depression.
The book was all about people who’d lost motivation in their marriages and jobs,
who’d become morose and had feelings of isolation and self-consciousness at parties. People
who felt like they were not moving forward in life. It was all about moving forward, about
accepting the past and marching on. All those things described me perfectly. My job at the
magazine was leaving me flattened at the end of each day. When Ann placed dinner in front
of me, all I tasted was cardboard. When she turned over in bed at night, all I could see was
the dip of her waist and hips, that empty spot where my hand should have fitted perfectly.
I bought the book that day, and “The Deepest Eye” became a mantra for me; I said it
when I was sitting in my cubicle trying to write an article about car insurance; I said it when
Sheila, the woman in office supply, shot weird looks at my Charlie Brown ties; I whispered it
to myself when Ann repeated that she just wanted to go to sleep. When I got flustered in the
coffee shop, trying to remember the difference between a mochaccino and a cappuccino, I
whispered, “The Deepest Eye, The Deepest Eye” in my head, a reminder to myself that I
wasn’t paranoid or losing touch with reality. I was just depressed.
Weeks after I read the book, which had quickly become a best seller, I started
noticing a trend. Magazines in the supermarket checkout line advertised “Doldrums
Retreats,” where people could go and sleep in hammocks and drink mimosas in the mornings
and read books of poetry and watch monologues by Spalding Gray. Then, near the end of the
retreat, motivational speakers would give talks to boost spirits and counselors would offer
special “venting” sessions on the tops of mountains and aromatherapy treatments. Susie, who
worked in the classifieds department, told me she was planning on going on a Doldrums
Retreat, right after Christmas, once all the relatives had gone back home. She was saving up
“Yeah, it’s gonna be awesome,” she said one afternoon, leaning her hip against the
doorway of my cubicle. “You should try one.”
“That’s great,” I said. “And your husband’s okay with this?”
“Well…he doesn’t exactly know about it yet. But he’ll get over it; I signed him up for
fly fishing lessons at the community college.”
A couple of weeks later, I began noticing college students at the coffee shop wearing
black tee shirts with things like, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Melancholy” and “Dark Soul”
and “Inner Torment,” written across the front. On the Fall T.V. lineup, there was a new
sitcom: “Me and My Dejected Dad,” featuring a ten-year-old girl who lives with her divorced
father who suffers from depression because he’s been laid off at the denim factory. The
daughter reminds Dad to take his Xanax and helps him conquer daily bouts of sadness by
telling him funny stories about fifth grade and trying to set him up with potential moms, who
just happen to work in doctors’ offices or as school guidance counselors.
I caught part of the show while flipping channels one night and pointed it out to Ann
as an example of the growing epidemic; she threw down the crafts magazine she’d been
reading and said that those people needed to try electric shock therapy, just once, and then
see how much they liked being depressed. She made quotation marks in the air around the
“You don’t know what it’s like to have electric shock therapy,” I said, switching the
channel to the Food Network.
“No, but I did read The Bell Jar.” She picked up her magazine again and flipped
through each page with such force that I thought her fingers would tear through the pictures.
“Who are all these depressed people, anyway?”
“Just every day people, people who’re sick of their jobs, their lives.”
“Great.” She flopped the magazine down on the coffee table again. “So, anyone can
sign up for this depression thing and get a doctor’s slip that says they don’t have to worry
about responsibility any more?”
I shook my head. “It’s not that simple. This is a real condition. It’s not a chemical
imbalance like severe depression; it’s a much milder form, more like a ‘malaise,’ but it’s just
Ann got up and walked into the kitchen, her long skirt swishing around her calves; I
suddenly wanted to touch them, put my thumbprint on one.
“Those people need to get their heads examined,” Ann yelled, clanging the pots
The next day at work, Susie told me Oprah was having a special series on depression,
set in the South. When I told Ann that night, she rolled her eyes and kept knitting the sweater
for our pet cocker spaniel, Gemini. I tried to tell her again about The Deepest Eye, how I felt
it had been written just for me, how it went deeper than a fad. We were sitting on the couch
together, watching a rerun of “Star Trek.” Julie lay on her back on a quilt in the middle of the
room, wiggling her legs in the air and chewing on a blue plastic doughnut. Mikey was
outside in the back yard with the twins from next door.
“You’re not depressed.” Ann had almost finished knitting the sweater.
“You don’t think so? I come home every day feeling like I’ve been run over.” I pulled
my hands through my thinning hair for emphasis.
“Yeah, but that’s normal. That’s work. I feel that way when I get through changing
Julie’s diapers and washing the dishes all day.”
“No, it’s more than that. I feel empty inside, like my thoughts have turned to mush,
like all my vitality has slipped out through my finger tips onto the keyboard.”
“Dammit!” Ann pushed a row of stitches off her knitting needle. “I did plain instead
of purl. Well, why don’t you get another job if you’re so miserable?” She looked at me for a
couple of seconds, knitting needles poised. “Why not examine your life?”
I shook my head. “It’s not my job. I’m just depressed.”
Ann stuffed the needles and wool back into the knitting basket and got up to fix
herself some green tea.
A couple of months after the Oprah series, the coffee shop down the street from my
work closed down for remodeling. Three weeks later, it reopened under the new name
“Decompression Café.” The exterior was painted yellow, as if to lift spirits, and the sign was
in gleaming chrome. I passed by it on the way to work one morning and tried to peer through
the windows, but they had sprayed some kind of iridescent sheen on the glass, and so all I
saw was my own receding hairline, fuzzy and purplish in the smeary reflection. When I got
to work, Susie was sitting on the desk in my cubicle, legs crossed and arms folded.
“What’s up?” I flopped down in my chair, and she twisted at the waist to face me,
legs hanging over the front of the desk. She had on a black silky blouse and black stockings,
the edge of the garter belt barely visible under her short black skirt.
“Why so dressed up?”
“I’m changing my image. Bill gave me my birthday present yesterday—a yoga ball.”
She sighed and flicked her bangs. “You sure don’t know much about women.”
“I’m married, aren’t I?”
“Yeah, well try getting your wife a yoga ball for her birthday next year. See where it
I mentally checked yoga ball off the list of potential Valentine’s Day gifts.
“Anyway,” she fingered a silver-hoop earring. “I’d been feeling kinda, you know,
down lately. And then when he got me that damn yoga ball, I just snapped, you know?”
I nodded, trying to remember if I had an editorial meeting that morning.
“So, I decided to change my image.” She slid off the desk and stood up, turning
around, her palms held up over her head like an evangelist preacher who’s taken the wrong
path. “What d’you think?”
“Very dark, mysterious.” I racked my brain, trying to remember the cover of
Cosmopolitan in the supermarket last week. “Makes you seem complex, full of angst.”
Susie beamed. “Really?”
“Great, because that’s kinda the look I was going for.”
Susie wasn’t the only one wearing black. I mean, black has always been trendy, but
people at work and in the streets were beginning to take it to extremes. Black bags, black
lipstick, black ties, and black hair. If I wore brown shoelaces to work, I’d start to feel self-
conscious. Obnoxious Sheila in office supply glared at me when I wore a blue shirt one day.
Then I started to notice that many of the women in the office and on the streets looked paler
than usual. When I asked Ann about this, she shrugged and went on digging in the herb
corner of the garden. She had planted rosemary and Asian basil and painted these little
ceramic signs that stuck into the ground to identify the plants.
So, I asked Susie at work. “Are women getting anemic or something?”
She was sitting on my desk again, this time in sheer stockings and a short black velvet
skirt. In an obvious act of rebellion, she’d worn a purple vest over her black v-necked
“Nah, it’s the new look, paler foundation. Gothic Revivalism some are calling it. Or
the New Doom. Whatever. It’s up to the individual, you know?” She pointed at her vest.
“See? I’m doing a variation on Darkness Within; it’s a more liberal approach. You can wear
different colors, as long as they’re dark and represent the inner torment you’re feeling.”
I nodded. “And what about men?”
Susie put a purple-polished fingernail to her mouth and gazed at the ceiling.
“Let’s see…. Men are pretty much restricted to black and navy. Oh, but there are a
few men who’re breaking out of the mold and are paling their faces.”
“Paling? Is that a word?”
“Yeah, it describes the new look. Just a touch of ivory concealer can give you a real
gaunt look. Some men are even dabbing charcoal under their eyes for a more pronounced
I stared at her. She began filing her nails.
“It’s a lot to take in,” I said, straightening a pile of papers on my desk. “I mean, I just
read The Deepest Eye a few months ago, and since then, this whole thing has really taken
Susie stopped filing. “You read The Deepest Eye?”
“Yeah, I loved it.”
“Oh, my God! Wasn’t that the greatest book?”
“It sure was.”
“What color’s your deepest eye? Mine’s blue.”
“Mine’s halfway between blue and brown,” I said.
She stood up and put both hands flat on the desk. “You’re kidding?”
“No, I mean it. Apparently, I’m on the cusp.”
Susie shook her head. “Didn’t it just describe the whole self-hatred, paranoia thing so
I folded my arms on my desk. “It was like it was written for me.”
“That’s just what I thought! I mean, some days, you sit at work and think, what am I
doing here? Then you get home, and it’s the same old stuff. Honey, where’s my dinner?
Honey, did you remember to pick up dog food? Honey—”
I held up my hand. “I hate to interrupt you, but I have a meeting in about five
Susie held her hands up. “Oh, sure. No problem. Hey, want to check out the new
Decompression Café after work? It looks awesome!”
I paused. Ann had aerobics on Tuesday nights, and the kids were at her mom’s house
for their weekly ‘sleepover,’ so there would be no one home. It was just coffee. Two
depressed people drinking coffee.
At 5:30 that evening, we shuffled out of the building, like two soldiers who’d
survived trench warfare. The café was only a couple of blocks down Main Street, but it was
nice to have someone to walk with, instead of barreling down the street by myself, head
down, pretending I was on the way to important business. Ann and I used to eat at the Thai
restaurant on the corner once a month; then we’d catch an independent movie at the tiny
cave-like Triste Theater, across from the library. But we hadn’t gone anywhere together for a
while, except to the mall to buy jeans or the supermarket.
“God, I’m beat!” Susie was half-limping, her black stilettos clicking on the concrete.
“And these damn shoes are killing me.”
I offered her my elbow, and she grasped it with both hands, as though it was the only
thing keeping her from collapsing onto the pavement.
“That editorial meeting went on for three hours,” I said, rubbing my temples. “I
thought I was going to pass out from boredom.”
We made it to the Decompression Café. This time, I could make out shadowy figures
behind the glass, dark outlines against the bright lighting within. I held open the door for
Susie. Once inside, it was hard to tell if the café was meant to lift your spirits or help you
wallow in your discontent. Half the place was painted light yellow, and there were tiny fans
in the corners, pumping out the scent of lemon essential oil. Caribbean drum music tinkled
through the speakers.
A black beaded curtain hung from the doorway that separated the yellow room from
the plum-colored room. Through the beads were dimly lit alcoves with velvet sofas and
oddly placed black shelves holding thick plum-colored candles. Whereas in the yellow
section, people were excitedly multi-tasking—talking on cell phones while working on
laptops—in the plum section, coffee drinkers were slouched on the sofas, smoking and
staring listlessly up at the ceiling. Some people were hooked up to oxygen tanks. Instead of
music there was what sounded like whale mating calls.
We got our drinks (a Lift Your Spirits Latte for me and a Crestfallen Cappuccino for
Susie) and then stood in front of the beaded curtain for a few moments. It seemed
inappropriate to go into the languid plum room, as though we were planning on slouching
together. Then again, the yellow room was ridiculously upbeat.
“What do you think?” I asked, shifting my steaming paper cup from hand to hand.
“Wanna just go to the park and drink these?” Susie asked.
We ended up sitting on a bench at City Park, shivering in our coats and hanging our
heads over the coffee cups for warmth. Then Susie said she had to get home and put the
chicken in the oven for Bill. I lied and said that Ann was expecting me back at any minute.
Susie and I began to get coffee a few days a week after work, each time promising
that we would sit in the Decompression Café and drink it. After all, wasn’t that what you
were supposed to do when you were feeling blue? According to The Deepest Eye, we were
not supposed to be ashamed of our condition; we were supposed to embrace it and then move
onward. Onward to what, I wondered? Once I got rid of this dull, hazy feeling, would I be
able to move up in my job, from editorial advisor to assistant editor? Would I be able to talk
to Ann about our marriage? Have the guts to talk to little Mikey about sex? Finally fix the
We would get as far as the beaded curtain, and something would flicker inside me,
some little flutter in my kidney or my stomach. And Susie would look at me, and we’d both
start to smile, and then we’d laugh and shrug and turn and walk to the park instead. We must
have sat on that freezing cold bench at least twenty times. I tried to tell Ann about the silly
scenario I’d gotten myself into.
“You know Susie at my work?” I said one night as Ann pulled back the covers. I was
already in bed, reading a car magazine.
“Hmm. I think so.” Ann shifted around, patting her pillow, moving it up a bit, pulling
the blanket up under her armpits.
“Well, the funniest thing happened,” I began. But the words in my head suddenly
seemed lop-sided, lame. If they came out, it would be a big mess, like something spilled on
the bed, like toast crumbs that you can never completely sweep off the sheets. How would I
word it? Susie suggested— No, we decided— That was too intimate. There’s a new coffee
“There’s this new coffee place. Have you seen it? Decompression Café?”
“Hmmm. No, I don’t think so.” Ann’s eyes were closed. She’d tilted her head just
slightly away from me, her cheeks a little pink and shiny from where she’d scrubbed with the
washcloth and then dabbed the night cream under her eyes and onto her cheeks. Her short
blond curls were spread out on the pillow.
“Well, it looks neat…”
She closed her eyes, was biting her bottom lip. I touched her cheek, hoping to stroke
away the past, all my mistakes, but she turned her head away. The words I’d wanted to tell
her slowly sank down, like rocks thrown into the river, getting smaller and darker as they
Depression seemed to be a flu everyone was catching. Everyone except Ann and the
kids. While men and women at work and in the coffee shop were as pale as bleached sheets,
Ann was blushing up her cheeks with rosy powder, puffing her hair into curvy shapes with
hairspray. Mikey was pink from playing soccer. Julie was pink from screaming through her
poor swollen teething gums. I was pale from sitting in the cube all day, blinking under
flickering fluorescent bars of light.
When I looked in the mirror in the mornings before work, I leaned my head down and
peered upwards, straining my eyeballs, trying to get a glance at the top of my head. Surely,
there were a few more hairs missing every day, a few gray ones scattered in there? Was that a
patch of pink skull showing through? Ann told me I was being silly, that I never aged. She
said this while she brushed her hair, pulling the silver plastic brush down and down again,
rough strokes. I asked her if this hurt, but she said it helped stimulate the scalp.
I kept bringing up the depression thing, hoping to get deeper into its roots, but the
conversation never seemed to go anywhere. Ann was always busy cooking or gardening or
knitting. She acted like she wasn’t listening.
“You know who was depressed?” Ann asked me one Sunday morning. We were
sitting outside on the deck. Mikey and his friend from next door kicked a soccer ball across
the front yard and chased it, screaming and waving their arms back and forth like wound-up
toys. Julie slept against Ann’s chest, her chubby baby arms curled under her, turtle-like.
I looked up from my newspaper.
“Who was depressed?”
“My great aunt Sophie.”
I turned the page to the sports section. “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah. Her husband left her. She worked all day at the hospital and then she came
home and cooked dinner for the kids. Then she sat in front of the television until midnight
and went to bed.”
“So how do you know she was depressed?”
“She didn’t want to talk to anyone. She stopped calling my mom. She stopped calling
Aunt Jen. She didn’t want to go out anywhere. She just wanted to work and sit. They tried to
give her drugs, but she wouldn’t take them.” Ann rubbed her forehead, eyes closed. “She
wanted to deal with it in own way.”
“But how did they know she was depressed?” I needed something to grasp, something
Ann shook her head. “Who wouldn’t be depressed with a life like that?”
“But how do you know?”
“I just do.” Ann stood up quickly, her hand on the back of Julie’s head, holding her
close. “It’s obvious.”
She turned to walk back inside the house, and I realized she had on a new outfit—the
pink skirt touched her kneecaps and the white shirt emphasized her small waist. I wished I’d
mentioned it earlier.
“There are lots of depressed people everywhere,” she called from the living room. “A
lot worse off than you.”
About four months after I’d read The Deepest Eye, Susie and I tried again to sit inside
the Decompression Café. We’d been getting coffee and sitting in the park on and off again
for weeks. It was almost spring, and the weather was getting warmer. Black clothes had
turned to dark purples and charcoal grays. In the summer, we wouldn’t want to sit in the
outdoor humidity. That particular day, Susie was wearing a deep blue skirt, the color of the
sky when you get really high up in the atmosphere.
“Blues are allowed,” she confided as she sat on my desk, eating her sandwich for
lunch. “After all, blue represents depression, too.”
“Is yours getting any better?” I asked.
She paused and held her hand in front of her, spreading the fingers and looking down
at the blue nails. “Bill got me wrist and ankle weights for our eight-year anniversary.”
“How about you?”
I stared up at the ceiling. Gray square panels covering the whole expanse. Darker gray
water stains. Lighter gray walls. “I’m about the same.”
She slid off the desk and turned to face me.
“Let’s do it today.”
I sat up straight. “You mean…”
“Let’s sit inside the café.”
I clasped my hands on top of the desk. “You think we’re ready?”
Susie nodded. “And I think we should go into the plum room. We’ll never get any
better unless we embrace this thing. Move forward. I took the first step last night. I punctured
the yoga ball with a barbecue skewer.”
I grinned. “Good for you!” I wished I had something to pierce with a barbecue
skewer, maybe Ann’s knitting basket.
After work we walked to the coffee shop, slower than usual. It was as though this
particular walk carried special weight. Today was the day. We would embrace our depression
in the plum room. Susie walked beside me, her short black hair lifting up with the breeze.
Her mascara-clad eyes focused on something up ahead.
The café was bustling, whale noises mingling with sounds of laughter and spoons
clinking. We hadn’t been there for a few weeks, and it seemed like the place had loosened up
a little. The yellow room occupants now slouched in their chairs, sipping lattes and tapping
the tables with pens or fingertips. I peered through the beaded curtain. There was only one
couple in the plum room, an older pair who were giggling over wide-brimmed cappuccino
cups, licking the whipped cream off the tops of each others’ coffees.
“Looks like the yellow room is the place to be,” I said, tilting my head and raising an
eyebrow, trying to look jocular.
Susie frowned and peered through the beaded curtain. She stared for a few seconds
and then turned to face the counter.
“I’ll have a regular coffee,” she told the young man behind the counter.
I stared up at the board, deflated. Usually, I had more to go on than this. Susie would
order something and the name would bounce off me, setting off ideas and contradictions. If
she ordered a “happy” drink, I’d order a disconsolate drink. Hundreds of chalk names were
crammed together up there, the letters running into each other. The names seemed to go on
forever. Latte-mocha-esspresso-granita-americano-grande. Susie was already paying the
man. He turned to me. I closed my eyes and focused on a spot inside my eyelid and then
“I’ll have a raspberry Italian soda,” I said.
We stood at the beaded curtain, drinks in hands.
“Ready?” Susie looked up at me. “Ready to embrace our depression?”
The elderly couple had left. Two teenagers sat on one of the sofas, laughing and
leaning back, the girl’s shiny hair glimmering in the candlelight.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This is a little scary when it comes down to it.”
“I know.” Susie took my elbow but waited for me to lead the way.
It would be too real, stepping into that plum room. It would be like I was accepting
my fate, and then I’d have to move on. And where would I move on to? Ann would be sitting
back in the other room, without me. It was better, I thought, just standing here in the
doorway, in limbo between yellow and plum. Susie stared at me.
“I don’t know, Susie.”
She bit her lip, like Ann had done that night when I’d tried to tell her the truth about
all this. Ann was probably back at the house now, getting the supper ready, wondering where
I was. Or not wondering at all.
“Let’s do it then,” I said. And we stepped into the plum room, into the whale noises, a
slow, humming, moaning sound that reminded me of the way Ann murmured in her sleep.
And I thought about the way she’d moaned when I’d come home late that night, a year ago,
and her red-rimmed eyes and the smoke and perfume mingled on my trench coat that stank
up the room and still seemed to cling to every piece of furniture.
“After all,” I told Suzy, who was taking off her coat and laying it across the end of a
purple sofa. “We have to fight this thing.”
Dad was lying down in the hotel. The heat was starting to get to him, and so was the
car and motorcycle exhaust. And the non-stop beeping and the hawkers always trying to sell
us something—postcards, straw hats, shoe shines, anything. I was just as much a target as he
was. I learned after the first two days that saying nothing was better than trying to reply in
Vietnamese. "Khong mua" only brought on a conversation, a pleading and bargaining about
why I needed those postcards of the French Quarter so badly. They were only 5,000 dong,
after all, only about 30 cents for eight.
So, now I just shook my head. They knew I was a tourist, despite the straight dark
hair and dark eyes from my mom. I got the size of my arms from my dad—tree trunk stumps,
or pork sausages—and my broad shoulders and my five foot eight inches. There was no
mistaking my hulking shape for a diminutive Vietnamese woman.
I walked slowly down the street, trying to check out the stores without making eye
contact. Mimi, my Vietnamese college roommate back in the States, had told me I should get
a manicure and head massage from one of the numerous hair salons near our hotel.
"Hey, hey! Postcards, postcards real cheap!" A little boy ran beside me, looking up at
me and then at the street so that he wouldn't get run over by a motor scooter. He wore a white
flappy tee shirt and brown shorts and no shoes. His legs were skinnier than my wrist bones.
"Postcards, postcards!" he shouted. I shook my head and kept walking.
"Come on! Postcards real cheap!" He squinted at me and tried it in Vietnamese.
"Khong mua," I said, and then bit my lip. He spurted out a stream of conversation and
pulled at my arm. I kept shaking my head and looked up to see a store ahead with a sign in
the shape of a giant pair of scissors.
"I have to go," I said and ran toward the store.
Bells jingled as I pushed open the dusty glass door. The shop was narrow and long,
and there were four or five chairs in front of a mirrored wall where people could get their hair
cut. A woman in a black ao dais swept up to me, and I saw that through all her face powder
and lipstick, she had to be at least 60 years old.
"You want manicure?" She asked. I nodded.
She was staring at my eyes and then my hair, trying to figure out what exactly I was.
I'd been mistaken for Mexican, Peruvian, Hawaiian, and even Aborigine. I was curious to see
what she'd come up with.
I felt my mouth go dry. She looked me up and down, noticing my thick thighs and
"Uh, no. No, I'm American."
"Oh. You look like you Vietnamese."
She led me to the back of the shop, through a doorway and into a tiny dark room with
two sinks and chairs with neck rests. There was a long crack across one wall and a yellow
water stain on the ceiling. She motioned for me to sit down and then waved to a young
woman who had been sitting on a darkened staircase in the hallway. Then she turned back to
me, all smiles.
"She be here soon. Relax."
I slid further down the black vinyl chair, and she gently pushed my head back against
the plastic groove on the sink. I thought about lying in that little back room with a strange
woman massaging my head and tried to sit up again.
"No, I just want a manicure, not a head massage."
“I know, I know.” The woman kept her hand on my head and switched on the warm
water. It felt really good after the heat and dust of the day, and I felt my backbone and
shoulders melt into the chair.
"This help you relax," the woman said, beaming down at me and nodding. She put a
dollop of something cold onto my head and began rubbing it into my scalp. The tips of her
fingernails dug into my skin, and all the hairs on the back of my neck seemed to lay down
and go to sleep. I closed my eyes. It would only be an extra couple of dollars, after all.
Someone took my left hand and started filing my nails. I opened my eyes and saw the
young woman from the stairs sitting on a stool beside me, looking down at my hand, her
head tilted to one side and her mouth opening and closing around a piece of gum. Her nails
were shiny purple. She said something to the woman massaging my head, and I caught the
words “hands” and “Asian” from my limited vocabulary. I concentrated on the water stain on
The young woman snapped the gum in her mouth and looked up at me, giving a fake
smile. Then she looked at my shorts. There was a slight bulge under the pocket where I'd
sewn the money pouch to the inside of my waistband. I had a shoulder bag as a distraction,
where I kept a few bills and a water bottle. It was on the floor beside my chair. I tried to keep
my body relaxed.
She said something to the older woman, who was vigorously pulling at my hair. As
they spoke, I caught the words “money” and “upstairs.” The young woman nodded and
laughed, and my heart start to hammer out a low rhythm in my chest. Her eyes darted
towards the floor, where my bag was. If I let my mind wander, it would creep into every dark
vein and crevice, and I would start sweating and shaking. So, I would just keep calm. I'm
bigger than them, I thought. I have the advantage.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting with a towel on my head in a boxy upstairs room. A
tiny disco ball hung from the ceiling, sending white and blue and gold circles of light across
the dark room. The older woman told me that this was where they would dry and comb my
She left the room and went through a doorway across the hall covered by a curtain. I
heard clumping footsteps, and three people filed into the curtained room—two old men and a
woman in a tight red tee shirt and long black skirt. I shivered, thinking of the stories Mimi
had told me about special "bargains" men could get in the back rooms of hair salons.
A smiling man entered my room, carrying a basin of water. He bowed slightly and sat
down at my feet, first placing the basin on the floor. Then he took off my sandals and lifted
my feet into the water.
"Uh," I began, holding my feet straight out in front of me. "I didn't ask for a foot
The man smiled and took hold of my feet again, gently pushing them into the water.
"But I don't want a foot massage," I began. "Uh, khong foot massage."
He looked up at me and grinned, revealing small wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.
He was older than I had first thought, maybe late 30's or early 40's. It was hard to tell. He
nodded and held my feet under the water, not forcefully but firmly. After all, it wasn't his
fault, I reasoned. The old woman probably told him to do it.
He towel-dried my legs and began slowly pressing his fingers into the balls and heels
of my feet. I held my breath, thinking of my boyfriend Jake, sulking at home in his red brick
apartment. Then the man started massaging my calves with his knuckles, moving his hands
like a sculptor’s molding clay, kneading my muscles. And I stopped thinking about Jake and
forgot to watch my bag and to keep my shoulders hunched together. Instead, I let my head
fall back against the little sofa and closed my eyes, imagining what it would be like to be
married to this man. I wouldn't need kids, I wouldn't need family; all I needed were those
My mind rolled smoothly along, as liquid as lake water, and I began thinking about
my mother. She had flickered in and out of my life like a candle flame. By the time I was six,
she was gone, and all I could remember of her was a shiny flap of black hair that I used to
think was like a magic curtain, flipping up and down for me. She'd hold me on her lap, and
I'd put my arm around her neck, pushing back the curtain so that I could feel the heat from
her skin. After her suicide, there were two ways I could think of her—before and after, my
mother and that sharp foreign woman who left before I’d even learned how to read properly.
I wondered how my dad was doing back at the hotel. He'd smiled as we got off the
plane, holding my arm while I stumbled through the grimy airport, the floor seeming to move
like water under me. The man at customs had barked questions at us, and I’d sweated in my
blue jeans, remembering all the stories about drugs and bribes and prisons with dirt floors
and holes for toilets. Then Dad ushered me into a taxi van, through the noisy streets of Hanoi,
into the air-conditioned hotel before I had a chance to remember where I was.
"We even have a television," he'd said, nudging me. "Now you can watch all your
"Oh, please!” I'd thrown my backpack on a chair and had slumped onto one of the
twin beds. My dad sat watching me, his cheeks pink and his blonde wispy hair sticking up
from where he'd tried on one of the straw conical hats in the street.
"Let's go see the water puppet theater tonight," he said. "Your mom always talked
"I guess we could."
He frowned at me. "You don't seem too excited."
I shrugged. "I'm exhausted. I have 16 mosquito bites. I feel like a giant mutant
He looked down at the floor then and put his hands on his knees. He sat like that for a
few moments, and I didn’t know if he was crying or thinking or had fallen asleep. I ignored
him and took my camera out of the suitcase. You didn't want to leave anything valuable lying
around, Mimi had told me, in case the hotel workers searched your bags while you were out.
We spent our first evening in the hotel room, recovering from the flight and looking
through guidebooks. I promised my dad that we'd go to the water puppet theater another
night, and he promised me that he wouldn’t buy me one of those straw hats. The next day we
sprayed ourselves with mosquito repellant and then wandered around Hanoi, gazing at Hoan
Kiem Lake and lighting incense at the temple, Den Ngoc Son. We walked down the wide
streets of the French Quarter, skirting the miniature plastic tables and chairs of makeshift
sidewalk “cafes.” I succumbed and bought two packets of post cards from a little toddler girl
wearing a blue baseball cap. My dad kept saying how beautiful everything was and bought a
bouquet of lotus flowers, even though we didn't have anywhere to put them in the hotel
"Your mom loved these flowers," he told me as we sat down in a little touristy
Internet café for lunch. He rubbed the long stalks of the flowers and stared at their white
bulb-like shapes. I looked out the window, rolling my eyes at a couple of western tourists—a
white man with blond dreadlocks and a skinny white woman with long stringy brown hair
and obviously no bra under her brown tank top. Probably trying to find themselves, I thought.
"Adele." My dad put his hand on mine, and I turned to look at him. His eyes were
wet, and I felt my throat tighten up. I shook my head and looked away.
"Adele," he’d said again and squeezed my hand. "It's time to stop being angry."
My dad never said much, but his words could stick into me like needles.
The man was pounding the bottoms of my feet with his fist, a wholesome "thunk" that
sent a pleasant jolt up through my body, aligning my bones. He smiled at me, and I grinned
back, feeling not exactly attractive but at least interesting. I wondered if it was a nice change
for him, massaging a bigger-boned woman, and then I remembered that most local
Vietnamese couldn't afford to get this done; this was a luxury. My dad had said that Mom
used to work on the street, selling bun bo and grilled pork, the smoke wafting through her
hair and grease spitting back at her. They met when Dad was teaching English as a Second
Language at our local community college. On their first date, he took her out for a steak
dinner, and she taught him how to make stars out of strips of paper.
Now, the man was spreading pink lotion up my legs. He stopped above my knees and
brought his hands down the insides of my calves, smoothing the lotion into my skin. He
concentrated on his art, moving his hands carefully, not putting them in the wrong places at
the wrong time. Then he stood up and picked up the water basin.
"Gam un," I said, and he smiled again and left the room. I put my sandals back on and
was about to stand up when the old woman came in. She had a folded towel in her hand, and
when she saw me, she stretched her arm out.
"Sit down," she said, and I lowered myself onto the couch, remembering that she was
supposed to brush my hair. The younger woman came in, carrying a hair dryer. They took the
towel off my head and began brushing and drying my hair in a hurried manner, yanking it
and pulling their combs through it.
"Ouch!" I cried, but the women pretended not to understand this foreign word.
"Special treatment," the older woman said, leaning forward and touching my eyelid.
"We give you eye lash perm."
I blinked. They wanted to perm my eyelashes? Visions of vats of acid and noxious
perming chemicals filled my head, and I imagined returning to the hotel with eye patches and
a walking cane, my dad running towards me crying, "What did they do to you?"
"No thank you," I told the older woman. They’d stopped yanking at my hair, so I
began to stand up again.
"You sit down!" The woman grabbed both my shoulders and pushed me back down
on the sofa. "We give you special treatment!" She pushed her face right into mine and
seemed to growl at me. I gulped and stared back at her.
"But I don't want—"
"You sit down!"
My heart started jiggling up and down in my chest, and I suddenly remembered that
my dad didn't know where I was. I'd told him I was going to walk around the lake, and then
halfway there, I'd changed my mind and thought, to hell with the lake. I wanted a manicure
to treat myself and to spite my dad for being so sentimental about the temple and its stupid
turtle with the magic sword.
I grabbed my purse and tried to stand up again. The older woman came right at me
and pushed me back into the seat. She leaned over me, her hands on top of mine.
"Let me go!" I yelled, my heart thumping in my ears. I shook myself from side to side
and kicked my legs, trying to get loose, but the old woman was like iron, pinning me down at
the wrists, and was too close to get hurt by my kicks. She babbled something in Vietnamese
to the other woman, but the only word I understood was “crazy.”
I tried pulling up my knees, but as soon as she saw them lifting, the old woman sank
down onto my lap. Her little frame was like a boulder, cutting into me. Then I felt the warm
cloth on my nose and lips and saw nothing but whiteness. My heart did a nosedive, and I
suddenly saw my dad, standing over my grave, crying and dropping a white rose onto my
coffin. I smelled something flowery and tried to hold my breath, but the scent was making its
way into my chest somehow, and finally I realized I was gasping, and that's when I felt
myself getting smaller and smaller and the women's voices around me were echoing from a
long way away.
My head ached when I woke up; I touched it and opened my eyes. I was lying on a
green sofa, facing a cracked plaster wall speckled with colors. Gradually, I heard women
speaking in Vietnamese, their voices high-pitched and blurry, undistinguishable as birds
chattering. I sat up and looked down at my feet and remembered the foot massage. I smiled.
Then I felt a stabbing in my chest. My little shoulder bag was on my lap. I stood up, head
"You okay?" The young woman from earlier stood in the doorway, watching me.
My face felt hot, and I wanted to cry more than anything, but I bit my lip and nodded.
"Hoan!" she yelled.
The older woman came running up the stairs, her sandals slapping against the
concrete. She looked worried; her cheeks seemed drawn into her face.
"Oh!" she cried and came over to me. She took my hand. "You sick! You…not feel
Yeah, right, I thought. I wanted to check my money pouch and see how much was
gone. What if they'd taken my passport? My dad would kill me! But first, I needed to get out
of this store. The older woman was gripping my hand, staring at me with wide brown eyes.
"I'm fine," I said, pulling my hand free. I grabbed my purse and began walking
toward the stairs, the exit, freedom.
"Oh!" she said again. "Ah… you better now?"
"Yes, I'm fine," I said, walking quickly down the stairs. The older woman followed
"Wait!" she cried. I ignored her and pushed past a swivel chair. The woman cursed in
Vietnamese and cried out to a man standing nearby who was cutting a black man's hair. The
man called to me in a clear English accent, “Ah, Miss, you have not paid yet.”
I stopped and looked down at my shorts. I put my hand in my pocket and felt through
the lining to the bulge that held my money pouch. There was the outline of my passport, and
there was the paper bundle of bills. I opened my shoulder bag and looked in my change
purse. My money was still there. I put my hand on my chest and turned around, catching my
reflection in the mirror. My hair was smooth and spotless, a sheath of dark brown from the
deep conditioner and combing. I looked at my nails—dark rose and glimmering like pearl
"I forgot to pay?"
The woman stopped and took a deep breath and nodded. Then she folded her arms
and asked for twice the price on the display card for a manicure, head massage, and foot
massage. I took out a pile of bills and handed them to her.
"You come back soon," she said, grinning widely.
Not in a million years, I thought, and pushed through the glass door. The sun was
going down in the perpetually gray sky, but if felt just as hot and humid as it had earlier. I
looked at my watch and realized that I’d only been gone for about an hour. At the corner of
the street, a woman was sitting on a tiny plastic stool, grilling something deliciously sweet
and smoky. My stomach rumbled. I'd only eaten a bowl of noodles in the morning, and then
I'd skipped lunch because I hadn't liked the look of any of the places my dad kept suggesting.
They were all filthy.
A blast of coldness from the air conditioner hit me as I opened the door to our room.
My dad was asleep. I sat down on my bed, and the room shifted a little. I was dizzy, from jet
lag and hunger, and I felt more ashamed than relieved. Probably the smell on the cloth had
been some sort of essential oil that was supposed to calm people down.
"Hey, Adele." My dad was stirring. "Where d'you go?"
"Got my nails done," I said, holding up my hands. "And got a head and foot
He sat up and stared at my nails. Then he looked at my hair, and my face got pink. I
rubbed my forehead and thought about how anything could have happened while I was
passed out in that place. Things happened all the time. People were mugged and kidnapped.
People died. I could have ended up in a ditch with no clothes and no money. Anything could
have happened, and neither of us could have done a thing about it.
“I had a kind of panic attack,” I said.
My dad put his arm out. I went and sat beside him on his bed, letting my hair fall
across my face.
“You look nice,” he said, “a lot like your mother.”
He squeezed my shoulder and I thought, what the hell, and started crying like a little
baby, big gasping breaths and blubbery tears, groaning and moaning. My dad just sat and
patted my head.
When I finally stopped wheezing and snuffling, he handed me a tissue and said, "Let's
get some bun bo." He took me down the street to where that woman was grilling the sweet,
smoky pork, and we each had three skewers and two bun bo. And I think that was the best
food I had eaten in a long time.
The year after my wife Susan died, I led a quiet life. I met my older sister Dorothy for
lunch once a week at Gus’ for greasy hot dogs and bitter coffee with powdered milk instead
of cream. I was on sick leave from work. My boss caught me staring out the wall-length
windows in the hallway too many times, leaning with my forehead pressed up against the
glass, watching the trees outside moving in the breeze. He sat me down in his office one
morning and said maybe I should think about taking some time off.
Dorothy and I met on Fridays, the day she came into town to do her antique shopping
at the mall on Maple Street. We’d go through the same conversation every time.
“How are things, Shawn?” she’d ask, pouring two spoonfuls of creamer into her
coffee and eyeing my bed-head hair.
“Same.” I’d try to pat down the brown tufts sticking up like little wings.
“You getting enough sleep?” She’d frown and look over her glasses at me the way
Mom used to do when I was a kid and my collar was folded the wrong way.
“I’m okay.” I spent the nights sitting cross-legged on the carpet organizing my
baseball card collection. Sometimes I’d pull back the bedroom curtain and look at the birch
trees, bare and frosty-pale under the streetlight. I’d try to sketch them—I used to do pencil
drawings in middle school—but my trees always looked lopsided and stilted, like cardboard
cutouts, instead of living things.
“Any news?” She’d ask.
“The bastards don’t know what they’re missing.”
Susan’s family was mad at me, of course. Mad because I was alive, because I’d let
her drive that night, and the Toyota truck had crunched into her side of the car instead of
mine. I’d had a few tequila shots at the Johnson’s Christmas party, and Susan had put her
hand in the front pocket of my brown corduroys and pulled out the car keys before I could
And I’d taken Susan off life support. It was too much to look at her, pale as the
sheets, arms and legs limp, hands like delicate slices of cold meat. She’d wanted to die. We’d
discussed it and put it in our wills. If one of us turned into a vegetable, the other was to pull
the plug. No soggy vegetables for us. Whenever I called the house to try to explain, her father
would quietly murmur that this wasn’t a good time.
“Come with me to the antique mall,” Dorothy said one Friday. I’d filled the morning
hours by walking downtown, studying the mannequins in the windows of Kirby’s. The
plastic males were out-of-date in their brown nylon jackets and yellow shirts. Smudges of
gray dust stained their prosthetic noses. The women fared only slightly better in red plastic
smocks and white ankle boots, arms poking up toward the sky as if to ward off the storms. It
was the type of outfit I’d joke about buying Susan as we strolled down the street on Sunday
afternoons. “Don’t worry,” I’d say. “I’ve already put the smock on layaway.”
“You never know what you’re going to find,” Dorothy said, pulling her long gray hair
into a ponytail with both hands. She’d let it grow long after her 50th birthday, said she didn’t
want it to look as if she was trying too hard to be young.
“I’ll probably find some fleas.”
“Oh, shush!” Dorothy tossed her napkin at me. “Maybe you’ll find a piece of
equipment for your motorcycle, some spark plugs or a radiator…” She waved her hands in
the air. “Last time I went with Angie, she paid $10 for this mystery trunk. Belonged to an old
guy who’d passed away; he kept it in the attic.” She paused and took a bite of her BLT and
then continued talking with her hand over her mouth.
“Angie had to break open the padlock with a crow bar, and inside the trunk was an
autograph book. You wouldn’t believe it.” She shook her head. “Laurel and Hardy, Harry
Houdini, you name it; it was there. That thing must be worth a fortune!”
“So, did Angie sell it?” I asked, turning my spoon slowly in my coffee.
“No way. She said she’s going to keep it for her kids. It’s an investment.” Dorothy
rubbed a toast crumb off her chin and then tapped her bottom lip, as though checking her
cherry-colored lipstick was still there. “Can you believe it?”
“Better than mothballs,” I said, and Dorothy poked me in the arm with her plastic
“You need to get out more.”
I went antique shopping with Dorothy the following Friday. Susan and I had lived in
Roxville for five years, attended the same college, and later married at the First Baptist
Church. But I’d never once been in the old antique mall.
Dorothy led me through the front room, warm from the trapped sunlight and the gas
heater in the corner. The place smelled like dust and old boots that have been left on the
porch too long. I could see the putty crumbling in the window frames and imagined the glass
sliding and banging in the next thunderstorm.
“The best stuff’s down here,” Dorothy said, pointing to the stairs at the corner of the
room. “Not as picked over.” She nodded to the old man who was polishing a set of antique
pistols near the cash register. He looked as old as the creaky floorboards, and gave a husky,
“Hello, Mrs. Woodard,” as we swept past.
Downstairs was a labyrinth of shelving and old furniture. I had to take of my coat and
turn sideways to slip past the shelves of paperbacks and cookie tins filled with postcards and
photographs. I held my arms tight to my chest when I sneezed so as not to accidentally
dislodge a china cup and saucer from on top of a wobbly glass display. Dorothy disappeared,
sucked into the cave of 30-watt dust and mildew.
I found a prickly green couch and sank onto it, hoping the wooden legs wouldn’t
buckle. On one arm of the couch was yet another tin filled with used postcards. I put it on my
lap and began flipping through. There were a few odd ones from places I’d never heard of—
Knaresborough and Traverse City.
“Dear Anna, you really should have come with us. The beach is lovely. I can’t
understand why you didn’t want to come. John hasn’t even been around—he’s too busy
looking at all the boats in the harbor. And Mother actually said this was a ‘fairly decent’
place to visit. I almost fainted when she said that!”
I smiled and looked at the picture of the harbor on the front of the postcard. The water
was so blue it was iridescent; the white boats looked plastic. The postmark said June 15,
1962, ten years before I was born. Eleven years before Susan was born.
I walked over to the rack of military uniforms, dresses, and thick fur coats. One by
one, I slipped my hands into the deep pockets, my arms disappearing in the cool silkiness. I
found a mother-of-pearl button and a faded receipt, so worn it was petal-soft; I stared at it for
a few moments, trying to decipher the pale inky fragments, wondering what the person had
In the middle of the rack, between a white lace cocktail dress from the 1920s and a
heavy green officer’s uniform, was a plastic garment bag. I heaved the bag off the rack and
draped it over a nearby chair. Then I unzipped the bag slowly. Under the plastic was a bright
red coat with gold buttons, the wool soft but tight; it reminded me of pictures I’d seen of
English soldiers during the Revolutionary War.
I pulled the coat out and shook it a couple of times to see if any dust floated upwards,
but it looked clean, as if the last owner had carefully steamed and pressed it. I put my arm in
one sleeve, then the other, and slid the coat up slowly over my shoulders. There was a gold-
framed mirror propped up against a metal file cabinet, and I strode over to it, taking wider
steps than usual. My shoulders were broad under the fitted coat, and the lapels pointed down
to my waist, making me seem taller. I liked the way the gray collar stopped abruptly at the
edge of my hair, like a cutoff point, a margin that told people when to stop looking at me and
start looking at the fox hunter that stood before them.
Dorothy said she couldn’t understand it. After just one trip to the antique mall, I’d
turned into a completely different person. I started trolling flea markets and looking through
the papers for estate auctions. I hadn’t once offered to change the oil in her station wagon or
rotate the tires. She said she worried that I had split down the middle into two personalities
and that this new personality might turn out to be a woman.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said on the phone to her one night. “It’s just a hobby.”
“Mrs. Dobbins in the bookstore said she saw you trying on women’s hats!”
“They were military hats,” I said, rubbing my eyes. “Mrs. Dobbins needs to get new
“So, you’re not turning into a transvestite?”
“What about your motorcycle? What about your sports?”
“I still like football.”
“Why don’t you get together with your old friends at work and get a flag football
team started. Wouldn’t you like that better?”
“You wanted me to have a hobby! You’re always calling me a hermit, telling me I
need to get out more.”
“I do, Shawn. I do want you to enjoy things…” Her voice trailed off, and I heard her
two rottweiler’s scampering around, their claws pattering against the kitchen linoleum. “But
why old clothes? It’s not…you.”
“I don’t know. It’s fun, looking at bits of people’s lives.”
I liked trying on army hats—rigid navy triangles and green camouflage cups that
hung like heavy hands over my eyes. The women’s dresses looked tiny, like they were made
for twelve-year old girls, not full-blooded women with hips and breasts. I bought a pair of
black lace gloves and left them on Susan’s grave for a few minutes. Then I brought them
home and put them with the rest of her things.
“You can have it all,” I had told her mother after I packed up all Susan’s belongings
the week after she died. It was too hard having them in the house with me, like a nagging
headache, and I didn’t want to have to haggle over who got what. “They’re all yours,” I said,
hoping this would somehow atone for my survival. But my mother-in-law only nodded and
walked into the kitchen to use the phone, calling Abe to come by with his truck to pick up the
As I groped through dusty shelves of women’s shoes from the 1940s, I wished I’d
kept more of Susan’s things, like her favorite pair of pearl earrings and the small stash of
romance novels she and her college friends had traded during bad breakups. In the weeks
after her death, I found little things—underwear stuck in the corner of the drier, a pair of flip
flops she’d worn in the back yard, recipes she’d scribbled on the backs of shopping lists
stuck in the aluminum foil drawer. I’d put them all in a shoebox.
I drove past the cemetery again that week, early Sunday morning when everyone else
was at church. The place was deserted, except for one old man in green rubber boots,
clipping down the dried honeysuckle and kudzu vines still clinging to the fence. This time, I
would drive right up to Susan’s grave and look at it.
I was idling at the entrance gate with both hands on the wheel, watching a robin carry
feathers and bits of string up to its nest, when someone tapped on my half-open window.
“Everything all right?” The old man peered at me, the lenses in his wire glasses
shining so I couldn’t see his eyes.
“Yeah, yeah! Fine.” I flushed and jerked the truck into reverse.
“Didn’t mean to chase you off,” the man called. But I was already halfway to the
When I got home, I pulled out the foxhunting outfit I’d bought at the antique mall—
the red coat with a mustard-colored vest, white jodhpurs, and a white scarf with fox-head
pin—and laid it on the bed to inspect it once more. I’d checked a book out the library,
paintings of English hunting scenes, and knew that I only needed a few more things to
complete the look. The hunters carried black riding crops and crouched forward on their
horses. I liked the men’s fierce, sharp expressions as they stared into the wilderness, fixing
the fox in their sights.
I wondered what Susan would have thought of me starting my own collection. She’d
collected pottery—jugs, coffee mugs, plates with swirls of blue and red and exploding
crystals. One weekend, she’d persuaded me to take her to Seagrove for some sort of special
sale. “Shawn, just look at this piece,” she’d said, holding up what looked like a bent beer can
made of clay. “Isn’t it beautiful?” This was the third pottery place we’d been to, and I was
full-to-the-brim of witty things to say about everything.
“What in the hell is that? A pissing pot?” I’d said, too loudly, making the clerk at the
counter jerk his head up and scowl. Susan turned red and quickly put the crooked blob back
on the shelf.
“Let’s get out of here before you get us kicked out.” She gave a quick smile to the
clerk and then marched out to the car. She got in the passenger seat and pressed her hands on
“Hon, I was just kidding…” I reached out to stroke her hair, but she slapped my hand
away. “Come on, Susan…”
She began reading one of the leaflets she’d picked up at the information center. “I
want to go home now.”
“Hon, let’s go to the next one. I’m just kidding around…” I had tried to grab her chin
and gently pull her toward me, but she’d jerked her head to the side. She gave me the silent
treatment for the rest of the afternoon and never asked me to take her to Seagrove again.
I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes. It was easier to lie there with the uniform
and all those books piled on the other side, as though the bed was only meant for one person.
Dorothy called me on my cell phone while I was in a little antique place outside
Winston-Salem. I had just bought a brass watch with a chain for $7. The name “B.
Wheelaghan” was carved in script on the dented back, and I thought it would make a nice
addition to my collection.
“Joe can get us three tickets for the Panthers game on Saturday,” Dorothy said,
gasping as though she had just run up a flight of stairs. “Sorry! The dogs got loose….”
I polished the face of the watch on my sleeve. “Thanks, but I’m busy Saturday. Got a
hot lead on a pair of boots.”
“Boots? What kind of boots?”
“For my collection.”
“Collection of what? What on earth are you talking about, Shawn?”
On Saturday, I drove up to a Virginia equestrian outfitter advertised on the Internet.
There, I found long black leather boots with brown tops, leaning forward like two Irish
Setters; I was told they’d belonged to a real English foxhunter, back in the 1950s. The only
problem now was the pants; they were made for someone taller than five-foot-ten and
bumped out of the top of my boots like oversized stockings.
“Could you help me with something?” I asked Dorothy the next time we met for
lunch at Gus’. “It’s a sort of feminine thing.” I paused. “I mean, something you might be
Dorothy ripped open two packets of sugar and poured them into her coffee. “Okay…”
she said carefully.
I took the paper bag from under my seat and put it on the table.
“Wait!” Dorothy held up both hands. “Before I agree to anything, you have to agree
to come over for dinner tonight. Joe’s going out of town for a Unix conference, and you can
keep me company.”
I waited, twisting the paper handles of the bag together. I hadn’t been out to
Dorothy’s house since before Susan died. The table would no longer be set for six, but I
would still see Susan sitting there, laughing and stirring the gravy, saying she knew we
should’ve brought the extra bottle of wine.
“No excuses this time. You come tonight, and then you can ask me about whatever it
I listened to the country music stations as I drove to Dorothy’s house that evening,
changing the channel every time one of Susan’s favorite songs came on.
“You say it best, when you say nothing at all.” Allison Krauss’ sweet voice lilted
through the truck. I thought about Susan trying to copy her in the shower, singing into the bar
of Ivory and closing her eyes, the hot water dripping down her cheeks and off the tip of her
nose. I quickly switched the radio off.
Dorothy’s house was off the main highway, tucked back in the woods like a potter’s
cabin. She and Joe didn’t like neighbors and they didn’t like paved roads, so the drive up to
their ranch-style house would shake out any loose fillings and make you wish you’d gone to
the bathroom earlier.
Dorothy stood at the front door as I opened the truck and pulled out my garment bag
and big paper sack.
“The prodigal son returns!” she yelled and folded her arms. “Now, what’s in the bag?
The suspense is killing me.”
I shuffled up to the house. “You have somewhere I can spread this out?”
She led me quickly through the house, and I fixed my eyes on the shag carpet. The
house smelled of chicken soup and apple-scented potpourri. We reached the sunroom at the
back, a porch Joe had transformed into a solarium, and I stood for a few seconds in the
doorway. Susan and I had once made love on the floor in this room, while we were house
sitting. Dorothy had placed a blue rug on the gray carpet, on top of the very spot we had held
“You can use the patio table,” Dorothy said, turning to look out the window.
I laid out the jacket, the vest, and the pants. I took the helmet and the boots out of the
paper sack and put them at either end of my creation. When I was finished, it looked like a
foxhunter had been flattened by a bulldozer. Dorothy stared at the table.
“All right, Shawn,” she said slowly. “How should I react to this? Surprise? Elation?
Call the mental institution?”
I stood by the table and pointed at my flattened hunter. “It’s a fox hunting uniform.”
“Yes, I see that.”
“But the pants are too long. Could you fix them for me? I can’t sew worth shit.”
Dorothy stared at the table. “You want me to fix this for you, so you can wear it?”
“Are you going fox hunting?”
“Nope.” I sat down in the glider by the window. The couch slid smoothly backwards
and forwards, and I remembered how nice it had been to lie there at night and stare at the
stars through the big glass windows.
“Are you taking horse riding lessons?” Dorothy walked slowly toward me, arms
folded as though I was her patient on the couch.
“Is this a Halloween costume?” She tapped her right eyebrow.
“No.” I leaned back and closed my eyes. “I just need the legs fixed, Dorothy, that’s
all. Can you help me with it?”
“Shawn, I’m sorry.” She sat down beside me and put her hand on my knee. “If you
need to talk to me about something, we can talk.”
I shook my head.
“You know me,” Dorothy continued. “I’m not good with touchy feely stuff. I couldn’t
even say anything after Mom died. But I miss Susan, too.”
“I’m fine,” I said, rubbing the back of my neck so I wouldn’t have to look at her.
“But what is all this?” She waved her arm at the table. “What’s happening to my
I shook my head. “Nothing’s happening. I guess I’ll just figure this out on my own.”
We didn’t have much to say to each other over our plates of barbecue and mashed
potatoes that evening. Dorothy talked about the new drapes she’d gotten on sale at Jo Anne’s
Fabrics and said that she hoped it wouldn’t snow again—her camellias wouldn’t stand
That night, I laid the britches on the dining room table, inside out, and stared at the
hand-sewn stitches at the bottom of the legs. I’d watched my mother fix my jeans a long,
long time ago, when I was about eleven. And I remembered how she’d taken out the stitches
and pressed the fabric smooth with her large-knuckled fingers. Then she ironed the denim
and carefully folded the fabric back, not cutting it, “So, you can use them when you get
taller,” she’d said. But it had been Dorothy who’d eventually let out those stitches for me.
With the point of a toothpick, I slowly pulled the white thread from the pinprick
holes, drawing my arm back to release the end of it. It felt good, focusing on that one thing—
just pull out the thread. When I got to the thick wad of stitches at the end of the row, I slipped
the thin edge of my pocketknife under the thread and sliced through it.
Then I took out the ironing board—still in the kitchen closet where Susan had last
used it—and ironed the pants, gently tapping the fabric, so as not to damage or scorch it. I
folded the hems up two inches and ironed them flat. Then I sat at the table, under the
overhanging lamp, and used Susan’s travel kit to sew the cuffs tight.
I phoned Dorothy the next day and told her to meet me at Reilly’s Bar on Eckerd
“This Friday?” Her voice got high, like it does when she’s stalling.
“Yes.” I sat on the couch, trying to decide what to do with an old box of photographs
I’d found in our attic.
“Well, Friday…I don’t know. Joe might want to do something.”
I paused. “Bring him, too.”
“But why? What’s going on?”
“Just a drink, Dorothy. Hell, what’s wrong with a drink? I’m not asking you to go sit
naked in the fountain and sing show tunes.”
“All right, all right. I’ll meet you there at eight. I gotta pick some stuff up from Angie
for the Salvation Army drop box. Her car’s in the shop.”
“Eight o’clock,” I said and hung up.
That Friday night, I dressed with shaking hands. My throat was dry as I put on the
riding pants, then my undershirt, and then the woolen vest. I played classical music loud and
concentrated on the Squire, Mr. Wheelaghan, a man with distant Irish ancestors. He lived in a
stone mansion in England and carried a locket with his wife’s picture around his neck, hidden
beneath an Indian cotton undershirt. I slipped on the red coat, the flaps covering my thighs
and almost hiding the flared jodhpurs, and then looked in the mirror. Not yet.
I wrapped the silk tie around my neck and slowly slid my feet into the narrow boots
that hugged my calves. I did all this slowly, wanting everything to be perfect. Then I placed
the riding cap on my head and stood in front of the mirror, tapping my side with the black
braided leather crop. The coat was taut and smooth against my chest; the red was vibrant next
to the white tie and jodhpurs. I pushed my shoulders back and held my head high. The heavy
black cap pressed reassuringly down on my head, like the iron pin that held everything
I parked in a dark corner under a tree and then stood outside Reilly’s for a couple of
minutes, breathing slowly and staring at the wooden door handles. People would stare, laugh,
probably shout insults at me and tell me to go back to Merry Olde England. But it was only
an outfit, after all; I wasn’t riding into the bar on horseback and waving my crop in the air.
Irish fiddle music and beer fumes rushed at me as I opened the door. I took a few
breaths and then went inside. The place wasn’t packed yet; it was only 7:30, but there were a
few people smoking at the green painted bar and chatting around the cluster of wooden tables
in the middle of the room. I walked down the side of the room, casually and without trying to
attract attention, and slipped into a booth. There were a couple of laughs, but I kept my eyes
straight-ahead, heart thumping.
A man and women sitting at a nearby table gawked at me, their pink faces hovering at
the corner of my eye. Finally, I turned to look at them. The man covered his mouth with his
napkin and stared at his glass of Coke, but the woman gave a little wave. “Nice outfit,” she
called across to me. “I’ve never seen a real riding outfit like that. Is it from England?”
“Yeah,” I said, my voice shaking. I wiped my hands on my napkin. “Pretty much. I
got the boots from a real fox hunter.”
“Do you ride?” She leaned forward, flipping her blond hair over her shoulder with the
back of her hand. “I used to ride when I was younger, but I fell off the horse, and after that I
didn’t have the nerve to go back on.”
I smiled. “Don’t blame you. No, I don’t ride yet, but maybe one day.”
A waitress walked past their table and up to mine. She had short blue hair and a nose
stud and wore a red waitress uniform that said, “Shirley” on the pocket in black embroidered
cursive. I swallowed and tried to think of something to say, but it had been so long since I’d
talked to a woman who wasn’t my sister.
“Hey, Squire,” she said. “Where’s your fox?” Then she grinned, showing a glint of
“Left it at home,” I said, wanting to crawl under the table and die. She saw my riding
crop lying beside my menu and gave a little shriek.
“That’s too cool! You even have the whip and everything.” She laughed. “Are you in
here, looking for foxes.”
I took off my riding cap. “Nope. Just looking for an English stout, please.”
“We’ll have to tell Jake about you. He hates the English.” Shirley patted the table and
then spun around on her heels like Michael Jackson. “One English stout coming up.”
A few minutes later, an old man with a blue checked shirt and a white apron over
jeans ambled up to my table. “Would you look at that? Never seen nothin’ like that, except
on public television.” He had an Irish accent, and I perked up my ears.
“Aye. Jake Reilly.” He stuck out his hand, and I shook it. “And where did you find
this get up?” He sat down opposite me.
“It took me a while,” I said. “I had to buy a lot of it separately.”
He peered under the table. “And you’ve even got the boots, too!”
I nodded. “Yeah, I guess it was kinda like a mission.”
“Aye, it’s a collection you’ve started,” he said. “It’ll grip hold of you now and not let
go. I’m the same with model trains. Got a whole bloody railway station up in the attic.”
Shirley came back with a beer for Jake, and she stood nearby and listened as we
talked about trains and collections. Jake said that he’d owned this bar for 25 years, and this
was the first time he’d seen a foxhunter. I showed him the brass watch with “Wheelaghan”
on the back, and he said it was a very fine piece. Eventually, the nearby couple got up to
leave, and the woman stopped to say goodbye and that she hoped they might see me and my
fox next Friday.
The door opened, and I saw the familiar gray coat. Dorothy slowly walked across the
room, peering around with her lips tight, brown leather gloves in her hands. She straightened
when she saw me.
“That’s my sister,” I told Jake. He looked up. “Oh, aye. A nice-looking lady there. A
bit older than yourself, no?”
“Yeah, I was a late-in-life accident,” I said, laughing.
Dorothy walked closer, looking from me to Jake to the skinny waitress hovering
nearby who half-listened as she wiped the couple’s table. My sister paused, squeezing her
gloves. With her long gray hair and that tight little half-smile, she reminded me so much of
Mom, dropping me off at my first summer camp, watchful and wary as I ran past the parked
cars and toward the open pond where the canoes were lined up like red and blue whistles.
“Come over here, Dorothy.” I waved again. A flicker of pity crossed her face as she
walked towards me, and for a second, I didn’t recognize myself in her eyes any more.
“Shawn,” she said. She put her gloves on the table and stood there, looking down at
I nodded. “It’s me.”
Human for a Day
I live in a one-bedroom apartment inside a gray brick building. The walls are beige,
the carpet is brown, and there’s a chute for trash right outside my door. Tonight, I’m dining
on a frozen chicken Parmesan meal with little chunks of vegetables and meat, all mixed
together under a bright red sauce. This time last year, I was sitting in the dining room with
my now ex-husband, eating a meal I’d cooked from scratch, using the Joy of Cooking and a
little bit of wifely ingenuity.
“Vivian?” Mrs. McNamara lives across the hall. She always calls my name before
knocking on the door, as if preparing me for her arrival. I drag myself off the sofa, plonking
the cardboard meal tray on the coffee table.
“Vivian, did you see our new neighbor?” she asks, handing me an old copy of Soap
Opera Digest. It’s not that I’m an avid fan of soap operas; she just doesn’t want to throw
them away, so she gives them to me to read and throw away.
“What neighbor?” I ask, yawning and pulling my straggly bangs to the side. They’re
too long, and I forgot to make a hair appointment.
“The one in 18B,” she says, folding her arms. Today, she’s wearing a yellow and red
crocheted beret over her gray curly hair. On her bony legs are knee-high black leather boots.
She peers at me over tortoiseshell and rhinestone glasses. Mrs. McNamara is one of the most
obscurely trendy senior citizens I know.
“He’s a professor, Vivian. A professor of anthropology. Probably about your age,
mid-thirties or so.” She nods and waits for my response.
“He had all these boxes and clothes piled up in the hall while he was moving in. How
did you miss him?”
I scratch my head. Probably because I spent most of the morning in the bathtub
reading old letters from Alex I should have thrown away. Mrs. McNamara is searching for
something in her black leather purse; it has a big silver button on the front. Finally, she
shakes her head and gives me a little wave.
“I gotta go get a new library card. It’s gone missing again.”
She ambles down the hall, her small hips turning from side to side as she walks.
There are voices in the hallway later that day, outside my door. I get up from
watching “Wheel of Fortune” on television and stick my eye against the peephole. A young
woman in a green sweater and a short black skirt is standing just to the right of my circle of
vision. She’s smiling and gesturing, tucking her thick brown hair behind one ear. Then I hear
the mumble of a masculine voice, and I picture the professor, wearing the stereotypical tweed
jacket with brown patches sewn over the elbows, clenching a pipe between his teeth and
grinning at the shapely female in front of him.
I flop down onto the sofa and prop my feet up on the coffee table. Last week’s
newspaper is still there—I should really go down to the store and pick up today’s. Then I can
circle the jobs in red that are possibilities and let my heart beat slightly faster as I think of
how I’ll update my resume, planting the appropriate teasers and energizing the tired verbs
from my last job as an archival assistant at the library. But it’s been more than a year since I
quit that job, and I’m still trying to wean myself from Alex’s alimony payments.
For three days, I haven’t left the apartment. Yesterday, I found two more frozen
meals at the back of the freezer and a box of crackers in a drawer, but now I’ve run out of
everything—even cigarettes. All is quiet in the hallway, so I crack open the door and slip out.
My blue plastic raincoat conceals the jeans with the strawberry jam stain and my University
of Michigan tee shirt, practically translucent with wear, which Alex had at one point
threatened to turn into a duster. But I refused to throw it away.
The professor’s door is open, and before I can stop myself, I’m staring through his
doorway at piles of cardboard boxes and a long yellow hallway that smells like fresh paint.
He must have bought the place, I think. There’s a model of a ship on top of a green plastic
crate. I squint at it; wooden, brown with creamy billowing sails.
“Toreador, toreador…” He’s singing from somewhere hidden in the apartment, a rich
baritone that seems to sail through the air in curves and waves, just as his wooden ship would
bounce on the sea. I close my eyes for a second and see little silver fish diving around the
ship, the ocean spraying salt water and mist.
Then I push my head down and march toward the elevator.
Once at the grocery store, my mind seems to switch off, as though watching a terribly
uninspired movie. I roam through the fruit and vegetable section, picking up a salad in a bag,
a cucumber, and a bag of apples. I stare at the broccoli and eggplant, trying to imagine
cooking them, chopping them up and inserting them into dishes. In the butcher section, I pick
up packets of pink and yellow flesh and put them down again. Finally, I grab a packet of cold
The boy who’s bagging my groceries doesn’t make eye contact and forgets to ask me
if I want paper or plastic bags. I end up struggling down the street, my arms around two
There are no messages on the answer machine when I get back, not even one from my
mother, and I try to ignore the prickling sensation behind my eyes. The last time I cried was
two weeks ago, after I drank three margaritas and then tripped over the footstool at the other
side of the couch. On my knees, I’d rubbed the fabric top with my fingertips; Alex had
bought the footstool for me at an antique mall one summer. We’d opened it and found brittle
sheets of violin music marked with penciled bow strokes and little drawings of eyeglasses to
remember the hard spots, like a child might do.
The only thing on television is a movie on the Black Entertainment channel about a
young woman who dreams of becoming a lawyer, but whose issues of self-esteem keep her
from applying to law school. Mrs. McNamara knocks on the door halfway through the
movie. I mute the television and join her in the doorway.
“Well, Vivian, did you know that the Professor collects model ships?” she asks before
I can even say hello. She leans against the doorframe; this time she’s wearing blue suede
ankle boots. Her arms are folded, and I notice how the bone in her wrist sticks out under her
sleeve. We never actually go inside each other’s apartments, just stand in doorways or meet
in the middle of the hall.
“Yes, I saw one of his boats earlier as I was walking past his door,” I say.
“Well, I bet you didn’t know that he has thirty-seven different models.” She raises her
eyebrows. “Some of them he made himself, and some of them he got from his ex-wife.” She
pushes her glasses further up her nose with a skinny finger that has an enormous knuckle.
“Divorced,” she continues. “Has been for four years now. He told me his ex was a
professor, too, in psychology.”
Great, I thought, so his wife was a genius, too. Big deal.
“He teaches cultural anthropology, over at the university, and he was awfully
interested in my book.”
Mrs. McNamara has been working on her book, The Study of Humanity, for the past
fifteen years. It’s a study of the origins of the human species, starting from our earliest days
as cave people, working up through the centuries of climate and habitat changes. I’m fairly
dark-skinned with thick brown hair—my grandmother was Greek, and my grandfather
Italian. Mrs. McNamara is African-American and loves to explain how the melanin in our
skin and our thick hair protect us from burning sunshine, while our friends up in Norway
with long narrow noses and pale skin are better equipped for icy weather.
“Did the professor offer any suggestions for your book?” I ask.
“No, he was in a real hurry. Said he had an awards banquet to go to.”
I lean my head against the doorframe. “Lucky him.”
Mrs. McNamara looks at her watch. “I gotta go call my sister Beth. She’s supposed to
be visiting me next week, but she hasn’t even booked her ticket yet.” She shakes her head
and clicks her teeth as she turns away. I stand in the doorway for a few moments, watching
her open her door and close it, hearing the click of the deadbolt and the other two locks.
Mrs. McNamara has one sister and six sons, none of whom I’ve ever seen. She never
talks about her sons, and the only reason I know about them is because I asked her when I
first met her if she had any children. Their absence seems huge to me, and I’ve created an
unpleasant image of them in my mind. I see them as chubby black men with curly hair and
frowning faces. I imagine that they had sucked the best out of Mrs. McNamara, all her
knowledge and energy, like you suck the marrow out of bone. It wasn’t until they were
grown and had their own families that they discarded her, I think. When she was finally free
of them, she started The Study of Humanity and began building up her energy and strength
again, began recovering.
My mother calls me the next morning at seven a.m. She gets up every day at 6 a.m. to
feed the dogs and make coffee for my father before he goes to work. Mom hasn’t had a full-
time job since they got married thirty years ago, yet she is still under the impression that any
job is better than no job.
“Vivian? Are you awake?”
“Somewhat.” I push my hair out of my face and prop three pillows behind me against
the headboard. My mouth tastes bitter, and my jaw is aching because I had lain at a weird
angle in bed.
“Hey, I heard about a job at the textile plant in Mickleford. It’s an admin position, but
it says there’s room for promotion, for … uh … ‘managerial opportunities,’ it says.”
I close my eyes. “Sounds interesting.”
“Let me give you the phone number.” She reads the number out, and I lean my head
back against the headboard.
“Okay, thanks, Mom.”
“Are you going to call them?” This is the hundredth time she’s called me since I quit
my job, telling me about something she saw in the newspaper. As if I don’t read the same
newspaper. As if I have somehow missed all these jobs she’s noticing.
“Well, you should call today, in case it gets snapped up.”
“Oh, yeah, because it’s a real gold mine of a job, Mom,” I say, yawning.
The other end of the line is silent.
“Mom?” No answer. “I’m just kidding. I might call up that place.”
“Do whatever you want,” she says. I can hear paper rustling, being scrunched up.
Perhaps being thrown in the trash.
“I’m sorry,” I say, my hands suddenly cold.
“Forget it.” She hangs up.
I stare at the phone for several minutes, my fingers tingling around the receiver,
trying to remember if my mother has ever hung up on me before. The dial tone that hums in
my ear is the flat drone of someone who’s given up listening, is on to busier things already.
Finally, I pull on a pink dressing gown over my pajamas and go downstairs to get a
newspaper from the Pakistani-owned newsstand. There’s no sign of Mrs. McNamara or Mr.
Fancy Professor. On my way back, I hear the professor singing as I pass his door, and I stand
for a few minutes and listen.
He’s probably smoking a Cuban cigar and reading Don Quixote, I think. Suddenly, I
wish I had a cigar. I’ve always envied the way cigar smokers suck in their cheeks and close
their eyes as they pull in and then push out careful, sultry puffs of smoke. I quit smoking
when I married Alex, and quit drinking, too. Our only vice was sex, if you can call it a vice,
and I enjoyed that enough for both of us. Mrs. McNamara says that soap operas and
chocolate are her only weaknesses. I wonder if she was always like that, or if she was
stripped of her other vices at an early age and never got them back.
Mrs. McNamara opens her door and catches me standing with my ear cocked towards
the professor’s door. She smirks and steps out into the hall, half-closing the door behind her.
She’s in slippers this time, blue and red woolen crocheted things that make her feet look
“Uh huh,” she says, shaking her finger at me. “You better not be listening to his
I roll my eyes and walk down to her end of the hall.
“I heard him singing, and I was wondering what song it was.” I hum the tune to her,
but she shakes her head and purses her lips.
There’s the sound of a door opening, and Mrs. McNamara looks over my left
shoulder and raises her eyebrows.
“Well, I never would have taken him for a Scot!” she whispers, her eyes wide.
I look down the hall and see the professor locking his front door. I blink at the red and
black and yellow kilt he’s wearing and the knee-high socks. There’s a dagger sticking out of
one of the socks. He’s stockily built and has short blond hair that fits closely to his head.
“What on earth?” I whisper. We gape at him, and he turns around suddenly. He gives
me a quick up-and-down, then nods at us and says, “Good afternoon, ladies,” and takes off
down the hall, his kilt swishing around his hairy knees.
“Well!” Mrs. McNamara says, tilting her hip. “I’m surprised at that! He looked more
Norwegian than Scottish. But maybe he’s one of those folks who claim Scottish ancestry if
their third cousin three times removed had a half-Scottish brother-in-law.”
She launches into a discussion about the British Isles and how many of the Scottish
people are originally descended from a group called the Picts whose written language
consisted of little lines and squares. I stand, looking down at my muddy sneakers and pink
robe and the copy of National Enquirer poking out of the grocery bag at my feet. My hair is
sticking up at the sides because I didn’t bother to brush it. All I need is a cigarette hanging
off my lip and pink curlers in my hair to complete the picture of a woman falling apart.
For a few seconds, I imagine the professor going about his business in his kilt,
laughing and smoking and drinking whiskey, sitting at a table, shaking hands with another
professor. And for a moment, I’m out there with him, walking down the street and feeling the
breeze ruffle the inside of his kilt, chill his legs, lift the hairs on his head.
And then I’m back in the hallway, feeling angry for some reason. Mrs. McNamara
has paused for breath and is staring over her glasses at me.
“Vivian, are you listening to me?”
Her eyes are large and brown; they seem to glow out of their sockets like shining
marbles. And there’s an energy, I realize—the brown of earth, of turned soil full of potential
and sprouting seeds. I hold her stare and wonder if she sees anything in my eyes. But she
shakes her head and pulls a copy of Soap Opera Digest out of her pocket and hands it to me.
“We need another vice,” I say, stuffing the magazine into my plastic bag.
“Chocolate and soap operas and cigarettes aren’t enough,” I say. “We need a really
good vice, like cigars and poker.”
Suddenly, I envision myself, Mrs. McNamara, and the professor in his kilt, sitting
around a table with cigar smoke pouring out of our mouths and noses. Mrs. McNamara looks
relaxed, her mouth slack, and her shoulders back. Her glasses are folded on the table in front
of her. Her book is almost finished. And I’m smug and smart with a handful of cards and the
stack of dollar bills that I won. The cigar smoke curls around our heads like the soft tail of a
“We should have a poker night,” I say, clapping my hands together.
“What?” She’s squinting at me as though I’ve suddenly turned albino.
“Yes, a poker night.” I stare back at her, smiling now, imagining the gin and tonics,
the jazz music in the background. The professor could even bring over a couple of his model
ships, his student mistress for all I care. It doesn’t matter any more, I realize, holding my
hands up to my cheeks and feeling the heat.
“I never did learn how to play poker,” Mrs. McNamara says, rubbing her chin. “I
She glances down at the floor, mouth closed, and I wonder if I’ve gone too far, if
something inside me has relaxed a little too much. Our relationship has never passed the
threshold of our doorways before, never pushed beyond the hallway. Perhaps we had both
been hurt in the past, hurt so badly that we didn’t trust ourselves to cross the threshold again.
Maybe I’m hoping for too much.
“Mmm. But it might be fun...” Mrs. McNamara grins at me, her eyes bright and
twinkly now, like she’s just had some vodka. Only I know she doesn’t drink, so I have to
assume that it’s the thought of having a sinful night that’s exciting her.
“And we can invite old Fancy Pants over there,” I say, jerking my head towards the
professor’s door. She winks at me and puts her arm through mine.
“Come inside. I’ll open up the Christmas sherry.”