Fiction from NER 43.2 (2022)
hey were playing the cartwheel game out on the lawn. Christopher’s toys were scattered nearby—the wooden horse, the bells, the blanket they’d stretched out on for the picnic—and Lily had thought it might be time to bring them in, as the sky was getting weird. Then the dark tips of the forest’s pines below the base of the lawn shivered silver, as if a transparent hand had combed itself slowly over them. She felt her stomach grumble, though they’d eaten lunch. Birds shot into the sky above the trees and swam away from the shimmering leaves. Christopher finished his cartwheel—at his age it was more of a controlled tumble—and began pointing at all the birds, the gray specks thickening and twisting, pulling together and breaking apart. Gulls so rarely came this far inland. Now dozens swirled, tangled up in the sky which had turned from blue just a few minutes ago to a gray-yellow, blurred swelling above them. Robins and crows, a spray of sparrows, falling in with the gulls—erupting from some hidden sleeve of atmosphere. Beyond the deep green lawn and the trees billowing up the foothills, a skim milk sky was pulling in toward Lily and her son, as if following the birds. A deeper gray and yellow atmospheric blur—the outer rim of storm drawing up like the nimbus of a giant angel behind it. Christopher—three and a half now, a little small, a little quiet for his age—reached out and began finger-tracing the birds, inscribing their motion overhead.
Let’s get the toys, Christopher, she’d said.
She would someday try to remember these things, try to shape them into a story—to try again to make sense of all that had changed. The recalled moments like small islands in a void—Christopher at three, the forest, the enormous slope of lawn, the comfort within the inscrutable modernist house above, and herself in the midst—islands aching within shouting distance in some giant ocean.
On a radio interview she’d heard a physicist suggest that we live an infinite number of lives all at once. All the outcomes move along side by side. An endless train of mirrors pointed ahead, silent as ghosts. We make a choice and simply step from this mirror, onto another one. Each choice opens another dimension, was the thinking. The past, though, it parts in a single wake behind us. When she heard this, she imagined infinite Christophers inside other parallel universes and saw herself as only a blur there beside him. Perhaps the blur was hope. She wanted to live forever. She wanted to be millions of herself. So that no matter what happened, she’d be there for him.
The breeze shifted and the air turned sharp. The birds collapsed in the sky then blew apart, as if spat out from an invisible mouth. As if they’d planned this all along.
They were screaming, burst open above. She smelled something burning—not wood or leaves so much as earth, or some friction in the atmosphere itself: air compressed, ready to release, closer now.
Honey, how about we just go inside? Let’s see what Daddy’s doing?
Christopher pretended not to hear.
Hey. Hey, little guy?
The distant canopy of green at the bottom of the hill flashed once more: a mercurial silver, then the green rose up all flushed.
And then the earthquake began. The ground beneath began to rumble like an approaching truck. Christopher said, Oh.
The sky seemed to shake her, and Lily’s legs lost her and she dropped to the grass beside Christopher, handed down to the earth. She covered him with her body. The ground shook as if it might open up and swallow them. The wet grass smelled sharp like burning chocolate and she sat in a kitchen with her mother, a double boiler with burned chocolate in the pan, and then her mind returned to the grass, her little boy.
But that synapse started something. And now she was a mirror that had risen, hovering over them now, this woman blanketed over her small boy. In the mirror she and Paul were in Paris, yet unmarried, an April morning in the Square Gabriel Pierné. The cathedral bell opened the air, its peal burst open the breeze with cherry blossoms, a blizzard of whites and pinks in warm sun. A teenaged mouth now brushed against her lips, her own recalled strawberry lip gloss released from the quaking earth. And this memory parted from her now, too, and in its place she was driving too fast in the night as the bore of headlights on the dark road grabbed a bright silhouette of an animal—a small coyote clarified in the seconds’ tunnel of light—and her car pulled it beneath itself, and she braked and saw in the rearview a timeless creature staggering away, its raw, red, skinned haunches and ribs red in the taillight as Christopher’s tiny hands clutched the chains of a swing, rising toward her and falling away in a blue sky. The sun opening from a cloud over them, blinding his ascent; and then she was in college hiking through a New Hampshire forest, damp raw air, snow and mossy shadow beneath fallen trees, and she could hear the forest clearing in the mountains, the tumbling of trees and the hissing of wet leaves—
Maybe a second had passed: when she was floating above herself and her boy on the shaking ground. Lily lowered down to them, rejoined herself holding Christopher on the shuddering lawn, the earth striking up its seismic distress. And then the rumbling beneath grew quieter and slipped away. A thunder grown distant until it was gone. She was on the grass, pressed over her son. Perfectly still. Across the long lawn, the house appeared unchanged. Everything, unchanged.
From the skirt of trees—a stag, a doe, and two fawns emerged and began to leap, as if dancing, shaking something off inside their bodies. The deer danced a moment longer, then leapt into the forest.
Lily? His voice sounded so small. Her husband Paul came out of the house onto the deck. Someday she would remember his voice, too, another island floating in the void. His voice sounded so far away up there. He ran down and then was holding her. Smoke was rising far off west. How much time had passed? Paul had said something about going into town. That he wanted to see if he could learn anything. He’d pulled away in the Range Rover, rumbling off the lane arched with the poplar allée, inspired by the trip to Paris from before Christopher was born. (She would later, and often, recall the town of Saintes, driving through an allée of towering horse chestnuts on their way to Paul’s friends’ eighteenth-century farmhouse, whose foundation and walls had been pilfered generations before them from the stones of a local, ancient Roman coliseum. She would remember the horses, Poitevins, who his friends had said were endangered.)
Paul had wanted her to keep herself and Christopher out of the house—the risk of tremors, the foundation and walls. Christopher was asleep on the grass, having fallen into an unusually deep sleep. They had been out there an hour and Lily was lying on the buffalo blanket drifting in and out, when the landline in the house rang. She rose and ran up the long lawn. The phone was still ringing as she pressed open the back door. The kitchen smelled like damp earth. She grabbed the phone on the wall beside the refrigerator and said, Hello?
But all that came back was this empty sound. Like a comb pulled through hair, crackling and alive in some negated space.
Paul? Hello? She waited on the static. Several dinner plates had fallen from the cabinets and shattered on the floor. She waited in the silence from the phone, then hung up. Out the long wall of windows overlooking the lawn from the living room a half-level below, Christopher was still asleep on the deep green lawn.
She opened the cabinet above the blinking microwave, took out the aspirin bottle, and set it on the counter. She felt around the top shelf with her fingers—behind the vitamins and an old sticky bottle of cough syrup and homeopathic drops. It was an old prescription for Percocet. She’d fallen on ice, Christopher hadn’t been born yet. She hadn’t needed it back then, she’d forgotten about it. The earthquake seemed to have shaken that memory loose, too. The label said the pills had expired two and a half years ago. But she opened it anyway, and dropped one pill onto her palm. She swallowed it with a sip of water. Then she tapped another pill onto her palm. She felt a giddiness, like she was doing something naughty, and saw the deer dancing just an hour ago outside the woods. Saw herself dancing in front of them, disappearing inside the trees. She swallowed, finished the glass of water, only then realizing how thirsty she was. She poured another and the water began to turn yellow.
White afternoon light came in over the sink window. The power had been out. But she noticed this only now as the electricity kicked back on and the house began humming and beeping, chirping to life. The refrigerator’s ice machine shuddered, the microwave, the coffee maker—their little blue blinking 00:00s marking this moment. She went down into the living room, where the bookcase had thrown a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica and a small crystal tray, unbroken, onto the floor. Two Mexican masks that had tumbled gazed up at Lily, calm, unaffected.
Paul’s study door was open.
Lily couldn’t recall having ever seen it open. Later, this would seem so odd, even as she remembered the agreement and saw how you just accepted certain things, didn’t you? A trusting relationship, you agreed to a certain allowance of gaps. Marriages, their tacit understandings, mutual elisions.
Paul had made it sound simple. A place where he could get away. A simple thing, a room with a door. And the door had grown invisible over time.
But he’d left it open. Paul had been in there working when the earthquake came. Considering his discipline, his attention to habit, it would have taken an extraordinary event to distract him from closing the door.
There in its opening she saw the edge of a mahogany desk, a window beyond, its blinds drawn. She expected someone to step into the space there, to find her staring and to close it. And the giddiness returned. The taboo, as with the pills a moment ago. Something opened in her. As if the distress of the earth had pushed through the perfection of her life, as if she were stepping into this opening it had created and feeling the risk of it never closing.
Down in the living room, she picked up a small windup monkey made of tin and set it on the coffee table. The monkey clapped its cymbals as if from the slightest change in surface pressure. The monkey had been hand-painted in Delhi, from one of Paul’s business trips. They were trying to limit their use of plastics. Christopher’s toys were mostly painted, made of wood, expensive.
She glanced back outside. He was asleep still on the grass.
Inside the study, there was an accounting ledger on the desk, open. Two picture frames on his desk had fallen facedown. Beside them a little ashtray, and in it, a gum eraser, its dull yellow corners rubbed down smooth.
The accounting ledger there, centered on the desk, thick and bland, old-fashioned. It seemed so strange and quaint in the room, on this desk beside these photos of family. Down the middle a thin red herringbone ribbon snaked between the spine of this open page where she saw handwritten notes. A little square of newspaper taped down at the bottom of an entry. The room was silent. She went behind the desk. She glanced through the study door, into the living room, up through the open kitchen, at the back door of the house, the deck beyond, the driveway, the poplars curved in an arch over the entry. Her pulse was blossoming with the Percocet, a teenaged ache was rising in her body. She wasn’t doing anything wrong. But that’s how it felt in this space.
Paul’s handwriting, yes. She would recall later being certain that it was his, reminding herself, because it was important. But even now she felt it was noteworthy, to see his hand in the date and unfamiliar name in the upper right-hand corner of the page. He’d jotted some notes beneath the name, and then a list. She turned the page and found in its upper corner another name and date, and more notes below. The pages were much the same except where the details and notes, or a photograph, spilled onto the next page. She didn’t recognize any of the names. How could she know so few of the people he’d thought to write down like this? The little notations, dates of birth, occasionally nine digits resembling a Social Security number, spouse, or sister, or an acreage, landmarks leading to an address. Wheelchair on this page, with the name of a convalescent center, a line with an arrow leading to another name. And the photographs, snapshots—all of strangers. Paul’s philanthropic interests, perhaps. She knew that in the past he’d hired a private firm to confirm the reputations of certain charities that approached him. But these photographs, the notes cribbed about them, and these odd news clippings—it wasn’t a professional report. This was like a scrapbook of desperation. Flattened and preserved between the pages. A man in this Polaroid arguing with another—shirtless and piggish, an enormous tanned belly pulled taught—outside some sort of sunny bungalow. The photo was taken from a car, an out-of-focus side mirror foregrounded the frame. Palm trees, a little wrought iron grill that laced around the broken brown grass with a yellow cactus garden.
Like a dossier. The next page, another Polaroid, a woman leaving a little pink ranch house. She was unusually thin. She wore gold glitter platform shoes, her short skirt on her stick-like thighs and hips. A couple of bruises on her calf, clear enough in the photograph, and there, on her outer forearm. She looked medicated, and as if by contagion Lily felt the Percocet’s effect more clearly inside her. She glanced up at the window, the driveway.
They were people you saw all the time but didn’t see. Any page here, was a kid you once knew in school who grew up and passed through life mostly unnoticed, passed through an army of silent grievances, faces that filled sidewalks and train stations and other people’s weddings. Faces perpetually slipping away from the glittering prizes. Drifting into a repository of invisibility. But, for instance, this woman here? How would Paul know this woman here? Where was the interest? To name her, to catalogue her, to paste down her photograph?
The door was never left open.
She returned the book to the page of the thin red ribbon, pulled the ribbon tight, tucked deep into the spine. Paul’s Waterman lay uncapped on the floor. It must have fallen during the quaking and her impulse was to cap it and put it back on the table. But she didn’t.
She lifted one of the picture frames, she was holding Christopher at the hospital. He was a day or two old, wrapped in the hospital’s striped receiving blanket. The other was an older photograph, a framed photograph whose colors had faded into something gentle. Paul and his sister, Carmen, two teenagers standing beside the aluminum fold-up stairs of a trailer. Behind them a clearing turned to a brown and green woods, and, deeper still, a white-capped mountain rose into a blue sky. She set the portraits facedown again on the desk. Then, quickly, she turned back to the book, turned the pages to the entry of the woman with the gold shoes. She tore a note from a pad on Paul’s desk. She wrote down that name, the address. And she left.
She came out onto the deck. The cold air, static and raw. Christopher still hadn’t stirred on the lawn. It wasn’t like they were nudes. It wasn’t like there were sex acts chronicled in the pages. The woman in the book. The name Lily had taken down. That woman’s cheekbones, her eyes, her posture—you could see that she had come apart. But Lily knew, too, that she hadn’t always been like that.
People discover things about their spouses all the time.
She’d taken an open bottle of Riesling from the refrigerator on the way outside. She came down the deck steps and crossed the lawn and now she sat next to her sleeping child and sipped from the mouth of the bottle. She was drunk, instantly. This cold wind skating over the heat of her body. Christopher stirred now, extended his little arm as if grabbing at something in the breeze. Lily took a sip of wine and brushed a strand of hair from his face.
The air had a fine, cool spray in it. She heard the Range Rover now, down the lane. It emerged from the copse into the open, and pulled into the driveway. The engine silenced and Lily stood. Christopher woke and they began walking up the hill to the deck. Paul had gotten out of the car. He smiled. His old sanguine self. Already he looked strange to her.
Not much news in town, Paul said. He said some other things—there were emergency vehicles everywhere, the streets downtown blocked off. He described the buckled asphalt and piers ruptured over by the Edgewater, the market. He had talked to a couple of cops. She saw photographs of everything he said, but in every photograph there was nothing of what he said.
And later still she would forget all the things he said.
They went inside the house together. She pretended she didn’t see his eyes glance down at his study, at the open door. That millisecond, where she saw a series of alternate futures cascading through the present, the past peeling off behind in the wake of the moment. And she said: Oh, the plates. She meant the plates in the kitchen. It got him to look at her, then down at the broken pieces there on the floor. To break the spell, this gap, to redirect his eye so that she didn’t have to see him look at that open door. She felt dizzy from the wine and the medicine.
Christopher opened the refrigerator and now cold steam was rising from inside. He reached up and a carton of milk tipped from the shelf and spilled on the glass and was now pooling over the floor.
Christopher! she shouted. She would recall her rage at her little boy. The milk’s puddle, it was nothing. Christopher toddled off crying and she grabbed the milk carton and set it in the sink. She took a dishrag and came back, leaned over the milk and saw a reflection of herself. And in that flash of recognition, she felt an ache like a tiny comet in her chest blink and fade. She heard Paul descend the stairs into the living room.
Later there would come the arguments. Paul’s explanations seemed more often to prevaricate than to satisfy. His answers only anesthetized the truth. And there often followed her own self-negotiations over what to do about this: cost-benefit, vulnerabilities, a toddler, a child with medical expenses, a single parent, loneliness. The various protective evasions of her own reasoning. Her own ways of keeping the truth from erasing her.
She was wringing the dishrag’s milk into the sink, the milk in which her face had appeared. She held the wrung cloth under the tap and returned to the floor. She glanced down. Paul’s study door was closed now. Christopher was there in the living room, rolling a train on the rug.
She would later recall the forest shivering silver over the stark green-black of the pines, as if its rolling shimmer had only then set her life in motion. The pines had been hers back then, as had the lawn and the house. As if that recognition of the trees was the last time her life was one thing, where later it would be another, and another, and another.
But where the ache would return most profoundly was in recalling the pool of milk. Where the reflection of her face stared up at what she was just then. At that time. Before so much was erased. As her hand passed over her reflection with the rag, removing her from the moment forever. ■