By Dave Madden
Featured Art: Abstract Landscape by H. Lyman Saÿen
They sit like lumps at the kitchen table covered by a worn and graying cloth, milkdregs ghosting the glass of two tumblers. Their four feet dangle inches above the floor as Opa sucks his horehound. They can hear it slopping around, see it burrowing there behind his potato jowls. They smell the burnt-tire funk of it. It’s July and the brothers are long enough out of school that their stretched and empty afternoons have become kind of boring, they say. Nowadays, the two are mostly bored. Opa’s fat hand claps the table. He tongues his candy to the far end of the mouth and cries nonsense. There is no mostly, he tells them. No kind of. Either you are bored or you are not and if you are it is only you who is to blame. From the other room come the strangled words of their mother shouting at her mother. Opa nudges the boys out to the front porch. There he lowers his flanks onto a teak rocker. There’s an oomph and a curse and the old man begins to teach the boys a game.
He calls it a game of discipline and discovery. To play, the boys must only step outside their front door and watch and listen and remember. If a dog is barking, turn right, and continue until either he has stopped barking or you no longer can hear him. If you hear a car horn, turn left. If you hear a car door slam, turn around. Cross the street if someone within your range of vision wears a purple shirt. “Write ziss down!” Opa implores the boys in the accent they still find funny. Kurt runs inside for a strip of paper hung by the telephone. His mother is at the bottom of the stairs, accepting from her mother a slip of crisp green bills. She tells him it’s time to leave. Kurt runs back to the porch, and Opa plucks one of the felt-tip pens he keeps in his shirtpocket. He writes his rules all down, and after covering both recto and verso in blooming black ink the brothers are given the list.
It will fill all their empty days well into adulthood.
“What do we call it?” Thomas asks Opa.
Opa pauses three or four seconds and gives a little shrug.
He bites the horehound in two and the brothers feel their own teeth crumbling. Their mother is out on the porch with her keys. Opa walks wordlessly inside and they don’t see him again for another two years, when at his funeral they learn his Christian name.
“It’s Kurt,” says Thomas.
They were brothers, and they lived in a three-bedroom prairie-style house at the intersection of Madison and Schultz. There was a gabled roof, and a flagstone porch stretched across the front like a rampart. Kurt was younger and got to fill the extra bedroom with his carvings, for he’d done the finding and buying of the house, back on the eve of his Master’s defense. Thomas had moved in years later, after his legs both broke—this from the fainting of his ladder-holding and heat-exhausted former business partner—and his walkup became unwalkuptoable. Chores became happily divisible. Kurt cut the lawn and pruned the elms and bought each spring some plants to set into the hard clay. Snapdragons. Dusty miller. Wax begonias. The work would take hours, and then Thomas would bring out an iced tea and the brothers would outpost to the intersection’s opposite corner, the better to admire the yard’s new texture. “Women like a man who’s handy around the house,” Kurt often said, and Thomas would agree and added they also liked a man who was handy around the kitchen.
“That’s what I said,” said Kurt. “The kitchen is part of the house.”
It was, in full, Thomas’s part of the house, where he kept his skillets and herbs in maple cabinets and at mealtimes favored the hearty meats and starches of German cuisine as passed down to him from their Oma: knödeln, würstchen, sauerbraten, spätzle. He worked in an outdoor mall along the city’s main artery, at a store that sold implements and furnishings for the kitchen. He spent his shifts womanizing and stocking shelves in priggish cogitation. How did his ancestors ever manage Wiener schnitzel without a tenderizer spring-loaded with forty-eight strategically placed stainless-steel blades? What had made the customers he liked to smile at no longer smile back? He wasn’t even fifty.
And he wasn’t fifty but he was getting close. Kurt, at forty-five, was a senior engineer in a downtown recording studio that specialized in voiceover work. This had, by design, little bearing on the life of a man with enthusiasms. Kurt was a nosepicker. Paradise for Kurt was a sharp blade and a well lamped room full of unadulterated oak. After fourteen years of shared space, if strife came between the brothers it came whenever one confused sharing with annexing, as Thomas had one summer afternoon after a wet and eventless morning shift. He called from the foyer his brother’s name, and on no response mounted the stairs and knocked twice on the spare bedroom’s door before opening it. “You busy?” he asked. “I’m restless.”
“You could have yourself a nap,” Kurt suggested from behind his magnifying goggles.
“What you got there?” he asked, leaning in further.
“Lovespoon,” Kurt said. “In sycamore.” It looked to Thomas like a tongue depressor. Another piece of shelfmeat. Outside the rain had stopped, so Thomas knew what to do. He clapped twice and said, “Out the door, brother.”
It had become their one modification to Opa’s famous game, this formal gesture toward commencing play. Thomas had come up with it, as well as its corollary that—provided no game had been played the previous two days—a brother could not refuse the commencement request. Kurt took a deep breath and set his work in a satin-lined rosewood box. “We can’t keep playing this game forever,” he said.
After just four blocks of wanderings, Kurt pulled ahead in the customary fraternal competition over who could heed cues first. Thomas strode along behind him, slowed by leg pain and focusing more on the sidewalk than the world’s shifting daylight. He tried in his mind to settle some sudden thoughts of animals. They confused him. Did boy kangaroos have pockets or just girl kangaroos? Did insects die every winter, or just sleep through it? Kurt called out, “Flat tire. Left,” and sure enough there it was on an old conversion van parked on the grass of a defunct daycare. Thomas dropped his gaze back to the ground, Kurt’s feet well beyond the edge of his sightline, and he turned left when he saw the sidewalk open in that direction. He walked a few paces before he heard Kurt call out his name.
He looked up. Kurt hadn’t turned and was standing halfway to the block’s next corner. Thomas, however, was now facing a house, with a high black gambrel jutting up from a battlefront of overgrown cypresses. It was a place he’d never irgendwo’d to before. On its top floor he could see two windows backed with thick, dusty drapes, shutting the house off to the world like the eyes of a blind man. Thomas took a few steps forward. Behind the trees was a porch with a rocking chair. It looked hand-carved.
“Come look at this, brother,” he said.
“Let’s keep going,” Kurt said. “We go in your direction and the game will be over.”
Thomas walked up to the porch and in a short time Kurt was running a finger along the rocker’s rough curve. “Pine,” he said. “A poor finishing job that’s for certain.”
He gave the thing a sad push, and Thomas noticed bells clanging in the distance. Was it four o’clock? “Church bells,” he said. “Turn right.”
He indicated the house’s front door.
Kurt looked up. “My right takes us back to the street, Thomas.”
“Not mine,” he said. “And I noticed the cue.”
No doorbell button hung anywhere near the entrance, so Thomas knocked four times on the door’s four-paned window. His brother stooped and peered through the gauzy cloth that hung behind the glass. They heard nothing. Thomas tried the doorknob. “Thomas!” Kurt said, grabbing at his hand, but the knob turned and the door opened and a chill crept out from around the jamb.
Now they were trespassing in earnest.
“Hello?” They heard a voice from deep inside the house. “Ally?”
Thomas stepped into the foyer. “Hello, there?”
A wide wooden staircase bowed to the left and up to the home’s second floor. At the landing stood a person in a wide white dress, but the house was filled with enough shadows that it was hard to make out a face. Thomas could see a bright flame of red hair sitting high on her head.
“I own two guns,” the voice said. “That’s one for each of your corpses if you take another step in my home.”
Thomas raised his hands like at a stickup, and she began descending, stair by stair.
“Ma’am,” said Thomas, “we’re sorry to bother you, but my brother and I were playing a game and it led us here. To your house here.”
Kurt stood behind him in the doorway, afraid to cross this threshold. The light from the door made a slanted box on the patterned rug. It lit the woman up when she got to the final step, where she stopped as though to remain out of reach. She bore no arms.
“Oh my,” she said, peering into his face. “You’ve been playing Irgendwo, Nirgendwo, haven’t you?”
She hit those words with the swallowed r’s and vowels of pristine Hochdeutsch. From another person’s lips their game sounded like a curse.
“You know it?” Thomas asked.
“Is that cherry?” Kurt asked. Thomas and the woman followed Kurt’s pointing finger to the acorn that topped the stairs’ newelpost.
The woman turned and touched it, as though checking its heat. “I guess you know what you’re talking about,” she said, distantly. In the dress her full arms were bare and pale. Thomas imagined they’d feel like a warm coat wrapped around him. She looked at Kurt. “What’s your name?”
“Kurt,” said Kurt. “This is my brother, Thomas.”
“You can come get a closer look if you want.”
She then stepped further into the foyer, as though to give Kurt room for inspection. He stepped in past the length of the rug and began rapping on the ornament.
“Yup,” he said. “Nice work.”
“It’s amazing,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think anyone else knew about our game.”
He watched the loose muscles swell in the woman’s back as she began to smooth the bust of her dress. “I’m sorry for all that about guns earlier,” she said. “But all the same I need to ask you both to leave.”
Kurt’s hand slowly dropped from the acorn, and as it did his eyes seemed to follow the line of the banister all the way to the top of the house. He stood there, jaw slack. There was wood around every door, Thomas could tell. Every wall so molded. “It’s beautiful in here,” Kurt said.
The woman in white stepped closer to Kurt, and from where Thomas stood, her shadow cast by the open doorway’s light slid like a serpent up the stairs. Her glowing body moved between them, eclipsing his brother from view.
“Gentlemen, please,” she said, and they obeyed and left the house.
It had always been only theirs. From that first afternoon, Thomas felt that Opa had shared with him and Kurt some family secret. The list of cues a kind of recipe generations of Opas must have cached in a series of heavy Bibles. By his teens he wised up. He read the list for what it was: an off-the-cuff mess to keep listless kids busy. Still, it had been their mess, the brothers’, and of the two of them it was Thomas who worked the hardest over the years at its preservation. It’s our tradition, he’d insist. Our family’s tradition. But now, suddenly, it was also somebody else’s. How had the world so spun that this random woman lived in their same city? Perhaps this aimless scavenger hunt wasn’t such a rare thing. Perhaps it was as public as a lynching. Thomas told Kurt at the supermarket a few days later that they owed it to their mother to find out.
“What’s Ma got to do with anything?” Kurt said. He stopped the cart at the meats case.
Thomas scanned the shelves for veal. “You never gave her enough credit,” he said.
“She was a drunk, Thomas.”
“I’m not having this argument with you again,” he said. He dropped a pack of four thick cutlets in the cart. “My point is that we need to talk to that woman. And I would have been able to the other day if you hadn’t gone ape over that dumb acorn.”
Kurt took the veal out of the cart and set it back in the cooler. “You know what they do to those calves,” he said.
“I want to invite her to dinner,” said Thomas. “She probably likes a good schnitzel.”
“Make it with pork, then,” Kurt said. “It’s less than half the price.”
They must have been a sight, two grown men bickering like old marrieds. It was clear from the twin gauntness of their faces that they were brothers, but despite Kurt’s pipsqueak frame, his loafers and plaid shirt buttoned to the chin made him seem the elder. Around them, hausfraus put some muscle behind their brimming carts as they bent around the aisles, nary a one of them paying these men any mind. Thomas fell instantly in love with each.
“Are you telling me you don’t want to treat her right?” he asked his brother.
Kurt sighed and brought the veal back out of the case. “Don’t forget your scrip,” he reminded Thomas.
And though he’d planned it all so carefully, the dinner two nights later, was a disaster. Lynne, for that was her spinstery name, had insisted on bringing her niece along. Ally was a twig-thin veterinarian, and she sat to his right, opposite Lynne, piercing each pea separately with the same forktine in a distracting way that made Thomas sweat and gulp at his riesling. On the question of Irgendwo, Nirgendwo, Lynne only mentioned that her great aunt had taught her the game, but whether this aunt was related to or even knew their Opa was lost to family histories. That each relative grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain made any connection unlikely, so Thomas—noting the way Lynne had Ally’s hand in her own on their arrival—saw in the niece a possibility for connection. “So, Ally,” he asked, “what happened to your parents?”
His own father had walked out on his infant children, and Mom died too young. The pain of this was all he’d meant to share.
“That’s such a horrible thing to presume,” Lynne said, looking at Thomas for the first time that night. Ally seemed to be hiding behind her iced tea. “Nothing, that’s your answer. They live out east.”
“Well, I guess I’m sorry,” Thomas said.
A stretch of silence. Ally finished with the peas and laid her fork next to her plate so slowly it didn’t make a noise. She stayed focused on her lap. Lynne had arrived with the wine bottle in a brown paper bag and her red hair down past her shoulders, and Thomas watched this hair catch and glimmer the lamplight like the darting flames of a campfire. She sat with her head supported wearily on one fist. Everyone ate as quickly as etiquette allowed. Kurt added nothing to the conversation but this: “More wine, Miss Lynne?”
Here Lynne seemed to unfold herself and beam. She accepted more wine, and Kurt poured another few inches in her glass. He smiled, charitably, and went back to his plate. “You don’t say much,” Lynne said. Her fingers were strumming the strands of her hair like a harp. “I like people who don’t say much. I consider it a sign of intelligence.”
This wine tasted cheap, Thomas decided.
“And I like people who are good with their hands,” she continued. “Look, Ally. Look at his hands. Have you ever seen such good hands? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a man like that around the house?”
Kurt laughed at this and offered his right hand for inspection, and for Thomas that was the end of his wishful dinner.
They were to be married. The year passed through two wet seasons before either Lynne or Kurt saw this to be true, their evenings together, just once or twice a week, spent chastely touring galleries or sitting bisected by popcorn bowls on Lynne’s rumpus-room sofa, following their favorite serial costume dramas. They were inside people. They went Dutch on dinners. It wasn’t a passion-less courtship—Kurt’s first night spent at Lynne’s involved his muting with wet kisses the screams his fingers were working out of her—but as they grew closer together it was as though tacitly these sudden sweethearts agreed that at their age it was no good swooning around town like teenaged horndogs. At their age there was little sense in delay. Maybe it was too soon. Alone in her spartan office, between counseling sessions with anorexic runaways and the recidivistically truant, Lynne wondered whether she weren’t settling for the first man to walk stably into her life. Kurt was young, for her. He liked junky foods, and he did a much less clandestine job of fingercleaning his nose than Lynne imagined he thought he did. Still, he kept himself busy. She liked that he was busy enough with his own life that fitting hers—itself no idle week at the beach—alongside it came with logistical challenges. When he got down on a knee on her front porch in their ninth month together she saw at last in him a kind of clarity, and a voice somewhere inside her announced: This is it. You get someone to share this life with, or you take it all on yourself.
She chose sharing.
It became another logistical puzzle. Who’d move in with whom? She’d raised the question one cold morning over poached eggs—her breakfast for the last forty-three years—and he said, “You’ll move in here, of course,” as though that were the end of the conversation. Kurt and his sequestered decisions. It was either a thing she loved him for or loved him in spite of, but all the same she tugged her robe more shut and slid deeper into the corner of the banquette. Hadn’t he found her house so beautiful? Maybe it was too dark for newlyweds, and even if she took down the blackout drapes her mother had installed after her father’d been pink-slipped and went chronically insomniacal, it was as though every window in the house faced a wall of sunless brick. And there was, yes, that mold problem in the basement. The poor water pressure that kept Kurt rinsing his graying mane much longer than he could stand to. But this was her family’s home, she reminded him. Kurt’s house had been little more than a market steal.
“I know that,” he said. “That’s why I think you should sell it to Ally. Keep it in the family.”
Lynne took the porcelain creamer and filled her half-empty teacup to the brim. Then she stood without a word and headed upstairs to get dressed, leaving the overcreamed tea to clot and get cold. Was she being a child? In time she came to imagine the weekends with her niece, hanging wallpaper together to make the place a home for her and whatever family she may find for herself one day. The question now was who would tell Thomas. Kurt offered to sit down with him, but Lynne wouldn’t allow it. “He’s already furious with me,” she said. Throughout their steady courtship Thomas became a ghost when Lynne was in the house, making himself heard but never seen. Kurt said he’d been taking on more overtime, and Lynne took it as a form of surrender.
Through an in-store ambush during one of these overtime shifts, Lynne got him to agree to meet her at Unny’s one frigid Saturday in late April. Kurt had mentioned it as his brother’s favorite bar. It was dark, which Lynne liked, but she found its amateurish acrylics of Hollywood starlets and its wall of pickle-card machines as dismaying as its name. Who was this a bar for? Thomas showed up late, face pinkly windblown and sniffling. He held up a finger and the blonde bartender in a man’s ribbed undershirt slid a bottle across to him. Thomas brought the bottle to Lynne’s distant table and sat down with his coat still on.
“I just want to say two things,” he said. Then he drank thirstily from the bottle. “First, I am very happy for you and my brother. Second, I’m upset that you’ve never cared to get to know me.”
He took a deep breath and then another long pull.
“There,” he said, satisfied.
It was four-thirty in the afternoon. Lynne had paid for a Diet Sprite, but what she had been given was a Sprite.
“That’s not true, Thomas,” she said.
“It is,” he said. “But I’m over it. Like I said, I’m happy for you guys.”
Once, early in her career, she got assigned a ten-year-old who’d been picked up by the cops while beating his six-year-old sister with a hammer. Robbie was his name. Robbie had the habit of negating everything she said. No he did not do a bad thing. Yes he did too have lots of friends. It took her a week of work to remember that open-ended questions were harder to say no to.
“Why do you think I don’t care to know you?” she asked Thomas.
She waited patiently for him to respond.
“I invited you to dinner,” he said. “Not Kurt.”
“I’m not talking about who you fell for. I’m not jealous. But since I invited you the least you could do was talk to me. I just wanted to know about the game. Was that such a terrible topic of conversation?”
She saw him in this dim light as a kind of troll. Dark and wrinkled. She wanted one thing from him, to cross this bridge just once and thus forever, and she saw in this sick bar that the story of her dalliance with Irgendwo, Nirgendwo was the price she’d need to pay.
“Go order me a whiskey and water,” she said, “and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
Tante Beate is what she calls her. Tante Beate oughta taunt a bee. Her brother is too young to call her anything. Lynne is nine. It begins on a hot afternoon. Tante Beate has spent each of the last two days of their visit on her porch, in her rocking chair, swatting flies and grabbing periodically at a sweat-beaded beer glass on the wrought-iron sidetable. Lynne has sat with jacks by the steps, watching. On this day, day three, Tante Beate has a question for Lynne: What does Lynne want to be when she is grown up? Lynne, a good girl, says a doctor or a lawyer. “Ja, gut,” Tante Beate says. She rocks in a long skirt and stockings. Sensible shoes and white V-neck T-shirt. And what does Lynne want to have when she is grown up? Lynne, in her yellow jumper, does not have an answer. Tante Beate slaps at a fly and stops for a moment her rocking.
“But you must think of this now,” she says. Her eyes are enormous behind her eyeglasses. “Me, I have nothing.”
She speaks so slowly.
“And so I am nothing.”
Lynne’s jacksball bounces off the porch and is lost to some holly.
“Komm’,” Tante Beate says, eyeing her wristwatch. The woman leads Lynne to the passenger seat of her truck, and they drive off on her weekly round of schnapps deliveries. In the truck she begins to teach Lynne a game. “You cannot know when you will ever find something,” she says. “If you find it it has been hidden and if you knew where it was hidden you can go and you can take it, yes? A husband. A career. A nice house to live in. If you go out and seek these things they will hide from you. You will need to sneak up on them. Now pass auf.”
[“That was my introduction,” Lynne said, spinning her whiskey glass in one hand. Thomas started to remove his coat. “I never wrote it all down, but I never really had to.”]
It is near dinnertime when Tante Beate is done with her deliveries, but before she heads back to her farmhouse she drives Lynne to the county fair the girl has been wanting to go to since she first heard it was in town. They have time only to visit the animals in the petting zoo. The fair redundantly has farm animals to pet. Some sheep and goats and a tiny pony small enough for Lynne to ride. They also have a baby kangaroo and they have a tortoise as big as a tire. Then Lynne comes near the far end of the zoo and there behind a low fence stand two zebras and an ostrich. She approaches the bird carefully; its neck is alarming and its head is very quick. Tante Beate pulls a handful of sunflower seeds from her pocket. She pours the seeds into Lynne’s palm and tells her to offer it up. She does and within seconds the seed is gone. All that remains is the sharpness of the bird’s beak. Lynne pulls her hand close to her. She feels as though she’s been stabbed.
Lynne asks Tante Beate how many stripes the zebras have. She looks down at her grandniece scornfully and says everyone knows they have only two, and she points. “This one and the other one.”
[“I never had any pets,” Lynne said. Thomas didn’t understand. “I didn’t want children. I’d decided by then I wanted just to know things, not be with them.”]
She sleeps that night like a cold, running river and rises early the next morning. After her juice and scrambled eggs she sneaks a handful of dates in the pocket of her jumper and leaves through the back door. Here, she cocks her ear away from the road to catch the windgusts and birdsong Tante Beate had told her to listen for. She is off in seconds when a passing truck blows its horn to signal hello to her porchsitting parents. Soon she is wandering, snaking random box patterns through the fields. She doesn’t think about whether anyone is watching her. She plays the game she’s taught and waits to find what she needs to have.
In time she’s walked through the line of trees that feel miles from Tante’s house. She has never been this far away before on foot and the game leads her deeper into the forest. Here is a different terrain to pass through. A creek; she hops on a rock to cross it. Sticks crunch underfoot. She is nearly out of dates when a new sound hits her ear. Low. Angry. A man? The sound comes from the distant right, but the sound dictates that she must head to the left. It comes again. Was it help? Lynne is stuck between decisions. The noise comes once more, quieter this time, and she breaks the rules. She goes right. Though she can feel she is getting closer the noise is getting softer and softer. Up a hill the trees thin out and the forest air around her gets brighter and warmer. The sun is high by now and shines through the trees and lights up the ground before her, and in this way she’s able to see him clearly, as though spotlit on a stage. It’s a man on the ground. He is older than her father but younger than Tante Beate. He has the trunk of a tree lying across his body, just a few feet from a ripped stump. The trunk is bigger around than the man is. Lynne steps closer. She stands over him. He has a string of blood hanging out the side of his mouth. His breaths are shallow, and he sweats. There’s an axe inches from his open hand.
He tries to say something but doesn’t have the air.
Lynne panics. She tries to lift the trunk but cannot make it move. The man groans at her attempt. She starts to cry. “I don’t know what to do,” she says.
[“Playing in the country is different from playing in the city,” Lynne told Thomas, holding his eyes with her eyes. “You go for much longer stretches. You find yourself very far from home. You can’t know what it’s like until you do it.” Thomas didn’t say anything.]
The man looks with his eyes right into her eyes. He has a close gray beard and a red bandanna on his head. She looks at him and watches as he takes one quick breath. Then he takes another. She’s looking right at him when he stops breathing, and she sees him die and lie still.
[“The game led me there,” Lynne said. “That’s what it thought I was supposed to find.”]
She is afraid to leave the body alone, so she sits and cries, choking and sobbing. She places a date in the dead man’s palm.
[“Your aunt was wrong,” Thomas said. “Don’t you see? It brought Kurt to you. You didn’t have to go looking.”]
It’s hours before anyone comes looking for her. Back at Tante’s her mother holds her in her lap and pets her hair and says “Hush” while her aunt sips yet another beer. She never plays Irgendwo, Nirgendwo again. She tries to shake its rules from the tight vines of her memory, but she fails.
Another year passed. In the absence of anything pivotal, it was more like a span of time to spectate than fully live through. Not that nothing happened to anyone. Lynne and Kurt married at the Lutheran church on N Street, the one with all the stained glass. Lynne nominally moved out of her house, leaving behind everything Kurt already had one of. Her bed. Her dining table. On the day of the move, Ally stood in rooms full of stuff and pointed at the empty spots where her ten pieces of furniture might fit. Every day for five months she woke up in and came home to this cramped house, a mausoleum to her father’s side of the family.
It all tried her patience at home and work. “He’s eighteen years old,” she said one morning to the owner of an English pointer dabbing tissues at her teary face across the desk. Outside the clinic, there was a foot of snow on the ground, and the wind blew so hard she could hear it whistle. “I mean you’re free to set him up for dialysis three times a week. I can do that for you if you want. But in this economy?”
People held on for too long. Convincing pet owners of this was harder work than actually performing their desired surgeries. Why couldn’t Ally just take their money?
That afternoon a report came over the radio of another storm front, an additional six to eight inches pending. Ally had her office administrator cancel the rest of her appointments and got back home before three. Her answering machine had its light blinking. It was Thomas, asking her out. Asking her out over her answering machine. “Not a date or anything but just grab coffee sometime?” She hadn’t seen him since the wedding, and where had he got her number from? Her mood worsened. Outside, the sky was merely overcast, but here in her front hall it felt like nighttime. Any light that could come to the front of the house was blocked by the front yard’s wall of cypresses, which last fall had developed a virus—“Cypress canker,” the tree man had diagnosed— and would have to be torn out this spring. It was another thing Ally would have to pay for. Just as she’d paid for the dedicated shower head in the master bathroom, and just as she’d paid for the bugscreens in the windows and water in the fridge door. She liked old houses—the wood! the surplus rooms!—but she’d come to hate this one. She felt suckered. No matter how much plastic she blowdried taut across the windows, she moved from room to room as though through a walk-in freezer. Blessed by a working fireplace—she had to pay for chimney sweeping—she’d ordered a whole cord of wood online, but getting it to catch and hold a fire took an entire Sunday edition. “Too green,” Kurt had pronounced one night the newlyweds were over for dinner. “You should get some real kindling.” Exhausted, Ally bought an electric heater instead, one she could wheel to whatever room she had to stand in. Her gas and electric bills for the month of January totaled five hundred eighty dollars.
The weathermen were wrong. That evening just two more inches had dropped, and then to Ally’s relief a warm front moved through the following week, melting the snow from the sidewalks and much of her front lawn. She wasted no time in convincing Aunt Lynne to come pick up more of her furniture, namely the bookshelves that lined a wall in an upstairs room which Ally wanted to line with aquaria—for what kind of veterinarian didn’t have any pets? It was blistering but sunny that Saturday, and Lynne drove up in her station wagon around 4:30, stepping out with enormous sunglasses and a set of white earmuffs smacked like snowballs against her skull. “I don’t know how I’m going to make any room,” she said, embracing her niece on the porch. She smelled of warm wet dough. “Kurt tells me just to sell everything, but ”
“What about this rocking chair?” Ally said. “I think it’ll fit.”
“This old thing?” Lynne gave it a little push. “I don’t know. Kurt doesn’t want to clutter the porch with two chairs.”
“But there are two of you.”
“Well,” she said, and moved to open the door. “So brisk today! Honey, do you have any coffee?”
Marriage had changed Aunt Lynne, Ally noticed. Her aunt’s trademark bewildered melancholy had somehow brightened into a cheery dismay, and now as they moved to the kitchen in the back of the house she could see the breezy, vacant smile on her aunt’s face as she catalogued the alterations Ally had made since her last visit. “It’s lovely to see you make my house your own,” she said, running a finger along the old formica table Ally’d picked up at a junk store the previous week. This was emblematic. For Spinster Lynne, very little had been lovely. Companionship had been grossly overrated, but now Lynne was asking her whether she had anybody else in her life.
Ally pulled a couple of mugs from the cabinet. “Actually, Thomas called me,” she said.
“He said he wanted to take me out sometime.”
Lynne pulled open a drawer full of tea towels. “He’s too old for you,” she said, rummaging.
“Here,” Ally said, taking a spoon from the utensil drawer and sliding over the sugar bowl. “I thought you drank tea?”
Lynne shrugged. “I wonder what his angle is.”
“Are you going to call him back?” she asked.
Was Ally going to call him back? Thomas was too old for her, and he was a fool. But she remembered his cooking and thought if anything she’d get a warm meal out of it. A warm house.
Upstairs, she and her aunt filed in and stood facing the bookshelves like a rival tag team. They were cheap pieces, bought in a box at a big-box store, made of particleboard and allen-wrenched together within minutes. She instructed Lynne to stand and hold the top left corner while Ally would stoop and lift from the bottom right. “It’s the best way to go down stairs,” she said. And on three Ally stood and lifted the bookshelf. The thing wasn’t more than five feet tall, but something in her trajectory threw Lynne off, and as her aunt stepped backward to counteract she lost her balance and fell. Her head hit the wooden floor and the bookshelf fell directly on top of her.
She screamed. “Ally!”
Ally pulled the piece off her aunt’s body. “I’m sorry, I thought you had it.”
Lynne just lay there on the floor, groaning and whimpering, rubbing the back of her head.
“Are you okay?” Ally asked.
Her aunt was in tears. “You didn’t have to throw me down,” she said. Lynne left with a few bruises and nothing else, insistent on waiting until
Kurt and Thomas could come together to move the shelves, which meant they would stand in that room for months. Maybe years.
In time, she decided to give Thomas a call. Where it came from was the cold getting inside her. She felt frigid. Thomas with his Lotharial delusions made her sad, but he was also a man to talk to. On the phone, he spoke at a clip and insisted on picking her up at the house, and before she could refuse he named a day and time and hung up the phone.
He was ten minutes late, and he looked terrible. It was another bright day with another fresh batch of snow on the ground, but even with all the excess sun bouncing everywhere Thomas’s face was dark and deathly, mudpuddles under his sourmilk eyes.
“Thomas,” she said. It was like seeing an abused animal gaze wetly out from her TV screen.
“Sorry I’m late,” he said. His breath had the sharp, burnt smell of a lifelong smoker. “I don’t have an excuse. Should we take a little walk?”
It was twenty-eight degrees out, but here was a form of desperation she hadn’t expected. She stood in her vestibule, letting even more cold air fill her house, held there by her own pity and a refreshed sense of the world’s recklessness. How had this change happened?
“I know it’s cold,” he said. “I brought a thermos.”
And so he had. She locked the front door behind her, and he filled its cap— tepid but strong. He walked and she followed, turning wherever he turned. He had a cripple’s amble, she noticed, cadenced like a motor that wouldn’t turn over.
“So how is your new place?” she asked.
He was crashing on the couch of a coworker, he explained. For the time being. Across the street a woman with plastic sacks hanging from her fists hipslammed her car’s door shut. Thomas stopped in place and led Ally back the way they’d come. Whatever hackles she had went up. These were the wanderings of a crazy person.
“It’s actually why I wanted to see you,” he said. “You got that whole house to yourself. Maybe you could use some help?”
Was it a marriage proposal, Thomas trying desperately to follow in his brother’s recent rite of passage? From the first, she’d seen that Thomas relied more on Kurt than Kurt relied on him. Moving out of that house must have killed him, or a part of him. She asked whether he’d been spending any time over there since the wedding.
“They had me over weeks ago for some dry lamb stew,” he said. “I’ve got an open invitation, but I’ve been busy, you know?”
She finished the last of her little lid of coffee and passed it back. By now they were moving toward a neighborhood she liked not to move toward. “Where are we headed?” she asked.
“Oh, anywhere,” he said. “And nowhere.”
“This is that game you asked my aunt about at dinner?” Thomas nodded.
“You just wander around town, is that it?”
He laughed and began explaining the rules. The whole thing sounded tragic to Ally. The helplessness of it. Removing yourself from a safe known place and letting the world throw you somewhere scary and lost—who’d make a game out of it?
“And you’re still playing it,” she said. “All grown up.”
“Well, it kept us together,” he said.
Who’d ever teach it to antsy children?
“And where has it got you?” Ally asked.
Thomas stopped, held a hand to the small of his back. “Right here,” he said. “I’m right here, and I’m looking at you.”
It was a short date, if it was a date. On the walk home, they crossed the street at the high school, and just at the curb Thomas fell sideways into Ally. She caught him and held him steady as he regained his footing. “Sorry,” he said. “Doc says I ought to get a cane.”
“You know,” she said. “I’m really happy living on my own.”
She looked up at him and saw that he was smiling. “I figured you’d say that,” he said. “You’ve always been a loner.”
It could have been the sourness of the coffee, but hearing this from a virtual stranger was like bile on the tongue. Around them the wind picked up, and the bare branches of the trees that lined this street shimmied like skeletons. Was it true? She had a response cooking, but here they were: back at her lonely home.
“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” Thomas announced at her porch. “I’ll be fifty, can you believe it?”
She tried to smile. “We should all get dinner.”
“One half of one whole century.”
“Another half to go,” she said. “I’m sure.”
Thomas dug something out of his coat pocket. “I got you this,” he said, handing it over. It was a little spoon made from wood, with a handle like a mess of serpents knotted together. “It’s a lovespoon,” he said. “We sell them at the shop. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“It’s nice,” she said. She had to get inside.
“Happy housewarming,” Thomas said. She watched him amble down her walkway, and shut herself back in her house. Coming out of the gloom of his sad game she felt responsible, somehow. Wasn’t this the problem with marriages—they got you involved with people you needn’t be involved with? Who was Thomas other than her father’s sister’s husband’s brother? Who was he to be asking so much of her? Ally stood in her foyer for a long time, rubbing her thumb over the spoon’s bowl as if for warmth. She decided Thomas was wrong. She didn’t want to be alone, but more than money or the love of another person she wanted to move to a city where everyone was a stranger. Including herself. Especially herself.
Ally tried to make a dinner of roasted root vegetables but felt so cold in the kitchen as the sun began to set that her frozen, shivery fingers didn’t work. Instead, she heated a can of soup on the stove and carried it with both hands into the living room, kicking the power button on the heater parked inches from her easychair. Its power light stayed dark. She set the soup down on the end table, turned the power off and back on. Still nothing. She checked the cord, the outlet. Like a bum leg, it had gone out on her. She fell down into the chair, her life this deserted corridor. Every door opening on the same empty rooms. It would be another night of this. Another year. She wasn’t cold, is what she told herself. She had only been made cold.
Ally looked over at the fireplace, where logs had been sitting, decoratively, in her hearth all winter. Too green. A good fire needed kindling, and as she ate her soup she surveyed the wood in the house. Those bookcases weren’t real, and she wasn’t ready to burn Thomas’s frightful lovespoon. She could tear the whole staircase apart, but its varnish? She needed something raw and untreated, aged and dry, and she found it on her front porch, like a package that someone had mysteriously left her. Let her aunt cry about what she’d lost. Ally had her own plans for the porch, and they didn’t involve this old chair. In the cold of the evening she picked it up and raised it over her head. What a thrill to find it was so easy to break. What a thrill to carry it into her house in pieces. The chair was something else now. A wreck. Burning it up made the warmest fire.
Dave Madden is the author of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There. His short fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Barrelhouse, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. He’s received fellowships from MacDowell, Bread Loaf, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and he currently directs the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco.
Originally appeared in NOR 14.