by Mari Christmas
My husband manages a cheap hotel off the interstate five days a week, and every Wednesday night he visits the community center pool. Some days I meet him there. I like to watch him push the water around. It helps with the arthritis, he says, sculling the surface, making frog legs. He believes I deserve an office job, something that allows me to move between cities while wearing a thin blouse. We hardly speak. This is because of all the guilt. I look out across the pool. Children shiver in wrinkled suits, sucking their hair. Inside, it is airless, hazy, the windows fogged. The water a dark tangle of rope. Even though I cannot see him, I know he is there.
After swimming my husband will stay in his small room, equipped with a desk and a plastic lamp, and berate his romantic Romanian pen pal over the phone. He feels the need to give important looks, to demonstrate his rigor over a crowded table, and so forth, even internationally. “If you piss in the corner, I piss in the corner,” he tells her, speaking in English. For two bars of chocolate a month she puts up with all of that. He refuses to learn her language, as he cannot be bothered with the gender of specifics.
Tonight, he comes into the kitchen with the phone saying he wants a son, one he will name Atilla. Atilla? I think. Like Atilla the Hun? I marvel at my attraction to this bareheaded man, whose age has a secure density to it, like a landmark, and how this makes me feel intimately bound to him. “Something that does not weaken the spirit. Nothing that gives him an ironic existence,” he explains to his girlfriend, and then retreats down the hall, padding softly, his shirt untucked. Through the walls I hear him say the name ennobles mankind and something about plundering a northern province. He is never done. He talks and talks. Another blind Milton dictating to his poor daughter. The top of my head says, at least they’re not sleeping together, but I no longer believe in any of that.
I step onto the front porch. At the edge of the yard is a small grove of trees, stiff like death. The largest is an old oak. I gesture towards them. I wanted a child once, I say, looking at the trees, and focusing on that distant shaded place. It sounds all right the way I feel, even if there isn’t any truth in it. I feel alone, so naturally there is a desire to participate in a widely shared experience. A baby, I think, something besides death, something that remarks on the uniqueness of the world, to be the bearer of something more forceful than myself. I imagine a dark knot settling in my body. Something could go wrong, I think. Something always goes wrong. I’ve met too many fearful mothers, withdrawn women full of uncertainty and distrust. Their fear clings to me, follows me around for days like a wet smell. In the mirror I have noticed wrinkles, the fissured skin spreading around the eye. This is what they mean by biological clock I think. I feel the need to touch the corner of my eye. This is where death seeps in, and I begin entering rooms tentatively, searching for evidence of my life. Any hope for offspring has been reduced to finding what can be salvaged from under the bleachers.
According to the ad, my job was to avoid potholes while the old ambulance rattled and bounced all over the highway like a shopping cart. Together we pick up the overweight, the shut-ins, elderly ladies shrunken in housedresses, their arms outstretched like old socks. Ricardo believes everything deserves an explanation and recites Shakespeare to terrify our transports into activity when their vitals start to slip.
“You’re too hard to be pretty,” he often tells me. He sits on a plastic lawn chair wedged in the back, wearing ruined tennis shorts. Ricardo is an upbeat man who occasionally reveals himself in public restrooms and local bookstores. He has an interest in dating larger women from the supermarket and occasionally sings songs to them about being publicly happy. In the afternoons we have sex in the back. My marriage is adrift.
“You’re like an inbred dog, shitting then going through it,” he said, once.
“I think I know what you mean,” I said.
At night I wander the produce aisle, holding lemons and avocados, weighing the latest imports from the third world. Occasionally I spy on Ricardo’s girlfriends as they move sideways through the aisles. He is impressed by their horizontal definition. It startles him. Ricardo tells them that my marriage is a Mobius strip. That people are always adding themselves to it. Maybe this is how we all feel.
I sit in the front while Ricardo tends to an old, dehydrated woman. The ambulance stirs under a red light. She mumbles somewhere in the back, heat-dazed, and Ricardo leans in.
“It’s because you have nothing at stake,” he says, and for a second I forget about the woman and believe he is speaking to me.
I glance at them in the rearview. “Why did you hire a woman?” I ask.
Ricardo scoots his plastic lawn chair, moving away from the woman’s face.
“Okay,” I say. I like the sound of it and look at him impassively. The woman sits up, a little astonished.
“I’ve bedded younger men than you,” she tells him, and then lies down again.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths,” Ricardo whispers. Then he pats her arm and goes on talking about fear and validation.
Later we wait in the parking lot of a nursing home. We are in-between pick-ups. Things are slow. In the passenger seat, Ricardo hums, skimming through a used paperback of Julius Caesar.
“Why are you always sorrowing over things?” he asks.
I tell him I don’t know. He reaches over and pushes the hair from my eyes.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. We are underlings,” he says encouragingly, then he puts the paperback in the glove box and starts cooking ketamine on a hotplate in the back.
I enjoy driving the ambulance. I want to spend my life among people with frightened expressions. It is a calling. I didn’t realize I wanted to do it for so long until I was doing it, riding this ambulance, feeling a knot loosen. “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” Ricardo will habitually shout and I am no longer merging onto the highway; we are soldiers, returning from battle, singing patriotic songs and plodding through an unfamiliar countryside. We wipe away gnats with a widow’s handkerchief and keep our backs to an ass-sweeping wind.
At the hospital, I wait inside the ambulance while Ricardo speaks with intake. Paramedics come over to look at me. These men are always coming over to look at me, taking my hand, my pulse. The blood feels heavy in my marsh-heart. One says I have the face of someone he knew from Prague. He wants to know if I keep a leather-bound journal. I shake my head and the blood begins to circulate. I say I have no thoughts much less those for a journal. This pleases him, so I tip my face to the side in case he wants to enjoy my profile from an altered perspective. I feel the thick swamp inside me. My heart is a pupil, now in the dark, now in the light. Ricardo stands there stupidly winking.
The ketamine has a very different effect on the both of us, but it is a way to pick up on the emptiness. I begin to talk a lot, and about very little. “Blood is thicker than water,” I tell him. “But which would you rather swim in?” Ricardo starts to think he has lost his larynx, which really wigs him out. He uses the rearview mirror to reassure himself while I ramble on about my fading marriage. We drive for hours this way: me incoherent, Ricardo not speaking, staring down the cavity of his open mouth.
There are some existential questions that come with the end of a marriage, and I am making a list of them. For one, I am no longer certain where I am going to be buried. This is what troubles me most, that I do not belong anywhere. Cemeteries confuse me – bodies lining the outskirts of towns, littering the highways. When I drive past the city limits, I look out at the tiny tombstones cropping along the hills, a series of quiet expressions. I do not understand why we bury the dead where they cannot see us. I want to live on one of those hills, where the air feels expansive, rigorous, with wide sweeping gusts.
Now and then the phone rings, carrying Miss Romania’s voice across continents. My husband hasn’t been home for four days. “Hello?” she will say, and I will hang up. Her voice is dry and expensive, as though the heart has not traveled with it.
Perhaps I would be more hurt if they were writing letters.
These bitter thoughts, I say to myself, are having an effect on my face. I replay her voice in my head until I hear it become my own. Hello? I say. Hello. Hello. Then I cup my hand and wave. How the heart cheapens the best of us.
I go outside, silent and pale, the sun and air settling around me and imagine the three of us crowding into bed. I came across a picture of her sleeping, once. And perhaps this is why I always imagine her prostrate, curled, fetal in her sleep. I could tell by the photograph that she lived with very little effort. She had the expression only a beautiful woman longing for anonymity could have.
An hour later, my husband calls. What is this? I think. I am sure he is going to say he’s leaving me, so I hang up.
It doesn’t matter, in a few years his Romanian children will swarm around his legs rubbing their eyes, showing interest in especially bright foods, and I will become one of those women who just sits around then goes insane from loneliness, dying inside-out. I’d rather kill myself, I say, to no one in particular, like those confessional sixties poets. Everyone deserves a bourgeois death these days, not just poets or the sexually cunning. I’ll swallow some pills and stick my head in an oven, impale myself with a Christmas tree if it comes down to it.
I take a walk, raising my arms up and down, then return to the shade and rest my back against the oak’s trunk. Its body casts a large gothic shadow over me, unsettling a force within.
The sun is a bright and thrilling detail, high over the house. I sit for some time facing our house like this, sort of dozing off. The house is small, and there is nothing remarkable about it except for the many windows that trail like ants—windows crowded with ivy and leaves, a clutter of green paintings. I have grown to like watching the tree sink into the dusk, the sun full of romantic energy, the sky sort of sloping off. Even now, I find myself bracing from all the elation.
The realtor who’s showing the house is a middle-aged woman with creases under her eyes like gills, and whose remaining features crowd the center of her face. She is so plain it is hard to tell where to look. She drives people around town, claiming a psychic faculty and parking in the middle of the street. It will be late in the day when she begins to hum then changes directions and brings them here. Husbands will roll down the windows in the backseat; their wives follow her into the house. Inside, everything is emptied of light. They will want to run out of there, back into daylight, but instead will stand blindly in a room with a woman they do not want in front of them.
The realtor and I meet. When she talks, her words lead my brain in dark circles. We sit outside going over the paperwork, signing this, checking that. I hold up the stack and wonder what I have done to deserve this.
“You’re not planning to kill and eat me, are you?” the realtor asks suddenly.
I gaze in the direction of her voice.
“Is that what people do?” I ask. She is standing there, looking both odd and affected, like someone under hypnosis, her head listing slightly. I had never pictured this town as the sort of place with rural murders, bodies buried in peat bog.
I don’t know why I followed her inside walking around our unevenly distributed furniture, going from window to window, down the hall, catching snatches of green from the tree outside. Perhaps I wanted to know how it was done, if I was the one to do it. When I reach the bathroom, I find the realtor kneeling on the toilet and looking out the window. For a moment we forget what has led us there in the first place. Outside, the oak appears wide and romantic. I think, this tree is a woman buried upside down.
There is a breeze, a settled shift in time. I feel it at the base of me, like thunder reverberating at a distance, traveling outwards. I hurry from the bathroom and down the hall, as if I could will my husband to be standing in the driveway, nodding.
Some weirdness has crept into the world.
I arrive at the garage to find we are locked out of the ambulance. I watch Ricardo from the office window, flailing in the dust, while Marie, the office secretary, digs out the spare. Most of the time Marie is alone, describing expensive cardigans on eBay to her sister in Bridgeport, which is what she had been doing before Troy arrived. When she speaks there is something lonely in the texture. Marie is in love with Troy, the garage owner. She chain-smokes in his direction recalling family tragedies and watches him hand out rose stems to the women returning for their cars.
“My mother was one of those drifters who embraced statues in parks,” she once told me. I often arrive to find her facing the open closet buried in coats, stealing buttons off of Troy’s jacket. She insists a vague incompleteness will lead him on a subconscious level to notice her. Marie often stares at Troy’s mole, located on the left side of his cheek. “That mole is a mystery,” she whispers, thumbing a rose stem and nudging her hips into the coffeemaker. Troy is very short and uncomfortable. Older too. Mid-sixties, like my husband, and like my husband, will eat mashed potatoes with his morning coffee. His face is overcooked, dried-out, tired. He has never grown much facial hair, and when he speaks he touches his mole rhythmically while walking around the office, putting his hands on his legs and shouting words of encouragement like the captain of a private ship.
Troy appears from the backroom, grazing Marie’s backside as he passes.
“Here’s something to wash your tits in,” he declares. “Last night I discovered that a Chinese takeout box floats in a bathtub.” Then he stands looking at the two of us and frowns. Troy believes he deserves attractive women and in great quantity, and sometimes stares expectantly toward the horizon. “I once administered a glancing blow to somebody’s face,” he tells us. An older woman passes through and Troy exclaims with joyful contempt, “Phew, it’s an old one.”
I take the keys from Marie and leave.
I have been married for sixteen years and six months, and have spent the majority of that time fantasizing about taking long walks in expensive shoes and sleeping with men like Troy, men who wanted to reshape my thinking. That whole time, I never got used to the idea. Marriage. In my mind, everything was temporary, still moving around. I was continuously taking things out of boxes. Someone would tell me something. “Let me find a place in my brain to put that,” I would say.
Today I was sitting on the bed when my husband called with a statement: our marriage is over. I felt frightened, excited, the whorl of it all. I was learning about my future at a dizzying rate. But I said nothing. I acted like what he had just said wasn’t relative to anything in fact.
“I’d like to lay down in an empty field,” I said, instead. “People would bring me things.” I imagined resting on my back, occasionally rotating like an inconsistent compass.
There was silence on the other end.
I could see my husband putting his finger up, waiting for me to come into range. He did this whenever he thought I was losing focus. I hated that finger. Outside I heard sirens. Then I imagined him on the phone, walking through downtown, or at the airport, or in a plane above the Atlantic, holding his finger up. I didn’t ask him what he meant. Our marriage is over. I wanted to turn this over in my head, but there was nothing to turn over. I figured this was his philosophical position. I waited for the momentary lecture, but nothing came. Everything went dry inside me. A moonscape. I heard the slamming of car doors, the rattling of shifted bins, a police radio. Voices began to gather in the street. I glanced around at the walls thinking how glad I was: When it was all over I would never have to see that finger for the rest of my life. I went to the window. Outside, in the front yard was an ambulance, police cars, and a ladder. I must be dying, I thought. Next to the ladder stood a man with a pole.
“I have to go,” I told my husband, who was still silent on the other end, still holding his finger up. “Write me a letter,” I said, and looked at the tree, then at the man with the pole. There was a word for this. I knew what it was. Heart rot. I whispered the word to myself but I could not believe in this word. A wound in the dark. The idea of it was beyond me and inside me.
The world is rotting, I thought, and pushed the curtain farther.
No one is here to explain this to me.
Where the two main branches split from the oak’s trunk, hung a body. How symmetrical I thought, a dead tree and a dead body. I put my hands out as though weighing the two, as if I held an avocado in one and a lemon in the other. I stared at the body suspended in air, yellow and unmistakably dead, until the first body, the one that had been carrying the pole, returned and mounted the ladder. I watched as this first man climbed and began cutting the rope using a saw. Another arrived and held the ladder. When the rope began to unravel, the body startled into a twist. It was beautiful, all that movement, a flurry of pollen. The man cutting the rope wore a safety harness around his waist. Tools hung from his belt. It was a performance.
I turned away. Everything is a visual fact, I thought, a moment, then a photograph. I tried to remember and then forget what I had remembered. I asked myself, was the man hanging from the oak wearing a polo shirt and shorts? But I did not look. I did not find him repulsive, and yet I stared and stared at my hands until he dropped. When I heard the snap I felt something snap like a bone. What large hands, I thought, now thinking of my husband’s, or now ex-husband’s, finger. Then I returned my gaze to the window.
The world slows down here.
There was a small group now huddled together on the street, death-dazed. All people I knew, but I couldn’t recognize any of them. I must be in shock, I told myself. The more people there are, the more reality becomes distended.
How they stood there, crowding out death.
Then a strange memory crawled inside me. I remembered taking my husband to the bathroom after we bought the house, and how I had wondered if he’d strangle me with flesh-colored tights, divide my belongings, and flee.
A different man now approached the tree, and I watched him. I listened, took note of the steps below me. Three men had climbed that tree. How many were still alive? I’d always had problems with subtraction. I thought, irony and subtraction have a lot in common, then my thoughts altered and the tree became a Plath poem; men are being sucked through an oak straw, eaten, the world discarding them as though part of some shared fate. Why had the hole chosen to open there? What would happen to their bodies, I wondered, and mine? I sat and watched the men wrap the body with a large white sheet and load it onto a stretcher, where it was received by a large white van. How clean everything looks, I thought, like a bathroom. Even his socks. What a fetish.
Then the crowd began to move again.
They turned toward their homes and went inside, locking the doors behind them. I imagine they took showers, slept, watched a mediocre sunrise. They thought of God, his bright hand upon our plain creation, and felt him fleetingly. All summer we’d dream of holes opening up within our bodies, inside, a brightness like death, a surgical light. I rinsed the dishes, my mind quickly glancing at an imaginary man at his imaginary work. Everyday he cut the tree down. Every night I washed the dishes, day after day, each dish a relic.
This is how things are in the north: the surviving tradition of Protestant despair, a culture of reverence and dread. I do not try to understand the tight politeness of its people, its shamefully controlled sex, all that Church handshaking. I was thirty-six and still learning to live without happiness. I had married a man because I needed someone older to tell me what to do. For a while there was a void in my head. Now I do not know if winter will come.
The doctor tells me I have brain fatigue.
I sip on a carton of orange juice, a piece of paper scroll under me. I nod and look away as he asks a series of questions. Are you disciplining yourself mentally? About what? I want to ask. I have nothing at stake. I do not hear voices rising through the columns. Your family? It is small. Very selective. There is no mystery here, no deranged person in my life, no one with an agitated heart. When I close my eyes, the faces of the dead do not come floating towards me under a 5-watt bulb. Were you ever treated unfairly? Are you suicidal? I had an abortion at seventeen, I tell him. It was not a muffled secret but a way of forgetting about a boyfriend, a way of reaching critical mass, not a fetus slumped over. Afterwards I felt no great, yawning grief. I moved on. I had no trouble sleeping that night. Now I often wake to find my hands browsing the broad dark, stirring my thoughts. In these moments I feel my body has a life of its own.
The doctor gives me some words. Words I know: that I am not to be trusted, especially with my own feelings. I do not know what to do so I take up my OJ again. Perhaps I have gotten into the habit of limiting myself? It can happen. I begin to drift away from his voice, choosing to concentrate on the look he gave me instead. It seemed to say: What is it like? Does anyone care? “I suppose not,” I respond.
I feel tired. Maybe I was wrong about everything. I believed in love once, but afterwards it was like waking up to find myself tied to a fence. Like watching a tree being split down the middle.
I sit in the ambulance, staring across the intersection as people cross paths, their bags jostling, their scarves slung across bare forearms, faces throbbing with heat. This sort of weather makes my head sick. The day has been very flat. Everything corresponding. Nothing but one- or two-story rectangular buildings in square plots in this town. Ricardo is asleep in the lawn chair, his feet pushed up on the gurney. The landscape is consistently flat-lining. No mountains. No hills. The sun comes up full and wet. A leaky sun, a drained out sky, nothing that gives it a pulse, everything a two-dimensional distance. I think, this is what I need: Grays and browns, everything flat, rock bottom, scorched earth, and at the end of the day, a return to the garage. I just want to sell the house, to leave this place.
I decide to park the ambulance and walk to the library. Downtown is an ocean, people as common as waves. Each day the city becomes more estranged. Everywhere there is heavy water. I remain fixed despite all the melting and thawing.
As I am walking, my phone rings. I pick up. It is a woman. Her voice comes out long like songs being played through a tunnel. She has no idea who I am, she just starts talking in that sing-song way. She tells me absence makes the heart cruder. I need to work through some stuff so I let her go on. Her mouth is never empty. She says reviving a penis after sex is like rubbing a newborn kitten back to life.
After a while she wants to know what I am wearing. I know I sound like a woman. I know I sound like sheaves and sheaves of women. After a while she realizes I won’t be taking anything off and tries to hang up.
“Hold on, hold on,” I say. “I just need someone to talk to. My daughter’s sick.” I don’t know why I make these things up. On the spot like this. That I have a daughter. And in that same second, I try to kill her off. But maybe I am that daughter. My mother took me aside on my wedding day, the sun so bright it nearly burned my contacts into my eyes. She said, “Take a dream and cleave to it,” but I only heard, “Take a dream and cleave it.” No one goes through life without ruining something.
The woman I am talking to does not know this daughter, but the way I go on and on about her makes her reconsider. She is tall. She has light brown hair. She isn’t very athletic. I must be very convincing because in the end I convince myself. The irony is lost on me.
I tell the woman I have to go, that I am at the library, and she says a library is a very useful place to be moved. It’s true, I say, at the library there are always books whose main purpose is to move you, then I hang up.
The things I read at the library only send me into silence, but it is a false quiet that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. Here, when you are moved, even slightly, you cannot help but feel it because of this false quiet. Part of me wants to be moved because I am having some difficulty feeling moved, and because of this difficulty, I don’t know if I am a kind person anymore, and I know a kind person would be moved by many things, and the kindest person would be moved greatly by the smallest thing.
I get up and walk around the stacks to demonstrate I still know my way. When I return to the table with my books, I take a nap. When I wake up I say, “I need a new child. This one is broken.” She is something I have acquired, like the end of the world.
I receive a letter from my husband. I hold it in front of me as if it is an artifact, a map. Then I take my finger and trace in and out of the sentences. I suppose it is written in Romanian. My finger becomes a small ambulance running through the streets, collecting the dead. Then I take the letter inside and am in the shower at some point. Then I sit in the living room for a very long time, holding the letter up to the many windows, the paper translucent against the green light.
In the morning, Marie is eating at the counter and does not look up. Her mouth is a window, opening and closing. I feel disgust and tenderness simultaneously and the room becomes very wide and very present in a way that does not make me remote. For a long time there had been a language sitting in my mouth.
I walk up to her and say, “A man hung himself in my yard.”
Marie puts down the burger and eyes me boldly. Her eyes are always overturning things. I can feel the way I look: this hollowed thing. I don’t want to talk about my marriage so I go and lie down on the floor behind the counter. Marie watches. She has small hands that match her small face and I imagine her using these to cover her mouth, dabbing at the corners. She is always so solemn.
I just lay there behind her desk talking in that language of the dead stranger while Marie watches. Down here the water is clear and swiftly moving. I think, she will tell me to get over it. I believe she knows the response to this enormous thing that I face, that she will look past the evidence and, with a fictional sweep, remake it. Instead Marie looks out the window wistfully.
“He died, lingering by a tree,” she says, then takes my hand and helps me up.
I walk into the street, a child holding onto Marie’s arm. A street can lead us anywhere, I say, thinking my simple child-thoughts. I imagine Marie guiding me to a sacred place with water. I want chanting to precede me, for women covered with ashes to massage my feet and apologize. If there is water I will get into it up to my neck, I think. The air has an antiseptic quality. Cold, dry. We cut diagonally across and into the park. Everything quiet on a shifting surface. We are wandering under a dark sky.
“He hung himself,” I begin to repeat, again.
“He lingered, then he died.”
“The rope killed him. The rope, then gravity,” I say.
“The tree expelled his presence. You feel an idiosyncratic dread,” she says.
“Have it your way.”
“It is a long illness, lingering. My father died that way. He spent his life at a factory popping tops onto ibuprofen bottles.”
We pass several empty benches then stand by an empty fountain.
“Sometimes I meet men in the woods and tell them where I live,” Marie says, looking inches ahead. A pair of men walk by. “Do you know that one in the blue sweater?” she asks. I shake my head. Marie sighs, her breath naked before us. “He was in a band once that sounded like a twelve year old girl I used to know.”
I imagine Marie having sexual entanglements, going to rock shows. Marie as a low-light, full-shade type, the kind that’s always busily trying to get inside herself. Ahead is a small hill. I have the sudden urge to climb it, to photograph her from a slightly elevated spot.
Crossing the street, we look towards the garage and find Troy staring out the window. When we return he looks at us quizzically while Marie moves along the walls of the room, kneading the sleeves of her sweater. Troy stands motionless for sometime, perhaps to look more serious, thoughtful, then quickly glances around the room after Marie.
“Always on the move, these ladies,” he says. “I like women with stealth.”
It is another summer. All spring, it rained like it was going someplace deep.
Marie and I share a booth. She and Troy are seeing each other, if that’s what you call it.
Ricardo sits across from us, occasionally moving his legs, building an altar out of the condiments. Marie writes in her journal. I order a banana split, and suddenly it feels very July.
“One day you’ll be fat,” Ricardo says, watching me eat, saltshaker in his hand. He is in a resentful mood today. I give him a hooded look, taking small bites from the spoon. “You should be thankful I am telling you this,” he continues. “Maybe not today or tomorrow, but one day you’ll realize I was telling you this because I love you. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t be here telling you this. Only someone who loves you would tell you this” and on and on. Marie looks up every so often from her journal to lick the nib of her pen. What a slow passage.
Back inside the ambulance Marie lays on the gurney like a dead woman, her leftover burger sitting on her stomach in a clear plastic container. She is not in good shape.
“The valiant never taste of death but once,” Ricardo is telling her, bent over the hot plate.
I run the engine to keep the AC going while the ketamine cooks, and look out the window. Above the buildings is a violet sweep of sky. I strum the wheel. Puff my cheeks.
When we pull into the garage, Marie spies Troy attempting to lope around some trees. A sort of storm-lit anger passes over her. She sneezes into the crook of her arm and makes her way to the front, her journal in one hand, leaving the ambulance in an agitated silence. Ricardo strides across the wet lawn toward Marie. They have become close.
I often wonder about Marie. What a proselyte, I think. What a button-hoarder. When Troy is there she can’t file paperwork. Her day is menial, filled with slow movements, non-events, timely delays. She answers the phone using a mild voice. She mixes up the keys constantly, and the customers mistake her large, watery eyes for crying. But they never complain. “Is he good to you?” the men ask, as if this greatly troubles them.
Marie and Troy are having a fight, part of a series, something about a woman. I am not surprised. He is always hoarding estranged wives. I turn to see Marie and Ricardo slip into the garage.
Troy calls out after them, “I want to say cruel things. I want to hear the weeping of my ex-wives,” and the window opens. Marie leans out, raining a handful of buttons down on Troy’s now fast-moving figure. “Say you’re sorry,” Marie shouts, and I glimpse his windbreaker through the trees. “I’d rather die than hide in the shame of an apology,” he repeats. It comes out like a song. He is moving polyester, recklessly dodging between the pines. Another hail of buttons and Troy says something about discarding women being part of his faith. I wipe the sweat from my lip and go inside. It is too hot for this.
When Troy appears he does so quietly, his eyes resting on the counter, where Marie’s hamburger lays half-eaten. Marie is by the closet, hunched over.
“The things I want to do to this burger, I cannot do in polite company,” Troy says, his rapid breath alive under the fabric. He begins opening and glancing into the cabinets, swallowing powerfully, hoping to trick Marie into admitting some kind of animal truth. Perhaps that she still loves him.
Some mornings, a string of light appears over the horizon, and in the middle a knot of sun. I have heard it is common for trees to develop this kind of rot. Natural even. It is not unusual for a tree to thrive after its heartwood has been completely decayed. For a while it is a dense, bright place. I was never lost in this house. But living here is no longer possible.
I put on a blouse and decide to punish myself by translating my husband’s letter. When I am about halfway through, I start to laugh. I guess I had expected long, tortured descriptions of his suffering. I am not sure if his Romanian is bad or just my translation. In one place he writes, “The rats have come back to hug and jump. I go from one mousehole to the next.” In another, “Marriage is all that unpleasantness: a homeless man viciously demanding my things.” What follows is a description of Miss Romania, a “grassy-brained, potential communist,” then a long explanation as to why there is no such thing as responsibility, only guilt. I had wanted nothing from this marriage, like a burglar who breaks into homes, walks around, and takes nothing. How easy it is to recognize our lives from afar.
I sit in my husband’s room and call a crew to cut down the tree. Let them come, I think. That’s where they discovered the hole, inside the split of the tree where a stranger hung dead, dropped like an anchor.
In the afternoon, I walk downtown to the library and wait for Marie with an open book in my lap. I turn my face towards the skylights. Wood and rafters stream over me. One day, I will come across a beautiful book, I say to myself. What I mean by that is, it will be a beautiful book to look at. Something I will want to wear around my throat like a necklace. Inside the book will be some lines about the ocean. I will twist these lines around my neck like string around the fingers. I imagine one of the lines will be, “The ocean comes in at all directions.” I think about this for some time. I sit on a flat and hard bench and the ocean becomes flat and hard. I try thinking about the things that startle me, feeling that this is a kind of movement. I come up with a list: when my coffee becomes cold before I am through with it. When Ricardo sings me fragments of songs I do not know. Or, when he darts his tongue between my teeth and whispers, “An ugly patch is nicer than a pretty hole.” When a book I love has another’s annotations, I feel I am interrupting a conversation. Then, when I write something in a book, I become afraid that as I am writing, someone else is coming up behind my words and eating them. Eating them up! I sit up straight and say aloud, “You’re exerting yourself in all the wrong places.” The man next to me flings his head back and does a beautiful eye roll. He seems to be making sense of the world around us, as if that were the most obvious thing to do.
Mari Christmas is a Japanese and American writer whose work has appeared in FENCE, Black Warrior Review, Juked (Web), Apogee, and elsewhere. She received the 2013 Black Warrior Review Fiction Prize and served as the artist-in-residence at Surel’s Place and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. She has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame (2014) and is a current doctoral candidate in English at the University at Albany. She writes from upstate New York and southeastern Idaho.
Illustrations by Devan Murphy