Alcee sat at the back of the streetcar holding a cheap paperback. He considered the freshly barbered neck of the man in front of him, the sheen of his collar, the set of his jaw. He incorporated these things into the narrative in his head that described his life in the third person. Then he reached up and pulled the cord.
The place used to be some doctor’s, some banker’s. It was a three-story townhouse, looking perfectly respectable in the morning light. As he went in the kitchen door he could already hear the drip of the faucet. He began to manipulate the faulty joint with a wrench. His sister came in still in her dressing gown. It stretched across her hips and took its place in the story unfolding in his head. “I’ve had it with this goddamn plumbing. I’m thinking of buying one of those new places out at the Lakefront.” She set his cup of coffee on the counter and turned and walked off, her footsteps disappearing into the plush.
One afternoon after his wife’s death he found himself in a room on Burgundy with his pants around his ankles. He paid the woman and as he stepped out onto the street again, he missed Elena with such force that he stopped and steadied himself in a doorway. He started slowly away. He was ashamed. But he was no longer marking time.
Paul, in the entryway, wished to conceal himself. He wished he hadn’t come. He had set something in motion—a terrible mistake, hat in his hand, looking down at the tiles, glancing once or twice at his watch.
The uniformed maid comes to the door and he follows her, sinking into himself. A curvature. A question mark. The double parlor was all brocade and gold leaf. Birds of paradise stand stiffly in a porcelain vase. He can see his head in the polished wood of the arm of the chair where he sits, distended and miniature, his hat resting on his knee. His eyes follow the rose trellises up the wall to where the stalk of a spinning fan springs from a plaster lotus.
He has a feeling that is like being in a crowd waiting on a sidewalk under a flashing marquee and turns to see her standing next to him.
When he was growing up in that house he used to listen to the men talking. A man with a large, florid face would thrust advice at Paul as he lifted his cocktail from the tray. Paul had secretly decided that man was his father. He dedicated himself to learning what he took for granted—he would be like that. But without wanting to, he pitied them. He heard them mocked behind their backs, their small, fragile, hidden selves. Their ridiculous fetishes. They came here to be strong—or they came here to be weak. They would never be half as strong as the women stuck there doing penance for lost souls.
In New Orleans there had always been places where white men went because they wanted black women. Sometimes, most of all, when they looked almost white. Like she did. Almost. And now so did he. No businessman, waiter or housewife had ever noticed it, no matter what they told themselves about smells, the hue of fingernails, whites of eyes. He knew how to act in that vast and variable theater of everyday life. As for the self he’d left behind—was there anything left behind?
One afternoon when he came home from school, most of her things were gone. He had unfolded a piece of pale pink paper that smelled like perfume—not hers. When they got where they were going she would send for him, she said. She loved him very much. He had never seen her again.
It had never been his mother who made him go to school. Who forced him out of bed and shoved something to eat in his hand. Angie was the one who had pushed him out the door in the mornings, and he’d wondered if it was because she wanted him out of the way. If she’d been protecting him. If it was out of some guilt that she’d helped make him.
She puts her hand on his arm in a rough way.
“Paul. You need something?”
Of course that was a lie. She was good at knowing when you were lying.
After his mother left, he spent nights wandering. Then days and nights. He left the house because the only thing there was fucking and sadness. But when a letter arrived for him months later, Angie had gone to look for him. She’d found him in a three-room shotgun on Ursulines, asleep on a pile of blankets. He could still recall the dust, piss smell of them. He jumped when he heard her steps but she stopped him before he could reach for the crowbar. She gave him the letter. She already knew what was in it. She took a few bills from her purse and tucked them under his leg. Come on home, she said. But her house would never be home. Not even for her.
Now, still, a slow molasses creeps through his veins. A longing—and Angie was the only person who might know, if not where his mother had gone, then who his father really was. His father, who had become a hole into which things slipped. A bottomless and grasping place that was now the center of him. Just now, the center of him.
She stands there looking at him after he’s stammered it out. She’d heard his mother went abroad. To France. It could have been Italy. He thought she was going to say his father was just another one of those rich white boys. Dime a dozen, honey.
Instead, she closes her eyes. She looks weirdly tender and exposed and he has to avert his gaze.
“He came from a big old plantation up by St. Francisville,” she says. “Called something like Daydream. Wounded in the war, I think. Walked with a limp. Sometimes he’d edge his way onto the piano bench and play a duet with Tony. His fingers were so light Tony didn’t even mind it that much. Your mama once told me he used to write her verses.”
He can hardly believe she knows. Maybe she was making it up.
“You look just like him,” she says.
Feeling half-assembled, Paul adjusted the brim of his hat and went out into the sun. As he stepped onto the banquette a man rounded the corner of the house carrying a canvas bag full of tools. They both stopped at the same time.
“Alcee. Good to—see you.”
It wasn’t good to see Alcee and never had been, but maybe that was just because he was Angie’s brother and he was a man, and somehow Paul had seen him growing up as someone who could have saved him if he chose. Taught him something he could have used, for once.
“Paul. Man—how’ve you been?”
“Fine. Got a good job?”
“I’ve been selling fences.”
“Well that’s fine.”
“Still fixing leaks. Lost my wife a few years ago.”
“I didn’t know. I’m real sorry to hear that.”
Alcee paused for a second before he took out his wallet. The leather had been polished to a high gloss in his pocket. “Here. Take my card. Never know when you might need a good plumber.”
He started late, stopped at dusk at some motel flashing Vacancy. Just Inn Time or The Cavalier. A woman with galaxies of blood spangling her cheeks gave him the key to a little room with a chenille coverlet, the bathroom window opening onto a field scattered with dandelions. He could hear her radio late into the night. The sheets were rough with the sweat of some other traveler. By morning they’d twined around his legs and he felt as if he’d hardly slept.
At a restaurant on the main street he sat with his cup of coffee, listening to men in caps with reddened faces discussing the price of new farm equipment, a small-town lawyer in a seersucker suit, his left hand straying toward the briefcase on the floor. They weren’t too far from Angola. Paul wondered what the lawyer’s business was, thinking about men hoeing cabbages under the eye of a fellow inmate who would kill them if they ran. A waitress set a plate of eggs and buttered toast in front of him.
When he’d finished eating he went back into the wash of morning sunlight to look for the place. He passed bright green fields and graying sharecroppers’ shacks, an old plantation store selling gasoline, fenceposts overgrown with peavine. The curve of the road followed the river. It occurred to him that he had only a vague sense of where he was going. He stopped and studied his map, the lines on it just tangles of earth and water, then drove on. A few more miles along the levee and his eyes began following a hewn fence up and down until it opened onto a long drive.
For some reason he can’t really define, the place arrests him. It seems not familiar but outsized. Oak trees bend protectively over the rutted lane. Moss hangs from them, almost low enough to touch through the open windows of the car.
The house appears before him in miniature. He can see its columns, laid out with classical certainty, the shade of its wide galleries. He can see the disorder that could never be contained by such fabrications. The stucco is crumbling and the cypress feathered by termites. Blind nubs of ivy roots scrabble at the flaking paint. Reverie.
A white woman sits in a rocking chair, one empurpled hand curved around the head of a cane. Maybe she couldn’t hear the twigs crushed under his shoes. Her eyes seek purchase on the variegated oval of his face. He might be no more than a pale blur adrift on a pallet of branches. The skin that spread across the planes of her face looked as soft as a flayed calf. He catches the scent of wild roses. Next to her a woman with her hair wrapped in a faded cloth rocks in an identical chair. A profusion of camellias. Whispering leaves, the tender calls of a songbird.
Paul grips his case of samples. His cover story. Trying to peer down the long passageway leading to himself, having rehearsed what he would say, now submerged in the sense that it would not be enough, that he would have to tell the truth.
“Good morning.” He forces his voice into a lower register. “My name is Paul Rousselle. I happened to be passing. I’m a salesman, I sell fences. I noticed the split wood along the road there. And I thought to myself, that’s a lovely fence. But maybe I could interest the owner in something new.”
“Well my lands, Rosa. Ask him to stay.”
He glances at the two chairs set against the wall. The seats need recaning.
“Tell us what’s happening out there in the world.”
He thinks for a minute. “Russia has the atom bomb.” All the time what he came to say, unsaid, is greedily siphoning.
Rosa brings crackers and hardboiled eggs and bowl of sweet pickles. He eats to be polite and afterward helps her carry the plates back into the kitchen, crossing the threshold into cool, crowded rooms. Broken slats let in stray shafts of light.
“You want to wash up it’s down that hall,” Rosa says, turning away.
The lavatory was cut from space meant for something else. The floor slopes. He sets the toilet lid down again, trying not to make noise.
She’s finishing the dishes when he comes out and she tells him to wait. He can hear her uneven gait ascending the stairs. She’s gone for a long time. A cockroach kicks on its back in a corner, some fading electrical stimulus that isn’t quite life.
At last he can hear her coming back. He imagines her strong hand, almost as large as a man’s, tightening around the lazy curve of mahogany. When she reappears she’s holding a heavy silver frame. She lays it on the counter and his own face stares up at him, wearing the dress blue of a commissioned officer. Since they’d entered the house, she hasn’t said more than a few reluctant syllables. Now she asks,
“What are you doing here?” Sympathy and wariness flicker in her face.
Somehow he knew he couldn’t lie to her, either. “I wanted to find my father.”
“He’s dead. Hung himself.” Then she adds, “There’s no money left.”
“I didn’t come for money.”
“If I’d been born with skin as white as yours, I might do the same.”
The anger was for his dead father, and even the blinkered woman on the porch who presided over the crumbling empire that produced him.
“I didn’t come for money,” he repeats.
“Of course being dead doesn’t change things that much,” she says. “There’s still family to think of.”
She begins to turn the small silver hinges that held the photograph to the glass, separating the glossy head from the cardboard, and pulls out a folded scrap of paper.
“You’re not the only one,” she says after what seems like forever. “He had another child. A little girl. I know because he brought her here himself once. Her mother was one of those country girls who lived out where they used to have a place. Before most everything got sold off. Daughter of a white dirt farmer. Said he’d found her a home with somebody who used to work for him.”
She talks like an oracle, circumspectly. Forcing him to put most of it together himself.
“What about me?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t know. Maybe it was because it was a girl. He didn’t like to think of her growing up there. He knew what would happen to her.”
She hands him the piece of paper. It feels untouched but fragile. He might have been the first, maybe the second, person to unfold it. He puts it in his pocket.
When they step onto the porch again, the white woman’s head has fallen forward, the cascade of slack skin at her throat trembling faintly with her pulse.
He thinks, by the time she wakes up, she’ll have forgotten you completely. In the rear view mirror, driving away, he can see them rocking as if moved by the respiration of the earth.
There was nothing for it but to go back to work after that. He took the streetcar down and then switched to the Desire line. The boss said that was his territory so he had every reason to go back. It wouldn’t seem suspicious.
He’d already passed the woman’s house several times that morning. Now he pulled over and walked across the street and up the steps. As a station wagon turned down Bartholomew Street, impervious to the clang of the streetcar, the door of her house opened. Now she was looking up from the bunch of keys in her hand. She was waiting for him to say something.
“Good, good, good morning. I represent the Standard Fence Company. We offer the finest in steel fencing. More durable than wood. Easy to maintain. Attractive. Custom. What you need.”
He’s been canvassing this neighborhood for a week, trying to replace picket fences with modern design. He tells her all about it. On her side of the threshold, standing there with her keys in her hand, she seems to be listening.
He’s forgotten to tell her his name. He tells her, and what she says back sounds so much like a spell, an incantation, it washes the memory of the word from his mind.
Callie woke up that morning in her single bed to sounds from the adjoining room. Staring up at the ceiling, she listened to coffee in the percolator and the scrape of a butter knife across two pieces of toast. The faint creak of the sock drawer. Then, when she heard the front door close, she got up.
Her calendar was pretty much blank. Mardi Gras would be late next year and the orders were only just starting to come in. She picked her purse up with some intention of going shopping for fabric. Then the man selling something—she vaguely understood it had to do with the yard, which was so small it barely existed—had appeared. He was strangely tongue-tied. She met his eyes, a pale blue-green. It was only nine o’clock in the morning.
“Coffee?” she asked, aware that he’d stopped talking.
The long hall leading to the kitchen was sweet with the smell of paint. He brought his sample case to rest on the table and sprung the clasps. The burnished finials were the shape of spaniels, setters and thoroughbreds, a crosshatching of silver wire fitted into a cheap red velvet.
“Imagine a tropical storm bearing down on the city. Winds so strong they’ll bend the trees and shatter your windows if you let ’em. A wood fence like the one out there will turn into nothing but scrap scattered from here to Pass Christian. But a Standard Fence, ma’am, it’ll stay secure, ’cause it’ll be rooted in solid concrete. Guaranteed for half a century. That’s no joke, ma’am.”
She must know he doesn’t really want to sell her a fence. He just wants to look at her.
“Well,” she saus, like she’s considering it. “I’d have to discuss it with my husband.”
What he should do now is leave, his coffee half drunk. Instead he says, “I’ll be happy to come back after you and your husband have had the opportunity to talk it over.” The way they taught him in the training session for new employees. He’s not supposed to let her off the hook. He takes one of the brochures from the pocket inside the case.
“If you show him this, he’ll see the value for himself.”
She offers him more coffee. He waits a second too long before declining and she’s picking up his cup to refill it as he’s getting up from the table. They stand there looking at each other.
She glances down at the brochure in her hand. His name slants in careful cursive along the bottom. His penmanship is beautiful. Paul, he’d written. Roussell.
“Can you come back on Wednesday, Mr. Roussell?”
Like it or not, people gave you cookbooks as wedding gifts. She liked it. The illustrations, lime green or the pink of a fresh sunburn. The obscure, complicated recipes. After Paul Roussell had gone she returned to the kitchen and took down her copy of Betty Crocker. She didn’t think she could go out now. She didn’t trust herself. She’d try to spend the rest of the day preparing dinner. In the book there was a photograph from inside the Betty Crocker corporate headquarters. A plump receptionist trapped inside a small round desk like a doughnut. It was impossible to know how she’d gotten inside, in her glasses and girdle, beneath a large portrait of Betty Crocker. But Betty Crocker wasn’t real.
Callie closed the book and set it aside. She wasn’t going to spend the day cooking. She wasn’t going to spend it doing anything at all.
She’d met Robert one afternoon about five years ago, in the art museum. That wasn’t strictly true. They’d been at high school together. Their names were somewhat familiar to each other and maybe they’d even spoken once or twice. Had that been him? Had that been her? They talked easily, neither of them having anything better to do. She’d been studying the lines of eighteenth-century gowns that day and he’d been about to go look at some sculpture. His father owned an import company, and—he mentioned this casually—he’d be starting in the office next week. He’d just returned home after a few months in Panama learning the business from the ground up.
The following Friday night they had coffee and beignets and relaxed into each others’ company as if an outrageous party was happening around them that they never quite managed to join.
He’s considerate. They rarely argue. But it’s as if he’s made a study of how men are supposed to behave and does it skillfully. As if he speaks the language with a faint foreign accent. As if, even after years among the tribe, he still feels bemused by its customs.
She ended up frying chicken. Flies, scenting the greasy paper, arced through the open window and then he came in, smiling, and brushed her cheek. He sat down to eat right away. He said, “This is delicious.”
He set his knife and fork at the four o’clock position like he always did when he was done and lifted his napkin to his mouth. She pushed the glossy brochure across the table.
“What do you think, honey? A salesman came by today. He made it sound like a good deal. Like something that would last awhile. I was thinking maybe we should go ahead. You know those neighbor dogs are always coming into the yard and digging up the flowers.”
Robert picked up the brochure and looked it over. She seeing him touching it, when before it was something that just she and Paul had touched.
He seemed skeptical, heming and hawing. But she knew he’d agree if it was what she wanted. He had been willing to agree to things ever since, ever since—
The fence is going to be ugly. She knew she’d quickly come to dislike the mechanism of the gate and the tacky feel of the metal in the high humidity of summer. But she wanted to leave a mark on this place, and it felt right that it should be a light scar around the perimeter.
Since sometime around the end of March, Robert had stopped coming home. That is, he still comes home, but not every night. The first time he told her some things had gone missing and someone had to stay overnight at the warehouse. And then he was driving down to Vermilion Parish after a storm, taking one of the workers to see about his grandmother. Robert was the kind of man to do that. It didn’t change the fact that she no longer believed him.
“Well, if you think so,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I suppose we could use a fence.”
Wednesday morning she can make out Paul’s blurred head and torso through the starry glass. Jasmine and oak leaves and wet cane fields waft into the dim hallway as she opens the front door. The children sitting by the windows in the segregated classrooms of Francis T. Nicholls High School, the woman washing the neighbor’s laundry, the tradesmen leaving the union hall, it fills their lungs equally and lifts them briefly into another world, a better one.
When the alarm by his bed burst with its tinny ring, Paul had been dreaming about her. After the dream he feels he knows her, the way you know someone whose voice you hear often on the radio. But when she appears in the doorway he mouths only the most generic pleasantries. What will he do if she tells him she’s not interested after all? But she chooses the thoroughbred finials and elects to pay on the installment plan. Mere pennies a day.
He hands her a receipt. He consults the calendar they gave him and spins the little wheel.
“Your fence will be scheduled for installment on the seventeenth. I’ll be here to oversee it. That’s part of the Standard Fence guarantee.”
He’s sure she can tell he invented the last part. But he can’t think of any other way to see her again.
Growing up in an apartment over her father’s store, the kind of place people went when they needed one screw, or the frayed cord of a toaster repaired, or the blades of a lawnmower sharpened, Callie’s childhood had been scattered with odds and ends. Things people got rid of, then realized they needed again. The bureau in her old bedroom still contained small catchments of shame and loss—an old diary, poems, letters, photographs. She’d decided to throw it all away at last.
Reaching into the bottom drawer she pulled out a small album and began to leaf through it. She’d spent a long-ago afternoon pasting everything in order. But between a high school yearbook picture and an old dance card she found something she’d never seen before.
She had no more than two or three memories of the person she knew must have been her mother. Just the melancholy scent of old perfume. A voice calling as she sat on the floorboards, enraptured by an insect. An unformed face, like a teenager’s. The baby in her arms might be a week old, oblivious, soon hungry. Herself.
“Tell me about her,” she’d demanded of her dad. “Tell me a story.” And he’d told her of visiting his grandmother, a room smelling of camphor and sun-dried sheets on the second floor of a house near Natchez. One afternoon he’d gone for a walk in the fields. He walked and walked and finally he saw a young woman coming toward him. She was carrying a large basket and she seemed to be laughing to herself. She had long black hair that shone in the sunlight coming through the pines. And, looking at her, he felt himself propelled, exhilarated, into the unknowable future. That was what he told her, though not in so many words.
She wakes up at four thirty in the morning with a new memory as vivid as broken glass. She’d been home from school with a cold. Warming herself on the balcony she could hear the neighbors talking, their voices remarkably clear in the still air. Then she realized they were talking about her.
Now, waking up in the dark, she finally remembers what they’d said.
Lying in his narrow bed, Robert thought he smelled charred coffee. Then he was sure he did. A gray cloud of incinerated commodities, billowing and spreading over the riverfront—the destruction brought with it an acrid pleasure he wouldn’t have expected. He breathed in and before he knew it he was thinking, I’ll have no choice but to start over now.
Hurling himself out of bed with the grace of an amphibian between elements, he raced into the kitchen and yanked the percolator plug from the wall. The coffee—Callie must have forgotten it and gone out early.
The warehouse was still intact. He could see it, driving down Chartres Street, looking exactly as it had yesterday. He had the sense that he was dreaming everything these days. As he pulled into his usual parking place, ships were traveling up and down the wide brown river. Men were unloading burlap sacks from a Central American freighter and he could hear their voices echoing in the hold.
He stood watching them for a few minutes before walking up the steps to his office. His desk was covered with ledgers, a couple of Spanish dictionaries, a photo of the springer spaniel he’d bought Callie that had died last year.
He was often late for work these days. Fifteen minutes, half an hour. He hadn’t been sleeping well. Those nights he didn’t come home had been spent parked in the Quarter listening to music coming from bars. He caught glimpses of transcendence in the sound of a kid blowing his horn, like a bright flag in the dust. He’d fall asleep in his car in places he believed weren’t safe. He could no longer be happy in that small old corner of things where people told him he was a lucky man. A vertiginous rush was pulling him toward a world he could only guess at and only half wanted to see. He thought he smelled wet canefields and bananas wrapped in burlap. He could almost feel the adhesive texture of the green bananas and hear the soft crack of their breaking stalks. He wondered if the huge tropical spiders that crawled out of those bunches went to live in the tangles of vine along the fences and dug burrows in ladies’ flowerpots.
He left again at five after doing almost nothing, stretched his arms in front of him, fingers interlaced, like he’d watched his father do, and started walking, not toward home but the opposite direction. Telling himself he’d just go as far as Esplanade and then turn back. He nodded to an old man sitting on his stoop who was pulling on a cigarette. A woman who must be his daughter appeared in the doorway, red-faced. He could smell their food cooking. It disturbed him to see children growing old with their parents.
He’d come down to the District with his father once—on his birthday. He’d stood looking up at the dark narrow building, four stories high. As they went inside a man was playing the piano and a few couples leaned into each other, dancing. He spent fifteen minutes upstairs with a girl whose body was like rising dough. His father, just lighting a cigar as he came back down, had looked up in surprise. He’d paid for the whole hour.
Now he pushed open the door of the bar he went to on nights like this one. The bartender set a plate of oysters in front of the man next to him, and then got him a beer without bothering to ask what he wanted. The man with the oysters turned to him, a shock of hair falling across his forehead, one eyebrow barely raised. As if to say—Join me?
The fence went in, a gleaming tangle of metal. Paul and Callie were careful not to stand too close to each other. They watched the men digging holes and sinking tubes into the poured concrete.
“My dad would close the store and take me downtown for lunch,” she told him. “He’d say something like, Napoleon would have arrived in New Orleans today if he hadn’t been hustled off to that rock. Let’s go out for lunch to celebrate it. And we’d go to Woolworth’s for bacon and tomato sandwiches. And he’d tell me all about Napoleon in exile.”
“You want to go today?” he said. “Maybe this is a special day.”
“It is,” she said without looking at him.
When the truck left she went inside, changed her clothes several times and put on lipstick.
They took his car to Carondelet Street to a restaurant where she was pretty sure she wouldn’t see anyone she knew. Passed a shoeshine man’s rag flying, bouquets of yellow chrysanthemums.
Paul picked up a toothpick in a paper envelope, looked at it, put it back on the table. He pushed the large oval plate covered with empty shells, the garnish of curly cabbage half-buried in used lemon wedges, off to one side so he could reach for her hand if he dared.
She’d been talking about when she was a kid. He’d been playing along. He used to go to Woolworth’s, too, if Angie had given him a couple of dimes to spend, and it was worth at least that much for the thrill of seeing if he could get away with keeping the money and stealing something instead. Paul was an actor playing someone much like himself. He’d known from an early age that he could disappear. He’d developed a taste for it.
“But I don’t go there anymore,” she was telling him. “That day he was talking about how the United States had annexed Puerto Rico, but I wasn’t paying attention because I’d noticed a pretty girl with her mother, a little colored girl about my age. Her mother wanted to buy her a new hat and a dress and I heard the clerk say to her, You understand these items are not returnable. But when he bought me dresses he never knew the right size. We always brought things back. I put my hand on his arm and said, go talk to her, she doesn’t know they can return those things. He took so long to answer me, that little girl and her mama were out on the sidewalk by the time he said, That’s just how it is. “
Paul knew she was watching him. He pulled out his wallet and smiled across the table at her. “Let’s go,” he said.
The young man behind the glass handed Paul the tickets and they ascended to the balcony just as the curtain parted on that immense white field. Paul never took for granted that he could pass his money across through the window and the man on the other side would give him the tickets without a second glance.
After the picture, Callie lingered in the lush silence of the ladies’ room with her purse open, examining her face. A woman came in pulling a child behind her. The child stared up at Callie, a licorice rope hanging limply from her hand.
Paul waited under the posters of coming attractions. She noticed that they moved almost imperceptibly more slowly than before, like each glance and gesture was being consumed by a rapt, invisible audience.
Martinique Alley was nothing more than a block of dust between Rampart and St. Claude. Chickens darted and preened amid the untended growth. He turned the lock. It was just a room. She wished she minded what she was doing even a little, but all she could think was how she’d known this was going to happen from the first moment she saw him.
“You’re more beautiful than I could have imagined.”
“But how could you have imagined me?”
“I could never have imagined you.”
The bedspread lapped against the headboard as she rolled onto her side. Paul was sleeping. He faced away from her and she could see his ribs rising and falling. She closed her eyes again and then pulled the sheet away from her legs and sat up. Paul’s pants hung on the back of the chair. There was something vulnerable about recently worn clothes. When she reached into his pocket she found nothing but small change. His wallet rested on the dresser. He stirred and she quickly shut it again. A worn business card lay at the bottom of the otherwise empty wastebasket. She reached in and took it out. When she turned she saw he was watching her.
“I need a plumber.” She laughed. She’d been nosy. She wasn’t even sure why.
“So take the card,” he said evenly. “I can vouch for him.”
On a kaleidoscopic Saturday night out by the lake, faces in the crowd splashed with red and blue light, giddy noise, melting candy, where anyone might see them, the creaky Ferris wheel jerked upward until finally the gears began to raise them lightly toward the stars.
It stopped again at the top of the arc. City lights stretched out below them on one side. On the other, the silent expanse of inland sea.
“We could start over somewhere,” she says.
“You want a life with me?” he asks. “What are you willing to give up?”
“Everything,” she answers. “Almost anything.”
Robert was wearing a navy blue suit. He seemed to think that if he dressed like a businessman people would assume they were meeting for business. Tom never looked anything but a little crazy. If Robert wanted to pretend, let him. Tom could understand it. Sometimes he told people he’d been born on a plantation. The truth was, he had been born on a plantation. Eventually his family sold the land to an oil company when the place was rotting around them.
Robert stopped talking and looked out the window of the restaurant. Tom followed his eyes. He saw a tall woman dressed in a black suit. The man had coppery hair that would curl if it wasn’t cut so short. Robert was still watching them. They stopped at the corner and between them you could see the ghost of an embrace. Then Robert looked at Tom. “My wife,” he said. Tom thought, Of course.
In the second before he recognized her, he’d felt that pain you feel when encountering something beautiful. The dark sweep of hair and the line of her skirt—and the man with her was tall and broad-shouldered. He had no right to that pang of betrayal and soon it was relief he felt, more than anything.
Paul spent the morning walking along the shell road out by the lake, past the tiny fishing camps. He found a ladies watch among the flowering weeds. He wound it and put it in his pocket, where it ticked like a baby’s heartbeat. Maybe the tide had left it, he thought. Part of the record of life below sea level. But no beads of condensation were trapped under the glass dome. He hadn’t meant to fall in love with her. He’d told himself it was meant to be. He drove, solitary, down one of the old plantation boundaries radiating from the river. He heard the ships signaling each other along the invisible river and went toward them, toward the last soft place on earth.
The following afternoon finds him leaning against a building on the shady side of the street, his heels hard on the banquette. He stares at the brick wall opposite--old brick, made by a slave’s hands. A woman stands at the iron gate, her glove pulling it shut with impartial finality. He shifts, the fabric of his shirt catching. The metallic taste of sweat lingers in his mouth like rancid oil. He could disappear. In Tucson or Salt Lake City, on a freighter steaming toward Mexico, she’d be out of reach. He unclenches his fists, pushes away from the wall, keeps walking.
He’d had a letter. The old woman was dead.
When he pulls up the long drive the place looks empty. He wonders where they were—her daughters, their children, all the people caught in the net of kinship that were supposed to appear at a time like this.
After waiting a long time listening to the wind in the grass, he pushes open the door. He can make out Rosa’s slow steps, then she appears at the head of the stairs.
“Didn’t hear you, child. Why don’t you come up.”
He begins to climb. The air seems rarefied, heady.
“We don’t have much time,” she calls. She’s receded again. When he reaches the top he can hear the rustle of tissue paper. She had things laid out on a bed. She’s packing glass-handled brushes and silk stockings and a few old dresses in a scarred leather case. She goes to the dresser and picks up something.
“You should have this. It was his.” She puts it in his hand. It’s a silver cigarette case.
“I don’t want it,” he says. “Keep it.” He swallows and tries to recover himself. “Thank you all the same.”
“Take it,” Rosa says. “Sell it. Do what you want with it. You earned it, didn’t you? You earned that and more you’ll never get. You’re carrying his sins. That should count for something.”
Afterward, he understood that he was going to tell Callie the truth. The prospect was so terrifying he felt himself rushing to embrace it.
When she came in he said, as he understood people did at those times,
“Why don’t you sit.” She sank to the bed with her shoulders drawn forward and her arms across her chest. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“If you mean you’re a black man I already know that.”
The silence elongated and then snapped. She heard the first part of what he said but everything else was lost to the ringing in her ears. The rushing, as if she were high on a glacier wrapped in seal skins. She squinted down at him. He appeared ashamed. Perhaps pleading.
She managed to get her feet back into her shoes.
“It’s not that,” he’d said.
He had known, as he walked up to her door that morning, as he lifted his hand to knock, as he glimpsed her approaching behind the glass, that she was his sister.
She had thought she wanted a child. She had wanted one. Now she needed to find someone to take the hapless thing out of her. She knew it was wrong but didn’t let herself think about it anymore. She couldn’t think what she would say to Robert or what she would say to anyone. To herself. She would not be able to live with Robert and this child and she had already figured out that wherever Paul was going—he was going somewhere, she knew it, even if he hadn’t told her yet—he wouldn’t take her with him. Not even because he didn’t want to.
It hadn’t been easy to find someone who would do it for her, but finally she had. All tie time, conscious of the whirring in her body that meant it was doing what it was meant to do despite her.
Suddenly there wasn’t any more time. She followed the woman into a cool basement room lit by a single bulb. Her palm was thick and scored. Cassie found that she wanted the woman to like her. She wanted her to offer absolution. She cast about for something to say. Her hands were gripping the sides of the table.
Afterward her stomach felt incredibly small, the size of a peach pit. The woman’s husband drove her home, her body shrinking, fluid sluicing down those channels, dizzy with pain and relief. She went and stood in the river, the brown froth at the edge washing up around her knees and the trunks of the cottonwood trees. She was unusual now, an object lesson. She could read people’s lips. But even those who sympathized were forever on the other side of that transparent wall. Her future was a page of labanotation—disembodied steps awaiting three-dimensional, unencumbered limbs. It would be hard to learn, but someday it would seem natural to step into someone else’s shoes.
She wasn’t sure what had happened, afterward. She’d gone to him to—to what? She didn’t know anymore. It had made sense then. It must have. The next thing she knew he was on the floor, his head was bashed in the side, but surely she hadn’t done it. He’d hit it on the counter. Surely, he’d hit his temple on the edge of the counter, and that was what had happened. His mouth looked like a formless pink mollusk without its shell.
Somehow the motor was still running and she got back in the car. She sat there and tried to crawl back into those seconds before, but she couldn’t. The only way was into the future. Covering the distance without noticing a single thing between here and there.
Robert had been sitting in his shirtsleeves reading the latest issue of Life when her face appeared in the window, white and slack, her hair tangled around her face. She came in and seized him by the shoulders. Sounds were coming out of her mouth in a high clear voice he hadn’t heard before, rushing sounds like water.
It had been an accident. She had no idea what had happened. She’d told him again and again, until he no longer believed it.
They went to where he was even though anyone could have seen them. Robert covered his face with his handkerchief and she helped him roll it into the carpet her father had brought over a few weeks ago, something he thought they might be able to use.
They carried him to her to studio where he lay under bolts of zephyr gingham and white lawn and messaline she would have used to make ladies’ summer dresses.
He wasn’t good with his hands, but he was a man and expected to know certain things. He began to hollow out the wall, careful about the noise, though he knew the neighbor would be gone all night working. They went to sleep an hour before dawn and woke with the light. Then he waited until the hardware stores opened. He had the presence of mind to leave the neighborhood to get what he needed. Halfway there he realized it was a crazy idea, but he couldn’t think of anything better. He had to hurry. So he bought the plaster and hammered together a frame, and by mixing it thick and wet enough and propping the thing up with boards it might work.
Tom had poured vinegar into a pot of boiling water and cracked an egg. He was watching the white fan out when he heard the door open. Robert had come in and was wandering around the room. Tom took his shoulder and moved him to the sofa. Robert obligingly bent his knees and sat. Then he was up again, at the window, staring at the tourists walking toward Jackson Square. Tom was about to ask what the matter was when Robert took his face in his hands and kissed him hard on the mouth and then he was gone, the door open behind him.
Looking down at the street, Tom could see him running. He heard a cry none of the tourists turned to look and he thought the sound must have been in his own head.
Robert opened the door that separated their rooms, wiping sweat off his forehead with a crumpled handkerchief. The lamp on Callie’s dresser was still on and he crossed the rug to turn it off. Idly he picked up a postcard from the clutter, drawn to the long white ribbon of beach it depicted, not so far off in north Florida. He set it back down in almost the same place.
Back in his bedroom he unbuttoned his shirt and hung it in the chifforobe. He sat on the edge of his bed in his white undershirt. An undertow was beginning to pull him back toward the ordinary just as he thought he’d reached the surface. Passing the train station downtown, he was filled with the longing to go somewhere. He’d buy a ticket on the Crescent, the Sunset Limited, and head for the dry desert air, orange groves, a buoyant city by the ocean.
One day he went so far as to go inside the station. Under the vaulted ceiling, tumbling squares spelled out times and destinations, he imagined himself free.
She called the number for Alcee Duval and asked him to work on the wiring in the house. She couldn’t stand it. She wanted someone to know. To find out. Why else was she calling him, of all people? Someone who knew Paul? He asked her if it was urgent and she said it was.
The man who appeared later in the week was brown-skinned, his nose flanged like portraits she’d seen in a copy of The North American Indian that her father had taken in trade for a box of bronze bolts. He stood straight, his shoulders loose, his bag held easily in one hand. She told him there was the gas that needed fixing and the light sockets in the back room had stopped working. She showed him where. He told her he’d get started right away.
Alcee spent the day on his back amid the refuse of this household, or one before it. He pushed himself along dropcloths unfurled in the dirt following a cold chemical stink, tightening joins leaking river water. He’d had to force himself to go to work since his wife had killed herself. For a year afterward he kept seeing her open eyes washed by muddy river water, carp slipping in and out the broken windows of the car she’d driven off the bridge, nibbling at her ears with their soft lips.
The repairs on this place were long overdue. Electricity and natural gas, they were nothing to play with. When he’d pulled himself out from under the house, though, she had gone. Alphonse needed new school clothes, the NOPSI bill was still sitting on the kitchen table.
He had to get inside to look at some of the wiring anyway. Looking in the front window, he thought he could see she’d left him the money in an envelope. He knocked then tried the door. He went in, calling out as he did, and went to the room at the back of the house. He’d couldn’t do much if he didn’t get at the wiring back there. Whoever had done the work first sure had made a mess of it. It sure did look like somebody had been messing around back here, trying to fix it themselves. He’d have to take out some of this new plaster, but he could put it back better than it was before. He took out his tools and got started. But the work was even worse than he thought. He couldn’t get at the wires, because there was something—what was this? He pulled aside a flap of some kind of carpet—there was a smell. And the face still recognizable.
He was out on the street breathing hard. A tool still in his hand. He vaguely heard a car braking as he ran toward the streetcar stop.
At Broad Street he got off and walked fast with his head down, past the scraps of paper and flattened cigarettes that had been thrown like bones.
Safe inside his own house he sat on the rigid sofa and automatically picked up the paper. He tried to read but the words were rushing away in torrents of milk. It must have been an hour when Alphonse came in brandishing a comic book. He shook his father off and raced outside.
Alice had come in too and she sat down at the table. She seemed to be studying him across the bowl shaped like a heap of fruit. He traced the grapes with his finger. The yellow curtains stirred in the warm breeze.
“What is it, daddy?”
“Don’t nothing me, daddy.”
Ever since her mother had died she’d acted just like her. It would be useless to try to hide it from her. “I saw something. When I was working on a lady’s house.” He got up and walked over to the glass-fronted cabinet against the wall. There was the good china. His shoes creaked on the clean linoleum. “Something all wrapped up in a carpet. The edge had come away and I could see what was in there.”
“What?” she asked. “What was it?”
“It looked like somebody I used to know.”
“Oh.” She stopped and thought about that. About the strange and terrible coincidence of it. “What are you going to do?”
He wouldn’t say a word, of course. Who could he tell? Who would believe him? Angie would—but what would happen after that he had no idea. He didn’t need trouble. Not any more than he already had. Let her think Paul had had a stroke of luck instead—gotten some money when that white father of his had died and taken off for someplace better.
After the legal formalities were over, Callie headed back toward the highway, her Cutlass blasting refrigerated air. She’d never imagined herself divorced—it had felt like falling from a great height, and some part of her still couldn’t believe that there was nobody who was going to catch her. She passed the funeral home on South Claiborne. Those places always seemed to have large clocks out front that had stopped working. In her rear view mirror she noticed a plume of thick smoke rising up behind it. Some body, turning to ashes.
One afternoon Tom walked, following the curve of the river, and found the house where Robert had lived. He’d seen a piece of mail addressed to him once, so he knew where it was. He was always noticing details, filing them away because he liked to know people’s secrets. He looked around, hands in his pockets, listening to the birds. He peered in the windows. If anyone asked he’d tell them he was thinking of renting the place. He was a writer, he’d say, he liked places with a past.
Since the man’s body had been found there they hadn’t been able to sell it. Papers were scattered across the floor, furniture at odd angles gathering dust. Sunlight had begun to fade the red of an armchair.
The next day he began writing. He’d once wanted to make Robert into a creature pinned artfully to his typing paper, but now Robert felt as if he was in the next room—too immediate to describe. He wrote a few lines and tore them up.
Every year he tried again. As time passed, he realized that remembering things perfected them. And so he lived now in a world almost entirely of his own making.
Robert sat listening to the syncopated treadmills. He watched men wiping their sweat with the small rough towels the staff handed out. Sometimes he swam a couple of laps and then went in the steam room. He sat for hours in the dimly lit bar and the cleaning woman would smile at him with tired eyes. He got his hair cut. There was something extraordinarily soothing in the touch of a stranger. Well, not a complete stranger, but the barber didn’t talk too much and his hands were efficient. Tom listened to the quick chirp of the blades and watched his youth reemerge as if from a block of quarried granite. It was only a split-second glimpse from a certain angle, but it was worth coming back for.
Afterward, he found succor in slashed prices and racks of shoes and the relentless stop and start of the fast-food drive-through. Or the buffet in a strip mall in the suburbs. Dish after dish laid out in bright superabundance. He liked being able to get his own food. He fell into a rhythm and his footsteps grew muffled on the red carpeting. A waitress with a Korean accent would bring him a glass of ice water. Other diners were heading back up for seconds or thirds, their voices thick and soft. He imagined the sounds radiating out past galaxies, crowding the dark corners of beyond. Afterward he would go to the dollar store and buy eyeglass repair kits or citronella candles or the cereal tie-ins to forgotten kids’ movies, and then in the morning he’d sit gazing down at the sweet extruded figures floating like refugees.
He drove home slowly along the interstate beneath billboards advertising salvation. Ann lived in a two-story colonial in a subdivision with streets called things like Lancelot and Guinevere. The blinds were always drawn. He had found she didn’t object to his organizing, and arranged her books by color. They’d sit outside on the porch in the evenings, Ann with her aerosol can of repellent, until it got too dark and she went inside to heat something up for dinner. After washing the dishes he would join her in the living room. She favored shows about real estate and cooking that the machine recorded while she was at work. That was his life now.
He went in and changed his clothes and went outside again. He noticed that the pool was spilling over after the rain, its plastic sides bulging. He settled his weight in a lawn chair and lay suspended over the grass on elongated plastic bands. Clouds passed silently across the pale blue sky and grew vaporous. Looking down, he could see each blade of grass as if it were etched in glass. He could see the granules of reddish soil in which it rooted. Ants were carrying pale crumbs, and the gymnastic legs of a spider leisurely explored the rusting chrome joints of the chair. Leaves were floating across the surface of the pool like Viking longboats crossing to the New World. Suddenly, surprising himself, he loosed his moorings, and a gust that shook the branches of the pine trees and quieted the birds propelled him toward the infinite curve of the horizon.
When Ann came in through the door leading from the garage and set her keys down on the kitchen counter, she noticed the flashing light on the phone that meant she had messages. The messages were always for her. She ignored them. She went upstairs and opened the doors even to rooms they rarely used. When she came back down, she noticed that the sliding door wasn’t locked. Lights clicked on as she went into the yard. Her fingers accidentally brushed his hair as she touched the back of the chair. She swayed for a minute, knowing he’d been lying there all that time. Then she made her way back inside to the phone.
Sometimes, pushing her grocery cart, Callie would think she’d seen him disappearing around the end of an aisle, alive, looking exactly the same as when he died. Her memories accreted, glowing and misshapen, sometimes leaving her choking on sour brine. She found herself looking for the child’s body. She knew that it was warm and she tried to get close enough to embrace it. She couldn’t quite make out its features, though she knew it was a boy. She cried out to him, I love you. And he grew and grew until now she could see him, taller than she was, in the shadows just beyond the spinet piano Robert’s mother had given them all those years ago, even though neither of them played.
All these years and she’d never sold the house. She paid someone she’d never met to look after it.
She could hear the opening tones of Days of Our Lives and smell bacon cooking as she went down the stairs that led to the beach. The other day, passing a travel agency on the main street, she’d stopped, looking at a poster of pink sand and palm trees all the way out in the middle of the Atlantic. She didn’t want to go there, and she understood that it didn’t matter. Whether she wanted to or not, she never would.
But she would live long enough to feel the flesh of her arms flapping like wet laundry on a line as she changed a light bulb in the bathroom. Parts of her round, pale face will fall away from the bone. She’ll print signs in careful penmanship that say, Keep out! You know who you are! The police have been notified! Do you want to go to JAIL???? and then go rifle through the refrigerator, looking for something to eat. A package of frozen biscuits and a roast entombed in a plastic bag, a half-eaten pan of brownies now edged with freezer burn—“Not bad,” she’d say aloud, and walk through the house carrying the roast, set it on the bathroom counter and forget about it. Eventually she’d pass the bathroom door again, notice the roast sitting there, and laugh and laugh into the mirror that stretched the length of the wall. She would live long enough to become a young girl again, no longer bruised by the brutal affection of her fears.
Jessica Adams's short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in a variety of literary journals, including Thug Lit, Avidly, and The Common. She is an English professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.