Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
The library was only two rooms long, with low ceilings and brown carpeting. No one went except for people with kids and lonely old people. The old people were Abraham’s biggest fans. They came every time, no matter how frequently. The back room, where Abraham did his readings, smelled like pee and mildew.
Greta and Nathan had to stand in the back; all the seats were taken. Their wrists might have touched, but they didn’t
hold hands. Two ladies had their plastic bonnets on; the forecast looked iffy, and it was better to be safe.
Abraham was halfway through “Song of Myself,” and it sounded like he was gearing up to do the whole thing. Greta wondered if the old people knew it was okay to take bathroom breaks.
He was unscrewing the locks from the doors. He was unscrewing the doors from their jambs. Abraham’s voice bounced off the walls and the ceiling. Foamy spit would begin to form in the corners of his mouth, if it hadn’t already. The halves of his cheeks not covered with hair would begin to color, peach to pink, then pink to red.
If Abraham were Walt Whitman, not just for pretend but for real, he’d write poems about the Forest, and about her, and about Judy’s pies and the view from the top of the Ferris wheel and the burl creatures from California. He’d say,
I sing the apple pie electric
. He’d say,
But oh daughter! My daughter!
I will live forever
. He’d say,
Don’t ever go
. Here was something that Greta thought about: if you had to pick the person you loved the most, who would it be? Greta thought that if someone asked Abraham that question, he would probably say her. Sure, parents were supposed to say things like that, but she thought he might even really mean it.
There were people who were just meant to get you somewhere, like Judy’s old boyfriend the candlemaker. They weren’t supposed to stick around. And sometimes people had to stay put. Greta thought of the Forest filled with drying candles, their wicks still connected and slung over low branches. She looked at Abraham, who was raising his hands to the sky. The room seemed bigger, somehow. There would be a better time to go.
watched the neighbor’s kid from our screened-in porch. He had a BB gun—the kind of gun parents reluctantly give eleven-year-old boys on their birthdays. Of course, the kid was not eleven. The kid wasn’t even a kid. He was of an indeterminate age, hovering; he could have been eighteen or thirty, with skin the pale color of sliced bread. If he hadn’t been so big, we might not have noticed him at all. It appeared that none of the other neighbors did.
The boy wedged his gun against his thick shoulder, and with the orange felt of his hunting cap hanging low over his ears, he was only slightly more threatening than Elmer Fudd. He aimed at the squirrels attacking the dying hostas between our houses.
That summer was unusually harsh for Wisconsin. It was ninety degrees, and our boxes were still on the porch. The BB boy’s
mother came over with a pitcher of iced tea. “Well, hello there,” she said, pulling open the screen door. “Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you!”
The pitcher sweated as much as I did, and dropped little streams of water onto the warped wooden planks of the porch. I took it out of her hands and set it down on our coffee table, which was on the porch next to our dining room chairs. I motioned for her to sit.
“I’m Margaret, from next door.” She pointed, as if I hadn’t seen her walk out of her house and up my steps. She kept a beautiful garden, which was seemingly unharmed by the heat. I suspected she had a secret watering technique, a magic potion made of horse manure and sunshine. In New York, I had worked hard to cultivate a small cactus plant on our fire escape overlooking Prospect Park West, a gift from a friend who belonged to the food co-op who’d said that it could withstand anything, even me. The plant was dead in three months. I considered it a success.
From what I could tell, the neighbor’s house was the mirror image of ours—our dining room faced their dining room, our bedroom their bedroom. They had curtains, however. Watching us must have been like watching reality television, unedited and endless.
Live! Moving! People!
It had taken us weeks to buy any sort of window covering, and even then, they were shower curtains. They kept out the light, and if it was raining, it didn’t matter whether we closed the windows. Of course, it didn’t rain. Still, I thought, terribly clever.
“Sophie,” I said, shaking her hand. “From the porch.”
“Where are you all from?” Margaret sounded like she was from the South, or at least she had been some years ago.
“We moved from New York, but originally I’m from Connecticut, and my husband is from Philadelphia. So, East Coast, I guess. We’re from the East Coast.”
“Mmm,” Margaret said, as though eating something delicious. The full pitcher of iced tea sat untouched between us.
“I think I know where the glasses are,” I said, getting up. “Can I get you a glass?”
Margaret looked longingly at her house like a blind mole searching for its dinner, and was on the verge of protesting as I pried open the first box.
Only a few days before the move to Wisconsin, James caught me in bed with the laptop, emailing building managers in Los Angeles about cozy cottages up by Griffith Park.
Ample room for four-legged friends!
We could find a dog en route—surely there were a thousand ASPCAs between New York and California. Not one of those Hollywood dogs that can fit in your purse; we’d get something big, something like Marmaduke, a dog with jowls and gallons of drool. Shopping for new apartments was like shopping for new lives, an easier fix than dieting or yoga. I could garden, and he could hammer together bookshelves in the garage. He would become an apprentice at a motorcycle shop and we would get tattoos that said
Or maybe something dramatic:
People who didn’t know him would ask him about it in restaurants—James would wear tank tops to show it off, along with all the others: the red-scaled koi fish, the winking mermaid.
You must really like Meryl Streep, they’d say. James would take a sip of coffee—or no, bourbon, even in the morning—and laugh.
, he’d say,
I really like her
, and nod his chin toward me. The other patrons would look at me, and through all the gleaming silver rods and balls sticking out of my nose and ears and eyebrows, they would think that I was beautiful.
Of course, James had no tattoos, no metal objects poking out of his face. He was an academic, the kind of man who had always enjoyed spending his Saturday afternoons in dreary library carrels. We’d come to Wisconsin because he’d gotten a job at a local college, although not the university, which was what people always asked.
He taught two courses in the English department, both of which were supposed to introduce the students to some names they’d heard only as movie tie-ins: Austen and Dickens and Eliot. James had written his dissertation about the role of gossip in
. A few years in, when he’d started bringing home the glossy tabloids, I’d thought it was some brilliant research, just the ticket. Then he started saying things to me like, “Can you believe they’re getting a divorce? I really thought if anyone had a chance, it would be them.” He would shake his head and have to go to bed early, his thin chest sunken with disappointment. The novels seemed beside the point, unable to rescue him from the harsh facts of the day.
It seemed inevitable that we would spend our lives going from college town to college town, always having the same conversations about departmental politics and the weather. One merely had to adjust to the scale of possible adventures.
Red Lobster had an all-you-can-eat lobster tail dinner once a week; the aisles of Home Depot were satisfyingly endless. There were still small excitements in the world, things our friends in New York couldn’t even imagine.
A few weeks in, we got invited over to another professor’s house for dinner. They lived on the other side of town, the side with all the trees and expensive shops.
The professor and his wife
, as a phrase, always bothered me. I refused to let James introduce me as his wife—he had to say my name first, then wife. The order was important; it was easy for people to get the wrong impression.
The conversation at dinner was standard, almost as standard as the food. “I just love salmon,” I told the professor’s wife, whose name I couldn’t remember because she’d been introduced as Wife First, Name Second. “Really love it.” The men talked about department politics. James was nodding at everything the professor said, making mental notes about who was overly flirtatious with his students, who hid what in his desk drawers.
They had a large dining room, with plates and glasses that all matched. I kicked James under the table. The professor sat to my left, at the head of the table. His wife sat facing me, placidly smiling.
“So, Sophie,” she said. “What do you plan to do here, while James is off molding young minds?” She tented her fingers in front of her, as though holding one of the young minds in her hands.
“Well, you can remove mold with any sharp knife,” I said. “Then you can just go ahead and eat it.”
She was still smiling, but James had returned my kick.
“I’m thinking about culinary school,” I said. “I hear there’s an excellent schnitzel academy just down the road. Or was it the wurst one, James, do you remember?”
James daubed his mouth with the corner of his napkin, pretending to be civilized. He looked at the professor’s wife. “Sophie works freelance. She’s just published an article in one of the local New York papers.”
The wife nodded. “You know,” she said, “if you’re looking for some good schnitzel, I know just where you should go.” She looked to her husband and widened her eyes, as though remembering a particularly impressive sausage.
I excused myself and went to pee, happy to have a moment alone, a moment with only the belongings of strangers and not the strangers themselves. I sat down and was surprised to find myself staring at a familiar panel of fabric. “We have the same curtains,” I cried. “Only ours are in the bedroom!” The professor’s wife materialized on the other side of the bathroom door. I could see the shadows of her chunky shoes moving back and forth across the small pane of light coming from the kitchen. After washing my hands, I stood for a minute in front of the curtains, and asked them which they preferred, seeing the outside world, or seeing nothing but tiles, shampoo bottles, and nudity.
There had been other jobs, other interviews. James brought two suits to the rounds of interviews at the hotel in Midtown, one pin-striped, one gray, and he’d changed in the bathroom in between. He thought the pin-striped made him look like
a businessman, and was better for the larger schools. The gray suit, he thought, made him look like a real intellectual. We could have gone anywhere, that’s what we’d decided. Tucson. Miami. Detroit. Each time James presented me with a city, I’d walk to the bookstore on Seventh Avenue and sit down in the travel section. I’d find us a neighborhood, a coffee shop to frequent. I knew where we’d go for fun, to people watch. There were the restaurants our parents would take us to when they came to visit; first mine, then his. There was the park I could take walks in, and the places we could meet for lunch during the school day. The suits would take us there. I never imagined we’d actually leave New York. I had a part-time job, and friends, and neighbors whose names I didn’t know. We were settled. There were never any boxes in my daydreams.
When I finally told my mother the truth about where we were going, she gasped and said, “A
My mother had lived in Greenwich, Connecticut, for fifty of her sixty-five years. The intervening years—college in neighboring Massachusetts, an early marriage in California—were looked upon as a sad experiment, the kind where the potion turns purple instead of orange and hisses briefly, instead of bubbling dramatically to the top of the beaker.
“It’s not so bad, Mom.” We were on the telephone, and I could tell from the static on her end that she was outside in the yard. There would be someone gardening nearby; she was supervising.
“Mm-hmm, sure, sure.” I could see the mounds of dirt, her careful steps. “Sophie, my dear, you know I support whatever it is you want to do. I just want you to be happy.
Really. Now, who did you say was subletting the place in the city? You know, the weather has just been lovely. Just lovely.”
I placed a finger down the front of my tank top and swiped at the sweat that had begun to pool between my breasts. “Yes, Mother, I believe you already said that.” Surely the public pools in Wisconsin bore little resemblance to their inner-city counterparts. I closed my eyes and imagined myself submerged in a swimming pool the size of Home Depot, with rooms to paddle in and out of.
Margaret had a tight mouth, small features, and the personality to match, but she was in charge of the neighborhood committee, so she extended an invitation to the annual gathering at our mutual neighbor’s house across the street. They’d invited over the local policeman and a firefighter and all the dogs and children. It was an event.
The Nelsons—their name was on the mailbox—were a tall, blond family with two golden retrievers. They liked to throw sticks, which seemed to be a major hobby in the neighborhood. James and I rang the doorbell at six, as directed.
A woman with red suspenders and Wellies opened the door. The firefighter. “You must be John and Susan,” she said, “from the pink house across the street.”
“I always thought it was more of a dusty rose than a proper pink,” I said, “but maybe you’re talking about some other house, with some other people. I’m Sophie, and this is James. Maybe we’re in the wrong place. Is this one of those keys-in- the-bowl parties?”
The firelady waved her hand in front of her face. “Oh, no, that’s right. James and Sophie. It’s hard to keep track, such
turnover. You planning on staying long?” She was eating a large, flat cookie the color of cardboard, and when she took a bite, a cloud of dust settled on her black T-shirt. “No offense.”