She spent long evenings mooning around dreaming she was Marilyn Munro. Then entire weekends grafting on her play, being Arthur Miller. Being Marilyn was a breeze. Everyone loved her and the gnawing on her insides was easily masked by a fifth of whiskey and a deeper shade of lipstick. Arthur was a bit more tricky. That damn second act was a bitch and the G-men were constantly banging down the door. And it seemed so much harder to persuade people you are not what they think you are, than to cover up yourself what you yourself really know to be true.
I had a dream last night. Not so strange, some may say. But, as well you know, my darling, there are men who never dream. Your father was one, and his father another, blissful souls who entered into sleep as innocents to the grave, blameless and unknowing.
I counted myself among them, for fully forty-three years and seven months, but last night, I had a dream.
Should I tell you? Isn’t that what lovers do when they awake from a dream? Does the telling make it real, or does it flap it away, a feral cat from an old woman’s doorstep? But my dream was already real before I dreamed it, I suppose, and it can never be gotten rid of, so I will tell you it now, my darling, and hope that, for me at least, the telling will prove a talisman against any more to come.
You took me by the hand and walked through the doorway. We were happy. You were laughing at something I had just said and you were exhilarated, ready to go. I pulled back on your hand because I wanted to shut the door, but you pulled harder, told me to leave it open – told me we’d be back soon. I looked over my shoulder. It remained ajar (why did I expect it to close?) and at the last moment I saw our boys, the tousle-headed toddlers, not the almost grown men I have raised since, standing silent on the threshold. I turned back to look at you, saw a word half-hanging from your mouth, and the ground sucked us in.
I had a flash of excitement and I thought we could do it. I remembered a book, a manual, with line drawings of knives and knots. We had to relax, or flip on our backs, or both. And just as quickly, I knew that we were gone, that it was useless, that there was no saving us. But worse than this, far worse, I lost your hand. The cold sand closed over my head, and over yours, and I never knew where you went, only that you went there separately from me.
Then I woke up, and screamed at the empty space where once I held you.
If you left me now:
I would have
to fill with hate.
I would pour
sand in a bucket
the little things –
those precious little things
you never needed.
How’s Barbara? is all Helen says. Nothing more than that. Nothing inflammatory, like, what’s that crazy sister of yours been up to lately, or, I heard some story from Denny about where she was last Saturday night. Definitely nothing like that. But Joanne goes tense and starts jabbing about with the little silver tongs in the sugar bowl.
Eventually, she says, Why do you ask? and her voice reminds Helen of strawberry jam spread too thin, so she replies, No reason, no reason, with a mental step back from the situation, a kind of throwing up of hands (although really she keeps her arms neatly folded to her, just under her tidy breasts.)
But Joanne keeps poking around with those stupid tongs and the sugar cubes start to disintegrate before her eyes. And this is not something she takes lightly, no, because she has not even had a chance to pour her own cup of tea, never mind put sugar in it, and she wants two lumps, two perfect lumps, and nothing else is right. And it’s a shame, yes it is, that Barbara is going off the deep end and that Joanne feels she has to take it all on, but really isn’t it time for Joanne to start concentrating on herself or maybe even just on Helen, for starters, because hasn’t she been there for her through thick and thin and then even (here she smiles to herself) through thick again? And she can’t help it, she really can’t, her hand shoots out over the sugar cubes to cover them up (to protect them) and Joanne stabs her with the tiny sharp tines of the tongs, just below the wrist.
Joanne’s mouth is a round black ‘O’, as if a thumb has punched a hole into her pastry dough face. Helen looks at her wrist. She sees: two perfect beads of blood of exactly the same size, each their own little orb of perfection, but reflecting and somehow drawing beauty from one another. She wants, in that instant, to preserve them and stare at them forever.
But Joanne grabs a table napkin, sending the cutlery cartwheeling to the floor. Heads turn. She snaps it in the air and brings it down on Helen’s hand in one smooth movement and the beads blossom and bleed into one another through the linen.
This what she must be like on the ward, Helen thinks, all efficiency and pressed patience, making emergencies evaporate into thin air, mere excuses for the exercise of professional calm. Her nurse’s uniform straining around her bulk – but containing it, controlling it, turning it into something that means something, that has a purpose. Cinched in with a tidy white belt and a shining silver clasp.
I’m so sorry, they both say, and their voices chink together like knives.
‘Dry drowning,’ was what they called it, but the newspaper articles were wrong. It was a ‘secondary drowning’ – and this I had learned in my first (and last) year of medical school, along with the fact that I was incurably squeamish in every respect.
“Why would they keep calling it that then?” says Mother, shucking oysters by the sink. She won’t hold them in a dishtowel, and every time she slips in the knife, to crack the hinge, I look away.
“Maybe because it’s alliterative?” I suggest. “It sounds more poetic?”
She’s silent; I feel her eyes on me. I try to suck up the space between us, gulping air.
“It’s like, secondary drowning, so what? Sounds prosaic, uninteresting, right? Whereas, dry drowning, well, how can that happen? If you can drown without water, who’s safe?”
She’s running the tip of the knife around the shell, then twisting to pry it apart – the soft crunch of the blade tells me what she’s doing, though I can’t look.
Slicing the muscle with one deft stroke, she says, “Why must you always be so facetious?”
She releases the shell and bares the flesh. She jabs it towards me. It lies on her palm, glistening.
She knows I can’t stand oysters. (Just another thing he can’t stomach, I heard her tell my father.)
“You think it’s funny? A dead boy?”
Some things take a while. And maybe you think they’re buried deep, but they’re not.
And I think I know what Corey was diving for, what he thought he saw, what made him go down too far, for too long. I see him clambering up onto the pier, slick as a seal. Walking back smiling towards his family, oblivious, the sun hot on the back of his neck and the salt drying slowly between his toes.
Already drowned, but not knowing it. Not knowing yet where the end would come from. That it would not come from deep down, but from a very shallow place.
Wednesday at the Club, Selma pulls up a wicker chair, looks at me over the table number (our regular – 23), says: ‘I’m breaking up with you, Leonard’ – and I just about bust out laughing. It’s the way she says ‘breaking up’ all serious, and pulls a paper square from her purse, the edges secured with tape. Makes me think of schooldays, grubby pawed-over notes, passed hand-to-hand under desks. When breaking up meant the end of the world. Around here though, surely, nobody breaks up anymore. There just isn’t time.
But, because I catch something, an increase in the moisture that lately seems to be constantly brimming in her eyes, I don’t laugh. Not that she’s sad: the tears are something hereditary, she told me, an ailment that strikes in later years, malfunctioning ducts. She dabs at her eye with a lace handkerchief. (A fine looking lady, she’s got a lot of class, always turns out nice for brunch, no jogging pants or those nasty shuffly slippers.)
She lays her hand next to the note. Her fingernails are hard crimson shells. She’s looking over my shoulder. It’s hard to twist my neck (shrapnel wound, Pork Chop Hill, June 1953) so I kind of shimmy round in my chair. And there’s George Malone’s ugly mug at table 25. Jesus wept. Who let him in the Club?
He’s wearing a baseball cap (‘Combat Veteran – Korea’) which he pushes back on his liver-spotted forehead with knobby knuckles. He winks at me, the old bastard. Combat? He saw just enough to make him put his dick between his legs and jump the first trooper home, faking something colorectal. I’ve got his little number. Then I swivel back to that look in Selma’s eyes and realize: no, I don’t. The scar on my neck gives an electric twang.
So that’s the deal. I’m eighty-nine years old, weigh a buck five on a good day, have to sit down to piss, and now, goddammit, I’ve got competition.
What to do with this hilltown evening’s laced jasmine light?
Fold it carefully into your mind.
Fly with it.
In stunned flatlands, under the scorched shroud of a suffocated summer, unpack it.
Trifecta challenge – summer in 33 words.