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A gull above her circles, pauses in its rising flight and releases what it carries and lets the thing plummet and crack. It is, she knows, a razor clam, or maybe a mussel or oyster; the parking lot has been littered with shells, a white glaze of shattered dropped shellfish, and there are only two cars. Joanna drives past. A brand-new Volvo station wagon, complete with baby-seat and snowshoes, waits at the edge of the stairs to the beach; a fisherman’s truck stands idling there also, and the man inside raises his hand. She waves back—it’s the thing to do—but parks at the end of the lot. There, smoking, she stares at the bay.
This day it’s green and wintry, wind-roiled, with ice in its foam. She rolls her window open and hears the crackling tide. The sound, Joanna tells herself, is like a cocktail shaker’s, the salt and sand and wave-spume all freezing and mixed in together. No ships are on the water and nothing out there visible, no line at the horizon’s edge beneath a glaucous sky. This is her lunch-break and time to be private; holding the smoke, she inhales.
It is February 8th. The winter has been mild, with little snow, but now the cold has settled in and she feels the way that clam would feel if it knew itself caught in the gull’s outstretched beak and ready to be dropped; last night had been a good one, or as good as she expects to have, with Harry the lodger appreciative and the spaghetti in her homemade pesto sauce cooked just the way she liked it and both of them, as he put it, lubricated by wine.
“I’m feeling lubricated,” he said. “I’m just about feeling no pain.”
Joanna had lit candles and the lanterns in the dining room. She was wearing her blue toreador pants and the white Mexican peasant’s blouse with the red embroidery, and Harry called her his flag.
“What’s that mean?” she had asked him. “Whatever’s that supposed to mean?”
“Red, white and blue,” he told her, and they clicked glasses and kissed.
He could be sweet when he wanted, and last night he’d wanted to, and after the salad and ice cream they went upstairs to his room. The whole house was hers, of course, and in wintertime—or at least the middle of a February cold-snap—there were no other paying guests, but it excited Joanna to be in his room and not on her own sleighbed with the cat and paperwork and unwashed sheets; she took better care of his space since, after all, Harry rented it and expected fresh laundry each week. So they were getting down to business, his mouth a mix of pesto sauce and cigar smoke and the Pinot Noir she’d ordered two cases of for Christmas, and still had three bottles left, his arms about her, leg on leg, when the telephone rang in the hallway and, after two rings, ceased ringing and then began again. This was her signal from Leah and she knew she had to answer because her daughter only called that way on the private number when she needed help, and meant it. “Oh, lover,” breathed Joanna, “wait, I’ll be right back.”
He could be a bastard when he wanted, and last night he wanted to while she got on the phone. It was Leah in trouble, big surprise—who had taken, lately, to calling herself Artemisia, because Artemisia was an artist, a painter in the old days when young women weren’t supposed to paint, and who’d been raped for her presumption, or so the story went, and since fifteen-year-old Leah was into nose-rings and tattoos this year she liked to think her name was Artemisia, Art for short. “Mom, the car is out of gas,” she said, “and I’m up here in Truro and there’s no gas stations open and I need you to come up and get us.”
“Me and Stacey and a couple guys.”
“I’m busy,” said Joanna. Because Harry was behind her now, his hand on her ass and his pants off already, and when Leah-Artemisia said, “But Mom, it’s cold . . .” he reached over and pulled out the cord from the plug and the phone went dead. And so she was caught in the middle again, the rock that was her daughter and the hard place that was Harry, and by the time she’d wriggled out of it and finished staking out her claim—telling him don’t you ever do that, don’t you ever touch this phone again, telling Leah who called a second time that no, she wasn’t coming because this is a mess you’ve made for yourself and the other kids have parents too, and whose car is it anyhow and what were you doing in Truro?—by the time the argument was over she had been cold sober, the small sweet flare of pleasure gone. Harry lay back with his nose in a book, his stinking feet on the Afghan she’d made and had been so proud of, and that was the end of that.
Another gull, rising, drops lunch. In summertime the lot is full, with a line of cars waiting to enter, but now the hard paved surface is a plate for gulls to feast off; no competition on the ground—just her and the truck and the Volvo and none of them looking for shells. She hates self-pity, guards against it, but sometimes—this is one of them—the gray sky and the empty bay and the big house near the harbor she tries to make the payments for all seem to be working together and working against her, bringing her down. This morning in the living room there had been birds, a pair of them, terrified and battering at windows and shitting all over the furniture and window wells. Their wings and tails were black with soot, so they must have come in through the chimney, and by the time she got them out—removing the screens and opening the windows and ducking from their frenzied rush—by the time she’d finished cleaning up and replacing the screens in the half-frozen frames and shutting the flue in the fireplace chimney she’d been late for work. It made no difference, of course; there were no customers at nine o’clock, and when she told Maisie about the birds—grackles, maybe, or starlings, not crows—Maisie nodded, unsurprised. “It happens.”
“Shit happens,” said Joanna. “That’s what we used to say.”
“They gather by the chimney,” Maisie explained. “They warm themselves at the furnace updraft and get a little dopey and fall in.”
“At your house too?”
“Not since Tom installed a chimney-cap. It’s good for keeping bats away. And squirrels and raccoons; you ought to get a chimney-cap.”
“I ought to do a lot of things,” she told her boss-friend bitterly. “I ought to sell the goddam house is what I ought to do.”
“Who’d buy it?” Maisie asked, and turned to the stock on the shelves.
A light snow falls. Joanna finishes her cigarette and drops it out the door and starts up Trusty-Rusty and, once the engine catches, eases it into reverse. Her lunch-break is ending; she needs to get back into town. She helps Maisie out three days a week, and though there’ve been only two sales this morning—a sweater-set, a pair of gloves—it matters to them both that they pretend she’s useful and there’s a reason to get dressed and drive herself to the store and check the order-pads and rearrange the inventory they both know won’t sell. In summertime the place is full, young mothers and couples and women alone—on rainy days so many of them you’d think scarves are a necessity, or harem pants, or wide-brimmed hats, which is why the place is called The Bare Necessities. From Memorial through Labor Day, Main Street is busy, hopping, and it’s worth your life to find a parking place and what jogs or drives or bicycles past the store is tourists all day long.
But by October the town is half-empty and by February dead. They keep the place open for something to do and to pay the heating bills; they drink coffee and decorate the windows over Christmas and, gossiping together, watch the empty street. It’s feast or famine here on the Cape, and lately it’s been famine: the plague and seven lean years in which she somehow managed to get fat. Just how, Joanna asks herself, how did I get into this and how do I get out of it and where do I go next?
Leah will leave Wellfleet soon enough; she’s been practicing departure and trying on identities for size. Last year she was a cheerleader and then a poetry-slam-wannabe and now she’s a girl on the dark back seat of a souped-up broke-down car. Her daughter’s father Mr. Ex-Right Ex-Husband #1 lives in Chicago, or at least he used to, and every birthday and for holidays he gets in touch and sends Leah fifty dollars and says, Whenever you’re ready, there’s more. Mr. Ex-Right Ex-Husband #2 preferred Jim Beam and Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker and George Dickel and even Ezra Brooks to her, Joanna, and by the time he was in detox in Hyannis the preference was mutual; they haven’t seen each other since—when was it?—1994. Her mother is dying, her father is dead, her brother has been digging what he calls the universal flux in California and paying no attention, and she’d rather not deal with the kind of attention her little sister pays. The house, the lovely ancient house, is an albino elephant, a picturesque wreck like its owner and beyond her to maintain. And Harry is no help at all; her dirty Harry lies there, feet on the Afghan and pants on the floor and expects her to service him body and mouth but won’t even take out the trash.
It has been, Joanna thinks, a long slow slide since college and the degree she didn’t finish in 1979. It has been a downhill slope and steeper all the way. She is forty-four years old, a woman with an attitude, or so Harry claimed last night while they were fighting; there’s only so far you can travel, he said, on a pair of what used to be excellent tits. That’s not fair, she said to him, that isn’t fair, and he said what does fairness have to do with it, who’s talking equity here. You’re such a smug son of a bitch, she had said, why don’t you try checking the mirror yourself, and he said because it doesn’t matter, not to me. She has tried to teach her daughter, do as I say not as I do, don’t do the things I did when young, you’re worth much more than that.
Now she shuts her eyes an instant while the birds in the living room fly through her head. Those grackles or starlings have nothing on her; there’s air outside they’re hungry for and once they find the open window there’s a slipstream and escape. They’re up in the trees now, away. But Joanna herself can’t imagine escape; she will remain in her mortgage-strapped house, the staircase off kilter and rooms needing paint, the shingles half-rotten and roof like a sieve—will remain here with her little sign, B & B, the Dew Drop Inn, while in the summer couples come to fuck and off-season fish or sketch, and in the winter no one stays—remain here till there’s nothing left and she’s the old lady she never imagined she in her turn would become. My mother is dying—she says this out loud—and maybe that’s why birds appeared and battered at the windows, just the way the old song says they do when a soul escapes this vale of tears: a bird of passage fluttering and gone from dark to dark.
And sure enough when she returns, walking through the stock-room door and hanging up her parka, feeling the heat of the shop and smelling the sandalwood incense and telling Maisie, Hey, I’m back, she knows on the instant that something has changed and not for the better. Her friend has that solemn look on her face that means there’s news, and the news is bad, and Maisie is misery’s company now and ready and willing to cry. “What’s wrong?” she asks, and Maisie holds her hands up, spreading them, her fingernails bright crimson, chipped, and says that Harry called.
“Not Leah,” she says. “It isn’t her.”
“Fifteen minutes ago, maybe ten. He says they’ve been calling and calling your line, until finally he picked it up, and it was a lawyer. Oh sweetie I hate to be telling you this. Except your mother’s passed.”
It’s not relief exactly, this shock that floods and fills her chest, but when Joanna, sitting, says, “I knew it, I knew something like this would happen today” she feels a kind of rising release, a sort of confirmation: the gull’s maw and desperate grackles and everything bottoming out. “What else,” she asks, “what else could go wrong?”
“They want you there,” says Maisie. “In Saratoga Springs, I mean. Your sister’s flying out from Michigan to deal with the remains.”
WHEN THE CALL arrived Claire was making the bed, fluffing up the pillows and folding the duvet; she loves this domesticity, these acts of meticulous habit, and the room is decorated to her satisfaction. From the Leger print on the south wall where light pours in but cannot reach and therefore fade it to the Calder on the west wall and the pot of freesia blooming; from the wallpaper with its intricate pattern of interlocked grapevines and a trellis to the chandelier and Kelim rug; from the curtains to ebony bookshelf she has positioned it all: the ottoman, the rocking chair, the cedar blanket chest. The effect she strove for and achieved is one of busy harmony, of clashing motifs that nonetheless match, and everybody admires her eye. Oh Claire, they say, you should have been a decorator, you could have been one anyhow, you have such a feel for design. I do expect, she tells her friends, to live with things I value; it isn’t too much to expect, and the world would be a better place if others thought so too. It has nothing to do with cash value, she says, it’s what it means to me . . .
The whole house is her nest. There are spaces for the girls, of course, and Jim’s study on the second floor and his exercise room in the basement, but the master bedroom suite is hers and hers alone. She cherishes the way the color-scheme and light and furnishings just work. It’s hard to put your finger on, hard to explain precisely why, but when her friends say, Claire, you should have been a decorator she believes they have a point; once the girls go off to music camp at Interlaken this summer she might just give it a try.
She has thought about this lately: branching out. It would be gratifying, wouldn’t it, to put your own individual stamp on other people’s houses and to unlock the energy and realize the potential of other people’s space. She doesn’t need the income and wouldn’t want to charge her friends, but yesterday at tea, for example, when Julie Cantor said, what’s wrong with this room—standing in what she insists on describing as her parlor and saying it doesn’t feel friendly enough and just doesn’t make people welcome—Claire understood in a heartbeat the problem was the lighting fixtures and how they didn’t work at all with that overstuffed couch-set and the Queen Anne armoire. The Chinese call it, she knows, feng-shui, the art of arrangement and setting, and she supposes she must have an instinct for feng-shui. It’s the way a room gives out on a hall, or the hallway on the porch beyond; it’s a matter of proportion and precise location, really, of knowing where and how to situate your things.
When Claire and Joanna were children they liked to play an address-game: let’s go to Manhattan, they would say, in New York City in New York State on the east coast of the United States in the continent of North America and in the Western Hemisphere and on the earth and in the solar system and then the universe and in God’s palm. What’s God’s palm got to do with it? their mother asked, and Joanna said, Oh, mummy, it’s only a mailing address. Don’t take His name in vain, their mother said, he’s not a mailman, girls.
When the call about her mother came she had been unsurprised. Her mother has been dying now for years. Last month in Saratoga Springs, the last time Claire had visited she understood they were saying goodbye, or would have if her mother understood what they were saying. Alice lay in the upstairs bedroom, the one that gave out on what used to be a meadow and now was Skidmore College, lying back with both eyes closed, white hair fanned across the pillow—the hospice woman in the kitchen saying Your mother is expecting you, she’s doing fine, just go right up, I gave her a shampoo—the sheet above her rising, falling with each breath.
“Are you awake, Mom?”
“Who are you?”
“Claire. Your daughter Claire.”
Her mother opened one eye. “Who? Claire. Claire?”
“How are you, Mom?”
It was peculiar, wasn’t it, how something you don’t notice becomes all you notice suddenly—how, for example, she had taken air for granted and paid no attention to her mother’s labored breathing, and then all of a sudden she noticed the sheet and how it rose and fell. Alice had been sturdy once, not fat or plump so much as sturdy, but now she seemed near-skeletal, the long slow declension from congestive heart disease and the body’s collapse near-complete.
“How did you get here, Claire de Lune?”
“No problem. I flew from Detroit.”
Alice was lucid now. “When?”
“Do you want anything?” she asked. “Is there anything . . .”
“How was the trip?”
“You’re looking well,” she lied.
The room was hot. The whole house was stifling but this room was worst: the windows shut and sweating from the hot-water humidifier, the space-heater turned to high.
“How are the girls?” her mother asked. “How’s Jim?”
“Fine, fine. Becky’s loving algebra. Everything is sine and cosine and tangent with her lately; I know more about triangles than I ever cared to learn. SOHCAHTOA, for example. It’s what you call an acronym. No, a mnemonic device, that’s the word. It’s something you just can’t forget as soon as you remember it, and it’s what Becky uses for her test. SOHCAHTOA means sine equals opposite over hypotenuse, cosine means adjacent over hypotenuse, and tangent is opposite over adjacent. Or something like that, anyhow.”
She could hear herself babbling, incomprehensible, continuing to chatter about right triangles and similar triangles and isosceles and identical triangles, and how Hannah was finished with geometry and trigonometry and told her younger sister that it didn’t matter, that she wouldn’t ever need to know the word SOHCAHTOA after the test except for, maybe, SAT’s, which Hannah was preparing for and was a nervous wreck about; she talked on and on about nothing at all (the upright piano they were buying, the amount of snow, the flight from Detroit and how she had rented a Hertz at the Albany airport and it had been no problem, five hours door to door) until her mother’s fingers ceased their scrabbling at the bed-sheet and she seemed asleep.
Then Alice opened both eyes wide. “How are the girls?”
“They’re hunky-dory. You remember that expression, Mom?—it’s what you used to say.”
Claire’s husband was the CEO of a string of Nursing Homes, the Alpha-Beta Corporation. He failed to understand why Alice planned to die at home, why she refused the comfort of round-the-clock attention and knowing in advance her assets had been allocated and everything under control. He took it as a personal insult or at least as a kind of rejection that his mother-in-law wouldn’t come to Ann Arbor and settle into one of his establishments. When Claire reminded him that Saratoga Springs was home, and Alice had been born and raised in that half-timbered “cottage” he trailed off, cracking his knuckles, saying, “All the same. Round-the-clock care . . .”
“Or she could come and live with us.”
He studied her. “If that’s what you want. . . .”
They have sufficient room. The house is an extravagance, but one they can afford—with Jim’s new exercise space in the basement, his Nautilus and Nordic track and rowing machine, his free-standing weights and Jacuzzi. There’s a stereo set with headphones and a Stairmaster and mirrors all along one wall and indoor-outdoor carpeting and a telephone. Jim’s Gym, the family calls it, and he works very hard to keep fit. He’s down there two hours a day.
The truth is Claire worries a little he’s growing anti-social and would rather be doing sit-ups with his headset on than in the kitchen with her and the girls, or at the office even, or a football game. He used to be a booster, with season tickets at the fifty-yard line, and every home game Michigan played—no matter the weather, no matter the opponent—Jim would be wearing maize and blue and cheering on the Wolverines until he came home hoarse. He cared about their coaches—first Bo Schembechler and then Gary Moeller, Bo and Mo, and later on the quiet one, Lloyd Carr. He cared about those football teams more than she thought possible—with his flag attached to the car’s aerial on game-days and his “Honk if Ufer Michigan” bumper sticker and his high-fiving at an interception or touchdown and his outrage when they lost. It was embarrassing, a little, how he and his buddies rehearsed every play and rehashed what happened over beer and huddled like overage schoolboys outside at the barbecue and made travel arrangements together to the Rose or Citrus Bowl.
Now all of that was finished, or anyhow it seemed to be; now Jim stayed in his basement-gym and worked on his pecs, glutes, and abs. That’s what he called them, pecs, glutes, abs, and Claire supposes it means something—these new preoccupations—and hopes it doesn’t mean that he’s depressed. It might just be the time of year: February, football done, and the basketball team so hot-and-cold he doesn’t even bother with Chrysler Arena or his fellow die-hards in the stands. When she complained about the blues, the blahs and asked him if he felt them too he said it’s just the opposite, you feel much better after exercise, it’s an energy-booster instead. Then he smiled that closed-mouth smile of his, the one that she knows means he’s lying, and turned the volume up and said, Still got ten miles to go this morning, babe, and started pumping at the exercycle, working up a sweat.
Her mother coughed. The sound was liquid, sputum-veiled. “Who are you?”
“Claire. I’m Claire.”
“No, not my little Claire de Lune? My Claire da loon, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” she said.
“Correct. I used to make tea for your father. I used to wake up and turn to his side of the bed—long after he’d abandoned it, long after his side was empty—and say, my goodness, look, I’ve overslept, I’ll just run down to the kitchen and make us tea for two.” She smacked her lips. They were colorless, cracked. “How are the children?”
“Fine. Thank you for asking.”
Claire fished in her pocket for Kleenex and found one and dabbed at her neck. “He’s fine.”
“How was the trip?”
And then her mother shut her eyes and truly fell asleep.
So nothing had been accomplished and nothing was resolved. Next morning Claire drove south again, making the flight from Albany and back in Ann Arbor by dark. The girls were at rehearsal for the concert the school orchestra was planning for that Friday, and she ate leftover chicken and a wilted arugula salad and, since Jim had done the dropping-off, collected them at ten. They asked, “How’s Granny? How was your trip?” and she kissed them and sent them to bed.
That night she lay awake. While her husband rumbled beside her, oblivious as always to her night-sweats and then sudden chill, she stared at the tasseled canopy fringe and the pattern it cast in the hall-light’s dim glow and tried to assess what went wrong. It was—she had known this already—the final time she’d visit her mother alive. She could remember feeling both pleased with herself for having made the gesture (the trouble and expense she’d gone to, the obstacles she’d overcome) and cheated of its consequence; there had been no blessing asked for or received. She would always want something her mother refused, always be asking for some sort of attention from someone who failed to provide it. Claire wondered, bleakly, vaguely, if in her old age the roles would reverse, if she would shut her daughters out and they would feel the same way. In the feng-shui of her own house she was well-positioned, central, in that other household irrelevant as dust.
When the call arrived she was making the bed, and it was the lawyer, Joseph Beakes. He introduced himself, and she said, yes, I know you, yes, you represent my mother. He said our office has been doing so for forty years, your father too when he was alive, and we regret to inform you that Mrs. Saperstone deceased last night; we were notified this morning by the Saratoga Hospice. He said you won’t remember me, but I remember you—your sister and your brother too—when you were learning how to ride and falling off your ponies and getting on again; like yesterday it seems to me, and now you’re all grown up.
When did she die, Claire asked, exactly when, and he assured her the end had been peaceful, your mother did not suffer in her final days. The hospice has been wonderful, continued Mr. Beakes, the management of pain is much better nowadays and the body has moved—been moved—to the funeral home, and are you planning to sit what I think is called shiva and how can I help?
She answered him. The burial plot had been pre-arranged, the burial service was standard, and they were Reform Jews and would not be sitting shiva and her husband was, as Mr. Beakes might be aware, practically in the business because if you run a string of nursing homes you must be prepared for this sort of procedure; she’d call her sister and try to reach her brother and fly east in the morning and the others of her family would follow in due time.
“Mrs. Handleman? I hope you’ll let me call you Claire. We’ve been trying to locate your sister and brother—Joanna, David—too. Are they away?” asked Mr. Beakes. “They don’t seem to answer, or use a machine.”
She flushed. He had tried to contact others first; she was the third of three.
Then Mr. Beakes repeated his condolences and then the line went dead.
DAVID HAD BEEN practicing avoidance; he was getting good at it,
and better every day. He could avoid, for example, his own eyes
in the mirror while shaving; he could avoid the sidewalk cracks
while walking down a sidewalk and all conversation with strangers
and the shrill importunities of headlines or the television news.
He could say the word Rhinoceros and then forget it rapidly;
he could choose to imagine and then not imagine a gray mud-spattered
charging beast, its pig-eyes and its flesh-clad horns and complicated
rolling gait and snout.