Xeriscapes of the Heart: A Brief Hiatus, a Long Excerpt

Because I have a few projects I’m working on, plus the start of the school year, I’m going to put my reviews here and on Goodreads on a brief hiatus of about a month or a month and a half. Please don’t unfollow, dear reader—I will be back in the fall with my annual Halloween-season content and more.

In the meantime, I’d hate to leave you without reading material, so I’ve pasted in below the seventh chapter of my novel Portraits and Ashes. The best way to support my writing, since I don’t do crowdfunding, is simply to buy the book (available in print and as an ebook). I am also happy to provide a free pdf in exchange for an honest review in a public forum (contact me at the email address on the ABOUT page)—and I do mean honest. I’ve certainly read books, books I liked very much, as a perverse reaction to seemingly bad reviews. Bad reviews often make books sound more appealing than good reviews do: “Oh, it’s ‘stunning’ and ‘trenchant,’ how lovely, I’ll pass” vs. “It’s ‘nauseatingly offensive’ and ‘confusingly written’— sounds like a hoot!” I think of James Wood writing that Ishiguro’s Unconsoled “invents its own category of badness.” Well, at least it invents something. Most novels don’t.

Why Chapter Seven of Portraits and Ashes? Because it’s my favorite in the book—it goes from California to the Rust Belt trailing a garden of desert flowers, a feminist art installation, a Borgesian book, and a doomed ménage à trois in its roiling wake—and because it makes the best freestanding excerpt of the 10 chapters.

There’s always Chapter One, but you can read a bit of that on Amazon. Then there’s Chapter Six. Aside from being generally ahead of its time—too catastrophic for 2013, when I wrote it and attempted to sell it, but just right for 2019—Portraits and Ashes, I’ve often thought, would have won instant notoriety had the shocking events of Chapter Six come earlier, maybe even as an overture; I wanted them to form the novel’s first climax, though, just past its midpoint. Everyone who’s read the book comments on the memorable jolt of Chapter Six’s apocalyptic satire on academe and art world—I laughed through gritted teeth the whole time I was writing it—but I still think it works better in its place. You’ll have to read the whole book to find out.

The seventh chapter, on the other hand, introduces the third of the novel’s three protagonists: Alice Nicchio-Strand. The other two protagonists, Julia Bonham and Mark Weis, are more or less ordinary people drawn into an extraordinary plot, which is why the larger-than-life Alice—to whom many characters darkly allude throughout the novel leading up to her introduction—must come onstage, because only she has the weight and the scale to face down the story’s nemesis. With Alice, I wanted to create a character in the grand style, someone who would tower over the small-souled denizens of the lyrical literary novel the way that Heathcliff or Hester Prynne or Captain Ahab do.

As I said, Chapter Seven mostly stands on its own, though it’s connected by elements of plot, character, and motif to the totality of the novel, which, again, is available here. My only regret about posting Chapter Seven alone is this: there is a line of profane dialogue toward the end of the chapter that I wanted the reader to experience as genuinely obscene, an explosive affront. How to create such an effect in our profanity-saturated culture? I did so by mostly withholding words more indecorous than “hell” or “damn” from the novel until the end of Chapter Seven. Without that possibly subliminal aesthetic context, the line might just read like a random bit of swearing to which the characters overreact; within context, though, I hope it startles and alarms.

So please scroll down to meet the extraordinary Alice, and expect to hear from me next in a month or so!

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PORTRAITS & ASHES

Chapter Seven
Xeriscapes of the Heart

The price they made you pay for the life of the mind was exile. Because you had the hubris to claim that thought could be adequate to your deepest needs, they punished you by forcing you to go wherever they sent you. They dared your self-admired consciousness to build a house anywhere, on alien or hostile ground.

Alice found herself in this lonely eastern city. To find oneself in a city at all was lucky enough: people she knew in graduate school who had come from cosmopolitan world capitals now spent their days staring at cows or mesas, and while it was possible that these new visions carved irreplaceable grottoes into their minds, she still felt fortunate it had happened to them and not to her. This city, though, had its four strong seasons: its winter so icebound the ice seemed like stone; the summers so burning she thought the sidewalks would melt; the fall with its apple-crisp air and ankle-deep leaves; and the spring, when everything, including the concrete, smelled green and wet like new shoots of wood. This city, small and old and to this day identified with the hard men who had built it and their steel virtues and vices, startled and jarred her senses. It made her feel the deep isolation that comes from losing a land, from learning that your place in the whole intricated reticulation of things was fragile enough to be lost forever with only the passage of a few years or miles. Someone else, someone stronger, might have imagined this mobility to be a form of power, the power to be at home everywhere, as some wise man or other had once said. To Alice, however, it had come with a great and diffuse sorrow, not enough to lay her out flat but sufficient to tint her every glance gray, because she thought of the move from her city to this city as her first death.

Alice came from a place in the desert hills above the ocean. A vast city in the basin between the mountains and the coastal hills spread out its lights beneath her town. There the sun always shone in the clear blue sky, temperately enough, though even the foliage appeared dusty and parched. Whatever steel or iron men had erected the city were long gone, it seemed, leaving only the contented or the desperate. The whole flawlessly desiccated scene was crowned by the drama of the landscape, the reddish mountains to the east, the western ocean that at evening washed the sun. This landscape with its moderate weather and severe topography moved Alice to poetry because it had the power to shrivel the merely human, to make all our arrangements seem meager and indifferent. Maybe the landscape’s inhumanity explained why the scandalously inequitable city’s affairs were so poorly and cruelly managed, she mused, but it nevertheless gave her, the privileged and ambitious girl, a broad expanse for her mind, or she might even say her soul, to grow in. Anyway, she lived not in the city proper, but in the hills that looked out over the beaches, far from the centers of commerce and entertainment and poverty to the east of her town. She very much needed the breadth the beach vista allowed her, because all her parents ever had or ever knew was money. Money meant love to the professional and progressive couple, Mr. Strand and Ms. Nicchio, so they spent their time earning it, both to love her and to show her that they loved her, and she didn’t, then or now, lack gratitude for their efforts. Only a fool refuses money, after all, even if the person who pursues it to the exclusion of all else is every bit as foolish. Without the distance, observable from her bedroom window when she was a child, where the blue of the ocean vanished into the blue of the sky in a common indigo haze, she didn’t think she could have developed an imagination.

Back in the cursed days when she used to have to teach, even though she knew that she knew nothing, she always observed the failure to form imaginations in her students from the suburbs. They’d also had tenderly money-minded parents when young but nothing compensatory to look at except treated lawns and beige bricks. Therefore, they never had the opportunity to extend their souls to the horizon. They shamelessly tried to cover up their lack for as long as they could with their mere intelligence, but Alice knew this was a poor substitute, however tempting.

With all the treachery of memory, Alice thought of a certain time in her early life, roughly from age twelve to about age sixteen, as a single, suspended, tremulous, liquid instant: the moment between her excited discovery of her own particular involuted consciousness and her having begun to grow sick of it, a sickness that remained with her forever. Contained in that instant, she recalled little but long afternoons spent sprawled on the sand, her hair saltwater-crusted, the pages of whatever luminous book she was then reading curled in the damp air. That instant held only one locale other than the beach: the little public branch library in the center of her seaside town. The library contained mostly books of instruction or fantasy for the money-mad men and women who could afford to live in the town above the unequal city. Just for the sake of the community’s high-school students, who would be compelled to write reports on beautifully useless knowledge before they were allowed to make money down in the city in their turn, it also offered on its few short shelves several crucial and irreplaceable volumes in whose labyrinths she would spend her entire adolescence wandering, beach-towel-wrapped and barefoot, the way she no doubt falsely remembered traveling everywhere back then, her feet even now as broad and spatulate as a peasant woman’s for never going shod. Why was it, and why was it so banal even to mention as she approached middle age, that, when she’d been fourteen, a half hour would somehow impossibly deepen into infinity like a magic corridor? For example, a half hour spent on the bench outside the library, with a photographic folio of Rodin’s sculptures or a large anthology of English poetry massed in her lap, waiting for her mother to pick her up and not caring that she was late again because she had decided to stay behind in the mirror-walled city and earn yet more money. Those thirty minutes spread into a singular endlessness in which she could walk forever through the xeriscape that adorned the exterior of the little library, knee-deep in the wild and overgrown orange poppies and the wine-stained yarrow and the panicles of white desert lilacs, keeping her wary distance from the spiny cacti. At intervals in this dry garden stood or sat or reclined Rodin’s heroic men and women, while all those birds who sang their way through English poetry rustled amid the hardy flowers, no matter that neither Rodin nor Keats had ever looked upon this garden or even this coast.

Surely other things had happened to her at this time in her life, painful things; she must have fought with her parents, been teased at school, done poorly on exams, loved unrequitedly. But when, at the age of twenty-eight, she had moved to her new eastern city with its variable weather and endless green-treed and wet-looking hills, though she failed to remember anything of her early adolescence but days at the beach, days in dry gardens, years spent among sculptors and poets in an enchanted no-place between their land and her own, the place of her imagination.

In her late teens came the nights in the city, with its shag-headed palms slanted high overhead on fragile stalks, black against the ruddy sunset, the nights smoking clove cigarettes and laughing too loudly at street-corner bus stops until she and her friends could barely speak, until they found themselves touching hips or else dry-humping inside nightclubs in a strobing white glare that lit up the wobbled surface tension of every flung sweat droplet in mid-flight, the nights of eating foil-wrapped burritos so full they burst at one bite or tangles of soy-slick noodles at the bottoms of grease-stained paper boxes in strip-mall restaurants at midnight, the nights finally riding the bus home at three-thirty in the morning with a book of filthy poems open in her lap, alongside graveyard-shifters and night nurses and murmuring isolatoes all the way through the graying dark until the salt-sea air streamed in through the bus windows.

Some had called her a slut and a whore. Her half-dreaming nature demanded submersion in forces outside itself, whether xeriscape or sculpture garden or the lives of men, some alien element she could float or wander in. Different kinds of men gave her access to different modes of living: there was the athlete with his punishing regimen and long, sinewy slopes of thigh muscle moving beneath her; the musician with his caprice and his distance and his almost narrative kisses; the math expert, too awkward in his flesh to perceive the grace with which his trembling hands unclasped her bra. She didn’t envy men. Some basilisk glare encoded either in their genes or in their societies froze them into these single postures for life: sweating all around a rubberized track or bent with calloused fingertips over a guitar or squinting hunchbacked at a computer screen. Men spent their lives striving to become the statues of themselves that the city fathers would unveil in the town square when they were gone. She, on the other hand, listened with equanimity to track statistics, chord progressions, and programming languages; she made each man’s lovemaking a part of herself, even though his was all he’d ever know. They only became more and more themselves, but she became each of them in turn. She knew she was no slut: she was an artist, and she needed experience.

At first, she’d tried to write poetry, but she found soon enough that she lacked the strength to strip words of their merely descriptive function, to transform them into events in their own right rather than just labels for events. She wanted to make something happen, not chatter about something that had happened. When she reached high school, she turned to sculpture. Her art teachers recognized her talent and seriousness and allowed her to use what materials she wanted and to sculpt during study hall and lunch and the hour after school. A gallery of men and women, a veritable town full of people, emerged, moist as newborns, from her labor, before she fed them into the kiln’s fortifying fire: naturalistically detailed and geometrically abstract, nude and clothed, suffering, luxuriating, reclining, leaping, dancing, singing. She liked to work in wet clay, to feel the body she intuited taking shape beneath her hands. It made her feel as if she had chanced upon a person in the dark and were palpating him or her for vital information with her sensitive fingers. She won awards; she received a scholarship to the most prestigious art college in the state; she came in second for Most Likely to Succeed in the senior yearbook but won Most Unique.

For all her success, her doubts were obscuring the future. She no longer discovered any souls in the dark when she sculpted. She did it because it had become the thing she did. She feared becoming not an explorer, not an adventurer, but a type: just another art-school trendoid, just another pretentious whore. The summer between high school and college tired her intensely. She would find her suspicions confirmed later, in her theoretical readings in graduate school, but she was able to surmise on her own that making statues of men and women differed little from writing mere words about experience. Both acts imitated, but did not create. From the bookshelves and dresser-tops and nightstands of her bedroom, her little men and women mocked her with their belatedness and falsity. She felt like the sorcerer’s apprentice, who could manipulate matter but could not master magic. Her work was secondary to the world, and she did not want to come in second. She didn’t want to make copies of the world; she wanted to remake the world itself.

She created very little art the summer after high school graduation. She contemplated rejecting her scholarship and not going to art school at all, because she knew she would be just another fashionable impostor. It was a strange, gray summer, dim and humid, not like the golden and azure summers of her childhood. Someone had shut the lid on the world; the sky seemed very close and the air felt scarce. For money, she worked in a florist’s shop in her oceanside town in the desert hills. Without a thought in her head, she wandered around the tiny greenhouse at the back of the shop, misting the roses and lilies, the leaves of the plants kinking in the gray damp. She arranged bouquets and centerpieces and nosegays for rich old women. That was why she had been hired: she was an aesthetician. Sweat beaded and shone on her upper lip.

She had an abortion at the end of August. Her father drove her to the clinic in angry, compassionate silence, which she had been confident he would do. Her mother, on the other hand, would not have been capable of the compassion or the silence, because she believed, and she had often told Alice, that getting knocked up was a terrible way for a young woman to throw away her future. Alice and Mr. Strand agreed never to let Ms. Nicchio know.

The would-be father of her would-be child was an arrogant, scornful boy. He was dispatched by his grandparents during his summer stay at their beach house to pick up an order from the florist every Sunday morning to refresh the Sabbath tea table, while they went to church. He made bitterly sarcastic remarks about everything, because, she figured, he had been born rich but ugly, just as she had been born with talent but no genius.

“I don’t honestly give a shit about flowers,” he’d said the day she met him. “But I have to stay in their will, don’t I? Hey, speaking of, do you have anything poisonous, something with a thorn that kills at one prick?”

His ugly mood mirrored hers, and she loved to look at his ugly, broad-nosed, freckled face as it sweated in the florist’s shop. He was the incarnation of that weird, miserable summer. When the florist went to brunch one Sunday morning, Alice led him by the hand back into the greenhouse, because he was so ugly. He flung up her yellow floral-printed sundress in the peat-scented steam with a gesture of angry contempt. He looked like she felt, with his sweating, sneering lip: a slovenly monster among the roses and lilies. She sweated everything out. She was dry as the desert inside after that.

She felt as if someone had thrust a pushbroom through her soul. She lay emptily on her childhood beach the last week of that summer. She didn’t regret the abortion in the least, but she was humiliated by it, embarrassed in her own eyes. Staring out over the cyclically brutal waters and the carnage they left, she observed the jellyfish, limp legs sprawling out of their melted gelatinous heads, strewn across the beach as if the ocean were trying to murder life itself by vomiting up its rudiments, its embryonic slime. She knew she had done what circumstances had forced her to do, and that is why she felt so ashamed: she’d always aspired to act according to her will, not the will of nature or God or circumstance. What else had she grown such an imagination for, if not to decide for herself in perfect freedom? She could not be the world’s slave. It mortified her that she had made a decision whose consequences she was forced to evade in such undignified haste, on that embarrassed car ride with her father. She promised herself to act more deliberately in the future. She would live according to premises whose conclusions she could endure.

She still considered herself a pretender, her art exhausted, her genius barren. Without a thought in her head, she went to art school anyway, for no other reason than that she knew she had a lot to learn.

* * *

Well, she thought, she couldn’t tell all of that to the boy who came in out of the rain and who wanted to know about little Julia Fraternelli. He was one of those young men she often noticed nowadays, those A-students with a bent posture and too much flesh at the middle and a simpering, compliant, but passive-aggressive manner, men who seemed to have absorbed all that errant estrogen in the water supply she’d read about. He was probably lousy in bed, too sensitive and polite and politically correct. Such qualities in a man never failed to suggest repressed murderous urges to her; those were the men you had to watch out for, the well-behaved little boys, the good citizens. Rapists all, she thought, in wish if not in act. She didn’t intend to learn what kind of a lover he was, though: he was too young and not nearly fascinating enough. As she had told her graduate seminar back in the bad old days when she’d been forced to teach, “I don’t sleep with students, because you are all too stupid.”

Even so, she saw no reason he should have to put up with her in her current state, stale and filthy. This boy wasn’t, as she was, indirectly but decisively to blame for the murder of twenty-one people by a sociopath whose frank sociopathy, whose active rather than passive aggression, had been precisely what had charmed her about him in the first place, and so he shouldn’t have to suffer because she hardly went out of the house any longer. She left him in her living room, its every flat surface layered thickly with dust, the couch he sat on strewn with blankets that probably stank unbearably of her and of Matthias, her Doberman Pinscher. She commanded the dog to stay, and he reclined on his haunches by the cold, dark fireplace, his suspicious eyes on the visitor. The storm drummed on the roof.

She excused herself to the bathroom. There, she had to chip her fingernails untaping the square of corrugated cardboard that covered the place on the mirror where her face would appear if she stood straight before it. On the cardboard, she’d written out a quote from Pessoa: “Man shouldn’t be able to see his own face: there’s nothing more sinister. Nature gave him the gift of not being able to see it, and of not being able to stare into his own eyes.” She threw the square behind the toilet, and there she was again: Alice Nicchio-Strand at forty-six years old. She was just one year short of the age at which her mother had died, she thought, as she studied with attempted dispassion all the signs of decay, the cracks extending across the hard clay mask: the lines around the mouth and eyes that told the world how she’d been habitually straining the skin of her face, certainly not in smiles or laughter; the whites of the eyes, taking on a horrid lactose apearance to replace the clarity of youth’s vitreous bodies, like water clouding as it froze; the teeth that appeared to lengthen as they mildewed in the sour mouth; and the hair, brittle and wan and threaded with tombstone-gray. While she had known abstractly since childhood that this would happen to her, in no material detail had she predicted it, and still less had she predicted what the mirror didn’t show, the low and droning constant headache, the sting in the lower back at every wrong move, the stomach ready to spasm at every affront. She had thought of her mother as someone taken too soon; now she imagined her as someone spared just in time.

If anyone had taken her mother, it had been Alice, after all. She took her mother and made a masterpiece of her: her final project at art school, the one that was to launch her career. The boy in the living room must have looked at it on the Internet or something if he had gone to the trouble to find out where she lived, to learn that she had once known little Julia Fraternelli.

My Mother’s House; or, The Inside of Her; or, How God and Man Have Decreed That Woman Should Suffer. A structure, more or less the size of a domestic room, built of a hidden skeleton of wooden beams that were in turn enfleshed by globuled walls and a ceiling of molded Styrofoam, airbrushed in reds and purples to resemble the polypy interior of a human body, a woman’s body. In this red room stood middle-class suburban furniture, much of it rescued from Alice’s own childhood home: a love seat with white, leaf-printed upholstery; two glass-topped end tables with lilies in fluted purple glass vases, themselves fashioned to resemble petaled floral maws; a coffee table with coasters picturing snowy Christmas woods ranged around a candy dish full of gourmet chocolates; and a mantelpiece built into the organ-meat wall and bearing framed photos of Alice’s mother at every stage of her truncated life, from baptismal font to poolside to prom to altar to office to baptismal font to office to deathbed. At the ovoid entrance, a blood-purple labial doorway, hung curled ribbons of red-stained white lace, strips of Alice’s mother’s own wedding dress. Alice’s mother had died of ovarian cancer at forty-seven, just a year older than Alice was now. Alice was twenty at the time, one year into art school, and she’d had to take a semester off to return to the town in the hills above the beach and sit by the rail of the installed hospice bed in her parents’ bedroom as the professional, money-making, middle-aged woman shriveled so much that she could be easily turned this way and that by strong-muscled nurses preparatory to being wiped clean like an infant. Alice’s father, a kind and gentle man but still just a man, had quietly spurned his perishing wife with an unconscious glare of haunted fear in his averted eyes. He had worked overtime throughout her dying as if to make all the money she could not, and had once even complained, only to the hospice nurse, in the hallway, in the quietest and most concerned of voices, of the spoiled-raw-meat stench produced by his wife’s rotting insides. He whispered it, but his wife and daughter heard it anyway. He still lived there, above the ocean, Alice knew, but she hadn’t been to see him in two decades.

My Mother’s House should have launched her career: everybody said so. She was never one to accept gifts graciously, however. She had no interest in the political ideology to which her teachers tried to arrogate the piece. In fact, she told them she felt rather insulted to hear critics place her work in the canon of what was evidently a religion of weakness invented by a lot of pious prudes who had learned to talk a vaguely Marxist jargon to disguise their allegiance to an ideal of pure and unsullied womanhood.

“But surely,” one young male professor had said, “you intend irony and a pointed materialist critique of masculinist theology when you say that God has decreed that women should suffer?”

She replied only to correct his memory of her title: it was not women but woman who had to suffer.

A much older female professor, nearing retirement, had said in turn, “Well, sweetie, you’ll go nowhere with that attitude. My advice is avoid the issue entirely and talk about something else instead. They don’t cut a lot of checks in this world, or in this profession anyway, to people who speak their minds.”

Speaking her mind wasn’t her difficulty, though. She found herself unable to do anything at all after My Mother’s House. The problem that had presented itself to her when she tried to write poetry and after she’d mastered sculpture came to her once again, none of its impassible difficulty alleviated by her greater maturity. After she made any work of art, she inevitably asked herself what would come next. She thought, I can’t just do this again. What was she supposed to do, just become the feminist room-and-house artist? She could move on to her grandmother, her aunt, or any other relative with some portentously feminine paraphernalia in her living room and a conveniently gynecological disease: My Third Cousin’s Yeast Infection: A Philosophical Investigation. The thought disgusted her.

She went on to get a Ph.D. in art history since they would pay her to teach for six years while she did so; if she couldn’t make art anymore, perhaps, after careful study, she could explain to herself why she could not. In five years, she earned her Ph.D. with a dissertation on what she’d called “the iconoclastic avant-garde,” a catch-all term for a century’s worth of blank-canvas painters, concrete-block architects, photographers of light, and recorders of silence. On the basis of that study, she was hired to teach in this eastern city, far from her beloved desert hills and western ocean.

She took a brief shower and then put on a sundress that was inappropriate considering the heatwave’s breaking in gust after gust of frigid rain that lashed the roof. She padded back out to the living room to tell the unimpressive young man what he’d come to find out. She let her long coil of wet hair dry on the bare skin between her shoulderblades as she spoke; that way, she could attribute any shuddering he perceived to the chill it sent through her.

* * *

Fraternelli owned a few buildings in the neighborhood where he grew up, an ethnic city borough that used to be full of immigrants’ kids on street corners, half an underclass and half a new elite in the making, and now full of elderly women who’d outlived their husbands and all sorts of kids on street corners, mostly underclass now, alas, since the elite was more exclusive than it used to be. He ran these old buildings almost alone, with just a few unpredictable and brutal young men for assistance; he put himself at the nearly unlimited service of the old matrons in their eighties and the lone mothers in their twenties who rented from him. Alice imagined he spent most of every day on his back or on a ladder, behind a toilet or up in the ceiling, repairing all the hidden pipes and wires that strung the world together.

She went with him on his rounds once. She had asked permission first, and his wife, the librarian, had allowed it with that prim shrug of hers. All he said was, “As long as you don’t try and start a union you can come, but I’m going put you to work.”

They spent a morning together in a brown little apartment in high summer heat, the once-white blades of a dust-crusted box fan raking the hot air over them, air that would probably not cease to smell like cigarette ash until a wrecking ball knocked down the room’s four walls. Mrs. Cassini, whose mouth had set into a squarish frown that made thirty-two-year-old Alice vow to smile more as she aged, brought them little saucers of coffee, black and bitter. She watched sternly with her hands on her artificial hips and a pack of smokes in her dressing-gown pocket as Fraternelli and Alice replaced the worn-out fluorescent lights in her kitchen and bathroom.

She asked Alice what she did for a living. Alice never knew what to say to those she thought of as normal people in response to this question, since “artist” didn’t sound quite like a job and “teacher” conveyed the wrong impression.

“She’s a college professor,” Fraternelli said in Alice’s silence.

“Well, la-de-da,” Mrs. Cassini said.

The old woman didn’t chain-smoke, but she lit up devotedly at regular intervals. Sometimes she coughed, her chest booming and sloshing like a barrel of wine rolled across rocks.

“Those goddamn things are gonna kill you,” Fraternelli mumbled from the top of a ladder through the wire connector caps he held loosely between his lips while he stripped the ends of the new wires up in the junction box.

“For Christ’s sake, I’m eighty-seven years old. How much longer you want me to live? I wish the shitting things would kill me quicker.”

She watched them for the whole time they worked. Fraternelli did most of the job, while Alice handed him his tools or cleaned up the wire covers, plaster dust, and whatever else flew down out of the ceiling onto the drab brown carpet.

“It’s nothing personal,” said Mrs. Cassini when Alice noticed that she was surveying them. “It’s just that in my day you had to take care of yourself.”

The old woman would put in the occasional word of electrical advice, and Fraternelli would, with genial dismissiveness, tell her she was wrong; then he’d sweat and grunt for a while and come to admit that maybe she’d had a point. She would then turn to Alice and gesture up to Fraternelli with an accusatory upsweep of the arthritically clawed hand that said, “They’re all the same, these idiots.”

Once Fraternelli sent Alice up the ladder, awkwardly hauling the bright new fixture behind her, to strip its new wire ends, attach them to the old wires in the ceiling, and then bolt the whole structure into place. She got dust in her mouth and down her shirt, and her fingers bled where the wire-ends pricked her soft skin. She hadn’t worked with her hands since art school, and they had grown tender and delicate since she’d devoted herself to mental life.

Mrs. Cassini, tired of all this electrician’s work, turned up the radio, tuned to a channel that played the songs of her youth and early womanhood, and began to comment on each of the songs that came on.

“What a voice he had,” she was saying as Alice blinked plaster dust out of her vitreum. “I wanted to marry him! I’ll never forget the day I found out he was colored.”

Alice had no doubt grunted in some way as she tried to maneuver the light fixture so that the holes at the top of it would align with the corresponding holes Fraternelli had drilled into the smoke-gray ceiling. With the sorrow of futility that eventually comes over all laborers, Alice foresaw that the pristine fixture would soon be as ashy as everything else in this place.

On hearing her grunt, Mrs. Cassini said, “Not that I have a prejudiced bone in my body, professore. It takes all kinds, don’t it? There’s a lid for every pot. And you don’t look too colored to me anyhow. I took you for a Sicilian. You aren’t colored, are you?”

As her fingers strained to hold the fixture flush with the ceiling, Alice spat through the nut and the screw gripped between her lips, “What the hell does it matter if the lights come on?”

Mrs. Cassini rasped out a noise half cough and half laugh that made Alice’s chest hurt to hear it, and she said, “You got me there, honey!”

Eventually, the old flickering yellow fluorescent lights were gone, and bright new tubes threw a steady white glare all around at the grime-coated walls and window-blinds and linoleum. With dust particles jewelling all the dark coils of her hair and blood crusted around her fingernails, Alice felt less than satisfied with the job they had done; now she could see better, with some horror, all the work left to do, the mortal infinitude of labor.

Not that Mrs. Cassini was a dirty or slovenly person: she kept her apartment tidy and uncluttered, everything in its place, a vase of fake but convincing flowers on the kitchen table, a wooden crucifix high on the wall, a blue-robed Blessed Mother atop the radiator cover, family portraits of grandchildren and school photos of great-grandchildren magnetized to the door of the refrigerator, or, as the old woman still called it, the ice-box. She smoked two packs a day, though, and her arthritis, a word she pronounced with four syllables, bothered her too much to allow her to get up on a stepladder and dust or go down on her knees and scrub. She said it had gotten so bad that she hadn’t even been to church in a year.

“Soon you won’t be able to go if you want to,” Fraternelli told her. “They’re saying once all the old folks die off, they’ll have to deconsecrate it.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means it won’t be blessed anymore. It’ll be just another building. The diocese wants to sell it. They’ll probably make movies in there. The artists will like the décor; it’ll make them feel special.” He limply twirled his hand through the air as he pronounced “décor.”

Mrs. Cassini crossed herself: “Oh Madonn’,” she said. “My useless pimp of a heathen brother-in-law would love that!”

As they were going out the door, refusing several offers of food, Mrs. Cassini said, “I’m not gonna ask what you’re doing with this young Sicilian girl, Frank, and you with a little girl of your own.”

Fraternelli said, “Good, because it’s none of your damn business, lady,” but he put both hands on her shoulders affectionately and winked down at her.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, “don’t forget I knew your dad. I’m an old lady, but I know what people are up to.”

Alice shook her dry hand, the fingers knobbed by rheumatism and nicotine-stained. When she withdrew her hand, she felt that Mrs. Cassini had pressed a warm, soft twenty-dollar bill into her palm.

“Don’t let him push you around, honey,” Mrs. Cassini told her. “These girls today are so stupid. They want to be college professors and senators but can’t keep their men at home, can’t cook a meal, can’t grow a vegetable, can’t sew nothing. I say let the men do the dirty work and then give them something to come home to. But what the hell do I know? I’m just an old lady.”

* * *

Fraternelli, when she knew him: six foot six, with his big paws, the deep-ridged nails overtaking the squat fingertips like curved shells, their fluting ever caked with dirt, his pot-belly swinging slowly over his handyman’s belt, and his flaky leather work boots. When he wasn’t in the house, he kept a thick cigar fixed in the side of his mouth; it needed to be re-lit from time to time, so he kept a small butane torch on hand. Alice loved to watch the blue flame dart around the dry tobacco. He grunted as he dismounted the cab of his mud-spattered green truck on his bad knee, his body prematurely degraded at the age of forty-three from a life of labor and appetite. He had that permanently sarcastic glimmer in his left eye and that smirk at the corner of his mouth as he brought ice cream to her university office at the end of his working day and before her night class.

“This is fancy,” he’d said to her with mild derision as he looked all around her large office, orange-shot with late-afternoon sun filtered through autumnal treelight. “I’ve never been to college. I was never that smart. On the other hand, we know you can barely change a goddamn lightbulb, so I guess we’re even.”

Fraternelli questioned and mocked and derided everything, his own actions included, which made her feel safe in this lonely steel and iron city, which had no beach and no desert flowers to tell her amid her doubts that beauty and chaos could both be permanent without destroying each other. Because he laughed at everything, he asked nothing of her; because he asked nothing of her, she could give him everything. She never did give him everything, though. The nature of their relationship made it impossible.

They met, if it can be called meeting, during her second year in the city. At this time in her life, she slept, taught her classes, researched in the university library, and revised her doctoral dissertation into what would become an influential, still-cited monograph on the iconoclastic avant-garde. On days when she could fill the hours no other way, she went to movies and galleries, and she’d found a regular café a few blocks from the small rowhouse she rented near campus. Even so, she kept trying to pretend she didn’t live in this city, that she’d be leaving tomorrow or the next day, back to the coast. When her book was finished, though, she began to crave novelty, some jolt to recall her to physical life now that she had at last, after an almost fifteen-year epoch that began with her confusions during the summer after high school, explained some of her intellectual quandaries to herself. She needed some new stimulus to puzzle over, some affront to create new intellectual quandaries, if she were to go on thinking at all, some piercing mote to weave a pearl around. With no plan in mind, she began reading the personal ads in the newspaper; she had not had a lover in many years.

One bleakly bright summer morning, when Alice sat in the café, faced by a day with nothing to do, she found in the paper a detailed physical description of herself as she had looked the previous Saturday night, while standing in line to see a revival of Belle du Jour, from the plastic orange lily in her hair down to the sea-blue polish on her toenails. Her cheeks burned, as if everyone in the café could read over her shoulder. A couple had written the ad, MC seeking F; they said she’d caught their two pairs of eyes independently of each other, and that she had moreover returned their glance, which made them wonder if she would be willing to experiment with them. They told her to reply with a physical description of themselves if she happened to be interested. She hadn’t catalogued their wardrobes, as they had hers, but how could she have failed to notice the huge, ursine man with the severe angular moustache that dropped in straight lines like columns on either side of his chin, his heavy hands on the thin shoulders of the tiny, flat-chested, librarianish woman in the plain brown pants, her eyes screened behind huge round glasses, her taut gray-brown bun at rest on his rough shirt-front? Alice wrote back, “You look as if Goldilocks’s plainer sister had married one of the bears, and then they grew old together.” At that time in her life, she was willing to try anything once.

Fraternelli had been married to the librarian for five years; she was his second wife. His first wife, a younger woman, some kind of suburban princess-cum-accountant type who came from privilege, always inspired scornful merriment in him, as if he had spent the decade and a half of their marriage being held prisoner in some bewildering country whose customs he had never mastered or grasped the inner necessity of: “She used to buy fresh flowers every week for Sunday dinner parties. Dumb bitch blew over a hundred bucks a week that way.” Then he would blow a brown cloud of smoke and admit, “The place did smell pretty good, to give the bitch her due.”

The librarian, on the other hand, spoke of her precursor with steely contempt: “She wants to live in a sentimental bubble; the thought of reality fills her with horror. She never picks up a book or thinks about the state of the world. And she thinks her lack of knowledge makes her a superior being, as if other people were willfully wallowing in filth when they try to understand reality. She’s even filthier, though; she just doesn’t know it. But Frank loved something about her. I think it was a maternal fixation: she was like the womb.”

Alice didn’t try to find out too much about their pasts. She learned only that Fraternelli had tired of his first wife’s endless aesthetic demands for the perfect middle-class life and had left her for the librarian, a serious woman, a trained scholar of natural history, a sober teratologist, as committed in her own way as her handyman husband was in his to apprehending the fragile relations that made the world possible. Only once and by accident did Alice meet Fraternelli’s only child, his daughter with the suburban princess; but this was a year into their experiment, and what she said to the adolescent girl one summer Saturday night brought their experiment to an end.

Why had Fraternelli and his second wife contacted Alice, she wondered? She concluded that it was simply because they had been married for five years. Each having been unsuccessfully married before, they knew the early symptoms of creeping paralysis, the way husbands and wives harden in each other’s eyes like those moist clay figures Alice used to feed into the kiln, the way each sentence they do or could speak to each other comes to feel pre-determined by their half-decade-old roles, the way leaving a marriage is never really about leaving another person but rather about abandoning a version of yourself that once was young and supple but has since petrified into a carapace around your living soul. Fraternelli and the librarian had both divorced already, though, so they both knew that ending a marriage did not automatically liberate the self into its suppressed possibilities; the self had to be altered willfully, divorce or no. They therefore decided to dispense with divorce entirely and change their selves in tandem, together, in response to a common risk; in short, they wanted to relieve the burden of marriage by making an adventure of it. Alice would be their adventure, they’d decided when they saw her in that movie line, this woman somehow redolent of saltwater in her white sundress purple-spotted with prints of vinous blossoms.

The librarian herself told Alice, in a clinician’s tone, most of what she would come to know about the couple’s histories and their marriage. Specializing in rare early medical manuscripts with gruesomely intricate engravings, she never said a warm word to Alice and seemed content to ignore or allow Alice’s growing flirtation with Fraternelli. As for Fraternelli, all he said by way of explanation for their desire to bring Alice into their marriage was, “We were bored, but not exactly with each other.”

The librarian did not maintain her scientific decorum in bed: she screamed and thrashed, her tiny fists mashing the bedsprings, her trim and firm body, which had never borne a child, undulating in shadow-troughed waves of muscle and skin. She was obviously the one who most desired Alice’s touch, which, Alice thought, perhaps explained why she preferred not to speak to her. The first time, she recalled, Fraternelli faltered; he rolled off the bed silently, his limp dick flopping under his massed gut, and watched the women, his severe moustache a black frown in the dim bedroom. Alice had thrown him a questioning look from between his wife’s thighs. “Don’t stop on my account,” he said. “I’m just enjoying the view.” She thought she saw fear in his eyes, badly masked by the joke, but then the practical, pleasure-loving man was ready. It always happened the same way: the librarian would lay flat on her back, Alice would go down on her, and Fraternelli would take Alice from behind. Alice was the medium through which Fraternelli and his wife made love, a tool, a prosthetic phallus he used to satisfy the librarian. Alice told herself at first that she submitted to this because she too needed to crack the shell that had hardened around her. After all, publishing a book exceeded marriage when it came to fossilizing a formerly living version of one’s own consciousness. At least you could, if you wanted to, dissolve your nuptials, but you couldn’t recall your published thoughts. She slowly became aware, however, that she allowed Fraternelli and the librarian to use her as they did because she could feel all week long the huge, hot prints his hands made on her hips every Saturday night.

At the start, she was in love only with the librarian’s house. Situated back on a hidden street that curved up behind a bank of woods, it was like a Wunderkammer she had chanced upon while strolling through a forest. She found peace in its angel-topped backyard birdbath that whispered all through the summer nights; the folds in the mold-spotted melancholy angel’s robe became the ribs of its basin, as if all things fit together rightly and the world knew no disharmony or conflict. Some Saturdays when they had finished making love, Alice would leave Fraternelli and the librarian in the new intimacy of their marriage bed to loll in their claw-footed bathtub, into which she would spirit one or two of the librarian’s seeming thousands of mortifying cyclops-eyed and tumor-ridden books of historical teratology, trying to control her startled breathing as she turned the hideous pages that softened and wavered in the steam from the bath. She would remember forever the night that she’d crept on careful feet up to the attic as the couple lay sleeping, the night she discovered the cabinet of formaldehyde-pickled specimens, the long white worm spiraling in amber, the rat fetus never to be birthed from the pink travesty of an amnion it floated in; she’d flung both hands over her mouth, but streaks of screaming lit out from between her fingers anyway. If the couple had heard her, they never said so.

For six months, their ménage à trois went as planned. In those six months, she drafted and sold to a university press her second book: a creative piece, an artist’s book, that described radical and probably impossible artworks that would not, if realized, represent existing landscapes but rather create new ones, unprecedented and dangerous. A lake shimmering at a forty-five degree angle on a mountain’s slope, monstrously large orange fish dotting it here and there, hanging as if from their gaping mouths by the slanted, placid surface of the water. An open-air prison cage in the blazing heat of the desert full of parti-colored birds small enough to slip through the bars but too obscurely indolent to do so; the birds would die and be replaced from time to time. An art gallery that was also a meat locker, dim and frigid, the long rack-ribbed bodies and striated shanks dangling from hooks in dancers’ postures suggestive of a cattle ballet; after their tour of the gallery, the patrons would reward the artists by purchasing the choicest cuts of meat. A beach where each liquid wave that crested and spumed fell as a pane of crystal, smashing and scattering itself in glittery crystals across the shingle. A xeriscape where amid the spiny cacti and orange poppies and wine-stained yarrow grew the bodies of women, long and sinewy fragile-looking stalks with thoughtful faces, who survived on little and would accordingly live long.

Her fanciful little book won her plaudits from the coterie of artists and thinkers she most respected and earned her comparisons to certain revered intellectual fabulists. Somehow it also certified her as a brilliant artist even though she had scarcely made a work of art since deciding to get her Ph.D., because she had not changed her mind about finding the imitation of reality pointless and the creation of more reality almost impossibly difficult, a task with a failure rate so high and a risk of repetition so great that it should only be attempted once or twice a lifetime. Her book struck a compromise: she revealed her extreme and even occasionally murderous visions without inflicting them upon reality. In this, she aimed both to honor and to censure all those hard men of the twentieth century who’d mistaken their dreams for something that had to be done to the world by force. Years later, when she was in the midst of another of her maddening dry spells, when she had abandoned teaching and abandoned writing and had taken up the directorship of the city’s Modern Art Museum out of sheer imaginative exhaustion and desperation, this compromise could not protect her from the intellectual seductions of Frank Jobe, a creature who seemed to have stood up and walked out of the pages of her book.

While in the act of writing the book, she enjoyed herself, or even, they would have said under an older regime, disported herself, with Fraternelli and the librarian. She treasured those post-coital Saturday nights of sneaking around the long hallways of that hidden house while the couple kept to their marriage bed, the librarian’s cat slinking warmly between her ankles, and she loved, with the wistful and yearning knowledge that it would all have to end someday, the times when she would sit in their kitchen and all three would eat a late dinner together with post-orgasmic appetite. They would drink too much red wine and eat Fraternelli’s linguine puttanesca or chicken marsala, both learned by his mother’s side in boyhood, and then his vanilla gelato trailing its milky swirls in espresso liqueur. He made these beautiful, perfect dishes in the same unsmiling attitude with which he repaired his tenants’ broken toilets and blown wiring; but he oversalted his own servings, Alice observed, romantically thinking him a tragic craftsman who knew what proportion would be for others, even though his own palate was too coarse to abide it, a classic instance, like the deaf composer, the blind watchmaker, the wounded surgeon, and his weakness appealed to her as much as his strength. During those dinners, Alice would read to them from her manuscript, even though the librarian usually brought a book of her own to the table, a serious volume about the history of medicine, the philosophy of science, or the genealogies of the museum and the library as institutions. She hardly said two words to Alice, but she would look skeptically over the rims of her round reading glasses as she heard the descriptions of impossible artworks; she plainly disapproved of Alice’s whimsy and lowered her eyes with relief to the illustrations of neoplasms or astrolabes in her own book. Fraternelli would say, “Well, it’s not as if I’m an educated man, but it sounds pretty damn impressive to me.” Then he would launch into disquisitions on the pragmatics of bringing what she described to life, a whole discourse of electricity and pneumatics and combustion that meant little to her. Her ignorance of practical mechanics ostensibly explained why Alice ended up asking the librarian, who only shrugged, if she could ride along with Fraternelli as he tended to his city properties.

Toward the end of their experiments’ first half, after the day at Mrs. Cassini’s, Alice regularly met Fraternelli without the librarian’s being present: a drink in a bar, a lunch at a deli. They conversed very easily. A man who worked with his hands, who fixed things for a living, he took reality as it came. He listened to her without preconception as she explained her early life, which she never would have done in front of her academic colleagues, fearing the “discomfort” that their ideological prudishness committed them to feeling when faced with tales of sexual fearlessness and willing dissolution in the sensibility of a lover. Fraternelli, no intellectual, had an air of having heard it all and having forgotten it already. The stories he shared with her tended to be those of his tenants, their crimes and perversions and fetishistic photo collections and quotidian generosity, as if he had no story of his own, even though these stories revealed him more than anything could. He had come in to make repairs once for a tenant who was with a prostitute he couldn’t afford to pay, and so Fraternelli settled the bill himself. He’d changed bandages on old women’s suppurating wounds, he’d unblocked toilets as their turds swam on flooded tiles at his boots. He confessed to Alice that one of his tenants, with only weeks to live, had asked him to finger her on the day he came to remove her normal bed to make room for the hospice bed, and he had done it, he’d given her, bone-dry as she was, her final pleasure. He also confessed to Alice his selfish acts, his petty acts, his cruel acts in office: the smug child’s toy deliberately smashed, the young woman spied on through a crack in the bedroom door while she dressed for the day as he was supposed to be changing a fuse. Once, he said he had been a bad father, as simple as saying the sun goes down in the evening, without judgment or self-pity.

When she told him in a bar about the summer of the florist and the ugly boy in the greenhouse, he said, “Well, sure. Sometimes you have to do something evil just to prove you’re free.” She wondered, as she sloshed her ice cubes around the bottom of her whiskey tumbler, whether or not he meant this as an invitation to kiss him. He lacked guile, she concluded; if he’d wanted a kiss, he would have asked for one. He penetrated her without looking her in the face and seemed not to desire what she regarded as the greater intimacy of an embrace. He always tried to pay for her food or drink, out of what seemed like an unquestioning sense of chivalric duty, relic of his immigrant upbringing’s Old-World ethos, but she never allowed him to. Then came that night he brought dessert to her university office before her night class. Gradually, she let herself understand that she was falling in love with him. Her stomach floated up every time she saw him; every day, she reminded herself to tell him of some funny remark a student had made or some out-of-the-ordinary sight she had seen on her way back from the university. She checked books out of the library on wiring and plumbing, so that she did not disappoint him with her ignorance of the basic processes that made everything else possible: “Art’s nice but what the hell good is it if you can’t turn on the light and see it?” he’d asked her once. Every night that wasn’t Saturday night, she missed him, his huge hands gently clasping her hips or her ribcage from behind. She would stand in her office door before her night class and wait for him, the emperor of ice cream, though in fact he only came the once.

On a Saturday night in September, she met Fraternelli’s only daughter, his child with the suburban princess accountant: an adolescent girl, on the blonde side of brunette, about twelve years old, with all of Fraternelli’s skepticism and none of his mirth. The look on her smooth face, with its nez pointu and narrowed eyes, mixed reserve with insolence, a combination that somehow came out as affectless fear. Alice imagined that little Judy or Julie or whatever her name was wouldn’t amount to much; she seemed, in her white pinafore with a teen romance novel under her arm, to have taken after the mindless mother. When she’d been unexpectedly dropped off that Saturday night due to the princess’s having to rush her own father to the hospital with a heart attack, Fraternelli introduced Alice to her as the librarian’s old friend. Her face still flushed with orgasm, because the girl’s arrival had interrupted one of their lovemaking sessions, Alice smiled cordially. Judy or Julie asked a lot of gossipy, chatty questions at the dinner table that required the elaboration of a flimsy mythology about Alice and the librarian’s college friendship, but she only furrowed her brow with a bit of disdain at the answers. The girl seemed to fear silence and to be unimpressed with speech. Alice wanted to say, “You talk too much, you should only watch and hold your tongue.” She wanted to say, “You want to seem worldly, but you seem prurient, like a spy.” Alice felt grateful she had no daughter of her own. Yes, this girl would grow up to be a nag and a scold, always making inquiries and never being satisfied with answers that didn’t conform to her sheltered and naïve fancies. A cruel thing to think of a little girl, Alice knew, but who cared? An artist had to be honest about what she saw. Alice, who had when she was just a little older than Fraternelli’s daughter walked in a xeriscape around Rodin’s sculptures and read the poems of D. H. Lawrence on a sea-bound city bus next to whores and sots and blood-spattered night-nurses, hated the girl’s innocence and wanted very badly to stain it, smutch it, mash it like a flower in the dirt. When both Fraternelli and the librarian were out of the room for a moment, she leaned down to Judy or Julie and whispered, “When you came in, I was eating your stepmother’s cunt while your father fucked me from behind.” The girl flinched as if Alice had flicked her nose, and then she said nothing.

Four days later, while she was teaching herself the basics of electrical currents before she fell asleep, Alice’s phone rang. Fraternelli’s voice curtly informed her never to contact them again and hung up without waiting for a reply.

* * *

After Alice had told the young man with the immature face as much of her history with Fraternelli as she saw fit, remembering much more than she told, he stammered and stumbled his way toward asking her questions about The Last Café. The rain had subsided to a misty drizzle and the lightning and thunder had stopped, so she first thought simply to turn him out of doors as soon as he broached the subject. She began to wonder if he had cunningly intended to brandish the name of Fraternelli’s daughter to get himself inside her house and, once inside, to spring his real journalistic trap and interrogate her about the fatal art opening she’d presided over. Even if she tossed him out now, she reflected, he could still write a piece about the dim and dank interior of her unkempt house, the hellish dog she set to watching him, and the salacious narrative she had recited of her ill-fated erotic adventures. Matthias was pacing around the furniture, his claws scraping and dragging over the floor as if he were too bored with all this somnolent human complication even to lift his legs to walk as he listened to it. She wanted to snap the dog to attention and thrust her finger at the girlish boy’s neck so that the dog would leap up and chew his throat away in blood-slick, sinewy strips. She had only allowed him inside because the knowledge of whom he’d meant by “Julia Bonham” came to her simultaneously with the awareness that she had never really known the little girl’s name.

She cut off his long, hesitant preamble about her notorious curatorial work and said, “So how did you know her? Julia Bonham, I mean?”

“We went out for a while in high school.”

“That’s it? That was, what, ten year ago or more? And you haven’t see her since?”

“No,” he said. “I know it sounds strange, but I’ve recently run into some trouble. Problems with my job, my marriage. And I’ve had some time on my hands.”

“So you run from your present troubles to the lost utopia of your vanished youth and your old girlfriend? Do I have that right?”

“But you don’t understand,” he said. “She’s gone. I’m just trying to find out why. Somebody should, and since I have nothing else to do right now…”

“Gone? What’s happened to her?”

“She’s with the It cult now,” he said.

This news brought her out of her seat. She began to pace in a direction opposite to that of Matthias, but then he ran to her and circled her legs as she walked. She knew nothing about the It people, had no sense of whether the rumors that Frank Jobe was behind the group were true. Since she had scarcely left her house in six months, she had never seen them in the flesh. All she knew was that they put ashes on their faces, lived in sewage tunnels, touched each other all over, and voided their bowels and bladders where they stood, abjuring their humanity because the world was not yet just. It would be very like Jobe to bring such a hideous thing as this group into being, another of his defacements of the reality he so resented because he felt it excluded him. She hated them because they had given up; it wasn’t as if she didn’t know the despair that would make someone want to be nothing, but she had all her life sought a way through the tangle of meaninglessness, a way to live. She had taken a few wrong paths, of course, not least of them being the gratuitous insult to Fraternelli’s little girl. She had not ever thought to sit down and die to the world, not since six months ago when she was sure the world wished her to die, and rightly enough. She felt a pain somewhere in the middle of her body as she walked around the living room much too quickly, quickly enough to make the boy on the couch think she was crazy. She searched her mind until she understood that the pain was a question, a question that, as soon as she voiced it within herself, sounded deranged and self-serving: had Julia’s decline into the nihilistic fanaticism, the literal shit, in which she now immersed herself been initiated long ago by Alice’s attempt to corrupt her, to stain her?

Just then, the young man’s phone chimed from his pocket. She watched him pull it out slowly enough, as if it hardly mattered to him, but when he saw the name of the caller on the screen, he said with a cracking voice, “I’m sorry, I have to take this now.” His fingers shook as he accepted the call; they trembled so much that he jarred the touchscreen and accidentally put the call on the phone’s external speakers.

A young woman’s voice, sweetly high-pitched but broken by tears and sighs, blared tinnily out of the small device: “Mark? It’s me. I’m, I’m in the hospital. The baby’s fine so far, but there’s been a problem, I don’t know, I can’t focus right now. I’ve been in so much pain. I thought it would go away, but I couldn’t even walk, so I had to call my mother. They’re going to induce labor tomorrow. Mark, I didn’t ever want to see your face again. Not after the way you hurt me, you lied to me, you made a fool of me. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life, and I hated you so much for that, I swear to God I wanted to kill you, you son of a bitch. But when I was laying on the floor, waiting for the ambulance, all I could think was that I needed you there. Your face was all I could see. We’ll figure it all out, we’ll talk about it all later, but will you come see me, please? You should be there to meet your son. It’s going to be a son, so will you just come over here, you bastard?”

Alice leaned over Mark’s shoulder and ended the call. He rounded on her, his face so twisted with rage that she jumped back because she thought he might bring his fist around. She was glad to see him finally show some spirit.

“Get out of my house,” she said. “Go to her. Go back to your family. Run as fast as your legs will carry you, stupid boy.”

He half stood up, his face now tensed, mouth held open in a startled O. He looked like a sprinter poised on the blocks, all his muscles taut. Then his eyes furrowed with confusion, as if he were struggling to remember something important, and he said, “But what about Julia?”

“Forget about her. That’s not your story. It never was; it was just a fancy you pursued when you thought for a moment you could have a different kind of life from the one with the job and the wife and the child. But you can’t; you’ve made your choice, and now you have to live with it. Go back to your family. You’re a family man now. These adventures will be someone else’s responsibility.”

She took his elbow in her tight grasp and led him to the door. The rain had stopped, but the sky was the dirty smeared white of old ice; the wind blew in cold gasps. Summer seemed to have ended forever. He began jogging down the slanted, cracked stone steps to the street when Alice suddenly called out: “Wait!”

She held Matthias’s collar by two fingers and passed the dog to Mark. Matthias whined quietly, high and thin like air going out of balloon, just to register a protest, but he didn’t resist. He seemed not to believe that he could change anything.

“He’s very docile and well-trained,” she said. “He’s only two years old; he can be the companion of your son’s childhood.”

“But why are you giving him to me?”

“Because I’m going away,” she said simply.

She shut the screen door on the young man and watched him walk down the stone stairs, more slowly now, dazed or drugged or under water; the dog trotted hesitantly behind him and tossed the occasional whining glance back at his former mistress.

* * *

While she was telling young Mark about her time with Fraternelli, she had mused aloud on what might have become of the man.

“You didn’t hear?” the boy had said. “He died of a heart attack during a robbery. He and the librarian were robbed by the boyfriend of…”

He’d let his words trail off, aware they were carrying him toward some swamp of implication in which he would simply sink.

“The boyfriend of a woman who was to them what I had been,” she finished.

He nodded in an abashed way. Her hair had dried completely; she couldn’t blame on a chill the shudder that seized her whole body and rattled the chair she sat in. Fraternelli was gone, she thought; she hadn’t seen him in fifteen years anyway, fifteen years alone, fifteen years in which she hadn’t married or had children or had any serious relationship. Before she’d met him, and then again after, she thought herself incapable of love. Maybe it was so. Maybe her motives in life would never amount to anything more than a cruel curiosity, a hunger for experience for its own sake, a greedy desire for more, more, and still more. His commitment to repairing the world as it was had briefly shown her another way. When she’d stepped down off the ladder in Mrs. Cassini’s apartment, she’d put her heel back onto a stray screw and twisted her ankle, almost collapsing to the ground; Fraternelli had placed both hands on the small of her back, gently, as if there were no urgency at all, and, for the briefest of instants, he was all that held her up, his huge warm hands. She felt she should honor it somehow, make her own form of repair, of reparation. Fraternelli was gone: so she would find his daughter.

_____________

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