Eat This Heart
After the rain refused to fall, after the jackrabbits came on like a plague, after the wheat and alfalfa died before they could cast a shadow, my father became a captain going down with his ship. He drove our spindly cattle from the pasture in Cushing down to the Broken Arrow stockyards, through the dry arroyos and up the line of mesquite stapling the ridge between Payne and Creek County. He spent five days herding the three thousand head along the trail with a twelve-man crew of wranglers and drovers and all their paints, palominos, and blood bays. He prayed for no lightning or rattlesnakes, argued the stockyards into the best price he’d ever gotten, and came home with a Longhorn heart wrapped in paper and string.
It was June, and I’d just finished eleventh grade. I walked into the kitchen and watched while he stood at the stove in the stiff hand-tooled boots my mother gave him for their last anniversary together. He heated the old iron pan and unwrapped the heart, the butcher paper falling away like twists of old skin. He rummaged through the cupboards, came up with what he was looking for, and began cooking the heart in whiskey and flour. Humming while it fried, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.”
The hearts shrank and spat in the skillet. Usually there was flank steak, chuck steak, brisket from the drive, but that day there was only that slab of muscle with its smell like wet dirt, its green whiff of early death.
“Smells good, huh?” my father asked.
“You said we could have pizza when you came back,” I said. The pan popped and spit.
“You don’t want to try it?”
I shook my head.
“It’s from our herd,” he told me. “The best in the state.”
I shook my head again.
“It’s tradition,” he said stiffly. He flipped the heart in the pan. “This is exactly how my grandfather used to make it.”
“I thought Grandpa Chuck made Grandma Bessie do all the cooking,” I said. My great-grandfather, the one-time sheriff and many-times outlaw who founded our town and scratched our ranch from five hundred acres of sand and creosote, was famous for his temper and not his recipes. As far as I knew, my father had hated Grandpa Chuck, had planned to run away from home and never come back.
My father grunted and turned back to the stove. He slid the heart from the pan, sliced it down the center. Blood the color of old ink spilled from its middle.
“Here you go, Blue,” he said, sliding our plates onto the table. He had a way of making my name sound ugly when he was mad, the color the heifers got under their eyes when their milk was drying up. “Eat up.”
The half-heart steamed while I sat and watched it. I began to cut it into pieces and then smaller pieces, herding them around and over the edge of my plate with my knife. I was a pioneer awaiting my covered wagon. I was swallowing lock picks and digging tunnels with spoons. I was cleaving from this place like softness from bone. I was counting the days till graduation.
“This is tradition,” my father said, sliding a piece into his mouth. “Someday you’ll thank me.”
But I was empty as an old well. I built a tower from blood-red stones and ruled over a warring country. Our kitchen flooded and I swam through the wreckage, tentacles trailing into the hall.
“You’re not leaving the table till you try it,” he told me.
“Fine,” I said. I picked up my fork and took a bite. It tasted like something still alive, like all the cowness had been concentrated into that one piece. I pushed the plate away.
A cold weather front passed over his face. He took my plate and stood up. He ate my portion of the heart at the stove, skewering each piece onto his knifepoint and sliding them one by one between his teeth. A shiny pink thread of muscle clung to his mustache.
I watched as he ate the entire heart, scraping the plates to get the last little bits. The grease congealed on his plate, puddling into shapes a fortuneteller could scry: The future of his ranch and the fate of his daughter, sprinkled in Gold Medal and doused in Bushmills.
All that month, the rain didn’t come. The creeks looked like trickles of tobacco spit; the pastures receded up the sides of the hills. The white clover, the pasque flower, the prairie smoke and bird’s foot violet: all disappeared, gobbled up by weeds. The cattle looked like clothes racks, their hides gone sandpapery where they’d rubbed themselves bald on the fence posts. My father acquired wrinkles around his eyes like the furrows in the summer dirt.
In July, two months before I started twelfth grade, he planned a trip to the state capitol to protest a new tax code. I watched him stand in the kitchen in his bolo and boots, wondered how many ranchers it took to stop a law.
“Can I come?” I asked.
He looked up from his map.
“You want to protest the bill?”
I shrugged. The state university’s main campus was in the city, and even though I didn’t want college, exactly, I’d dreamed about a stranger who would come from far away and carry me away with him. In the dream he was Lewis and I was Clark and we were each other’s rivers. Or he was Bonnie and I was Clyde and the whole country was an unsuspecting bank. But there were no strangers forthcoming on the ranch.
“I thought we could stop at the university,” I said. “Pick up some application forms or something.”
My father closed the map with a sharp shake of paper.
“The college fund has to go somewhere,” I added.
“It’s not good for you to miss school,” he said, and went to go pack the truck.
I became a nomad. I wandered out to the hills that were making him look like an old man. I hid buttons under sagebrush and sucked quail eggs dry. I went up to the ugly red cows and held their enormous heads between my hands and spoke to them in their own languages.
We’ll run away, I told them. We’ll be outlaws like Grandpa Chuck. We’ll never come back to this place in our lives.
By the end of July, the ranch was in a fiscal landslide. Feed prices were up for the fifth year in a row, hoof rot was creeping through the herds, and drought was coloring the land like dead grasshoppers. The factory feedlots south of the city could afford to pay more at the calf auctions and charge less at the slaughterhouses, and they were putting our farm out of business.
The month before I started my senior year, consultants visited the ranch. For months they’d been sending my father brochures about turning our property into a dude ranch. We stuck the pamphlets in the burn pile and left them there: pictures of fat people plopped up on horses, Botoxed women wearing rhinestone cowboy hats, pale kids with spurs and pinched smiles.
The consultants were dressed in suits and ties and carried identical briefcases. They sat at our kitchen table and discussed other ranchers who’d sold off their herds and converted their barns into bunkhouses. We could devote our slowest, oldest horses to the effort, set up a practice lasso station, prepare simple dinners of steak and beans and haul in more money than the cattle would ever bring.
My father rolled his eyes at the promotional videos, at the businessmen who sat gingerly on their horses and shied at every stick that resembled a snake. He shook his head like a cow twitching off flies while they talked about selling soda biscuits and johnnycake, but when they showed him their spreadsheets and profit margins, he went to the window. He stared out at the stubbly hills, a far-off look in his eyes, as if he was already seeing accountants and lawyers riding over them.
I sat at the table and fidgeted with my father’s clasp knife. One of the men turned to me.
“What about you, young lady?”
“What about me?” I said.
“What do you think should be done?” They had smiles that looked like all they did was brush their teeth.
I stood up from the table, glanced across the room at my father.
“Tear down the fences,” I said. “Burn down the barns, let the cattle go.”
It was getting dark outside, and rain was in the air. I left the house and walked up to the hills, where I communed with the owls in the trees. I became echolocation; I performed miracles of barbed wire and dust.
I knew the hills as well as my own bones and muscles, but when I rounded a clump of mesquite I nearly jumped out of my skin at the unexpected sight of cattle bedding down in the dry grass.
I crept up to them, my feet shucking insects from the grass. The cows snuffled sleepily in the moon as I approached. I could taste iron and salt in the air.
When I was close enough, I reached out and put my hand against the largest cow’s chest. Its body was warm, its breath hot and dry on my arm. I felt the coarse wall of hair and the heavy beating beneath, so much stronger than my own.
“You’re lucky,” I told it. “You’ll get out of here before I will.”
The cow sighed but didn’t move. I patted its nose and moved away, through the mesquite into a high open place where the clouds poured like milk across the sky.
The storm came as I walked on, the sky a giant pan spitting lightning down on the country. I was drunk, soaked, exhilarated. I took off my clothes and hung them in the branches of the mesquite. I danced like a dervish and remade myself in the dirt and rain.
I was frozen stiff. I was burned all over. I was queen of the rodeo, goddess of the earth.
By the time I got back to the house, the consultants had left. My father was at the sink, washing dishes with the radio on.
“What’s that smell?” I asked.
He turned to me, a smile cracking his face. A damp paste of flour coated the counter next to the sink. A pan filled with dirty oil sat beside it.
“I fed them dinner,” he said.
“That was nice of you,” I said.
The smile expanded. He gestured to a plate on the table where a dozen fried, lemon-sized shapes still sat. They were not hearts.
“Rocky Mountain oysters,” he said.
I sank into the chair. The brochures and spreadsheets were nowhere in sight.
“Bull balls,” I said. “You fed them bull balls?”
I started to laugh, so hard I had to put my head down on the table. He sank into the chair beside me and laughed too, tears rolling out of his eyes. Outside, the wind and rain made the high grasses billow like topsails.
In my dreams that night, I was the storm that devoured the sky.
After the consultants left, my father became more determined than ever. He fired three of his hands and worked like a maniac to make up the slack; he bought discount feed, mixed the hay with sawdust, and drove the new calves up to the pastures like an exorcist. There was mullein in his blood and bull thistle behind his teeth.
The week before I started twelfth grade, he returned from the latest drive with hot dust in his veins. When I went into the kitchen that night, he was back at the stove, heating up the old skillet, taking out a brown paper package from the fridge and resurrecting the capped bottle of whiskey from the cupboard.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Who are those for?”
My father was humming to himself, husking the paper package into the trash and pulling out heart after heart, eight or nine of them, all smooth and pink and fistlike.
“You and me,” he said. The sink ran. The oil sizzled. He rinsed the slime off the hearts one by one. “For good luck.”
Something inside me rose up, gagging.
“All of them?” I asked. “Are you out of your mind?”
“We’re buying more land,” he said. “The papers go through the first of next month.”
I shook my head.
“You are out of your mind.”
He dropped the first heart in the pan. The smell of cooking meat lanced the air, and I had a sudden thought.
“Where’s the money coming from? How can you afford it?”
My father stared into the pan. I felt snow then, snow leaking into my skin and dripping down the buttons in my spine.
“I’ve done the numbers,” he said. “Blue, it’s the only way right now. Maybe in a few years you’ll be able to go away.”
The hearts crackled in the pan. I stood up from the table. I was cow and murder both. I was leaving.
I got into my father’s pickup truck and began to drive, the bundles of fresh meat bouncing around in the back. I drove through our town and then through the next, and the next, and the ones after that. The feeling inside my chest was hotter than the frying pan, hotter than all the cow hearts in the world, and I was no revenant.
I became a sailor. I found a crew and a marlinspike and sailed over peacock-colored waters.
I abandoned the truck, joined the circus, and shacked up with an acrobat from Kuala Lumpur.
I crashed into a ditch and was crowned queen of the hobos while the meat spoiled slowly in the afternoon heat.
I sprouted wings.
I found a town on the border that looked promising, one with a seedy bar and lots of withered dogs wandering around. I went up to a row of cowboys slouched on their barstools and picked the one who had a half-halo of empty bottles consecrating his spot, the one who looked like his luck had run out before he was even born. I got him to admit that he was on an express train to nowhere, that his farm was failing, that he was old enough to be my father, and then I said I knew all about farms and fathers and failures. I put my hand on his leg, and he felt solid and full of sadness, like a cow that had seen too many of its babies killed.
We drove out of town in my father’s pickup. Another storm was coming down from the plains, making the hills look like bloated blue corpses, like drowning victims. In the passenger seat, the cowboy began to whistle.
I felt my heart beating faster in my chest. When we stopped in the next town, I found a knife with an ivory handle and sharpened it against the sole of my shoe. I ground flour from acorns, forged a pan from scraps, and got the cowboy to beg a little cheap whiskey. I was god and sacrifice, desert and drought.
Then my heart was in my hand and the land was rising up, the cottonwoods and the rattlers, the sharp walls of rock, rising up with the bleached and forgotten skulls and flatnesses, the legions of dark moaning cattle and the endless failures of the earth.
This was hunger. This was the known world consumed.
The Radium Girl's Undark
They invented watches for us, the boys they sent to die. Belted green-glowing clocks around our wrists, light enough to tell the time and dark enough to keep us hidden in the mired trenches and the green-glowing pools we washed in when our heads and skins had turned to mud.
In the factories we left behind, the radium girls mixed salt and spit and glue, shaped the tips of camel hair brushes between their lips to paint the twelve numbers undark. Doorbell buttons, the letters at the ends of theater aisles. And the babydoll eyes that glow green from the cradle at night, the baby’s arm tight around the belly of the doll that stares and stares when I can’t sleep.
When the baby cries, the radium girl goes to the cradle. She is lampshaded torch bulb in her negligee, brightness held inside fabric knit too tight for all the green to go. Below the dress, her foot on the rocker beneath the bassinet is a nightlight. Her hands and her head and her feet glow.
Her heel to the ground, she presses her toes against the curving wood and the cradle creaks and sways. Even after the baby stops crying, the bassinet moans, and the radium girl’s foot pulses. I see her glowing toes three times, dots flashing in the dark, and then slow, the entire foot extended over the curve of the rocker drawing three wooden sighs, and the dots of her toes again. Morse code. She’s telling me SOS.
My foot is wrapped quiet in our blankets; she can’t hear me say I know.
A story to explain the way I am:
First, there was a light. Second, a noise. Then a hand with fingers blasted to bits, a shine of gold and a leather strip in the wreckage, like a child in a building braced with dynamite. I woke up in a tent; they’d taken my watch arm away.
She wrote me a letter before the baby, before the arm went gone. About how they carried the dust home in their pockets. How they sprinkled it in their hair, how they shone at night. How they painted their fingers with it, rubbed it in their gums. How the factory was covered in it, the chemical tremor. She blew her nose and she found a shimmer.
From across the ocean, I envied her handkerchief.
After the veteran’s hospital ran out of arms, the radium girl took me to a movie. We followed the painted numbers to the back of the theater; people stared. We weren’t supposed to come back but we did come back but we didn’t come back right.
The screen: Which self? Man has two - as he has two hands. Because I use my right hand should I never use my left?
She breathed heavy. Leaned against me, her head on my shoulder. She had a glow then, but a glow like any cherry-cheeked girl, a haze of light around her. And my shoulder. My shoulder.
Behind us, the strip tattooed between the reels until everything turned inside out: an X-ray animated, bleeding white to black and black to white. The reel stopped ticking, frozen on the monster inverted, his face made of shadows stretched wide on the screen, black-mawed and white-haired, pupils white and the whites of his eyes black.
They asked us to go home and not come back. At the door to our apartment, she said, “I’m sorry.” The first tooth dropped from her mouth at the sound of the ess.
The radium girl leaves glow-in-the-dark on my stomach. Radium salt dissolved in water. The wetness of her tongue. She dusted the factory for it, mixed a paste and scaffolded herself, paths drawn down her hardest bones. A blueprint of cartilage, tissue, carcass, relic. The doctor told us radium is like calcium but different in one important way: both bury themselves in your bones, but only one breaks you from the inside out. He said today would be her jaw’s last day. The mandible gone tomorrow, the way of her teeth: chin sewn to neck, metal girders fastening together her mouth’s leftovers.
But she calls today the last day. She taught me to hold the baby in the still-there arm. To help her balance. The radium girl thinks she might toddle someday; I won’t have to hold her, the two of us alone. But they are both made of bones that want breaking, hollowed-out insides like shrapnel inside their skeletons, marrow blasting all the time.
Her hips are hard and her elbows sharp but I don’t complain. She paints me green with it, her mouth moving up and down with it.
They said when it happened, I crawled out of the trench and after my arm. Crept around the falling shells. They said I had to want to live. Had to need to live. Had to want the watch back, had to need the ring on the finger so ragged it might’ve been someone else’s hand. They lost my ring at the hospital, attached to the hand attached to the arm they threw away.
Her rings fall off her fingers; she is skin and bone and not much of either, cotton cord and gold ring hung heavy.
Just before bed, she leans over the cradle and the baby holds her hand up, reaches for the glow. The radium girl’s hair shocks green out the tips, and the baby shocks back, the salt sunk into her skin, the blast built into her bones.
The first time we saw the doctor, he called it a mistake, birthing new life through a broken body. She was still healthy on the outside then, her mouth rose-red though its insides were an already-played carnival game, the clown’s teeth pitched out or loose. She couldn’t eat, she’d lost weight, her joints hurt all the time. She wanted to be healthy, for the sake of the baby. He gave her an address and she gave it back.
She found a nurse, a radium girl’s sister, who checked in once a week. They picked through magazines and sent off for anything that promised weight gain. They mixed the things together, endlessly patient, mashing her meals. And she gained a little and then a little more.
The nurse took the baby’s heartbeat each visit. Pressed the listening trumpet to the radium girl’s stomach and held my ear against the narrow end and I heard their two hearts beating: hers a thudding and the baby’s a hummingbird’s.
When she was eight months in, the doctor called us in for tests. The radium girl gained weight, not much, but in her belly. He took a picture of her behind the X-ray. It developed inside out, mother and daughter both dark against the white behind them, their bones too bright, their own radiation. And the baby, curled there, her watch arm like mine, cinched at the shoulder, a nub and no more.
He sent me to the waiting room; in the surgery theater, he peeled the radium girl open, he removed the green-glowing child, he sewed her back together. In the nurse’s arms, the child was gummy-mouthed and crying; the doctor was coating the stitches with radium salve.
They exhumed a radium girl last week. Wrapped her jaw in photographic paper. Her bones burnt through the black. In the dark, white spots specked and popped like water spilt in hot oil, fire spilt on skin. We are constellations of our burning.
I do not touch the radium girl, even with the arm that listens still, because the radium girl will break if I touch her.
She wants to kiss my shoulder but I don’t want her near my shoulder. She will kiss the end of it, and then there will be nothing left of it, an endless shoulder with only so much room to kiss. Better to move her away from the shoulder and to the places there are remaining, so I twist as best I can with the balance of one arm and she turns toward the other side to kiss the hand that is there. We are the toothless and the armless. I am sharpened collarbone and she is knobby-kneed. We are skull showcase; this is how bodies would have been built if bodies had been built wrong. Her mouth is full of gums. Maybe she said, “Let’s die together.” She is covered in firefly bruises.
When the lights are out, her breath is undark. It is a mist of her. It is a mist of her that rests like condensation on my chest. We glow.
Three years old. She doesn’t grow. She doesn’t speak. One arm like her father, no teeth like her mother. She is more fragile than other children, body breaking all the time. It’s easier to call her baby.
The doctor says I’ll be alone soon. Soon, I’ll lose them both.
But maybe her life is slower than ours were, her half-life eking half-lives from half-lives. Maybe she could live forever.
The radium girl settles on top of me, her hips creaking under her. She puts her mouth on mine and breathes radon.
Her breath was sweet once. Her breath was foul once. Her breath was breath once.
Her chest is empty. The weight of a body with nothing in it.
I hold her last breath.
I decided we were no longer newlyweds after Molly stopped eating rice. It was my turn to cook, and I made a fermented soybean stew, spicy – the way she liked it. I set out the sides, things bought at the Korean grocery store in Beaverton: two types of kimchi, marinated perilla leaves, sautéed anchovies. I prepared enough white rice to feed four.
She ate everything but the rice. It grew cold and gelatinous; moisture ringed the inside lip of its bowl. I felt its unwant. Eventually I asked why and she said mom had forwarded an email mentioning its high glycemic index, which raised the risk of type-2 diabetes. Your mom, I wanted to say, wired ten thousand dollars to a one Ms. Beatrix Haven of Lagos, Nigeria. My mother – a physician – couldn’t go a day without eating rice, not even on vacation to Italy, where she and my father had planned their itinerary around the locations of Korean restaurants. When there was no Korean food to be found they ordered risotto – or if they could find it, paella.
White people rice.
But I didn’t say this. I tapped my fingers on my chin. My face grew hot and my glasses fogged. Without asking if she was finished I stood and reached for her rice bowl, knocking the low-hanging light fixture between us. Dumping the mound of rice into the remaining stew, I stirred and began spooning from pot to mouth and back again. I was already full, but I chewed loudly with my mouth open. Molly was paging through a travel magazine. Her hair was the color of wet straw. The freckles that appeared in summer were in hibernation, and her complexion was pale and unblemished. Sometimes she liked to say she was one-sixteenth Native-American, but it meant less than being Irish meant to the drunks who mobbed Kell’s on St. Patrick’s Day.
“So there's a history of diabetes in your family,” I said, a slurry of soupy rice in my mouth.
She shook her head, still looking intently into the magazine.
I swallowed. “But you’re worried.”
She looked at me quizzically. “I’m not worried.”
“I think you are,” I said, smiling. “Worrywart.”
I stood up and went around the table and lowered my chin down on the crown of her head. That night, when I went to her side of the bed and kissed her on the bony bit of her left shoulder blade, she shrugged me away.
* * *
The next evening I drove home with a hundred dollars worth of French truffle. It didn’t buy much. Just one lump like a chocolate covered Macadamia nut, and I waited until Molly wandered into the kitchen to take out the garbage to brandish it, to ape the tasting notes I’d memorized off the chalkboard. When she was next to the stove, replacing the garbage bin with a new plastic, I shredded the entire truffle into the pot of risotto.
She held her long, loose hair from the back and leaned over it.
“Wonderful,” she said. It was a voice that meant it.
I set the table and uncorked a bottle of wine. I brought out the risotto and half a baguette. Molly was still in the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator.
“Start without me,” she said, setting the microwave timer.
I poured the wine. I was stirring to prevent the risotto from congealing when Molly sat down with a chicken breast and a few spears of asparagus pooling in oil. I gestured at the pot.
“Maybe in a bit,” she said.
We ate in silence, and I considered the inanity of her reluctance to eat rice, even this kind. I asked how her parents were, and she said they were coming up on the weekend, for the Oregon-Cal game.
“I know,” I said. “And I’m cooking. My food.”
Molly looked up from her plate. For a second her expression looked pained, but then her eyebrows flexed as though she were exercising them, and she yawned. “I’m sure they would like that,” she said, putting hand over mouth. With the serving spoon she lowered a dollop of risotto onto her plate.
Molly took a bite and chewed thoughtfully. “It’s good,” she said.
I nodded, too startled to say anything else. I hadn’t expected her to have any. Now, I resented the fact that she did.
* * *
On her night to cook, Molly made a vegetarian casserole. I thought of it as her rebuttal, and my response was to keep an open mind. In fact I did like the taste of it, not only its old timey conceit. Unbidden, I had seconds.
We ate out every following night, and I tracked her carb consumption. She was steadfast. At Le Pigeon she did not reach for the breadbasket. At Por Que No? she ordered a bowl – no rice. After my suggestion for pizza at our favorite place on Hawthorne, she mentioned the Caesar. “That’s not right,” I said, and we went to the vegan restaurant nearby, delicious in spite of itself. She wanted to eat ice cream after, but it made her so happy, and everyone deserved some sweetness.
I passed on dessert. We sat on stools across from each other and I watched her pink tongue smooth a scoop of pumpkin and spiced chèvre. Molly’s disavowal of Asia’s favorite grain wasn’t rice-ist, I decided.
“What is it?” she said.
“A dumb joke,” I said, leaving it at that.
* * *
The night Molly’s parents were flying in, I left work early and did the grocery shopping. I set my computer on the counter and opened to the recipes bookmarked online. There were step-by-step instructions for dishes I chose to make for their very obscurity: spicy sautéed octopus and beef and sea mustard stew. Their names felt stupid in translation, but I memorized them because they were preferable to my father-in-law’s inevitable maiming of the Korean. A Vietnam vet, Mr. Branson seemed to think everything Asian should be pronounced in his guttural version of Vietnamese, which didn’t sound Vietnamese at all.
To the beef and sea mustard stew I added a milky bag of chopped tripe. Neither recipe nor tradition called for cow’s stomach, but I relished the idea of Mr. and Mrs. Branson’s mod sensibilities impelling them to finish. That alone was enough.
I took unusual pains with the presentation, selecting crystal glassware and china webbed over from disuse. Molly offered to help. Without facing her I shooed her away, telling her to keep her parents company.
“Did you get the beer?” she said.
“A bunch in the fridge. Help yourself.”
“I mean for dad.”
“Give him the porter.”
She opened the fridge and took it out. She lifted it up to the ceiling light. “It’s dark, though.”
“It’s not bitter. Bitterness is determined by IBUs, and that has hardly any of it.”
“Does everything have to be a teaching moment? Dad’s not about to change his mind.”
“Don’t be bitter,” I said, but she’d already left the room. I shuttled back and forth from kitchen to the dining room, arranging food and table settings with geometric precision.
“This looks delightful,” Mrs. Branson said, after we were all seated. “You outdo yourself, Kevin. Truly.”
Thanking her, I studied Mr. Branson’s beer. The label had been peeled off and it was almost empty. “How’s that?” I said, gesturing at it. “Good, good.”
I watched Molly’s face for a reaction and there was none. That was something she deserved credit for: not letting small things affect her.
“Another beer?” I said to Mr. Branson. “I think there might be some lighter stuff.” We did. They were in the garage. Stuff Molly had bought a while ago. Past due.
“I’m fine. I’m liking this.”
I told them to start without me, and went back to the kitchen, to get Mr. Branson another beer.
“The soup is great,” he said after I reentered the room. “Reminds me of that Vietnamese soup. Foe.”
Resisting the impulse to say foe sure, I smiled. He drank the beer after all.
Mrs. Branson – insisting that I call her Dora – asked me to guide her through the food, and I did, explaining the mains and sides, using their translated names. Napa cabbage. Diced radishes. “Secret ingredient’s in the soup,” I said last.
Mr. Branson swirled his soup with the spoon and lifted a wan chunk of meat. “Tripe,” he said exultingly. “Knew it. Love it.” He looked in my direction. Strange, the way he insisted on my approval. I lifted an arm over the table and we high-fived.
“You don’t like tripe,” Molly said. “Either of you.”
Mr. Branson swallowed the tripe, then said, “Grandma made it all the time in pepper pot soup. I don’t think you were on solid foods when she passed. And there were several times on our trip to Ho Chi Minh City, eating foe on Rue Pasteur.”
“Saigon if you’re not a communist,” I said.
Mrs. Branson laughed. “We went to the Cu Chi tunnels and our guide kept apologizing every other minute. The Vietnamese. They’re wonderful people.”
“Now that they’re not shooting at us,” Mr. Branson said.
I rubbed my thumb and index fingers. “They want to, but they want our money more,” I said. There was a tautness to Molly’s lips, as though they were straining to contain words.
“Just because you eat it doesn’t mean you like it,” Molly said. “And if you like it, why didn’t you ever make it?”
“Honey, I’m a connoisseur, not a cook. I’m quoting you,” Mr. Branson said, stroking his wife’s thin neck. He went on: “And you were a picky eater in school. What did you ever want besides a PB&P?” Mr. Branson must have sensed my confusion because he laughed and said, “Pickle. Peanut butter and pickle.”
“On the topic of things that shouldn’t be eaten,” I said. Molly prodded my leg with hers. If this was a warning, I wasn’t having it. I pointed at the tripe she’d picked out of her soup bowl and placed on her plate. “Would you rather I make you a PB&P? Hold the bread?”
“Kevin’s still mad I stopped eating rice,” Molly said.
“I never said that.”
“You don’t have to. With you it’s just that obvious.”
“Well. I don’t get what’s so bad about carbs.” I added, “It’s all about moderation.”
“And I ate your risotto,” she said. “You just loved that, didn’t you?”
“Eating what you’re given, yeah. I thought that was the normal way of doing things.”
“Obsessing about another’s eating habits. Really normal.” Molly stood and left the dining room. The stairs creaked as she went upstairs. A minute later, Mrs. Branson excused herself. Unsmiling, her thin face looked skeletal. After she went to check up on Molly, I cleared my throat and addressed Mr. Branson: “We’ve both been a little stressed at work.”
“Seems like more than a little,” he said.
He asked if I remembered visiting in July, right after the Nigerian scam. His words were unhurried and deliberate. There was no meanness to his voice, but his earlier gregariousness was gone. “I also thought what Dora did, with wiring the money to a complete stranger, lacked better judgment. And as you know, she can get swept up in certain fads. But she means well, and if I needled her for every small thing –”
“We’re not always like that,” I said.
“All I’m saying is that you need to know what not to communicate. That’s all.”
I felt my face go flush. What exactly had been communicated to him? To Dora? Mr. Branson stood up and offered his hand, which I took reluctantly. Refusing would only prove Molly’s charges of pettiness.
* * *
With her parents over, there was nowhere to go but upstairs. At least their presence demanded a measure of civility from Molly. I hesitated outside our bedroom. A dim glow seeped underneath the door, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t already asleep. If she turned in before me, she kept my nightstand light on, so I wouldn’t trip in the dark.
She was in bed, reading a travel guide to Sri Lanka. She’d backpacked there once. Now things had settled down there, she’d been talking of going back.
“When is a good time to go?” I said. “Sri Lanka.”
“Who said anything about us going?”
“I don’t know, because you have a travel guide.”
She said nothing.
“I meant going in the general sense. When should one go to avoid the Monsoon, or idiot tourists. That kind of thing.”
She flung the book and it thudded on the floor. “Who cares, when you’ll ruin it anyway.” Even in the dim light, a redness was visible from her eyes. In the trash were a few crumpled tissues.
“You’ll ruin it with your insistence on doing twenty things a day,” I said. On our last trip, I’d been frustrated with the pace of things. Toward the end we reached a compromise. I stayed at the resort while she went trekking through the rainforest. She’d come back a few days later, tanned and freckled, with ankles sucked red from leeches.
She laughed assertively now. The tone was mocking, even. “Of course you’d turn this on me.”
“I’m a brat,” I said. “You didn’t not know this.” I went on, following a script I knew well.
She cut me off. “Your explanation doesn’t excuse you. Maybe you should just shut up.”
“And maybe – no, actually, you should stop telling your parents what happens between us. What do you parents not know?”
“They don’t know how much of an asshole you are. This, what you do. I almost wish you beat me. So I knew – so others knew – what you do to me.”
“If you think this – us – was a mistake, know you’re not the only one.”
She tilted her head to the side. Her forehead was creased and her mouth was scowling. “Good ideas,” she said, “you’re full of them today.”
* * *
After that, something changed. We weren’t over. Molly and I decided that would be drastic, at least for the time being. We spent more time on our own, but even then her presence was unavoidable. Her bath products covered every open space of the sink and bathtub. Her hairs clogged up the drains. She sang downstairs, on weekend mornings when I wanted to sleep in. I said nothing to these things. They were small, I knew that. But did knowing make things better, or worse?
Westside Friendship House
She had the most igneous arms, seriously, she could lift over forty pounds, her arms were Gaulish, they told tales of glory. She’s the reason I took the job at the Westside Friendship House. I wanted this woman with the mutual arms.
The Westside Friendship House was originally founded to give kids a place to go after school. Of course, the kids didn’t have a choice. It was this or one of the other Friendship Houses that they were obliged to go to, after school, always. Westside was pretty nice. They had one big room with a few chairs and some carpet, and a little tub of water in a cage in the corner so the kids could simulate being in a pool. Pools were really special to the kids. That’s where this girl worked, at the tub, lifting kids in and out in five-minute increments.
My third day there, the kids found a tennis ball in an air duct. Ordinarily, the staff wouldn’t have cared, but the ball had belonged to a child with contagious honking. So the staff was upset when they found the kids tossing it around and using it to itch their gums. Three of the kids got corner duty and honked in protest. The one who found the ball, who started the whole thing, was placed on a chair and crinkled.
Crinkling was a punishment unique to the WFH. The offending child would maintain a sitting position as staff members approached. The child was expected to keep a steady countenance while the staff members listed the child’s omissions and shortcomings. The goal was to instill in the child a sense of worthlessness, that it may better serve society.
Even though it was only my third day there, I had to help crinkle this kid. I’d never met him. I didn’t know what to do. One of the head staffers, this guy with a seeping brow, came and whispered to me: He wet his bed on a school camping trip once. Tell about that.
I approached the kid, who was already broken at this point. He was staring past the carpet. “I’ve heard about your camping trip. What can you tell me about that?”
The kid started bawling. It was rough. All the staff told me afterward I had done well. They said my interrogation had subtlety to it, because I was making the child think about his transgressions, making him write the answer to the question of his life. They told me they were going to employ this method in future crinklings. I got upscaled to tub detail the next day.
Here was my chance to work with the girl (with the arms) that I loved. But sure enough, soon as I got on tub duty, she moved to chair patrol. Since there were five chairs total for all of the kids (some afternoons we would have upwards of fifty children), fights tended to break out. One child was stabbed with a sharpened crayon when she refused to give up her seat. The assailant was never identified. There were more chair patrols, now. Chair patrol was a very important job.
Tub duty wasn’t bad, really. It was cool to work with water. Not many people get to do that. The kids loved it. Most of them had never seen that much water in one place. Some got scared and became kind of aggressive about it; I once got a sharp kick to the ribs that sent me home for the day and left the child facing a massive crinkling. But most of the kids were really decent.
The only problem with tub duty was only a problem for my roommates. They complained that I smelled like water. They put a hood over my head and bit my thighs.
About a week into tub detail I was dipping along, and I didn’t know that the next girl in line had a water allergy. I lowered her in and she started to scream, so I was like, “It’s okay, it’s just water,” since a lot of kids have this reaction, but she just wouldn’t stop. Then seeping-brow guy came over and told me. I guess she was supposed to have a necklace on that would alert me to this allergy, but she had traded it to an alpha boy for chair time. Her legs rashed up, looked like they were boiling.
I got downscaled to chair patrol. They knew it wasn’t my fault; it was just politics.
Chair patrol was cool enough. We got this little baton thing we could strike with, just gentle strikes. It was a soft baton, but the kids learned to fear it. Around this time, one of the staffers got canned for drinking the tub water, and the money that had been earmarked for his salary was put toward a brand new mirror to help the kids know about Friendship with the Self. The mirror was installed and instantly the kids went wild. They couldn’t get enough of the thing. Fights broke out; someone got stabbed. Mirror patrols became a reality.
Let me just emphasize the foundational nature of this girl’s arms. The biceps were authoritative and the triceps had goals. I never knew why she didn’t just start flapping her arms and fly away. She was certainly strong enough. She could have taken me with her. I wouldn’t have minded, really. I could have saddled her up and ridden her to Transalpine Gaul and we could have had a place together, a warm hearth and a bucket of water and five Gaulish chickens in the Gaulish chicken run. The skin on her arms was taut like a sundried goatskin. The hairs were lithe and ice-white. They swayed like wheat in the breeze of the steady air conditioning. She probably could have crushed a watermelon between her elbows. In fact, I know she could do it. I saw it once during Watermelon Week.
One day, we were working at the mirror on Understanding Faces. I was doing Angry and trying to get the kids to do Angry but they seemed stuck on Perplexed, which, I couldn't blame them, Perplexed is a fun one. But then we had to stop so that the ceiling could be lowered, so the space above could be sublet, so our center could afford a new learning tool. The flour-play complex was a recent innovation, and Westside was extremely proud to be receiving one. Kids loved to roll around in it and dust themselves, dust others. They would pretend to be pieces of meat. They would pretend to be cake mix. Many would add saliva to form a doughy clay substance that they could mold into animals, or little effigies of one another. They would make these figures and then smash or crush or stab them. It was a good way for them to work out issues they had with living. One girl made a tiny Danube river, the complete Danube, geographically faithful, slightly Impressionist. Solid work. I told her so.
But then of course one kid had to fill his mouth with it. I guess there was a flour diving game? Which he lost, once his throat filled up with the stuff and it formed a dough plug. That was the end of the flour box. The kids really enjoyed it before that one kid messed it up for everybody.
What we did instead was take the flour from the box and portion it out. We would only give the kids a bit at a time, so they wouldn’t be able to form throat plugs out of it. Around this time, the same girl who had formed the Danube made a scale bust of Paracelsus. Again, very solid work. Clean detail. But she was getting too attached to her crafts, and not Interacting enough with the others, so we had to take her dough away.
Then there was the week when my roommates boarded up my bedroom door, and my window, and piped in tear gas. I called in sick. When I came back, everything had changed. Funding had been cut. The mirror and the tub were out. So were the chairs. The ceiling had been lowered again. The kids couldn’t even stand up straight anymore. The adults either had to shuffle around prone, like soldiers drilling under chicken wire, or else lay supine, stargazing. We struggled to adapt Friendship Situations to this new environment. Most of our exercises centered on effective napping, general dormancy. As the saying goes, “Just as it is important to know when to be a friend, it is important to know, when not to be one.” This was our intended lesson. However, the children somehow managed to develop an economy based on napping, which really threw us off of our game, and their commerce became widespread. We didn’t know what to do about it. Thankfully the ceilings rose again pretty soon, at which point the napping market dried up, and we could at least walk around on our knees.
At this point one child, a young alpha boy with a goiter, used stockpiled flour to make a crude hammer. He smashed a hole in the drywall, and three kids got out before we could do anything. Two of the children were recovered; the third, the one who made the hole in the first place, bit a policeman, and, according to law, had to be euthanized. His parents were inconsolable. The mother hyperventilated rapidly, a series of squeaks. The father just collapsed onto the ground and stayed there. His eyes were hollow. It really was a horrible day.
The kids were pretty ho-hum after all of this. Perhaps they’d really looked up to the kid with the goiter. Perhaps he had been a sort of superior brother to the others. We tried to cheer them up by bringing in a policeman to explain society to them, but they just cried harder. We let them have candy and they nearly choked on it amidst their sobs. We took them on a field trip to the park preserve, with a field of real dirt, and they dug tiny personal holes in the real dirt, and curled up in them, and cried, in these tiny little real-dirt crying holes. They were like little criminals. It was quite a thing.
Arm-girl returned from a week of paid furlough. Her skin had darkened and her arms had grown. She came onto mirror patrol with me. We had a lot of good conversations, mostly about the kids but sometimes about violins or bread.
Then she lost her arms.
The ceiling lowered one day, suddenly, too quickly for her. Both quiet, alpine arms gone. She was laid off silently and didn’t ever come around after that.
At some point, too much becomes too much, you know? The batons, the throat plugs, the crinkling. I’m not saying I had anything to do with the fire, and I’m not condoning the fire, so much as I’m saying that whoever started it probably didn’t have ill intentions, even if the rest of the children ended up euthanized or transferred to SouthEastside. Like, it may have been worse to let it continue. To let those kids continue to live that way.
I saw her again last year. We talked about the center, about the fire. I told her I might have an idea how it happened. I whispered in her ear. She squared back and drew voltage, kicked me straight in the jaw.
I had never noticed before how muscular, how underscored, how ferrous her legs could look. She departed, her calves receding boastfully into the morning sun..
Whole Trees in Motion, Inconvenience in Walking
According to the Beaufort Scale of Wind Force, a light breeze blows at five to seven miles per hour. Conditions on land are characterized as wind felt on face. Flags have not yet extended, though; that’s another category altogether.
We walk, Stanley several paces ahead and me quick-stepping to keep up. The leash stretches taut between us. It probably won’t snap. It can’t snap, right? This is what it’s made for. I sneak looks at the other people with dogs the same way I slide my eyes over to the women next to me in yoga class: tell me I am doing this right, tell me I am passing as one of you.
Stanley stops in front of a small girl in a stroller. They’re nearly the same height and she stiffens, putting her hands up in front of her shoulders like a tiny suspect. “Stanley,” I say. I hope I sound firm and commanding.
The girl’s father squats next to the stroller. He reaches out and scratches Stanley behind the ears. There is nothing to be afraid of, he shows her. “Your dog is beautiful,” the father says.
I cock my head at him, trying to see if he really means me. He looks back. He means Stanley.
“It’s not my dog,” I say as we continue on our way. It’s starting to smell like rain.
A strong breeze is wind between twenty-five and thirty-one miles per hour. Wires whistle. The scale tells us umbrellas are difficult to control.
We turn back on to Stanley’s street, having exhausted the temptation to get lost. I don’t know how long we’ve been gone or how long they usually walk him for, but he seems happy and I have nowhere else to be. There’s solace in playing pretend with tangible proof.
I wonder if when I leave Stanley, he’ll make the same face I do when I watch his owner go back to real life. Maybe he won’t let his nose droop, but his eyes will betray him with something desperate, the dog equivalent of blinking back tears while insisting you understand.
We sit on the lawn, watching the clouds darken as the grass ruffles around us. It’s the kind of green you pay someone else to create. Stanley puts his head in my lap, and I unhook his leash. His is the one I can undo.
At the first crack of thunder, Stanley tenses. “It’s okay,” I whisper. “It’s nothing to be scared of.” I touch his back with what I hope feels like reassurance, and the thunder cracks again. He jerks up and bounds past me before I can try to stop him. The rain starts, fat drops that quickly soak through my shirt.
I know nothing about dogs, about marriage. About dogs.
My favorite is the near-gale. Ranging from thirty-two to thirty-eight miles an hour, the near-gale wind is the speed before we get twigs and small branches blown off trees, the speed before which danger starts to lose its thrill.
How Not to Have a Threesome
Be only two people.
Be two people who can’t help looking at each other out the corners of their eyes. Sit in a coffee shop longer than planned, holding your newspapers upside-down, and try to think of things to say. Say the things. Then run out of things to say and spill coffee on one another and feel relieved to have something to say again. Find this all very exciting; or find it exciting enough.
Go out to dinner. Go to a movie. Go to dinner and a movie and afterward stand on front steps and make considerations. Be the kind of people who take considerations seriously. Consider going upstairs.
Upstairs, there should only be small things: a small room, a small bed—a twin bed preferably—or perhaps just a loveseat. Use the smallness as an excuse to get close.
Once close, only buy items in twos: two hand towels, two toothbrushes, two Lean Cuisines.
To stay close, do not listen to rock music. Do not listen to country music either, or to music with words in general—or even to energetic Bach. Do not see plays and definitely do not go to art museums.
When dining, do not eat oysters, bananas, or chocolate. Do not eat deep-fried Twinkies. This is just a matter of general precaution.
Do not sit in saunas or hot tubs. Do not go to beaches, especially nude beaches. If you must go to beaches, be wary of sharks. This is also a matter of general precaution.
Be shy. Have boundary issues. Have cats. Be indoor people with indoor cats who are also shy and also have boundary issues.
If you must have friends, have no single friends. Most importantly, have no mildly alcoholic, casually beautiful, self-destructive single friends.
But if you must, do not invite this friend to dinner. Do not go out for drinks with this friend, after seeing a movie with this friend and maybe an art gallery.
Do not say I didn’t warn you.
Have excuses. Be really busy. Have a day job and night school, but also fencing lessons and choir practice.
Call your mothers every night and tell them about your days. If your mothers have passed—condolences—call other people’s mothers and tell them about your days. Recognize that at the end of every day, you must call these women and tell them everything.
Think about the value of longevity; the meaning of time. Go antiquing. Acquire a nineteenth century porcelain dinner plate and consider this THE MISSING PIECE. Think really hard about climate change, the national debt. Then the dead bird you both saw on the sidewalk. Spoiled milk. Your overdue library books.
Consider your parents excellent role models. Consider running for political office. Consider boredom an ally. Consider tradition a fortress. Stay inside that fortress. Call it love. Stay in love. Stay out of trouble. Have no troubling loves. Have no inappropriate websites on your computer.
Do not meet your casually beautiful, mildly-alcoholic, self-destructive single friend for drinks. Do not drink. Do not talk. Do not laugh. Do not touch—even lightly—just above the wrist. Do not catch the sweet trail of her perfume. Do not dance. If you must dance, dance as a pair and do not leave room for Jesus. Do not leave room for anyone.
Do not stay out later than planned. Do not share a cab ride home and stop at your place first and say nothing when you all step out onto the sidewalk, the chill of the night running like a finger down each of your spines.
But if you do: if you all stand on the front steps, all three of you, do make considerations.
Consider the approaching morning. Consider the benefits of a lasting relationship. Set your sights on Couple of the Year. Consider how marvelous it would be to send out Christmas cards with you both wearing sweaters, captioned “Couple of the Year.”
Know enough not to go inside together. Know enough not to turn on music and turn off the lights and lie about how drunk you are. Know enough not to take off your clothes, to accept the extra hands. Do not kiss back.
Most importantly, though, do not tell. Even better: do not even remember. Go blank. Go amnesiac. If possible, go right back to the beginning, to when you were just two people. Two people in a coffee shop who couldn’t help looking at each other, or holding their newspapers upside-down.