painterly photo-edit of a miniature bust sculpture I did almost twenty years ago
painterly photo-edit of a miniature bust sculpture I did almost twenty years ago
In the middle of the night, long after the witching hour, the traffic thinned and the highway quieted. Then and only then could he hear the sounds that came from the other end of the house. Some nights he glowered into the shadows and decided it was racoons nosing through the plaster, peering up from under the broken floor boards. Other nights he rolled as quietly as he could over the floor, until he flattened along the wall, hoping to disappear into the shadows. Those were the nights he thought it was madmen searching the empty rooms for him. He was afraid even to breath, but his mouth moved in prayers he thought he’d forgotten.
He caught a glimpse of himself one full moon night, weeks ago, reflected in a shard of broken glass. The eyes were shadowed like a skull and the hair and beard made him think of murderers people talked about when he was a boy. Murderers in the news. Murderers with a glint about them, who talked about themselves like they were making a mad poetry. The face that passed the shattered window and then peered back once more was his own, he knew, but it was a face he’d hate to find hovering above him in the dark of the night. His mother used to stroke the side of his face and call him her handsome boy. He remembered it, though it was hard to believe.
One night when he was sure there were other men in the house – dark, brutal souls with evil in mind – he got himself in such a state that he started to cry. His whimpers were terrifying sounds in the empty room. When dawn finally broke, he was so relieved to see it, he bolted straight up and leaned out the window, drinking in the light on the distant mountains.
“Morning has broken!” he said, startling the birds out of the brush. There was thunder in his voice that made him think of preachers he’d known. The words were from a song they learned in church. He wept as he remembered the little white church in the valley, the murmur of women talking in the yard after service, the aftershave of the men, their deep voices and shiny shoes. That had been a million years and sins ago.
He went to a corner mounded high with spray paint cans and beer cans and bottles, recalling nights he’d hidden under the house while the kids drank and flirted and fucked in these dark, forgotten rooms. All his life he’d been a silent witness to ugly things, hiding in the shadows, watching and listening.
“Never again,” he boomed. He loved the sound of his voice today, the way it had gone so deep and forceful. It was the voice of prophets in his ear. He found one can, tossed aside when headlights broached the drive one night and the kids ran out into the woods. A cop had walked the front of the house, shining his light in the busted windows. No one ever checked under the house.
He went to the wall across from the door, the door closest to the drive, the door that was no more – only a casing with marks where hinges had hung. His hands shook as he wrote the words on the wall, but as each letter formed, he felt more sure of his purpose. The paint was silver and shone in the light in a way that seemed holy to him.
“Blessed art those who keep my commandments.”
They’ve packed up almost everything that’ll fit in the the van. They’re leaving a rocker in the front hall they promised to Sonya and there’s a small pile of odds and ends to be run down to the parish thrift on their way out. The place smells like pine and lemons and bleach, a sharp perfume that could almost cause a headache if the windows weren’t open.
He finds Jean standing in the middle of their bedroom, staring at a pattern of light and shadow on the wall where the bed was set up only hours ago. She glances at him.
“When we moved in, I used to look at that all the time and think how lucky we were. Then somehow I stopped seeing it.”
“It’s pretty,” he says.
She turns from him, a frown pulling her face. Walking to the lone window, she reaches up to take down a glass sphere they hung there years ago. It was almost forgotten. Her body breaks the pattern on the wall, the slanting gold light mirroring her shape down to the small flyaway curls around her face.
He digs his hands in his pockets. “I was remembering that disgusting mayonnaise jar we found when Kath moved out. Remember? The beer swill and cigarettes.”
She is having trouble getting the sphere down. They hooped the string over an old curtain bracket twice.
He says, “You called it something funny, like troll puke or something.”
The string breaks and the ornament hits the floor with a crash that is madly loud in the empty space. Shards of glass scatter all over.
“Shit,” she says. For only a second, in her mind, it seems like his fault the thing broke. He’s always trying to talk when she is concentrating on something else. It never fails. She takes a breath and smiles over her shoulder at him.
“It was shit, actually. I called it troll shit.”
He bends down to push the glass into a pile; they already put the broom and dustpan in the moving van. She kneels down beside him to help.
“Your mom gave you that,” she says.
“Sorry it got broke.”
He shrugs, gives her a smile. In all the years, that smile has never lost its grave, handsome beauty. It has not faded one bit, though his eyes are webbed all around with lines. His long face, his carefully trimmed beard and gentle, intelligent gaze used to make her think of men from other times. He has a manner to him like the way men look in paintings of American forefathers, as if even when he’s laughing, he bears a weight for many others. It makes her feel bad for wanting to blame him for every little thing that feels like a crisis for a half minute.
She leans in and drops a kiss on the tip of his nose. “Well, when we get to Kansas, we’ll find one like it maybe.”
Their fingers touch now and again as they push all the bits of glass into a pile.
He drives the first shift, five hours mostly westward. She sits Indian fashion in her seat, now and again helping him shift lanes by poking her head out to check their blind spot. Her hair is blown all around, the curls gone to frizz in the wind. They listen to the Shins mostly, because it’s one of the bands they can agree on. It’s good road music.
Jean opens her notebook on her lap and tries to work on her speech for next week. She was asked to talk to the students of a high school where there was a shooting two months ago. Three students were killed and a teacher. It wasn’t in the news for long because another one happened the next week, somewhere else, with more deaths. It is only used now and again as list filler in the overall argument over gun laws.
She didn’t imagine a couple of years ago that she’d be a spokesperson for the issue of random violence. When that kind of thing came on the news, she flipped the channel. Just the kind of thing the media loved. Despite their grave manner as they read off lists of murdered children, she was wise enough to know a school shooting gave the average reporter a raging boner. No one ever got an Emmy for reporting a break out at city zoo.
Shaking the tension out of her shoulders, she begins her speech where she left off last night. In the usual way, her fingers seem to speak to the keys before her mind knows what words to use.
Since that August morning when my mother was killed, I have seen the world differently. Violence changes everyone it touches. It changes the victims, their loved ones and even the person who commits it. In one terrible hour, Shane Holtzman went from being a troubled boy who thought about killing to becoming a mass murderer who can never escape his actions. I’ve thought a lot about that particularly. Every day when he looks in the mirror, Shane Holtzman is seeing a man who took lives. He lost his way, becoming someone his own mother says she has trouble recognizing, and he was so alone in his rage and his madness, that he couldn’t turn back once he’d decided to do what he ultimately did.
No one can turn back the clock, although I still have dreams where we somehow have. My mother is alive again, calling me to ask me about work. It’s a random dream and it feels real. I guess if she is alive in my dreams sometimes, the others are, too. I bet many of you have gone to sleep and found Chloe Michaels again and Ali Farook and Carrie Swartz and Mr. Timbrell. They are here again at school, moving through the days we all wish could come again. The days when we could be thoughtless about violence, deaf to the unspoken rage in a classmate we hardly noticed. Then we wake up and this is our world now.
I know all too well how you feel because I still feel it now and I’ve had longer to get used to it and to move on. I was asked to speak to you, as I’ve been asked to before, and I can’t help but always ask myself why. I can’t change what happened and I can’t stop you from hurting, from fearing.
They stop for gas around seven-thirty. In the distance, a huge orange sun sinks behind tall signs for restaurants and hotels. The noise of the highway is one hiss, occasionally broken by a guttering groan as a semi speeds up to pass, then cuts back to slip again into the outside lane. It seems to take a long time to fill the tank. Jean buys them each a bottle of juice and grabs herself a candy bar, glancing out at him standing at the pump. He glances back and throws up a hand in a quick wave.
She climbs into the driver seat and they ease onto the highway a minute later. He scrolls through his phone to find another playlist. The sun has vanished now, leaving a violet smear near the horizon that will darken in the coming moments.
“How’s the speech coming?”
She sighs. “I don’t know why I agreed again.”
“Can’t you use the last one?”
“I don’t like any of them,” she says. “They’re all shit.”
He plays the Rosebuds because he knows she likes them, but she gives him a sidewise glance that leaves him looking for another option. “Sorry.”
She shrugs. “Don’t be. I think I just want something mellow.”
A few miles down the road, she turns down the music.
“You know why I hate writing these speeches?”
“Because it feels like I have to live with this terrible thing all my life. To be honest, I’m ready to not be the daughter of a woman who was killed. I wasn’t that person for thirty-six years. Each time I sit down and write about it, I have to become her all over again. And I’m sick to death of it.”
“Why don’t you write about that?” he asks.
She frowns. “Are you kidding?”
“No, I’m not. Maybe those kids would like someone to give them permission to stop grieving.”
“You can’t just stop.”
“No, but eventually you do.”
She presses her lips together, feeling like she should argue against him. Yet she knows what he’s saying is only the truth. And maybe he’s right. She turns up the music again.
They drive without speaking for about a half hour. They come to an area where the highway runs beside a small prairie city. Traffic slows to a crawl as people get off and on the highway. She turns down the music again.
“But how do you talk about that with the right tone?” she asks.
He glances over at her. “I think you just say it as honest as you can. No need to sugar coat it, no need to make it harder than it is. You could say to those kids the exact thing you said to me.”
“What? That I’m sick of being the daughter of a murdered woman?”
She laughs shortly, again feeling something like anger. It isn’t at him, she knows, but still it feels almost like the moments before a fight. She reaches to turn the music up again, but then she changes her mind.
“There is something to that.”
“I just think the thing I hated most about being a teenager was being coddled. I felt like I was ready to hear things honest. And think of how being young feels. I bet some of those kids wanted to go to the movies and laugh the very next day, because being young is wanting to live and have fun, but everyone expects them to grieve.”
She nods. “I remember the first time I laughed out loud, it felt wrong.”
“Then say that, too.”
His hand finds hers in the dark cab and she grips his fingers gratefully. Smiling at him in the glow of the dash, she says, “You’re pretty smart.”
The traffic clears and they pick up speed. In the large side mirror, when she glances back, the little city is a galaxy of light. The shapes of the buildings and the knotty mess of exit ramps have vanished. Only the lights shine out in the night, with the lights of the cars behind them bursting outward like shooting stars.
Dirk started the truck and left it running, a growling sort of beast silencing the bird song. Sitting on the edge of the porch, he pawed in his breast pocket for his smokes and lighter. The flint needed to be replaced; it took a while to get a flame. Squinting at the sun coming over the ridge, he let the first plume of smoke blossom darkly on the air. The morning was only a little nippy, though the ground was still hard from cold. He found a mark from his boot the day before in the bald grass and matched his foot to it for no particular reason. His shoulders folded his chest as his body eased into a slump.
The screen door opened behind him, the spring making queer music as it stretched full, and Eva said, “She’s almost ready. Why you running that engine? It don’t need to warm up.”
“Yes, it does. Let me be, woman.”
“Fool,” she spat. Then the music played in swift reverse as the spring drew up tight. The door slapped the jam with a fearsome clatter that made Dirk jump, though he’d known it was coming.
“Cow,” he said.
Eva had been a simple, smiling kind of woman twenty years ago. She was slight – weighed nothing in his arms – with a pretty round face and small, sparkling brown eyes. When the light hit her eyes just so, like one day when they stood at the quarry, with rusty leaves falling all around them, there was a tiger gold lurking beneath the chestnut. It maddened him a little how pretty she was back in those days. And she seemed to like just everything about him, which naturally pleased him.
“You’re a snappy dresser,” she said the first time they really talked. While they dated, she never failed to compliment some little detail of his clothes. Sometimes Eva reached out and stroked the lapel of his jacket or the patches on his sleeves. She liked soft things to touch, dense velvet and tender suede, and though she was farm-raised like himself, she somehow had dainty white hands that he liked to see sliding along his tweeds. In his memory, their courtship had a lot of quiet moments, with touches that were better than words. Everything around them seemed to fall away when their eyes or fingertips met, so that one had to dig around in the mind later to recall where they’d been when one of those moments passed between them.
When the children came it seemed to bleed out every drop of honey. He never knew a woman with a more hateful tongue. They filled the silence with quarrels. Her hands had changed, lumpy knuckled and reddened, and they never touched him anymore. There were things in their house that bridged their hands, pot handles and door knobs, but they never held any lingering warmth to pass from one of them to the other.
The love of just a few years had been a tender sort of thing, the bead of nectar drawn from the honeysuckle. One had to let the tongue take it quick before it dropped away. After the babies, what remained was a tough hatred, dark and sticky as the sap of cedars, a bond that seemed a mistake, a mess that could not be cleaned up easily.
They didn’t have the words to figure out the change. Words had never been their strength. The ones that passed between them now were crude, clumsy weapons that hardly hurt anymore, they’d been wielded so often. Wounds are ugly things, but hard to open again when they’ve leathered over good.
He drank too much, that was true, and she hated him most when his breath was all booze fumes and his hands and feet clumsy as colts. Whiskey made him lusty with a gaze as cagey and dark as snake-eyes; she never hated the sight of anything that much. Sometimes she wished he was a snake, something she could kill easily with a garden hoe.
They had three girls and no boys. The first two came early, when there was still a little perfume of affection floating between them. Back then they lived out at the old home place, where the front room looked out over Hog Back Mountain. In the spring the ridge was covered in redbud, a lurid and romantic shade that made one want to disappear in the woods the whole of the day. The slope below the barn dressed like a bride when all the laurel bloomed. They had a dozen springs together on that hillside, each one less kind than the one before.
Later they built the house out on the dell, a sunny bit of land with smaller views. He sold the home place, but about as much of the money went to whiskey over the coming years as it did to anything else. It was a strange romance he had with the bottle, he was the first to admit, but it was like finding happiness again. The heedless, proud stride of a young man seemed to come back to him when he walked in those rye clouds.
Eva liked the new house, a squat little bungalow with dormers that worried the sky, but she wished it didn’t sit so close to the road. Dirk planted a row of hemlocks along the property line so she’d feel a little more tucked away. Then over the years the trees grew swift and thick, blotting out the sunrises and leaving the front rooms dark all the day long. Eva didn’t seem to mind. She was queer about the sun harming their things and since it was her egg money that bought the parlor set, she happily suffered the gloom to preserve the red velvet. Once he caught her pausing while cleaning house, running her fingertips over the fabric with a dreamy, far away look. He wondered if she was remembering something he remembered, too. When she noticed his gaze, her face closed up tight.
“Get out of here,” she said.
He left the house to the cry of the screen door, letting it slap the jam as hateful as it ever did. He wasn’t a man for tears, but his eyes burned hot that afternoon. He went to the shed to get his ax. He meant to cut down the hemlocks, to let the sun come back into the house. When he got there, he lost his furor. His hand fell away from the worn handle and instead he fished around behind coffee tins of nails and the parts of a busted kitchen chair, looking for a bottle he’d hidden there. He didn’t come out of the shed for hours.
The third girl was born in the bungalow, when the first two girls were already teenagers. It was a wonder they made another child, as bitter as they were, but a jug of moonshine and moonshine on lilacs is a double sort of magic. They met in a common loneliness one spring night. Their hands remembered kinder days; their lips found how to kiss again.
The girl was a lovely little thing, the bonniest one of them all. They named her Lenore because Eva had read it in a poem. Running her fingers over the newborn’s fuzzy head, she said, “It’d be nice to have a girl with a pretty name for once.”
At the other end of the bed, her Betty and Madge exchanged glances and left the room stiffly. Eva didn’t seem to notice or care. She hardly liked the older girls anymore than she did their father.
Lenore’s eyes changed quickly to a brown as sweet as chocolate drops. Dirk was smitten from the start. He was older now, his hair gone to salt, and he had more hours to spend at home. Eva said no one would hire him, since it was impossible to trust a rummy.
“You could still work a full week,” she said. She had Lenore on one hip, the face a little sunflower in a ruffled bonnet, and she was flipping buckwheat cakes for breakfast. The lard popped, a tiny hot bubble that landed on the babe’s hand, and the child cried, though it hardly left a mark. Dirk took Lenore from Eva with a savage kind of furry stirring him.
“Don’t yank her out of my hands, you fool,” she said. “You almost knocked me into the stove. Is that what you wanted to do?”
“You ain’t gonna harm this child ever!”
Her mouth fell open in astonishment. She laughed, “As if I would, you ass!”
“You ugly cow,” he said. He crossed to the window so baby could look out into the sunshine. Giving Eva a a long stare, he said with finality, “Just make sure you don’t.”
From that day on, he made Lenore his special pet. He found a secret, wicked delight in treating Eva as if she wasn’t taking proper care of the little one. And as he painted a wide circle around he and the child, it seemed Eva stood ever farther outside of it. It wasn’t exactly his plan to do it, but somehow the more he loved Lenore, the less she seemed to belong to Eva.
In his shrinking world, he’d carved a universe of tenderness for himself and the last baby. He wouldn’t suffer Eva to enter into it, to spoil it with her sharp tongue. As if he’d cast a spell, she fell prey to his will in this one matter. Only when he went away now and again for day work did she have time with her youngest, but she could find none of the sweet hopefulness she felt when she had stroked the peachy head the first time and given her, her name.
One afternoon she stood out at the clothesline, mindlessly hanging one thing after another. When the basket was empty, she remembered that Lenore had been playing in it a moment before, and her eyes combed the grassy slope behind the house for the fat toddler. There was no sign of her. She called out twice, then again, her voice breaking. All along the slope, she ran zig zag like a rabbit, hoping to find Lenore sitting in the grass that was left uncut last autumn and which the light winter had not bent.
“You’ll be all itches,” she called out. “That grass is gonna scratch those fat legs, girl.”
When Dirk got home, he was so furious he had no words – not even their poison favorites. They combed the forest together in the waning light. The older girls sat together on the porch, waiting in case Lenore came back, holding hands and wishing they could cry. Between them, Dirk and Eva left their echos in every nook and cranny of the hollow. They shared one word between them, passing it back and forth through the branches and the wild vines, until their cries were thin and ragged.
“Lenore! Lenore!” In the distance, bloodhounds called back to them, a familiar cry that quickened their hearts and their pace.
The moon climbed high, so full and bright it pulled the yellow up out of the forsythia. Finally, doubling back where they’d been time and again, Dirk spotted the little one lying in the sparkling creek water. He bent to her, hands shaking as a chilling dread dried his throat. Her coldness told him they were too late. When Eva came upon him a moment later, he was cradling the girl in his arms. She gave a cry and reached out with gently curled fingers, but he struck her away.
“Don’t touch my child,” he said.
She was too shocked to argue with him. He left her standing by the water, her hands clasped together at her stomach, her eyes pleading for something that the mouth wouldn’t ask. Maybe she wanted to hold Lenore or maybe she just wanted there to be a kindness for just a moment now. When he was out of her sight, she sank to her knees in the wet moss and she spoke the child’s name to the moon. She said it again to the creek that had stolen her last breath and then she said it once more, tenderly, for only herself.
Dirk was finishing his second cigarette when the screen door opened a while later. Eva was holding Lenore in her arms, the child’s dark hair combed smooth, the ruffles of her best bonnet ironed crisp. After she’d dressed her, she wasn’t sure what one did next, and she wished her own mother was still around – cruel as she was – to tell her. She handed her over to Dirk, who took her gingerly and carried her to the truck. He was going to take her down the road, where an old farmer could make a coffin small enough for one so little.
“How you gonna do this?” she called across the yard. “I ought to come, too, to hold her.”
“I put a basket on the seat last night,” he said. “I don’t need you.”
She watched him climb into the truck and she eased back into the house so slowly the screen door didn’t make a sound in her wake. He was backing out of the drive when she flew out again, leaping off the porch as she hadn’t since she was a younger woman. She cried out for him to stop, waving a small, snowy wool coat in her hand like a flag of surrender. He put his foot on the brake and watched her through the side window as she ran to him.
When she opened the door, she was too winded to talk, but she held up the coat again and gave him a pleading glance. He nodded, twisting in the seat to lift Lenore out of the basket he had lined with quilts out in the moonlight last night. He held her between them while Eva carefully fitted the little arms into the sleeves.
He didn’t say that he thought people weren’t buried in coats. He wasn’t sure exactly what was normal, but he figured he understood Eva’s mind this once. She was crying as she fastened the buttons with her chapped, red hands.
“I thought she might be cold,” she said.
“I know,” he said.
They locked gazes then. In the slanting morning light, this side of the hemlock row, he could see that tiger gold in back of her brown eyes. She dropped her gaze, pushing the last button up through. Her fingers slipped gently along the soft wool. Dirk watched her for a moment; he didn’t feel that old impulse to put himself between her and the girl. She stroked the coat once more, then her hand found the edge of the door as she stepped back. Hesitating, she looked at him again.
“I’m sorry.” They were the only words she could find.
He heaved a sigh. “Maybe you ought to hop in, Eva. I think that’s how it ought to be.”
Something tried to draw up her mouth, but grief is a heavy thing and the smile could not quite bloom. She folded herself into the truck and he handed her the child with the tenderest care he could find in himself. She took her from him that way, too, the crook of her arm a quiet poem about everything.
Leona Standish died the other day from complications during heart surgery. They cut her open and scrambled around in there for hours, but finally the doctors threw up their bloody gloved hands and agreed on the problem. The devil had no heart. They sewed her back up nicely, every stitch just so, but with all illusions shattered, she flat-lined and was no more.
It was someone from the hospital that called up to the house to tell her fifth husband, Michael Pink, about the unexpected death. When he got off the phone, he poured himself some Scotch – the really good stuff that someone had to go to the cellar to grab – and dropped the phonograph needle on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. He played it dozens of times, until he fell asleep around sunset and dreamed for hours about another life in Berlin.
When the person from the hospital rang off from calling Michael Pink, they ran their finger along a document, picked up the phone again and punched in a long distance call to America. On the third ring, a throaty female voice answered impatiently, “I told you yesterday to take me off your list.”
A few minutes later, the misunderstanding was cleared up. Before ringing off, the caller from the hospital could not resist adding, “I’m sorry to bring you the bad news, Ms. Mitchell. I know it may not be the right time, but I wanted to say what a huge fan I am of your work. You were amazing in ‘Last Tango’. I watched it every week and was positively devastated when it was cancelled.”
There was a pause. Then Cassandra Mitchell said, “Well, I’ll be in Twelfth Night at the Old Vic in a couple of months. Keep your eye out for it.”
She hung up and rolled over in her bed. Her ceiling was covered in satin and dimpled with hundreds of tiny satin buttons. She stared at it for a while, licking her teeth and remembering. If they’d asked her before peeling back Leona’s chest bones, she could have saved them all a lot of trouble. She knew the devil didn’t have a heart.
They were girls when they met, two proud little things seated side by side in acting class because their maiden names were the same. They started calling themselves the Reed Sisters. Their classmates had other names for them, none of them very nice. They stuck to themselves, casting cool glances in their wake.
In their senior year, Cassandra was given a mentor who looked her up and down and said, “If I can teach you nothing else, young woman, I hope it’s how to make people love you. That’s how you build a career.”
Cassandra tucked a cattish smile into her collar and said, “I don’t need love. An actress is obliged to truth only.”
The mentor cackled. “There’s nothing as graceless as a snob, Cassandra. Never mistake poise for frigidity. At present, the only thing you could act with any honesty is the part of an icicle.”
Over the year, through magic only old souls can manage, the mentor chipped away at Cassandra and remade her. She still carried herself princess straight because a dancer never forgets, but she stopped sticking her nose in the air and learned to curtsy even when she was the butt of the joke. In the end she had to admit what she was told the first day was true; it mattered to be loved and that had nothing to do with the part. It was about keeping an affair with the public. They’d been coming back for more than thirty years.
Poor Leona never learned the lesson. Her mentor left the academy at the end of the year, stooped and greyed and quite convinced he had nothing more to offer. By graduation day, Leona and Cassandra were no longer the Reed Sisters. They kept a polite, often useful sort of friendship over the years, but there were no warm, honest hours of the heart between them. Now Cassandra knew why.
Leona Standish was lying under a light in a grim cement cellar in London a few days later. A young man with a fastidious bow tie under his white coat was troweling a peach complexion over her grey flesh, when he noticed a pulsing knob on her left ankle. The tool clattered on the tiles as Lenny Boswell leaped back with a startled cry.
Her face remained quite calm, the eyes glued shut under a fringe of mink lashes. Everyone said she opened them in the surgery and never closed them again. He crept to her feet and leaned close, placing a latex-sheathed finger on the knob. There was definitely a pulse there.
“Oh great,” he said aloud.
This would complicate everything. He’d already told everyone he knew he’d been assigned Ms. Standish’s eternal facial. All the old queens at the corner watering hole were livid with jealousy. They wanted to know everything. He’d been sworn to send a Snapchat of her boob job to his best friend, which he’d already obligingly done a half hour ago. Now this pulse. Protocol meant he’d have to call upstairs and begin a whole investigation. By the time all that subsided, his holiday would have begun and someone else would finish the project. Probably Smith, that conceded old cow, and one would never hear the end of his bragging.
Drawing his lips into a thin, homely line, he picked up a scalpel and cut open the foot with one clean slice. Though he’d been drummed out of medical school, it had nothing to do with any shyness about gore. In truth, one of his teachers had written that young Boswell seemed to enjoy cutting the skin too much, but then erased the entry with a curious sense that there would be hellish consequences.
When the flesh opened, his eyes boggled at sight of what lay beneath. It was a heart, smallish for a grown woman, but bright and colorful as if carved directly from a living child’s back. And despite the reports of her death and despite the fact her blood had been replaced with embalming fluid, it was pumping quite lustily.
“Oh no you don’t,” Boswell said. He leaned in and cut it right out of her foot. It was a stubborn heart, the arteries quite lashed to the ankle bones, but he switched blades twice and white knuckled through until it was free. The thing rested in his hand and would not stop beating.
He rolled his eyes. “You old bitch,” he said. “Nice try but I think the story is still mine.”
He took it into the break room and dropped it into his sandwich box. Then he returned to the dead woman, sewed her foot closed with the care of a high street tailor and troweled that lovely peach complexion heavily over the seam. It was still seeping a bit, which made it hard to skiff, but he shrugged finally and decided he’d finish her off with stockings.
“Bet you never thought you’d go into the ground in nude hose, did you?” he said cheekily to her. But then even Boswell, who his closest friends called a bitch, felt a little guilty. Say what one would about Leona Standish, she had always showed up looking divine. It would be wrong to put her in nude stockings.
“Never fear,” he said. “I’ll make it right, love.”
That evening he and his closet friends sat down at the table in his flat and they leaned over the sandwich box and marveled that the heart was still beating.
“So it was in her foot the whole time,” one of them said. He was a sentimentalist and was having trouble not crying. He was also on his third gin martini. “Poor old thing.”
“We should eat it,” Boswell said.
The others leaned away in revulsion, but before the night was through, he convinced them it was the only way. They decided to do it raw and let it slide down their throats like oysters. Luckily Boswell had a nice bottle of champagne. Anything else would have been too shabby a send off for such a legend.
When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into. They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks. That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss. He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant. Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?
Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night. He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows. In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window. He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity. They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious. Yet he was sure it only complicated everything. The weeks to come would prove him right.
He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge. He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little. If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt. Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?
His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch. The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own. He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration. Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.
If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room. In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away. For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them. Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten. He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.