Short Stories

Secrets

by

Noëlle Wall

All he wants to do is retrieve his Matchbox car.  He knows it’s right here under the pillow, or maybe it’s fallen to the floor next to his bed.  He is not supposed to get up, so he leans over far enough that all of him, except his feet which are hooked over the edge, is suspended in the space between mattress-top and floor.  Not there.  All right then it must be in his bathroom, perched on the oval track of the sink rim, its engine revving in anticipation of the green flag.  He hesitates, then slides off the bed.  After all, he is allowed to get up to pee.  Out of habit, he pauses to pull the crisp white sheet over the waterproof pad that protects his mattress from accidents.  He’s much too old to wet the bed; he’s sure he hasn’t in ages; but the pad is still there because it’s better to be safe than sorry.  He turns away indignantly and stomps to the bathroom.  He doesn’t pee in his bed; he doesn’t.  The car isn’t on the sink.  It isn’t in the bathroom at all.  Now he really wants it, wants to hold it in his hand.  He remembers the feel of the cold metal on his fingers, the way the tiny MG rolls over the mountaintop of his knee.  He pictures the swoop of its creamy white fenders, the spin of its wire wheels.  Maybe it rolled under his bed.  That’s it; he’s certain of it.  It’s under the bed.  Wait.  Not his bed, but hers.  He left it in her room when it was time to take his bath.  Now he remembers rolling it over the top of the carpeting, the white car sleek against the baby blue plush.

He pads to the door and opens it a crack.  The hallway is dark, but he can see that her door is ajar; no light comes from within.  It must be very late.  He tiptoes down the hall, careful to avoid the creaky spots so as not to wake her.  A silver thread of moonlight filters through the leaded glass window at the end of the hall, helping his eyes adjust to the darkness.  He stops.  Music is coming from her room, and another sound.  At first he thinks it’s part of the music.  Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket…He silently mouths the next line:  Save it for a rainy day.  He knows the whole song, it’s one of the recordings his mother plays on the hi-fi while they fold laundry, holding the corners of each sheet and shaking it high into the air until it billows like a sail.  Sometimes they run underneath while the sheet hovers overhead, and meet halfway, hugging and laughing, while it floats down over them.  You’ll have a poc-ket-ful of star-light…It’s the same song, but there are other noises, separate from the music.  Unh…unh…unh.  The sound has a rhythm of its own.

Crouching on the floor outside her door, he collects himself into a ball and listens.  Unh…unh…unh.  He feels cold and shivery.  Maybe he should go back to bed.  He starts to crawl down the hall, but then remembers a story his teacher read to the class from Weekly Reader.  A six-year-old girl saved her mother from certain death with QUICK THINKING.  She found her mother turning blue on the floor and dialed “O.”  The operator put her through to the hospital where a nurse led her through the steps of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  At first he thought that was gross, but Weekly Reader called the girl a hero.  What if his mother is sick now?  What if he is listening to the last breaths of her life?  What if he can save her?  Now he’s flushed, sweat beading on his neck and underarms.  He can do mouth-to-mouth resuscitation; he knows he can.  He can be a hero.  He rises and turns slightly to squeeze between the door and jamb.  Tears gather in the corners of his eyes and he brushes them away.  Heros don’t cry.  Unh…unh…unh.  He enters the room.  She is not on the floor turning blue.  She is on the bed, naked, a strange man moving on top of her.  Unh…unh…unh.  He instantly knows what they are doing.  It’s sex.  He has never seen it before, and he is not sure how he knows it, but he knows.  And somehow, maybe from whispers caught on the tail of a dream, he knows that sex, like peeing in bed in the night, is a secret.

He stands frozen in the doorway, but neither his mother nor the stranger notices him in the near darkness.  It’s as though he is invisible.   He drops to the floor and inches closer until he reaches his mother’s yellow rose chintz chair.  The toy car is there, lying on its side between the folds of the chair’s skirt.  He hardly dares to breathe as he scoops it up and slips behind the chair.  Unh…unh…unh.  All his senses are alert.  The idea that he can be in the same room with his mother without her knowing is brand new to him and strangely exhilarating.  Oh, he sometimes sneaks up on her to surprise her, but that’s a game, a game they both know they are playing.  This is different; this is real.

He squeezes the metal toy in his hand, allowing its sharp edges to dig cracks in his fingers.  He can hardly believe how close he is now to the sound and sight and smell of his mother and the man.  He sees them, but they don’t see him.  He opens his hand and rolls the car back and forth on his palm.  It occurs to him that he has stumbled into the center of their secret, but he is the secret one.  He is invisible.  His fingers work the surface of the object in his hand, blindly rubbing the smooth top, absently spinning the rubber cylinders.  He feels the knowledge of his being there seep through his skin like heat, or radiation.  He owns the knowledge; it is his.  No one else knows he is there.  He huddles behind the chair for a minute, ten minutes, an hour, watching.

Back in his bed he is too excited to sleep.  He is changed.  He feels the change at the molecular level.  Catch a falling star…He has peered into another universe, one he never imagined existed; how many more are waiting for discovery?  Possibilities swirl around him; he is dizzy with their implications.

 *     *     *

 Perry is at school or summer camp or band practice when the packages arrive at his house.  Destiny waiting in plain brown boxes on the entry table.  They contain X-ray glasses or a miniature camera or Real Detective Secrets.  Now he listens in on the extension; now he hides under the porch; now he practices being invisible.  He is an explorer charting his own way through the world of secrets.  He has worked it out.  At any given time, there are two worlds, the world he is in and the one he is not in.  That world is a parallel universe where things—all sorts of things—go on without him.  Whenever he is present, it is his universe and goes by the rules he knows, but when he is not there, anything can happen.  The trick is to enter the parallel universe without anyone discovering him.  Then he can unravel its secrets.

Here is Perry, helping his mother; now he’s gone, but where?  There he is doing his homework, or is he?  He is quiet as a breeze, stealthy as dusk.  Every person, every room is a universe to be explored.  He has the talent; he has the gift.  When he was a little boy, his aunt thought it was cute when he took one of the table cameras at his cousin’s wedding and crawled among the grown-up ladies’ legs aiming it up their dresses, but his teenage neighbor won’t think it’s funny if she sees his telescope aimed at her bedroom window.  Take care, Perry, you’re on perilous ground.  Few understand your calling, the power you hold in your eyes and ears, and the images in your mind.  Be supple; be furtive; beware.  Why is Miss Harper staring at you?  Why do the girls whisper behind your back?  Hide, Perry; make yourself disappear.  Slide, Perry, into that other world.  Study and practice your craft.  Electronics fascinate him.  He repairs the telephone, makes the speaker crystal clear; soon he’s fixed the phones of all his mother’s friends.  On their newly repaired phones, they complain and advise; they lie to one neighbor and reveal themselves to another.  He possesses their conversations; he owns them all.

He takes up music and the capricious girls who shunned him for his strangeness, now find his strangeness hip and alluring.  His features settle into a geeky handsomeness, intense eyes, thick hair, full lips.  After every gig with his band, he has his pick of girls to party with.  He takes their pictures and notices how the camera unmasks them; he sets up his own darkroom; he has a gift.  A language emerges in his mind, a canon of intricate methodology and classification.  Secrets of the body, secrets of the heart, secrets of the soul.  He becomes a collector of reality, but collectors display what they amass; they compare and evaluate their booty.  They trade.  Perry, so long dodging and ducking in darkness, thirsts for the illumination of appraisal, he hungers for esteem from the like-minded.  Does he dare proclaim his talent?  Will he expose his sleight-of-hand?  Shall he boast of his knowledge, his power?  He tentatively deals out a series of photographs before his college roommate, and suddenly he’s an entrepreneur, a supplier.  His images snake through the frats and dorms, party to party on the well-worn pathways of stolen tests, used term papers and drugs.

Be careful, Perry.  You’re a big shot now; they seek you out; they marvel at your work; they’re making you wealthy, at least by campus standards, but not everyone appreciates your métier.  An outraged father, for example, comforting his ruined daughter, wiping tears from her delicate, aristocratic cheekbones, and now friends have vanished; tracks are covered, and Perry is quietly leaving school, all charges dropped to avoid a scandal.  Secrets shared have lost their power.  A lesson then, those who respect the power—those who are chosen as guardians of the power—are few in number.  Few have the gift; few are chosen to explore the pathways of the hidden and concealed; few are initiated into the quest for discovery.  Secrets.  They surround you, obscure you, delude you, and ultimately, they betray you.  No, the power found in that clandestine world is not for everyone, Perry, not for everyone.

He resolves to embrace silence.  He dons the role of silent observer, but not without passing judgment; he’s a living, breathing conscience, keeping tally, both plus and minus.  Not all secrets are sinful.  He bears equal witness to charity and larceny, love and betrayal, arrogance and despair; all coexist in the hidden realm of secrets, the elusive underworld lair of hidden truths, the place where sin, safely concealed, is no sin at all.

 *     *     *

 (If you are situated just right you can see the whole scene through the window; the buttoned down exec presiding behind his oversized desk, his sycophants jockeying for position around him.   If you are watching, you can tell when he speaks, the way his eyes move from one face to another.  Now he raises a hand for emphasis; now he slams his fist on the desk.  You can see his audience startle.  They are on the second floor so you have to be some distance away, parked on a hill, perhaps, with binoculars or a telephoto lens.  The angle has to be just right, because it is the second floor window of the NewsChannel-12 Live Television Broadcast Center, and because you have to look between the stems of the huge white microwave dishes that rise behind chain-link fence, like giant techno-mushrooms.  Your gaze might linger a moment, but it’s a familiar scene, one you’ve observed a hundred times before.  Easing your lens to the left, you settle your sights on the only other window not blocked by the dishes.  It’s the last window in the row, barely illuminated—but wait, here is an interesting picture.  Click, you squeeze the shutter on your battered F3 almost without thinking.  Oh yes, definitely worth contemplating.  You have to be situated just right, but then you can see him reach out his arms to grab her.  Click.  She pulls away, and you see him laugh.  His laugh is confident, you imagine, and cruel.  This could be useful.  Click; click; the motor drive doesn’t hesitate.  She backs into a corner, her arms outstretched to block his approach, but he is persistent; he pulls her toward him, encircling her with his arms, burying his face in her neck.  Click.  You would have to know it is the sales manager’s window, otherwise you would have trouble identifying the two figures standing poised there in the half light—click—the glow of the desk lamp silhouetting the sales manager and his secretary like a wedding portrait).

 *     *     *

 Perry Jones considers himself a Renaissance man, a man for all seasons.  Now he dabbles in nature photography, seeking out hidden caves and beaver dams in the Adirondacks and preserving them on film.  Now he seeks out women for what he calls his boudoir collection, preserving his most private moments with them—sometimes with their knowledge and sometimes without.  He still gets off on making music, losing himself in the frantic passion of sticks beating drums.  But the band he plays with always wants to practice, and he needs to be free.  More and more Jones realizes he doesn’t have to actually create anything to be an artist; his life is his art.  Its style and forms are subject to his mercurial command.  Now he’s an aesthete seeking the expression of his soul; now he’s a union man, setting store by his daily toil.

No one knows who hired him at NewsChannel-12, but no one cares.  If his commercial shots aren’t always lit just right, well, at least he slips you a joint while you edit them, and if his stills are stained with fixer, at least he has plenty of pictures of the traffic girls from his private collection to entertain you while he makes a reprint.  If you need something, Perry can find it; if you want something, Perry can provide it.  You got lucky with this gig, Perry; you’ve got a good thing going.  All right, it’s true that it is sometimes a hassle—but mostly because of that bitch Elaina—she doesn’t understand that you can’t be bound by her limits.  All she cares about are deadlines and getting shots in focus.  She doesn’t appreciate what you have to offer.  Well, you’ll show her.

The trouble is, Elaina doesn’t give respect where it’s due.  No respect for the way things have always been done, no respect for the people who were at the station long before she came along; no respect for the tape operators, the directors, the photographers—all the workers who hold domain over the elaborate equipment that makes a television station run.   No respect for territory.  She breezes in on her first day, fancy red suit, blond hair slicked into a tight bun, bottle of Coke in one hand, cigarette dangling between two fingers of the other, and starts right in.

 “I want you to switch to digital; we’re going to get the Canon Mark II” she tells him—him, the photographer, who, after 30 years as a professional (a Nikon devotee, by the way) can decide for himself what kind of camera he wants to use—”and start a filing system for our digital originals.”  Our originals.   Within a week, Elaina hires an assistant, a Xerox copy version of herself, and then every time you see Elaina, Claire is on her heels.

Director of Promotion, but you’d think Elaina is Queen of Promotion, demanding that everyone act more “professional”—as if she knows their jobs better than they do.  Oh, she can be nice enough, if she wants something, then it’s all “oh please for me,” and “I know you can do it,” but Perry’s not an idiot; he knows what she is up to.  She can’t hondle him.  Look at her preening at her desk.  She had her office remodeled.  Now it is arranged just so, blond wood desks, matching blue executive rollaway chairs, dove-gray industrial carpet stretching across the floor and up one wall, modern art prints: Ellsworth Kelly, Jackson Pollack and Georgia O’Keefe, for God’s sake, and an original Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph museum-matted and framed.  Her Coke sits on the corner of her desk.  She has her own cup for it, dark blue plastic with the legend, “The glass ceiling gets more pliable when you turn up the heat!”  She thinks she’s smart; she thinks she’s a big shot.  Listen to her plot and plan and whisper with her little shadow.  Telling each other their secrets.

The Canon’s first outing:  a weather ad for TV Guide.  Elaina fusses around picking his brain.  How to light the set?  Where to place the tripod?  Not so confident now, is she?  He’s surprised, and then not surprised.  Why shouldn’t she need his advice?  A smile, a laugh, a hand on her shoulder.  Now she sketches a layout and he visualizes the scene.  He shows her the framing and she dresses the set.  Their ideas meet and connect; they are riding the same mind wave.  Wisps of hair escape from her bun and curl at her neck.  The world tilts and he sees her anew, her self laid bare (how white is her throat), her secrets revealed (how delicate her earlobe).  He owns her now.  His skin tingles.  She is his.   The shots are good, a little dark perhaps—when has he had time to test-run the new camera?—but she assures him she can fix them in Photoshop.  A drink after work to celebrate and a walk to her car.  Too soon to kiss her, let her wait.  He’s in her world now.  A flip of a switch and he’s in her car, her house, her head.  She’s on her cell phone, with Claire, he guesses.  … so easy, she says, I’m almost embarrassed for him.  “Oh Perry, please help me…”  Giggles.  Giggles!  “I think he has a crush on me.  Gross, I know…”

Elaina gets sick.  Sweet revenge. Vertigo, disorientation, hallucinations, panic attacks.  Oddly, it comes and goes, striking twice in a week, not at all the next, and three times the week after.  Claire covers for her, taking her calls, walking her back and forth in their shared office, driving her to the doctor when she loses control.  Months go by.  Multiple Sclerosis, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, the diagnoses multiply in proportion to the number of doctors she consults.   But no one must know, Elaina pleads…not after she’s worked so hard to get this far…not after she’s fought her way to this job…no one must see her like this.  No one does, except Perry, who sees everything.  Nothing is hidden from him.  Not her shaking hands or faltering steps, not her confused looks or garbled speech, not her manic attacks concealed behind closed doors.  Nothing is hidden.  Not the dangerous swerve of her car or the slam of its door.  Not her frenzied steps racing across the slick pavement, not her mask of fear or wild screams, not her frantic grasps at the bridge’s railing or her final desperate climb up its rungs to stand suspended on the brink, a living bowsprit quivering against the moonlight.  Not her plunge into the Hudson’s inky deep.  And that’s it; she’s gone.  Gone forever, Perry; gone for good.  He spins the wheels on the toy in his pocket, rubs the smooth top where the paint is worn away.  She’s gone now, Perry.  Gone with her slicked back hair and her Coke and her dangling cigarette.  Isn’t this what you wanted, Perry?  Isn’t this what you intended?

A day, a week, two weeks.  Past the shock and the funeral, and a version of truth pieced together.  She was unstable, irrational, mentally ill, at the very least, depressed.  At the general manager’s request, he shoots a PSA on mental illness and the warning signs for suicide.  He also shoots six car commercials (come on down for the no-dicker sticker…) and smokes a joint in the garage with a studio cameraman who plays keyboard in a pick-up jazz band.  He shoots two furniture spots (no payments for a full year…) and shows the weekend sportscaster how to use laundry bleach to turn ordinary coke into crack.  He shoots a series of promos on Accu-Weather (you can count on us…) and cops an amplifier and some cable connectors from one of NewsChannel-12’s engineers.  He takes black and white PR photos of each of the anchors against gray seamless and gives the new Chyron girl a tour of his darkroom.  He avoids Claire.  He doesn’t like her look, her looking at him, her eyes always on him, following him, waiting for the instant he disappears—now you see him; now you don’t—searching for the moment, the exact moment, he slides from one world into the other.  Does she know?  Does she guess?  Or is she simply fed up with his shaky zooms and sloppy photos, disgusted with his disregard for deadlines and his cavalier attitude.  Where have you been Perry?  Are my prints dry yet?  What’s taking so long?  What have you been doing?  Be careful Perry; she’s trouble.  She’s a Xerox copy of the other one, isn’t she?

She sits in her executive chair at her designer desk, papers askew in front of her, silently rubbing the sides of her head and staring at Elaina’s desk.  Everything is just the way her boss left it:  lamp, telephone, blotter, pen holder, in-box, rolodex, calendar, stapler, coffee cup, aspirin bottle.  She gets up and crosses the room—only a few steps—and starts to pick up the calendar, but her hand pauses midair and finally reaches instead for the aspirin, prompted, no doubt, by her pounding temples.  She pops two, then a third pill into her mouth, washes them down with cranberry juice from a paper cup and gets back to her writing.  Only moments later, fourteen to be exact, she lets out a cry, “oh no,” and doubles over, clutching the arms of her chair.

 “Oh no, it’s happening to me,” she groans over and over, before grasping the receiver off her phone and dialing three digits.  She drops the phone and screams.

“Help me; help me please…”

Footsteps, shouting, a cold pak from the first-aide kit.  Rush to the hospital in a blur, tests, observation, but nothing specific is found.  Exhaustion, anxiety, depression.  Of course, why not?  How could it be otherwise?  The shock, the stress, the trauma…

Claire knows it’s none of those things, and he knows she knows.  Claire knows Elaina’s symptoms too well, all those hours dealing with her secret disease behind closed doors, and Claire knows her own symptoms are the same.  She should be frightened, humble, but she’s not.  She’s back the next day, as if it never happened, but she’s different, has her own secret now, her own power.  He sees it in her disdain for his talent, in her disrespect of his work.  She criticizes him, badgers him, calls him in to her office one morning and rips his latest photos in half and throws the pieces like a gauntlet to the floor.

He smiles; he laughs; he dissembles and reappears.  He’s a panther, a skylark, a whisper of breeze.  He scorns her foolishness.  She doesn’t know whom she’s dealing with; she doesn’t understand his gift, his power.  He walks out of her office, leaving the pieces of his photographs where they fell.

He waits until she leaves, before slipping back in, alone.  Something is different, a new picture—he hadn’t noticed it before.  It’s a collage of paper and glass mounted and hung on the closet door, a strange spot for it.  It’s delicate and haunting, with a depth that’s familiar, though he can’t place where he’s seen it before.  But he has no time for artwork now.  He snatches the aspirin bottle, replaces it with an identical one, and then, for good measure, he pours a powder into the glass on Claire’s desk, a glass nearly full of cranberry juice, and stirs it with his finger.  It only takes a moment, a secret moment, a moment of slipping in and slipping out, but that’s all he needs.  And it’s all they need, Perry, all they need to follow you when you leave the station, all they need to cut you off, their lights flashing, and surround your car, all they need to pull their weapons and ram you against your car door (spread your legs you pervert, hands behind your head) all they need to handcuff you and shove you into the back of a police car, all they need to search your pockets and find the vial, to search under the seat and find your guns, to search the glove compartment and find your dope, to search the trunk and find your tapes—some of them at least.  Your secrets have betrayed you, Perry.  Where is your gift now?  And then he knows, the artwork, the familiar shape, a camera lens watching him, stealing his secrets, trespassing into his world.

 *     *     *

 He’s spared the indignity of a trial.  They charge him with murder by depraved indifference and assault, though he knows they can’t make the homicide stick.  Too obscure a trail between the pills in his pocket and Elaina’s fatal swan dive into the Hudson.  Still, other charges fly around him:  weapons, drugs, assault.  They offer a deal, but he laughs.  Don’t they understand they can’t hold him?  Don’t they know he can’t be bound by their rules?  He darts into their world and back out; he’s a chameleon, now one thing, now another; he’s invisible, now here, now gone.

They fail to pay attention.  Instead, they rip out his wires and sift through his pictures.  They inspect his tapes and ransack his closets, drawers and darkroom.  One by one, his tricks are discovered, his gift revealed.  Blasphemy.  Humiliation.  Betrayal.  His secrets are closing in; they surround him, obscure him.  Pain creeps into his chest; he can’t breathe.  He lies on his bunk waiting for the apocalypse; the mattress is thin, the sheets are cold and rough.  He feels the darkness coming and welcomes it, a new world to enter, to discover.  He shudders and a hot pool spreads beneath him.  He curls on his side, enveloped in the warmth.  Floating.  But only for a moment.  Pain rips through his chest, searing him, splitting him.  He’s drenched in sweat and urine.  Use your gift now, Perry.  You have only to slip away, Perry, (quiet as a breeze, stealthy as dusk) slip away into that other universe, unlock its meaning, wield your power.

 *     *     *

The Hole

by

Noëlle Wall

The hole is getting bigger. I can hear it, the sawing, the jackhammering, and even the digging, though the bite of the shovel and the thwump of the damp dirt as it hits the floor may be more in my imagination than in my ears. What I do know, what has nothing to do with imagination, is the sight of growing piles of dirt in my garage, dirt in brown clay clumps rising to a point four feet high, on one, then two, then three blue tarps.

It was supposed to be a two–day job, I explain to Kent in an email, but now it has expanded to ten days, with no end in sight. Today, Jimmy the plumber rose from the hole, where he had been tunneling beneath the utility room to the pipes below, to say he had found the problem. My husband Sam reports his discovery as though it were good news, but I know better.

“I thought the problem was the pipe,” I remind Sam. The only reason we approved this excavation was because the plumber’s snake–camera thingy told him our old copper pipe was crushed and disintegrated. And that was why the toilet wouldn’t flush and the shower was backing up shit all over the downstairs bathroom floor.

“It was the trap,” Sam tells me. “The trap was clogged with grease, but he’s going to replace it.”

“What about the crushed pipe?”

“He replaced the pipe.”

“The crushed pipe? Did you see it?” I ask. He knows I would ask.

“Well, it turns out, it wasn’t actually crushed,” Sam admits, “but it’s good we have the new pipe, anyway. It’s four–inch plastic pipe, instead of three, and it should be fine for another 30 years.”

We have lived in this house for 30 years, and this is the first time we’ve had a problem with the plumbing. What he’s saying is that we’ll be underground ourselves, long before it clogs again.

Why didn’t you just have it roto–rootered out, Kent asks me via text. I am asking myself the same thing. In fact I bring it up with Sam, who asks the plumber.

“Nah, couldn’t do that; it wouldn’t go through the trap.” The plumber says this confidently, an expert on handling sticky questions.

The plumber has other jobs waiting, so he stays late to finish; it will be done tonight, tomorrow at the latest. The dirt sits in three still piles, seeping damp into the concrete floor.

The next night Kent messages me, asking if the plumbing is all fixed. In fact, it’s not. Jimmy has to jackhammer out more floor, go deeper to get at the trap. He stands in the hole, waist–high and shows me where he estimates the trap is, under the hot water heater, which will have to be removed. The removal will probably render it unusable (something about the sediment), so we will need a new one. He suggests a tankless style, energy efficient at about $1200 plus installation.

“Who are you texting?” Sam asks.

“Messaging,” I correct. “It’s Kent. He wants to know if we are worried the hole will swallow us up.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I’m terrified.”

We are watching TV in the family room, while below us Jimmy gathers his tools for the night. He’ll be back in the morning, but I’m no longer surprised; no longer do I ask. Two days have grown to two weeks, and he’s still down there every day. His presence, the holes, the dirt, the inaccessible laundry room while the dirty clothes pile up, the cars at the end of the driveway instead of in the garage––it’s all part of the new normal. I don’t like it, but there it is, out of my control. Just as I seek refuge or respite in certain areas of the house––the kitchen window where I can view the upturned faces of my yellow and purple pansies smiling happiness from their baskets on the deck, or the stretch of hallway where Sam’s photos hang in perfect gallery presentation, so I avoid all sign of the plumbing project. With it out–of–sight, I’m able to temporarily put it out–of–mind. I avoid the garage, won’t look at the dirt or the hole, now grown to seven feet long, three feet wide, larger than a grave.

Sam’s phone signals an incoming text. It’s from Kent.

“You better protect my sister,” he writes.

Sam laughs, and I smile smugly. But inside, my heart is racing. A month ago I didn’t have a brother, or more accurately, a half–brother. In a flush of interest in our heritage after my parents died, I took one of those DNA tests that tell you where your ancestors are from.  We had just discovered, in going through my father’s papers, that the German man we thought was my father’s father was actually his step–father, and that his biological father had died in the flu epidemic, shortly after immigrating to America from Greece. Suddenly we were no longer Irish–German, but were Irish–Greek. My sister, Eva, and I joked about our new understanding of our love of baklava, I spit in a tube and off went the test.

Weeks went by; the test came back, and another shock. We were surprised to discover that our grandfather Kostas was not actually Greek, but Ashkenazi Jewish. Mazel Tov. We were reborn again: brisket and latkes. We belong to a tribe. While I rejoice at life’s clever trickery, Eva laments her loss of identity.

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” she says. “I grew up German, then I was Greek and now I’m Jewish. What next?”

What was next is Kent. Months go by, and then my granddaughter calls. She too has done the DNA test. Who is Kent Sanderson, she wants to know and I have no idea.

“Well, what does it say on your DNA test?”

“Huh? I just checked my heritage.” So, she walks me through the links on the website––who shares your DNA?-–I unlock my identity, and there are the words: Kent Sanderson is your half–brother. The room falls away; I drop the phone; a choking sound bubbles up in my throat.

“Grandma, are you alright? I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have––” My angel of a granddaughter is concerned, so I take a breath and reassure her.

“It’s okay, Honey. It’s––” I pause, not wanting to speak it aloud, the words unreal, toxic. “It’s okay; he’s my brother.”

It takes a rush of emails and more tests to wade through his reluctance and ours, each step like moving through glue in order to piece together the likely circumstances. For all our parents are gone, and we will never know the details. We find out that his mother was a stenographer in my father’s office. They were both married to other people. Kent grew up believing the man his mother was married to was his father. He doesn’t want to believe otherwise, but we knew our father, and we believe. Sort of. Did his mother know? Did my father know? Who are we now, Eva and I, now that we are Irish–Greek Jews with a brother?

The discovery spreads through the family, speculation growing from email to message to text, the tale a comical paean to sex; we are a sitcom, a romcom, daughters who grew up in a Mad Men world with a Don Draper dad. I wonder if he slept with one of my aunts; Eva wonders if he slept with all of them.

We try to slot the information into a punchline. Our brother always liked you better, my sister texts, and I reply that she shouldn’t have teased him so much when he was little. She still hasn’t communicated with him, though she friends him on Facebook. His face peers out from his cover photo, and we try to see our father’s eyes, his nose, but the face is unfamiliar, a stranger. He and I exchange birthdates. We were born six months apart. For some reason, this is the fact that won’t compute, the one I can’t think about, the one I stick in a box and seal away.

I don’t know how to connect with Kent. I can’t imagine his pain, and I feel ashamed. I’m ashamed for my father, the man who sang Broadway songs while making our pancakes on Sunday morning, who chugged beer bare–chested while building our patio, who showed off his  New York City office as though he owned it. The father who terrified me with his rage when he found out I was having sex with my high school boyfriend. Eva reminds me of the nights he came home drunk, the shallow lies about working late, the fights with our mother. The DNA test gives confirmation of what she suspected, what I buried. If it’s hard for us, what is it like for Kent? He lost the father he thought he had, and he will never know the man whose DNA he shares. I wish I’d never taken the test. My mother was six months pregnant with me, when my brother was born.

At lunch in our favorite café, my closest friend assails me with what ifs. What if our parents were still alive? What if my family hadn’t moved away when I was a toddler? What if we had grown up in the same town, gone to the same schools, dated? I shake my head and change the subject, pay the bill, head home.

As I park at the head of the driveway, I see Jimmy packing up his truck. It’s old and rusted; he is filthy, a lanky Art Carney look–alike in a stained, once white wife–beater.

“You heading out?” I call as I walk up the steps to the front door.

“Yep.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Nope, I’m done.”

“Done?” It’s been nearly three weeks. I’m so used to Jimmy being there, digging and tunneling and banging            , somehow he had become a subterranean part of the household, like a cat or rodent living under the house. I never really accepted his presence, but neither did I expect him to ever leave.

“Done, filled in, cleaned up and on my way.”

I follow him into the garage and the utility room. The hot water heater is installed, the grave is covered with cement, the dirt is gone, the floor mopped. The shower will run now, he tells me, the toilet will flush––heck we could flush a basketball down it now.

I don’t know what else to say, so I thank him, but I still have doubts. After he drives away, I open all the taps, flush the upstairs, then the downstairs toilets. Everything works. Everything’s back to normal, to the way it was before, before the dirt, before the hole, before the clog. It’s as though he’d never been there. And yet, he was.

*     *     *

Thanksgiving

by

Noëlle Wall

Patrick stands in the hall, listening to his wife in the kitchen as she chops, quick rhythmic strikes on the wooden cutting board. Chht, chht, chht. They had bought the board one Saturday in a little town on their way to Vermont. She insisted on stopping at the rustic shop, its wares displayed alongside baskets mounded high with orange and yellow gourds. He waited by the door, not expecting to see anything he wanted, but the craftsmanship of the board with its inlays of contrasting woods had caught his eye. Chht, chht, chht. One year ago, a little more. She was pregnant then. The purpose of the trip was to find an old-fashioned cradle for the nursery. They found one, too, in an antique shop in Arlington, Vermont, and she lovingly cleaned it and fitted it with a tiny mattress and pillow and a rainbow colored afghan that had been hers as a baby. The chopping stops and he hears sizzling. He wonders what requires frying for a turkey dinner; is there some step he doesn’t know about—the giblets, maybe, whatever they are? He should go into the kitchen. He can offer to peel the potatoes. That’s a job he can do, scrape off the peel, rinse off the dirt, cut them up and drop them into the big pot filled with water.

At the door to the kitchen, he pauses to watch her. She stands at the stove stirring something, her back to him, blonde hair still damp and spiky from the shower. Her weight is on one foot so that her hip sticks out to the side, the way it did when she held the baby. Men have their center of gravity in their backs for lifting and digging, she told him, but a woman’s is in her hips for carrying babies. He wants to go to her and hold her while she cooks, whispering in her ear, making her break into her deep-throated laugh. It is one of the ironies of these days of grief and estrangement that she is lovelier than ever. She turns and looks at him, an unnerving stare, as if to say are you still here?

I’ll peel the potatoes, he offers.

No, thanks. She turns away, but then shrugs her shoulders and amends, sure, why not?

He puts the pot in one side of the double sink, turns on the faucet and glances around for a workspace. The countertop is covered with colorful bowls and casseroles: orange sweet potatoes, creamy white onions, deep burgundy cranberry relish, golden pumpkin and apple pies.  He considers the dining room table, but it is crisply set with a pale green tablecloth and white dishes. Their wedding stemware sparkles in the sun that streams through the patio door.

He sets down the bag of potatoes in the other side of the sink and starts peeling. Why is she bothering to do all this?  All this effort, all the people she has invited—mostly her family—for an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner that no one can possibly expect of them so soon. At least his best friend William will be there, along with his wife Eve.  Eve and Lara, joined at the ear by their cell phones; their friendship had relieved him of some of the responsibility for intimacy in their marriage. Now he would give anything to have Lara confide her feelings to him, instead of to Eve in furtive conversations just out of his earshot. In an hour all those people will start arriving. I need to be with people who love me, Lara had said; then she looked through him, silently, patiently, as if waiting for a brief irritation to go away.

He counts the courses on the counter as he peels. Eight—and that doesn’t even count his potatoes. A year ago he would have teased her about the elaborate spread—she always had to overdo—too much, too fancy, but he would have been proud, too. She did it at least partially for him, the same way he had designed the patio and carefully laid out the brick pavers with anticipation of her pleasure. He looks over at her now as she pours the contents of the frying pan into a large bowl. The stuffing, he thinks. Of course, it is onions and celery for the stuffing. This time, he knows, her efforts aren’t for his appreciation. They feel more like a rebuff. He rinses the potatoes and refills the pot. The worst part is that he, more than anyone, understands the depth of her anguish, the sudden awareness, gripping him over and over again—awareness of how everything has changed. It hits him now, a wave of sorrow like physical pain, and he clutches the edge of the sink. No, he chants internally like a mantra, don’t think, not now; don’t think. He understands, but he has no comfort to offer her.

That day—was it only three weeks ago?—had started out unseasonably hot, a record-breaking Indian summer said the morning newscaster, more of El Niño’s tricks. There was no warning sign to alert them to impending danger, just the sun glaring eccentrically from the south, oddly illuminating corners usually dark this time of year. He had been worried about sweating. Where’s the extra-strength deodorant? He was giving an important presentation—his big chance.  Now where were the discs for his laptop? Let’s see, the gray suit, definitely the gray—thank God Lara picked it up from the cleaners—and the yellow tie—powerful without being a cliché. His ideas were good—and the charts looked great.  But the folders—were all fourteen there? One for each department head and extras for the corporate honchos. It was all so important—a presentation that could make or break his career!

Your day to drop off the baby, Lara reminded him. It was one of the tasks they had agreed to share: Lara took him to daycare Monday, Wednesday and Friday; he took him Tuesday and Thursday. He was the involved dad, getting down in the trenches of parenthood, changing diapers, giving baths, being there as his father and her father had not. How conscientiously—how smugly—they had mapped out their lives to avoid the pitfalls of other parents. Lara carried the baby to the garage, strapped him in the car seat and gave him a milk-filled sippy cup with pictures of Winnie the Pooh running in circles around the base of the cup. Patrick piled the reports onto the passenger side seat.

Rinsed and quartered, the potatoes splash, plunk, plunk, as he drops the pieces back in the pot. Though the evolution of their systems and routines hadn’t been painless, he had accepted them as a given. They were no big deal. She talked about them as the structure that held their lives together, the basis of their partnership. To him it was just the stuff that had to get done. He took their routine for granted—all those ordinary days of sleeping and getting up, cooking and washing, working and playing—all those golden days for granted, never questioning the alchemy that created them, the diligence that held them together.

He puts the pot on to boil while she stuffs the turkey. Twenty-six pounds—she cradles it in her arms and spoons the mixture inside. Her arm moves methodically, scoop it up, stuff it in, bowl to bird, scoop it up, shove it in. The sight of her holding the bird is nearly unbearable. He puts his hands gently on her shoulders and speaks her name. Lara, he says. She freezes. No. She speaks softly, but with such force that he lets his hands slide off her and turns away. He is desperate to do something, to fix what can’t be fixed. Time–and the events that mark time—are hurtling him forward, but he can’t accept them; he keeps searching for a way to turn them back, to relive that day, to undo what is already receding into the past.

The baby fell asleep almost immediately, head tilted to one side, the sippy cup tucked under his chubby arm. Patrick was grateful for the quiet time to review his remarks and practice them in his mind. He wanted to be absolutely sure he had left nothing uncovered, that he had anticipated every objection.

I’ll rake up the leaves before they come, he tells Lara. Outside, the brisk air snaps at him, in sharp contrast to the overheated kitchen with its homey aromas. He tugs the rake through the tall grass, badly in need of a final cutting for the season. Gradually the leaves, red and orange and yellow only a few weeks ago, now dried up and brown, come to him. It is hard to keep them together; he no sooner manages a small pile, than the wind blows them across the yard. He doesn’t care. The motion itself is enough.  Grip the handle, reach out, pull back through the leaves, through the grass. He thinks if only he could stay out here raking, reach and pull, the wind blowing through his hair and against his neck, grip and stretch, his fingers molded around the wooden handle, reach and pull; he might be able to stand it, if only he could stay out here and just rake.

The laptop, briefcase and reports were almost too much to carry at once, but he piled them in his arms, clicked the car door lock over his shoulder, listened for the beep and made his way to his office. The air conditioning had been shut down for the season, and the building was stifling. He took off his jacket and called his assistant. They had nearly an hour before the annual corporate meeting would begin, but he had her take the folders to the conference room and make sure the video projector was set up.

He spots a car—Lara’s parents—turning into their road and flees to the backyard. A constellation of tiny sparkles appears in his peripheral vision. His grip tightens on the rake; he feels disoriented, nauseous. Who is he now? What is he doing here? He thinks of his father and what he wrote in a letter to his mother before putting a bullet through his head. It’s not just the images that haunt—a buddy whose head is blown apart, a nurse who falls straight over, her chest missing—his father had said, it’s the realization that you are alone, that your training and your weapons, your buddy and your lucky amulet, aren’t worth shit, because it’s all up to you—the man you thought you were and the man you find out you are. Patrick lets the rake drop, and he slips behind the bushes. There are things you should never have to know you are capable of, his father had written, because you can’t forget them once you know. Now Patrick finally understands what tormented his father; that some things can’t be repaired, that he couldn’t go back to being who he was before; that he no longer fit into his life.

His presentation drew applause, the only one of the day to be praised by the CEO. The meeting broke late and he didn’t check his voice mail before leaving with the corporate team. He’d been invited to join them for lunch, where they asked him if he would repeat his performance at the annual executive retreat on Paradise Island. Paradise Island! Lara was invited too. They wanted to meet her, get to know them both, maybe play a few rounds of golf. Paradise Island! It was 3:30 before he got back, nearly 4 when he called his messages, his triumph fresh in his mind, its replay still elating. The first message was from the daycare center. Was little Andy sick? Would he be in tomorrow? Patrick dropped the phone and raced to the car.

He can hear voices coming from inside, their family and friends greeting Lara, hugging her, marveling at the table. He leans against the house. It is time for him to go in—they will be expecting him. He pictures the silence when he enters the room; their faces, composed into polite masks, will turn to him, and they will ask him how he is holding up. He staggers at the enormity of the question, then slumps to the ground and huddles against the concrete foundation. It is a relief to conceal himself there. How is he holding up? He wants to scream I loved him too; but even as the words come into his mind, he hears their voices (or is it his own voice?); you didn’t love him enough, did you? She wouldn’t have forgotten. We wouldn’t have forgotten—that’s what they want to think.

The cold damp earth reaches to him through the leaves that have blown against the house. Who is he now? Now that he has done what he has done and seen what he has seen, it is as though everything else he has ever been or done is erased. He tries to conjure the night when Andy was only a few days old, and Patrick tiptoed over to the cradle and gently unwrapped his tiny wrapper to inspect his son’s perfect newborn body and hold him against his own naked skin—but it’s gone; the feedings, the cuddling, the rocking and singing—gone. That version of Patrick no longer exists. He is only this new thing, unpardonable, and he abhors himself for even now hoping to find a way out of the humiliation, longing for a way back, the way his father-in-law wheedled his way back into his family after Lara’s mother discovered his infidelity. Wouldn’t Patrick do the same if he could? But there is no way back for him, no way back from this. He has only his pathetic inability to explain to all those people inside that he is already gone, long gone, and only his body lags behind.

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