Notes from a Domestic Scene

 

I

Notebooks stood in a rack, straight and tightly shut beside a ruckus of birthday cards. Their colors drew my eye as I went past. I am overly susceptible to colors, even though so much of the world seems best in black and white. The first notebook had a pale blue cover, frosted. Like the skin of light early that winter morning. The soft lines on the paper divided the white cleanly, familiarly. I put it in the cart. Then another, watermelon pink with sheets of deep vanilla, pages that had soaked too long in the sun. This was months ago. I wasn’t thinking about what I would do with two notebooks. I bought them as if they were ripe pears. And took them home and buried them in a kitchen drawer, possessed of the belief that there were lists I would yet be required to make.

 

One night Harold was going over some papers in front of the television. I’d said to him, “I’m just finishing the dishes. Should I get the trash too or will you do it?” Then twenty-two minutes later I said, “Tomorrow is garbage day. I can do it.” This is what I always said. He got up with a sigh and went out. I went back into the kitchen, took out the blue notebook, and wrote the date, the time, and the words garbage, check.

 

The next morning he said to me he couldn’t get the meat out of the grapefruit. He said, “You haven’t cut it properly. What’s wrong with you? Can’t you even cut a grapefruit?” I might have picked a fight, but I retrieved the grapefruit and cut it again, jabbing the tool up and down between the skins, forming the little semicircles one makes. He said, “Don’t butcher it, will you?” So he ate it and went to work, and I took out the notebook again and placed it beside the butter and looked at it for a long time. What was I thinking? I could hardly hear myself thinking for all the emptiness in my head. I wrote Can’t you even cut a grapefruit.

 

I’m learning to watercolor. I used to watercolor, in my youth. At the dry cleaner I ran into Bethany Wills, who said, “I’m taking a watercolor class. You’ve got to join us—none of us knows a thing.” The teacher, Callie Roos, cooed like a schoolgirl on the phone. I made a list of materials and marked on my calendar that the next morning at nine-fifteen I would go to the art store down on the old highway. There was a ballgame on that night, which kept Harold occupied. I didn’t sleep. I kept my lips pressed tight.

 

The next Thursday was the anniversary of my father’s death. I said to Harold, “Father died a year ago, almost to the instant. Imagine. Remember the awful swelling? There was that nurse who held my hand. What was her name? Father didn’t know who I was. He just didn’t know who kept getting in his face to look at him. I remember squinting as if there must be some clue on his face that I should be able to read. It’s been a year. Seems longer than that.” Harold said, “Hmm-mm” and turned the page of his newspaper with a great crackling. I said, “And there was nothing on his face, nothing at all of the man he had been. I could find nothing.” There was Harold’s silence, the same silence that typically followed my saying something. I stayed in the silence, as I always did, steeping in it. I could feel the straight blue lines of the notebook run underneath the minutes. They tried to outrun the territory of silence but could not. Yet I thought the notebook’s lines might capture it somehow, might probe it, disarm it, define it, color it in. They might attack and weaken it. So often the silence poured over me in an overwhelming manner, an ocean of nothing. I could see the perfect stillness of my body sitting in a room, unable to act, unable to think for the vast silence. That night in the kitchen, I traced the blue lines with my finger, then wrote father’s death, eight points. After the grapefruit entry, I wrote two points.

 

“What do you want from me?” Harold said a few days later as I brought the casserole to the table. This was a favorite expression of his. I had suggested a weekend outing as I arranged the rolls and butter within easy reach. I brought him his beer. He always said this with his hand suspended in a vertical position just to the front of his face, as if should I come in close, should I venture to peer in with my own face, he would slap me quick. He went on with his meal. The next afternoon I wrote it down: What do you want from me? I was tempted to form some answer, difficult as this seemed. But the meat was nearly defrosted, the clock said four-twenty-one, and time was gaining on me. I watched the meat and scanned in my mind the hundreds of answers, the little answers and the big answers. What do you want I kept saying until the words streamed through my mind to the clock’s anemic pulse . . . light – water – hot – rest – kiss – nap – dream – fire – swim – light – mother – color – sleep – long ago . . . then a hollow kind of choking followed, like the sputter a rock makes going down a hole in the earth, and the next thing I knew it was five after five and I unwrapped the meat and took the knife from the drawer. 

 

He fixed the can opener on a Saturday afternoon. I wrote it down, noting it took him thirty-three days from the day I had asked him to fix it. I also noted that the task took him approximately two minutes and twelve seconds. And that I had mentioned it some seven times, seven that I could count. Afterward he said, “There, I’ve fixed it.” I said, “Wonderful. Thanks, darling.”

 

On a Tuesday I asked him to call the garage door people and explain what was wrong. The door was sticking several inches from the top, sticking and lurching and bellowing as though it would crash down while I drove through. The bellowing made me wince, but he said he was busy and walked out to the yard, hands on his hips.

 

Fridays he goes over all the checks for the week and signs them. I sit in the dining room and do a crossword the way I like to do. He asks questions and I get up and look over his shoulder and then explain the amount or the pay to the order of. He says things like, “Well, we better watch it in the future. We don’t want them owning a piece of us.” And “That’s a lot of lettuce for cube steak.” And “Let’s rein it in, rein it in, it’s galloping out of control.” The watercolors I bought out of my pin money. I don’t want to bring up the watercolors.

 

In the first class we did color wheels. There were seven of us. Callie Roos is older, with a shrill voice in person. She shimmers with enthusiasm. The women talked just as if they were at a luncheon. I was concentrating on blue, the shades you can get between green and blue. I was working away on the infinite place between green and blue as they jibber-jabbered. They talked like that from morning to night. I made a point of going home and curbing my talking. I never wanted to be a woman who talked too much. At home I took out the other notebook, the pink one, which was bare. I wrote, There is no end to the place between green and blue. Then I wrote, Listen to this silence. I really don’t have much to say, I think I really don’t say anything. What would I say?

 

Even so, I began to write many things down. This way I thought I might know exactly where everything was. Where all the daily words and happenings were, the way I knew exactly where the cardamom was and indeed could form a picture of the spice cabinet and see the configuration of spice jars, all identically packaged with their red plastic caps, yet I knew just which one the cardamom was, second from the back row, just behind the cloves. And if I came across a recipe that called for cardamom, the configuration would automatically pop into my head. I started to believe that if I could arrange the welter of words and phrases and events that occurred in our daily life like the jars, I might feel more calm, more rested. As it was I stood stock-still of an afternoon, mesmerized by the ongoing events, panting slightly without really physically doing so, unable to distinguish what was what. Hours passed as I stood there trying to ascertain what was what, who was who. Trying to pinpoint a time when it had turned into this. Who was this man Harold? I felt as if I had known him in a dream and could not retrieve the sense of him after waking, so other did he seem upon even cursory examination. As for myself, I retained only a skeletal idea of someone I used to know, but now I could not locate even that in the person standing fixedly in the kitchen, mum and adrift in the field of minutes. I stood there as the sun rushed in through the window, the blinding snowy sun that held me still for hours, my hands folded on the counter before me or wiping it smooth and feeling its empty clean, averting my eyes from the light, drinking the quick shallow breaths, trying to locate the people, the time. 

 

It had always been easy enough to turn on an old picture and let the actors tell me everything. Over lunch I fanned out carrots and crisps smeared with cream cheese or placed sardines and lettuce on toast, but my appetite was often suppressed by the drama. The women spoke in fast, cheeky phrases that would come in handy, I thought, at the dinner table, though I never found myself saying anything of the sort. When I watched Harold eat, it struck me how far we lived from those improbable plots in the pictures, clever fanciful plots that were always tied up in bows when the time ran out. 

 

At his favorite restaurant the waitress pinched my husband and stroked his back quickly. He smiled up at her as she pranced around the table. She had a tanned face and brown eyes and hair that bounced in an unnatural unison. Her voice swooned about the enchilada of the day, with salmon and spinach and some foreign cheese. He beamed, said he’ d have that. I couldn’t decide. He said, “Come on, the lady is waiting.” She pinched him again and he said, “A grown woman who can’t make a decision. How about the diet plate for you?” I let the order stand and considered how many points I would give him for this. Six, I decided.

 

The points accumulated. I hadn’t thought where they were going. They just came into being. Perhaps they had evolved out of this urge to study him. Perhaps that should be my one goal, to observe him more keenly, to read his thoughts, his dreams, all tied up as they were in his tightly gripped hands, his knuckles wrapped around the doorknob or the steering wheel. For as well as I knew him, as neatly packed as we were into the tin of our union, at some point he had become a stranger, an angry person whose constant bitterness was foreign to me. I began to write down everything I learned, as if huddled inside all the obvious information was the pure information, the facts that would ameliorate all of it. Some of the things I discovered I had perhaps always known, but once they were entered in the notebook they seemed to take on a strength of meaning, a significance they hadn’t had. They became as concrete as crossword clues. 

Some of the things noted early on: Shaves only in the evening. Never calls his mother. Never writes a letter. Always says to his mother, “Righto.” Always says to his mother, “See you later.” Uses the knife throughout the meal, holds it poised in his left hand and pushes things around on his plate whether or not anything requires cutting up. Eats quickly and silently. Always leaves his napkin on his chair when finished, balls it up and puts it on his chair. Looks me in the eye only when confirming I’ve heard what he’s said. Enjoys his time with the television. Furrows his brow all the time except in sleep. Furrows his brow even when watching television. 

One night I watched him watch the television from my corner wing chair. He flipped around for a few minutes, then saw me watching and said, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I guess I’ll do a crossword,” then put one on my lap for camouflage and continued to watch him out of the corner of my eye. That was when I learned his face never relaxed: the rippled brow appeared, the disgruntled expression, the slight shaking of his head in disapproval—even when he laughed he scowled somehow. Prefers surgeries when possible, and whodunits, especially true-life mysteries; likes history shows about wars and often comments on these, saying, “They really had them there, didn’t they?” and “You didn’t know that, might learn something if you paid attention.” I usually say, “What, dear?” but by then the program has reabsorbed him. Occasionally enjoys a space movie.

 

His friend Pete is the apple of his eye. Looks forward to seeing his friend Pete at every opportunity. His friend Pete can do no wrong. Golfs only with Pete. After several drinks takes down their tournament trophy from the shelf and cradles it like a baby. Praises Pete whenever possible. Even last year, when Pete had too much to drink and draped himself over Lloyd Brinning’s new wife in the Cutters’ bathroom, when people found her prone under him and beating his back uselessly with her fists, even then Pete was a hero. “Just good times,” Harold said driving home. “He can’t do without adventure. Cooped up in this one-horse town as he is, it’s no wonder he goes a little nuts. Cooped up and all alone at forty-six. But he needs to be free. I admire that,” he said.

 

Drinks four beers one after the other without taking a breath. Knows the fifth beer is a roll of the dice. Drinks the beers and his face shines. Keeps no pictures in his wallet. Keeps in his wallet his boss’s card, always five twenty-dollar bills, gasoline receipts. Keeps in his top drawer a picture of his boyhood dog, Captain. Also his father’s monogrammed handkerchief. All the socks, even those without a match. Two watches, which he rarely wears. On the bureau there’s an old picture of his mother and me on their dock before we were married. Likes to say, “Boy, look at you. You were something to look at, weren’t you?” Once I found a matchbook from some place in the city, but two days later it disappeared.

Drinks gin on Fridays and Saturdays or at social events. Gin and tonics, the lime wedges from one to another stacked in the bottom. Says of his boss, “He’s got an eye out for me.” Believes his boss will deliver the goods someday. When he pulls me to him at night, always asks me first to get him a cup of water. When he pulls me to him at night, always whispers in my ear, “Yes, yes?” Several times has fallen asleep on top of me, fallen asleep just after the moment of his fulfillment. All these items I recorded in the back of the pink notebook. I thought to number them for easy reference.

 

One night I approached him as he lay lumpish in the bed, sound asleep. Gently I rolled the covers back and examined his body by the gleam of the bathroom light. I noted in my book that his toes were yellow and lifeless. His hands clutched at the graying hairs on his chest. The fat of his neck looked babyish; usually it was red with emotion or strain. The lips rested naturally against each other, as if he had said everything and could cease for all time. At first a great affection rose up in me as I looked at who he had become, but really it was who he used to be that I was thinking of, the strapping guy with the bellowing laugh, the hot affection of his beefy arms, the quiver of his voice. Only traces of that man remained. Like crumbs from yesterday’s lunch. I put the sheet up over his lips, so as not to see him anymore. Then I read the collection of data with the corresponding numbers in a whisper over him. They sounded succinct and important. I considered they might find some way to penetrate his brain, which might have some unforeseen effect. At the end I wrote 83—Sleeps like a baby. Then I climbed in beside him and considered all the ways he hated me. This kept me awake; I sweated slightly though lay still as a rock.

 

Harold had two hundred points before long. I considered what to do. Perhaps two hundred wasn’t so bad. Perhaps the number five hundred would be a more reasonable limit. Or a thousand. But at five hundred points would I take some specific action? What kind of limit did my limit mean? What was it that could be limited—his statements, his tantrums, the days and nights? And was it fair to be counting up points, was it right to be keeping a tally of which he had no knowledge? How could I say, This is the game we are playing now? How could I say, Find some way to add up points for me, some system—for despite the fact that my system seemed random, seemed on the page to be idle and wildly improvisational, the deeper I got enmeshed in it the clearer it became. The points came to me like flashes of truth. The science of it absorbed me. I wrote I’ve told you a hundred times not to touch my hair. Could you keep your hands to yourself? Then, four points. Ten was the most he could earn in a single incident. Occasionally I would give him ten in the heat of the moment and later modify the amount. 

 

When I set up my watercolors in the morning, the laying everything out and setting of the table required over an hour. At first, even longer. I placed the paper and set the tape on the corners and arranged the brushes and donned my smock and retaped the paper. Rubbed my fingers and toweled off the brushes. Filled and placed the cups and jars of water. Puddled the water in the paints. Then of course moved everything again. Then had to set up the subject, which was especially time-consuming. A pitcher, cream-colored, with dried flowers, the pitcher plus two napkin rings, an old glass doorknob, a piece of melon, sometimes a green book, or a figurine—absolutely anything could be used, which meant hours of planning as well. I tried not to think about the things and what they would be doing together. 

Callie Roos had told us to treat the objects as objects, indiscriminately, not to value one more than the others, but this was impossible for me. I loved the pitcher. I loved the color of it, the simple lines of it, the way it looked centuries old. I loved the doorknob, the way it lay on the table. I liked to think where it might have been, whose hands might have caressed it, what secrets it might at one time have closed off in a room, how it had come to lose its door. I hated the flowers with their scrawny shapes and medicinal perfume. I pushed the pitcher to the foreground, then to the back, then elsewhere. I rolled the doorknob around. I moved things back and forth and walked around the table to see what I could see of them. I did this many times. I touched the paper. I dabbed my brush in the colors, but the flowers needed fixing. If I put a color on the paper it was like a scratch, a blemish on smooth skin, and I would have to change the paper. I added a test paper for the colors. As I moved the objects a little this way and that, I tested the colors on the special paper. I sometimes found a color that excited me, a reddish brown, thin and watery, or a hard blackish green, and I might sketch the pitcher in this color though it bore no resemblance to the color of the pitcher or to what was before me. Thus I never could paint the group of things. Only single elements, blobs of shapes. The composition, as I had laid it out, was beyond me.

 

In the pink book I began to keep track of what other people said, jotting down the occasional phrase or quote. I collected these for context, a kind of setting in which everything happened. Bette Davis says for instance that line about not asking for the moon when we have the stars. I wrote it down after watching the movie over lunch. She aches when she says it, whimpers a little, like a woman whose effort has cost her dearly. As if she’s run out of steam by this time—when I wrote it I could hear her affectation in the words and mimicked this for my own, though nothing in the line related to my situation. Or I wrote down pieces of chatter from watercolor class, such as Eve Quinnan saying, “Heavens to Betsy, my zinnia is the most monstrous thing I’ve ever seen.” Or Bethany, “Everyone knows that woman has her eye on every man walking by,” referring to Sissy Chattendon, though I hadn’t known. I might have written this as an example of the things I didn’t know in the world going on so closely around me. Or I might have written it in a fit of earnestness, as a reminder to somehow be watchful of what it was that woman had her eye on. Or as a general reminder to myself that everywhere people are doing all kinds of things—and one, I have no idea, and two, apparently it makes no difference, and three, possibly, where am I living after all?

 

There came an early spring day when Pete put his hand on my knee under the table as the three of us drank lemonade in the garden. The men gibed and joked in the too-warm air, he put his hand on my knee where no one could see it, and my body came to life. He briefly looked me in the eye. I couldn’t see what he meant. His hand squeezed down. His thumb stroked a few times. My mouth dangled open. The life in my body flared up like a kettle’s sudden shriek. I didn’t know what he meant, but I wanted him to touch me again with Harold sipping his lemonade just the other side of the table.

 

One rainy afternoon I stood in the kitchen after lunch and read the Harold pages out loud. All the facts I had collected. All the incidents and things he had said in the last months. It took thirty-four minutes. I read them again slower, with the numbers, announcing six hundred and twenty-seven points. The clock said three-oh-nine. I would have to go downtown and pick things up. The silence of the kitchen was brought to life by the lilt of my voice. The silence was an animal watching me. Now I was well versed in who he was, my husband. Now I had forged this list, studied it, knew it as I knew the ingredients of a cake I’ d made a hundred times. But no one was hungry; my taste for cake had vanished. I ran my fingers over the clean counter, opened the cabinet door, and eyeballed the spice jars. There they were, just as I always pictured them. I wrote at the end of the passage, 104—Doesn’t know who Pete really is.

 

The garage door lurched so fatally one day that it seemed to careen off its tracks. I pulled the car into the garage and hurried outside. The half-open door gaped crookedly, angrily. I stood for some time staring at this open mouth in its frozen snarl. I thought, Now he’ll have to call the door people, now he’ll have to.

 

When Pete came for dinner I wore my ruby red dress and black pumps. In the mirror it seemed I appeared for the first time, as if I had been gone for years. I took care with the makeup, swept my hair into a knot. Like a girl going to a dance. Harold slurped his gin while tying his tie. He put on the Bobby Darin, as he always did when Pete came over. He spoke the words “Somewhere beyond the sea” and tinkled the ice in his glass. When I saw Pete he looked right at me as he always did, said my name sympathetically, as though I were not really well, kissed my cheek. I pulled the roast from the oven. The men guffawed in the other room. I sat opposite Pete as I always did. The napkins were folded into fans. I searched his eye for some sign. Bobby Darin sang, “The line forms on the right, babe.” I searched Pete’s eye with my eyes wide and alive. I drank the wine in gulps. The potatoes dripped with butter. “Divine, as always,” Pete said. I thought Harold should drink more, so I fixed him another, then another. By dessert, an elaborate mocha cake, I was rolling the candle wax into balls on the tablecloth. Harold was just beginning to slur his speech. I kept drinking the wine, though, which swelled the room with heat. Then I felt Pete’s foot on my shin. The sole of his shoe went slowly, coolly up and down my shin as they discussed stock options and Mike McCaffrey’s bankruptcy. I encouraged him by parting my ankles and gripping his. I saw him nod plain as day. Then I let go and went into the kitchen with plates. Pete told Harold to put something on and followed me into the kitchen, grabbed my back and my right breast and kissed me and said, “Oh Evelyn.” 

 

As I fixed my mouth in the reflecting window, “Fly Me to the Moon” came on. The men had brandies and I cleaned up. When Pete said good night, I saw in his eyes what he meant. Harold was asleep in his chair before Frank stopped singing about the wee small hours. I didn’t go near him. I lay spilled in the bed, dark and syrupy, an extract from the bottle of night.

 

 

II

I scarcely put the notebooks down after that. I wrote out everything, breakfast and the progress of the kitchen clock, the blouse folded into the pants, what shade of lipstick and which pair of earrings, liner impeccably threaded along a lid, Hepburn’s brittle voice and the jangle of her charm bracelet. How odd, I thought, that it didn’t matter what I wrote. The wads of silence began to break up. I stood there listening to the voice that said things. I stood conversing with it. It addressed me as though it knew what was what. It commanded and avowed. It threw phrases around. It spoke to any subject and used a sophisticated tone. It said ridiculous things, but no one could mind.

Callie Roos said, “Now you are capturing the nuances of light and dark. Now you are seeing what is really there, not what you think is there. You can paint the weight of the pitcher on the table, not just a pitcher floating in the world.” She said, “Of course you need to work on the relationships. You need to see the pitcher in terms of the apple. Do you see how inexplicable it is by itself?” But I did not see. “And your colors. The red is too pat. Where is the yellow that sleeps in the red?” I wrote it down: Where is the yellow that sleeps in the red?

 

After his second beer Harold often exhibited a certain gaiety. In that short window of time he laughed willy-nilly. He cracked his knuckles. Sometimes he sat as though on the edge of his seat, and sometimes I caught hold of this mood and got carried away. One Saturday I had two drinks and became talkative. I said from my wing chair, “I’ve been working on a landscape. I’ve been painting, you know. Did you notice the paints—sometimes I leave them on the sideboard. I thought you might have seen them. I’ve been working on a landscape. A new one. In my landscape is a birdbath; it’s a sunny day with snow on the ground. The colors are golds and whites and browns and reds. And then all the things in between, of course. You can see the house, see the brocade curtains in the windows, they’re so awfully green, aren’t they—” Here he interrupted me, saying, “What have curtains got to do with anything?” I waited for him to sip some more beer, then went on, taking care to use the warmest inflections of my voice, “You can see the house, it’s all lopsided with the garage door hanging open and ready to fall, just as it is now. I tried to paint it just as it is, but at a great distance, as though from far away. But no matter how I tried to paint it as if it were far away, the house kept looming up, looming like an animal of some kind.” 

Here he looked at me, his brow crimped in distaste. He said, “What’s the matter with you?” I said, “The birdbath has no birds, the bird feeder is empty, the driveway is deserted, the lawn is buried, the snow is kind of heavy, permanent.” “Permanent,” he said. I said, “Well, this is just what I see. This is just what I’m painting now. I thought you might be interested. After all, you are in the landscape. You are predominant, really. You are what the eye falls on first, comes to rest on, you in your hulking shape standing a bit aimlessly near the drive. Actually, you are so aimless that I thought you might be saying something, so I wrote something for you to say. That way the picture comes to life. Is true to life. Isn’t that the idea, to get something true to life? Anyway, you say things like, ‘What’s the matter with you,’ and, ‘Can’t you make yourself scarce?’ Can you hear yourself saying things like that?” 

Harold turned on the television and deepened the welts on his brow, said, “What are you going on about?” He winced, then fixed his gaze to the screen. I said, “Of course, the landscape has a path. It must have a path. All the landscapes have paths, however short, however ineffectual. The path compels you to go down it, go down to the trees, which cluster at the far end of the picture, their cold shadows dropping on the snow like discarded bones.” At this point I got another drink. I said, “Of course, I’m in there somewhere too. I must be in the house. I must be at the window, looking out at you. Don’t you think that’s what I’m doing? Think of the time I spend looking at you. Think of it. Think how I must know you. To me you look a little worn away, a little rubbed out. To me you look a little like a frog pegged to a board, all your skin opened up. I’ve touched you everywhere. I’ve seen your bones and felt the cool of your blood on my fingers. I’ve felt your heart ticking in the night. And it’s done me no good. I just feel sticky with blood, colder than ever.” Harold said, “I’m trying to hear this, okay?” I said, “I’m sorry, darling.” Then the silence followed, the great pool where my breath made tiny, shushing ripples.

 

I had begun to slop around with the notebooks, barely bothering to hide them under crosswords or tuck them out of sight. At the back of the blue one I took up the subject of our first meeting, Harold’s and mine, which had occurred seventeen years earlier at a cafeteria in the city. It was Christmastime, and we wore wool hats and carried packages as we struck up a conversation in line. How had I fallen in love with him, I wanted to know. I wrote about the thick white cups and lemon pie, the snow falling against black dusk, a roomful of strangers and the blue pendants of his eyes. I wrote a fugue of these descriptions, going back to get the love, attempting to let it flow from my pen effortlessly. But the words produced only simple exchanges, simple humors, even though I could feel the flush of mercury that sped through my limbs as we ate ham sandwiches amid quips and confessions. I wrote, In his grin there was a promise of goodness, a profound goodness—this was the most certain thing I could remember, but what did that mean? I wrote us as two strangers among an excess of lights and holly wreaths, plunged in the auspices of the moment, set loose inside a script of merriment. Yet the story we lived had been some other story. Our lives had been choreographed by a thicket of props, things that were forever in our hands. What were they that they were so heavy and invisible? After a few days’ writing, we had become entirely other people, a hand-stitched pair who fell in love by inches, one gentle word after another.

 

I saw Pete again at Eve Quinnan’s party in May. The glint in his eye pulled at me from the French doors. Eve Quinnan was blond and crisp and angular, Mary Martin wrapped in emerald silk. The living room pulsed with jazz. Canapés tumbled on silver platters like frilly clowns. There was such uncontainable glee, but I was quite out of it, had always been out of it, had sat meekly at these affairs and raised my cocktail to my lips tentatively and dabbed lipstick from my teeth and laughed out loud, unconvinced. Years of that, dripped into my finery, expressionless to the core. That night the mirth felt gaudy in some way, an imitation of what was gone. What was it really about, all this jabbering and swirling, all this pounding ha-ha-ha making heat, making drama? All the beautifully dressed couples, I could picture them doing only what we did, driving home wordlessly and taking off their clothes and rolling into bed, the wives greasy-faced, the men tousled and depleted, sleeping vacantly beside each other, a few choice words hanging in the air as they lay on cold sheets. I could imagine only fractions of differences in all our lives, for how brightly, how remarkably the forms echoed one another up and down tree-lined streets, the screen doors and leather moccasins, the pale skirts fanning over nylons, the striped ties and football cheers, silk pillow monkeys and the dead odor of chrysanthemum, charcoal briquettes and crème fraîche . . . we loved these forms utterly, unquestioningly. But something abject in me could not subscribe to their importance. As the revelry boomed, I was a child at the circus, sullenly swinging her feet in the dark, all undone by the sagging gloom of the elephant’s eye.

“I’m going to get the big snip,” said George Thatch during dinner, and Lloyd Brinning added, “Oh-ho, did it myself, works like a charm,” and Harold rang in because he’ d had too much gin—six that I could count, with the seventh waving, sloshing, threatening at the end of his arm as his voice slithered out, “Me too, got the snip before I tied the knot—hey, that’s funny, isn’t it?” I dropped my fork, which clattered like an alarm. Everyone pulled the quiet out like an offering as they stared around them, smoothed their clothes, wiped the grins from their mouths. Bethany moved to the adjoining room, hand to her head. Among slow whispers I floated out to sea. Harold began again, stuttering to cover his blunder, words pinging against crystal. I floated far out beyond the sound, bones growing plastic in the sun, face melting flat and featureless. The vastness of the sky was what I was after, and I willed myself to keep floating out and out into the far reaches, floating far enough so that I could return to origins of some sort. I could just make out a figure on the shore, a kind of incandescent appendage, a mysterious self living some other life. George Thatch put his arm around me and said something hotly in my ear, something kind, which brought me back. Someone had taken Harold away, and I ate Eve Quinnan’s flourless cake. Among the clatter of silver, as the chocolate deliquesced on my tongue, my voice sounded out like a brass horn, spontaneous, confident. “Come now, don’t let Harold kill the party,” I said. “That’s right, move him to another room. Plant him on the bed. Cover his body in rose petals. Gag his mouth. Put stones on his eyes. Pin his arms to the clothesline. Throw his shoes in the pond. He says the most incredible things. He always does. How can you listen to him? How can you take him at his word? What is it you think you heard? I’ll tell you what it is—only the nonsense that sings him to sleep every night. And I’ve discovered the secret to it. It’s gibberish, it’s a bowl of oatmeal, the whole thing. Oatmeal, growing a leathery skin in the dark. How can you listen to it? Always caked in the corner of his mouth.” 

Near Eve’s pale yellow cretonne curtains, Pete said softly, “Evelyn,” eyebrows arched, his child eyes wide and pitying. But his pity struck me like a slap; whatever remained of his desire seemed brutish, though he said, “I’ll come to you,” said it forcefully, romantically, with a hint of tragedy. The brandy on his lips mixed with his conventional after-shave. His fingers rustled on my sleeve. I did not reply. 

In the car Harold blubbered and begged me to forgive him, saying, “I had to, I had to” and “You see how it is, my father . . . you see how I couldn’t . . .” I said, “Oh stop your blathering. The years are all blathered away.” But I did see. I saw the order of it, the naturalness of it, Harold on a distant shore, so right in his solitariness, relieved in his distance, boyish in his dream, far and then farther, silenced in the haze, exempt from the time. I couldn’t touch him or talk him through it or prop him up with the facts, I couldn’t count his drinks or undo his vitriol, I couldn’t make the sadness go or even wipe away the brown liquid he had dribbled on his chin. How amazing, all the ways I could not help him. After an hour he passed out on the bed half undressed, his black socks clinging to his ankles like seaweed. 

 

Pete parked the left side of the car along the curb and didn’t get out. I looked through the living room window as he looked through the car window, rain pouring down between us. For a minute, it was like looking at a killer parked outside the house. Mitchum in his trench coat, who might or might not start his engine and drive off, his cigarette glowing through the sheets of rain, all the malice held tight in his movements. I went out and opened the car door. “I’m going to bed,” I said, and he said, “Come on, baby,” and I said, “Don’t say that,” and he got out and rubbed my arms and said, “Where is he?” and I said, “Passed out,” and he said, “I’m here for you, baby,” and I said, “In the living room,” and he followed me to the couch and crawled onto me, huffing his brandied breath, and my body came to life.

 

Two days later the notebooks disappeared. I might have left them anywhere, though I felt certain I’d put them on the bathroom radiator. I scoured the house to no avail. The kitchen was clammy and suffocating and kept me out. Barbara Stanwyck’s fingers pawed and gripped her costar’s jacket as she pushed her body into his chest and pleaded for his love at the end of the matinee. At four-twenty I fell into a doze on the bed, plummeting through time like an iron ball, my body dropping through the murk to the realm where speech disintegrated. I could still hear Pete’s breathing, the deep wrenching breath that sang like a mythic beast. When I rose I was lighter, unimpeded, as if someone had rolled all the numbers off my chest one by one. At six Harold came through the door grousing in his usual manner. 

I offered him chicken potpie, which elicited more complaints. He said he wanted something cold to eat because the night was so hot, and then headed for the television. Nothing in his behavior indicated anything was different. My breath quickened as I poured his beer into a glass. I clenched and unclenched my teeth. We would pretend about this as about everything—he had taken the notebooks and we would deal another hand, sit down to the next meal, discuss a garden project, say only the things that got said next, the very things we had said before, nothing more, nothing less. We would continue to busy ourselves pinning up these forms from room to room, like alphabets strung along the rafters for children to learn. With beer in hand, I followed him. The words tumbled out of me: “So you took the notebooks.” He grunted, failed to turn around. I said, swaying slightly on the step, my voice too forceful to be mine, “I want to talk about the notebooks or about the vasectomy or about the lies or the nine hundred sixty-two points.” Without turning his head from the television, he said, “Let me tell you something, something you might not be clued into yet. The whole world doesn’t need you. You ought to get a hold of that, you ought to understand how things really work.” He raised the notebooks slowly in his left hand, elbow rested on the chair arm, held them vertically beside his face and waited for me to approach; this constituted the limit of his action. But he kept talking: “I don’t know what you’re after. I don’t know what it is you expect to get, standing there accusing me of all this nonsense. Sometimes I think you’ve gone over the edge, the way you moon around here muttering to yourself all the time. But I’m telling you this, the whole world doesn’t need you. Or the horse you rode in on. You’re wa-a-a-a-a-a-ay off the mark. Do you have any idea how wide of the mark you really are? Now, are you going to give me that beer?” His speech sounded organized to me, as though someone had typed it out ahead of time, this perfect, smooth, calm invective which he delivered as if it were part of his job. I took the notebooks gingerly from his hand and replaced them with the glass of beer. Once I had them, I turned from the room and made my way back to the kitchen, where nothing was out of place but everything was other than I remembered. 

 

 

III

In the morning the peonies below my window flopped their browning faces at the ends of twisted necks, their masses of clutching petals pitched to the ground in a sort of ferocious fecundity. So much life that it ruined them. My navy suit with the pale green plaid was laid on the chaise, the butter-colored blouse tucked in. It rested breezily, the arms collapsed, the skirt crisp and straight, the chest arching itself over the arm of the chair. The head would hang upside-down, eyes glazed. The blue-and-white spectator shoes appeared to be in motion, one pointing out, one toppled. I ran my fingers over the jacket lapel and pinned my circle of scarabs there. I folded a sleeve over itself so the hand would dangle at the hip. 

 

In the kitchen I shushed my fingers through the calendar’s months and gazed at the time that had passed since I bought the notebooks. The day was like a veneer of itself. I might slip off the surface along with wooden spoons and jelly jars. I wrote down call the garage people for the eighteenth. On the twenty-third I had already written Annual Checkup. The phrase stirred something dark to life, a wordless scurry in me that began to shape itself. I formed a picture of my doctor in his white coat, glasses pushed forward, one hand thrumming the stethoscope. His examination room, as I recalled, felt too small for his blank inflamed cherubic face. I could hear him saying the lines he always said, the same conversation we had carried on for years. It came back easily, and I rehearsed it there in the kitchen, performing both parts in a satisfying kind of singsong: “The doctor says You look tired and I say, casually, Oh really, and he says Getting any exercise and I say Not much, and he says Eating well and I say Oh yes (not revealing the wan quality of my appetite), and he says Sleeping at night and I say Sometimes, at which he pauses while I examine the pea-green linoleum, my rubbery feet hanging over it like two slabs of flounder, and he says I’m going to give you something for sleep, I want you to be getting enough rest, and I say, Oh, all right, a touch of surprise in my voice, a touch of worry.” In this way I have accumulated seven bottles of sleeping pills. I keep them under the sink, zipped in a brocade case with my grandmother’s sapphire ring. I never take them. I prefer to lie awake for long periods, listening for the first stabbing call of the crow as it breaks through the night. Rehearsals such as this would doubtless prove effective. He would send me away with another bottle, making a total of nine hundred and sixty pills, give or take, which almost seemed to be enough. 

 

It was our last class. Callie Roos said, “You see the object, see its shape and color, its shadow; but now you must see its joy. You must bring it to life.” The glass bottles, pale green and blue, umber and turquoise, were lined up like kewpie dolls, singularly inanimate. Betsy Junnings was telling a story about her sister’s husband’s friend; she went on about adultery and cancer and embezzlement and horse shows. The sunlight broke the bottles into shards. I could hear the cracking glass, hear it speaking parallel stories, however infinitesimal, however undetected. This was the life, this cracking and groaning. I painted them in pieces on a plane of white.

 

I bought new notebooks on a Thursday morning, one canary yellow with white blanks, one covered in brown paper as though disguised as a bag, also a girl’s diary, massed with gerbera daisies and pale pink ink. I sat for hours in the car reading from the old notebooks. I could see the notebooks would have to be written over again. The whole arc of their report needed to be pasted together in one place, holes filled in, explanations provided. Events and characters ought to be fully exposed. (Even if what is ultimately related can be seen as a confession of some sort, I know I am safe in my pages, undiscovered and solitary as I have been from the first entry.) But then other categories and methods began to assail me. Other chapters. I would need more notebooks. Incessant versions might be generated. Radical deviations could emerge. When I read through the notes, the elements of life had clearly stayed the same—the garage door continued to gape and moan, the path led down through the landscape to a narrow, treed space that resisted the eye, the knives and pans drowsed breathless in their compartments—yet an immense quantity of pages would be required to describe what had changed. In fact I could not possibly assess the number of pages that would suffice. I might tell it one way only to be overwhelmed with the need to say again all there was to be said.

 

It was four-twelve when I returned. I took up my place in the kitchen, but the words followed me there like restless, hungry children. They strung their beads from window to door to arch and bounced along the tabletops and rested their cold metal against the skin of my thighs. They piled themselves on the floor or bunched in drawers tittering together. I couldn’t eat them, couldn’t sleep under their spell, couldn’t inhale them or be transformed or extinguished by them. Maybe I was writing them wrong. They ought to be like shovels or spades, metal tips that jab into dirt and unearth seeds, roots, rot, bones. They ought to be like knives that scrape clean the skin of beasts. In the yellow notebook I wrote, I hear it now, the what is what! The beauty is buzzing, the landscape is seething with green and gold whispers. The what I’m thinking of is like a ranting underneath, a choking, a hammer of words, a rhythm of things colliding, a scream of things as they seem, a crash of things being told, a truth come screaming out of the silence, a child unfolded from the blue of the sky. Listen, Harold, as events fall into their minutes, listen to their weightlessness, you can hear them ticking faintly, hear them approaching, dropping, lingering, quotidian and outspread, wrapping you in mud and sun, potato soup, cotton towels, toothache . . . even these simple happenings will overpower you, your arms will hang like ropes, the beat of your heart will dwindle away, the joy of all this will muffle your voice, erase the stain of your sound.

 

The first time I emptied the powder into Harold’s beer, I felt as though I had seen someone do it, years ago when everything was plain and specific and summery and the child of me was bloomed in a dark room. Through all that distance, a demitasse and a spoonful of powder came to me in black and white, close up like a photograph. The objects swelled and inflated, mirages of the mind. In the kitchen the usual absence of people sent a chill along my neck. Think how unseen I was, I told myself. Think how the days go by like thumbed pages—with just a stir of wind they flicker past and there’s no one to see people moving suspiciously from room to room in their houses. Or could I stand in the kitchen, eye-deep in the silence, and be seen? I examined the silence, felt it carve out of the air one or several breathless animals who peered at me. The spice jars turned their labels to the front and accused my every move. But who could muster more than mild interest in a drunkard put to sleep? I did not hesitate for long. I had thought it all out. I would do it slowly, deliberately, only once or twice a week at first; he would never guess such a thing, not in his wildest dreams. Even this slowness was something I had done before. As I brought the brew to his lips, my own true tenderness would waken me to life. I would lie prone under its fatty palm, would let it rub me with ultramarine and cinnabar, colors I had never used. The sweetness of its speech would begin to call. He would sleep inside his broken grin, and the silence would belong to me. 

 

I ran my hand along his back and said lovingly, “Here you go,” passing him the frosty glass. I swung my smiling face in front of his, but he ducked his head to see the television. In twenty-six minutes he was sound asleep. I turned the television off, removed his shoes, stroked his cheek, turned out the lights, and went upstairs as the bubbles in his beer continued to waft to the surface. My footsteps padded the carpet in a timid incantation. As I folded the laundry my head began to hum Somewhere beyond the sea. In no time I was singing out loud.

 

Marguerite W. Sullivan’s work has appeared in NOON, Sleepingfish, Clackamas Literary Review, and RHINO, as well as on Web Conjunctions. She lives in Vermont, where she is currently finishing a novel.