WINNER, SUMMER 2017
The Ghost Story Supernatural Fiction Award
Leslie Lawrenson “Dancing On A Barren Waste”
BY LISA TADDEO
Perhaps you want to know what happened in this room. I can tell you it was dreadful for me to watch, but I had to make sure it went as planned. Now my stomach is turned. My guts are runny like stracchino.
The room will be haunted from now on, and nobody will guess why. There will be multiple children conceived, but they will end in miscarriages. They will have been baked at too high a temperature. I did not get to have my own child. I did not get all the things you are supposed to have, so that you can leave this world in peace.
I’d thought the woman I chose was going to be easy on me. It took years to find her. The nice thing is that she looks like me—a bloated, American version. Kind, big and sad, with poo poo eyes. With her cat and her books and her collection of copper pots. Part of it was, I felt sorry for her. I talked to myself, I said, You are also doing a service for her. Questa povera cagna.
But let me tell you what I know now. Even the fat sad ones—especially the fat sad ones—they have spent so much time dreaming of the moment they will have the man they covet. They watch pornografia and on top of touching themselves and thrusting like lonely cows, they are also learning. They are becoming dee del sesso.
I don’t know, in the end, what was in my control, and what was in hers.
Denise woke to her Scottish Highlands alarm. The sound of bagpipes cresting some emerald mounds into a fairytale sky. She snuggled deeper into her tartan bedspread, scuttling her toes like sand crabs into distant swells, savoring the moment. There are few mornings, after all, that one wakes to fulfill her destiny. She felt fat and warm.
She imagined all her married friends, who’d left their prefab homes on Thanksgiving night, painted on their yoga pants and drove in the unfathomable night to Hooksett, to the Target gleaming like an art installation in the coffin-still parking lot. When you are married, you go to Black Friday sales. When you are single, you sleep in, and wait for Cyber Monday.
Denise has rich kinks of dark hair. She isn’t Jewish but her hair is. She’s twenty-five pounds overweight but she doesn’t lumber around, so she’s not one of those fats that rankles. At a party, in a kitchen, you wouldn’t feel stuck talking to her, over by the Camembert. If you saw her talking to a good-looking man, you wouldn’t feel bad for the guy. But also, you would know he was not trying to sleep with her. If you were the man’s wife, you wouldn’t feel nervous, and you would continue sipping your Pinot Grigio with the sort of reckless summer night laissez-faire that’s only available when your man is accounted for.
Denise’s house is cozy and has excellent pillows. Both intricately decorative ones and long soft down ones for sleep. She lives in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Lots of old streetlamps, and the requisite chocolatier. Nothing about her house is homely. One time a rather vicious married friend said something about homely people wearing lots of scarves and necklaces and stuff, to jewel themselves up, to make themselves more interesting.
She does puzzles, expert ones with tons of pieces that go on to spell a Matisse. She seldom dines out. She doesn’t need to; she cooks like a dream, poutines and crackling roast chickens and vertiginous grilled snappers with curling vines of thyme. Her place smells like a Williams-Sonoma magazine spread. She drinks a max of two glasses of wine. She has a nice computer with a princely screen that the cat, Princess Huega Peugeot, massages her spine against. The downstairs bathroom has red brocade wallpaper. If it were your life’s goal to be cozy and well-fed every night of the week, and to take long, luxurious poos in a bathroom with pomegranate potpourri, then you would do well to live in Denise’s home, forever.
Denise is not exactly single. Denise has a love, a warm and striking, red-headed and blue-eyed one, with the kind of jaw you could crack open a chestnut against. He’s from Scotland, has 121K followers on Twitter. Which isn’t a lot but it’s not a little. His primary cause is mesothelioma and also, #DontbombSyria.
When you hear that Denise has a love, and the love is Jon Abercrombie, you are going to put the pieces of the puzzle together, the cat and the pillows and the town of Portsmouth and you’re going to say, Oh I get it.
But it isn’t like that. Denise isn’t just some homely fan with sticky underwear. This is not some sad tune about a fan girl worshipping posters of a hot movie star. Yes she masturbates to him riding a unicorn to a forest clearing where he ravishes her body, but. But this is an adventure tale. This is about Cupid’s arrow pinging its target smack in the gonads. This is about getting what you deserve in life.
Denise works at the finest inn in Portsmouth. The Edmund Victoria. Mostly it exists for the rich parents of UNH students who come to visit their limber pothead children. Superior rooms start at $595 a night. The suites, $1200. Mismatched but expensive settees in the baroque lobby. Golden tassels hanging like the spangled nuts of kings from the drapery. The couches are the color of young girls, vicious little pinks, and the armchairs are the color of women, a lush but fatigued ruby.
Denise is the manager which, at a small luxury inn, means that she is the everything girl. She coordinates the Brazilian housekeepers. Answers the phones. Deals with every manifestation of shock that gasps from the other end of the line when she tells callers the price of a room. A funny yet predictable thing happens when you work in the service industry. You can’t afford a $595 room, but you start to look down on other people who also can’t. And you learn to hate the people who can, while also agreeing that they are better than you. Denise fell into this trap only on truly rotten days. Only on days when the distance between herself and her dream life felt like it stretched into infinitum. Like, for example, the very terrible day last month when the Viking Kings Meet & Greet at the Comic Con-X that was scheduled for THIS VERY DAY in Providence was almost canceled on account of a terrorist threat. Denise only heard about it because her friend Mary Sue is married to a Providence cop. Mary Sue treats Denise’s love like it’s fan girl obsession. Anyhow she told Denise that Jim told her that a threat had been logged for Comic Con-X. She knew Denise planned on going but she didn’t know there was, like, a Plan.
Luckily, three days later, the terrorist was uncovered to be a thirteen-year-old dipshit who was pissed about not being picked as a volunteer for the Comic Con weekend. Something about his heroes letting him down. He had a Walmart-bought hunting rifle in his possession, plus a chart of the attack, or so Jim told Mary Sue who told Denise.
Denise was too old and removed to understand that angst. Come talk to me, Denise thought, when you are thirty-five and the love of your life wears armor across his crotch, both literally and figuratively. Come talk to me when you are a virgin, and so is your cat, because you are untenably afraid you will be jealous if Princess Huega gets laid, before you do. Murder should exist at the discretion of virgins over thirty-five, not thirteen-year-old punks who’ve never suffered.
Denise is a virgin, not because nobody has ever wanted to take it down. There are plenty of men, one would imagine. The world is full of men who will have sex with you. But Denise doesn’t drink a lot, doesn’t hang out in bars at the hours when people start pairing off. And face it, who goes on dates anymore? Only the truly beautiful, and exchange students.
The mission is Denise must lose her virginity to a movie star. This has always been the mission. Even the night in the Toyota with Thomas. Even then, Denise knew his thing wouldn’t go into her thing. She might touch it, sure. Big whoop. Some sophomore’s small-medium and the stench of ecstatic ball in her hands. The smell of someone who wants something badly but not badly enough that he’ll wash up before he goes after it. She knew even then it would end before it started. That she wasn’t giving it up for anything less than a movie star.
The movie star used to be Jonathan Brandis, and after that it was Kevin Costner, and after that it was Brad Pitt. But now those guys are either dead or married. Same difference. Anyway they have grown up past her fantasies. They seem silly-sweet now and antiquated, like Fun Dip.
She’s known about the Meet & Greet since early September. She’s lost four pounds. She’d hoped to lose fifteen, but you know with these things. The nerves can make you hungrier. They can make you anxious at midnight. For a bit there she got into the habit of taking a sleeping pill around eight, so that she wouldn’t be tempted to eat after dinner. She has a few doctors and they each prescribed her a different one.
But the sleeping pills only took the edge off the anxiety, and by ten she’d be wide awake and jazzed, walking around her house in her fuzzy socks and opening up the Make Love Not Porn window on her Mac and watching Love&Lasagna—her favorite real-life couple—go at it against the tormented corner of a velveteen couch. This week, Love&Lasagna were on a road trip across the country, and when they finally splurged on a hotel in Michigan, they really let loose. Lots of fervent Frenching and hard-driving intercourse. They were both originally from Mexico City, tan faces and slim, muscled buttocks. Denise wondered why they moved to the States. She wondered if it was for Love’s job, or Lasagna’s. She was really interested in stuff like that. The minutiae of a relationship. Having never been in one, she always wondered how does it feel to be able to touch the nape of someone’s neck while they’re driving through a mountainous region, and not worry that they will recoil, or think you are weird. How does it feel to treat someone else’s body as though it were an extension of your own.
Jon Abercrombie wakes up—yargh—stretches his arms like Christ the width of his hotel bed. Feels much-ballyhooed jawline. Has series of pimples, little bony horrors, on account of shaving and tiredness and gin and tonic before bed in lieu of a good hot shower, etc.
Outside his hotel he hears the Salvation Army bells toll. He runs a hand through his flowy&fiery hair. Often he is hysterically aware of the things he does. As though a small army of his screamy fans are watching from the closet with the fold-out ironing board and the crummy pillows. He thinks of how silly things like running a hand through his mane could elicit a bunch of girls to tweet, My lady parts just went boiiiiinnnnggg.
Sometimes—like right this moment—to amuse himself, he strides all supreme-sex-god-like to the shower. He’s nude of course, because sex gods sleep in the buff, naturally. He looks in the mirror at his form and clasps his hands at the nape of his neck, then fans the fingers down the sides, into the warm hard divots of his clavicle and out to the edges of his shoulders, which are sore from lateral raises plus raising the bar for his entire gender.
He turns on the shower. The water pressure is like what happens after you sneeze. The whole place is shitty, down to the towels that spread water, instead of absorbing it. If people think being a celebrity means luxurious accommodations every time you travel then they’d be dead wrong. The truth is some small cities, the best they can do is Marriott-level. The problem with America is that it’s undone by its chains. It’s like all the chains got together and agreed to be mediocre, to serve pancakes at midnight to compensate for bathrooms built for the blind. The bedspreads—Jon imagines God said to a jilted wife, Here, design the linens your husband and his mistress will have to sleep in for the rest of their lives.
Look, Scotland wasn’t a world-beater in the accommodations arena. But in Scotland Jon didn’t expect anything. If he were still in Scotland, he would be fifteen pounds heavier and taken up with the harried older sister of one of his school chums. But America makes the mistake of telling you what it got you for Christmas; in frigging August it gives you the wink-wink. By the Epiphany you’re out on the curb with the Douglas firs, holes in your socks and crabs in your pubes.
Pish. It doesn’t bloody matter. For some people celebrity is the be-all. Even where he’s at right now—a Starz period show is not exactly George Clooneyville—a lot of his friends back home eating beans from a can would bugger a hog to replace him. But for Jon this sort of “win” is not what he was aiming for. In fact, he’d been traveling down this path the way a med student might intentionally develop a perishing heroin addiction. Jon knows that celebrity is deadening. Of course life itself is a scourge. We are nothing but disease disseminators. We spread virulence by having babies, by inoculating them against measles but spooning terrific doses of heresy and bigotry and moral dissolution into their gaping toothless maws.
Jesus Christ, says Jon Abercrombie to the ceiling, his arms supplicant, his beautiful body lit by nothing but Marriott gloom. Because he was used to doing it— because he had been doing it every morning for a number of years, he said—Please God take me today, I cannot bear this world another day.
Two rough gents sit in a pub outside Glasgow. The pub is strung with colored lights. They look at their own faces reflected in the green glass behind the tall old bottles of liquor. They look older in the mirror than in reality, must be. One man has a beard to make up for his hollowed face and the other a blacked eye. It’s a dreich day—two hours past lunch which is the deadest time in the land and it’s pouring like animals and there’s no one on the streets and they’ve been in there since coffee. The bartender whose name is Fiona if there ever was one, does the thing girl bartenders in male places do best—acts like she can’t hear or see nothing. Which tricks the gents at the bar into thinking it’s true, that she only animates the moment they need her.
Anither tae o’ whiskys, love!
Fiona nods, sets down the game on her phone, fulfills the request with sluggish efficiency. She wears all black against a bloodless face.
Right Baltic in here, says the bearded one, hunching his shoulders and looking left to right, like everyone’s a cheapskate but him. He says it louder so Fiona can hear: Pumpin’ cauld in ’ere!
Keeps the floors from howlin, says Fiona, absently, having already returned to Jelly Belly Pastel Crystals, or what have you.
On the telly overhead, a familiar face fills the screen, his locks of red hair whooshing out past the corners of the 27-incher.
Aye thare he blows! Fuckin eejit. Fuckin pretty boy fucko. The bearded one downs his whisky.
The black-eyed one shrugs his shoulders. They are roommates the men, at that ripe point when the realization that they can’t live without each other—fiscally and emotionally—collides with the bitter day-in-day-out hatred of one another.
Aw whit nae, whit did ye dae that fur?
Nuthin, says Black-Eye.
It’s nae nuthin, whin ye shrug yer goddamned shoulders lik sae. Whit th’ fuck—yer impressed by that simpering fucko, actin holier than us, lik’ a bloody sassanack, a fuckin bonny laddie. Yer fuckin impressed, yer mum’s fuckin impressed, th’ hail toun is a bunch o’ star-fuckin arseholes.
Shut it, says Black-Eye. And Fiona comes round, sets down two drafts, because a female bartender needs to know how to wind her male customers down, keep them sated but not on the hard stuff. She steals a glance at the screen. Jon Abercrombie, not quite an old flame but they tumbled about six times. Girls like her could tell you a thing or two about who has a chance at stardom, by the way they are in bed. Let’s say, Jon Abercrombie deserved his success. Let’s keep it at that.
I’ll shaw ye whit tae shut. Fuck’s sake, yer in loue wi’ him, tae!
Black-Eye looks right at his friend, and enunciates clear as day: Shut. Yer. Geggie. Then he looks down and says something else under his breath, right down into his mug of beer.
Whit’s that! Ho! I said whit’s that ya said?
Black-Eye lifts his fish-white face. On the telly Jon Abercrombie was shaking hands with Nicola Sturgeon. His dimples shone as he ran his hands through his fire-red hair. Nicola and the world blushed. You couldn’t hide from celebrities these days. Not even in armpits in Crookston like this one, not even in your own toilet bowl; you tried to hide too much and you might poo yer man’s likeness into your own yellow water. Next to the bowl, by the way, is the wastebasket, and every month it was a forsaken battle between these two fellers, who would be the one to crouch down and empty the pile of scum. Whose slag had left bloody tampons in there that week, who had balled up a piece of shit paper and thrown it in the basket by accident. So nobody emptied it, and they would each have to balance their Q-tips atop shards of toilet paper, or slide a string of floss into an open slit in the refuse. Garbage Tetris.
I said whit’s that you said!
I said, says Black-Eye, Mebbe he deserves it.
Noo jist haud on!
Fiona lets loose a grin.
Whit’s that ya mean, he deserves it? Deserves what? Deserves to prance aroond like a goddamned pony, lik’ we’ur exportin a bunch o’ bonny wee jimmies lik’ we —
He deserves it! I said!
The bearded one turns to his own mug, chastened by his friend, the quiet one, who when he speaks he means it, you know the type. The single black eye, learn from it—means the other guy looked worse. Yer aff yer heid, says the bearded one, quietly, having lost his verve.
Why does he deserve it, then? says Fiona.
Thit man, says Black-Eye, pointing at the screen, haes hisself the brokenest o’ goosed hearts.
Aw noo this I’d lik’ tae hear! says the bearded one. Och gang oan then!
Rent, richt doon th’ middle!
It is indeed.
Well tell us then! Don’t keep us mystified ‘ere! says the bearded one, looking at Fiona, like they are on the same team.
And so Black-Eye leans forward into his drink, as Scottish men do, and holds forth, as Irish men do, and enunciates, as Englishmen do, and exaggerates, as all men do, and tells the origin story of their fellow townsman.
You see, four score minus four score plus seven years ago, Jon Abercrombie was a youthful twat of twenty-eight, deliciously, frankly, untouchably, unicornally in love with a gorgeous Italian vessel of muliebrity.
She had to be seen to be believed, this lass. Even the scoundrels he rolled with didn’t make a peep when they met her, didn’t make any unseemly advances or grab their treacherous mounds. Nary a one whistled. The kind of gorgeous that is quasi beyond sexual desire.
Visiting her uncle who is the Principal of the University of Glasgow, is how she meets Jon. Dark coils of hair, everything about her rich and drenched. An angel. Blue-eyed and black-haired, they don’t make them like that anymore. He’s playing darts in a bar like this one, she’s in there with her cousin and the rest is just. You know, eyes locking across a room and of course they would. The only two heavenly creatures in the town and they slammed together as magnets do. Jon at the time is a stage actor. He is going to give it up, it’s too tawdry a profession, even the stage he says, for Caterina. He is going to become a scholar, or a lumberman, something noble. She calls him Jonny, his friends can’t believe it. Jonny, they mimic, twinkling their jealous eyes up at him and he cuts them a stone look. Only she calls me that, he says. After her visit is over, she returns to Fiumana. She can’t get involved with an actor! Her kin is university folk. For two months he courts her with gilded letters. He’s depressed like you wouldn’t believe. He’s angry like someone who knows it isn’t going to end well. Finally, she comes back to him. They move into a flat the size of a refrigerator in Glasgow for the run of his show. They are the couple everybody hates. True love all the time. Tongue kissing at the newspaperman. Hand-holding during tooth-brushing time. He proposes during a romantic weekend to the Cotswolds. Under a tree overgrown with good-looking moss. All of Britain quickened its pulse that day. It’s a goddamned fairy tale, a terrific love story. And then—
An then? An then whit?
An then, says Black-Eye—Fiona, too, is on the edge of her figurative seat—one night, Jonny’s prepping to go on stage in Glasgow, Caterina is walking from their flat to go watch him. It’s to be one of the last shows in his life. He’s giving it up after this weekend, they are going to Fiumana so that he can meet the whole fam. And she’s walking to watch her love, and she’s carrying a red rose, and she’s lost in her head is what the rags will say, because God forbid we blame our own drivers, and she’s walking across a street and moonlight is twinkling and the world is right and you really can’t ever turn your back in this life and thwap. She’s hit by a gone-to-hell Astra and sails up like a football. And that’s the long and short of it. She’s buried in the Cotswolds, at the site of their engagement, at the loveliest swell of an emerald hill over a babbling brook the color of her eyes and they say that after that, Jon Abercrombie buried himself in the filthy show of it. Went right after the scum-heart of it. To die in the center.
Bugger me, says the bearded one.
Fiona shakes her head, daubs some milky tears from her gothic lashes.
Sae lea him th’ bugger alone, ken? Ye dinnae blether aboot men wi’ goosed hearts, if they’re nae ‘ere tae defend themselves.
Nobody says anything, for a good long time. The whisky comes out like something with a discernible soul. Fiona pours two on the house and one for herself. On the telly overhead, Jon Abercrombie is riding a black horse straight toward your nose. The hooves are loud and extreme, clip clop, clip clop. Jon’s hair is blowing, his bare knees are sex, and his heart, you divine, is nowhere to be found.
The closest Denise has ever come to a relationship was on two occasions, both sad-making, in varying degrees.
The first was a hand job she performed while in college. After a date of Reubens and beers, a sophomore named Thomas drove her back to her dorm in the sprinkling snow and parallel-parked smoothly in a spot without a streetlamp. He stopped her midway, took her hand in his and licked the curved strait between thumb and index and then nodded like, You may proceed.
The other, was Joel. Joel. The name is still a burr.
Joel was the editor of the Portsmouth Star-Herald. Editors of small-town papers. When they’re men. There’s a certain . . . Had they pictured themselves debonair international writers, dark scarves flung across square shoulders, penning essays from musty cafes in Paris and romancing failed and green-eyed Brazilian models? To cover up the desire they grew beards. They became so involved in their small-town paper and the lives of the fellow citizens they chronicled and feigned to love, that you could never accuse of them of having failed at life.
Denise met Joel at a dinner party, two Christmastimes ago. They were seated beside each other. The hostess, a divorcee named Jacqueline, was one of those dinner party throwers who firmly believed in seating spouses separately, and boy-girl-boy-girl formation all the way around a rectangular West Elm table. Denise knew hostesses who did this were just sad people who didn’t love their husbands, or didn’t have one and wanted yours. Still. It rankled. Jacqui sat on the other side of Joel and the freezing thing was that she’d chosen Denise as the girl to his left because Jacqui was trying to land Joel. Joel was one of Portsmouth’s Most Eligible. He had a Harley and gave great email. Did Denise know? That she was the type of single girl in her early thirties that another single girl in her early forties would not fear? If she did, then she braved it well.
In any case, Jacqui scared Joel with her intense gaze. She put her red-nailed hand on his thigh so many times the gesture lost its impact. She freaked him out right into a tete-a-tete with Denise that lasted from appetizers (a sweating plate of salumi and some courgettes stuffed with meat) through dessert (eclairs from down the street and a rhubarb pie baked by Jacqui’s also-divorced mother).
Denise was pretty enchanted that night. Joel was smart and funny and very charming and thoughtful. She doesn’t act like a virgin, or like someone with a cat. And she’s more than her job. She’s not merely the manager of an inn. She could run her own place, if someone threw some capital her way. They exchanged emails under the crisp awning of Jacqui’s townhome. The streets were shining with rain. For a moment it seemed the evening wouldn’t end. Denise actually went into her brain and rejiggered the promise. The movie star promise. Joel might not be a movie star, but he was a real man. An editor. A kind and well-dressed and well-traveled interesting man.
But then Joel looked down at his phone. Some buddies had texted, they were hanging at Fat Belly’s down the road, catching the last half of the game. That sounds like fun, Denise had said. Joel said, Yeah, maybe I’ll go meet them. Did you want to come?
Did. It means something. Words mean something, even among the stupid but certainly among the editors. Did versus Do. What can you trust if you can’t trust your own gut?
No thanks, said Denise. They said goodbye with an awkward little embrace, and she walked home. She fed Princess Huega and drew herself a Lydia Lonelyhearts bath. She looked at her toes poking up through the suds. There was nothing wrong with her feet. If you saw them alone, you might think them the feet of a beautiful woman. She toweled off and got into some excellent new pajamas she’d bought online. She slippered her feet into a pair of sheepfur clogs. She brewed a cup of Honey Vanilla Chamomile tea and took a nice sweet sip. Life wasn’t so bad, right Princess Huega?
Tonight is the night. She can feel it in her bones. The coincidence is magical. This is the first year Providence has had a Comic Con offshoot and look, it’s not like Denise wouldn’t have traveled to a Meet & Greet in Boston, or even New York, but in very big cities Jon would likely have friends he knew, or people to show him around. It’s in the smaller cities that celebrities can be caught off-guard. They have nothing better to do, and will take a chance on something offbeat.
Denise spends her morning attending to her Fraser fir. First she makes a fire and Princess Huega helps set the mood by perching from the mantel and pawing at the hung Pottery Barn stockings. Feeling benevolent, Denise reaches into Huega’s stocking and removes a packet of catnip, shaking it onto the parquet floor. Huega flings her soft body at the pile.
On Denise’s four-poster bed, her special outfit is laid out, down to the underwear. The undies and the bra are white lace, by Kiki DiMontparnasse. They are sexy without being tawdry. On top of that she has a light grey cashmere sweater dress, a pair of dark Wolford tights, and a pair of exquisite mid-priced riding boots. She used a Deva Curl on her hair last night so the kinks are soft and look luxuriously fucked-upon. She purchased a special soap like a giant emerald, plus a new solid perfume from one of the specialty shops in town. Denise predicts she’ll feel as close to beautiful as she ever has. For a long time she has felt like total garbage. She buffers herself with all this cozy stuff, but inside it’s a cold pile of rebar and scrap metal and used books and Container Store plastic tops missing their bottoms.
Joel’s a big part of what’s made her feel shitty in the past few years. It’s rare for a woman in her early thirties to have that sort of night where the conversation just clicks, and there are so many smiles and laughs and you are just sitting next to some man, with gabardine trousers and a winter scarf, eating course after course. For the seven days after Joel left her for a bar, Denise watched her phone. She left her phone for ten minutes, then thirty, then one hour, and came back to it thinking, Now he will have texted. But he never did. She couldn’t contemplate why he wasn’t getting in touch.
By the eighth day she was eating slices of yellow American cheese on the toilet. She had stopped performing as though an unseen beau were watching. She had stopped Googling to see if there’d been a murder on the streets last week. In fact, as the editor of the newspaper, it was quite clear that Joel was alive and well. The Star-Herald came out on schedule. The Holiday Edition shone in the sunlit snow inside her mailbox. A tattoo of Christmas lights adorned the rim of the front page. Denise vomited curds of processed cheese and bile, three times. She cleaned the toilet with fancy bleach after each gutting.
On the ninth day, she thought, Perhaps we are on different schedules. Her stomach was clean of cheese. Her energy was high. Her wits, she believed, were dependable. So she sent a text! And, NOTHING.
Every day she felt the nothing of it, like poison in her green smoothies, like an imbalance, like too much kale. And of course, in that way that happens, she saw him everywhere, from afar. In the popover café, in the card store, in the grocery store, and worst of all in the bookstore. He’d be at a table reading the papers from other cities, with a mug of coffee to stay, and people would walk over and he’d be holding court, and Denise would hide and watch from a corner and think, How silly of me, to think I was anything more than the best thing around for a few hours. And then a more terrible thought—Was he only being kind, was he just trying to give me a thrill, taking care of the lonely girl? A public service, a charity, the great small-town newspaperman Jimmy Stewarting her at the West Elm table, feigning exultation when she knew what Brillat Savarin was!
She never saw him with another woman, so even the theory that he’d met the love of his life at Fat Belly that night, right after sending her that text, some amputee do-gooder with green eyes, even that couldn’t be true. The truer truth was that she meant less than she thought, to anyone in the whole world.
But forget it all. It doesn’t matter, because her clothes are laid out on the bed for the rest of her life. She’s not delusional. She’s steady as she goes.
Denise opens her computer, and has a slice of American cheese folded around a pickle. She eats when she’s not hungry and doesn’t when she is. It’s not a diet, it’s a sort of life. On Facebook there are no Friend Requests, but there are two messages. One is from an acquaintance, a married woman named Clare who is inquiring whether she might be able to get her—Denise’s—employee discount at the Edmund Victoria, so that she and her husband might spend a romantic New Year’s Eve weekend.
The second message is the absolute worst thing that can happen to Denise. She brings a hand to her heart, as she believes it must have stopped beating. The next-to worst thing is the clothes on the bed. They are small, woolen children. Their parents have just been killed in a plane crash. Someone will have to tell them. Their future, the picking of berries, the gifts wrapped in glossy paper, has just been withdrawn.
The event is canceled. Denise’s life is over.
In Jon’s room his cell phone rings. His publicist.
Hi love, she says. Her name is Valentine. Pronounced Valenteen. She isn’t French.
Yeh, he says.
I have news I think you’ll like. The Meet & Greet is canceled. Another threat. This one legit. They already found one pipe bomb at the convention center.
I thought you’d be pleased.
So uh. onto New York then?
Well . . . no. Portland, Maine is tomorrow. The DVD release.
Jon doesn’t make any sound. It’s the only power he has anymore. Except with publicists. With publicists, silence gets you nowhere.
Okay love? So one more night? But the good news is, Providence is a great town. Big foodie town. Let me show you around. I went to school here.
Jon looks about the sad room. He has sad thoughts. He can’t spend another night.
No, he says. Get me out of here. Get me to Portland.
Oh I tried, love! There are no flights, nothing is moving. A storm is coming! We’ll have fun, I promise, let me—
Jon shakes his head violently; though she can’t see it, he hopes she can feel it. It takes so long to get back to happy, and once you get there, it’s only a matter of time again. And you begin to see the cycle of it. He knows because he lost his mum. Then his dad. Then his love. The fact that you survive each time is probably the worst of it. The inconsequence even, of tragedy. This is the most terrible room of all.
No! he screams. Get me out of this room. Get me someplace else, anywhere else! Halfway there! I can’t stay here. I hate this place!
On the other end he can feel her believing he is irrational. They still want to fuck you, even when you are irrational. But she won’t help him, unless he turns petty. The only way she can understand is if he embodies the stereotype of his kind. People don’t want to be surprised, even positively. God help us everyone.
Listen, he says quietly, as though every muscle in his body is not seizing in rage. You gotta get me out of here, I can’t sleep one more night on this goddamned bedspread. It’s so . . . cheap.
It begins to snow in New Hampshire. There is no better place in America to worship a snowy evening, than from inside the Edmund Victoria. Out there the first fritters are landing delicately on the linden trees and chestnut trees and magnolia trees that flank the walking path. Just inside the library, there are leather-bound books and hand-cut crystals on antique trunks and marble-topped tables. Everything is burgundy or hunter green or bronze. Even the old crusty parakeet, a terrible fuck named Steve, is green, and his cage is a rusting gold. Tonight the smell of old people and old curtains is covered up by the balsam fir that’s just been delivered, which Denise trimmed in a great deal of pain.
She looks out the window. The Joels won, didn’t they? Denise’s whole life is the smell inside a restaurant glass, that’s been washed with dead eggs in an industrial and overstuffed dishwasher.
Bella, her young flippant employee, will be coming in soon, wearing her mauve snow boots. Denise looks down at her own carefully-curated outfit. She was nuts, to buy it. The only real religion Denise believes in is that if you try too hard, it all falls down.
Just then she sees there’s a new reservation that’s come through Online Booking. The only reservation for tonight. Somebody must be stranded on account of the impending snowstorm. She clicks the link and there it is. Holy Moly there it is.
William Billiam IV.
Denise screams. It rings throughout the house, it vibrates across every scalloped edge. Her legs shake and her eyelids flutter. She feels in her abdomen the trickery and magic of every Amy Tan book she has ever read.
Just then the front door of the old inn twinkles, and in walks Bella with her hard water-stained boots and her lazy face. One time she told Denise there was a reason some people stayed single forever. That without them, what would companies like Chico’s do.
Before Bella is all the way in, Denise trills, Go home! Don’t need you tonight!
Denise runs to the front door and tries to close the door on Bella’s body and Bella goes, Yo what the fuck?
And Denise says, Go HOME! Only she isn’t angry, she is hyper and smiling.
Bella keeps trying to come in. What is wrong with women who get everything they want all their lives? How could they possibly request more? Not today, Denise thinks.
Denise tugs Bella’s handbag off her arm—it’s small and has a chain and looks like dorm sex—and whips it across the mayonnaised and glittered lawn. It lands with a spineless thud in the street. Bella turns to look at it in disbelief and Denise seizes the opportunity to shut the door and lock it. She walks quickly, past the porcelain Christmas partridge and the coat hanger with her brand new Barbour jacket and hyperventilates and shakes and laughs and Holy Jesus Shit Fuckers. Call off the end of the world.
Jon Abercrombie is coming to town!
He is in an UberBLACK car, lumbering through mushy snow on the road to Portsmouth. The driver is a woman who keeps looking in the rear-view at him.
For a long time before Caterina, Jon thought it was his duty to be kind to women. He thought the world was cruel to them and so all the good men must band together and care for the women. He couldn’t count how many fat slags he’d kissed on New Year’s Eve or how many cloudy mornings he’d spent eating Honey O’s across a poor sad bitch at a cheap pine table, pretending to be comfortable in the draft whistling forth from the doorway. The truth is, actually, he’d been at home doing those things. He figured, Sure, he deserved better. Someone hot and vibrant. But there were enough fucktwats who only wanted the hot and vibrant. Who would love the fat and brown?
Then came Caterina. All hell and love broke loose. In a way she was too much. He did not feel lucky, as a less handsome man might feel. Anyway she was the acme and now he was broken. With all the women before her, if they died or left him, he’d have been fine. That was a good way to live. But Caterina was a world-ender. Her eyes. You had to throw up your hands.
You look familiar, the driver says into the rear-view, which connects them via a reflective artery. Their glances travel to one another in a vacuum. Whoosh.
Are you on TV?
He shakes his head in a way he has perfected, that could mean yes or no. It’s kind of a Stevie Wonder-slash-autistic sort of move.
The grief over Caterina has been a haunt for seven years. But lately it had been turning. The past few months, he could breathe without too much gin. He was surprised by the animation in him. He felt terrible of course, as we all do the moment we stop wanting the same fate as our loved ones, and begin to want the terrestrial joys again, to go to water parks, and twirl long noodles. Sometimes the exact swirls of her eye color escape him, and all he can remember is that they were a startling, preternatural blue.
Yes or no? says the driver. I can’t tell, from that move you just made with your head.
Jon cracks a smile. The first genuine smile he has smiled in a very long while. In the vacuum of the rear-view, the driver smiles back, and he feels his spirit growing, not quite as an erection does, but not exactly unlike one, either.
The absolute best room is the Donegal Suite. It has a gorgeous quilt and a view of the brook which looks otherworldly through the fancy Palladian window. The sham pillows on the bed are red velvet. Denise removes them every time a guest books it. Her favorite thing about it is the skylight. It slices a nice Parmesan hunk out of the ceiling and the Brillat moon is always floating up there, right in the window, like it’s part of the rate.
Denise goes up there now, dreamily. She takes the red velvet pillows out of hiding and places them on the bed. She lies down then, and looks up through the skylight at the flakes waving down. The snow tonight is a certain type. It’s less saccharine than holiday snow. It’s frank and heavy and feels like it comes from actual God, and not NBC.
What she imagines about lovemaking—if she had to describe it on a slip of paper and then look at it after to see how close she was, like Final Jeopardy—she would imagine it might feel like the way the power card plugs into your Mac, the way it’s a magnet but also there’s a very definitive insertion—the brilliant combo of the two modes of connection—so that you look down once it’s in and say, Oh! That’s perfect, isn’t it. And the little dot goes from orange to green, and plink; like that, you’re on the other side. You can breathe out of the water.
Jon lets himself in the front door of the Edmund Victoria and the bell above the door tinkles like a cat. He stamps the snow off his boots. He does it for longer than most, because he was raised well. He looks around. The place is a giant doily. Oh bugger it was one of those places where they make your breakfast in front of your face and the eggs smell like rusted iron and you’re supposed to sit there and ask questions about when the foundation was laid.
He walks past a porcelain bird and then a real bird, a demented green thing clucking solipsistically. There’s a check-in stand but no attendant. He feels his hands reach almost immediately for his cell-phone. That’s what he’s been reduced to lately—someone who calls someone else to fix a problem. And isn’t he lucky, because that what the human race aspires to—to be someone who does nothing. He stops himself. Tonight is a new day. This morning—just this morning in fact, as he’d started to say, Please God take me today, I cannot bear this world another day, he didn’t get past the “take.” He sat down and turned on the telly, to see about a score instead.
Hello! he calls. He walks around to the foot of the emerald-carpeted stairs. What ghastly floral bedspread awaits him at the top, he thinks, smiling.
Hello! he says, louder this time. He inhales deeply the smell. It reminds him of home. Baked, old things. He has a vision of his mother’s broom, the way she smiled at him when he was a little boy. She was always in doorways, sweeping, and he was always in thrall to the simplest things.
He walks back to the counter and this time looks around it, lo! There’s a woman there, flat to the ground. She’s dressed to the nines and all made-up, so it’s shocking to see her lying there, like an impeccable corpse. Jesus, he says. He drops to his knees and touches her neck, her heart. She feels warm but he can’t feel her breath. She has hair like Caterina’s, he notes with no small measure of excitement.
In the car on the way here the driver told him she was carrying the baby of a one-night stand. To her reflection in the rear-view mirror he gave a hearty Hey ho! Congratulations! He’d felt an abundant feeling, in the warm car moving through all that snow. He imagined everybody in New England was eating baked scrod tonight, with their wives and babies in high chairs, with snippings of fragrant pine dangling from the hearth and outside, a world of white. An hour later, after the driver had several times passed him a flask filled with warm whisky and he’d passed it back and they’d begun speaking frankly about life, she said that the bit about her pregnancy had only been half the truth. She said the full truth was that she was carrying the baby of the man who raped her. He thought she was fucking with him, but her eye contact remained steady in the rear-view. He didn’t mind that she wasn’t looking at the road. His life was not more important than this woman’s truth. He felt the old familiar feelings creep back. He wanted to brush her hair.
Now he sees it’s him who’s lying on the ground, isn’t it. Jesus. Again and wildly he feels the fallen woman’s neck but his own pulse is so eager he can’t tell. He puts his mouth to her cheek. Please, he says, Please, darling wake up. He doesn’t know why but it comes to him, as it did with a young calf that, having been stampeded by horses, was dying in the stables back home—it comes to mind to press his lips to hers, as he did with the calf. He kisses the woman who looks like a bloated version of his long lost love.
Her eyes flutter open! Oh thank Jesus!
They are not a swirled blue, but a kind and homely chestnut. They flutter and adjust and the woman screams, and so does Jon.
He has not been with any woman since me. I know because I have watched him every moment. I have never taken my eyes from him. He beats them all away with a stick, then he goes home and cries and drinks, and he pleasures himself, to camera phone pictures of me.
When she heard the bell, and she knew it was il mio Jonny entering, she laid herself down on the floor. She pretended to be dead or fainted. I will say I admired it. It was not part of my plan.
He touched his mouth to hers. I didn’t expect that he would begin with an act of tenderness. When he was a boy there was a calf that had been run over by the horses. It was dying in the stable and he touched his mouth to its mouth. It drew its last breath in his mouth. He did this now, with her.
And she “woke” up, this Dough White.
They go to sit on the couch by the fireplace of this inn. This part was also hard. The room was so . . . tender, with the fire and the snow, and the way they were sitting facing one another, their knees touching.
On the couch he told her about me. This part I liked. He speaks of me like every woman wishes her man spoke of her. My hair was tendrils and coils. My eyes were running water. My heart was remarkable. I was a paragon, an angel.
Dutifully she listened. Oh she is an excellent listener. The fat ones always are, and if you are a woman who wants to romance a widower, you must be. It’s imperative in the beginning. You must act like she is more important than you.
In turn she told him about her newspaperman. She spoke of him as though he, too, were a long lost love. Perhaps he might have been. I handled the newspaperman. I made sure he never called. I had just found her, this sad lonely girl with a desire to lose herself to a movie star. And then that week, she met a man! Fanculo!
I’d waited so long and had finally found a ripe one. I had to control things, so I did. I said to myself, the newspaperman will cheat on her one day, and a night with my Jonny is better than a lifetime with a small-town manichino.
But maybe know this: any time a man doesn’t call, who you were sure was going to call, it maybe has nothing to do with you. You do not have free will, completely. There are things lurking under the ground, who decide sometimes.
As she spoke, my Jonny brushed a hair out of her eye. This was a gesture he has done with me. Stronzo!
He’s only a man, I know. I kept telling myself. Down here, I have become Concupiscenza herself. It’s been my charge. So I know. I understand. Sex is basement work.
He took her weak chin in his hand and brought her face to his. Il primo bacio! Seeing the man you love, doing that—
I looked away. I let out a terrible whine. All inside me was churning and I began to sweat. The stracchino was whirling sour. Even when men love you, even on their way to you, they are breakers of guts.
Americans say, You can’t look away, it’s like a car wreck. Indeed, I looked back. He’d brought her onto his lap, to straddle him. He’d removed the boots she’d bought for the occasion—the boots I’d willed her to buy, knowing how he likes riding boots. How all men like boots.
In the instant my own wreck was over, I saw myself as a collection of parts, a Furga doll with limbs in impossible directions, and I saw the people gaping. And the blood fascinated me, as it fascinated them. The theater of it. The shock. It makes you feel alive, even when you are just dead.
That is how I felt watching my Jonny with this American sow. I couldn’t stop looking. More, I wanted more. Che Dio me aiuti!
He asked her which room was theirs. He carried her up the stairs, into the room she’d been saving for him. A woman of letters once said that no woman can stand to see another woman happier than she, and this is the truth. I saw this cow getting the thing she’d been wanting for, for so long, and if anybody deserved it, it was her, but still I hated her. I hated her for how her eyes shone. I hated her for the blood running through her veins.
On the bed he takes her and neither is worried about babies or disease. Do you understand? The kind of condomless fucking that predates worry. They fuck. It’s terrible. They make love also. I don’t know which is worse. Everyone will say making love is worse, but for me the fucking hurts in a more violent way. The fucking, for some reason, is harder to get out of your head. The dirty bits. There is something about limbs. The coarse hair on his legs, tooth-brushing the hilly fat at her thigh.
He makes love like a movie star, slow and generous and like the world is watching. She was enraptured and he was feeling what boys feel—the unremarkable physical delight. Men are like babies, who are predictable, who are up for three hours and then they need sleep, and everything they do is regimented and perfect for them, and you are only a servant of the intrinsic need. How I hated the man I love!
Some people can separate these things. They can say, here was a man experiencing an act of sex. Like eating a steak, he enjoyed it during its time. But not me. The steak might as well be his whole life, and it cancels out everything with me. I thought death would change me, but I am like a child still.
The actual hardest thing is the wetness. The wetness. The sheen. The glisten. Perhaps you have been cheated on. If you have, and you have gotten over it, because there are children or because it seems such a waste of a man and a love and a life, then fine, but imagine you had seen it. Imagine beyond imagining the worst, that you had actually seen the worst. And the worst is the wetness. Imagine your lover’s pinkest parts, wet against someone who is not you.
They begin to build, the crescendo and the rhythm, you know how it goes. She plunges one of her feet between the crack of his celebrated rear, his neck arches back in approval. He opens his mouth and says, Open your mouth, and she does and he spits into it, and he smiles. He is an animal. He is a porco! All celebrities are like this. Every hot man. Their noises, the uhhhns and breathing, and the grunting, the chaotic desire, there is nothing more cruel than to be on the outside of such a thing!
Oh Dio. No. You must be able to guess. What the worst thing would be.
HE COMES INSIDE OF HER. His body shudders and he moans the sound I hear in my dreams. To watch the man you love come inside of another woman. To watch his face fill with familiar gratification. My blood turns to liquid rage, but still I watch. I shudder, as well. I experience an orgasm of fury, the intensity of which causes me to double over and cry.
But it is part of the plan. All of life is a plan. There is no comfort in this, unless you are completely a sempliciotto.
Almost immediately, he falls asleep at her long sloppy breast and she holds his head there and I want to tear her eyelashes out. She strokes his flame-red hairs against her pale once-used flesh.
With grace she slips out from under his head and moves her large body down the stairs. There is a third beast at play, and it comes all from her. She knows this is the only way to keep him for herself. She knows that in the morning, he will fly, as birds do, as her cat would, with a door open to the white wound of a world she can only guess at.
So she goes to fetch the drinks, hers and his, and his she fills with a crushed bounty of pills I have been willing her to collect. When he wakes, she will hand him the cup. She will whisper, Jonny, and he will squint his perfect eyes and he will drink because he will know, in some part of himself. In the part of him I don’t hate. He will hear the name that only I have called him and he will drink. In her arms, he will fall out of this world. And my love will be on his way to me. I am disgusted. I am thrilled. I have waited so many years. I only hope I can forgive him, for not coming sooner, for not coming utterly on his own. I have planned and watched and died and hoped and now he will come. And my New England cow, I will not stop watching her. Slowly and fatly she will be baking my child and, when the time is right, I will fetch that down to me, too.