By Kirie Pedersen
Laurel Review, Fall 2012, Volume 46 / Number 2
When Janie received news of her father’s death, she was surprised at how little she felt. She kept pressing at this nothingness to see if anything emerged: a shriek, a feral howl. Then she called Celia. “So,” Celia said, drawing out the vowel. “The Reverend’s no longer with us.” Janie pinched a leaf of basil. The fragrance enlivened her. “Thank God,” Celia said. She laughed, and, after a moment, Janie laughed too.
“Celia’s a whore,” the Reverend said the last time Janie spoke with him. “She squandered her brilliance,” he said. “With her ceaseless stream of men.”
Janie called her fiancé. “I can’t marry you,” she said.
“You’re in shock.” Owen sounded calm, placid, as always. “This isn’t a time for rash decisions.” Janie had left Owen before; she was constantly leaving Owen, but each time she returned. She would return this time too. “We’ll be together forever,” Owen said.
“Find someone else for SunFox,” Janie said. SunFox was Owen’s blog. They visited restaurants and cafes, and then sat up half the night tapping notes into their tablets. By morning, Owen transformed it all into coherent prose.
“Celia can take my place,” Janie said.
“She’d rather nuke than cook,” Owen said.
“And chase it with Xanax.” Janie felt Owen’s disapproval. Or something. Crushed basil leaves littered the cutting board. She had pulled every leaf from the plant. She raised her hands in the air as if fending off a crazed shooter, a fear she could never elude in the classroom.
As always, Celia came through. She helped Janie sort through the Reverend’s papers, books, and clothes. The new minister had already arrived, a frog-like shriveled man with a beautiful wife. The transition must be smooth. “Look the fuck at this,” Celia said. From the Reverend’s orderly closet, tucked behind his tacky vestments and sport jackets, his corduroy slacks, she held up a thick, dark-brown fur. She smoothed her face against it. The coat smelled of maple leaves raked too late in autumn, broken into the soil.
“Where do you think he found this?” Janie asked. “The war? In the Apennines? You know he almost froze to death.”
“I know his pathetic story,” Celia said. “Shot through by machine guns, saved his friend’s life, the bugler boy. I heard all his bullshit. Many times.” Celia’s face was perfectly made up, her thick hair pulled back with some kind of clip. As always, she seemed too elegant for the parsonage, like some exotic animal.
The minister’s wife had a smooth silver bob that jiggled from side to side. She ducked her head into the room. “You girls just lock everything up now and put it in storage,” she said. “Your children will want to see Grandpa’s things.”
“She doesn’t have children.” Celia thrust the coat at Janie. “Give the rest of this shit to charity.”
Janie’s first class of the term met in the afternoon. She didn’t feel like canceling. Every term, students went on about death in the family, funerals they must attend, reasons for not completing some paper or showing up for the final exam. Janie allowed them no excuses, and she offered none for herself. She stood behind the waist-high audio-visual desk, gazing without her glasses at the sea of strangers. The students stared back, faces wiped blank, bodies still. She loved to hold this moment of beginning. Bright scarves, artfully knotted, brightened the drab lecture hall. Janie fumbled with her glasses, turned to her keyboard, and the stillness ended.
As class ended, the confident students hurried away. The first day supplicants surrounded her desk. Some sought approval by making themselves familiar. In her own undergraduate days, Janie was one of these. She was so certain she was invisible it took each professor’s nod to assure her she did indeed exist. Others begged to be admitted from the wait list. She shook her head and frowned and then reached to sign each slip.
“Guess who I saw today?” Celia’s office was littered with stacks of books, ungraded exams from the previous term, faded bouquets. It smelled faintly of mildew and cat urine. Janie sighed and dumped her briefcase onto the floor. Owen. Of course. Celia saw Owen. His office was just a few feet down the hall. Celia tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. “He looks awful.” As if running a campaign, Celia wore a button. Eat Light, it said. “You look like shit yourself, if you don’t mind my saying so.”
“This room smells like piss.” Janie crossed her arms over her chest. “If you don’t mind my saying so.”
“Owen seems depressed.” In the years since their childhood, when Celia was the only person persistent enough to woo her from the dark cave of the Reverend’s home, Celia had grown plump. The weight stood between them like a pushing thumb. “You should reconsider,” Celia said. “That man’s a saint.”
“You mean to put up with me?” Janie walked around the room tidying stacks of paper, picking at dried bouquets. “That’s why I can’t be with him,” Janie said. “I’m sick of being the justification for Owen’s sainthood.”
“You’re a fool.” Celia reached into her desk and extracted a bar of Chocolat Cuizel. “Want some of this? It’s good shit.” She broke off a square and shoved it into her mouth. Janie shook her head. “See? You’re crazy. I mean, for God’s sake, the man cooks.”
“So do I,” Janie said. “Want to come for dinner?” Janie tapped at Celia’s button. “What’s this supposed to mean?”
“For me, switch from junk food to salad,” Celia said. “For you, it’s like those Buddhists who go years without a meal. They drink their urine. Or eat light. Or something.” Celia consumed the chocolate, square by square.
“I’ll make you a salad,” Janie said.
Janie drove through the fields to her cabin, a shack really, tucked away in a second-growth forest not yet ready to mow down. When she passed her favorite farm, she was, as always, pleased by the sign: Dairy of Merit. She could taste the milk, the tangy artisanal cheese. At the top of the mile-long dirt driveway to her cabin, the gate gaped open, rocking on broken hinges. The man who delivered the propane must have crashed into it again. The one-lane driveway was a tunnel of darkness in the dim evening light.
When she stepped inside the cabin’s low entryway, she kicked off her heels and then shivered. The room seemed cold, but when she tugged the string that turned on the interior light, nothing happened. She pulled the flashlight from the hook by the door and peered around. Every surface was covered with shards of glass. She aimed the flashlight’s beam around the room. Three of the windows were smashed. Her coffee mugs were shattered on the chopping block. The fragrance of dill and rosemary and basil rose from bottles of herbs dumped on the floor. Her bed was still neatly made, but it too was littered with glass, and dark stones lay among the fragments. Janie found her stash of candles, and then her kerosene lamps, and placed them around the small room. She brushed glass from the counter and sliced carrots and cauliflower, tore leaves of arugula and red lettuce. Before dressing the salad, she knelt to arrange a tower of kindling in the stove, feeding in larger pieces as the flames ignited.
Wearing the fur coat, Celia appeared in the open doorway. “Can you believe he kept this damn thing all those years?” She surveyed the damage as if Janie had decided on a new mode of interior design.
“Can you please help me?”
Celia started to say something, and then, silent for once, she found Janie’s broom and swept piles of glass. She carried the larger pieces in her hands and tossed them into the garbage can outside the door. She sliced cardboard boxes and duct-taped patches for the gaping holes of the broken panes. Then she draped silk scarves, violet and burgundy and sea-green, over the cardboard. The scarves sucked in and out with the evening breezes.
“Aren’t these the scarves Owen gave you?” Celia asked. “Now you finally have a use for them.”
Janie tossed the salad with olive oil and a dash of salt and freshly ground pepper. She sliced a lemon in half and crushed it in her hand. “Sometimes I wonder if I’m a sociopath,” she said.
“You? You have amygdalae the size of watermelons.” Celia lifted plates from Janie’s open shelves.
“I don’t feel anything.” As if to illustrate, Janie placed her foot down onto the floor, and a slice of glass slid into her sole.
“You care too much. That’s your problem. Your students, for example.”
Janie ran her finger along the gauzy thread of a pale green and white silk scarf. “I’m kind to students, but not to the one man who ever loved me.”
“Death’s making you lugubrious,” Celia said. She reached across the table and jabbed a piece of feta with her fork.
“Just take it all,” Janie said. She shoved her plate toward Celia. “I’ll never be hungry again.”
“You are like a monk,” Janie said. “Too much compassion. That’s your messed up part.”
“So you sleep with everyone in the universe, and you think I should stay with someone boring and trustworthy.”
“To please my father, I’ve been with one guy forever. Now I want to sleep with the universe.”
Celia folded Janie into her arms. She smelled of geranium and jasmine. “Your father sucked the fire out of you.”
“I can’t blame the way I turned out on everyone else.”
“Great compassion mantra,” Celia said. She washed each plate and fork and cup and the hand-painted serving platter. She rinsed the wooden salad bowl in cold water and wiped it out with a soft cotton rag. Then she tucked Janie into her blankets on the mattress on the floor. “I want you to lock the door behind me and keep your cell beside you,” she said.
“I’m not afraid.”
“Be afraid,” Celia said. She kissed Janie on the forehead.
The following morning, Janie was late to her morning class. She felt numb and dazed, as if she’d accidentally landed in someone else’s life. The campus appeared deserted. She limped across campus, the shard of glass still lodged in her foot.
Someone came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder, and Janie whirled around. “Sorry to startle you.” The young man stood too close to her. He wore faded green jogging sweats. He was tall and skinny with greasy dark hair that fell to his shoulders. His glasses tilted slightly, giving him a lopsided appearance. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.
“I’m late to class.”
“Don’t you remember me?” He leaned toward her, his mouth slightly open. “Carl.”
“I’m sorry,” Janie said. “I have no idea who you are.”
“I was in your Intro to Botany last spring,” he said. Although Janie memorized the students’ names within the first week, each new batch seemed to knock out the old. Maybe he wanted her to change his grade.
“It’s too late,” she said.
Carl handed her a flyer. “I want you to see this show.”
“Sorry,” Janie said again. She ran toward the lecture hall. She sensed him waiting behind her.
That evening, when she let herself into Owen’s apartment, his face brightened. Hard copy from their last review was arranged across his kitchen table. Janie smiled. She enjoyed their secret identity. She liked the way Owen ordered at restaurants, how he relished the patronage of waiters who glanced contemptuously at his prematurely bald head, his features scarred from teenage acne, his shabby clothes. He moved to kiss her, but she kept the table between them.
“I thought we’d check out this new Thai place tonight,” he said.
“I promised a student to see his show,” Janie said, although until that moment she had no intention of going. She pulled the poster from her pocket and examined it. Owen moved around the table and stood beside her.
“That guy? Every girl in my classes wants to hook up with him.” Janie jerked the paper out of his hand. Owen was kind. He loved her. He filled her with rage.
“I’m going alone,” Janie said.
Janie was shocked. Carl played intricate acoustic guitar, and had a clear tenor voice. He moved around the stage with feral grace.
When Janie left her classroom the following day, Carl was waiting. He lifted her briefcase from her hand. “Let’s get ourselves a burger,” he said.
Janie laughed. Then she realized of course he had no idea about SunFox. “I haven’t eaten a burger since I was a teenager,” she said. “If then.” Carl tucked his hand into the small of her back, and guided her across campus to the student lounge. It was packed with students, and the tall windows were steamed up.
“What did you think of my show?” Carl asked. “I looked for you after, but you disappeared.”
“I was impressed,” Janie said, as though evaluating a student’s work in the lab.
The young woman behind the counter was trying to attract his attention. “The usual?” she asked. Her eyes darted over to Janie, and then quickly away.
Carl led Janie to a table and pulled out a chair for her to sit. “What did you think, really?”
“I thought you were superb,” Janie said.
“Superb.” Carl mouthed the word, matching her intonation. She could not tell if he was accepting the compliment or mocking her. He touched her arm, as if to make a point. When a burger and fries appeared on the counter and the young woman called his name, he retrieved the tray and carried it to the table. He broke the burger into pieces, opened his own mouth slightly, and fed it to Janie piece by piece.
“You’re starving,” he said, as if this were an admirable trait on a list he would later recite.
“He’s brilliant,” she told Owen later.
“Let me write that down.” When Owen mocked her, it was obvious. “The nineteen-year-old with the gorgeous ass is a startling new discovery.” He looked at her with malevolence. “Late-blooming beauty ripe for affair with teenage student.”
“Don’t be crude.”
“Find out anything about the break-in?” Janie had to think for a moment what he meant. She had already become accustomed to the scarves as they breathed beside her bed. “All that destruction. Sure you’re safe out there all alone?” Janie looked at his scarred handsome face. Maybe she was crazy to leave him. “Why don’t you move back into town for awhile? Celia thinks you should.”
“Maybe Celia can find me some drugs to make the next break-in worth their while.”
“Celia’s not using,” Owen said. “She’s clean. She’s twelve-step.” She hated him. She’d like to stab him in the foot. “Anyway, I’m sure the campus hunk can provide.”
“Yeah. Maybe he can.”
“The one feeding you French fries.”
“You’re following me.”
“I don’t think you’re capable of handling it.” Owen placed his hand over Janie’s. Her hand looked old, the knuckles swollen. Her head throbbed just above her left eyebrow. Maybe her brain was bleeding. Lacunar infarct. Maybe she’d join her father after all. She pushed her thumb into her forehead.
“There’s nothing to handle,” Janie said. “You’re relieved of the duty to oversee my life.”
“I see you falling,” Owen said. “You know how sick you are. How unstable.”
“That’s what you’ve always said.” She rejected Owen’s mock-secret tone, the air of confidant. “I’m sorry you saw me with a student.” Owen embraced her, and she patted his shoulder, waiting for it all to end.
“Stop by,” Celia texted.
Janie stood just inside Celia’s doorway as Celia swept cat hair from a chair that sat in front of the blue glare of the television. “My buddy,” Celia said.
“You mean me?” Janie tried to find a neutral place to look, to avoid being drawn into the tiny drama on the screen, but when she looked around the room she saw only moldy remains of takeout burritos in Styrofoam containers, the overflowing litter box.
“It’s better to have a different man every day of the week,” Celia said, as if continuing a conversation she was having with herself until Janie arrived. “Then you can’t get hurt.” She stood up straight and looked Janie straight in the eye. Only then did Janie realize they never looked at each other. At least Celia never looked at her. She talked over Janie’s shoulder, as if gazing at someone not in the room. “But this time I’m keeping it.”
“How can you even think with this thing on?” Janie snapped off the TV. “Keeping what?” Although she knew. She always knew. For Celia to be pregnant was old news. Celia loved being pregnant. “It?” Janie hated the prim sound of her voice. She hated how Celia taunted her. “Whose ‘it’ this time?”
Celia began to count on her fingers. “It pretty much boils down to one of four guys,” Celia said. “Whoever’s the biggest sucker.” Janie felt the Reverend stride into the room, and everything turned to ice. “I’ve had three abortions,” Celia said. “Last time I swore I’d never have another. I think my body’s trying to tell me something.”
“To use contraception?”
Janie glanced around. “You think men are honorable? That one of them will make you an honest woman?” The litter box must be crawling with toxoplasmosis. Celia’s child would be deformed, or die. “Have you told anyone else this idea of yours?”
“Yes,” Celia said. “And everyone’s excited. Everyone else is happy for me.”
“I think it’s a stupid idea.” Janie flicked the television back on. A man and a woman were laughing, and for a moment the man looked like her father, the woman Celia.
“Yes,” Celia said again.
“Yes, what? You’re going to bring a child into this mess and let her raise herself?”
“Yes, you’re a psychopath,” Celia said. Now she was shouting. Her face was red and blotched. “What right do you have to judge me?” Celia kicked at a pile of discarded clothing. “You have everything. You always have. Owen would give anything to have you back.”
“Oh you’re the victim. As always.” Janie leaned over and began to fold the scattered clothes. Now Celia would tell her this was a joke. Now they would laugh.
“He doesn’t care about me, I know. He’d give anything to have you back. But he will take care of this child.” Celia patted her stomach. “Don’t look so damn shocked. You know well I’ve been seeing Owen. It was your suggestion, I believe. Get me to help with the blog? Now that’s a joke. But when Queen Jane gives an order, Owen must obey.” Celia’s laugh was harsh and ugly. “I’m doing a pretty damn good job if I do say so myself.”
What about me, Janie wanted to scream. Who’s going to take care of me? But Owen had offered, and she’d turned away. “You’re disgusting,” she said. She felt as if someone had taken her heart and squeezed, and then swallowed her breath.
“Judge not,” Celia said. “Or some such bullshit your father would say. Do you know how much you look like him right now? Owen adores you. Hell, even I adore you. A relationship’s just something to keep you warm.”
“What about a baby? Is that just something to keep you warm?” Janie looked around the room for something to crash over Celia’s head, to bash into her face. “You always said never have sex unless I charge for it,” Janie said. “Are you charging Owen?”
“It’s time for you to leave.” Celia smiled. “Maybe you’ll be its god mama. When you’ve calmed down.” Celia held open the door. “Love you,” she said, kissing the air.
That night, Janie wrapped herself in the old fur coat and stood shivering on the steps of her cabin. More quickly than seemed possible, Carl arrived. “I have a present for you,” he said. He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and handed her a piece of driftwood. He traced where woodborers carved delicate tracings along its length. “This reminds me of us,” he said. It reminded Janie of the marsipobranch that tunneled into other creatures to feed on their flesh.
She wanted him to stop talking. “My father just died,” she said.
“Were you close?”
“He hated me.” From inside the cabin, the light glowed through the silk of the scarves.
Carl lifted her onto the back of his motorcycle as if she were a child. “I’m not riding on this thing,” she said.
“You’re very immature, you know,” he said. He slid into the seat in front of her, kicked the bike into gear, and they flew out onto the driveway, the tires spitting gravel. She leaned into the pocket of warmth just behind his body. As they passed the Dairy of Merit, black and white spotted cows stood in clumps. Then, all at once, they began to move, falling into a long line that inched beside the fence in the darkness. Janie smelled rancid pea vines and the fresh scent of mustard. She sensed each crouching plant as it huddled against the earth. #