Can’t Say As I Ever Did
by Emily Hipchen
Editor’s Note: If ever I am asked about my life’s greatest accomplishments, I will dissemble (to a certain extent) and say, with the bright confidence of the liar: “I discovered the writer Emily Hipchen.” My publishing company did, in fact, publish her first book, Coming Apart Together: Fragments from an Adoption, but I “discovered” her as Columbus did the New World . . . following along in the clear footsteps of others. Now, what follows is a long read, but it is a piece by Emily Hipchen, for chrissakes, and, so, worth your time in the chair; worth, even, the death of trees-rendered-into-printer-paper. So . . . follow my lead, Gentle Reader: discover Emily Hipchen.
CARROLLTON Georgia—(Weekly Hubris)—6/20/11—I can picture exactly where she is when she calls. I’ve stood on that very spot in the upstairs hall of the Madison house just between the bathroom and back bedroom where there’s a quilt on the wall and the eaves pitch inwards and the window spills yellow light onto the wood floor. That morning my phone rings and it’s Edie, who’s trying everything to have a baby. She’s on her back on this spot on the floor in her hall, calling me.
“Em! It’s Edie. I just wanted to let you know.”
“What?” I’m brushing my teeth, so this comes out wha?
“Well, it’s about the turkey baster.”
“Turkey baster?” Tuhkey bastew? I spit. I repeat.
She’s giggling now between gusts of wicked laughter.
“I’m lying in the hall upstairs,” she says, “with the turkey baster. We just did it.”
And I know now precisely what she’s talking about, she’s been talking about it for weeks, making sure the sperm get to her cervix, making sure there are enough to make her a baby. Squirting it in there, high and deep. It requires concentration. The leaflet she shows me stresses post-coital calm.
But here she is on the hall floor, yukking it up on the phone with me instead of thinking about butterflies and sleeping puppies. I have a vision of her suddenly, half-dressed and giddy, lying on her hall rug with her naked backside on a bolster. The dog circles nearby, whining softly. In one hand, Edie holds the used turkey baster with its testicular bulb and clear plastic shaft. In the other, her phone. It’s just too ridiculous. I have to sit down.
“Oh my god. Edie, stop it. I can’t breathe.”
“No seriously, I’ve got my legs up in the air now—”
“Edie, sweet Jesus, stop. If you laugh like this you know you’ll just squirt it out and have to do it over again—”
“Oh shit,” she says, her voice muffled by movement, “too late—,” but we can’t stop howling now, laughing so hard that the phone goes to static on both ends.
In summer of that year, one of those years when Edie was trying for babies, we drove to the local state park for a picnic. I haven’t been back since then, and I hear spring floods have submerged everything. I find news clips and shuffle through them, wondering what she’d call me and say about it. From the pictures I can tell there’s not much for anyone to do. Water spills out of the lake, obliterating its margins in every direction. It’s already risen over the place where we sat that day, a day now almost a decade ago—where we sat on the picnic benches getting cool again with the dog panting under our feet. I wonder if Edie would recognize the place, the now-diffused lake, the heron on its two legs on the pavement to its knees in the water. The mountain we climbed, up the makeshift stairs cut into the dark gray rock, the dog scrabbling, the high pitch of his toenails scratching for hold on the stones. We climbed, puffing, grabbing saplings with our bare hands. Our third friend, gripped in acrophobia, shakily descended from part way up clutching each stair down, her long scarf hanging up like semaphore on the scrub beside the path. We two climbed all the way to the very top. She said to me: this is why I come up here, for the perspective, her hands on her hips. An intrepid adventurer, she was surveying her new world as if it needed a flag. From the path that ran across the ridge some ten or 20 feet off the absolute edge, I could see the black circle of the lake, the depthless round pupil of an eye looking upwards at us and the trees and the air with its clouds like whites hung out to dry behind us. I drank tea from the thermos, my head tipping back into the sky all around us that seemed no closer but should have been close enough to ripple under my fingers this high up. She walked straight to the very rim studded with boulders, some loose and dangerous, some it seemed like the bones of the mountain just visible under a layer of soil. She fitted her shoes to these, gripped them and leaned over, peered over, looked for our friend invisible in her green clothes against the green canopy, on the green scribbles of grass and bush made flat by the distance. She said: should we send the dog down so she has company? I said: He won’t go, he loves you too much.
And here’s what I really remember about this day, about this moment: how Edie came back from the edge then in two long bounds, joyful at being preferred above everyone, joyful in her dog’s pure love. How she knelt in the dust there, her bare knees with their rubbing of freckles fitted into the ruts other people’s feet trod into this place, how she knelt and called him to her. The blue sapphires of her eyes and on her hands flashing, she beat her palms together, kissed the air and when he came to her, she grabbed him by the shoulders and ruffled his spaniel ears and kissed that dog’s face like she had never thought once of leaving him. I remember the thick brush of his tail in the light, the back and forth of it winnowing the air speaking love and wonder and hope, and I wish I had thought of this, this tail, this dog, this moment with her in the dust, in the sun showering down, she and her dog in between the dust and the golden air, when I spoke to her last.
I didn’t know she drank, how thirsty she was, but I should have known because I’d seen the way she set about everything else, running full out with both hands full, the long lean muscles of her pushing against the earth so that she might fly. When we lived near the beach I discovered that she drank this way, too. I never said Edie you know you can’t. I only frowned in my way and looked sour and old and joyless, like a bad nanny.
My husband and I took her to the water, where it felt open and breezy. The heat came up from the ground, not down from the sun that seemed hung in one place in the sky, an eternal afternoon. The shops stretched onto the sand, seemed half buried in it like treasure chests almost dug up. The one we chose had windows on its corner two stories high, filled with teasers: $3 towels! Beach towels! Buy one bathing suit, get one free! 50 percent off all tanning products! Behind the store the sand stretched in a lazy westbound curve that ended in the surf. The water looked bright and green and close. It swelled and humped and washed white against the white and gray sand, rattling the shells. We could hear it all from the sidewalk, like the sound of a crowd from far away, voices rising in all registers, falling away, rising again. In the wash, a jet ski clutched and churned, circling its thrown rider tethered to him by a leash. On the pavement near our feet, one white gull preened, then took two steps towards the street as if to cross. His beak opened like a clothespin. The air smelled of saltwater and mold and coconut oil and sweat. Edie wore sandals, her toenails painted bright red, on the third toe a ring of glass and silver spangles.
Inside, the place was supercooled, like a polar fridge. Opening the doors opened the thermocline and we went under and into it, and shivered. All around us, T-stands jostled each other, packed full. Stray straps dangled, whole suits tumbled down as if kicked off just then. Edie beelined for something retro, a boy-legged suit in blue and white. She bought the matching hat and a pair of huge, oval sunglasses in white plastic and changed into everything right there. When she stepped out of the store, she held her hat on with her right hand, just like a movie star. She looked famous in all that dazzling sun, her eyes hidden, laughing with her head tilted back, her long neat thighs and bare feet on the sandy pavement. The square openings for her legs cut into her flesh and made her real, like the freckles on her chest did, like the way her front teeth had turned slightly out of line coming in. We trundled onto the sand, slow crabs through deep water, found a place, flipped the blanket out, settled in with nothing to do. She sat there, not tanning, not burning, while my husband and I swam.
“Did you hear about the shark attacks in New Jersey?” she said, as I shook off the water and rolled down onto the blanket. “I’ve been reading about them.”
“Was anyone killed?”
“Three or four or so.”
Must be a great white, I thought. Nothing to worry about, we don’t have those here. But even so, I tensed a little, as if the word itself were somehow dangerous. I squinted into the sunlight, looking towards the horizon.
“When did this happen?”
“Before the war.”
The water turned itself over once or twice on the shells at the tidemark and I thought it’s high tide: but also, what war? Three light-haired children screamed and took turns dunking each other in the wash before the sandbar. Their mother lay sleeping on her stomach, crisping in her oil under the sun, her hair dark with oil and her face turned towards us; their father netted the water down the beach a bit, called to the children now who turned their heads as if one body to listen. The water made their voices too close, right next to my ear. Chuck’s head bobbed up, went under again, bobbed up again 40 feet offshore. He was swimming out past the sandbar. I shaded my eyes to see better where he was.
“War?” I said.
“The Great War, you know, World War I. In New England. They hunted that shark for weeks.”
Christ, I thought, that was ages and ages ago. “Jesus, Edie, I thought you were talking about recently.” I frowned. I felt somehow like I’d wasted something that wasn’t very important, but still: I’d wasted it. I looked over at her in her new suit. She lay on her stomach propped on her bent elbows, her flushed face to the water, her hat pushed back on her hair. Her magazine was warped and wet, its pages ruffling in the breeze. Sand stuck to the underside of her arm, the narrow part of her hand, her left earlobe. She glittered with sand and sweat. “Is this research?”
“Sort of,” she said. She didn’t turn her head. “Doesn’t matter, really. The ocean’s full of sharks. Everywhere. All the time. They take pictures from helicopters of sharks weaving right past the swimmers. They look like seals but they aren’t. They’re hunting. You should see them.” She wore long silver earrings that moved when she did and broke up the light like waves or laughter. She sat up and gripped her knees, looking out at the water, at the children who were now on the shore with blue sand pails and little plastic shovels. The oldest stood over the other two, pointing at the ground, pushing her hair back over her ear, pointing again. She wore a reddish friendship bracelet on her left wrist, its strings dripping water as she gestured. The ruffle on her pink suit blew sideways and even from here we could see she had gooseflesh and a sunburn. Edie got up and took off her hat, dropped it back on the blanket then stretched like a cat. She left her sunglasses on, but raised one hand still to shield her eyes, like a salute. “I’m hot,” she said to the horizon, “I think I’ll walk for a while.” I watched her head north right at the water’s edge, her feet kicking up clear splashes like diamonds, her tall shadow hinged to her feet at her right.
She came back about an hour later, just as I thought we ought to begin looking for her. Chuck had one end of the blanket, shaking the sand out, the wind blowing it everywhere, onto everything. I had her shoes, her magazine, her bag, her hat pressed under my arm. She carried a piña colada with two straws and a silly green parasol stuck out of the side, a drink accessorized for tourists. She was lifting and lowering her feet as if she were walking in something sticky, the thick sand creaking under her toes. She’d found the store again and bought a sarong and she looked beautiful, her hair a kind of bleach-tipped fur ruffling in the wind. I couldn’t see her eyes. She laughed: Let’s have a drink, shall we?
We woke her from a hard sleep the next day, her second to last one with us, rolled her out of bed and into her suit and into the car with the canoe roped to the top. The air hummed in the cords over the windows as we traveled fast the six or seven miles of highway to Gandy Beach, where we swung into the mangroves and parked under a cabbage palm. The boat came off the roof clumsy like a tight shirt, we set it on the ground, loaded up the seats, the cooler, the anchor, gaff, paddles, everything. Chuck took the stern, I took the prow, Edie carried Chuck’s coffee and thermos, her sunglasses sitting slightly askew on her nose. The cut at the waterline was empty now, but there had been a party there lately, beer cans floating and a used condom caught on the mangrove knees and the remains of a fire like a black eye back above the surf.
The canoe slid in as if it were oiled, the brown water parting under the dark green fiber glass prow. The bottom rasped hollowly over mangrove roots, crushed oyster shells and dirty sand, then went silent except for the tick of water against the hull. I slipped off my sandals, reached into the lapping water to pick them up, tossed them to the front and stepped in at the back, my feet sandy and wet, my ankles and calves and arms cool and salty. I watched as Edie lifted herself into the center of the boat as if she had floated there, her arms long and sculpted and muscled. But something went wrong, the side dipped down too far, and she rolled headfirst instead into the bilge at the bottom of the boat, rolled convulsing with laughter, all laughing and legs tangled in the anchor line, so I reached into this to help her sit up. Her hand, cool in mine, pulled mine, her rings biting my palm then releasing. She adjusted her blue folding seat suspended mid-canoe and sat facing front, then pushed her sunglasses up on her head and made that sucking noise through her teeth that means she’s happy, though there was mud and sand on her shoulder and her shorts and her shin was scraped bloody. When Chuck got in, he stood for a while in front of the aft bench watching for dimples in the distance, nose prints on the brown-water surface. We had more than a mile of paddling to get to the power station, but they could have been anywhere between, and Chuck wanted to spot the first one. That or a dolphin, he said, and Edie giggled and clapped her hands as if this were Christmas and dolphins or manatees made no difference. I dipped into the water on the left side to turn us right. Chuck settled in at the rudder-paddle, each J-stroke quietly thumping the side.
The trip through the mangroves took about an hour and a half, maybe more, maybe less. The sun hung light caught in just the tops of the trees, the water washing over and into roots encrusted with oysters and barnacles, thick like rime. We stopped once to watch a gray thing flick by under the boat, a young shark, a large fish, we couldn’t tell. The sunlight filtered through the water to the bottom, and the grass looked both green and yellow, as if bathed in some sort of golden liquor. It waved back and forth, leaned in the direction of the tide. The canoe shadowed it and in the shadows small fry gathered and darted. Edie put her hand in and took it out again, the drops of water beading down her arm as she ran her wet hand through her hair. When she shook her head the spray dotted my sunglasses, evaporated immediately, left a pocking of salt and minerals like tiny pinpricks. We navigated by a single landmark, the twin exhaust stacks at the plant. They rose ahead of us to our left, flaring slightly at the top and only one puffing steam. We wove through the trees towards them, watching for dark water that showed us channels deep enough for our draft. We passed whole habitats, pointed out a kingfisher, a horseshoe crab, a spoonbill or heron or wood stork. I hung my legs over, dragged my bare feet in the water, paddled when Chuck didn’t but mostly I looked at the sky and the water and the trees. We rounded a bend, keeping tight to the hummock, watching the birds stand in the mangroves like enormous ornaments.
We didn’t expect to be alone exactly, but we also didn’t expect the half-dozen people fanned out in the warm plume of murky water coming through the gate at the outlet. The top of the gate rose about six feet over our heads, disappeared under us, down to the bottom of the cut. Through it we could see the whole length of the canal to the plant that sat slumped below its stacks at the end, the canal edged in reeds and rip-rap and fishing birds, dug long and deep to cool the water some before it entered the bay. So far below us that we didn’t even register the shadow of it, the exhaust pipe released water powerfully enough that we could stay in place at the bay end of the canal only by paddling furiously, as if we were on the edge of a waterfall, or by holding onto the gate. We smeared our hands with pelican droppings this way, our palms grease-painted white, hoping to stay close in, to see the manatees rising from the water here like mermaids or bubbles or leaves. After a few minutes, the pelicans came back to roost six or seven feet away. They sat there a little uneasy, eyeing us, eyeing the water, eyeing us. As if by consensus, though no one said anything, we let go.
We don’t paddle for a few seconds, just let the water take us out away from the gate. Chuck stands aft again. I strain my eyes. Edie watches, but she’s not sure for what. We reach the edge of the plume, the ground underneath us still in the dark and invisible, but we begin to sense it there now, closer to us, the pressure of it against the water under our keel. Which is when we see them, all of them, all around us. Look at—, Chuck says, look at— Edie squeals. I’m speechless, paralyzed, the paddle over my knees.
Because there are so many, seems like 50, maybe a hundred, maybe more. I had seen a manatee in the wild before, once, one, in a river. It rolled up to the surface, sent its whiskers up into the air, opened its nostrils and huffed, sunk with its tail lazily up-down and was gone. Here, there are noses everywhere, little and big and every other size. They rise and fall like pistons in a machine, too fast to count, I can’t count them. They make ripples and small whirlpools with their noses. It begins to sound like being at a funeral, the sighing like women crying in another room quietly so as not to disturb a baby. Right off the prow, I see a dark form rise like a dream in the afternoon, rise and become, I can touch the nose as it comes up next to the boat but I don’t, even though I want to. We are quiet, one rises in the back of the boat, another a few feet from the center. They are swimming in herds like buffalo across the plains underneath us. They breathe all around for a quarter mile, they come up and breathe and sink again. In the other boats, other people sit and point and hush themselves. Edie stands up behind me to see better, grabs my shoulder to steady herself, her hand light, then heavy, then light again. I whisper to her: I’ve never seen so many. She says: This is such a gift. I feel her shift her weight to one side of the canoe. I want to touch them, I want to touch one of them. She kneels by the side of the boat, it tipping a little with her weight, her feet kicking away her chair. Behind her the anchor sits in a scum of bilge. She waits, her arm bent at the elbow, the black plastic molding on the side of the canoe tucked almost into her armpit. She watches the water, rapt and waiting.
It’s just then, Edie with her hand out over the water waiting for a manatee to rise under her palm like a magic trick, it’s just then that a man fishing in a yellow plastic kayak glided by us. He had a fish on his hook. He struggled to reel it in, a huge fish, an enormous fish because he was a big man in a boat and they were cruising at a clip. His wake had wash. His pole rose, the sound of his reel ticked over, the tip fell, rose, the reel ticked, he glided by. We asked him what he’d caught. One a them things, he said, prolly. Seems like anyway. Caint get loose yet, caint drag him aboard. They headed towards the gate and the deep water and there he cut the line. The snap carried across the water like the sound of a broken bone. We were frozen in a tableau, the look on Chuck’s face impossible to describe. Like he was watching a grassfire sweep the horizon towards him and him without even a tumbler of water, like he knew beating that man to death wouldn’t make anything different. Instead he made a snorting noise, said something under his breath, Edie and I looked at each other, imagining the manatees below us now, not whole and happy bathing in the warmth with their babies, but each with a fringe of filthy hooks in their tails. Horrified we stared down at the water, while all around us they rose and fell still, rolled up from under the boat and we noticed now how the bigger ones had scars, white like maps on their backs, on their faces. Their eyes, when we saw them, were the same color as the water all around us.
Chuck and I stood, holding hands, watching Edie’s plane lift into a sky so full of thunderclouds it looked mildewed and swollen. On the way to the garage, he bought more coffee, an oatmeal cookie for us to share, and a bottle of boutique juice for me. He kept my hand while he paid, dropping it only when it was absolutely necessary, when he dug out the keys or shifted gears. Our car sped home through a corridor of thick green vegetation punctuated by clusters of palms tipping into the gray-blue sky, rows of oleanders spitting out their poison blooms like beauty. Tampa rolled up to our left, its buildings poking higher than the trees, lightning coming but not here yet, so the air looked like it was waiting for something to happen, for someone to say something. The silver minarets of the university caught the one last glint of light before the clouds closed over the sun, threw it back into our eyes. Over the bay, the waves ripped up with rain, we drove through a river falling out of a sky colicky with thunder. The wipers beat the water back from the glass. In front of us, drivers turned on their hazards, yellow and red lights smearing on the windshield like paint.
Chuck had brought me the bottle of vodka. We stood in my study with the neighbor’s dog sounding an alarm across the fence, stood in front of the French doors looking out at the garden, him holding the jug between us like a glass plumb bob. Out there, the fig tree and the lemon and the lime, a mockingbird on the grape arbor twitching her tail. Already the heat pouring like water out of a bucket, flattening every color. I looked at Chuck, but he was focused on the birdbath, or the way the mockingbird packed Spanish moss in her mouth like a gag.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I noticed how the gardenia was finally dropping its blossoms.
He showed me the bottle, as if I hadn’t seen it, though I had. We don’t drink hard liquor, so for a minute I didn’t know where this bottle had come from, and then I remembered: he’d carted it from Illinois to Wisconsin when we’d married, then from Wisconsin to Florida when we’d moved. We’d never opened it. Last I’d seen it, it was tucked behind some cooking sherry way up over the refrigerator with all the things we didn’t use. It had dusty shoulders I felt guilty about, but the vodka in it was clear as water, the seal tight and pasted over with blue paper. Chuck showed me the bottle, tipped it towards me like he wanted me to approve the label. It was three-quarters empty.
“What happened to it?”
“Did your mother drink it?” he asked.
I thought for a minute, shook my head: “She likes wine, not vodka, and she’d have said.”
A second passed. Another one.
“Edie’s been drinking at night,” he said. He was going slowly, being gentle.
She’d been with us three nights. I took the bottle from him. It wasn’t dusty anymore, the blue paper was gone and it was mostly empty, but it was still heavy and solid, like flesh. The vodka rocked in its new space, settled back into itself at the bottom.
“Is that a lot? It seems like an awful lot.” I wanted him to say, not really, no.
“It’s a lot, yes,” he said. He looked at me through his glasses. He took the bottle then, put it in the kitchen, on the refrigerator next to the sherry, precisely where it had been. Edie woke up a few hours later, had her shower, rolled her suitcase to the door. Got into the car, into the airplane, flew away. She called later that night to tell us she was home. For weeks afterward, every time I walked past the fridge, I thought of the bottle up there like an aneurysm thumping away, just this close to bursting.
Edie’s on the phone, calling from the Madison airport, saying she’s getting on a plane to come for the next week, do we mind? Can she come? Oh, and there’s a quilt show in Tampa she wants to see, she’s got tickets for her and me, I’ll just love it. Can we get to the beach, too? Of course, of course I said, you’re always welcome, and rearranged my schedule. I didn’t mind, I was glad to see her.
When she got in we drove across the bay to the museum housing the quilt exhibit: a flat concrete slab of a thing, its windows vertical under their deep eaves like slits outlined in kohl. We walked down to the river first to look at the water lapping against the seawalls, oily and brown and brackish. Behind us the traffic hooted and stirred against the heavy air. A tribe of mosquitoes lifted and lowered above the river, the water hot as a bath. The light was thick and orange, not the yellow Edie knew but something denser and almost unendurable. We squinted at each other, at the fragments of sun sparking against the wavelets upward, and then headed indoors without speaking. On a long slab of black vinyl we cooled off looking at a quilt that hung caught by its four corners on the nothing-colored wall. Each patch glowed its own color like stained glass. The pattern’s called snake in the grass, but I couldn’t follow the snake anywhere. No matter what I looked at, my eyes meandered down to the bound edges and slid onto the wall. Edie watched the quilt too, her head tipped back and her eyes half closed, her eyelids moving as if she were dreaming.
A black woman in kente cloth sat down beside us on the bench. She pointed to the quilt. “That’s my Great-Auntie’s.”
The cowrie shells in her hair clicked like bones as she turned to look at me. She had yellow irises, her dress was brown and green, and she’d wrapped the same material around her hair, high above her brow. Her eyebrows arched way up over her lids, almost to the edge of the fabric, and there were ridges across her forehead that meant she worried.
“She didn’t like this one much,” she said, her eyes flicking between Edie and me and the quilt. Edie nodded as if she understood, but never took her eyes off the wall. I looked away, looked again at the quilt on the wall, traced the pattern to the border again, fell off. The Black woman took an audible breath, then pushed herself up, got close enough to the quilt that the docent suddenly materialized nearby.
“It’s that,” she said to the quilt. She pointed to a patch no more than a nickel’s diameter wide, she could have covered it with her thumb. Her finger accused, not three inches off the piece, and the docent edged closer, his hand moving towards the walkie-talkie attached to his shoulder, just in case. She saw him, froze for a moment like she was thinking. Then dropped her finger, stepped back, said to the docent who was stopped near her now. “You know she didn’t like that one at all.”
He said, “No touching, please.”
She stepped back another three paces, regarded the quilt with her head canted and her lip pushed out. Then, after one more look at the docent who had folded his arms and was watching her, she moved away into another gallery, her back disappearing. I reached to gather my purse, but Edie was suddenly collapsed against my other arm and I couldn’t get up. She leaned hard into my shoulder. She was cool now, damp cool, the freckles on her shoulder made her look salted. Her bangs had dried sticky with sweat and straight up like a boy’s.
“I have to tell you something.”
“I saw her out there.”
“What, that lady?”
“Your mother? Here?”
“No, in Delaware. I saw her on a tractor. After she died.”
I froze, I felt chilled, as if Edie’s mother were standing there right then, passing right then between me and the quilt I couldn’t quite look at any more, following the Black woman into some other gallery. She watched me from over her shoulder, her face a kind of warning.
“She wanted to talk to me,” Edie said. She was doing something with her rings, but I couldn’t see what it was. They slid around loosely on her fingers. One of her cuticles looked bitten and red.
“What did she say?”
“Nothing,” Edie shrugged, “She didn’t really say much at all. That’s how I knew it was her.”
She told it like a story, her fingers rubbing the hem of her shirt, rubbing the salt stain there, the dried sweat of half an hour ago. She said: I was out walking in the fall after she died. I was walking in the fields at the beach house and there was this tractor just sitting there with her in the seat waiting for me to come. Her mother died in the beach house with Edie there in the upstairs room. The sound of her breathing, she said to me as if I would know what she was talking about. The sound of her breathing was everywhere and when she was dead—. In Edie’s office in Madison was a picture of her dead mother, young and newly married. She looked all of 20, a woman from the northeast of a certain class, a little horsey-faced like her daughter; she wore gloves and a hat, something pale and tailored and perfect for the occasion, whatever it was. The light in the picture was perfect too, shady without darkness.
I imagined it couldn’t be exactly under the trees, this green tractor, more sitting in the last light of a short day. I watched in my mind the ghost of Edie’s mother sitting on it, waiting to talk to her. She’d hiked herself up into the seat as if it were comfortable, as if it weren’t cold and hard and too high up not to cut into the back of her thighs. As if she did this very thing every day in spring and summer, sat on a tractor and squinted into the long rays of the sun, catching wrinkles. Her long fingers rested on her long thighs, her white elbow was tucked under the wheel, but she was dead so she couldn’t feel how it pressed the tendon there. When Edie turned the corner on the path, her dog trotting behind her, she smiled and beckoned her over. Her fingers swam in the air, her smile was as familiar as a cookie. She patted down her hair on one side, which is how Edie recognized her. But she didn’t come right away, she stood in the path with her dog, staring for a long second before she said, Mother, you’re dead. What are you doing here?
Edie’s mother in her gloves and hat, a little snap-catch purse on her arm, plump with health again, her long face with the gem-colored eyes just like Edie’s holding that last light of the day, she said to Edie, Never mind all that. Everything’s all right now. I’m here.
By ten in the morning, the sun was hot already, though the figs outside the kitchen window moved in what must have been a breeze. Chuck had brought back bagels from the bakery, they cluttered the table like game pieces. The house filled up with the smell of coffee. Edie walked out of the guest room carrying her sheets wrapped around the mattress pad, the whole bundle tucked against her chest like schoolbooks or a secret. She stood in the hall, the bathroom door and the shower and the window in the shower behind her framing her head. She looked at me like she wanted me to ask, but I didn’t, instead I looked at her like it’s fine, whatever you need.
“I’m sorry about the sheets. I’m bleeding,” she said. “Menopause or something. Gushing. I think they call it gushing.”
“It’s okay, really. Don’t worry about it. Do you need anything?” She said no. “The coffee’s made, Chuck’s had some. Do you want breakfast?” I took the sheets out of her arms, they were warm and heavy like wet diapers, like something alive. They were too heavy, really, like they’d been sopped in the tub. I was worried about Edie, there was the blood now, but it was all of it, the drinking and the way she didn’t call as often, and here she’d shown up at the airport with almost no notice, without much luggage, hungry as a storm. She was pale and thin, her arms skinny and her stomach round, distended like in early pregnancy, high and tight like that. I took the sheets from her, steered her towards the coffee, promised breakfast once I’d soaked everything in cold water, and so she got a mug down, put her hand on the paper, turned to other things.
Downstairs, I filled the laundry tub half full, the cold rushing water drowning out whatever she and Chuck said to each other in the kitchen, the way they were joking, drowned everything out, even the sound of the dog in the neighbor’s yard barking the late morning in like a lazy rooster. When I put the sheets in the sink, they opened like a flower, like a dark-hearted tulip. The water murked up instantly. I pushed the sheets under, massaging them out of their tangle. I lost sight of my fingers in the leaching blood, in the pillows of it rising every time I squeezed. Too much blood, it was like a murder. I thought it was impossible that Edie could have bled like that and wasn’t unconscious, that this wasn’t arterial blood, that her heart still had anything left to pump. I wondered about the walls, the floor, the mattress, I had visions of scenes from horror films, great spraying arcs of blood everywhere. I got down the upholstery cleaner just in case. When the water blackened to the color of meat stock, I drained it and filled the tub again.
Upstairs, they’d started breakfast. I wanted to talk to Edie, so I said: Honey, can you check the backyard? That dog— and when he’d gone I said, That’s a lot of blood.
“Okay just tell me. Are you hurt? Are you miscarrying?”
“I don’t know, no, I’m just anemic. It’s menopause. I’ll see the doctor when I get back.”
“You haven’t yet?”
“I’ve been, really. It’s just early menopause. You’ll see.” She raised an eyebrow at me as if she knew something I didn’t. She sat at my breakfast table drinking coffee as though it were any other morning, one hand over the top of the mug, the other on her lap. The front page was spread out on Chuck’s side, she had the Living section open to the fashions. On the stove the bacon was starting to burn.
“Edie, honestly. It’s a lot of blood.”
She looked at me.
“Maybe we should take you to the doctor now.”
She looked over at the paper.
“I’ll go when I get back.”
She took up the newspaper and shifted in the chair, her shoulder in its silky robe turned to me, a bony, final period to the conversation. By now the bacon had burned. I put on more. Chuck came in, sniffed, said nothing, but Edie got revved up again with him there now, talked about eggs like she couldn’t get enough. She was laughing at the blue jay in the window feeder who was too big and couldn’t figure out how to perch, who was slopping seeds all over the ground in frustration. She took an enormous dollop of cream cheese on a plastic knife, spread it on a bagel the size of her two hands, bit it. It left a white smear on her chin, but she didn’t care, she was laughing again, laughing with Chuck about the stupid, cruel shoes she’d been looking at, was going to buy, and that was when I cracked ten eggs into a bowl, added salt, pepper, dill and water, and beat them as hard as I could.
She ate them all, another bagel, and most of the bacon. Took a shower, headed into the backyard with her novel and a tall glass of orange juice. She slept there every day for the rest of the trip, suspended in the hammock that Chuck had strung up in the back yard the summer before. Into the big oak, he’d screwed a hook almost the size of my palm, but he’d used chain for the fig tree instead, a piece thick as my wrist. He taught me to trust it by holding the chain, leaning away from the tree with his whole weight on it like a skier holds a rope. He balanced on his heels, his back straight, at a 45-degree angle. As the clouds passed across the sun, his shadow appeared, disappeared.
“See? I told you. You’ll never fall,” he said, looking over his shoulder at me standing dubious in the shade. He unrolled the hammock, hooked one eye in then the other, smoothed it out with his hands, pulling and adjusting the ropes between the stretchers.
“Here’s how you get in,” he said, sitting on the edge. He swung his feet up, humping around until he lay in the center, his feet and head at the same distance from the drop of his hips. He put his hands elbow-out behind his ears and sighed heavily, a parody of relaxation, then extricated himself with what looked like a dismount. “Now you try.”
I sat tentatively on the side, twisted like I imagined he had, found myself somehow horizontal. The ropes cut into the backs of my legs, the soft parts of my arms, closed almost over my hips where the stretchers didn’t help. Chuck grabbed handfuls of rope, pulled toward himself like a swing, pushed it until it swayed. The light moved through the leaves and over my legs, patterns shifting, returning. When it stopped, he got a long stick, then got in the hammock with me, our two heads aligned. We lay there for a minute watching the leaves until he dropped the stick between the ropes, pushed against the ground and made the whole thing rock like a cradle.
The uterus is a fat, inverted pear. It has arms, they cup egg-shapes at the wrist, the fringy fingers like feathers or kelp. Around the whole are the hips, smooth and curved. Around the back, the wings of the pelvis, that bony cradle. The center is upholstered with plush, arterial-colored velvet. The margin between the emptiness at the center and this red lining is thick and soft, softer than skin. It looks like the edges of letters in old books, where the ink has bled past the pressmarks onto the pulpy paper. It looks kitten hair soft, soft like our favorite toy as a child, like we might hug it for comfort.
And here Edie was on the phone, telling me that the doctors were planning to anesthetize her and pour boiling water into her to wash the red away, to flush her out with hot water and steam, clean out everything like janitors or laundrymen. I imagined that after the procedure, the inside would be slick and clean, like a shower, like a pork loin just run under the tap. I imagined standing in her womb, running my hands down the beige walls, running my hands over the newly exposed meat, how clean and how terrible. I was in the car, she’d gone to the doctor at home, to several doctors. They’d recommended this, all of them, she said, that or a hysterectomy and she didn’t want to lose everything. The highway stretched flat and straight north. It was late morning and the sun was still low enough that it burned my arm through the window, not a sunburn but a scald. I shifted into more shade, leaned into Chuck, listened to Edie’s voice come through the static of the 800 miles between us.
“It’s some bleeding condition. Endo-something. The gynecologist says it needs cauterized,” she said. She yawned, stretched, had just gotten out of bed.
I thought about fire irons, glowing red, pressed to dog bites. I thought screaming, writhing, thought how in movies they either died then right away, or didn’t and forever had a big scar like a latex worm stuck to their skin.
“Cauterized? But why?”
“It’ll remove the lining. It’ll stop the bleeding.”
I thought, she’ll stop having periods.
Oh God, I thought, no babies.
I looked at Chuck in enough alarm that he frowned down at me, his lips forming the word what?
“Edie? But what about the baby?” I caught his eye. He still didn’t understand. I could see he was thinking she was miscarrying, so I put my hand over the mouthpiece. I whispered: surgical procedure, no baby.
In my ear, I heard Edie laughing, but the phone made it sound as though she were standing in a room without furniture. “I can’t have babies anyway, and I’m bleeding to death.
Chuck caught my eye. He mouthed: miscarriage?
I shook my head, said to Edie, “But once they do that, there’s no chance, you know. No endometrium, no pregnancy. They’re going to sterilize you. Absolutely.”
“I can’t have babies anyway. And you know what? Now I’m really glad I didn’t get pregnant. What would I do with a baby?” She laughed again. The sound bounced around the space between us. “I have too much work to do and no money and all this responsibility. So it’s okay, really. I’m okay with this.”
“Edie?” Chuck looked over at me again. I mouthed: operation, op. er. ay. shun. He nodded with a million questions all over him still. I mouthed: later, later. He drove on.
“No really, I’m okay with it. I didn’t really want the baby anyway. And now I can stop trying and get on with things.”
“Will it hurt?”
“For a couple of days,” she said, “like a miscarriage.”
I heard her get up for a drink. The refrigerator opened, something poured into a glass, she swallowed then sat down on her porch, the rocking chair creaking. I heard a goldfinch singing clearly from the flowerbed full of yellow flowers she planted every year.
When she called again a few weeks later, just a couple days out of surgery, she talked like someone had chloroformed her, like she had gauze over her face, like she was sucking marbles. She was lying in bed, curled up around the burnt out core that would not stop bleeding, still. I could hear her rocking herself, the way the phone registered the sound of her body trying for comfort. She wanted her mother, she said, where is my mother? where is my mother? I said, Edie, Edie, what can I do? Let me help you, let me help you, let me call someone there, but she never heard me, she only said over and over, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, crying into the phone like no one was there.
That late at night, the neighborhood is always dark but for the few streetlamps that flicker and go out and come on again unpredictably, like children falling asleep. Ahead of me the house glowed in the darkness, every light on and the windows blazing golden yellow, not stars but fires behind glass. Shadows of things passed in front of the light, looking out, moving away as I drove in. Inside, the big dog paced the great room, his tail curled and high. The dying beagle slept behind her gate in the bedroom, snoring and dreaming of food. Chuck was there with the phone beside him, on the sofa, at the door, on the sofa, and was sitting me down to tell me. To tell me that Edie was dead.
I stared. How could Edie have died?
“Carlberg called a little earlier.”
“Edie’s dead? Edie’s dead?” I walk around the rooms, through all the rooms, repeating it, switching lights on and off. Repeating it.
“Carlberg says she killed herself.”
“Edie killed herself.” The kitchen light flicked on. The fluorescent sputtered and blinked. “Edie? Dead? Edie? Suicide?”
I stopped by the mantle, picked up some knick-knack, something big as my hand. It was dusty. I thought, maybe I’ll dust tomorrow, knowing somehow that would never happen. Chuck sat down, passed the phone from one hand to the other as though it were hot.
“How is Edie dead, Chuck?” I was still holding whatever I had picked up, the vase, the iron fish, the knitting, the wooden cat, or whatever it was, I don’t know. It didn’t register. “How is Edie dead?”
“Sit down for a minute. This is what Carlberg says. She was pregnant—”
“Now I know it’s not true. She had that operation—”
“Apparently she got pregnant—”
“But if she was pregnant, she would never have—”
“No, listen for a second, okay? She got pregnant but three weeks ago she lost the baby—”
Everything above my navel squeezed so hard I thought I would never hold breath again. Not like being knocked out of a tree, but like being born.
“—lost the baby and then went on a bender, a bad one. Ended up in the hospital.”
“Hospital. Edie’s dead in the hospital.”
“No, listen. She’s dead at home, or probably now at the funeral home, actually, fuck I don’t know where she’s dead now, but she killed herself at home.”
I could only look at the floor. I sat down. The dog stood beside me but watched the front windows in case something moved. I petted him shamelessly, his ears, each one, his neck ruff, all the way down to his tail, each leg, his belly, hairy, then bare. He shivered in pleasure. I stopped.
“Carlberg says she checked herself out of the hospital, got a gun, and took pills and shot herself. Her boyfriend found her yesterday sometime.”
“She didn’t shoot herself.”
“I don’t know, but that’s what Carlberg says.”
“She didn’t have a gun. She didn’t like guns. Shoot herself. She didn’t. I know she didn’t.”
“What can I do? I feel terrible. I’ve known for hours and couldn’t tell you. Are you okay? What can I do?”
She didn’t shoot herself, I said, she didn’t she didn’t, like a child, crying against what emphatically is. What I knew was the truth, once the calls started coming in late into the night, everyone hollow on the line, in other rooms, at other times. And when I became too tired to fight it finally, sitting waiting for the phone to ring again after midnight after so much talking and so much left to do, I saw in my mind the basement of the Oakridge house, with that big double bed, high on the wall. I saw the curtain across the way to the washer, how Mr. Jones, Edie’s cat, lived down there in the cool. I saw the back of the china chest at the foot of the bed, I saw it outlining the lumps of my feet under the down comforter, of Chuck’s feet under the comforter, a kind of human landscape against the back of the china chest in which she kept things she loved, and which I’d given her for her wedding because she’d always wanted it. And here it was in my mind again.
I put Edie on the floor beside it. I put the gun to her head and watched it go off in a kind of movie slow motion, her head rocking back, what was left of it. I watched in my mind how the bits of bone and brain made a spray pattern on the wood, maple if I remembered correctly, with fake gilding and trimwork touched in aging red paint. I forgot Edie slumping on the floor to study the blood on the wood: not Jackson Pollack, who would seem the most straightforward comparison, but something more focused and deliberate and monochromatic. I thought about the way hoses work water into this pattern, if the spray nozzle is right, except unlike paint, water’s so ephemeral. Blood seeps. I thought, it seeps.
I put the phone on the floor near Edie’s body, with the pill bottle picturesquely arranged near her right hand (brown bottle, white cap, a few missed sea-foam green pills rolled to the lowest point, near her right knee). I put the phone there because I wanted her to want someone to call and to hope for it.
The next morning, I woke up half-dreaming, thinking Edie is dead, imagining her body instead now far from her phone, so far it looked like it was at the end of a tunnel, at the wrong end of a telescope. Unreachable. I imagined this time that she’d shot herself in the bathroom rather than the basement, to contain the mess, and had not aimed at her head at all, but at her heart. Not knowing guns well, she’d missed, shot her arm or her stomach or her leg. The gun lay beside the tub, between it and the toilet. Her hand rested beside it, a little bloody (not much since it’s mostly draining into the tub), her hand with its beautiful sapphires in platinum, with its long languid druggy fingers, the long arm, the shoulder with its freckles, Edie, her face pale, her eyes like high mountain lakes in midsummer, that blue, that vacant, and all she wants is someone to help her, but no one’s there. She’s wearing earrings, long dangling earrings that rest on her neck where there’s still a pulse. Her glasses are on the back of the toilet with the empty pill bottle. The tub smells faintly of rose salt scrub and lavender and Ivory soap. Her washcloth dangles, slightly damp, from a hook under the window and her elbow’s pressing the side of tub in a way that reminds her of when she was small and her mother let her play in the bath like it was the ocean. Her chest rises, falls, the phone’s downstairs, through the mirror, and she’s thinking now she might have waited an hour or two, or a day or two or a whole lifetime or two, but no one’s coming and she can’t reach the phone and as she dies she wants to more and more until it’s the last thought she has: I have to call someone.
In my mind, in this vision I have, the last thing I imagine is Edie’s phone beginning to ring downstairs, ringing again, again. The way the answering machine picks it up, the way Edie’s voice comes on to ask for a message, the way whoever it is who calls throws that message into the air like a fish hook towards the sea, all its potential hanging at the top of that curve of motion, right before it comes down.