She was one of those pretty and charming girls, born by a blunder of destiny in a family of employees. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, married by a man rich and distinguished; and she let them make a match for her with a little clerk in the Department of Education.
She was simple since she could not be adorned; but she was unhappy as though kept out of her own class; for women have no caste and no descent, their beauty, their grace, and their charm serving them instead of birth and fortune. Their native keenness, their instinctive elegance, their flexibility of mind, are their only hierarchy; and these make the daughters of the people the equals of the most lofty dames.
All the same, we cling to our last pleasures as the tree clings to its last leaves. So there sat old Woodifield, smoking a cigar and staring almost greedily at the boss, who rolled in his office chair, stout, rosy, five years older than he, and still going strong, still at the helm. It did one good to see him.
Wistfully, admiringly, the old voice added, "It's snug in here, upon my word!"
When I first bought my plastic ficus he was small, about as high as my knees. The bottom half of him was buried in a plastic, earth colored pot that looked heavier than it really was and there was a bed of faux-moss covering his lack of roots.
I wanted him for my home office because I was missing summer in the middle of November. He had been dumped onto the sale shelf and I saw him and knew that it was meant to be. His glossy leaves reflected the fluorescent lights in a way that was perfectly unnatural and completely beautiful to me.
Hewitt wakes to find his arm asleep beneath his wife's neck. The old patchwork quilt is gone, kicked to the floor during the night and now only the top sheet remains between them and the cold draft from the cracked windowpane. He watches her shoulders rise and fall with each breath—tries to match her rhythm. Before getting up he kisses her back, between her shoulder blades, and she shivers, pulling the sheet to her chin. He slides his arm out from underneath her, sits on the edge of the bed and shakes it to regain feeling. His feet search the cold wood floor for his slippers. She stirs.
"Where are you going?" she asks.
Sunken in the bulbous tower of the Belvedere, a waiter experiments with a gesture, swaying on his rotund and cushioned palm the wasted quiddity of a wine glass. Not overly long-stemmed, the glass seems to cling to the deeply inset dimples of his well-fleshed, roomy hand. The puttering small bubbles of the alcohol vanish slowly one by one, as he dithers with gravity.
Two slender she's sauntered by on gilt heels. Weather: balmy. The place: an adult-ed lobby like the set of a Busby Berkeley film, but before the extras have shuffled on. How would the pair of women have handled a dissolute tumble into a pool with the best boy? They wouldn't have considered it. They would, however, consider backstroking through glistening patches of urban air in June. They shimmered like literature to Nan, a hungry reader with lush pages to turn. She didn't know which pages she should prefer.
They couldn't get her to stop doing it. Crusts of bread, leaves of boiled cabbage, twenty-six grapes, flour in small plastic bags choked with red twist ties. They couldn't get her to stop doing it until she stopped doing everything, and after that it wasn't long until the end. Half bananas browning in their peels, dollops of sour cream in drawers, potatoes in slippers under the bed, red beets bleeding through the pockets of her pale yellow bathrobe.
The side entrance to the library is a proper Ivy door: a solid antique, heavy, imposing. I'm used to its resistance, its demand that I show a little gumption, so I give it a proper pull. But as I grasp the big brass handle and begin to give the door its due, it lunges toward me, tossing this handsome red-haired woman into my arms.
To him, the problem with a public library was that it had too much sincerity about it. Everything was so nonprofit and earnest. Even the posters showed a pacifist propriety. He felt judged by the public library.
She was sixty-two and widowed. Church people did not recognize her, but people at the animal shelter did. People at the shopping mall did not recognize her, but people at the library did. In this woman's life, there were more books than traffic lights, more cats than cell phones, more vegetables than credit cards.
"I've had a shock, George," he said, regarding the other steadily. "I've heard news of my old woman."
"Didn't know you 'ad one," said Mr. Wotton calmly. "Wot's she done?"
"She left me," said Mr. Davis, solemnly—"she left me thirty-five years ago. I went off to sea one fine morning, and that was the last I ever see of 'er."
Lillian calls Roy out of the blue. It had been so long since they'd dated, for him, anyway, that he doesn't recognize the number in his cell phone. But he knows the voice that speaks and is instantly filled with the warm giddiness of promise, the delusional kind in which Lillian has made a terrible mistake and wants him back. He doesn't know if he wants her back, necessarily, but he swings his feet over his bed and pulls on yesterday's socks.
"Roy, I know it's been a long time, but I have a favor to ask you," she says, her voice breaking up as Roy walks around the room, looking for a shirt.
Mid-spring and the trees bloom haphazardly—rich, dense, thick—so lush that standing beneath them, we cannot see the sky clanging against the hills. In a blue car, a radio plays; a man's thumb drums a steering wheel; a woman, her legs folded under her in a practiced N, blows her hot breath onto the window, takes her fist and presses the pinky side onto the fog her breath has made. With her index finger, she forms five perfect toes above the fist. A baby's foot—a trick her mother taught her when she was young. She wipes the spot away.
The nurse pulls my legs one way and my arms the other, positioning me to her liking. Her face is beautiful, like a magazine cover, and I lie across the cold metal table like a wounded dog, my side pressed flat against the surface. A long-armed x-ray device hangs over my head. She smiles, and I lose myself in her face, imagine myself wandering into Candy Land; I walk over her gumdrop eyes.
My wife is beautiful too, but she's not here. When I told her I was going for some tests she said, okay—you're fine. She said nothing about my tendency to over dramatize or my need for attention. She didn't ask why she should care or if womanizing could cause cancer.
There's this bar we go to sometimes. It's called The Kingdom of Norway and it's very exclusive. In fact, it's so exclusive we've never been there. No one we know has ever been there and no one you know has ever been there either. If they say that they have, they're lying. But tonight—trust me—we're going. And after that we imagine it will be the type of bar we can say we sometimes go to.
There are three of us in the car, which is Matty's and is an old VW Rabbit. Matty is my roommate and he has been since college. Back then we called him Matty and he liked it. "Hey, Matty," we'd say. "What's up, Matty?" "How's it going, Matty?" "Matty, give us a high five."
A familiar tickle in her pocket sent a shiver rippling up her spine. The small cell phone had vibrated every day for several years and she still felt like she was touching something paranormal every time she reached to check on it.
Checking the phone was an unnecessary habit. If someone was calling, her lilting ringtone would float from her pocket. It only vibrated when she received text messages, and she only received text messages from him.
She smiled at the small LCD screen, glowing green and black. "Unknown." She couldn't escape the paradox in that name. The messages sender was unknown, and yet she couldn't avoid feeling like she knew everything about him. Even calling Unknown a "him" was an assumption. Everything she knew was interpreted from the daily messages.
Jared Witherspoon and Emily Berkeley stood in Sheremetevo II near the departures hall, Emily crying and Jared extremely aware that he wasn't. Emily's hand vaguely steadied her overpacked bags as she looked at Jared, her eyes clear and blue but red around the edges.
"You'll text me when you get in, won't you?" asked Jared with his hand on the skin above her jeans.
"I'll text you from Prague," she replied. "If that's okay."
Jared gave a small, solemn laugh that he gauged just right. "Of course it's okay, baby. Of course it is, my sweet little baby."
I first saw Priscilla at the pawnshop, as the Arizona sun reddened the sky with a rash. It was just before closing. She looked Jamaican to me but maybe I was homesick. Still, something was familiar about her—the gapped teeth, the regal posture, the locked hair she'd tied in an upsweep that resembled a bird's nest. Respectable is how she struck me, unlike our usual female customers with the belly out and the low-rise jeans that show the top of their underwear, underwear that ain't even real, mind you, but the G-string chicks wear these days. When I first come to the States, only erotic dancers wore that sort of thing. Today, even the college girls that I've dated wear panty strings.
But Priscilla's skirt come to her knees. Her blouse was modest, a button-down loose-fitting deal which you never see on women today. That let me know it was not brand new. So I think, maybe her money is a little tight, maybe she spends her money on drugs. Carney, the shop owner, says this about many of our customers.
See the one with the dirty hair? he'll say leaning in close, She's a tweaker. She's here getting money to buy crystal meth.
Jennifer wakes to the cat vomiting. The sound makes Stephen, the man trying to prove his potential as her kids' fill-in father, jump out of bed like he did when the neighbor kids lit firecrackers in the alley—like trouble, something to reckon with. He's naked, and she tries to swallow the slight nausea she always feels at the sight of naked men—even beautiful naked men, which this one might be said to be, by some.
"It's the cat," she says. "She always vomits when I refill her food bowl; she's the binge-and-purge type."
He laughs, like he does, at her wit, an unsure laugh that says, I'm not sure that I get it, but I'm good-humored, so understand that I want to get it. I'm trying really hard to get it.
He's already pulling on his shorts and t-shirt. He's careful not to let the kids see him without clothes—"Wouldn't want to give them the wrong idea," he says.
Merritt watched Amrita lift her arms to the flock of sparrows heading south and mouthed the thought that clucked at her every day since their arrival in Toronto: I don't want to be here. The birds skimmed over the roof, wheeled, and faded to a darker blot in the clouded sky. Her daughter's slender hands, unmittened, trembled in the cold. Stirred by the birds' passing, the purple, gold, and silver ribbons tied around each stick-thin wrist fluttered upward. They were wings, Amrita explained as she scattered breadcrumbs across the tangled weave of frozen grass and weeds, wings to fly her home.
Charlie and me were just about to head out when my wife Kim gave me an ever-so-light kiss on the lips and then whispered, "Don't go." She pulled back to look at me the one last time before she glanced over my shoulder. Charlie was there leaning up against his blue Ranger. At the time I thought she was ashamed or something for trying to keep me home.
"I can't, you know that," I said. I wasn't lying, either. I couldn't've stayed home then no more than I could've gone to the moon. We'd made these plans weeks back and I'd been hassling Charlie for months before that, just to get together. "We hardly ever see each other, man," I'd said. "We only live ten miles apart. If Ma and Dad were alive they'd…"
"All right, all right. Jesus, just don't cry," he'd said.
"Please make love to me," I said, struggling not to plead.
My husband Dan jerked his chin to the right, meaning no. He picked up his Rubik's Cube from the nightstand and quickly solved the puzzle three times, his Holy Trinity. I gave him the puzzle on his last birthday, his thirtieth, shortly after they came out.
"I wish you'd play with me instead of that cube," I said. I'd been off birth control pills for a month and was ovulating.
"I'd love to, but I don't want a baby." His expression was regretful but firm. I considered seducing him, but assuming I was successful, I knew it would only worsen our situation. When we married a year earlier, we hadn't resolved the issue of having children. Now, at twenty-five, I felt a fierce, animal-like desire to have a baby.
There was once a child, and he strolled about a good deal, and thought of a number of things. He had a sister, who was a child, too, and his constant companion. These two used to wonder all day long. They wondered at the beauty of the flowers; they wondered at the height and blueness of the sky; they wondered at the depth of the bright water; they wondered at the goodness and the power of God who made the lovely world.
They used to say to one another sometimes, Supposing all the children upon earth were to die, would the flowers, and the water, and the sky be sorry? They believed they would be sorry. For, said they, the buds are the children of the flowers, and the little playful streams that gambol down the hillsides are the children of the water; and the smallest bright specks playing at hide-and-seek in the sky all night, must surely be the children of the stars; and they would all be grieved to see their playmates, the children of men, no more.
"I don't mean to be a dick," he said as she drove them west on I70, "but in this light you really look your age."
She was older by five years. Their ages faced off over the line between twenty-something and no longer twenty-something, but he looked like a boy still in college whereas she had matching but fading bath towels and a beaten-down couch in a home that she owned.
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