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Lynn Gordon



The man on the line was growing impatient, I could tell. “If you could just give me the address, Lucy.” He was going slowly, trying to sound coaxing. “If you’d give me the information, I could arrange…I could send someone over. A person who could be helpful. Wouldn’t that—”

There was an element of condescension that reminded me of certain other people, so I put down the receiver, nipping off the young man from the Tulsa Crisis Line in mid-sentence.


The kitchen door opened and stayed open. Footfalls vibrated through the house and ended up six feet from where I sat eating a bowl of fruit cocktail in my living room. Carla had a soppy look that I didn’t care for, so I made sure to get in the first word: “Haven’t I asked you to knock?”

“Oh, what’s the fate of humanity if I can’t walk in and see my own sister? We’re practically roommates, you know.” I knew, all right. An immediate family member—namely, Carla—had gone broke getting treated for uterine cancer, and had appealed for asylum with the doormattiest relative—namely, me. And of course I was the one who had an in-law cottage in the back, perfect for the likes of Carla.

I thrust the fruit cocktail aside, thinking it was so like her to shift gears, from soppiness to guilt-trip in a twinkling. And now to cunning. She smiled weakly and pulled at a lock of artificial hair, probably to remind me how she’d gone bald from the chemo.

“I want to see how you’re doing; that’s why I came over,” she said, and paused for a once-over. “You look…wonderful, of course. How do you feel?” I saw her glance at the bowl of half-eaten fruit cocktail. When we were little, we used to fight over who got to eat the cherries. Later, it came out that they weren’t even real cherries, but grapes dyed red.

“Yeah, wonderful,” I said. “What about you? You’re the one who was sick. Are you rejoining the workforce yet? Or staying gainfully unemployed?” She’d been in my cottage for over a year.

“Don’t worry; I’ll be off your hands eventually. In fact, that’s —”

“Let’s hope it won’t be long.” Her field was clerical assistance; those jobs hang from the trees.

She felt for the chair behind her and sat down. “I ran into Josie the other day,” she said, putting on a smile again. Josie. Here it came: “She, well, we both thought you might like to de-clutter a little, pass on some of those things you have around, that no one is —”

I cut her right off. “Why don’t you go away and read the job listings?”

I chain-latched the kitchen door after she left.


Josie was at my house, mopping the floor and changing the sheets, and probably undermining my supply of whiskey and liqueurs. The whiskey thing had been going on for ages and I didn’t mind. I paid Josie little enough, and in any case I rarely drank the stuff myself. The bottles had come into my life mainly as hostess gifts, or to spark up recipes that I’d only made once.

It was because of Josie being there that I was out of the house. She was my biweekly butt-kick into the world, all because I disliked the bustle and the fumes that went with cleaning. Sometimes I merely sat in the public library, pretending to read a magazine and avoiding my former co-workers, but this time I was out and about, as I thought of it, in downtown Los Altos. Mostly I was skulking in the back aisles of the Goodwill, looking to see what the local ladies had seen fit to discard.

I don’t live in Los Altos myself. I go there because the little shops comfort me. They offer a friendly anonymity.

The Goodwill volunteer rang up my scarf purchase; I do like to wind a scarf around my chin on cold days. “Have a great weekend,” he said, although it was Wednesday, and those were the only words anyone said to me until I returned home to pay Josie.

She took my fresh ATM cash, and I asked her how the cleaning business was going. “Not bad right now,” she said. “People have their ups and downs with the economy, and I say it’s going up. You don’t need to watch any Wall Street TV show; if you want to hear how things are, moneywise, you can ask me.”

She threw her latex gloves in the trash and went to get her vacuum cleaner from the living room. When she came back to the kitchen for her purse, she gave me the usual line about staying well and she’d see me in a few days. Before I could come out with my usual rejoinder, she said, “By the way, Mrs. Pitre”—she called me that—“it might be time to clear those shoes out of here. And the shirts and all. Whenever you want, let me know.” Then she shot me an extra glance and added, “Aren’t you awfully warm in that scarf?”

She lifted the vacuum cleaner over the threshold and rolled it to her car. I didn’t call goodbye as she went. What was it to her, to talk about those shoes? Her breath had smelled of Frangelico.


Somewhere in Michigan, I didn’t even remember where, a man was talking to me in a high, adolescent voice. How young did they recruit these people?

“I’m okay some of the time,” I said. “Just not…now. What do I do about this?” I hadn’t meant to ask such a thing; funny what popped out sometimes.

“Calling here is a good start.” He was silent very briefly, no doubt consulting a script, because the next thing he said was, “Do you live within the city limits of Lansing?” So that was where: Lansing.

“No, I’m outside,” I said, and that had to be the end.


The best defense is a good offense. They say that, don’t they? I knocked on Carla’s door and then barged in, one jot more courteous than what she did with me. I found her down on the floor, bent into an odd position, fussing with some sort of nylon stocking.

I went ahead with my question: “Want to come eat with me next Friday?”

She kept working the stocking up her leg, evidently a hard thing to do. She got it most of the way on, then looked up with a little gasp. “You mean, in your house?”

“No, at the Tijuana race track.” Leonard had gone there once, before I knew him.

“Oh.” She wrenched at the nylon until I thought she’d spring a hole in it. “You’re cooking?”

“What do you think?” I noticed her face was pale, and she had sweat droplets around her nose. “What are you doing, anyway?”

“It’s a compression stocking to keep down the swelling. From the blood clot.” She scrambled up off the floor and looked me in the eye.

I hadn’t known about a blood clot. Never mind, the point was to get her to my dinner table and demonstrate my competence. My stability and general good cheer. Then maybe she would get off my case—because this was hardly the beginning. Carla had been at me for months, batting her lashless chemo eyes at me, until her sympathy became a menace.

At home again, I stomped around restlessly, putting away a magazine here and picking up a coffee cup there. I threw open my kitchen cupboards, one after another, and peered at the contents. Saltines and powdered soup weren’t going to get me far with the menu planning. I rummaged through my various bookshelves, pulling out every cookbook I found. Then I sat on the living room floor with the pile of books, and picked up the top one. Best Citrus Desserts; that wasn’t the place to start, and where had it come from anyway? Probably from one of my co-workers at the library, back when Leonard and I got married. I didn’t know those women anymore, but I remembered how they all quizzed me about the wedding plans and rushed to buy me gifts. They were envious, of course.


The Goodwill had a different cashier just about every time. That was the beauty of it; I didn’t have them recognizing me over and over, wanting to gossip and know my business. This particular lady had a bad dye job and wore a pink blouse, short-sleeved so I’d have thought she’d be freezing.

“This’ll be so cute on you,” she said, ringing up the sweater I’d chosen.

I wondered what made her assume it was for me. She didn’t even know my size, or how the thing would drape over my shoulders and ribs. I gave the sweater another look as it lay on the counter. It was a greenish crew neck—Leonard never liked me in green—with overlong sleeves, and one or two snags I was sure I could work in with a crochet hook. The cashier lady folded the sweater and slipped it into a plastic bag. “Well, it’s not for me,” I said.

“Then somebody’s lucky.” She blinked at me, bright-eyed.

I was afraid she’d say something else goopy, so I snatched the bag into my arms and hurried out to the street. By the time I’d walked a block, I had it all worked out. I would give the sweater to Josie. I couldn’t just butter up my sister, I had to get Josie off my back, too. Besides, I already had six or eight other sweaters from the Goodwill.

As luck would have it, I left the sweater in my car and forgot to give it to Josie.


It was a woman this time. “I’m here to listen,” she said, all breathy, in what I supposed was the prevailing accent in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I know.” I stopped for a moment, inserting a little gasp or two into the silence. “I want to tell you, I do. Well…my sister.”

When I didn’t go on right away, she said, “Your sister? Tell me about her, Lisa.”

“We were close, very close.” I allowed ten seconds by the wall clock before I went on. “We were swimming together, in the ocean.”

This time she murmured I see into the silence.

“It was summer, a beautiful…a beautiful day. She wanted to spend a day at the beach with me; just with me, before she got married.” I gave it another eight or nine. “We were splashing around; our hair was all wet. She looked so happy…”

“Yes,” said the woman in Charlotte.

“There was a rip tide,” I burst out, and then stopped. I didn’t have anything to go on with. After a moment I hung up.

I bundled my arms around myself, as if I could somehow burrow in. A chill pooled in my chest and gut, even though it was springtime. Even though I lived in what was technically a desert. It could be perimenopause, I thought; that was possible at forty-seven.

The woman from Charlotte—was she upset at being hung up on? Probably it happened all the time, every day. She’d been another young one, like the man in Michigan—young as I had been, back when I married Leonard—with that false assurance, that air of going through the motions, because what does a twenty-five-year-old know? And on the other hand, knowing things with extreme intensity, in a way that they would never be known again.

That was my problem: meeting Leonard Pitre at twenty-five, falling in so deep, and not knowing half of a goddamn thing. There’s nothing like the love that comes forth when your heart is still whole and fresh. No, that’s wrong. It doesn’t come forth; it burrows in. It digs long, meandering tunnels, this way and that, until your heart is left all but hollow.


Josie wanted to raise her rates, and I couldn’t blame her for that. We were in an expensive area; you could tell by the upscale blouses and coats on the racks at the Goodwill, like the boiled-wool jacket I’d bought there, made in Austria, with silver pine cones for buttons. It was the only thing that even began to keep me warm on those spring days.

Anyway, Josie. I told her I had to think it over, which was foolish, since I wanted to stay on her good side and stop her conniving with Carla. Also since anyone could see that I lived in a nice house and didn’t hold a job, while being nowhere near retirement age. I changed my tune, saying, “Despite what it looks like…” but then that seemed even flimsier.

Josie knew most of it, anyway. She’d known Leonard and had been around when it all happened. She’d even had the nerve to drop a remark once, informing me that he’d winked at her funny a couple of years back—a travesty, to say that about him, about Leonard. I figured that was just her personality, and why not ignore it since she did a pretty good job of cleaning.

For that same reason, and others, I gave her the raise. It was only money; that’s what Leonard used to say, and he had left my bank account full. I could let his money flow out into the world, and Josie could be one of the conduits.

I handed over the new, higher payment. At least she hadn’t mentioned the shoes—a victory of sorts. “Wait a sec,” I said, suddenly remembering. I went out to the car and brought back the green sweater, still wrapped in its plastic sack. “Here, just a little something I…I picked up for you.”

After she left, I remembered that I hadn’t taken care of the snags.


The mushrooms and shallots had browned up nicely in the butter—I’d figured that fancy ingredients would increase the impression of competence. It was a good place to pause in the recipe, so I turned off the burner and went to double-check the table setting: white plates, copper-handled forks and knives afloat on a wine-dark tablecloth.

I picked up my scissors and went out the front door to gather irises and marguerites. As I cut through the stems, I thought of Leonard—Leonard, who was always fastidious about his person—and the one time he’d plunged in and planted dahlia bulbs to surprise me. He worked at his fingers with the nail brush for days afterward, although he’d worn work gloves for the project. I didn’t know what was going on with him; I didn’t know about the bulbs until six months later, when they shot up and burst into sprays of color. Leonard could always keep a secret.

The yellow irises looked wrong with the tablecloth, so I stuck them on the coffee table instead. The evening would be perfection, even up to Leonard’s standards, and then people would stop harrying me.

There was still time, nearly an hour, before Carla would arrive. I sat on my sofa to relax. The yellow irises stood before me in the vase I had selected, the petals all ruffles and tufts of golden hair. The sight became disturbing—in recent months I hadn’t been accustomed to seeing flowers inside my house—and I found my hand creeping toward the telephone. Before I knew it, I had picked the thing up.

I sat holding on to it, thinking, feeling chilled, not really thinking after all. But there was time, so why not? I consulted my list and chose Minneapolis, then changed my mind, craving a seacoast town. Miami, and weren’t they famous for having lots of older people? I was in the mood for someone past forty.

The man in Miami didn’t have a Southern accent; he spoke in a softish voice, with maybe a Spanish edge to it. I loved the sound of him.

“How are you today, Lena?” he asked. “My name is Alex.” We went through all the preliminaries. I’d had so much practice by then.

As we talked, I tucked my feet up onto the sofa and got cozy. I gazed at the yellow irises and thought of Leonard’s dahlias, which had blood-colored petals with white tips. They still grew in my garden. I said things to Alex, and now and then he made comments.

We came to the point, after my false sobs and silences, where I might have hung up. But I didn’t. Alex had the quietest voice, so that I had to concentrate hard in order to follow him, and there was a slight roughness that suggested middle age. I pegged him at fifty-two. With dark hair and a thin beard—I had him all imagined.

“Tell me what is troubling you,” he said. I had never heard it put that way.

“It’s about my brother,” I said, and the words tumbled out: “I loved him so much.” Then I waited until he said ah ha; I needed that to go on with.

“We…we went to the beach together one day. We’d been so close, so many years, and we were…the water was warm.” Surely the water was warm in Florida. I was almost smelling the heavy, fishy smell of a Gulf Stream beach. “We were standing out there, past the breakers, and he ducked me under the water. And I ducked him.” I had no need to pause; details came gushing: “Then we stood up again, and his hair was pulled into streams, like seaweed. There were dots of water on his shoulders and arms. My head was soaking wet. I was never so happy.”

“I see, Lena.”

He’d said Lena again; the name warmed me as if it were my own. “Then he took hold of me, just by one shoulder, and told me he was engaged. He was going to marry a girl…a person I hated. A cheat who got by on looks. And, and they were going to move away, to…” I fumbled for a place far away, that would be far away from Miami, too. “To Canada.”

“That was a lot of news for you,” said Alex. He was right. I was beginning to feel as upset as if I’d really had a brother.

“He said it to me seriously, his hand on my shoulder,” I went on. “Not smiling. But I could tell…by the way he stood there, in the blue water, with his wet eyelashes clinging in little bunches. I could tell he was so glad. And I, I wasn’t.”

“You were not glad,” said Alex, very quietly, and I started to cry.

“I said no, you can’t. I didn’t want him to do that, and I was angry. I was angry that he was glad.  But mostly… his eyes were shining…” I went mute.

After a while, Alex said, “What did he do?”

I took a breath. “He let go of my shoulder and moved back from me. He started to say something, he said Lena…” Tears were dripping over my cheekbones. I mopped at them with my wrist. “He was moving out to sea, the water was pulling him. It…carried him.” Now I felt the warm water engulfing my body, the wind on my scalp. Somehow I didn’t move, couldn’t move, while the rip current swept him out to the horizon.

I suppose I stopped talking for a bit. Finally, Alex said, “Lena?”

“I couldn’t do anything!” My voice shook the air. “I couldn’t go after him. The goddamn ocean took him away, out of sight.”

My nose was running now, and I didn’t bother wiping it. Alex was saying something that I couldn’t hear, his voice ever so soft. I hung up.


I soaped my face and rinsed off, and checked in the mirror to see if my eyelashes were clinging together. Only a little, I found, not like someone who’d been immersed in sea water, or tears.

Back in the kitchen, I tied an apron over my blue tunic, which had been Leonard’s favorite. Then Carla came in the door without so much as a yoo-hoo to warn me.

“It’s nice of you to have me,” she said, and to my surprise she handed over a little box of salted caramels, tied with a gold string. It made me realize that I hadn’t had her in for a meal before. Of course, she’d been busy with treatments all year, and anyhow the chemo might have kept her pretty nauseous.

We sat around for a few minutes together, she with a glass of sparkling water and I with a cup of tea. “All right,” I said, after I’d drunk my tea. “You stay here in the living room and relax. I’ll be right back.”

“You don’t want help? Or company?” she asked, and when I said no, she looked just as happy to stay where she was.

And I was happy, too, to have her stay there. It was much better, really, having the kitchen to myself as I set pasta water to boil and went back to the pan of mushrooms. I turned up the flame and poured in nearly a cup of Frangelico. The Frangelico was the reason I’d chosen this recipe; it would get used up, and Josie could damn well switch to ouzo, or some other odd lot of booze I might have stashed in the cupboard.

I added chicken stock and—although the recipe didn’t call for it—a dash of maraschino cherry juice from a long-neglected jar in my refrigerator. After the whole thing began to simmer, the thought of hors d’oeuvres crossed my mind. To act the proper hostess, I needed to serve Carla at least a dip with crackers, or little bowls with nuts and Greek olives. I had forgotten to buy such items; I would need to ransack my shelves and hope for the best.

The first cupboard I opened held the same box of saltines as before, a free sample of children’s breakfast cereal, and canned peaches. I decided to offer Carla a refill of sparkling water and at the same time gauge her interest in appetizers.

I hurried into the living room, Perrier bottle in hand, but I stopped short when I saw Carla. She sat with her head lolled back into the upholstery, her eyes closed with just a slit of the white showing. That solved the appetizer problem.

I sneaked back to the kitchen, guzzled the last dribble of Frangelico straight from the bottle, and took out the chicken breasts I had pounded and dredged and seared earlier in the day. As I dropped them into the bubbling sauce, I wondered if Carla would wake up in time for our meal, which would be ready quite soon. Her rudeness surprised me: the one time she came over for a social visit rather than to harass me, she’d gone and conked out on my furniture, unaided by alcohol.

When I called her to the table, however, Carla stood up smiling, as though she’d been awake the whole time. You can never tell about people, especially your own family members.

She took some of everything—the linguine, the chicken, and the arugula salad—and began tossing out compliments. “The chicken is delicious, such a rich flavor,” she said, when she’d barely tasted it.

“I make it all the time; it’s one of my favorites,” I said back. I couldn’t have her thinking I lived on tea and canned fruit. “So,” I added brightly, “what do you like to cook these days?”

She nibbled at the arugula. She seemed to prefer that over the other dishes. “Oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged. “I keep things simple. Nothing like this.”

I cut through my chicken with new zest—I seemed to be impressing her. As I took seconds of the salad, I thought of what to say next. “Have any plans I should know about?” I was taking the high road, avoiding any questions about her employment situation.

She thought a moment. “Not much.” She had evidently given up on her dinner; she sat with her hands in her lap. “I’ve been thinking about you, though, Kim.”

Now I was in for it. I kept chewing my food, acting as if nothing were going on.

“I know it was hard…I feel bad for you, Kim. About Leonard. Only really, he wasn’t that great for—”

“Hold it right there. You are not going to talk that way about…about the departed.” There was a noise, and I realized I had banged my fork down.

Carla stared from between her naked eyelids. “The departed? That’s a strange piece of terminology, don’t you think?”

Now I, too, had stopped eating. I spoke carefully; I was going to be Miss Capable. And calm. “Why strange?” I asked. “He’s gone, departed.” Even as I spoke, something was collapsing within me.

“Oh, Kim.” She took a shaky breath, like someone very tired.

“What is with you? It was the classic scenario, right? And I’m the survivor. What would you know about it?”

Carla picked up her napkin—pale-blue cotton, to set off the tablecloth—and wiped it over her entire face. She spoke gently: “All I know is that he left and didn’t take a thing with him. To go to Florida with another—”

“How dare you?” I said, very low. I glared at her. She had turned pale, and sweat was running on her cheeks despite the wipe-down she’d just given them. “What is wrong with you?”

“Kim-ber-ly.” Her voice bounced lightly off each syllable. There was an odd gleam in her eye. “Thank you for having me in your cottage this year. I was high and dry otherwise.”

“But what the hell are you driving at? Whatever it is, leave Leonard out of it. And as you can see, I’m completely fine. It’s normal to mourn for a while, not that it’s your business, but you can plainly see that I’m shopping and cooking and keeping up the house, paying my expenses. I don’t know what it is with you.”

Carla didn’t flush or show temper. She seemed to be mustering her energy; perhaps she would stand up and leave. Her voice came out in rough little spurts, like a burr snagging on wool: “What it is, is cancer. I haven’t been cured. Everything they tried…it’s not working.” Again, she put her napkin to her face.


Some hours later in a rush of blind muscle I slid the door back. This was it, the closet I hadn’t seen in eight months and thirteen days, and now I was staring at a whole wardrobe that had been violently abandoned. Every single item was there, except what he’d been wearing on the day.

The shoes rested edge-to-edge on their cedar shelves, some of the glossier pairs dimmed by dust. Apparently Josie had stuck her nose into the closet, but hadn’t cleaned any of the contents.

Above the shoes hung all the shirts, the jackets, the pants, tidy as could be in plastic sheaths and garment bags. Of the two of us, he had been the clothes horse. The jackets came from a fancy men’s store at Stanford Shopping Center. All the ties were silk, the shirts long-staple San Joaquin cotton in yellow, tan, ivory, white. Some of them probably still had notes in the pockets. I used to write little things on strips of paper—I still can’t believe it, or you’re the rain on my petals—and leave them for him to find.

Every thread of it had been his, and now was mine. The clothes, the shoes, had quality and worth and a taunting constancy. I could stuff everything into black trash bags and throw them into the street. Or hand the lot of it off to the Goodwill, garment bags and all.

I slid a jacket—camel hair with leather buttons—from its wooden hanger. I sank my nose into the satin lining, where the sleeve joined on to the body. Despite Leonard’s fastidious ways, he had not eradicated himself from this relic; I closed my eyes and for long seconds I breathed his scent—a trace of sweat, a dash of lemon soap, and the bite of, what? Gin. And burnt coffee.

Moments later, I was on my living room sofa, the satin lining swaddling my arms, the camel hair trembling over my chest. Outside the window, where it was too dark to see, stood the guest cottage with Carla inside it. At that moment she might be sponging her pale skin, or wrestling her leg into a stocking. Or more likely she was in bed, finding her way back into sleep. I found the dent in the cushions where she had rested her head a few hours earlier, and I put my hand there, and for a while my thoughts went in all directions.

At some point I got to my feet, shrugged off the camelhair jacket, went to the door and stepped over the sill into the yard. I stood wide awake under the midnight moon and looked over to the darkened cottage, seeing the lights of my own house reflected in its windows. On the path ahead of me, the white-tipped dahlia petals picked up the moonglow.

New crises would be coming—could come any time, one after another like waves in the ocean. Like rip tides. I felt warm water swirling around me, briny as tears. I held still and waited for the waves to carry me back to shore.

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