The Secrets of the Living
The road was made of gravel, and it crunched under her ballet slippers. Music played from the mansion at the top of the hill. She closed her eyes and listened. The music, a waltz, felt like the beat of her heart.
On the road she remembered her wedding day; a short white skirt at the Justice of the Peace, scuffed white shoes and sweet lilacs. She remembered Richard whispering to her later that night, “I think you’ve done this before, my dear.” She remembered bad haircuts (especially that one with the short, jagged bangs), nervous giggles, small annoyances like lost keys, strawberry seeds stuck between the spaces of her teeth, and letters written but never sent.
A carriage pulled by a team of miniature elephants came speeding down the road. Dr. Sandstone was at the reigns, whipping them mercilessly. He wore a top hat, and he did not have the face of a man, but of a wolf. The elephants labored slowly, indifferent to the whip. Their trunks sagged against broken tusks, and the word that came to her mind at this sight was abomination.
She tried to hide behind some trees, but Dr. Sandstone saw her. He came to a stop. The pendant on his throat glittered in the sun, and took the form of a stethoscope. “Lovely day, Anna.” His voice was charming, old New England. “But my, you’re so pale.” He grinned at her with a wolf’s teeth and put his cold stethoscope to her chest.
As she ran, the things she remembered dissipated like sound over distance.
Omaha, Nebraska. What a ridiculous place to live.
Her husband Richard was an officer in the airforce. After twenty years of marriage, he still pulled out chairs, and stood when she entered a room. At night he blushed when she changed in front of him. She had never understood his excitement over what seemed to her simply a mound of flesh, no different than cows’ udders. But then, she’d never been a beauty. A skinny woman with dull hair who made love only in the dark. To keep from making noise during the act, she kept her mouth shut and breathed through her nose.
Their house was white and wooden with blue shudders and a picket fence. All down the rows of houses, officers’ wives’ had dinner ready at six. For the sake of variety, she served her Riceroni and steak with cherry Jello for dessert at six-fifteen. “Crap-eroni,” her daughter Carole once announced at the dinner table, then flicked a spoonful against the wall.
Her rules were simple: never raise your voice, never have more than two drinks in one evening, never look too long at strange men. When your daughter talks about friends whose parents are getting divorces, marijuana joints found in locker searches at school, peace rallies in Chicago, or short leather skirts, screw your face into a look of perplexed disapproval and say: How terrible! People like that must come from bad families. If, while the rest of the house is sleeping, you feel that there is something inside you that might burst, make yourself a sandwich and swallow it all down.
The sun chased the moon chased the sun, and by the time she got to the mansion where the waltzing never stopped, three days had gone by. Her ballet shoes were worn at the heels, and her big toes poked through pink silk. When had she last danced? Years. No, decades.
She knocked on the mansion door. Her ring was missing. Pretty diamond ring. Even the indentation it had left on her skin was gone. She remembered a story about a neighbor in Omaha. A thief broke into his home, stealing small items and large, but it was days before her neighbor noticed that anything was gone.
Where was her life right now?
She could almost feel it running away from her.
An eight year-old girl in a ridiculous pink tutu, pirouetting out of the room.
She knocked again, using the brass weight shaped like an angry lion. Its sound reverberated through the hilltop, and inside the mansion the music stopped. Not far behind Dr. Sandstone made his way up the hill. His elephants wheezed their last breaths. She felt like a little girl, so frightened she had to urinate.
But then Brendan Donahue opened the door. Blue eyes, brown hair, dimples, forever sixteen. He held out his hand. She’d fantasized about him for years, though she’d never spoken a word to him. At a party, a bottle had once pointed at them both. Instead of kissing him, she’d pretended to have a stomachache.
Brendan took her mink coat. The minks were alive, squirming and clawing. One of them snapped its jaws around her breast. Blood dripped to the snow, and then below, all the way to China. Brendan smiled. “We’ve been waiting, Anna. But don’t you look pale.”
Her memories formed a spider’s web behind her, and with each step she took more threads connected, while others broke.
Regrets. She had a few. Didn’t everyone?
Buried resentments. Vacations to stupid places like the Hoover Dam. Once, just one Goddamned time, could they have gone some place tropical? Dinners out that had to involve steak. Dinners cooked at home that had to involve steak. A burning in her stomach that maybe had something to do with her life, maybe had something to do with living. Things unsaid: she was smarter than her husband, but not nearly as good looking. Two almost affairs, both on her part. By almost, she had daydreamed about them, the same way she had daydreamed about being the first female astronaut.
Things remembered: the first time she went bowling, rolling a too heavy ball between her legs and getting a strike. STRIKE! Mud pies, butterflies in her stomach, searching for Leprechauns in her backyard. Where else would they be?
She remembered her mother. In her mind their relationship had been like a square and a circle, each of equal size, unable to fit inside one another. “I went to Mars today and had tea with Alice. She says you should stop making me eat meatloaf or I’ll die,” she might have said at the age of eight, which her mother would have heard as, “I am totally crazy, and will consistently embarrass you when your friends come to visit.” If Anna was the square, over time her mother shaved away her edges, so that she was never quite round, and no longer made of angles. Just kind of broken.
She remembered pretty girls and the adolescent humiliation she still felt at the sight of them.
She remembered being thirty-one and thinking herself an old maid. She’d watched the skin on her face as it began to bunch near her eyes and her forehead. A stray strand or two of gray hair. Meals eaten over the sink, or while standing with her head still poked inside an open refrigerator. Her friends from high school by then were all married, their bellies full with second and third children. Her own chances, not many for a shy girl with a shirt collar buttoned to the very top, had come and gone.
At work she had answered phones at the Mercy Medical Center of Omaha. She met Richard when he came into the emergency room with a ruptured appendix. A guileless man with blonde hair and heart that broke easily, he was recently divorced and looking to settle down again. She had not been sure that she loved him, but she’d liked him well enough. The promise of living in her own house with her own front lawn had seemed a better prospect than watching the wrinkles on her face turn to canyons.
She was a good wife and mother. She cooked and cleaned, worked part-time. Arranged carpools, waited up for Carole to come home from parties, always remembered birthdays, anniversaries, favorite books, movies, foods. But while in the middle of making a dinner for a meal at exactly six-fifteen, she would sometimes stop what she was doing, regard her reflection against the toaster, and think: this is not who I am. The moment was fleeting, a phantom walking in and then through her, whispering a secret the living should never know.
There were at least fifty couples in the grand ballroom. Gowns full of feathers, birds chirping in the cages of ladies’ hair. A lovely ball. She skipped down the aisle with Brendan, pretty Brendan, she’d never forgotten him. He was unchanged, sixteen forever. Perhaps the mansion was the place beauty went when the world was finished with it.
They switched partners, parading down the row of dancers, back and forth, back and forth, swinging wildly. Her dress was a flower in bloom. The ceiling was made of painted glass, and she could see the shadows of still more dancers on the floors above. Had she ever been this happy?
Hiding inside the shrubbery of the greenhouse was her husband Richard. He peeked out and watched her. Had she ever loved him? She didn’t think so. Only silence and duty; a nice enough house filled with nice enough people. A barricade against a world far worse. But maybe that was love.
The dance began again, and they switched partners. Hands flew out to catch her, spin her, gallop down the line. Her old friend Sebastian, a kind, gentle man who had died outrageously young, handed her a lilac. “But you’re white as a ghost,” he said.
Just then Dr. Sandstone opened the front door, and it started to snow inside the ballroom. His elephants whined in the hallway, their pleas so affecting that a red balloon inflated in her chest and popped in her throat. The music continued, and her feet unwillingly glided across the floor. Dr. Sandstone joined the waltz. His hands were scalpels, cutting and slicing, and blood snaked its way down the row like a perfect game of telephone; a red death carried from one partner to the next.
At first it was the little things that went missing. A gold watch whose hands glowed in the dark. A diamond ring. One-half carrot. The dim-witted cat was devoured by a neighborhood Doberman Pinscher. She found its dry and broken bones on the lawn the next morning, and collected them into a trash bag before Carole or Richard woke up. A flood in the basement sent all the stored boxes floating: Carole’s baby clothes; all the winter sweaters; the handmade quilt that had passed through her family for three generations. All ruined. These things had been signs, she would later come to believe. But could she have prevented anything, had she recognized them?
In the machine she had tried to be brave. A long narrow room like those sleeping quarters for strange Japanese businessmen staying overnight in Tokyo. Lights flickered. A pain in her chest that would not go away. A pain in her breath. A pain. A pain. So silly to worry. Not young, but not old. “Don’t worry,” she had told Richard, then Carole. “They don’t have that many patients. They’ve got nothing better to do.”
In the machine she thought about the cat, the ring, the flood on the floor. She remembered her bloody nose the week before. And her mother, always her mother, with a disapproving scowl. Regrets. She had a few.
From above there was Dr. Sandstone, asking if she was comfortable. She closed her eyes. She bit her lips, her jaw locked closed. She’d been brave from the day she’d learned to hold her breath, a Coke bottle shaken and never opened, and now she cried.
Her shawl was made from bearskin, and the bear curled its paws around her chest. They were sitting in the banquet hall eating raw steak on golden skewers. Her red wine gave her a mustache, and she wondered if it was wine. “What is this place?” she asked Brendan, and he smiled and put his finger to his lips.
Like figures on a projection screen, Richard and Carole appeared and then disappeared and then reappeared like flickering phantoms behind a red curtain. Their faces were pointed at the ceiling, in admiration of Michelangelo’s Cistine Chapel.
She thought about Carole, so young and pretty and full of the devil, decided to be Carole for just one night. Or maybe more. The sun chased the moon chased the sun. “Is there a bedroom?” she asked. Brendan smiled. On their way up the stairs she saw a woman, so thin, leaning against the banister. The woman’s skin was clear like glass, and Anna could almost see her own reflection. “My,” Anna told the woman, “You look so pale.”
They went to a bedroom and made love in the daytime. She made sounds, and no one laughed.
The room smelled fetid. Thick and sickly, like an old woman alone for too long. There is a smell they carry, like dry bones. On her bedside table were a bunch of lilacs, their sweetness curdled.
Anna wondered with some urgency who had made God.
Richard came in with a glass of water and some pills. He would have made a good nurse, so concerned, so willing to listen to complaints both merited and frivolous. Instead he flew planes into the horizon, raced against the barrier of sound, dropped missiles over foreign nations.
He gave her the pills, looking at her like he didn’t recognize her, which might have been the case. She wanted to scream at him, to curse her God, to weep without reprieve. She did not, and he would never know that this potential was inside her. “Strawberry,” she said, meaning: I’d prefer strawberry ice cream. Richard stood there until she took the glass and swallowed.
Sitting in the chair was Carole, who had not left her side for hours. People will try to tell you who you are, Anna wanted to say, Don’t let them. Instead she said, “My mother was a cunt.” Carole flinched, and then, quite unpredictably, laughed.
She and Brendan left the bedroom, their faces flushed and glowing. On the stairway was the old woman. A crowd of dancers had formed around her. She was familiar, this woman. Like a mother, a daughter, a husband, a son. Sweet old woman. Frightened old woman. Anna could see terror in her eyes.
Dr. Sandstone made his way up the stairs and the crowd parted. With his hands he sliced into her legs, her arms, her neck. She made no sound. She lay crumpled on the floor. Her blood was a red carpet rolling down the stairs.
Dr. Sandstone tipped his hat and left. The music stopped, and the dancers made a chariot with their arms and carried the old woman’s body away. The mansion emptied out. Birds, dancers, plants, and pieces of furniture disappeared one by one. All gone. She watched them evaporate like blinking an eye.
Things not fathomed.
She had a few.
She kissed Brendan’s lips, and the walls turned to glass and then water. She fell down, and then down, and then down. There was Richard, sitting in his study paying bills. There was Carole, sleeping in her bed. She touched the girl’s forehead and told her good night. Except she could not remember the girl’s name anymore, could not remember her own name.
She landed in an empty room. Who she was, who she had been, who she could have been. These things traveled like sound waves reverberating off walls until they became one thing, and then, like a mathematical equation with too many unseen variables to ever be solved, nothing.