Winner, Slippery Elm Prize in Prose
Jane’s husband, Max, died on the first day of November and afterwards, while weeping in the dim winter of her living room and watching her son’s betta fish swim through a castle in a dirty aquarium, she realized she must survive the holidays. She watched the fish fan his burgundy tail beside a miniature shipwreck while thinking of how much she dreaded Thanksgiving, when the windowless aisles of the Food Lion became impassable; she sprinkled fish food along the surface of the aquarium and thought of how she dreaded Christmas with its throbbing lights and swampy eggnog; she watched the fish ascend to the surface of the tank, his mouth opening to each red pellet, while thinking of how she dreaded New Year’s Eve, during which her neighbors set off sparklers, and drank champagne, and their balloons escaped: strings entangled in trees while their bright orbs—full of helium and hope—went on trying to rise. Worst of all, there was January 17, Max’s birthday: a day Jane thought should be erased from all calendars. Jane’s son, Sam, had returned from college that afternoon, by train: unshaven, in a plume of smoke, with a single overstuffed backpack, and he would remain at home until late January; the two of them drifted through the darkness like unmoored boats.
“Should we buy a turkey?” Jane asked Sam the day before Thanksgiving.
“Fuck, no,” Sam said, “Why would we do that? We can barely eat.”
The first Thanksgiving Max did not live to see was blustery and gray; a cold wind blew from the east. Jane and Sam ate the foods that had arrived on their doorstep before the funeral: cheeses and summer sausages; pears wrapped in tissue paper, buried in boxes that reminded Jane of coffins; cookies ruined by raisins. Sam suggested that they watch horror movies on the big TV in the living room and Jane agreed, popping a bowl of popcorn with a noisy air popping machine an aunt had given to her at a bridal shower twenty-four years before; Jane thought of this aunt: still alive in her ranch home in North Carolina, despite her diabetes and gout, while Max had vanished into the silent rafters of the afterlife.
Sam connected a DVD player to the TV and he and Jane began by watching The Blob: the story of a shapeless Jell-O-like substance that oozed through a Pennsylvania town, consuming all the citizens in its path: an auto mechanic, teenagers dancing around a bonfire on a beach, shoppers roaming the aisles of a department store. Jane found herself rooting for the blob and its appetites; she felt a certain excitement each time it hovered, gelatinously, at the edge of ordinary life.
They watched a pert blonde, Marion, check into Norman Bates’ roadside hotel and decide to take a shower.
“This woman should not take a shower,” Jane said.
“Don’t you love the way Hitchcock filmed this scene?” Sam said, as a disembodied hand with a knife began stabbing.
“The blood is actually Hershey’s chocolate syrup,” Jane said.
“My film professor told me,” Sam said.
They watched Jaws, in which attractive young people were continuously boating or swimming, until ominous music began to play and someone yelled: Look out, a shark! The sharks were ubiquitous, and toothy, and perpetually starved. Sam cast a shadowy aquatic creature against the wall with his left hand and, using the thumb of his right, created a fin; he made a low, threatening sound at the back of his throat. Jane began to feel more like herself during their movie marathon; it was easy to pretend Sam was a few years younger, and Max was somewhere upstairs, or about to return from a business trip; she liked the way her own story fell away and was replaced by another; she liked comparing her own plight to the plight of characters in horror films.
In Alien, Jane and Sam watched a space merchant vessel receive a distress call from a distant moon where a submerged ship contained an eerie chamber filled with eggs. Jane took out her knitting, and Sam opened a bag of pistachio nuts too forcefully, their shells cascading over the coffee table onto the wood floor; in their old life, one of them would have found the broom and swept up the fallen shells, but, for a reason Jane could not articulate, death made housework impossible. Jane and Sam watched as a captain, executive officer, and navigator decided to investigate the drowned spacecraft and its odd cargo.
“This guy should not be so curious,” Sam said when the officer leaned over an egg and the parasite inside latched onto his head.
“People in horror films are always curious,” Jane said.
“Dad hated horror films,” Sam said.
“They gave him nightmares,” Jane agreed.
At dusk Jane remembered their dachshund, Paper, required a walk. Sam found him upstairs, his long snout tucked under Max’s desk, where he had been hoarding things: a toothbrush, a tissue he had shredded, delicately, with his front teeth, a pair of Jane’s reading glasses, one of Max’s tennis shoes. Jane and Sam walked together, their silhouettes made bulky by coats, their hands encased in mittens. Sam allowed Paper to choose the direction he preferred and this was most often a street named Ladyslipper with street lamps and Victorian houses; Paper favored this route because it offered an array of dogs behind invisible fences: two pugs, one dark, one light, who barked in unison, the light one hopping excitedly on top of the darker one; then, several houses later, an elegant Alaskan husky with human eyes who wagged his white tail in circles; across the street from the husky, a bassett hound, Romeo, dressed in drooping, oversized skin, who slept at the end of a leash, attached to a stake, in front of a dog house. Romeo was Paper’s friend and they touched noses lightly in the twilight, before Jane and Sam turned back towards the meadow that had once been a farm, and crossed over the rail trail, heading home. As they walked, Jane tried not to look into the houses of her neighbors where families sat in front of flickering fireplaces or lingered at tables heaped with the remains of feasts: carcasses, casseroles, half-eaten pumpkin pies.
In the weeks since Max’s death, Jane had spent a few hours of her insomnia adding up credit card bills; Jane and Max had always paid more attention to dreams than wealth and this had seemed adventurous when Max was alive but now, alone, Jane was afraid. When she and Max had decided she should quit teaching to focus on her paintings and stay home with Sam — after all, the childcare cost nearly as much as her salary — they had not also considered what would happen if Max died suddenly of a heart attack at 48 and no one wanted to hire Jane. Once Max’s life insurance gave out Jane knew she and Sam would need to leave this gentle neighborhood full of professors for some other and, already, she felt like a visitor or a ghost; she did not know if she could find a job teaching art at the age of 49, or if she could even answer an interview question without sweating to death, and, if she could not, she would make so little money as a cashier, or waitress, or secretary she imagined she would grow old in a back room of her sister’s house in Chicago. When she ate her sandwich at the park on Wednesdays, on the way to the grocery store, Jane watched a freckled homeless woman, with hair as long and wild as her own, pushing a grocery cart to a bench where pigeons gathered; she noticed this woman’s hands, which trembled as she reached into a bag of bread; she noticed the contents of the woman’s cart: soda cans, a coat, a sleeping bag, a stack of Agatha Christie novels. Sometimes the homeless woman began conversations with invisible people, and Jane understood this now that Max was ethereal but still seemed to drift through all the drafty rooms of her house, setting off fire alarms or moving the dial on her radio. Once, after the homeless woman pushed her cart down Main Street and into the yard of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jane found herself beside a group of young housewives with toddlers, and, while watching them, she remembered all the places she and Sam had travelled together when he was small: art classes where Sam made unrecognizable sculptures from Play-Doh, music classes where mothers and children gathered around an old Australian man with a guitar and clapped and sang about Waltzing Matilda and Kookaburras, swimming classes in which mothers were asked to recite Humpty Dumpty while dunking their children in a hot salt water pool. (She had quit taking Sam to this last one when she found him reciting nursery rhymes while drowning his plastic superheroes in the bathtub.) Jane remembered how, for several years after Sam was born, everything had seemed new again because it was new to Sam: sand, snow, chocolate, earthworms, trees. In her mind, Jane measured the distance between the young housewives and the woman surrounded by pigeons.
At the library, the day before Sam returned from college, Jane had opened a fragile, historic book about early Massachusetts widow auctions; she read about the early 1600s when women like Jane were sold as slaves to wealthy New England families, their value decreasing as they aged; the book referred to women over forty-five as feeble and undesirable for marriage; she lingered over a passage about a particularly angry widow in Deerfield, also named Jane, who cried out, “For shame!” when she was placed on an auction block. In a phone meeting with an administrator in Max’s old office the week after he died, Jane realized her health insurance — which had been attached to Max’s job — had become unaffordable.
“You could COBRA the insurance,” the administrator explained, “but that would cost around a thousand dollars a month.”
Jane pictured an actual cobra, slithering.
“What do you do?” the administrator asked, hopefully. “Maybe you can access a plan through your employer?”
“I’m a housewife,” Jane replied; then she realized that no one is a housewife if they don’t have a husband, “Or, I guess, I’m unemployed?”
Jane’s phone vibrated and she paused to examine it; the air around her grew colder in the inky darkness. She pulled off a mitten to touch her text messages and the mitten vanished. Maybe it had fallen from her pocket into a snowbank? Jane turned back, scanning the ground beneath a street lamp, the fingers of her right hand growing numb; she searched the darkness, which reminded her of the heavy darkness at the bottom of the sea. After a few minutes she gave up, exhausted by gravity and by all the things in the world that were fallen or hidden; she realized she had wasted years of her life searching for lost objects or waiting for red lights to change. Instead, Jane began searching for Paper’s low, pointy profile and Sam’s straight back and mass of curls; she turned towards the road at the edge of the meadow but found herself alone, among a confusion of tire tracks and footprints, the night starless; she heard the rush of trucks in the distance. Jane walked fast, then faster, her other mitten slipping out of her pocket, her eyes blurring.
“Mom,” Sam called from the front porch of the house where he and Paper waited beside the mailbox: the exact place where, three weeks before, Jane had received a Federal Express envelope stuffed with death certificates, each one the size and shape of a diploma, as if Max had graduated to some other world by developing hyperlipidemia and biventricular valve failure. On each certificate, it seemed to Jane that Max’s life had been flattened: reduced to times and dates.
Paper let out a short, low bark.
“Sorry I lost you,” Jane said, wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her coat, “I got a text from your grandmother.”
“What did she say?” Sam asked.
“She wonders if we’re eating turkey,” Jane said.
“Paper was distracted by a squirrel,” Sam said.
“Someone should make a horror film about squirrels,” Jane said.
Jane put the tea kettle on the stove and Sam found a puzzle on the bookshelf; they cleared off the kitchen table and began sorting the pieces of van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Jane remembered buying this puzzle on a trip with Sam and Max to the Smithsonian when Sam was so small that he ran through all the polished corridors and tried to touch a Degas sculpture of a dancer with a ponytail; before Jane could stop him, he had wrapped his tiny hand around one of the dancer’s ballet shoes and two guards hurried from the corners of the room. Max, who had been walking some distance behind, paused to examine a Chagall painting and pretended not to know them.
Afterwards, in a courtyard with cafe tables and a fountain, Max rearranged his chicken salad. “Remind me why we’re chasing a three-year-old through an art museum?” he asked.
“It’s educational?” Jane had said.
The art museum had been Jane’s idea.
On this same trip they had stopped in Alexandria to visit a couple they’d known in college, Amy and Dave, and Sam spent the evening catching fireflies in a Mason jar, at the edge of a freshly mown lawn, with Amy and Dave’s two tiny curly-haired daughters, who wore no pants.
“We’re potty training,” Amy told Jane.
“The pediatrician gave Amy a book,” Dave said, his brow furrowed as he lit a barbecue grill.
“If those children are potty trained,” Max said to Jane the next morning, in their car, after they had waved goodbye to Amy and Dave and Sam had fallen asleep in his car seat, Cheerios stuck to the front of his shirt, “then I’m a jet pilot.”
“It was a little distracting,” Jane said, “all that child nudity.”
“One of them peed on me,” Max said.
“When?” Jane asked.
“When Amy was showing you the garden,” Max said.
“Did Dave notice?” Amy asked.
“He apologized,” Max said, “I think he’s afraid of Amy and the whole thing is definitely her idea.”
“I wonder what kind of book the pediatrician gave her?” Jane said.
There were so many childrearing books and, during those first years, Jane always had one on her bedside table: books that suggested mothers should leave their babies screaming alone in cribs so they could learn to self-soothe; books that insisted mothers should sleep with their babies pressed against them so they could learn warmth and kindness; books that urged mothers to return to work, and books that warned that a lack of steady maternal presence would lead to improper attachment and developmental delays.
Jane could remember the exact blue of the sky that morning between Alexandria and Baltimore, could remember the seafood she and Max ate in the stone downtown of Ellicott City where they stopped to see the oldest surviving train station; they had stepped inside a long room full of wooden benches to examine photos of passengers from the past in black coats and hats with steamer trunks, and back there, in the balmy September weather of 2003, Jane continued ordering clam chowder in a cup and carrying it through the cobblestone streets, with Sam in a stroller, Max’s hand on the small of her back.
“Isn’t this the last thing van Gogh ever painted?” Sam asked, while piecing together a crow.
“No one seems to know which painting was his last,” Jane said, “At least that’s what I was told in art history class.”
“They agree that he went crazy,” Sam said.
“But they can’t agree on the exact nature of his insanity,” Jane said.
In a used bookstore full of dust and cats, a place where books rose in unsorted piles as tall as trees, Sam found a volume full of hiking trails that led through four ghost towns at the edge of the Quabbin Reservoir.
“I think we should go hiking in one of these towns tomorrow,” he announced on Christmas Eve, when he and Jane were sitting in the living room in the blue, treeless twilight; Sam had opened a map that showed the roads of the towns that had been drowned to create the reservoir so the people of Boston could have enough to drink. He and Jane were watching his betta fish make a bubble nest amid algae at the corner of the aquarium; Jane thought of how the fish was suspended, like Max, in some wordless, submerged world; she thought of how a male betta fish must live alone because he is prone to fighting; sometimes, in the right light, this fish had caught a glimpse of himself in the aquarium glass and Jane had seen how he paced and flared.
Jane and Sam had not bought lights, or gifts, and neither of them had eaten a proper meal that day except for a plate of scrambled eggs at noon. It was amazing, really, how the rest of the world hurried to classes and jobs and appointments. Outside, a skeletal branch scratched the window behind the couch; dishes were stacked in the sink, and pistachio shells had gathered beneath the coffee table, each one like a miniature boat that had run aground; Paper began scratching and nibbling a spot on his leg. It seemed to Jane that she was the opposite of an adult for she could not remember how to structure a day or plan for the future; she didn’t care if the oil was changed in the car or if the sheets on her bed were clean.
“Are you sure?” Jane asked Sam, “Isn’t it supposed to be cold?”
“We have coats,” Sam said.
On Christmas Day, while their neighbors tore open gifts in front of glowing trees, Jane and Sam packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, loaded the station wagon, and drove twenty minutes to the north, to the remains of the drowned town of Dana. Jane was at the wheel, and Paper balanced beside her, on top of the drink holder, his short legs tucked under him, his slender nose pointed forward; Sam was in the passenger seat with a map unfolded in his lap, where Max had often sat. Sam’s beard had come in fully now and his face, in the weeks since his father died, had grown older. When they arrived, Sam opened his map and led Jane and Paper down a winding dirt road to a town square where they discovered the stone foundation of a schoolhouse which was now full of snow instead of children; they found the cellar of a farmhouse where a broken oven from the 1930s had filled with dirt and finches; they visited the remains of a country store with a porch where villagers had once gathered to buy sugar and exchange gossip; Jane and Sam and Paper stood inside the stone outline of a church where there had once been pews and music and sermons; Paper stuffed his slender nose down a hole. They found themselves beside a grove of low, crooked apple trees, each one wizened and hunched. Sam was good at reading an old-fashioned map, something Max had taught him to do on their family hiking trips.
“You won’t always have a GPS,” Max had warned, and, of course, this was true.
Jane and Sam and Paper hiked down a dirt road that had once run through the center of Dana’s downtown until it disappeared under water.
“There was a midnight ball,” Sam read to Jane from the history book he’d brought along, “on the last night that Dana was an incorporated town, before the flooding for the reservoir began.”
“The people of Boston must have been very thirsty,” Jane said, imagining how many villagers had left behind their familiar acres. “Did they dance?”
“What?” Sam said.
“At the midnight ball,” Jane said, “Did people dance?”
“It doesn’t say,” Sam said.
Jane peered into the reservoir which was full of the sunken remains of villagers’ lives: the trees they had once climbed or carved with initials, the hillsides where they had gone sledding, the stone foundations of houses where schools of fish now flicked their gauzy tails; surely, somewhere down there, doors led to sunken bedrooms and kitchens, to streets where people had laughed or kissed. She opened the backpack she had been carrying, and unfolded a blanket, and sat down with her son, and her dog, and they picnicked on the shore where the terrestrial town gave way to the submerged town; they pulled their coats tight around them and ate beneath a maple tree, in the shade where all the old roads paused for a moment before they drowned.