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Elizabeth Tallent

‘Mendocino Fire’: 2015 Best American Short Stories Notable, Issue No. 100

One time in the library in town, a boy has a rat inside his T-Shirt. Its head pokes out under the boy’s chin, its claw-y hands clinging and whiskers quicked forward. It is as if Finn has never wanted anything before: this, this is her destiny, to be a girl with a rat inside her shirt. Wherever she goes the rat will hang on, the alert small subject of her gigantic solicitude. How long do you think a rat will last in the woods against foxes and ravens and owls and hawks? But if she was very careful and kept it in a cage and was very careful. Do you think a rat wants to be your little prisoner, or do you think a rat wants to be free like you are?

 

Nights when the fog holds off they lean around the illicit summer fire, smoking and telling stories and feeding twigs to the fire for the love of seeing small things burn, story after story and there is Finn, almost five, riding the high end of a tilted redwood log in the dark. Mary, too, tells stories. Whenever Mary tells how Finn was born, Finn feels both beloved and ashamed, her helpless, ridiculous baby-self held up for them to dote on. That story ends with Mary crying in ever-fresh astonishment: Finn, you were so beautiful! Finn works her arms from too-long sleeves and pulls her knees to her chest under the sloppy tent of Goodwill sweater smelling of the grown man who gave it away. Who smoked. Who was not her father because she’s asked and Mary shook her head. The baggy sweater hem covers the boots so only their toes show, and she evens the boot toes so neither is ahead, neither is winning, not the left, not the right—old black boot toes in a setting of moss and fingerlength ferns and upthrust mushrooms whose caps are pale, pushy, tender, mute. A boot toe edges into the crowd of mushrooms. One is uprooted and maimed by the slow back-and-forthing of the toe of the boot. Then she is sorry. Finn closes her eyes and fills up with sorriness.

That is killing, Finn.

For a while she is absorbed in accusing herself, then blame loses its electrical charge, and if she wants that absorption again another mushroom will have to die. Boredom nudges her boot toe close to another cocky little button of rooted aliveness.

What is that like? Not to be able to move out of the way?

 

Another night, that summer or the summer after. If firelight flashes high enough there’s laughter because first it’s a freaking face up there in the dark, then it’s a little kid. Now and then Finn has come down when coaxed, and that was a mistake. They may not mean it that way, but their solicitude is an oblique condemnation of Mary. Finn holds that against them even if her mother doesn’t.

Aren’t you cold in just that sweater and your poor legs bare? And Jesus look how scratched up.

How long since you seen chocolate? I think I got some somewhere.

My little girl is your age just about and she can say her ABCs. Can you say your ABCs?

In this full-moon circle there’s a stranger, though the grown-ups don’t at first know that, each person assuming the lean bearded dude with the hostile vibe arrived with someone else. Afterward no one will own up to having told him about the circle, but that could have been from shame at showing the kind of piss-poor judgment that fucks up everyone’s night.

Finn, who can go a long while unseen, has been found out: he has noticed her. He has called, “What’s your name?” and gotten no answer. The wiry dark shrub of his beard parts again, the teeth asking, “What’s your name?” Finn’s hesitation lasts long enough to offend him down there in his bared-nerve world and he shouts, “Don’t answer then you autistic little shit, not like I give a fuck.” Finn is being, for the first time, hated: her nerves memorize the shock. And him: she memorizes him, this shirtless shaven-headed hater, brows heavy and meaningful in contrast to the round gleaming exposure of his forehead, and, inked on the left upper slab of his chest, a tattoo, a spiral as big as her handprint would be if she left a handprint on his bare, slightly sweating, hard-breathing chest.

“Hey,” someone, not Mary, commands gently. “Hey come on now. Hey.”

Another voice says, “Way disproportionate, man, going off on a kid like that. Pretty fucked up.”

Someone else says, “Look, she never answers.” Adding, “But it’s not autism.”

Someone says, “Maybe, man, you should apologize to Finn.”

He says, “Finn.”

Mary, at last: “You know her name.”

“Finn,” he calls up to her. “Finn, man, I’m sorry, I lost it.”

The others wait for an utterance equal to the scale of his offense. He, too, for reasons of his own, seems to want to say more. He calls, “You not telling me your name, it just hurt my feelings. I lost it.”

At this skewed sincerity they laugh, and he sits down and leans in to accept the joint, and everyone in the mended, redeemed circle relaxes. Finn is almost asleep when she hears his voice again: “You know what I saw on TV last night? This bear. This polar bear. It teeters on this little dwindling raft of ice and it can’t fucking stay where it is and it can’t fucking go because there’s no other ice in sight. It’s swimming and swimming, this small, like a dog, polar bear head in a world of water, forever and ever water, this bear swimming hard against the drag of its long fur with nowhere to swim to, nothing to climb out onto, ice gone, ice melted, and it’s despair, what he feels, what we feel, that is despair and we all know it. You think Mendocino is different, your safe hole to hide in? Well wake the fuck up, they’re coming for the last little scraps. Who stops them? Us? Have we stopped them from fucking over the fucking planet? Let me tell you their ideology. Want me to tell you their ideology? Take take take take take take take. Kill kill kill kill kill kill kill.” When he says “kill” they hear not only fucked up and pissed off, there’s a personal element, some provocation an ordinary person could tolerate, which he, being crazy, can’t bear. “What’s coming should fucking terrify us. Tell me this. Why aren’t we fucking terrified? Why don’t we do a fucking thing?” He gets to his feet, he wants to find her, to talk to her. “Now it all falls on children.” He tilts his face up but the fire has died down and she doubts he can make her out against the darkness. He says, “She’s gonna see—,” and means her. He’s forgotten her name.

He says, “She’s gonna live to see—”

He’s forgotten the end of the sentence.

With soft concern, the kind that doesn’t presume to insist, someone drawls, “Come on, man, sit down, why don’t you sit down”—and other voices, fastidiously soft, tug at him. “Come on, it’s all right, sit back down, good, that’s good, don’t cry, it’s a beautiful night, you’re among friends, there’s the moon.”

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From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Black Dress’ by Elizabeth Tallent

shop_anthology_01_strange_large-1000x988Caro—late, late—suffers the acid brightening of the senses that is panic, her eyes on the mirror where her pregnancy pantyhose are an opaque shade of clay, her arms in black sleeves, her belly welling out, sleekly white, below the wadded silk. There is a new, slyly nauseous tilt to this familiar room, which she loves, which her husband swears he bought the house for—where at night, between her husband and the bedside lamp, she lies waiting for him with sudden but predictable impatience to rise and lean across her. The slide of light up his left arm, the graying dark hair in his armpit, and the nicely braced balance of his body spell safe. He is forty-eight; she’s thirty. He says it takes an immigrant like her to want marriage to be a fortress, and a Catholic (lapsed) to believe this is possible, but each night his breathing chest above her, as darkness clicks on, reassures her: here at last is the thing no one ever leaves. The night he lies there and asks, “Can you get the light?” will count as disaster as surely as if the roof fell in. There are other signs, minute betrayals any outsider would miss, that will predict the falling-off. It’s her business to watch for these—to keep him. For the last year, nothing, no premonition or threat of loss. Now she needs this dress for his son’s girlfriend’s funeral.

Caro fears funerals. She arches her back, which only gives her seven months’ belly a more adamant jut, before sawing the silk downward, careful to keep her nails from its tension. From the kitchen her husband calls, “Ready?,” and she has no time left, and no belief, to steady herself for what lies awaiting thirty miles away in Santa Fe: a seventeen-year-old girl, her expression closed, her hair brushed for the last time, tucked into one of those claustrophobic satin beds, lid open, banked in white flowers, a voice over a microphone describing her life. Her family asked if Kevin wanted his class ring back. Kevin said no. Caro, his young stepmother, hadn’t known he had a class ring. Not that she knows everything about Kevin—she’s hardly had time—but his father hadn’t known either. Sometimes the kids of wrecked marriages did that, got covertly conventional. Could this be true of Kevin with his punk haircut, the crucifix that sometimes hangs from his ear? Hart’s divorce from Kevin’s mother couldn’t have been more confused, with mutual wistfulness hanging on long after they separated, enduring even after Hart had met Caro. No wonder that when Kevin fell in love for the first time he dropped through a trap door into blind adoration. He’d grown up with parents who had no idea what was real in what they felt—what deserved protection. The girl in the coffin would be wearing Kevin’s class ring. She might as well have his heart tucked under her folded hands.

Kevin has been waiting with his father at the kitchen table. A while ago Caro heard the coffee grinder, the single sound, apart from the widely spaced wild barks of their neighbor’s new Labrador, to break her fascinated comprehension that the dress isn’t going to fit. Coffee, she’s aware, is a game note of ordinariness introduced into their wait. From behind, as she forces the dress down another quarter of an inch, comes the spiteful sound of tearing. In the small of her back, her fingertips search out the rip. When she inhales, her fingertips feel the rip widen, though now it is soundless. Caro pictures how the father and son sit across from each other, and how acutely conscious they are of having nothing to say. She is never late, and their waiting—being made to wait—is more than rude. It has to give Kevin’s disorientation a deeper, bitterer twist. From a stack of magazines on the dresser, she takes a glass with what’s left of last night’s milk. Room-temperature now, it is the taste of terrible sadness. Kevin’s girlfriend overdosed on Valium, gin, and her mother’s prescription anti-depressants. She had taken the pills from their hiding place under her mother’s tissue-wrapped lingerie, snapped off the child-proof caps, and eaten them in handfuls. It can’t have been easy swallowing so many times; wouldn’t her body have been on the verge of refusing? Wouldn’t nausea have entered in? Ah, Caro thinks, and places her own nausea: with no sense of linear time, no conviction that things that have happened are irrevocably over, her own body is mimicking the girl’s nausea, the nausea she wishes the girl had felt. Caro’s pregnant body wants the girl to throw up. Caro’s secret sense, which she has not mentioned to her husband, is that death has alarmingly little respect for boundaries, that once tipped out it can spill through entire families. That she should stay away.

Her husband prompts, “Car?,” his tone patient and impatient in an oil-and-water mix. The bedroom and kitchen are not far apart. He didn’t need to raise his voice. He did so for politeness—even now, politeness—the pretense being that they can’t be overheard by each other in this house unless they mean to be. That from their bedroom, the father and his young wife haven’t heard his son the last two nights. When, really, there is little more privacy among them than in the house where Caro was born, though that house had a dirt floor and was in Nicaragua and had seven children and a harried, intrusive mother in it. Her mother went down on her knees in dirt that had been drenched in goat’s blood and let dry; her mother began rubbing the floor’s seal to a high sheen, brown saturated with carmine, finally as polished as brick. Caro has always thought her mother invented this trick. She has never asked her mother if this is so. It remains one of those ways in which your parents are, in their competence, magic. See? Brick from dirt. Food from thin air. The butterflies that staggered in hurried fight across the wall at night were the shadows of her mother’s hands. The centipede her mother shook from Caro’s littlest brother’s shoe was ground to bits, hammered with the heel of that tiny shoe, and then it was not the appearance of the centipede but the rage that was magic. It could protect you. Caro shakes her head to clear it.

Last month, coming in after one in the morning and finding Caro still awake, Kevin had taken her carton of ice cream and her spoon, talking music, physics, cars, things he wanted to tell his mother, in Europe with a new boyfriend, someone her ex-husband thinks isn’t good enough but her son, unpredictably, likes. Whose existence Caro was grateful for as she was grateful to be talked to so fast, looking across the table at such open, childish greed. Kevin doesn’t even like ice cream. He was eating just to eat. So many things that are appealing in children are adults’ worst uglinesses. Greed’s one. Kevin’s not often childlike, more the kind of kid who takes part in adult conversation when they begin to rasp toward quarrels, who can divert his father from rising irritation with a joke. “Dad, what do you get if you have an agnostic dyslexic? No. Wait. An insomniac agnostic dyslexic—what do you get? Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a dog.” On the table between him and Caro, as he spooned raspberry ice cream, was a bunch of Indian paintbrush he had gathered from the deep grass along the highway into Santa Fe. He had stopped to look at the moon, he said. “It was—It was—” He was trying to describe the moon. They both laughed. When Caro finally went back to bed, she found her husband awake, wanting to make love, saying her name over and over into the nape of her neck until she was no longer detecting the sound through her ears but only warmth against her skin and a barely perceptible reverberation of bone, and she had felt confident at last of the love of both of the people she lived with. She had tricked herself, of course, believing this confidence could easily, reasonably, extend into the future, because the girl’s death had changed everything. In Caro’s family, articulate, demonstrative, confessional, grief was nobody’s secret. Her father’s death had fused his five smallest children into a shadow that followed their harsh-eyed mother everywhere, unwilling to let her out of sight. They may not have been noticed, but they were not left, either. They would never be left again, not if vigilance could prevent it.

So, tracing the zipper where it is torn from the silk, Caro considers calling her mother, in Brooklyn now, and a seamstress, who might suggest something that could be done for the dress. Even as Caro debates this, she’s sure there’s nothing her mother could advise. Besides, it’s difficult to picture asking her mother for a favor. Her mother is the kind who requires being prepared for all requests, however minor. Theirs had been a delicately balanced system of exchanges. Perhaps it reflected a widow’s just sense of precariousness—someone who had been so conclusively robbed couldn’t easily give. Caro had never known her life with her mother was claustrophobic, not until she left it. When she had needed to cheer her mother, there had been possibilities in abundance, from weighing her mother’s alive black hair in one small hand while, in the other, the tightly gripped brush fought downward, through washing her oldest brother’s shirts (smell of the outside world), to chasing her little brothers. The eyes of her brothers, when cornered, were glossy and inconsiderate as those of monkeys. Yet within this system, Caro had been recognized by her mother as an unusually resourceful child bent on pleasing. If that couldn’t make her a favorite, it at least got her respect.

“Move,” she whispers, and her arms lift to work the dress off over her head. In the mirror, her legs are so grimly gray it appears that she’s half buried. Awkwardly, she strips the pantyhose off. Their light bundle lands on the dress in the corner. Her belly has the lustrousness of pressurized skin, and that vertical flutter is the baby’s elbow.

When her husband calls, “What’s wrong?” her guilt reaches the baby as a rush of adrenaline, and the baby aims both feet upward and kicks. Caro sits down naked, breath gone, staring at the black dress, whose fault this panic is. If it had fit, she could have gone to the funeral, protected by her own somber, proper appearance. She could have shaken the pale hand of the mother who, caught in traffic on the way home from her acupuncturist, had not known her daughter was dying. Until she heard that part of the story, Caro had always believed in telepathy, between mothers and children especially. The dexterous thumping inside her subsides until the baby seems to be prodding experimentally with a single foot at her ribs. Boy or girl, she wonders, and finds herself thinking, girl. No, knowing. It’s a girl inside her. She leans to the side, drawing her knees in, hands flat to the floor. The dust under her palms is her own inattentiveness. She launches herself upward in a long, graceless uncurling. She rests with her back to the wall.

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