As I began to flip through a literary magazine, I was stopped by a photograph of myself as a young girl, standing beside my college professor. I was wearing a striped bathing suit with a shirt thrown over it; he was in cutoffs, a long wad of string dangling down one leg. If I’d ever seen the picture, I’d forgotten it. Beside me stood Gomer, in his big, aviator-style glasses, who, in his thirties, had reemerged in my life, having renamed himself Grover. After he’d dropped out of graduate school, following a disastrous affair with a fellow graduate student in his biology lab (she also left and returned to Korea), Grover – which still sounds to me like the name of a dog – had a heart-to-heart with me and confessed his undying love. When I expressed little enthusiasm, he turned bitter. Not in the moment. When he said this to me, we were finishing lunch at a sidewalk cafe in New York, where I was working as an office temp. The waitress had been flirting with him by bringing more of the good bread and whisking away the basket of untouched, anemic-looking rolls. By then, he’d become almost handsome. He wore contact lenses, and he’d found a way to stop wincing when he made dismissive motions with his hands. As my father would have said, he’d grown into his looks. His nose was proportionate to his face; his hair, longer. And his generally improved demeanor meant that his eyebrows no longer nearly converged at the bridge of his nose, making the listener assume he’d been skeptical of every word that had been said. He’d enrolled in a very competitive (three tries, many recommendations) acting program in Greenwich Village. So when he stated his feelings about me, had he been acting? As we split the check, I’d found myself wondering if everything he’d said had been an elaborate put-on, or perhaps, in some odd way, a put-down. Otherwise, how could I have felt so diminished?
The photograph was an illustration of a long essay. I could see small children in the background, playing on rocks mostly submerged in water, and remembered that Gomer, Grover, had at some point felt one of them was in danger, and had risen to approach the little group, only to be set upon by an enormous woman, who appeared from nowhere, like a bird of prey, and who kept insisting that everything was under control. Where had she come from? She could have been anybody, though no doubt she was someone’s mother. We’d let her contend with a wailing child’s cut foot, forcing ourselves not to look again in that direction.
I leaned against the door frame to my back porch in Maine as I started to read the essay; really, its existence astonished me, though I suppose I might have brushed the cat aside and sat in the rocking chair and taken a deep breath before I continued. I also might have sat in the rattan chair with the very comfortable cushion, or even on one of the benches pushed under the square picnic table, above which dangled a fuchsia plant that dropped perfectly formed but apparently useless flower bombs on its surface. Today was the Fourth of July, which reminded me of the president, and of his intention to have M1 tanks roll down the streets of DC, which wasn’t a visual image that came easily to me.
Neither could I comprehend Gomer’s essay, which ranged from unlikely to untrue, from fallacious to ridiculous. He wrote that he and I – the now-named Grover and I – had once been involved in a folie à trois, with our professor, who had pitted us against each other as a way of retaining our deepest affections. I was apparently ‘asexual’, and Gomer, Grover, had not yet ‘come out’. Oh? I hadn’t heard about that, and certainly hadn’t suspected it when we’d had our long-ago lunch, too expensive for our budgets, at the sidewalk cafe.
What I remembered our having talked about, that day, was death. Now, that subject might logically be on our minds, but back then, we’d simply drifted into it because we’d both suffered losses. My brother had died at sixteen of a terrible cancer. Grover’s beloved hound dog, Maggie May (this was years ago), had been killed by a taxi that jumped the curb in Boston, the day he’d gone to audition for the role of Rosencrantz in summer stock. The death of a dog, that way, was a very unlikely thing to happen. Also, Maria, the twin sister of Initials (our nickname for our professor, since he went exclusively by his initials, RB), had died of dehydration on her honeymoon, soon after the time we left school. Initials had contacted both of us. Dehydration! It was incomprehensible, as was the bizarre way her new husband had acted, needing to be bailed out of jail after a night of drinking, during which time he destroyed . . . was it store windows? He’d bashed in windows? Something. In any case, she was dead and he’d gone mad.
None of this, however, appeared in the essay – which I read rather frantically – and which focused on Gomer’s, Grover’s, inability, then, to understand that he was a pawn in our game, unwanted by either Initials or by me, yet necessary to what we both needed: an obstacle, a human obstacle, to our being together and being a conventional couple. Because, said he – and why not pull out all the stops? – in our triangle, any side that was struck excited the other side with the reverberation, and that, alone, had always been Initials’s goal, as he was a closeted homosexual, with vast amounts of misplaced anger toward both women and men. Reading, I could easily understand why things had gotten to the point where everyone wanted their sexuality to be the first thing anyone knew about them now. But what, possibly, could have been the point of publishing something about our threesome – whatever it might have been – that had taken place in the Dark Ages? I paid little attention to how Gomer segued into #MeToo, so eager was I to see how the essay concluded. Its conclusion: ‘I fell from my heights faster than Icarus to become an Uber driver.’ This was the first sentence of the last paragraph? Was he being intentionally funny? The drivel continued, though I could barely continue reading: ‘All day, I listen to other people’s unsolicited stories and think how necessary it is to people that they take center stage, though the American experiment has ever been one of asserting one’s individuality, even as we vanish into the crowd.’
It was terrible. Ghastly. Also, creepily, the sentence cadences appeared to have been deliberately constructed to echo the way I spoke, about which I’d taken a lot of kidding. What, possibly, could Gomer, Grover, intend? No one even knew who Initials and I were! I’d published one chapbook, thirty-some years before, in an edition of fifty numbered copies (I’d had an affair with the printer), and two short stories (three had been accepted, but only two were ever published) many years before that. I’d rarely thought of Initials, though I’d heard through the grapevine that he was in a nursing home – information so old, it was more likely he was dead.
I sent one of my long-ago classmates who’d for many years worked for the San Francisco Chronicle an email; he was right back to me, with information. He embodied links to the three best-rated nursing homes in the Washington, DC, area – and bingo! On the third call, it was clear, when I asked if Initials was there, that they knew the name, though I’d been right: he was dead. They didn’t say that, but the strained silence gave me my answer.
Next, I called Grover, and was sent immediately to voicemail, where I had the restraint not to say my name, but, rather, ‘I’m sure you know why I’m calling.’ After that – phone hot in my hand – I called the only writer I knew, my friend Gigi, whose mother I’d nursed through her last illness. Gigi’s mysteries were currently in development for Netflix. I’d reached her at a spa in Vermont, she told me. Is this legal? was my question for her. Can you use a real person’s real name and their photograph, then say whatever you want about them? She gave me the answer I expected but also had a good idea: Call the editor and ask what the hell he or she thought they were doing. She asked me the name of the magazine twice. I think the second time she wrote it down. This was a terrible transgression, what they’d done, she said. It didn’t seem possible, though in the age of Trump . . . She apologized for bringing up his name. ‘Obviously, you could sue the writer, or the magazine, or both, but why would you want to get involved in that? Get something from them, instead.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Do Harry and David still have Fruit-of-the-Month Club?’
She apologized if it might seem that she hadn’t been taking the situation seriously enough; I told her that even I couldn’t take it seriously, but it seemed like such a violation of my privacy. It was so disconcerting. We hung up, promising to speak the next day.
I cold-called the magazine. I found the number inside the front cover. On the second ring, which did surprise me, a male voice answered. I asked to speak to the editor. ‘You’re in luck,’ he said. ‘If you’d wanted anybody else, I’d have to admit that the whole staff was either laid off, or they quit.’ He said that he was putting out the magazine single-handedly. He’d been feeling sorry for himself because it was the Fourth of July.
I told him he published garbage. I summarized what I’d read in the essay, sounding none too coherent myself. I was shaking his flimsy little magazine in the air; that’s why I couldn’t find the title of the essay when he asked. I demanded to know whether he’d even tried to contact me, or Initials – obviously, not letting on that I knew Initials was dead. Asexual, I thought, indignantly. Asexual! The longer he remained silent, the angrier I became: He could not do this; it was reprehensible, slanderous; there’d be legal action; he was clearly incompetent. I threw the magazine to my feet.
‘Jesus,’ he said. ‘Could we at least have coffee?’
What? Where did he think I was? Did he simply assume everyone was where he was, was that more of his stupidity, more of his head stuck in the sand? Who’d simply ask someone across the country to have coffee with them? He supposed I might be, Oh, at the cafe of his local bookstore? Taking a break from my job at the ski resort on the edge of town? At my boutique, hand-lettering labels for CBD oil?
‘Well, where?’ he asked. ‘My phone’s broken. It doesn’t ID the caller.’
‘New Hampshire,’ I replied. ‘I’m slightly more than an hour away from Boston,’ I added, then wondered why I’d said that. (I’d also called it ‘fucking Boston’.)
‘Listen, I’m really upset,’ he said. ‘Really. I heard everything you said. We’ve just . . . I had no idea the writer used your real name. Anyone who writes for the magazine has to sign off on a work of fiction truly being a work of fiction, so he would have to have done that, though I realize that’s not much consolation.’
‘It’s an essay, a lying essay!’ I said.
‘It was submitted as a short story,’ he said, after a pause. ‘Look at the table of contents.’
‘I don’t care what he called it! You – you, personally – ran a picture of us. What did you think it was? Just a random illustration the writer sent along? Of me in my bathing suit?’
He cleared his throat. ‘Well, you know . . .’ he began. He seemed surprised I didn’t interrupt. He began again. ‘You know, in, let’s say, Sebald, there are photographs that are found photographs. You know what I’m saying? Just . . . found photographs.’
‘But you are talking to the person who is standing in the photograph you ran, which accompanies an essay that is about her life.’
‘Then I guess I’m up shit creek without a paddle,’ he said. ‘This’ll be the last straw.’ He either cleared his throat again or snorted. He said, ‘There’s no staff, as it is, like I said. Here I am, trying to pull the final issue together, but you know what? It’s all just shit. You’re right. I’d only be making a tombstone to deteriorate in tonight’s rain like cheap motel soap.’ He almost spat the last two words. Maybe he did spit. There was a hissing sound as he said ‘soap’.
‘Who is this guy?’ the editor asked. His voice was low enough that he seemed to be whispering into my ear. I heard pages turning. Actually, it was more like the sound of a page being ripped. He read aloud, sneeringly, like a schoolboy forced to recite: ‘Grover Delaney lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with his rescue dog, Plath, and his cat, Andrea Doria.’
I hadn’t thought to look at his bio, but my God! Even the animals’ names were a weird in-joke: Sylvia Plath wrote about the sinking of the ship, the Andrea Doria. Back in Initials’s ‘Intro to Poetry’ class, we’d found it alarmingly chilling. But wait: maybe he didn’t have a dog and a cat. Maybe that, too, was invented.
‘Williamsburg, Brooklyn,’ the editor said. ‘I suppose if I was in New York, and a real magazine editor, the “Brooklyn” part would be implied. So what was going on here? It’s some revenge thing, love gone wrong, or something?’
Though that didn’t seem even a remote possibility, a strange thing came back to me as I heard myself, panting. I remembered that day at the lake, when the child had cut himself: Initials had sprung up and turned toward the outcropping of wet rocks, yet he’d almost instantly recoiled, nearly losing his footing, as the big woman reappeared, her expression one of pure rage. I’d seen it in the frightening flash of a second and turned away, a coward. And Gomer – he’d instantly grabbed my hand and squeezed. As Initials sat down, embarrassed that he’d lacked the courage to resist the woman, I’d seen Gomer’s eyes connect with Initials’s, though what of that, so what? It could also have been something I’d invented.
‘The whole country’s got other stuff on its mind right now,’ the editor was saying. ‘The Fourth of July. “God Bless America.” My great-grandma’s favorite singer in the world, Kate Smith, completely discredited. Trump’s tanks rolling down the streets, rooms below statues cracking and being destroyed, the military flying overhead, migrants dying for lack of water, kids without food.’
I cupped my hand to my cheek, but he couldn’t see that. He couldn’t, that is, until he suggested we switch to FaceTime. Why not, I thought. Why not. I’d learned to use FaceTime when I’d subbed for my friend Evelyn as a hospice aide. So we set up our visual chat. Soon, I found myself gazing up the long, white log of the editor’s throat, into the darkness of his cavernous nostrils. My only thought was: He’s just a kid.
And what must he have thought of me – the troublemaker, the difficult old lady, the person capable of ruining his last, optimistic gesture of producing one final magazine: a calling card, maybe, if another job was ever to be found in our Land of Losers.
‘Why did you say “Stay bald” to me?’ I asked.
‘Say what?’ he asked. He had bulging biceps. There was a tattoo on one, though all I could see below the cuff of his rolled-up shirt was the tail end of something: the coiled tail of some animal, maybe. ‘Say again?’ he said.
‘When we were talking about the photograph. You told me to stay bald.’
‘Sorry?’ he said.
‘When I told you that the photograph was of me. That I was the person you were looking at. You said –’
‘Oh! Sebald! Sebald, sure. A really amazing writer. The Rings of Saturn. Austerlitz. Really, the guy was a genius. German. He found old photographs and dropped them into his text. Yeah, he died too young. The guy was a genius. Everybody thought he’d win the Nobel.’
Okay. I’d take the recommendation. I hoped to remember it, though I didn’t have a pen. Of course, I could walk into the house and look for a pen.
‘Imagine how surprised I was to open the magazine and see a picture of myself,’ I said. ‘It came yesterday. I might have carried it upstairs and not gotten to it for days, weeks. I might never have seen it. But I threw it on the kitchen island, with the rest of the mail, and today I opened it, and what did I see but that stupid essay, accompanied by a picture of me.’
‘How old are you there?’ he asked. He’d turned to that page.
‘Seventeen. I started college early.’
‘Managed to pay off your student loan, then, I guess?’
Books were stacked precariously behind him, I saw, as he shifted in the chair, giving me a different view of the room. It seemed small. A blind with broken slats hung at the only window I could see. A spiky plant in a pot sat below it.
‘I didn’t go into debt,’ I said. ‘My parents saved and sent me there to college. It was where my mother had dreamed of going.’
‘This college?’ he asked. He sounded even younger when he was surprised.
‘Yes. That’s how I came to subscribe to the magazine.’
His face moved so close to the camera, it became blurry before it wavered into focus, though for several seconds he had the nostrils of a horse. That was probably what brought my late father to mind, and his way of describing certain people as having ‘a hangdog face’. My father had been misdiagnosed. He’d died of stomach cancer. Two years before, my mother had tumbled down the basement steps. She never regained consciousness. There was a baseball cap atop a pile of books beside the editor’s computer, next to a plug-in keyboard and two coffee mugs, though I hadn’t been looking at the hat, but rather remembering my parents.
‘The magazine’s come for over forty years,’ I said. ‘Imagine.’
‘You must be our longest subscriber,’ he said.
‘Come to think of it, automatic renewals weren’t usual back then, I don’t think. Maybe my guardian angel saw to it that it kept coming.’
‘Have you lived in the same place since you left here?’ he asked.
I’d lived in two apartments and four different houses. The first house, my husband and I had lost when we’d declared bankruptcy. I was twice a widow at age sixty-four. ‘Always in the same town, yes,’ I replied.
‘Wow. So I assume you like it there?’
‘Live Free or Die.’
‘State motto,’ he said.
I had to admit, there didn’t seem much left to talk about. I started to wonder how I could have let anyone see me wearing my baggy shirt, hair uncombed, glasses pushed to the top of my head. I said, ‘I published a story in your magazine once, but it was a few years after I graduated, so that must have been, what? Over forty years ago.’
‘I’ll look it up,’ he said. ‘What’s your last name?’
In fact, the story had been published under my maiden name, before I married Carlson, so it was good he’d asked. At least Gomer hadn’t used my last name. I told the editor what my former name had been. I embarrassed myself by saying that my next story had come out in the Sewanee Review. I did think better of bragging about my poetry book, which had been published that same year. And that had been the end of that.
Apparently, I’d said, aloud, ‘That was the end of that,’ because the editor’s follow-up question was, ‘Haven’t been writing up a storm since then, or haven’t been lucky?’, that slight tone of puckishness creeping into his voice.
‘I became a nurse practitioner,’ I said. What I’d really wanted to say, though, was that I didn’t believe in so-called guardian angels, though in my line of work, there were times when it was easiest to just go with the flow. ‘I enjoyed my work,’ I said, ‘though I understand that “enjoyed” is probably an odd word to choose. I recently retired. And I’m still a big reader.’
There was interference on the line. It wasn’t static, though: behind him, the blind had fallen, toppling the plant, startling both of us. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said, trying to recover himself – by which he meant that he’d only heard the first part of my reply. But I liked what he’d said better the other way: I liked ‘I’m sorry’ better as a statement than as a question.
As I turned my head, I realized that the porch screen was torn, and that my beloved, docile cat was racing through the flap, making a merciless midair dive for a bird pecking below the suet ball.
I sprinted so fast I dropped the phone, the screen door slamming behind me, but it was too late: the mourning dove hadn’t escaped.
‘Hello? Hello?’ he said, the anxiety obvious in his voice. ‘HELLO?’ he shouted. What might he be seeing? My porch roof, with the silver nailheads? My sloping lawn, at some odd angle? It was as if a spell had been broken. I heard him on the other end, but blood rushed to my head, and I also didn’t hear. The cat, mouth clamped on its prize, had run under the climbing hydrangea. ‘Hey, hello, hello, hello, hel-lo?’ I heard, though it seemed to me that our story – at least, some story – had concluded. That I should wait a moment, without feeling any obligation to fill the void. Wait, then return to the porch, pick up the phone that lay silent, and sink into the rocking chair where I’d hoped to sit all along.
Artwork © Jo Whaley, Mourning Dove, Winter from ‘Natura Morta’ series, 1992