I am so shy, the very shyest, and oh am I quiet. So they call me a mouse. They call me a mouse and say I’m always sneaking, that they never feel me in the room until they turn and behold me. That the pads of my feet are soft on carpet and tile, soft on thick dead leaves, that I would make a good killer if I had the inkling. I’m not especially small – fond of the tummy pressing over my pants, imprinting a donut in all my dresses – but I’m nimble, and mostly that’s enough.
They say if I hate it here, if I hate them so much, I should put myself on one of those mail-order bridal sites. Momma is crushing jelly beans on her phone; Daddy’s face is half-obscured in steam from jambalaya. He’s scraping brown off the pot with a wooden spoon.
But I don’t hate them, not even a little. Just have to leave, that’s all. You understand.
‘And you won’t, Persephone Beatrice. You won’t find anyplace better.’ Momma never once looks up from her screen. ‘The world’s just one big septic tank. Nothing wrong with a florist like me or a cook like Daddy, and besides, we’ll be sad if you leave. Who will care for us when we’re decrepit?’ Her short nails tap the glass; she matches peach to peach, lavender to lavender, disappearing rows of jelly beans.
‘But think,’ Daddy says. ‘I’d rather know where she is than to wonder.’
‘Yes, better to know.’
‘M-hm,’ he says, but he’s just grunting with the effort of turning all that rice.
The house has been smelling like celery and peppers since five in the morning; this is a batch with crawfish and andouille, and in the afternoon it’s headed to the church to feed the homeless. He’ll say no more on marriage prospects or my dislike of Tennessee, which if you ask him has come on sudden. But water doesn’t snap from cold to boiling; for a long while it’s just hot enough to behave.
The website I find requires a face-to-face consultation. The Matchmaker’s address is nearish a strip mall and a cinema, the one off I-40; I park at the strip mall and go the rest of the way on foot.
The map chirps at me: in fifty feet, make a left and then an immediate right. I have walked straight off the road. I am weaving myself between trees and thickets of kudzu so dense creatures could live inside and I’d never know. Of course they’d have to be quiet as I am, which can be hard for some animals. Rabbits. Snakes.
I can pull at the kudzu like a curtain, fit myself between the vines. For a minute the whole world is quiet: a dappled canopy, a slow-motion waterfall of emeralds, and me as the traveler passing through. The tinkle of a far-off wind chime.
Your destination is ahead, between those trees, the map says.
Through the last layers of kudzu I make out two old oaks, gnarled and preposterously large. They frame a cabin with a sloping roof and a lazy wraparound porch.
Through the trees, up the porch. The wood of the steps is sturdy and expensive, muffles the press of each footfall.
You have reached your destination, the map says.
From the eave hangs the wind chime, a tangle of tin arrows on beaded strings, glinting sunlight and banging on each other. The arrows all point in the same direction: to the right, around the corner of the porch.
I follow them, of course I do. I mean. I’d rather delay the meeting long as possible, rather not face another stranger and plod through the bumble of an introduction – but such are the requirements in searching for a husband. One must become an extrovert.
Except, well, not in this particular case. That’s the point of the website, the Matchmaker, isn’t it? The husband will never be a stranger. The husband, when we are introduced, will already be the husband. Right to the meat of it.
The Matchmaker has a deer strung upside down on a gambrel. She’s done a neat skinning job, so far, as if the deer is wearing itself for a tutu. The air smells like dead leaves and pine needles, and also hickory. A white column rises from the pipe of the smoker.
She wipes her forehead with the crease of her elbow and keeps working the deer. Her hair’s curly and brown and pulled back in a rolled bandana.
‘Too bad you didn’t come tomorrow; I’m making sausage in the morning. This is a good one, too. Clean and young and big.’ She eyes me up and down from the side, never loses pace with her hands. She works her knife at one of the legs.
‘I know little about deer for eating,’ I say. Daddy does all the deer himself, never asks for help.
The Matchmaker clears her throat and asks just what do I know about, then?
‘Deer have good sight and perception of movement, but all that weight on their little hard hooves – they’re fast as lightning, is all. People mistake quick for quiet. Bears are the real smoke of the woods.’
‘Hmm.’ She clears her throat again. ‘I like that.’
One last slit in front of the deer’s neck and most of the skin comes away in her hand. She drapes the pelt over a tree. Then she cricks her chin back up toward the cabin.
‘This’ll keep a while in a cold like today. Go on in.’ She wipes her hands on her apron and hangs that outside, too.
Inside the cabin is everything and nothing I expected. A teapot perches on an electric range; the kitchen is strung with what looks like homemade bunting. She tightens the lid on jam, maybe marinade, who’s to say? A three-wick candle burns atop the refrigerator. The Matchmaker roots us in the kitchen but doesn’t bother with the table, stays standing with her tea to interview me. She pulls a laptop from a cubby otherwise brimming with cookbooks, opens it on the counter, and takes dictation on my answers to a string of questions: Why would I like to get married? I do like men, don’t I? What qualities are attractive in a spouse? Would I be unwilling to relocate anywhere in particular? And how old am I?
I have practiced all of this: I am shyer than average, have a touch of anxiety about impressions and making them. This is, of course, a problem in the becoming of somebody’s wife; one must first make the impression, and a good one, and only afterward comes the caring and hiding away from the world. I make music of that last part, hiding away, as if it’s an afterthought and has only now occurred to me. See how it all builds.
Visible from the window are both the deer’s frame and skin, its insides and its outsides. They are both only the ghost of the deer, divorced of whatever must give a deer its most deerish nature.
The idea of the tucked-away housewife, of the sofa and chocolates? I tell her it’s all appealing. I would like to meet a man well-traveled with a home somewhere obscure but exciting. Small family a plus.
The Matchmaker clicks some boxes and shuts the computer. Tucks hair into the bandana.
‘Right in here,’ she says. ‘What underwear are you wearing?’
The kitchen opens on a photography studio; beauty dishes stand guard for a charcoal velvet backdrop.
I am not wearing the right underwear. The Matchmaker opens a box and I pick a modest rosy pair in my size, unwrap the packaging and change behind a privacy screen.
‘We can hide the belly with one of these boas,’ the Matchmaker says.
‘I don’t mind it so much.’
She shrugs. ‘Doesn’t matter to me.’
We photograph me in my T-shirt, then without it, hugging a pillow. Close-up profiles of my face. One with a quarter held to my cheek, to ensure I’m properly proportioned and sized. One of just my hands and feet, to prove I have no more nor fewer than twenty digits. The Matchmaker says my hands are like a baby’s, stumpy and soft and attractive. We measure my ring size.
The night I get the email is the night police expand the search party. My phone coughs out its little whoosh. The subject line reads, Do I Hear Wedding Bells? We’ve Found You a Match! Action Required. Inside the email is a description of Baptiste, who lives across the Atlantic in what he describes as a penthouse lacking a woman’s touch. He thinks I am very pretty indeed. How soon can I obtain a visa? The service has put a notice and a link at the bottom of the email; We have verified Baptiste is who he says he is. If you consent to this union, let us be the first to congratulate you! Click here to begin your confirmation process.
One of the bloodhounds growls outside. They’re looking for Wendy, who by now has been missing all weekend. Today they pushed out another two miles, which puts the edge of the search just barely inside our property. Tomorrow they’ll get to the garden and greenhouse Momma kept, and the ravine running fast and muddy behind it.
Truth is, any of the men would have done fine. The point is mainly to get out, and anyway I’m pretty sure I can learn to love just about anybody. It helps that all of them are wealthy; the matchmaking service requires an absurd fee to put out a spousal call. I follow the link and fill out the requisite forms. And it’s my lucky night; the airport hasn’t yet closed.
Every bump of the airplane sends my heart to my throat; I ride our ascension with my eyes closed. When we level off I feel it in my gut. The stranger in 18B bumps my arm politely, a woman with gray hair and a nose ring.
‘Sweets,’ she calls me. ‘Far be it from me to, um, I don’t want to intrude and if you’ve got a process then keep at it, Sweets, but if you don’t and you’d like, well, may I make a suggestion –’ She flags the attendant and orders something in Swedish.
The attendant returns with a handful of miniature bottles, vodka and gin, and two single serve wines with screw lids.
18B separates the lot and passes half in my direction. ‘A little self-medication, no? Excuse me for being so bold.’ She unscrews her wine and tips it into a plastic cup. ‘The only way I can fly any more. Sad it’s come to this of course, but. Well. Here we are. Had half a Xanax in the airport, which did most of the work, let-me-tell-you. Did you know ninety-six percent of airplane accidents are one hundred percent fatal? But excuse me for loosing a macabre fact like that, when you’re already having trouble. Rude of me.’
I try to wrap my head around her statistic, which feels patently false. We drop a little in the turbulence. Her wine doesn’t spill, but she picks it up anyway for safekeeping.
‘Go on, have yourself some!’
‘I don’t drink,’ I say. ‘Sorry.’ I have trouble with, well. Let’s say portions. Not drinking’s easier than starting and trying to stop.
I push the bottles her way and she pushes them back. ‘Taught not to in church, is that it? Sorry for guessing, it’s just – I made an assumption on, um, on the accent.’ She winks. ‘Just a sip. I won’t tell Jesus.’
So this, finally, is the free alcohol from the coercive stranger those school videos warned me about. The bottles wink in another bump of the plane. I swallow a dry patch in my throat, and push the bottles back, and fall asleep out of spite.
We’ve landed and are screeching forward and I feel thrown and sick, except then we’re birthed through a sleek white tunnel and given our gate-checked baggage and there, at the edge of a lobby pearlier than teeth, is Baptiste. Doesn’t matter how he looks. He’s fine, a little slim, clean sheet of beard cut close to his chin. He’s gelled his hair and parted it deep to the side.
First he shakes my hand. We hug awkwardly. The suitcase moves from my hand to his; the frappuccino transfers from his to mine. He bought it from the only Starbucks in this half of the city; the drive was long enough it’s started to melt. Which is funny, since I used to secretary for the accounting firm in the shopping center with two of them, one at each entrance. The Starbucks I mean. For when I was coming and going. And you just know they made a killing. I don’t know why I mentioned frappuccinos in the matchmaking profile; I take my coffee instant and hot enough to blister lips.
‘Mercedes?’ I think I recognize the badge.
‘AMG,’ he says. ‘A special Mercedes. Faster.’
‘If you’d like the name, it’s an SLS AMG GT. One of three hundred fifty.’
The car rides smooth as glass. We go so fast I feel like we’re eating the city; then we’re hurtling toward a tower with a mercurial sheen. A garage door disappears into the wall and we’ve passed through it, into shadow.
How is the building livable yet? The elevator is brand spanking new and smells like copper. He says he’s the very first occupant, that they allowed him to move in early. Here, he says, let’s stop on the lower floors.
We tour a concrete expanse, the eye-level skyline obscured to translucency by plastic sheets. Even here the smells are metallic, not sawdusty. Even here the bones boast of the ultra-modern apartment the tower will become. Come August we’ll have a concierge and a doorman, and a weekly team of cleaners. But for now we’re all by ourselves.
‘We’ll call it cozy,’ he says, and winks. He is a cute one, and my stomach starts to flower up. I’m still cautious – who wouldn’t be? – about the isolation, the whole building to just the two of us, and with a perfect stranger. And then you have to wonder what kind of person orders a spouse from across the ocean. It’s only a natural thing to wonder, but it helps, yes, that he’s got a nice smile, that his arms look worked and strong. He has a home gym, he says. I can use it if I want, but no pressure.
The penthouse is unreal. Every finish is gunmetal and copper. Every edge runs parallel and makes the rooms feel infinite. The floors are always heated. The island is always cold. The toilet has three different settings and a soft-closing lid.
And the construction noise isn’t so bad. The problem, turns out, is the plastic sheeting across the den’s panoramic windows; Baptiste huffs about how the painters aren’t done yet. When they come, three weeks later, all they do is remove the plastic. For now it muddles the skyline, and I’m grateful. I need time to adjust to the stomach-dropping view from so high up.
He catches me staring from the corner of the window in my underwear, puts his arm between me and the view, a little roughly. Everything warrants sex, even right at the beginning. He bakes for me, sex. He compliments what I’ve cooked, sex. I wear a shirt he hasn’t seen before. The paperwork clears and we’re officially married. My visa arrives, which he’s pulled strings to expedite. He buys himself new cufflinks. Sex.
My Darling Beatrice, he calls me.
He pronounces it Bee Triss, as in, My Darling Bee Triss, you do cook such spicy food. I tell him I’ve added all the milk I can to the recipe, that any more would ruin the sauce. I’ve made a white gravy with sausage and peppers; it’s something Daddy would have done, and I watched him scratch up gravy enough times to do it myself.
Never mind there’s no such thing as too much milk in the gravy. Never mind how hot the jalapeños have been since we hired a shopper. I’m perfectly aware the food’s spicier.
What I say, instead, is how I could better tailor our food if he let me do the shopping myself. To tell the truth I’m a little wary of deliveries. Or of having deliverers. I’m wary of shoppers and painters and the concierge and cleaning teams we’ll have come August.
‘That’s not what you said you wanted on the profile,’ he says. ‘Anyway, this part of town is more dangerous. At least until construction is finished.’
‘But could I drive the car. I mean if I wanted to. If I wanted to, could I?’
‘I would hire a driver.’
He’s missing my point.
‘That is the point. You don’t have to, My Darling Bee Triss.’ He chuckles. ‘And what money do you have to spend once you’re out?’
He locks the door for emphasis and that’s the end of the argument. And the next morning, like usual, brings the shopper girl with her basket of groceries. She unloads the bread on the counter and pours the apples in the basket.
More peppers, I tell her. I slip her an extra hundred krona.
Momma and Daddy call me on video; their faces are little on the screen and double-chinned from the angle of their laptop. Baptiste stays with me on the sofa, rubs his thumb on my knee so they can see it; he smiles and brightens and tolerates their questions. Then he plants a kiss in the squishy middle of my cheek and leaves to get an apple.
They say I look well. And they do, too; Momma is blushier than she’s been in a while.
‘I wonder if all this time you were allergic to me.’
‘Ha!’ she says. ‘Maybe. But we miss you. Are you traveling much?’ They’re fascinated with international living; the farthest they’ve travelled is Yellowstone.
‘I’m mostly here. Not much occasion to leave.’
‘Oh?’ Momma smiles knowingly. ‘Got everything you need there, I know how it is, I remember what it’s like to be young. Plenty to occupy you, is that it?’
Over in the kitchen Baptiste crunches through his apple. He dabs at the corner of his mouth with a clean dish towel, then ambles away and shuts a door behind him.
They ask about the marriage.
‘It’s fine, great,’ I say. ‘But he wants a baby, you know, and I’m not so sure. Children don’t seem the kind of decision to be unsure about.’
They say no, they suppose not, though of course they’d love a grandchild. They tell me Wendy was found downriver with three holes in her neck – made by something like a hand rake, police think – from which all her quintessential Wendyness leaked.
‘Such a shame,’ says Daddy.
‘Such.’ Momma fiddles with her collar and won’t look at the screen. ‘Oh, I got to level six hundred with my jelly beans.’
I pick at lint on my dress. ‘Congratulations.’
I don’t mean to start collecting apple seeds at first. And then I’ve got a little pile of them tucked in a napkin and I think, just maybe, I’ll plant a tree. This is not to mention how growing a tree would defy all precedent of plants previously under my care; I did not inherit Momma’s talent with flowers. I submerge a handful in a pot and dampen the soil and imagine what an open space I would need in order to nurture a full-blown tree. Not open like the seas of concrete underneath us. Open like the path between Momma’s garden and her greenhouse back home, that wide cobbled walkway, the hills that sprawl away from either side. Farther off, woods. Farther still, town, a ten minute drive just to the edge of it. No matter if the garden was wasted, every plant dead from Momma’s neglect. I would sit among them anyway, knowing Momma had the power to bring them back again, to smell their honest rot, to breathe in all that dirt and water anyway – yes, it does a body good even then. It’s been far too long since I’ve been outside. Look, I’ve lost my tan. But I don’t know if I can go, is the problem; would he be angry if I went outside without him? Where would I possibly go?
And somehow I’m still carrying the horror stories, about the type of men who use marriage services like ours, how prone to jealousy they can be.
The shopper girl comes again, basket loaded with peppers like I asked. She’s got a sweet smile, a flat belly exactly where mine isn’t. She wears a little purple shirt.
I ask her in for coffee and make it with the jar of instant I keep under the cabinet. It singes my tastebuds.
‘Why don’t you just leave, one day?’ she asks.
‘Because I’m not miserable.’ I don’t know much of the language. I’m stumbling through it with her; we start and stop, make hand motions to get our points across.
‘And I don’t know,’ I say. ‘Maybe I want a – ‘ here I rock an invisible baby in my arms. I only know the word for pregnant, and that’s not the word I want. That part seems medieval.
The elevator whirs; Baptiste is coming home.
‘I’ve got to go,’ she says. I get the sense many here are afraid of him.
Where does she go when she’s not here? I ask her and she shakes her head just the once.
‘Nowhere desirable,’ she says. ‘Don’t you worry about me.’
‘Visit soon.’ It’s not an invitation so much as a polite command. If many are afraid of him, maybe they’re afraid of me, too.
She and Baptiste nod at each other and exchange the elevator. Baptiste kisses me hello.
I tell him I want a dog. ‘I can’t even keep plants alive,’ I say.
‘That’s not an attractive secret to admit.’ He’s not wrong.
But the dog will be a test; if I can keep the dog alive then maybe the child isn’t quite so bad an idea.
He sits down. ‘I know it in my heart. You’ll be just fine.’ And he says it so low and sweet I almost believe him.
That night he comes back with a dog exactly to my specifications: a moppy thing the approximate size of my foot. I joke we should name it Cerberus. We compromise on Henry.
He pronounces it On-Ree. It sounds to me like Ornery, which the dog is; it bites my thumb, and when I drop it it pees in the corner.
Baptiste thinks his bringing the dog warrants sex. He shutters Henry outside the bedroom. When we come back it’s chewed the door molding.
‘What ever will we do with you?’ Baptiste says, and ruffles the top of its head like it were a little boy. He winks at me. ‘We’ll bring contractors up to fix it.’
Three times these contractors will come, all to fix the same spot on the molding that little Henry has digested.
I call the Matchmaker on video. I introduce her to the shopper girl, sitting next to me, and she says she’s glad I’ve found friends and a life here.
‘There’s too much sex,’ I say.
‘No such thing. Count yourself lucky. Unless – are you meaning assault?’
‘I’m unhappy. Or. Well, maybe isolated.’
The Matchmaker doesn’t have time for this, but she’ll call again later, she promises.
The shopper girl nods sympathetically, pets Henry. ‘Did he always have this mark behind his ear?’
She calls the dog a he, not an it, and I’ve picked up the habit. She’s been over a lot, lately, and always leaves a smidge before Baptiste gets home. She’s done much of the caring for Henry; she puts cheese in his food dish so he’ll eat the dry kibble. Henry is a picky dog, most days. Won’t eat kibble without cheese but would eat a whole doorway if you gave him a ladder. This week he seems particularly ravenous. I pour a teaspoon of dry instant coffee on the hardwood and he licks it right up. I spill a little of Baptiste’s good vodka in a dish and he drinks it like ambrosia.
I sniff the bottle and come away with a stinging nose. The only drink I ever liked was the moonshine Wendy helped to make, called Apple Pie, a special batch Bill Larkin invented after his distillery burned down a while back. When he rebuilt the distillery he rebuilt the business, too. Hired new employees and runners instead of having his girls do it. Expanded his clientele to surrounding dry counties, ours included.
Momma would rather order from him so people at church didn’t know. Appearances and all that. And Daddy’s a deacon so I get why it’s important.
Henry lies down on account of the alcohol; it’s not doing well in his stomach. That night I think he’s dying; he won’t move from the carpet and all he does is pant. I lay him on the puppy pad and still he manages to pee on the floor. He won’t drink water.
At least he doesn’t chew the doorway.
And in the morning Baptiste is calling, look, my darling Bee Triss, yes, On-Ree seems better!
The mop is chasing his tail and yipping. This lifts the spirits of the shopper girl, when she comes. She unloads the peppers and the apples, makes us coffee, boils rice to put on Henry’s food. The cheese won’t be nice on his system, she says.
‘But where’s his little spot gone off to?’ she asks.
We inspect his ear; the black spot is vanished.
‘Maybe it was –’ I want to say dirt. I mimic sweeping.
Later we find a bump on his tail we’re absolutely sure wasn’t there before. Yesterday when he wouldn’t rise on his own, she looked him over for ticks. His tail, she says, was completely smooth.
At first I worry my translation is bad. ‘I think this is not the same dog,’ she says.
‘But look how happy he is to see you! He knows you. He –’ the word for recognize is just past the edge of my tongue. I reach for it and give up. ‘He remembers you.’
‘He’s happy to see me because he’s a dog. Not because he remembers me.’
We shiver at the possibility that this is a replacement Henry.
I call the Matchmaker again with the theory. It rings once and pushes to voicemail.
The next day I call again. On the other side is a cheery robot; I’m sorry, it says, the number you are trying to reach is no longer available.
I get better about collecting the apple seeds. Not that I mean to. But I see the core of each apple on its plate, how it looks the same as the last apple but isn’t, and think of poor Henry. What may indeed be the Henries. I can’t bear to throw the seeds away. When no one’s home I practice how to grind them up; I try a bowl and a potato masher, and then the blender. But I’m worried about cyanide in the blender; I soap it immediately and refuse to use it again. What a stupid mistake. I send for a coffee grinder, and keep it under the sink with the jar of instant. I’m running a con on coffee; she thinks I have a grinder but nothing to grind, since we drink instant. He thinks I drink nothing but frappuccinos, and only those he brings for me, and doesn’t know about the cabinet.
I research how many apple seeds are too many for a dog Henry’s size; the internet estimates ten could kill him. I feel just terrible, really, that he’s become an experiment. He buries his head in my tummy and I scratch his ears.
‘Sweet little experiment.’ I say it in English, testing a new name to see if it feels better. ‘You’re Henry Junior. Henry the Second or Third, I don’t know. Or Experimental Henry. How do you like it?’
The scoop of his tail swishes my thigh. Maybe I was an experiment. The matchmaking service was an experiment, even; a way to leave home, and quickly. It’s a service for the fraught and those with few other options, I always thought.
Experimental Henry gets a big spoonful of peanut butter. I’m a pushover when I’m in a sympathetic mood. I drop twenty seeds in the grinder, pour them into a baggie, which stays in the cabinet until Baptiste comes home.
So he comes home. So we eat a late dinner, settle in. I mix the powder with peanut butter and feed them to Experimental Henry.
‘Henry’s not feeling well again,’ I say to Baptiste. To tell the truth I’m not feeling well, either; I have no intention to be cold-blooded and at this point I can only hope I’m not. But I’ve got to be sure Baptiste is replacing the dogs. I have trouble watching; Henry begins to seize. Baptiste’s eyes grow round and he looks so, so tired.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘I’m sure he’ll be fine by morning.’
After the sex he bids me stay in the bedroom, to keep my hips elevated. He’s dipping out for cigarettes.
I go to pee instead; in the bathroom I will the feeling of a baby, the twitch and pull behind my navel, and then I will it out again. I do not want the baby. Nor do I deserve the baby.
The street is a blue strip in the night. Baptiste’s car appears in the corner of the window. He parks next to the dumpster, deposits something, and drives away.
I explained already how I’m quiet. I don’t even wear my shoes; the only noise is the one the elevator makes, the ding that says it’s come for me and the one that says I’ve arrived.
I’ve yet to see the ground floor; it is a series of plastic-sheeted tunnels. Obscured in one of these, I could be a sheet’s width from someone and they’d never know. Not that anyone is here. I’d be able to hear them. The tunnels rattle from an oscillating fan. It’s like a blue crystal cave, a maze of rivers in which I’ve been submerged. I pull one of the sheets back and reveal a service door; the hinges are new, and don’t whine when I open them.
The chill crawls under my pajamas. I gulp the outside air and try not to smell the dumpster. In it is a white bundle; I reach to touch the moppy fur, the rigid body. I ruffle his ear a last time.
And then I’m reversing my way in, swimming up the river of plastic sheets, back to the penthouse where Baptiste will know nothing of where I’ve gone. Every step feels electric, like a trespass; I’ll keep the excursion a secret. I lie with my hips on a pillow, and position just so I can spy out the bedroom door. Sometimes nimbleness looks like attention to detail, figuring just how he expects to find me lying in our bed.
When he’s back he takes his pocket knife and, I see now, carves out the flecks of bite marks from the doorway. I hear the curious sniffing of a new dog. Those flowers in my stomach? I can feel each petal curling up and falling off.
‘Really,’ Baptiste says, sleepy, nuzzling his lips on my neck. ‘We’ll have to take him to a behavior specialist. He must stop this chewing habit.’ He laughs. ‘Or I’ll have to kill the little thing!’
Habits are tough. The problem with Wendy is I asked her to stop bringing booze and she didn’t. I mentioned already how I can’t seem to stop once I get going. And Momma neither. Both of us called Wendy in the night. She’d come right up to our windows, make secret deliveries so neither of us, for a while, was aware of the other.
I thought Wendy was my friend, and here she was letting me ruin myself. Here she was letting Momma do the same.
One night she comes knocking at the window and just the sight of that jug makes me sick. I want it so badly. Takes everything I’ve got not to snatch it from her.
I don’t open the window; Go away, I text.
If you don’t want it who’ll buy it? She’s still pretending I don’t know about Momma, that they make the batches special and often for just the two of us.
I crack the window and slip my twenty through. ‘Just don’t come back,’ I beg. ‘Not for me or her.’
But not half a week later Momma must have run out of the stuff, since here comes Wendy’s silhouette around the porch.
So I invite her over in daylight, show her the greenhouse, all the plants Momma grew and abandoned. The interior’s bright and warm and dead. Momma hasn’t been here in months. Work and moonshine, those are the only nodes on her daily cycle. So the plants are skeletal proof of Momma’s ruin.
‘Do you see the way the basil’s dried and crumbled? The tomatoes all smashed and pulpy? See what you’re doing to her. This place was alive and you’ve killed it.’ And then I gesture to another table: look even how she left these tools, and one day never came back to them. Look at this rake lying lonely.
Apples are everywhere. I’ve ordered special copper baskets to hang from the cabinets. I write a work order while he’s away. The shopper girl double-checks my Swedish. I’m careful what I say around her now – we’re starting to sound like each other, and I like her. I don’t want her to know the worst edges of me. I don’t want those edges to cut her.
The man who comes to fill the work order eyes my belly, says, ‘Bebis?’ which, turns out, I never needed to translate.
The penthouse fills with apples in every basket, on every counter, in two of my bedroom drawers. From far away they look like crates of tennis balls, bright and green and absurd in number. I make pies and cobblers and salads. I put them in salsas and chutneys.
Don’t get me wrong; Baptiste can be endearing. For example: his general allergy to spice. And how that dislike is going away. This night he even asks for hot sauce, since I’ve given him a plate covered in his own mild salsa.
‘I’ve never eaten so well in my life. The men at work all say I’m getting fat.’ He smiles, not unkindly. ‘My belly is looking like yours. So comfortable, isn’t it? Always a place to set my tea.’ Henry licks at his heel and Baptiste reaches down to pat him.
Maybe he’s replacing dogs because he wants me to be happy. Maybe he wants me to think I’m good at raising it, that my black thumb for plants doesn’t extend to animals, that my care isn’t a death sentence. He’s replacing Henry, maybe, because he has decided after all that he likes dogs around. He hasn’t asked about a baby in days.
Lacking a woman’s touch, he said about the penthouse in his profile. And if that was a problem, I reckon I’ve solved it; beside the apples, I keep the counter in bread and peppers, the refrigerator always stocked. I’ve framed a selfie from the day we were married and set it on the counter. We have throws and pillows on the sofa, not so many they unbalance the sleekness. A vase of crocuses on the island and lilies on the end table. The only way flowers are beautiful under my care is if they’re cut, if they’re dying already. It has always been like this for me. From our position in the dining room we can survey all of these, the open concept our sprawling kingdom, which Baptiste perhaps would still like to fill with progeny.
I could give it time, learn to be happy here, maybe even love Baptiste and forgive him his multiple Henries. Or he could forgive me mine – I’m becoming unclear on who’s done the trespassing in this particular situation. I think about it for one, two seconds maybe. Not long. And it comes out of nowhere; the thought seeps down me like ice water down the throat, a last ditch regret past a point I could stop it.
I get that now. My willingness to cooperate comes final and hard, and already too late. Because the truth is I maybe like this sinister edge of mine. Because I’ve mixed the apple seeds – the cyanide – in his milder salsa and loaded his plate with it. I’ve miscalculated; no sense denying, I mean to make the dose stronger. Or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe I wanted not to kill him – that’s worse, right, to keep him alive and show him I know about his replacing the dogs? That has to be the line in the soil, doesn’t it?
The seeds suffocate by attaching to blood more quickly that oxygen can. From my research I expect shy of half an hour of struggle. Convulsions, bloody froth rising to the lips, the rattle of choking and, in death, a grisly blueness.
Baptiste clutches at his chest. Takes intense gasps for air. Watches me watching him. Henry licks at Baptiste’s hands.
I think he is dying and leave to pee. When I’m back he’s called 112, croaked some words to emergency dispatch, thrown the phone in my direction. So, yes, I answer it. In broken Swedish I say the address. I have no desire to implicate myself.
And so the ambulance ferries us from the apartment, not exactly how I intended to finally leave. From the two back panes the street glistens with rainwater and mirrors all the lanterns. I accompany him in the ambulance, from the ambulance, into the hospital, all the normal things. I wait, even, for the doctor to come tell me he’ll be fine.
He’s expected to make a full recovery, the doctor says. And for some reason – the doctor cannot comprehend why, thinks it must be the meds – my husband doesn’t want to see me.
The sneaking away isn’t difficult. If the penthouse is unlike the woods, cold and sleek, then the hospital creaks like a root system. The hospital spills over with life and the lack of it; in that way I’m in familiar territory.
Well yes, I’m unhappy you caught me; it indicates a lapse in quietness. But I’ll slip away again. You won’t have me for long. The outside always aches for the silent and the invisible.
Photograph © tubb