The key is stuck again. Four-inch heels tear at the front page of the Times, and she can’t get into her apartment, and she needs another shower. 6:53 A.M. She tries the key again. This time, when shimmied the key moves, but the tumblers won’t roll. Self-loathing leaches outward: she hates Yale, the lock-makers. She presses hard, and the entire mechanism retracts into the door an eighth of an inch, and the key turns, and the door opens, and she falls forward into her bed/living-room/kitchen. She puts a hip to the heavy door, closing it. Old wood. The floorboards slant downward from the entry at a twelve-degree angle. When she lowers her shoulder enough to let her bag slide over her deltoids and onto the hardwood, the thud hurts her brain. Alex says you can bury pain.
Evie controls her knees. She makes them take her to the couch for a kinder collapse. They buckle, and she slumps against the oxford stripes. She removes the pins from her falling French twist and deposits them on the coffee table/hope chest, next to a cloth book open to a page of large and looping handwriting—a girl’s. She places her silver necklace next in a puddle beside the journal. Last month, when Marta finally agreed to sell, Evie had gone to pack up her mother’s house and had found these words, she supposes they are her own. Evie had been little once, though she neglects remembering it, perhaps even very. She reads the diary a sentence or two at a sitting. Still-life. The chain, the unpracticed cursive script: strings of small, indistinguishable zeros. Both speak, obliquely and prophetically, of her existence. Insert laugh. Poor Evie—where is that shower? She stands, moves over to the window, and looks out into a street dotted with blanks, pedestrians. She doesn’t know why they are there, whether they are hiding umbrellas in their briefcases, or where they bought their shoes.
Nasturtium’s has a glass storefront. The woman is sitting alone, her profile says—not much. Evie is caught by her, a something. There it is again, the woman keeps caressing a fallen curl into place behind her ear. An altogether too self-consciously coy tic for a woman of, what, forty? She is sipping a latté or a mocha, some sweet, fat, waking thing, and reading a book, a thick one. Evie coughs up menthol-flavored phlegm, spits it into the heating grate. If the woman wasn’t woman, if she were girl, she’d be a student. A professor? Evie decides—not in that skirt. Mid-thigh, and with her sitting, the hem nears her ass.
Too post-drunk to really move, even four steps to the futon mattress, repelled and hypnotized by the thought of an espresso, Evie stays, breathing clouds onto her window, fingering circular peepholes to erase their centers. The window seat is pleasantly uncomfortable, no cushions. No need, no visitors. She prefers people not come in.
The woman through Evie’s window across the narrow street and through the other window is gone, but her coat and book are still at the table. She must be getting more buzz at the counter. At this hour, chemical crutches are necessary. Evie needs one. Work starts every day promptly whenever she can manage to get there, so Evie stays late and heads directly out again. A change of shoes—strappy, trashy heels, requisite nothing black dress, various products for assorted hygienic purposes, Capris and a light, book or manuscript for the florescent ride home: her eight pound bag. No one is concerned about her morning lack of punctuality, small perk of publishing. The only she can think of.
It’s raining, finally. The by-street is suddenly flooded with orange-yellow taxis. A crayola color to dress up convenience, and it is, pause, unsuccessful. Where is that woman? A few more moments of empty table, zen, and there she is, back. She toddles toward Evie in chunky heels. The woman has one of those strange, nearly mythic bodies: gaunt above the waist, massive below. Evie thinks, genreless. And then thinks, she doesn’t have the legs for that skirt. Correction, Evie’s editorial accuracy kicks in, she has them, and more. When she yanks at the too-short corduroy (Evie thinks, yes, corduroy) affair, after putting the cappuccino bowl on the table and before seating herself, Evie sees that the chair is a wire mesh.
She knows that, of course, she frequents the place for morning fixes after nights that require obliteration, not repair. No matter. What matters is Evie knew that, should have known that. She calms herself. After all, she rarely sits, there is no time. Evie fears inertia. It is a fear she has confronted/abandoned confronting. Now, however, she imagines sitting. The wires would cut into her, they would leave marks. That woman’s entire backside must be waffled. Evie wonders, would it hurt? And then—enough?
What qualifies these days as more than an annoyance? Hangnails irritate, as do UTIs. But her mother can’t touch her anymore, cruelty sloughed off with memory. Evie has seen both—rinsed out of her mother’s long gray along with the herbal shampoos she delivers bi-monthly, good daughter, to the home upstate. Evie’s imagination, she knows, is overactive and insensitive. She has been told. The woman at Nasturtium’s abruptly turns her head, looks directly at Evie. She can’t see me, Evie thinks, and recognizes the thought as erroneous the moment it is framed. Her skull aches, the woman smiles. These streets are too narrow, Evie is getting angry. Why can’t they make broader streets?
Evie skips her shower, hails a cab. Penn Station looms and cowers. She puts out her thin half-cigarette on the wet curb as she exits the taxi. The station is beneath her, and it is cavernous, and the escalator takes her down. Amtrak, to Albany. Another escalator. Evie has only her heavy bag, and hell.
There are as many hells as there are religions. More, even. Evie’s hell, for instance, is an amalgamation of Dante’s Inferno, Saturday morning cartoons featuring Wagnerian choruses, and of course, other people. Evie is bored by her personal canon, but has no time to read for pleasure. Even today, a day she should be working, Evie’s time is not her own. She is late. Insufficiency, Evie thinks, must be the name of a hell.
Just how many are there? How many types of torment? For every sin she has committed, which will be the one to earn her an individualized plan of pain? Despite all her pretensions, Evie still believes in her father’s belief in the American dream. Alex says you just take a stick, and you make a hole, and it doesn’t matter what size. Knowledge imparted by a saint is—she searches for the words—difficult to dismiss.
But these are the wrong words. As usual, she is emotionally insufficient.
On the train Evie pulls out a book she is copy-editing for extra cash. She needs a bigger apartment, one with a bathtub. The manuscript is badly-written non-fiction entering, two decades late, the race to debunk magicians. By Poughkeepsie, she has learned much. She now knows, thank god, where a woman who is sawn in half keeps her real legs. The shoes, Evie reads, are the distraction. Make them sparkle, or make them red, and make the two pairs match, and no one notices that the stand-in, the lie-in, has a different arch, or is even a size off. Of course, the women must contort; the trick is not achievable without a certain level of discomfort, for both of them, the two people required to make half a person believable.
Evie sleeps for an hour. She wakes up, wipes drool from her chin, stumbles to the café car for burnt coffee. Her feet are swollen, her black camisole slip-like second skin is ridiculous on a train, too tight to be wrinkled, always shifting so that the seams are crooked. She sees her legs in the warped silver of the café bar. They are someone else’s legs.
Evie looks in. Her mother is awake in the shared room, but her roommate is not there. Marta is sitting up in bed, brushing her hair. Evie walks in, looks down at the plastic molded chair beside the bed. The chair is Evie in kindergarten, a solitary kind of green. Evie sees playground fixtures, her mother crying, her brother Alex walking his little sister all the way to the second crossing guard before heading back to catch his own bus to the high school. Evie sits down in the chair. It stops. The last time Evie was with her mother, her mother didn’t speak. The time before that she called Evie a whore. The time before that Marta called her Alex.
Mother—when, do you think, are you going to die? Evie asks. In the hall outside the room with the tile floor and the lilac curtains, someone is moaning as they shuffle past. Evie moves over to the single bed, takes the brush from Marta, turns her so that she is facing the door, her legs dangling. Marta is tiny, and the heels of her woolen socks are beyond her size five feet; they are half-way up the backs of her ankles. Evie begins braiding. The hair is soft, strong. Alex loved his mother’s hair, how it hung mid-way down her back, how it moved on its own, like an animal.
Did you know, Mother, there is a difference between a trick and a talent? In the book Evie is editing on the train, the author differentiates between illusions and feats. When a man in an inexpertly wrapped turban lies on a bed of nails, and has another man walk on a board that is placed on top of his nearly naked body, the nails are real, his skin is human skin. This is a feat, a talent. He arranges sharp points to mete out hurt in manageable doses. More nails, Evie had read and found intuitively satisfying, are easier. The pressure on any point of contact is minimized: each prick means less. Still, the man mustn’t tense, he must let the pain envelop him like water. Without reading, Evie knew this. But illusion is a different type of art altogether. What is seen is not what is happening. Evie finishes the braid. That we are mother and daughter, she says to her mother’s absent roommate, this is the illusion.
Evie’s mother mumbles. She has been mumbling for close to a year. Marta is heavily drugged, once a violent woman despite her size. Evie prefers violence to its inarticulation. Marta is still a magician, Marta still makes Evie disappear. Only now, there is the pity, and between them both, not half a person. Marta is mumbling, and Evie does not listen to her. She knows this chant, this mantra. It is a lullaby to Evie, no need to listen to the words, inside her as they are.
My boys are gone, Marta continues, my beautiful boys are gone. Let me die—why won’t you let me die? There is no one, no one to take care of them. My boys, my beautiful, beautiful boys. Evie is sick of the song. She favors abridgement; it is more than a job to her.
Alex died when Evie was in the fourth grade. Hodgkins disease. Evie’s father died before that, when she was three/four/five. That, too, was long and a cancer.
Evie waits. She eases Marta down into the bed. Her mother drones herself to sleep. It takes twenty minutes. Evie avoids the words. She fights them with quiet. This is the only time Evie comes to quiet, and the quiet hurts, and not in the right way. The poem never changes. The last word is gone. Evie answers, yes, Mama, we are. She stands, moves over to the desk, opens the top drawer. She picks up the craft scissors with the rounded tips. Marta is not a danger to the staff anymore, not with the drugs, but these are not hers. The green coating on the handle means, lefties. Marta’s roommate must be left-handed. Evie, the sleuth. The daughter moves to her mother’s bed, pulls Marta’s braid to the side and cuts. Laboriously, and with her left hand, she saws off the hair. It takes, perhaps, a minute and a half.
Evie on the train knows. She knows what will happen when her mother wakes. Alex says you can bury pain, but Mama, she doesn’t listen. Marta’s hand will go to the nape of her neck, Marta will shriek. It will be high-pitched, and it will be long. And then Marta will cry. Evie knows the cry. Evie knows how the cry will be. A child’s cry, it will wring wet leaves off the elms in the small courtyard through the pale purple curtains. It will not stop. Marta will be—pause—inconsolable.
Her hair. It was how they were going to recognize her in heaven.
Evie in the apartment/shoebox leans forward. 11:11 P.M. She raps her knuckles on the floor until she feels a spreading warmth through her fingers, no wish. Alex says you can bury pain but I think he’s a liar. Evie straightens a bit, closes the child’s journal on her mother’s braid. Evie’s own hair smells of cigarettes, but from the train, not her own menthol.
She stands in the shower. It feels exactly like standing in a summer rain. Then, she turns the cold water off, but she is too used to the scalding. Evie has learned several things about her hell: there will be women there, sharing small cells; they will wear silver helmets with false braids, hair harvested from the dead; the women will not have legs, will not be able to run towards, or away; they will be intimate only with strangers; no matter how they try to avoid mirrors, these women will always be looking up, or down, and seeing themselves; it will be hard, very hard. Because there is no place to dig.