This story was originally to be included in Asunder, baby, but I switched it out for something else, and I can’t remember why. Maybe because of its quiet circumspect tone, and I thought it might get lost. I hope you enjoy it, and thank you for reading. — Steve
Francesca will miss the lake, but only in summer.
There is loneliness here now, an airiness between the burden of making toast and the reach for a second cup. It’s a melancholy that balloons the laundry on the line; she says she’ll release it one day, just to see how far a four-hundred thread count sheet can sail. Spiders will still comb through the woodpile at the side of the house, the side not facing Lake Michigan. They’ll burrow inside the lineations of bark and under the roughed-up kindling. Come winter, she’ll see more of them inside, on the corners of scatter rugs, between the summer shoes. That she isn’t squeamish about them anymore tells her how much things have changed.
She and Richard had lived here since 2012, but she still thinks of it as his. He set no boundaries or rules, said it was equally theirs. But he was here first. It was his decision to tear down the dock after the Halloween storm in 2014. The wind shifted it hard from its moorings, so it no longer sat symmetrical to the front deck. He would rebuild it in the spring, he said, but spring fell away and summer was too hot, projects came up, the roof needed work, and they — he — decided a dock wasn’t really necessary.
The way that he pushed things aside was troubling. It was one less piece of clutter to worry about, he said, one less place to sit and watch the lake, she thought.
She hadn’t returned since the day of his funeral. Coming home, she saw there were minor seasonal changes, some not quite comprehensible. There was a plainness in objects she hadn’t considered before. She traced her fingers along the cold cedar handrail, hoping to feel the places Richard had touched when his hands were still warm and accessible; the porch light sconces glowed with unequal brightness, and they cast contradictory and unsettled shadows; the yellowed slashes of the venetian blinds were canted, evoking a drunken peek-a-boo tease; dead leaves poked between the deck’s latticework, already beyond the contentious crunchy-dry stage and now drooped in wet decomposition; an expanse of dewed cobwebs stretched between the furthest cedar branches, drenched in morning silver and looking as sturdy as bridge cables.
“So, do you still teach?” Mae asked her.
And there. A dead chipmunk between mounds of mummified marigolds, belly eviscerated, a torn cabbage leaf still in its maw, maggots scattered across its chest like wedding rice.
“Actually, I’m a librarian,” Francesca said. “People sometimes mix them up. ‘Come with me if you want to read’,” she added with a passable Schwarzenegger accent.
“Nothing. Sorry, an inside joke.”
The sky was muddy gray, which seemed right. Everything felt suppressed, as if the house was holding its breath for her. She only had to turn the key and open the door for things to return to their natural state.
And so she did.
“This is my disaffection of any god not listening,” she said aloud, and wondered if her younger self — her ghost self — would understand this as a passive-aggressive temper tantrum and not a real declaration.
“Richard said you teach young children,” said Mae.
“That’s sort of correct,” said Francesca. “I read to them and encourage them to read outside the school. Some of them do, some of them even enjoy it. But there’s no telling who will show up on reading days, which are Tuesdays mornings and Thursdays after lunch hour. Isn’t that funny? Libraries and public schools may be the only institutions that have a prescribed Lunch Hour. And prisons, I suppose. I’ll bet it’s even posted on bulletin boards. ‘12 p.m. until 1:00 p.m. is hereby designated as the Official Hour of the Lunch’.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“It isn’t a lack of enthusiasm for reading that stops them, it’s the parents. Their work schedules, babysitting schedules, family situations, evictions, divorces, their laziness, drunkenness, habitual unemployment. You really can’t blame the kids.”
“Sounds rough,” said Mae, who discreetly looked at her watch.
“I also teach the children how to interpret their favorite stories through watercolors. Some of them have become quite good at it. But that’s another story. For later.”
“Hey, listen,” said Mae. “Do you think I could call you about Rick’s drawings later in the week? I really hate to be a bother, but I don’t want to be the only one without a lifejacket when Ellis-Martin starts to go under.”
“Sure, all right,” said Francesca. “I’ll be going back home tomorrow morning. I’ve been avoiding it since the funeral, but I suppose it’s time to settle back in.”
“That sounds great,” said Mae, who sounded like it was not so great.
Francesca thought: I’ll bet you were the girl everyone wanted to fuck in college. Who knows, maybe even still. You’ve got that Mary Tyler Moore sparkle and those roller derby hips and those goddamn freckles, so why not? “Yes. Do you still have the old landline number? I don’t think we ever changed it.”
“I’m sure I do. I’ll check my old post-its. I can’t tell you how much this will help, Frankie. I mean it!”
“I’m sure we can work something out,” she said. Who the hell holds onto their old post-its? she wondered. Just the sparkly girls from college, that’s who. She felt marginally ashamed for thinking ungenerous thoughts, but she was a widow now — was that technically correct, since she and Richard had never married? Could that be challenged in court for some reason? And who really cared what kind of thoughts she was having? She was In Mourning, and therefore deserved a little latitude for whatever thoughts she might have.
Francesca left the house on the lake in the shape of a snapshot.
There were rudimentary decisions to make regarding the style of dress and shoes she would choose, the slightest pieces of jewelry, the restrained makeup that would help her look more lifelike, cheeses and deli meats and an appropriate wine, what would be good, can someone please help?
When the gathering was done, she, in her exile, dishes washed and set on the draining board, packed a bag and drove until exhausted. She spent the week shut in a motel off the interstate, free, finally, to mourn by herself. By Friday afternoon, she was ready to come home.
When she re-opened the house, there was still a drift of elderberry candles coming from the bedroom, still the sturdy fragrance of garden herbs rising from her kitchen counter where she had spread clusters of rosemary, dill, and thyme on paper towels. She couldn’t remember why she did this, only a dim hope that, when she returned, the place would smell like she still belonged to it.
Francesca could recall the names of the two women who set up the buffet. Della and Joyce. Had she adequately thanked them? They prepared a crock pot filled with aromatic honey-garlic meatballs and set it beside a teak wood tray of prosciutto and calzone and a wheel of sharp cheddar beside rows of simple cutlery beside paper plates beside a stack of thick napkins beside baskets of picked-over bread and rolls beside — no, someone had moved the plates of provolone and olives to the coffee table where they left marks on the cherrywood. People arrived — more than expected, many from Richard’s pre-Frankie days — and they offered condolences, said kind things in stumbly voices, mingled amongst themselves, and then left. Most of them called him Ricky and there were quite a few Ricks and one Richie. Hardly anyone called him Richard. They all seemed genuine in their appreciation and fondness for him. There were old softball buddies, work friends (but no one from Ellis-Martin, his former company), new and still-friendly clients, people who knew him from college, everyone he had ever fucking known since he was a boy, and they only knew Frankie as his wife, or his girlfriend, or companion animal, or whatever. It was dispiriting how many of them didn’t even know her name. She made a joke about it, suggested name tags next time around, and was rewarded with wan smiles. It was a sunny afternoon, she remembered, so she lowered the venetians in all the rooms so the guests wouldn’t be blinded by the lake water. There was soft piano music spraying from the speakers, and people reached for her hands to offer and receive comfort. She made note of those descending, giving hands and saw that most were wearing a wedding ring. That was interesting. The widow wears no ring, she thought. “You’re holding up so well,” an older woman in an expensive black pantsuit told her. “So sorry about your loss, my dear,” said a man who wore a gray Armani suit and whose fingers were so smooth they barely allowed for knuckles. “He’s with Jesus now,” said a harried middle-aged woman who carried with her an olive cable knit sweater. Frankie told her it was beautiful. “Yes, it is,” replied the woman. A real estate agent named Kip Kyle — it said so, right there on the business card he slid into her hand like a love note — offered to assist her if she “wanted a nice place in the city instead of this.” He wore no wedding ring, but did have a jazzy topaz on his pinky finger.
And this, now, home again, Frankie listened for the different notes of the house, the familiar sounds, the hum of the refrigerator, the unsynchronized ticks and tocks of different clocks in different rooms, the flutter of fluorescence in the kitchen. She realized she was waiting to hear Richard’s voice arrive from another room, for his breath to rush towards her.
Already, the telephone dock was flashing its faux-urgent come-on. Why can’t they leave me alone? But it was Ophelia, just her Ophelia, the only other person in the world whose voice she wanted to hear.
“Hey, Francesca, it’s just me. Just checking in, haven’t heard from you all week.” Tired, as if she just woke up, or hadn’t gone to bed yet. “Listen, I’m sorry about missing the uh, gathering, you know I can’t handle those things. I really am sorry. I know he was decent, decent to you, and that’s what matters.” A sigh, a short cough, the snap of a cigarette lighter, a deep slithering inhale. “Call me if you want. Or even if you don’t want. I need to hear from you. Remember, I’m back on the coast. Ha, so to speak. Suze is still in Arizona, maybe for a while.” Cough. “Sorry, bad joke. Seems like I’m fucking up with everyone lately. But this isn’t about me. Call me. Oh, this is Thursday, so I’ll be at my meeting tonight between 7 and 9:30, thereabouts. Atascadero time, remember? Same number. Okay, bye. Love you.”
And she cried. She cried and it felt more cleansing and more real than whatever it was she felt in the anonymous motel room. Sometimes, she supposed, you can only find your truest grief in the place where you left it. After a while, she lit the remains of the candles in her bedroom and waited for the appropriate amount of time to pass before she called her daughter back. In fucking Atascadero, California.
Francesca knew she would need to build a fire soon, but did not wish to be like Sisyphus, forever pushing a wood-filled wheelbarrow up a steep hill. She waited until daylight was washed away in the lake and wondered if the spiders were done for the season and she would stomp on them and damn them if they got in her way.