By Martha Witt
A small patch of lawn and a little pond. What goes into a pond? A duck, a boat, a leaf, a fish, yes–a goose, but you don’t know what a goose is yet. Goose, goose, goose. I knew every groove of those words, every rise and fall, an intimacy with language that I have lost now, a feeling I can recall only at certain times when there is stillness and words demand their old attention, as though your soft head were on my lap, against my stomach, your finger pointing as I repeat ball, ball, ball, till the word is free of meaning, floating, a block of sound.
Sylvia Lloyd is at the door. “Do you need anything?” Her hair is neatly tamed into a smooth, brown bun. Although it is pouring rain outside, her face is dry and smiling. I know I should invite her in, but I fold my hands and try to balance evenly on both feet.
“Oh, no, thank you. I am fine,” I say, remembering only then that your big saucer toy, the one with all the bright, floppy things around it–the butterfly, the honey bee, the frog in the plastic case—is still sitting in the middle of the living room. I lean to the left, trying to block it from Sylvia’s view. “It’s raining. I suppose you’re not taking Henry to the park today,” I tell her. Her gray eyes settle on my neck bones. “Indoor activities today, right?”
“Mary,” Sylvia says, looking at my face now, “Could we maybe have lunch? Frank’s not going in tomorrow. Could I take you out for lunch?” Her face is very pretty, carved by the master, not an apprentice, not “from the school of,” but done by the man himself: deep red lips and white skin stretched over fine bones. Henry will look just like her one day.
“Yes,” I tell her, nodding, “of course. Tomorrow.” Sylvia rests her hand on my door frame, as though having understood that she, too, has noticed the house’s strange lean and will help keep collapse at bay. “Thank you,” I whisper, and though Sylvia looks confused, I continue more loudly, “Really, thank you.” I feel gratitude. I want to forget myself in gratitude to pretty, pretty Sylvia who can still walk to the park pushing her son in his stroller, repeating to him the names of all the objects in the world.
“Tomorrow then,” Sylvia says, the bright blue raincoat buttoned to her neck, her hand still on my doorframe. We never used to run out of conversation–naps and feeding schedules and activities. “You choose the place. Anywhere you want. I will come by at 12:30.”
“Someday, maybe,” I try to say, but I know Sylvia has not heard.
“Tomorrow, then,” Sylvia says, turning away. I watch her walk across my yard, an active blue spot against the green grass and the green trees, under the clear-as-glass rain from the gray, gray sky.
A bright spot like a symbol. There are objects and, yes, each one has a name, but there are symbols, too: a thing with meanings beyond itself. But that’s for later.
I will finally make those chocolate chip cookies. We bought the ingredients a month ago. Perhaps your father will enjoy a cookie when he returns from work. First, I must shut the living room window because it is raining so hard now and the furniture will get ruined. We do have nice furniture. Modern and clean. The rugs are hand woven. On the mantle stands a photograph taken two days after you were born. There, now the window is completely shut. It’s just a summer storm. It will pass. Baking cookies is a good indoor activity.
Eggs, chocolate chips, flour, sugar, salt. Water. We have all that, of course. Your father will, perhaps, enjoy a cookie when he comes home from work. Yes, I said that already. Let’s measure the ingredients. Mathematics is perfect. 2+2=4; the equation never changes; it leaves no room for doubt.
Look at that. There are freckles on my hand. My grandmother, too, had age spots before her thirty-fifth birthday. Invisible strings from heaven attached to those small brown patches tug constantly, gently. I have tried grabbing hold and yanking myself up to you. One, two, three, four; we are spooning the dough onto the sheet. A month has passed, four shovelfuls of time is the way I would have explained it to you in the sandbox. Each shovelful equals a week. A spoon, a dump truck, a bucket, and a yellow shovel—those were the props collected for explaining time. For two weeks, your tools remained stacked in the corner of your sandbox, where we had put them together. Ten days ago, your father went outside with a big box and collected everything. Everything. Even the dump truck. Later, standing by the supper table your father stared at me, hands rummaging in his pockets like small, panicked animals. “Sit down,” I told him. I did not blame him. I heated up one of the casseroles someone had brought over. I never blamed him.
“Little by little,” he said when he finally spoke.
“One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, slam the door…”. The cookies are perfectly countable. There are twenty-three. In a separate pan I have made a large cookie with colored M & M’s. I place the large one on a red platter. The smaller ones, which I place on the side, slide against the big one. No grown-up will touch the large cookie. Not until the smaller ones are gone. It wouldn’t make any sense in the adult order of things.
At five forty-three, your father comes home. He comes straight from work now. He does not linger in the office or go out afterwards. I hear the front door open and wait in the kitchen with the cookies. “Hello,” he says. I hold out the platter. His hand hovers over it like one of those honeybees over our flowers. He bites his lip, and backs two steps away from the bright center. “Mary,” he exclaims, “I don’t want one. Thank you, though.” I am sorry for having made the absurdly large one, but how can I apologize for a cookie? I nod. “Sorry.”
As I have explained to you, it is not enough to say sorry if you don’t mean it. Words, like cups, are useful when filled with meaning and useless when empty. “How are you?” I ask him.
“Oh,” he says, “all right.” He runs a hand through his black hair. Your eyes were his shade of blue. “The firm is throwing a party tomorrow evening. I want us to go.” Your father’s loveliness is not something to pin down; it exists in many places at once, and I feel it just under the frozen place in my breastbone. He is soft-spoken and nimble with a set of teeth straight as sunrays.
He did not know that you had just discovered the jerky buzz in the open and shut of our new car’s automatic windows. It made you laugh. I forgot to warn him to always lock the car windows. He left the car running while he ran back inside to get his wallet.
“I was gone a minute!” your father screamed at me over the phone above the noise of sirens. Where was I? At the mall. I had gone to the mall that cold April morning. I was staring at a pair of size 5 shoes. “Now,” he pleaded. “Come home.”
Strangled. A word like “strangers,” the people I would have warned you about one day.
“A party,” I say. “No. Not tomorrow.”
He clenches his teeth and swallows. “Do we have other plans?”
“Just not tomorrow.”
The night of your burial, I watched from the bedroom as your father beat the car windows with a bat–an ecstatic shadow of a man. The next morning, I watched as they hauled that car away, its windshield an enormous crystal web. You would have gone to school where you would have learned that red is the color for love. There would have been red construction-paper hearts, Valentine’s Day cards with “I love you Mommy and Daddy” in your handwriting. Symbols are taught through shapes and colors. For you, though, Love was a hysterical black shadow.
“Sweetheart,” your father says, loosening his tie. “We have to go to this thing tomorrow. We need to do this. You and I.” He pulls off his shoes, the color of raw meat; he drops his jacket on the chair and rolls up his white sleeves. At his work, he draws pictures that are used for making buildings and houses. He drew our house, drew your room with its large window and arched doorway, and he drew your playhouse in the backyard, which he then built and painted, too. “I told them we would go. They are expecting us,” he says. I turn to the sink, its big silver basin reflecting the kitchen light.
“They are expecting us.” I lean forward, grasping the edges with both hands. Sink, sink, sink. The word has two meanings. You knew the first and would have eventually learned the second. There would have been no need to explain that the two are not interchangeable, that the shiny bowl for containing water has nothing to do with going down and down, unable to breathe.
“Mary,” your father is saying. “Mary.” He is close now, repeating my name as though it is a word from a language I must now learn.
“We will,” I tell him. I make it a sentence: “We will go.”
Martha Witt is the author of the novel, Broken As Things Are (Holt; 2004/Picador; 2005). Her translation of Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author was released by Italica Press in October 2013, and her upcoming translation of Pirandello’s Enrico IV is scheduled for publication in July of 2014. Her other translations and short fiction are included in the anthologies Post-War Italian Women Writers (Northwestern University Press) The Literature of Tomorrow (Rinehart, Holt, and Winston), This Is Not Chick Lit (Random House), and Wait A Minute, Let Me Take off My Bra (Inkspotter Press; 2011). Her work has also appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, Boulevard Magazine, The Saranac Review, One Story, Harpur Palate, The Literary Review, Metamorphosis, The Italian Journal of Translation, and many other national journals. She is the recipient of a Thomas J. Watson Traveling Fellowship, a Spencer Fellowship, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship, a New York Times Fellowship, a McCracken Fellowship, the John Gardner Award for Short Fiction, and she has been awarded several residencies at the Yaddo, Ragdale, VCCA, and the Elea Wassard artists colonies. She is currently an Associate Professor in the MFA program at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ and fiction editor of the literary journal Map Literary.