Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

On Exhibit

BY DOROTHY ERICKSON

My daughter sleeps with one leg hooked over my thighs and an arm draped across my collarbone. She’s breathing softly through her dreams but I know she’s frightened, her eyes flickering manically behind their lids. I wonder if it’s the boat dream again, a fire about to break out: flames that will send her overboard into the dark mouth of the ocean. Her muscles twitch, tiny movements mimicking a desperate attempt to swim.

I watch her at night when she’s sleeping, and she watches me during the day when I’m not. Sometimes I find her staring when I look up from the newspaper. Sometimes she combs aside a wisp of hair that’s fallen over my eyes. I’m a sucker for her scrutiny because it feels so precious to me, but I worry about the implications. We’ve become students of each other’s grief.

Teddy, her father, died five months ago. We were at the beach when it happened. Rachel and I had gone to the bath house one last time before heading home. It had been a long day, our appetites for hot dogs and greasy French fries and frolicking for hours under the blazing sun giving way to sudden fits of discomfort. Rachel fussed like an old lady, trying to brush every grain of sand away from the creases in her skin. When we get home we can shower, I told her, knowing she was already too modest to stand naked under the outdoor spray like she’d done the year before, even asking me to turn around while she changed into her clothes. When she came out of the stall her halter top was twisted around her slender torso, the strings tied into a pitiful knot under her chin.

Outside the plywood door of the bath house slammed behind us, and I remember squinting against the white light of the sun. I remember telling her to rinse her sandals. There was some kind of commotion then, and I turned to see a small cluster of people gathered around our blanket. At first I didn’t know what I was looking at, but when the colors all lined up I saw that it was Teddy, his bright blue swimming trunks visible through a vertical array of bare legs. He’d had a heart attack and died right there on the beach, his limp, lotioned body attracting granules of sand like glue. My friend Annie picked us up in Newport that night and brought us home. I don’t remember who drove our car back, or when.

Tomorrow I have to go to Teddy’s office at the museum to retrieve his “personal belongings.” I’ve put it off too long. Now they’re re-painting, and I’ve been asked, very politely, to collect these things. I’ve no idea what there is, whether the four moving boxes I bought will be enough. I’ve no sense from any of our visits what was his and what belonged to the museum, aside from the obvious tchotchkes we’d given him over the years. But, knowing Teddy, I can’t expect it will be easy. He was always full of surprises.

The boxes are downstairs in the home office tempting Rachel, who probably has great plans for skyscrapers and fortresses and mazes—the kind of structural chaos she finds so comforting. Her bedroom is a jungle of games and toys, with sheets and blankets draped like awnings across bookshelves and bureau, stuffed animals forced into odd poses everywhere. The occasional museum trinket found its way in, too—there’s a shrew skeleton and a fist-sized ceramic statue of an otter. She calls it her “Exhibit Room,” and once in a while, when she changes it around, she’ll ask me to pay admission. I give her what’s in my pockets, a button, an old shopping list, some dryer lint. It doesn’t matter what the currency is. All that matters is that I ask a question, the same exact question every time:

Are the animals real?

Her answer: “Yes, they are real. Real dead.” Then she succumbs to peals of laughter and guides me through.

We haven’t played this game in a while.

The phone rings. She’s too asleep to notice, but the sound startles me, even though I’ve gotten used to a degree of irregularity in our lives. Still, it’s late. Later than these calls usually come. I remember the first time, about a month after the funeral. All the bills had been changed to my name, all the awkward phone calls from Teddy’s college friends and obscure associates had been handled—the gasps and sighs, heartfelt declarations, all delivered and received with the mutual courtesy strangers afford one another under such circumstances. I wondered, Who could be calling me now?

I lift Rachel’s limbs like they’re made of glass, then slink through the darkness across the hall. But when I answer the phone, no one’s there. No one ever is. The line crackles, I hear a faint sigh.

Teddy liked a good practical joke now and then, and there’s a part of me that thinks it’s him, calling me from wherever he is, misjudging the degree to which I might find this kind of thing amusing.

“Hello?” I say again. “Can you hear me?”

Teddy was a collections manager for the mammal exhibit at the Natural History Museum, a job he acquired after years of being a researcher. He hadn’t anticipated the amount of administrative work involved, the constant demands on his pacifist psyche to wrangle with the higher-ups about things like funding and publicity. Or the delicate nature of acquisitions, transcontinental PR. He’d have preferred to spend his days roaming the exhibit halls and chatting with patrons, or holed up in a back room somewhere, contemplating the African Elephant—how best to demonstrate the exquisite beauty of its muscled trunk.

But he loved his job. He said it was like hunting for treasure then shining it up for everyone else to see. Of course, by treasure he meant dead animals, their outer furs and skins peeled away, bones unsheathed. Or whole specimens that had been stuffed and preserved, reassembled into eerie likenesses of their former selves. He said it was the details that made them so believable: the chipped fang, a bloody hoof. Glass eyes searing with hunger and fear. It was their faults and injuries that gave them authenticity, he said. Made them real.

Julian, head of the design department and one of Teddy’s closest friends, often asked him to assist with the installations, a necessary collaboration, Teddy explained, fusing the science with the art. Julian respected his vision, even said something about it in his eulogy: “He approached his work the way one would a difficult puzzle, seeking mastery over the logic of its design, then stepping back to admire its beauty.”

Teddy would have loved that. We used to argue about whose job was better, his or mine. As a physical therapist, I have a similar appreciation for the science of muscles and bones. But he claimed there was nothing playful or creative about what I do: It’s all right there, living and breathing in front of you. I get to use my imagination.

Big deal, I’d tell him. My clients give me gift cards for coffee at Christmas time. Do yours?

There was a sense of mystery about what he did, I was grateful when the work allowed him to be playful. So much of it didn’t, but tapped into that part of him that readily closed itself off from the world, that lured him into quiet fits of solitude.

One day last year, after Rachel and I had just sat down to dinner, he walked in with this frazzled look in his eyes. He said a quick hello then excused himself to the office, quietly closing the door behind him. We were still recovering from a bad investment he’d made the previous year, and that’s all I could think of, that he’d gotten some bad news, or that there was a new financial crisis to contend with. When he came back out after fifteen minutes or so, he apologized. He gave a grin, then ran his fingers through his thick, silvering hair, a gesture that meant he was nervous about something but excited, like when I agreed to marry him, or that moment just before he held Rachel for the first time.

“I got the grant,” he said. “I got it.”

He’d been working on this grant for over a year, trying to fund an endangered species project he’d been fantasizing about for as long as I could remember. I went over to him and hugged him, and as we both sat down to eat I asked him questions about his acceptance and about the timing of the project, when he thought development would actually begin. His answers were spirited and succinct, like he’d thought everything through, and he looked at me the way Rachel does when she’s telling me about her day, eager to talk to someone who’s willing to work through her unspoken thoughts and who gives her the full attention she requires. Yet there was a part of me that noticed how weary he seemed, as though the novelty of the news had long worn off, and the whole point in telling me was to somehow get it back.

Rachel was swinging her legs under the table, knocking her feet against the pedestal. I knew she’d picked up on our excitement and wanted to be a part of it, but I was annoyed.

“Rachel! Stop.”

“It’s okay,” he said. He put his fork down—he liked to talk with his hands—then went on to describe to her a foliage-filled rainforest diorama with giant, vine-wrapped trees. He told her about the Asian snow leopard, poised for prey, and the spotted owl, robotically enhanced to rotate its head 270 degrees. “Its dark pebbled eyes blink out at you, watch you wherever you go….”

Her eyebrows rose, a smile tripped across her mouth. “Daddy, quit scaring me!”

Teddy was a king at distracting her from her own misery, but that night I was pretty sure she’d done the same for him.

She’s sitting at the table, looking serious in her red jumper and braids. She’s eating pancakes, taking her time to chew, syrup dripping from her waiting fork. On Friday, her first-grade class will perform their concert, “A Tribute to the Fifties,” and she’s been silently brooding. When I ask her she denies being nervous, but of course she is. Not only will she have to get up onstage and sing, but it will be the largest crowd of people gathered in one room since Teddy’s death. She’ll be on display.

I’ve been trying to help. “It’s a good thing you know the songs so well,” I’ll say. Or, “That’s right, you’re standing next to Allison, aren’t you?”

But she’ll just shrug, as if the words coming out of my mouth are gibberish, and we both know it.

This morning, I let her brood. “Come on,” I say, “finish up.”

She fills her mouth with pancake and flushes it down with milk. “Are you going to Daddy’s today?”

I nod. “Yup.”

“Tell Uncle Jules I say hi.”

My smile must seem put on, because she drops her fork onto her plate and holds her hands up in front of me: “Look. I’m all sticky.”

“I can see that. I think I’ll just get the garden hose and…”

“No!” she shouts gleefully. Then, “Can we?”

“No,” I say firmly, “we can’t.”

“Mummy?”

Her voice is still playful. We’ve stopped talking but her eyes linger, looking into mine, her pale mouth still curved into the slightest of grins. I can’t tell whether she’s waiting for me to say something or thinking, herself, of something to say.

The phone rings. When I pick up the receiver, I hear the signifying pause, then a crackle, like a bug flying annoyingly close to my ear. It makes my jaw tighten, and I hang up.

“Who keeps calling us?” she says.

“I don’t know. Nobody.”

She shrugs and gets up from the table. I press *69, but the recorded operator’s voice tells me the number of my last incoming call cannot be reached.

Teddy and I were together for fifteen years. He was a patient of mine, having come to us for a six week rehab following arthroscopic surgery. At the time he was doing a lot of fieldwork, spending long hours on his knees studying and collecting specimens, ignoring the pain. Being what he called persistent, and what I called stubborn. He developed a bad case of bursitis. My plan, I told him, was to work on strengthening his knee, restore his full range of motion. He said he’d be impressed if by full range of motion I meant that he could bend it the other way.

“Think of the possibilities,” he said. “It’d be so much easier to tie my shoes.”

We met twice a week in the evenings. During our third session, he asked me if I’d ever seen the fossilized ankle bone of a whale. I was holding his foot in one hand, bracing just above his knee with the other and gently pressing against the joint, coaxing flexed muscles while he grimaced and breathed through his teeth.

“I bet you ask all the girls that question.”

I was twenty-eight, he was forty. Because I was younger, or maybe in spite of this fact, I thought it was a harmless flirtation, same as with any of my male patients. A loose way of building rapport. We made jokes, we laughed. But then, driving home one day, I found myself thinking about him. I imagined having a real conversation—talking without him flinching, my hands folded on a table, or on my lap. I suppose what attracted me to him then was the same thing that always will, everything about him so subtle: the way he moved, his manner of speaking. How much he loved his work.

Apparently he’d been interested, too. On our first date, a few months later, he took me to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner, where we ate pho and talked at length about our lives. We worked backwards, from where we got our degrees down to the first indications, when we were children, that we’d been destined for the careers we chose. I told him my bird-with-a-broken-wing story, the sparrow my brother and I found in the yard and nursed back to health in a shoebox. He told me about his mother dying.

“She said it was okay, at the end. That I shouldn’t be afraid. Death was a perfectly natural thing. I was ten years old, and for some reason I believed her.”

The first time he took me to the museum was in the evening, just after closing. We wandered briefly through the exhibit halls and retreated through privileged entries into the research wing. We went into a collections room, where rows and rows of cabinets were lined up like tombs, or over-sized jewelry boxes, whose long, shallow drawers aroused in me a forgotten taste for secrets.

He introduced me to colleagues bent over tables, prodding and recording and arranging, then walked me across the hall to a tiny room, where a man sat at a drafting table, holding 35 millimeter slides up to the light.

“This is Margaret,” he’d say, and they would all smile politely, say hello. He’d explain briefly what they were doing, then let them get back to their work. There was nothing unpleasant about this, yet I sensed a kind of formality in his tone that wasn’t there before. I felt like our intimacies, our shared stories, had been forgotten, until I realized what was going on: he was trying to pass me off as a student.

I felt like I was thirteen again, sneaking into a movie that was rated R. But it was nothing compared to the look on Teddy’s face when I asked him about it, having caught him in a small lie.

“What,” I joked, “you’re not supposed to bring dates around after hours?”

“No,” he said, and I was sure I’d offended him. But then, he grinned: “At least, not if I want them to get any work done.”

I didn’t meet Julian until a few months later. He joined us for a drink at a crowded bar, and I asked him, after a couple bottles, where he’d been that night. Why Teddy hadn’t brought me around. He looked at me kind of funny, and Teddy reminded him that he’d been sick. “Oh yes,” said Julian, “that damn elephantitis,” and we laughed at his terrible joke.

The last part of my tour was the partially reconstructed skeleton of the Pakicetus attocki, a gangly thing that looked like it had crawled out of the mud.

“It’s not my domain,” Teddy said. “Pelts and bones of modern-day mammals are my thing. But the connection is fascinating. You have to wonder what the implications are, what made the change necessary from an evolutionary standpoint. Why an animal that had roamed the earth for a million years ended up in the sea.”

“Maybe he got tired of walking.”

“Maybe,” he said, delighted with the mystery. “Or maybe he just needed to do something grand.”

The entrance to Teddy’s office is in the back of the building. It’s far enough away from the rest of the museum so that I won’t run into any patrons, middle school students on field trips shouting gleefully through the halls, or all the mothers with small children who are both dazzled and frightened by my husband’s work. I won’t have to smell that smell—the trapped musk and antiquity. It’s like the mustiness of an old bookstore, coaxing memories from the depths of my mind, memories I’m not ready for yet. I open the metal door, avoiding my reflection in the vestibule’s plexiglass divider. Julian’s standing there.

“Back room, exotic imports: right this way!” His voice is low and looming, a surprising comfort. “I am here to accompany you,” he says, and offers me an arm.

He’s as tall as Teddy, but with a shock of thick white hair grown long on top, so that every once in a while he has to push it to the side. Wide-set features make him seem severe, but he’s a gentle giant. His charm comes to the surface when he smiles.

He asks about Rachel, and I tell him about her singing.

“Good!” he laughs. “The dramatic life suits her.”

“Oh, you have no idea.”

One section of the hallway is cordoned off for the painters. Plastic sheaths line the tile floor, and two men in white uniforms roll white paint over drab yellow walls, masking years of accumulated dust and fading, which wasn’t all that noticeable, until now. Thick fumes make my head swim, and when we come to Teddy’s door, I’m neither emotional nor nostalgic: I’m relieved.

“After you,” says Julian. He turns the knob, and I escape past him into the tiny, closet-like room.

“I’d imagine there’s been some slight pressure from Donald?” he says.

“They want to move things along.”

“Take your time.” He wanders from the door to the window, aimless as he talks. I get the sense he’s trying to distract me with conversation. To ease me into the emptiness.

It is empty. Teddy’s desk, usually so cluttered, is cleared off except for a lamp, a telephone, and a black-and-white flip calendar opened to a week in June. A small, hand-carved rhinoceros lurks on the windowsill, but aside from that there’s none of the scientific paraphernalia I remember: no charts or diagrams on the walls. No shadowboxes displaying feline teeth, or exotic-looking statues representing animal gods. No fur to be found, not even the stuffed marmoset perched on the corner of the desk that Rachel lovingly named Bobo, and cooed to like it was a baby. This could be anybody’s office.

But there, the book shelves. Filled with his books, arranged in horizontal stacks so he could read the binding without having to tilt his head. And there, hiding behind a potted ivy, the Support Wild Life mug with the dancing monkeys that Rachel had given him for Christmas. When I sit down in his chair, I find his extra pair of running shoes under the desk.

Julian turns a small rubber ball over and over in his hand, the kind one squeezes to improve strength and dexterity, or to help alleviate stress. “Donald has, of course, taken some things. One of the interns packed up everything else, though I guess they missed a few items.”

“That’s all right. I’ll get them.”

“The place doesn’t feel the same, you know.”

I nod. “At home I keep rounding the corner, expecting to find him hunched over the kitchen table doing a crossword puzzle.”

He sits on the edge of the desk and puts his hand on my wrist, a fatherly touch. The day of the funeral, he’d saved me from a gaggle of morose interns, all in their late twenties, students who’d just lost their mentor. When the one woman of the bunch began to cry, Julian unapologetically led me away. Outside on the porch, he took my hands in his, my rough, nail-bitten fingers suddenly enveloped in his soft-padded warmth. It had been only two years since he’d lost his wife Dorie to breast cancer, and I’d been so nervous around him, afraid of how Teddy’s death might drudge up the pain all over again. But when he hugged me, my face pressing into his linen shirt, I realized we shared an inexplicable bond, the experience of death now something we had in common. A secret language.

“Never underestimate the power of grief,” he said. “You’ll see things differently. The world is stripped down to its barest, most essential self.”

I remember that night in bed, thinking I knew what he meant. But sitting here now, I’m not so sure. Grief hasn’t distilled my life, hasn’t made things more clear. It’s made me a sloppy parent. It’s made me paranoid.

I tell him about the phone calls.

“And just how often does this happen?”

“Oh, a lot. Once a day.”

He looks concerned, the way anyone would be. Here I am, newly widowed, harassed by a bill collector or a telemarketer or—what? I don’t know. But Julian whisks his hair aside and sits there for a minute, lost in thought. “Is there any sound—background noise, voices?”

“Why are you so interested?”

When he doesn’t answer, I tell him no. Then I remember one time when I thought I heard birds singing in the background.

“Birds?” Again he seems tense, not dismissive.

“I think so. They were squawking really, not singing. It was very faint. I had the impression they were outside.”

“And you didn’t hear any voices, but you think you heard these…birds?”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. But it does leave me feeling, I don’t know. It’s a little strange. Any idea what it could be?”

“No,” he says. “Not a clue.” Then he smiles brightly. “Maybe it’s—”

“Teddy? Yes,” I say, “I thought of that.”

Later, when I get home, I bring the boxes into the office. Rachel has built a maze of legos on the floor, so I have to step carefully to avoid tripping over them. I set the boxes on the desk, fighting the urge to claim some order by banishing them to the back of the closet. But I know what it will mean to Rachel to see some of these things, to hold them in her hand. There’s a permanence that even I can feel, as if these objects hold some part of him, an essence.

She comes off the bus with a sour face. She says hello, but walks into the house saying nothing—no news about the day, none of her usual chirpiness. I get her a glass of milk and some crackers, and she has her snack at the table in relative silence. I’ve learned not to push too much when she’s in a mood, that I won’t get any information out of her now. So I sit across from her and sip coffee, go through the mail.

When she’s done she asks if she can play in the office.

“Sure,” I say. “In fact, I have something for you. C’mon.”

We go to the office and she leans against the desk, anxious to see what I’ll retrieve. “Here, open your hands.” I place the carved rhinoceros into her cupped palms. It’s so smooth, she pets it with her forefinger, rubs it gently against her cheek.

“Is this Daddy’s?”

“Yes, but you can have it.”

Instantly she begins playing, walking the figure across the top of a box, invoking little grunts and a tiny rhinoceros voice. But after a few minutes of this her body seizes, and she looks up at me.

“Mummy,” she says, “why are you staring?”

“Sorry,” I say, not even realizing that I was.

In the middle of the night, when I can’t sleep, I go back downstairs. I like to sit at the desk with the lamp on, cloaked in the surrounding darkness. My back to the windows, the ceaseless chirping of crickets and the passing of distant cars play out like an old record you listen to over and over again, until you hardly notice the music at all. But you know that if it stopped, or if it wasn’t there, you’d feel something was missing.

I pick up a manila folder from one of the boxes. Teddy’s handwriting is scrawled across pink and yellow acquisition forms, the meticulous script of his signature, his notes, as familiar to me as the hands that wrote them. And I’m angry, suddenly angry at him for leaving us, for the surprise and shock of his death. I thought there would be more to it, a long sickness or a humble departure at an advanced age, but one day he was just gone. How could this be?

I start thinking about the phone calls. All those crazy thoughts about him being behind them, I never really believed it, but it did make me feel better. Not anymore. I’ve asked the phone company how I might go about blocking the number or tracing the call back to its owner. They said it would be difficult, that I’d have to document every call and then work with the phone company and the police, spending time and energy I don’t want to spend, calling attention to myself even more. What I really want is for the person on the other end to say something. I want to hear their voice. I want them to tell me who they are.

I used to lose patience and hang up, but lately I try to linger, say something that will provoke a response, chatter on about the weather, or the news: Did you read in this morning’s paper about the 6-ton satellite, heading straight for Earth? Or, What do you think about all these tornadoes? As dejected as I feel when nothing happens, I’ve always known that someone is there. That ominous, desperate silence, held up to my ear like a seashell, is waiting to reveal itself.

On Friday, Rachel comes down the stairs wearing her poodle skirt and the white twin set we found at Macy’s, her hair curly from the rollers we put in last night. The ‘50’s era suits her, and for a moment I can almost see her father back when he was a little boy—I can almost see him standing next to her, a little younger than she is now, their eyes the same shade of pine green, mouths fixed in the same curious smile.

“You look beautiful,” I say.

“Thanks.”

Resisting the urge to ask her if she’s nervous, I pour milk into her Cheerios and warn her to be careful not to spill, carrying on as though it’s any other day. I walk her to the bus stop and tell her I’ll see her soon, though every last part of me wants to hold onto her, tell her she doesn’t have to go. Bravely, she walks onto the bus, not even looking back at me the way she usually does.

When I get to Rachel’s school, I stand at the end of a long line filled with mothers and fathers and grandparents, who are busily checking their camera batteries and commandeering fidgety toddlers, or catching up with neighbors and friends. I recognize several parents and we exchange smiles, politely ignoring the fact that I’m alone. Once inside, I stand at the back of the auditorium so that Rachel will be able see me.

The students arrive in single file from a side door, and the white noise of anticipation turns to waves and hellos. It takes a few admonishing words from the principal to settle the audience down, and the students are amused by this reversal.

There are so many of them up there, crowding the stage and the floor in front of it. But Rachel is right in the middle, standing next to her friend Allison, who’s whispering something in her ear. Rachel ignores her, too busy scanning the audience, looking for me. I wave both hands, but she doesn’t seem to see me, and the music teacher begins to focus their attention.

I think: this is it.

She gets ready to sing, her mouth in a drastic oval, and her eyes are intense, startlingly wide. Then something comes over her, a sound escapes, and her whole body comes to life. She has that smile of his, that certain devilish glint in her eyes. I can see it when she turns toward the audience, lolling in the atmosphere of lights and people. And the music—I can see it when she sings to us. She’s not searching for me. She’s not nervous or sad or empty. She’s singing—singing—and the entire room is watching.

They do “Rock Around the Clock” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The boys run imaginary combs through their slicked-back hair, and the girls pretend to pine for them, or else roll their eyes. They do “The Twist,” and “Lollipop,” thrilled when they get to make the pop sound with their fingers in their cheeks. Last is “Rockin’ Robin,” and Rachel bounces from side to side with the rest of them, her hands on her hips, elbows out like wings, thrilled to be at the center of it all.

On the car ride home, I tell her I wish her dad was here to see it.

“Oh,” she says, delighted, “he would have loved me!”

It’s a quiet Saturday in December, just before Christmas. A nighttime storm has blanketed the ground with a foot of snow, and Rachel can’t wait to go outside. I help her get her snowsuit on and let her go out without me, so long as I can watch her from the window. Through the glass, I can hear shovels scraping driveways, and the distant laughter of the older kids playing, down the street.

Rachel packs snow into buckets then smoothes the tops down with mittened hands. Every once in a while she stops and listens, perking her ears to the resonant sounds. White mounds dot the yard, whimsical snow-cover disguising plant pots and shrubs. Rachel wipes off one of her chairs, unearthing the shiny red plastic, then sits down proudly, eating snow from her wooly palm. The phone rings, but she doesn’t seem to hear it, or if she does, then doesn’t care. I get it on the fourth ring, then walk back to the window where I can see her.

“Is this Margaret?” the voice says. I don’t recognize it.

“Yes, this is she.”

Rachel has gotten up from her chair and is heading toward the backyard, rounding the corner of the house, beyond my view. “Hello?” I say, thinking I might have lost them, but too distracted by my child to care.

I hear a sniffling noise, and then the voice comes on again, faint, unsure: “My name is Tara. I worked with your husband.”

There’s a long pause, but I’m impatient. Rachel’s not by the patio, or the swing set, or the shed. “What do you want?” I say, maybe a little harsher than I should, and it takes her another minute to collect herself.

She tells me she’s been upset, so upset that she hasn’t been sleeping at night. She tells me she isn’t good at keeping secrets, especially ones that affect so many people. She’s not even sure she should be talking now, except that she thinks she’ll go crazy if she doesn’t.

There’s a pause. My tongue goes dry, and suddenly, deep inside of me, I remember: the phone calls, all those times I’d felt someone behind the silence. There was a hum of expectation, a soundless shame, a guilt.

She tells me she misses him, misses him the way I must miss him, and I can’t help myself: I laugh.

“We were in love,” she says, crying now, and for a minute I think she must be joking. I think all of this is some strange, sick joke.

“What do you mean? What do you mean, you were in love?”

Trying to find faces now, my mind shuffling through a virtual rolodex filled with everyone from the office that I know. An assistant? An intern? Yes, yes perhaps this is her: the intern from the funeral. I made a mistake, thinking her tears were sympathetic.

I sense her resolve, a quietness bucking up against me, a defensiveness I don’t like. And I know, without her having to say anything else, she’s telling some version of the truth.

“He wouldn’t want me to tell you, but I needed you to know. I’m sorry,” she says, and hangs up.

Rachel appears at the window, waving madly in her bright blue snowsuit, flapping her hands and jumping up and down. She’s only inches away from me, on the other side of the glass, and I realize that she can see my face, my eyes. I realize how it must look to her, like something horrible has happened. She stops flapping, and sure enough, the joy begins to pour out of her, and the worry, like a shadow, slips in. I’m surprised how easy it is for me then, how quickly the smile finds my lips, how the tear caught in the corner of my eye falls back into me, even though I can still feel it there on the edge of the lid. A tiny swell of sadness you might see if only you were to look close enough.



Dorothy Erickson has a BA in Writing & Literature from the New School University, as well as an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. She teaches in the English Department at Anna Maria College. Her fiction has appeared in Arts & Letters.