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Dusk snowed into evening. Outside, the neighbor’s bicycle churned the sidewalk. Corinne Fiske turned in bed and listened to its bric-a-brac chew. Dead dead was preferable to pretend living. The sun stumbled into her room, made blood of the walls and carpet. To forget the suburban ghost, needlemouse. If she’d had energy, she’d have stood by the window. To have pictured death doubled: the girl forgotten in the glass. Who was not solving equations. Who was searching for a better way to hide herself.
She hoped she’d be dead before Frank or Louise came knocking. Premature or not soon enough. Barely a knock at all so why bother. Knuckles tapping, the hallway light pooling. And why always half in the doorway like that. She turned onto her back and felt among the bedcovers for the plastic cap. Want to keep this going, flower mouth. There it was, under the sheet. Pills spilled out. Corinne dropped them two by two and took a drink of water from the night table glass. What would it be like, she wondered. Cold light over a drive to some music. Streetlamps shuttering a vest of what could have been. No matter, she thought. Another four dropped in. Put on the autumn soundtrack.
There was knocking, the hallway light pooled in. Her father shadowed the threshold. Evening fell altogether.
She knew without looking how his arms were crossed.
—What are you lying there for? Frank said. Get up.
She answered in a strange voice.
—No? he said. Like hell you’re not.
The doorbell rang, setting off the dog. She listened as her mother’s heels tap-tapped the parquet floor. The sound of the lock turning, the creak of hinges, the voices at once.
—My God, her mother said, don’t you all look wonderful.
A draught made its way through the house. Corinne closed her eyes.
—Corinne, Frank hissed. Get your ass up. Now.
—I’m not getting up.
She held out the bottle.
—I took these.
Her father’s face took offense at the plastic. She kept her arm outstretched. Perfume from the hallway, and the rattle of Aunt Sarah’s voice, already thick with its opiate coat.
The room’s paint streaked around them. She watched as anger called the earthworm to surface on Frank’s forehead. The familiar vein, the familiar beetroot face.
—You stay there, he said. I’m getting your mother.
The air was the air again. When she was dead would there be walls, a ceiling? Does death lament its translocation? How they presented each other like sirens, warning: your mother, your father. Lighthouses in good weather: what use.
—What’s this your father says?
Louise wrung her hands. Peridot glinted.
Lighthouses, sirens wailing their Dopplers. No room or use for more than one of them. The
dark was not the dark anymore. Odors replaced, evoked. Her mother lived the expensive perfume in the wake of her father’s sweat. Corinne measured its floral-musk haze. A taste of freezer-burn in the water glass. And still the walls dripping around them. Turkey and gravy weather filled the house.
—That’s right, she said.
—You did what? her mother said. How many?
—I don’t know. All of them.
Louise puzzled her mouth, put a hand over it. Peridot against port.
—How many were in the bottle?
—I don’t know. Most of them.
—Jesus, her mother said. I’m getting your father.
The air was the air. She felt okay, no pain, a little not herself. To be alone, Corinne decided,
you must learn to look for things. Bells rang in her head. Strange interpretations. It could get bad, she mused. To be alone means risking dead dead. She lay in bed with her eyes closed while Louise and Frank reentered, stood over her, and told her what would happen. And as they told a new picture appeared in place of the old one, and in the new picture they sat at the table, the china polished to high shine, and toasted their health. She felt too heavy to be ripped clean from their map. This stays here, Corinne thought, all of it. You’ll live. She opened her eyes.
—We’re going to have a goddamned pleasant Thanksgiving, her father said.
—I don’t want to hear another word of it, her mother said.
—I’ll be out, Corinne said, in a minute.
She watched their shapes leave the door ajar. Pleasant blurs, a pleasant Thanksgiving. Echoes
of peasant, of pilgrim. Opposites, and so what: from dirt, she thought, negotiate bouquet. She sankdeeper into the coverlet, on the border of waking, and imagined a city. To be a city, high-walled. But she was a garden, trapped in their pages.
She followed their plan: stood, combed her hair, changed her clothes. In movement there was forgetting. She hesitated outside the bedroom door in her holiday dress and peered down the hallway. Like they did, panning their searchlights over her reservoirs. The radio sent waves of soft rock. Her mother’s voice rang out, unintelligible, followed by Aunt Sarah’s machine gun laughter. Corinne winced. Better and worse that they were drinking. And if they’d been alone? Would the absence of the extended have made a difference? She hated the intrusion. She wouldn’t think of it. She went toward them, the expected smile carving her face inch by inch as she entered the kitchen.
Uncle Richard took a toothpick from his mouth and looked her up and down. Frank was somewhere else. Louise shot a hazard stare her way and stirred the gravy. Peridot glinted onto the nails that were not nails, their rose-colored lacquer.
—All dressed up and no place to go, he said. I hear your lessons are going well. No pun intended.
He put the toothpick back, chewed it. She had a flash of a lone note wheeling toward ground, something high and minor.
—Ha, Corinne said.
Another look from over the saucepan. Post-dessert, she frowned, for certain: to sing or play on the spot. Lights getting lower. The glowing.
—They are, she said, thank you. How are the boys?
—They can’t complain, Richard said. I won’t let them.
—Oh they’re thrilled to be away from us, Sarah said, and isn’t it just great.
Think of the experiences they’re having in Peru, Dick.
—I’d rather not, he said.
—How exciting, Corinne said.
She felt she would cry.
—Isn’t it? Poor Bruce doesn’t know what to do with himself. I think it’s called a midlife
—No such thing, Bruce said.
Sarah laughed in Louise’s direction. Louise flashed a makeshift smile back. When her mother pivoted it wasn’t like anything else, Corinne thought. It was like Louise was more Louise, Louise in neon. Some confusion of imitating and becoming. Her poor mother. To maintain, like fencing, required certain form. It would be, she thought, elegant—if only. Sport was sport.
—How’s it going, Miss Priss? Louise said.
—Fine, Corinne said.
Like her insides wanted ripped into. She couldn’t say she hadn’t tried. She turned in the middle of the kitchen.
—What are you looking for?
Oval rose and a mane of red. Peridot and perfume and a well-stitched hem. She didn’t know how to figure allegiance.
—Iced tea, she said. I’ll find it.
—Garage. Bottom shelf. Bruce, Sarah? Want anything?
Step, as they desired. What was desire, anyhow. Corinne waited on the outskirts, readied for the order, but they only flicked their wrists and looked on blankly.
The garage was cool and dark. She opened the refrigerator and stood with her back to its chill. This was their asterisk: a room of gray cinderblock and piles of remainders. Those piles: Off Limits. Frank’s fishing poles were banded in rust, towers of boxes were filled with their previous versions. How her father liked to take a Sunday afternoon and sort through them, to crouch over their contents, to hold the photographs of faded loves face down. That she understood, that the forgetting mind still held—heavy disappointment. Inside, the telephone was doing something unbearable. Her mother’s voice answered brightly. This is the place, Corinne thought, where they cover up impolite scarring.
As she’d done. Holiday dress in red—you’re so lucky you can wear it, how many times had her mother sighed that—and tights for etiquette, and etiquette was about covering—she traced the braille on her thigh. The cut had splintered, grown sharp at the edges. The need to hazard, and risk again, despite the scar. She studied the fridge’s contents. There would have to be an explanation. What took you so long—what were you doing—I thought you had disappeared—run into anyone? She took the pitcher from the shelf and reentered the house.
There was not enough air in the air. She leaned against the pineapple wallpaper at the end of the hall. The kitchen fed two conduits: this hallway was one. Once through she’d belong to them. She examined the walls. A painting of a cucumber in empty space, from a friend of Frank’s, how her mother hated it. A photograph of a sign that said Hell, from Grand Cayman, Frank’s from who knew when. And just in view one last hanging: a black-and-white photograph of herself and her brother, Sunday clothes on, departing for or just arriving from church. Something pained behind the eyes, or, Corinne thought, stepping into the cloak of voices, maybe an understanding.
—It’s true, her mother laughed.
—Corinne, Neil said, I said that every Thanksgiving someone spills something on the tablecloth, and Mom’s like don’t worry about it.
—It’s true, it’s true, Louise said.
Happy in haloes—no, happiest. Louise snorted a little.
—Meanwhile, Mom’s in the kitchen scrubbing the tablecloth like a rape victim, saying goddamn red wine stain. Ruin my linens.
He grinned, but her face wouldn’t move. That was the way it was, she thought: one moment you got along and the next you didn’t. The trick was locating the moment itself—it was so difficult to fix on the change when the change was underway. Neil’s infancy had been marked by sound: his colic had cut through walls and split the house, and she had seen a snake of pain work through him, a working through and out toward the face. All things turn in on themselves, she thought. Even the sun. And the rape: that she flinched meant something—had it been, was it still, or was that just a party? And the joke: not as if she’d told. But if she had? Bells sounded out, and she realized with a start that the telephone was ringing.
—Hmm, she said.
Frank shook his head.
—I don’t see why you all find this crap funny, he said.
—You just don’t have a sense of humor, Louise said.
She lit a cigarette. Rose in smoke.
—I’ve got a sense of humor, Frank said.
He moved through them like a train on rails, his eyes fixed to Louise’s stirring hand.
The act had never happened. She’d hold it like a gem to shield it from that sketch. Because
in that version too there’d be a litany, tableside, of speaking their thanks. In hers she’d have to search some true gratitude after the fact. And her thanks, what were they. She felt okay, a little dizzy, not quite herself.
Neil rested his elbow on Uncle Bruce’s knee.
—How about you get your loving nephew security clearance? he said.
—Let me get to the oven, Frank said.
—Hmmph, Bruce said. You’re a jokester, Neil. What might one need that for?
—Well. You tell me.
—Oh my God, Frank exclaimed.
Aunt Sarah blinked awake.
—This turkey, Frank said.
—Subtle, Bruce said.
—I mean this turkey is huge. Would you look at that?
—Goddamn it, the gravy’s going to burn, Louise said.
—It’s huge, Louise.
—What’s that, fifteen, sixteen pounds? Bruce said.
—Eighteen. Eighteen pounds, Frank said.
—Frank, move your ass, Louise snapped.
The oven extinguished, the burner off, the toothpick back. Vectors and tensors.
In physics they’d learned of scattering
—Corinne watched as the overhead light fell perpendicular to each of them, each of them a different shade of yellow, each broken by the patterns of the light. That which was visible and nonvisible, but electric—the X-ray and the radio both with their vectors…which way, Corinne wondered, did those paths cut through each of them…
—All set, her mother said. Who’s so good?
A pause. Who had called, Corinne wondered, or had there been no ringing telephone. No light experiment. Any.
—You’re so good, Frank said. —Yeah, yeah, Neil said. I’m starving.
That was the year they’d remember for something else, a one-liner. She knew that ahead. Like the time they wore sweaters for a week in Florida, the Peruvian year with the absent cousins, the eighteen pounds.
—Excuse me, Corinne said.
Their eyes went quiet on her. Quiet and still while she stood, forced a lightening smile, turned. Quiet on her back, quiet following her out, and rising again in a clapboard chatter as she rounded the corner into the dining room. Time passed electric, which didn’t mean fast, she thought. The table settings were Victorian-baroque, the room dark. This was the second conduit: an arrow to the house’s far wall, her bedroom, its window and the yard below. She closed the bathroom door behind her and turned on the light.
The Persian runner, the porcelain soap dish. The prints of figures on horseback in countryside: a woman met a man over a picket fence, her arm thrown up in surprise. I thought I might find you here! the gold type read. Corinne turned to the mirror. I thought I might find you here, her brain repeated. She turned on the tap and watched the water run. In the mirror the wall began to fade, and a shore broke inside her head, casting visual sand. She kneeled over the toilet and heaved and heaved and saw white and yellow and red.
The symphony kept on. Dead dead was preferable to pretend living. Which was which? From her place at the table she could see beyond the dining room curtains—allgone outside, the yard blurred into night country. As it was inside, despite the gold light. They sat at the table and bowed their heads, pressed hands. This is the church, she thought. An insistent pulse from fingertip to fingertip.
—Now, Frank said.
And this is the steeple. Her eyes not closed, not really—she caught Richard’s stare and shut them tight.
—Before we eat we like to say… Open the doors, she thought. —Thank you God…
And see all the people.
—For food today. Amen.
—And please forgive Corinne the heathen, Frank said.
—Dad, she said.
—I didn’t hear you, he said.
—Simple little blessing, Richard said. Quaint.
—It’s easy for the kids to remember, Louise said.
She and Neil smiled knowing to each other, let it drop.
They scooped yams and stuffing with polished spoons. Polite mouths, polite forkfuls.
Louise’s voice dipthonged its river past them. They drank. Frank moved from white to beer to Tuaca. Her mother held red. Aunt Sarah took white and white until Tuaca was offered. Bruce mused through two Amstels. With each drink came new chatter. Their open mouths revealed half-chewed dinner, and Corinne listened to the push and scuffle over the commotion for seconds. It was seven o’clock, it was midnight—Corinne couldn’t tell. They called it dinner.
The reverie clicked off. They stared at her.
—It’s your turn, Neil said.
—Excuse me? she said.
—We’re saying our thanks, her mother said. Your father’s thankful for business, Bruce is
thankful for golf, Sarah’s thankful for health, and Neil’s thankful for the days off school. —Oh, she said. Okay.
What was worse. The bright sprawling summer or this cramped ghosting season. She raced her thoughts but every true good seemed poisoned. Her eyes wandered over them. Frank ate, lost in another place, and what had the passage said? In general it is the policy of the law to make the veil between the past and present lives of adopted people like the veil between the living and the dead. Did they want her living, their version of it? Didn’t they sense her sunken Atlantis? And Neil, eyes bright and expectant beside her, his smile faltering, faltering, what true good…she bowed her head.
—Dear God, she said, thank you for our food, clothing, and shelter.
She paused. The words were not her own. Aunt Sarah patted her hand. Thin skin, pollen- soft, the skin of aging.
—And thank you, Corinne said, for love.
About E.G. Cunningham
E.G Cunningham, is the author of the chapbook Apologetics (Finishing Line Press 2016) and the full- length poetry collection Ex Domestica (C&R Press 2017). Her poetry, reviews, and creative non ction have recently appeared in or are forthcoming from e Nation, e Poetry Review, 3:AM Magazine, LUMI- NA, 111O, Poetry London, and other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia in Athens. She is currently work- ing on a novel about the suburban gothic.