The Chaotic Insides of Other People’s Homes
"A Bone for Christmas" from PREPARE HER by Genevieve Plunkett, recommended by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Introduction by Megan Mayhew Bergman
“Endearing. Terrifying.” Genevieve Plunkett uses these words to describe youth—specifically the way of a clumsy adolescent moose crashing into a scene—but the description could easily be turned upon her own work, where we see kind and relatable people on the verge of an explosion. Some incendiary event is imminent here.
Reading “A Bone for Christmas” is like settling into early Shirley Jackson: Vermont cold numbing your fingertips, ivy covering a grand old mansion. A woman named Petra arrives alone at a house in the country to investigate a complaint about the care of an elderly woman. You sense the menace percolating in Plunkett’s characters and in all of us, within our relationships and communities. You cringe at the way we are all a little grotesque, especially to those who know us well, who see us at our worst and most unguarded.
Musicality is everywhere in Plunkett’s work. You hear it in her pitch-perfect lines. You encounter it in scenes—concerts, classical music on public radio. You feel it inside of the characters, the way Petra internalizes Brahams—bringing her heart to a crawl and making her feel damaged—“but in a good way.”
Plunkett is at the beginning of a fascinating career. I sense she is less afraid with every sentence and every story and increasingly ready to show us all our collective and casual monstrosity. Read her and delight in it.
– Megan Mayhew Bergman
Author of How Strange a Season (Simon and Schuster, March 2022)
The Chaotic Insides of Other People’s Homes
“A Bone for Christmas” by Genevieve Plunkett
An old woman had not left her house for a very long time. She had missed dentist appointments and a meeting with the podiatrist. It was possible that her son was keeping her inside the house against her will, selling her belongings, neglecting her care. The girl who had reported the case had not wanted to identify herself. She did, however, have much to say about the issue of cat feces.
Everywhere, she had said over the phone, and her voice had cracked with emotion. It’s like a minefield. Of cat shit.
Petra, ever diligent, had written this in the file.
The old woman’s house was on the mountain, on a road called Bottom Furnace. It was late January, so there was ice on the mountain also, and frost heaves, and some small, impassable bridges. There was never cell service. Petra kept a flashlight and a blanket in the trunk of her car along with a set of flannel underwear, still in the package. She had never asked herself how, in the case of a breakdown, she would get herself into the underwear.
Petra liked street names, how strange they could sometimes be. Bottom Furnace, she imagined, would go well with Lost Lake Road and Swearing Hill. Last week, she had driven to a house on Mad Tom and to another on a road called Twitchel. She liked the old names of the people that she visited: the Ethels and the Hirams. Hyacinth and Sissy and Eugenia. Lester, with his pipe and his large, scaly ears. She made sure that they were being cared for, that they had enough fuel for the winter, and sometimes, out of kindness, she checked the mousetraps for them. She asked if there was anyone harming them, or if any of their medication had gone missing.
There was wildlife too: the black bears, the folded flight of herons over her windshield. How red foxes trotted with their heads turned, conscious of traffic. In the winter, there were mostly little birds, crows cawing, and recently, a small white cat in her backyard. She had built a shelter for it from a Styrofoam cooler lined with straw, after seeing the design in a children’s magazine.
Can we let her inside? Petra’s son had asked about the cat, his concern only deepening a well of desire within her to let worlds mingle, just for once.
Petra turned onto the mountain road. She removed a glove, finger by finger, with her teeth and placed her hand against the heating vent on the dashboard. Vermont Public Radio had been playing Brahms all morning, which always brought her heart to a crawl, made her feel like damaged goods—in an appreciative sense. It carried a memory too, something almost a decade gone: a mansion, august with green vines and piano attics. Walking there under the weight of her violin case, over a footbridge where there was a pond, reflecting the colors of dawn. How young she had been, feeling as though she were truly, truly herself, in the same way an adolescent moose charges top-heavy from the tree line. Endearing; terrifying.
There had been an ice storm the previous week and some of the trees along the road were bowed or broken. She could see the fresh wood where someone had used a chainsaw to clear a limb that had fallen. The wood chips were bright against the gray, muddied snow. Lately, the majority of her cases had taken place on these remote stretches, in areas referred to as hollows—places that seemed to Petra to be utterly random and lonely. It worried Petra’s husband to know that his wife was out there by herself. For his sake, she often left out certain details, like her encounters with unchained dogs, or the old man in the wheelchair, who had snorted a line of cocaine off the back of his gnarled hand. And, of course, there were things like cat feces, which, knowing her husband, would have dismayed him most of all.
Her husband was a tortured man. He would not use public restrooms, or see movies at the theater. Sometimes he microwaved slices of bread, or pickles, of all things. Sometimes he boiled water before drinking it, just to make himself feel better. After six years of marriage, he had never shared a drink with his wife, never sampled food from her plate, never used the shower after her without first wiping it down.
Yes, he’d say, with perfect self-awareness. I know that it’s all in my head.
She found the address without difficulty, just as the intermezzo on the radio was ending. The house was lopsided with a mossy roof and an enclosed front porch almost fully obscured by blinds. She could see, from where the blinds were askew, that the porch was filled with bits of furniture with the legs thrown upward, sun-bleached fabrics, and piles of newspapers with the pages bent against the glass.
Caroline Marrows was the old woman’s name. Petra confirmed the spelling on the case folder, then repeated it under her breath as she walked over the ice to the house.
If I don’t do it—repeat it like that—she had tried to explain to her husband, then I will spend the whole interview worrying that I’ve said the wrong name. Like a madness.
You mean an idiosyncrasy, he had replied.
A girl in short sleeves and a winter hat met Petra at the inner door. She seemed to look beyond her, through one of the cracks in the blinds, as if checking to see what kind of car she had arrived in, or if there was anyone else with her. Petra extended her hand.
I’m here to see Mrs. Marrows, she said. The girl did not speak, but she moved aside for Petra to pass through. Her face was long and peevish. She reminded Petra of someone working at a carnival, a face that says, Come on and try your luck.
Petra entered a cluttered kitchen with a warped linoleum floor. Above the sink, which was piled with dishes, there was a small window with a drawn curtain. The hard winter light glowed through a pattern of red flowers flecked in the center with yellow. Petra found herself taken by these curtains, their implied intentions: like a petition for all that was nice and long ago.
She was accustomed to finding her way through unfamiliar houses. Upstairs, they would sometimes tell her. Casey’s old room, as if she were privy to the house’s history. Once, she’d walked into a log cabin and was led by a German shepherd to a skylit room where a large woman lay suspended in a hammock. The whole space was rigged with hammocks, for the cats and ferrets, for potted plants by the window. The woman was on oxygen and had a list of health issues. She told Petra that she was saving her money for a trained monkey that could change out the toilet paper, fetch chips with nimble hands that would not crush the bag. A ferret had emerged from inside the woman’s sleeve then tumbled to the floor, limping away to some other, unimaginable part of the house.
What Petra remembered vividly was the floor, which was, due to the hammocks, almost completely bare—or at least would have been, had it not been for the tumbleweeds of dust, fur, and little pellets of dry food, compressed so densely that the cats batted them around like toys. Petra had stared at this expanse of oddly sculptural bits of filth and thought, sadly, of her husband. How the sight would have overwhelmed his mind, propelled him into a fit of highly specific madness, like the time he took sandpaper to his top lip, because he was convinced that it would prevent him from catching a cold. She had given him two Xanax and sent him to bed. The result had been so effective that she often wondered if she could get away with spiking his coffee some mornings.
It would shed no light on her husband’s condition to reveal that he spent most of his days working with dirt. In his lab, he dealt mostly with a black, pungent substance called char, which needed to be stirred and measured. His work was environmental, a tireless search for what was fertile, what dark, smelly matter would best produce life. He moved about the counters and test tubes with his horn-rimmed glasses, his long lab coat and nice shoes, barely touching anything.
He dislikes correspondences by mail, his assistant said. Make sure you never lick the envelope.
And then the baby was born. He was born gaunt and nearly translucent. The infant’s frailty was something that the man in horn-rimmed glasses could understand wholly, he found, and he kept vigil in the NICU with such haggard tenderness that Petra was spun right up with it. She joined him in his delirium: the cleaning of little red skin folds, hot towels from the dryer, and bottle temperatures. Visitors were asked to speak at a low volume and douse their hands in disinfectant lotion.
Petra found Mrs. Marrows in a back room where the windows, curtains and all, were cocooned in sheets of plastic. They billowed every few minutes in the draft, which gave her the disorienting feeling of being on a ship, or very high off the ground. Besides the peevish girl who had met her in the doorway, there had also been a man, presumably the old woman’s son, who had not spoken, but nodded to the side, so that Petra was not sure if he was acknowledging her or cracking his neck. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, the front of which was obscured, almost down to his belt buckle, by a thin beard. He had taken a step back to allow Petra to pass through to the hallway, and she had heard the linoleum pop and groan beneath his steel-toe boots.
Mrs. Marrows smiled from her armchair. The way that she was seated there, beneath a heap of afghans, reminded Petra, eerily, of a trick of puppetry, as if the woman were standing behind the chair, sticking her head through a hole.
Mrs. Marrows, Petra began, worried momentarily that she had the wrong name. I hope you are staying warm.
The woman nodded. The plastic on the windows made a sucking sound, and Petra once again had the sensation of being in a tower, high above the ground. She noticed that the room was almost bare. It might have passed for tidy had it not been for the whorls of cat hair pressed into the rug, like the meteorological images of clouds.
Last spring she had brought her husband to a concert. She had not told him that she knew the composer, that once, in college, they had slept together. The music was tremulous and experimental. She was filled with visions of the deep sea, of dazzling ancient creatures.
It was the first time that they had left their son at home with a babysitter. He had just reached the age that her friends had warned her about. It will be why this and why that, they told Petra. Just you wait. But her son rarely asked why. Instead, his questions were fully formed, with their own gravity.
How do you know that a caterpillar is not cut in half?
Who is a window washer, really?
After the concert, Petra’s husband had frowned. Too long, he said. It sounded like listening to someone weeping. For too long.
The boy was asleep when they got home, the babysitter watching television with her bare feet on the couch cushion. Everything was fine, she said, except he would not eat his beets. He was worried that they would stain his teeth forever. He thought that the celery would tie a knot in his stomach. She shrugged.
Petra’s husband had smiled at the babysitter as he counted her bills at the door, but then he spent the rest of the night scrubbing the couch cushion, turning it around and forgetting which was the sullied side, then cleaning the rest of the house, just in case. Petra could hear him going through the silverware as she fell asleep, hearing music in her dreams, like the clink of polished knives laid out across the table.
Something was wrong. The man with the long beard and the steel-toe boots was not happy. He had appeared in the doorway, his head stooped. I’m just not comfortable, he was saying. I’m just not comfortable with her being here.
When he stretched his arms up to grab the doorframe, Petra saw the hair on his belly. She saw his belt buckle, the butt of a smallish gun just off-center. I’m just not comfortable.
The plastic on the windows billowed. Petra did not know if the man had meant to reveal the gun as a threat, or if it had truly been an accident. She had a strong desire to be back in her car, to have her public radio, her fingers jammed into the warm vents. I must not act rashly, she thought, followed by: If I could only rip through the plastic, I might escape through the window.
The man looked at her.
I have an uncomfortable feeling about her, he said, still not addressing Petra outright, although he did not appear to be speaking to the old woman in the chair either. It heightened her sense of danger, to be disregarded this way, as one would a prisoner. She looked down, avoiding his eye, and noticed that her hand was on the zipper of her purse. Somehow, she had unzipped it, perhaps in an unconscious effort to reach for her pepper spray. Her husband bought her a new can of it every Christmas. He said that you never knew how much potency was lost over time.
It doesn’t spray as fast as you expect it to, he would explain, year after year. You have to keep your finger down. It was useful advice.
As her son grew, his questions continued: What if an acorn fell into his mouth while he was yawning? If a finger grew too long? Just yesterday, he had sat behind her in the car and spoken of next Christmas—the child only ever talked about next Christmas, as if the present or approaching Christmas was too real to bear. He wanted to have a tree strung with popcorn and bells. But not stars. Never stars.
Do glass planets exist? he asked. Do children ever get a bone for Christmas? Just a bone?
What’s your name? the man asked Petra. She told him and he shook his head, unconvinced. I’m not comfortable with you being here anymore, he told her, his index finger pointing to the floor. With the other hand, he adjusted his belt.
They should all just sit down and talk, thought Petra, but the only piece of furniture was the old woman’s chair. In the corner, there was a large crater in the rug where something round and heavy once stood—the base of a lamp, maybe, or some kind of barrel. As Petra’s eyes traveled over the rug, she saw many other shapes: small circles from a set of table legs, the right angles of a chest or bookshelf, all of which made her feel as if the world were disappearing around her, piece by piece. She took a step forward and the man stood rigid, blocking her path.
She had seen her husband angry plenty of times. The way he moved his tongue around inside his mouth, as if tasting his own fury. How he studied his knuckles, wondering, she supposed, if this was the day that they would burst at the seams. But perhaps she was not being fair, for he had never been violent. With their son he was always soft-spoken. But one night they had gone out with friends and she had become quite drunk, grabbing hold of him for balance, touching him flirtatiously—her own husband—so that the other couple raised their eyebrows in amusement. At home, he could not look at her.
You embarrassed yourself, he said, and she saw there, in the line of his jaw, all the capacity any man had ever had for hatred.
The man blocking Petra’s path did not seem to know what to do with his hands. They hung stiffly at his sides and it made Petra feel a little sorry for him, as if he could not commit to being fully menacing. This did not mean that Petra was unafraid; his indecisiveness signaled to her that he was capable of anything. When she had arrived in the room, she had noticed an aged brass pole in the corner to her left. Her first thought was that it was some kind of antique pole for an IV bag, used for a homebound patient. Medical equipment—albeit never outdated medical equipment—was not an uncommon sight in her work. But it was not an IV pole. Petra saw now that it was a stand with a curled hook meant to hang a birdcage. At some time, perhaps in the distant past, or perhaps not so long ago, someone had kept a bird and fed it food and talked to it through the bars. Petra’s son would have something to say about this. It occurred to her that she might try telling the man that she had a son, that her son was waiting for her to come home. He was the kind of boy who would worry about the moss on the roof, wonder if the lacy white roots dangled down from the ceiling. He would not like there to be a stand without a cage.
The girl who had opened the door for Petra appeared behind the man. The man’s shoulders softened. He scratched the inside of his ear with his pinkie. Whatever he had wanted to do, it seemed, he could not do in front of her.
Come with me, he said, and he motioned for Petra to follow.
Once, during one of her investigations, Petra had discovered a dead body. She had been obliged to wait around for the state’s attorney and the medical examiner to show up. She had had to pee, but she did not want to be in the bathroom when they arrived. She did not even know if it was permissible to use the toilet of the deceased. The body was that of an old man, who had seemed to have fallen and caved in one side of his head. There had been no odor until the body was moved and the wound, which had been pressed to the floor, was exposed. When she got home, she had gone straight to the shower, turned the heat up as high as she could stand it. She wondered, briefly, as she scrubbed beneath her fingernails, if this was how her husband felt all the time, this itch, this dread. It’s not about dirt, she had thought, but the epiphany had not lasted, and the next day, she had found herself stupefied once again, when he threw into the waste bin a perfectly good carton of milk.
Petra’s husband did love her. He loved his lab and his nice shoes. He loved the deep freeze of winter. It was a relief to make his own heat, he said, to know that it was his own. He loathed the ocean for its warm currents and the city for its hot breath, all the secondhand air. Where there was life and where there was passion, there was also filth, he said. And when it came to sex, he braced himself against his wife, like a tree trunk in a flood, waiting for her desire to run its course.
With the composer it had been different. They had met in a student ensemble in that grand music building with the vines. He had played first violin and she, second. The composer had been a child prodigy. He could play twenty instruments by the time he was fifteen. Petra could not even name twenty instruments. She was always impressed when she remembered the name for the timpani, that thunderous one.
The composer had been sloppy, kissing her all over, like a house painter without a plan. His arms were just strong enough that he found he could lift her, although he could not figure out where to put her. He swept the books off his desk and they landed facedown on the floor. She remembered being flattered, as if she had not expected to be revered over books, especially by someone so studious. She knew, even back then, that he was brilliant. She had watched him play, his bow drawing the notes from the strings, each measure a new tension discovered, then broken. But then there he was, wheezing and sweating, bumping his elbow, pulling her hair.
I like this, she had wanted to say. But the composer seemed ashamed.
I have a lot on my mind, he told her and picked up her clothes from around the room.
They had moved into the kitchen. The girl in the winter hat had made herself comfortable, sitting at the table across from Petra and lighting a cigarette. In front of her was a clutter of bottles, paper plates, various greasy tools that did not seem to belong. From beneath the mess, she unearthed a fashion magazine and began to read it, turning the pages with the hand that held the cigarette, decadently, completely at ease. The man with the long beard stood beside Petra’s chair. He had said nothing of the gun and Petra was beginning to wonder if she had been mistaken. Maybe her eyes had deceived her and she had been following his orders for nothing.
I love my mother, the man said to her. Something bulged in his jaw.
Petra felt sympathy for the man and so did not know what led her to say what she said next. She leaned back in her chair.
I was told there would be cat feces, she said.
The man looked at her. His beard, Petra noticed, was graying near his mouth and chin, but down at the bottom, where it was sparser, she could see the bright orange hairs, glowing in the sun.
She clasped her hands together. Cat excrement, she said.
The man grew rigid, looked at the girl in the winter hat, who lowered her eyes and flipped her magazine, suggesting that she did not intend to hear any of this. He turned back to Petra.
What? he asked her. What did you say?
Your house, she said, louder this time. It’s not as filthy as I expected.
Sometimes Petra dreamed of the composer. She dreamed of his lips pressed all over her, his hands grabbing. There was something about her that he could not figure out, and he would become more and more enraged, moving her around the room, forcing her against the wall until the plaster cracked. And sometimes, because it was a dream, it became her skin that was cracked and then her whole body, under the force of him. Parts of her came right off, like bits of glass, and, in the midst of her arousal, which was strongest in this dream, there would be a small voice crying out, as if to a child. Stay off the floor! You’ll cut your feet!
The man leaned in. His beard intersected a ray of sunlight from the window, which, catching the lighter strands, illuminated the whole, ragged length of it. Something near his waist clunked against the edge of the table.
Who called you? he asked. He seemed rejuvenated by this new, palpable offense. Petra could smell his breath. It smelled like a hole, like wet tobacco, like menthol.
I have no idea, she said.
Roland, said the girl in the hat. Roland, she said again in a scolding voice that was older and huskier than Petra would have expected. But he paid no attention and reached again for his belt.
Petra wondered if the man would really keep a loaded gun pointing down his pants, if he would wave it around, like a lunatic in a movie, or aim it straight. She wondered why she had not tried to run, or why she even bothered carrying the pepper spray. You have to hold down the button, she thought. It doesn’t come out like you think.
Roland, said Petra, just as the girl had. What a big name to have, she thought, way up here on this mountain. She looked at him and found that she was laughing. She said his name again—Roland!—laughing harder still, just to see what he would do.
Sometimes, Petra passed cows standing coolly on the wrong side of the fence. Roadkill that had been rained on and was hard to identify. A raccoon, circling in a daze under the midday sun. Her husband liked raccoons, because they washed their food.
They also eat trash, she explained.
Her son worried that raccoons might not recognize their own reflections. Because of their masks.
Last summer, a rabbit had darted in front of Petra’s car. It would have been killed by the pickup truck in the oncoming lane had the truck not stopped abruptly as well. There was a man behind the wheel of the truck. He had a pipe in his mouth. The rabbit cowered in the space just in front of the truck’s tire, and Petra met the man’s eye. She shook her head, as if to say, Don’t go. He held onto the pipe and nodded and they both waited. At some point, the rabbit had hopped back toward Petra’s car and disappeared from view. The man in the truck shrugged: the rabbit could be anywhere. So they waited some more.
Go, Mommy, Petra’s son had said from the car seat. He wanted to know about ghosts. He wanted to know where green olives came from.
Petra’s husband often wanted to know how long she spent in the shower after work. Did she remember to wash her hands when she was in there? And her feet? Letting the water run over them was not the same as washing. Getting dirty was not proof that she was helping anybody.
Go, Mommy, said the boy. Petra had looked once more at the man in the truck and then stepped on the gas, leaving the rabbit—dead or alive—behind.
What if a house painter paints all the doors shut? her son had asked.
Petra had driven on.
What about pitchforks? Bathtub drains? Do storks ever forget how to walk? They passed a cornfield, a country store. Someone was hammering a PICK YOUR OWN BLUEBERRIES sign onto a post. Petra pulled the car over and turned off the engine.
Look, she said, turning to the boy. One day I will die and a bunch of men that you don’t know will dig a deep hole. They will put me in the hole and I will stay there until I am a pile of bones. Any questions?
The boy stared at her and shook his head. He looked out the window at the person hammering the sign: a woman wearing an apron over a long patterned dress. He was silent as his mother started the car and turned back onto the road. It seemed to him that they drove for a long time, until the passing telephone wires created a sort of wave, a pulsing nothingness in his head. And when they reached home, he saw that his house was standing where they had left it, that it had not floated away. He saw his father’s face in the window, exhausted from holding it down.