A New Catherine Lacey Story About Grief Disposal
Kathleen Alcott recommends new short fiction from the author of THE ANSWERS
AN INTRODUCTION BY KATHLEEN ALCOTT
I have always thought that to read a story by Catherine Lacey felt a great deal like a drive where I’m from, in Northern California, where it is possible to pass through three or four microclimates in a period of time that seems unsettlingly short. In a Catherine Lacey story, the weather changes, but also the landscape. “Please Take,” a flinty marvel that follows a new widow giving away her husband’s clothes, is no different. This is a drive with switchbacks, a warning we get first on the sentence level. We notice the irreverence for accepted language, the caustic treatment of the idiom: the narrator mentions that hers is a neighborhood in which people leave things out, “…books stacked on curbs, what have you, what has anyone” (italics mine). As the narrator exposes her grief to neighbors and strangers and they struggle to react, the paucity of language is the story’s fault line; what could anyone possibly say, it seems to ask, that would do justice the sad distance between these characters, between all of us — and yet, shouldn’t we all be trying a little harder?
Lacey deploys similar reversals on the emotive level, telling us at the close of one paragraph how our bereft narrator, passing people in the park, “did not dare look at them too closely,” and in the coda of the next how she sometimes leaves her doors a little open, “wondering if anyone might stop by.” But the violence of feeling remains a secret the story almost keeps, because of how Lacey counters one emotional current with another, and because it becomes the reader’s onus to infer the nuances of behavior — we understand the protagonist has begun to act in a way that unsettles a man she brings home namely because Lacey shows us the latter has put his hands over his eyes. The authorial digressions and elisions around action ask a similar question as the turns in language do, for in leaving things out Lacey asks her audience what they haven’t been noticing, where their empathy has failed to travel. To read “Please Take” or any other in her magnificent new collection, Certain American States, is a whole childhood of feeling, and like any childhood, we feel lucky after to have emerged intact. You don’t read a Catherine Lacey story — you survive it.
Author of Infinite Home
A New Catherine Lacey Story About Grief Disposal
by Catherine Lacey
Everyone was talking about having less — picking up everything you owned and asking, Does this bring me joy? And if it didn’t you had to get rid of it. Everyone was doing this, asking themselves about joy. It felt incredibly dangerous. I was afraid for the world.
I was staring into Adrian’s closet. Pants. Belts. Shirts. So many shirts. More shirts than he ever wore, more shirts than anyone could wear in a life. The brown flannel, striped oxford, baggy cardigans — none of it brought me joy. Nor did the jeans and slacks smushed in the back, old, forgotten. I couldn’t even ask myself about the thousand wool socks, the yellowed undershirts, the boxers, or that one decaying sweater I thought, perhaps, I had given him long ago.
There was one shirt, though, pale blue with tiny green stripes, paper-thin and soft — I almost kept it. Adrian had worn it, I thought I remembered, at a picnic. Someone else’s dog was there. We never had a dog. After the picnic we had talked about getting a dog, but we soon forgot we’d wanted one and by forgetting that desire we realized it hadn’t been so true. So we said. That had been years ago. Now all I had was this faded, worn-out shirt and a memory but the memory had to go and the shirt had to go, just as days and people had also gone, just as so many tangible and intangible things enter and exit a life. Heaps grew; the closet emptied. I felt oddly fine.
My neighborhood is one of those where you can leave all manner of things to be taken, leave things on stoops or flung over shrubs, leave household crap or books stacked on curbs, what have you, what has anyone — and passersby will take these things. So I folded the clothes in stacks and stacked the stacks on the steps, draped the coats on a fire hydrant, lined the shoes at the street, and left a sign: please take. Two days, no rain, everything gone. Piece by piece, then a van came.
But Adrian did not go as slowly. He went all at once. Here, then not. That was weeks earlier, a month even, a month and a half. You know, time passes strangely in times like that. You look up and think, Wasn’t I just married last year? No, that was five years ago. Wasn’t I just walking down Arabella when a bird landed on some crape myrtle, shaking white flowers over my head — no, that was decades ago, a childhood memory you keep close by for no reason. Well, wasn’t I just in Guam? You were never in Guam; perhaps you dreamed it? No. No, I don’t dream anymore. Well, wasn’t it just yesterday, just yesterday, wasn’t it? They call it mourning, I’m told, so people in it remember to get out of bed.
The neighbors, having noticed the clothes, asked me if everything was okay. Well, not all the neighbors, but one neighbor, Corina — she asked. Corina is old, all burned up and tiny, and lives alone in 2F. She often receives heavy, large packages — nearly the size and weight of a human body — and I carry them up to her floor. And when I do something like leave my husband’s clothes strewn across our stoop and sidewalk, she asks me about it, asks me just what the hell might be going on.
I told Corina, I’m moving on. And she said, Is that so? Good for you. And I said, You know, it’s really fine. It’s going to be just fine. I nodded and she nodded. I asked her, It’s fine, isn’t it?
I thought perhaps she would tell me some great wisdom to confirm my decision to move on, to get it over with, to begin again.
It’s not fine, she said. Nothing is just fine about this. Can’t you see? It cannot be undone.
And she said, Kate, you must know that death is not that which gives meaning to life. And I told her, yes, that I believed I had read that somewhere, but Corina, having not heard me, continued on — she said, Life is that which gives meaning to life, so I said, a little louder, Yes, Corina, I read that story many times, everything dies and knowledge is circumstantial — and she, having still not heard me or perhaps just unwilling to listen, she said, The human heart has the capacity to make enormous changes at the last minute, and I said, I know this well, Corina, I’ve heard all this before, I must have read it somewhere.
Just that morning, Corina told me, she had been clearing off her desk. It had been months, perhaps years (Who can tell anymore?), and she had been going through the papers, the letters, receipts, tax forms, old postcards, legal documents, currency from countries she couldn’t remember, a pocketknife, another knife, unsent letters, and eventually, she said, eventually she had forgotten what she’d originally been looking for, and she worried that she had accidentally, perhaps, thrown this thing out years ago and she’d only just now realized she needed it. Only — what was it?
I told her I was so sorry, but that I had to go now and she agreed that she too had to go. She’d just realized that she’d left the buttermilk out, so she went to her buttermilk and I went to the park. It was spring so people had their legs out, and good-looking people had become, it seemed, incredibly good-looking people, and even regular people seemed aided by the light.
Habits were helpful, someone had told me — people were always giving me advice for this newly broken life — so the park was my habit, the way I was structuring my days. Habitual bench, habitual time of day. These little things will make life bearable, they said (Who said? I can’t remember).
On the walk to the park I always saw a man smoking cigarettes behind that restaurant, same man who was always there, and a blackhaired woman reading library books on a bench just outside the park, same woman each afternoon, and that tall, large-nostriled man with a little boy in the playground, same man, same boy. How many of them, I wondered, kept these habits for the same reason I did — like a single nail somehow holding up the whole home? I did not dare look at them too closely, didn’t want to confirm anything, to catch a glance that felt familiar.
Returning from the park I would sometimes miss my building and only realize the mistake once I was several doors away, and sometimes I made it all the way to Lafayette, where I stood at the curb wondering where on earth I was or wondering if perhaps my home had been somehow taken away forever this time, and now I was all that was left. But I always turned and walked back. I went inside. I locked the three doors behind me. Once or twice I left all the doors slightly ajar, wondering if anyone might stop by, let themselves in, make themselves comfortable.
The last time I saw my husband it was nearly four in the morning and he had a plane to catch. We had stayed up late fighting about something, who knows what we were really fighting about (what couple ever really knows what they’re fighting about?) but we had worn ourselves out — me shouting at him from bed, him shouting at me from the bathroom, neither of us even able to hear what the other was saying. Then I gave up, mumbled, and wept into the pillow as he sang in the shower, all low and throaty, some jokey country song. We were the sock and buskin, he and I, always understudying each other but hardly ever called to switch.
He packed a two-month suitcase while I was half-asleep, waking me up to do our goodbyes, cool kiss on my meaty face. It wasn’t clear who should apologize or what for.
But in some wordless corner of us we must have also known or felt — this is the last time. So the apology kiss became urgent and more urgent, and it became more like an early-days kiss, like time had bent our love back on itself, folded it like a sheet with the end meeting the beginning. And the urgency built, became animal, and I heard his belt clang just before he pushed me over, pushed the sheets aside, pushed into me, and even though I don’t usually like it this way, face in pillow, hardly able to move, a startling angle — it seemed just then that this was all I could bear. To be done to.
Afterward he stood there at the door, suitcase in hand, and he looked at me not like a man who was leaving but like a man who had just arrived, as if he had just come home and hadn’t expected to find me here. He smiled, uncertain, in the lamplight, said, Bye.
I heard his band almost canceled the tour but couldn’t for some reason, just took two nights off and hired another bassist. Adrian himself had been a replacement for a replacement, so it seemed they had been ready, all along, to replace him as well.
In the park one day a man, a stranger, sat on the other end of my habitual bench wearing Adrian’s worn-out pale blue shirt, the one I almost kept.
I almost kept that one, I said. I didn’t even have to turn my head to see it. My peripheral has always been strangely strong, though I’m nearsighted for everything else. Before us a half dozen tennis players darted and swung themselves across the courts. I kept my eyes on them, listening to every groan and gasp.
The man said, Sorry? And I said, No, you’re not. And he said, What? And I said, Why would you be?
I think you must have me confused with someone else, he said, and finally I turned to him. Very quickly I could tell that this man was in a sort of life intersection. Not a crossroads, not a time where a decision needed to be made, but something like a junction in an old, unplanned city where ten streets hit each other in a burst and there is nothing but choices and no clear answers and no clear path, just chaos, too many options. Perhaps he had spent years of his life in such a place, wandering from corner to corner, wearing shirts picked up off the street.
No, I said after a considerable pause, I’m not confused. You’re the man wearing the shirt you’re wearing.
I slid down the bench to be closer to him, or to the shirt, or the past — it wasn’t exactly clear. The shirt held this man more snugly than it had fit Adrian. A little gnarled and bursting, this man. He told me his name was Frank but that people called him Frankie. The hairs on Frankie’s arm were raised, alert, so I patted them down only to watch them rise again.
It was my husband’s shirt, and now he’s not around and you’re wearing his shirt. Now it’s your shirt.
You mean he’s . . .
I answered his nonquestion in a glance. We already had a shorthand, Frankie and I. It could’ve had something to do with the shirt, maybe. I reached out to touch the sleeve. It felt the same as ever.
And you gave away all his clothes? Frankie asked, and I said, Yes, that’s right.
After a long silence Frankie said, That’s wild, all slow and reverent. You don’t care or nothing? You don’t want to hold on to them?
I didn’t say anything and he took that as an answer, nodded, looked back up at the matches being won and lost.
I’m forty-three years old, he said, and I’ve never known anyone who died. Puts me on edge, you know? Even my grandparents, all four of them, still alive. Everyone’s still alive. All my stupid friends, even though we’ve done such stupid shit — we should be dead, at least one of us, but — nope. Living.
I didn’t see why this was a problem really but I didn’t say so.
I didn’t know how it might work over there, for those still sipping pulpy juices beside a great pool of life.
We kept silently watching the people hurl themselves around the green courts, and I considered telling Frankie the story that Corina had once told me about that long white scar on her arm. When she was a young wife, she said, there were all these temptations, and she’d never quite managed to sweat out all those years of Catholic school, so she bent one edge of a coat hanger into the shape of a snake, held it over the stove flame till it was nearly molten, and branded herself. She didn’t want to forget, she told me, how much she cared about doing right. Now there’s this smooth white snake on her arm, keeping her out of trouble, perhaps, writhing there for at least a few more years. I didn’t know you were married, I told Corina when she told me this, not knowing what else to say. I still am, she said.
I wanted to tell Frankie this story, I guess, as a long way of saying that a person can force whatever issue they want on themselves, but the more I thought about that idea the less I was sure about it, so I kept quiet. Light was leaving, and tennis players were leaving, and eventually I was leaving too. I got up and said, So long, to Frankie, went home, not missing my door this time, knowing right where I belonged.
A few days later Frankie met me at that park bench again. He was holding the blue shirt folded in a neat square.
I don’t like it anymore, Frankie said. Here. I washed it.
I don’t want it back.
Just take it.
I got up and began walking home and it’s not my fault that Frankie followed me. He kept saying, Just take the shirt, just take it back, and usually I wouldn’t accept a strange man following me home but when I got to my door I somehow invited him in. Wordless, he followed, and though I told him to make himself at home he just stood still and dumb by the door before lowering himself, silently, onto the couch.
I got us two glasses of water, adding slices of lemon though I never do that, had never done that before, and haven’t done that since. We sat in the living room for a moment. He looked around. Nice place, he said, though he would have said that anywhere, Frankie, that’s the sort of man he is, I guess, finding niceness in every glance.
I said, Frankie, put the shirt back on.
Listen, is this some kind of . . . But he seemed unable to finish the question. Just what is it you’re after?
Put the shirt back on.
He drank his water, drank it deeply, finished it. He stood up and unbuttoned his shirt as if it were physically painful, as if he were removing a body part. He put on the blue shirt in a hurry then stood there all still and uncertain and my God, I thought he was going to cry, sweet Frankie.
You must miss him, Frankie said. I can’t imagine. I just — I can’t imagine.
He was covering his eyes. I looked at the carpet. I looked at the ceiling. I looked at the shirt and for a moment everything was perfect. Something had vanished and something had been found. I had found some sort of unfolding that was not yet done unfolding and it was golden hour and the light fell into the room like a gift for which I’d already written the thank-you note and could now just enjoy.
I used to wake in the middle of the night and check to see if my husband was still my husband or if he was actually a sack of flour, I eventually said, hiding my hands behind me like a shy child. You know how in high school they used to give teenagers sacks of flour to make them not want to impregnate each other? It was like that except he was a whole human-size sack of flour that looked and acted like a human being but was really a sack of flour.
Frankie said he understood me completely and I believed him. It didn’t matter if I really thought he understood, just that I believed him.
Did you know your fears become your life?
I told him I had read that somewhere.
No, he said, I am saying it to you now.
It’s true, I said. I agree with you. I see the world the way you do, at least in this one regard.
How nice for us. Frankie picked up and finished my glass of water, fishing the lemon slice out and absently ripping it to bits.
I used to always worry that Adrian would die in a plane crash or from some undetectable illness or that he would be mistaken for someone else and fatally knifed. Then he did die, and now I haven’t stopped wondering if I worried it into being.
Well, it was going to happen one day or another, Frankie said. Not to be a downer, but you know it’s true.
He had a point, I just didn’t like his point. I suppose I wanted to feel that I had known all along how it would end, that I contained some sort of foresight.
How did he die? Frankie asked, hunched over the coffee table, pushing the torn lemon rind into a little pile.
I don’t want to say. Or perhaps I didn’t know or couldn’t remember or perhaps it had never happened. I felt sure that I had never known a single thing for certain, but that couldn’t have been true. I must have known something. I knew nothing’s ever been written that can’t be erased. I knew that every idea negates another. Every page I’ve ever read shuts some doors and opens others. Everything breaks even. And maybe I said some of this to Frankie, or maybe he was the one saying it to me. It’s so hard to remember, to keep anything straight. Anytime I speak or listen to another person I feel there is a hand atop mine on a Ouija board and it’s never clear who is moving and who is being moved and I think I’m always looking for the times that the pair can be moved by a third thing, something outside us, better than us.
Just then the door opened and Adrian was there, dragging his suitcase, looking weary from all the places he’d been. He said, You left it unlocked again.
The room was very still and Frankie stood there like a photograph of himself.
Is that my shirt?
It’s joyless, I said to Adrian. You don’t need it.
The window was wide open and Frankie was gone, taking the shirt with him. He must have crawled out onto the ledge and dropped onto the stoop, which was a way I had also escaped, at least once in the past and perhaps again very soon — it isn’t such a difficult thing to do. Still, I admired him for doing it, for doing something so simple as leaving.
Adrian opened his suitcase and all the clothes I’d given away were there, dirty from the afterlife he’d returned from, and already he was laughing, already he was smiling again, fine with being undead, coming home to the same home, staying, somehow, always the same.
I weep athletically almost every day and sometimes I cannot get down a city block without collapsing but Adrian is always upright and smiling and glad, so glad, so glad. It may be we do not live in the same world at all. Some nights I wake up and panic, thinking he’s truly gone, for real this time, and I lie there shaking, all my organs going wild in me for hours until I roll over and see he’s been beside me all along. I keep sleeping in the wrong places, I think, or maybe I’m just waking up not where I am.