by Maggie Shipstead, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Halimah Marcus
When Simon Orff, a thrice-married movie producer, asks his youngest daughter what she learned in school that day she answers, “Did you know a corpse can have a boner?” It’s not what she was taught, “It’s what I learned,” she clarifies, an important distinction in the world of Maggie Shipstead.
Angel lust, the phenomenon from which the story gets its title, is perhaps the last of life’s cruel jokes: a final pillar of desire, adjunct and useless, and unrequited by definition.
The story begins as Simon departs for his deceased father’s house, daughters selfishly in tow: “If he had to referee their squabbles and navigate their quicksilver emotions while sifting through his father’s possessions, he hoped the house would not seem so empty, or he hoped at least the emptiness would be neutral.” If only. Instead, the emptiness proves quite virile. His father’s possessions are souvenirs of his romance with Simon’s mother (who died suddenly of a brain aneurism at forty-eight), further evidence of desire having its own half-life, independent of bodies and their relationships.
As it turns out, postmortem boners have more in common with Simon’s love life than he would like to admit. Lust for his first wife has out-lived their marriage, while lust for his current wife is lifeless — bored, as he characterizes it, with her eagerness, her nubility. In a month he’ll be the same age as his mother was when she died, and already sex for Simon has become existential.
Tempting as it is to judge him, Shipstead undoes this temptation with her firm and empathic prose, supplanting our judgment with her understanding. She populates both “Angel Lust” and her wonderful novel Seating Arrangements with armies of vivid characters. Secondary or primary, young or old, male or female, each is given complete life, making her fiction window and mirror both, a view into others as much as a reflection of ourselves.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
Simon Orff was on his third wife. He lived with her in a glassy beach house in Malibu. His second wife had returned to New York after the divorce, and his first, Holly, the mother of his two daughters, his only children, lived with them and Simon’s successor in the hills west of the Hollywood sign. Vanessa was seventeen, and Monterey, called Monty, was thirteen.
On a Friday afternoon in November, a clear day with little surf, Simon stood on his balcony smoking a cigar and scrolling through his phone while he waited for Holly to drop off the girls.
“Dolphins,” his wife Natalie called from inside.
Simon glanced at the ocean. Dorsal fins rolled up through the water like the cogs of submerged gears. “Hmm,” he said, but not loudly enough because she appeared in the sliding door, leaning against its edge, one bare foot flexed against the other’s top.
“Did you see?”
“I saw,” he said. “Dolphins. Beautiful.”
She came to press against his back, her forehead between his shoulder blades. “Very convincing,” she said into his shirt.
Simon suspected she was using him as a windbreak, as she was underdressed even for the warm day, in tiny shorts and a thin t-shirt. Whenever Holly came to the house, Natalie, who was twenty-six and compact as a gymnast, showed skin and bounced around and chirped in a higher, more cheerful voice than usual. No one could say Natalie didn’t make an effort. After two years of marriage, she still acted like she was trying to charm Simon into a second date.
“Doorbell,” Simon said, stubbing out his cigar and taking her hand as he went to answer. He was not above flaunting Natalie to Holly, though he’d never gotten a perceptible rise out of her with any of his women, not even the TV actresses or the movie star. Holly was stoic as a samurai. When he had allowed her to discover his cheating, she had not made a scene, had simply spent a few weeks closing herself to him and then left. He had not cheated because he stopped wanting her — he still wanted her, years later — but, even so, he had succumbed to anticipatory horror of her aging, of losing his desire. Lasting satisfaction seemed impossible when more women were always springing up, when there were so many points of comparison walking around, so many what-ifs.
Before he gave up on shrinks, one had suggested he might be a sex addict, but he thought of himself as more of an idiot savant, terrible at love but almost mystically in touch with the grand biological suction that pulled people together.
Vanessa and Monty were standing well back from the door when he opened it, an abundance of suitcases strewn around their feet. They were slumped in identical, defeated postures against the waist-high Buddhas that decorated his walkway, arms folded across their chests. Both had long yellow falls of bleached and curled hair and wore interchangeable Bohemian get-ups: flimsy dresses, bare legs, and loose boots drooping with straps and buckles. Their faces were dwarfed by huge sunglasses, and Vanessa cradled her Chihuahua, Scarlett, in the crook of her arm. Holly, perceptible through the tinted windows of her SUV only as more sunglasses and pale hair, waved, and drove off. Simon watched his gate close slowly after her bumper. According to Vanessa, she described their marriage as a misunderstanding.
“Ladies!” said Natalie. “Looking amazing, as always.”
The girls stared her down. “Thanks,” Monty said finally, flinching slightly, torn between politeness and fealty to her sister, who hated everything chipper, including Natalie.
Vanessa gestured at their luggage. “Should we bring this in? Or . . . ?”
“No, I’m ready.” Simon reached for his bag inside the door and kissed Natalie goodbye. Vanessa was already at the back of his Range Rover, heaving in the first of her suitcases and tossing the dog after it.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come?” Natalie said. “I’d be happy to.”
“No,” he said. “You stay here.” He had not tried to say it, but Natalie’s presence would complicate things beyond usefulness. He assumed she understood in some way that he was bringing the girls along as a distraction, a talisman against the grimness of his task. If he had to referee their squabbles and navigate their quicksilver emotions while sifting through his father’s possessions, he hoped the house would not seem so empty, or he hoped at least the emptiness would be neutral.
“I would say we don’t want to go,” Vanessa said when they were all in the car, “but you don’t care.”
“Not even a little,” he said. “You overpacked. It’s only one night.”
“We like having our things,” Monty said with the breezy air she adopted when quoting Van.
He steered along PCH past fish restaurants, the secretive gates and garages of other beach houses, blinding stretches of ocean. The girls sat together in back, their ears covered with huge padded headphones and their eyes concealed by their sunglasses. When he looked in the rearview mirror, he saw a pair of impassive helicopter pilots. Vanessa jiggled Scarlett as though she were a colicky baby. The dog emitted a constant high-frequency whine that was almost, but not quite, out of Simon’s hearing.
“Monty, what did you learn in school today?” he said.
The girls each pushed one headphone back. “What?” asked Monty.
“I asked what you learned in school today.”
“You’re such a cliché,” said Van.
“I wasn’t talking to you,” he told Van. “You don’t go to school.” Vanessa was studying for her GED with a tutor. Pursing her lips, she sealed off her exposed ear and turned to the window, tucking Scarlett’s skull under her chin.
“When can I stop going to school?” Monty asked.
“When you have a Ph.D.,” Simon said. “Come on. What did you learn?”
“Lots of stuff.”
“I don’t know. Like some stuff about fractions. Some stuff about the gold rush. Oh my God, did you know a corpse can have a boner?”
Loudly, over music only she could hear, Vanessa said, “I knew that.”
“They taught you that in school?” Simon asked Monty.
Monty waved a hand. “It’s what I learned. I think it’s gross.”
“I think it’s cool,” said Vanessa, still too loud. “One last hurrah.”
“It’d be so embarrassing,” said Monty.
Vanessa dumped Scarlett onto the seat and pulled her headphones down around her neck. “Well, you don’t have to worry about it. You don’t have a dick.”
“Vanessa,” Simon said sternly.
“Maybe I’ll get a sex change someday,” Monty said. “And then what?”
“Can you even get a boner after you’ve had a sex change?” Vanessa bumped Simon’s seat. “Dad?”
“How would I know?”
“Even if you had a boner,” Vanessa said to Monty, “you’d be dead, so you wouldn’t know.”
“But what if I’m hovering above myself watching myself be dead?”
“Actually,” Simon said, “They call it angel lust.”
“Call what angel lust?” Monty said.
“When a corpse — ” he stopped himself from saying gets excited, “has an erection.”
“Why do you even know that?” Van demanded, scornful.
“It’s a term. People who deal with dead bodies use it. A friend of mine — ”
“What friend?” Van always wanted to know the players.
“Mitch Kettlebaum. He was at Universal with me. When he was a kid, he was home sick from school, and his mom was out of town for some reason. So his dad brought him along to work, which would have been fine except his dad was a coroner. He sat Mitch down with a pile of folders and told him to keep himself busy. So Mitch opened the top one, and the first thing in it was a full-size glossy photo of a guy in a dress hanging from a banister with a belt around his neck and his, ah, equipment out.”
In the mirror, Van nodded sagely. “Autoerotic asphyxiation,” she said. “Like David Carradine.”
“The twist was that the guy was wearing his mother’s dress, and she was the one who found him.”
“How old was he?” Monty asked.
“I don’t know. Middle-aged.”
“No,” she said, “your friend.”
“Oh. Ten or eleven, maybe.” Simon had always thought there was the seed of a movie in Mitch’s anecdote. At least a great scene.
“That’s horrible,” Monty said. “His dad sounds really irresponsible.”
“Dad let us see all those horror movies when we were little,” Van said. “Movies aren’t real,” said Simon.
Two years previously, without consulting Simon, Holly had yielded to Vanessa’s begging, found her an agent and taken her around on auditions, and when Van was still sixteen Simon had found himself sitting in a movie theater watching her get her throat slit in a B horror flick. Then, right after the film came out, Holly informed him that she had found Vanessa having sex with her boyfriend in Holly’s bed. (“But we put a towel down,” Van explained.) The boyfriend in question was a television actor, a player of bit parts on crime, law, and medical shows: a teenage murder suspect here, a cancer patient there. Simon knew, even if the boy didn’t, that his looks and talent would not age well, and he would vanish from the scene soon enough.
Vanessa, on the other hand, had the potential to be a star, at least for a little while — her blandly flawless beauty compensated for her mediocre acting — but now Simon could not look at her without seeing her either being murdered or having sex. That Van so strongly resembled her mother didn’t help, nor did the fact that he had first bedded Holly when she was Vanessa’s age. Seventeen and a star high-jumper, an L.A. girl with parents too committed to being cool to disapprove of their daughter running around with an older man. Simon had been twenty-five, still a studio lackey, a dusty country mouse disguised in suits bought at Saks from a sympathetic saleswoman who gave him discounts in exchange for his going as her date to events where her ex-husband would be. He had slept with the saleswoman a few times, all the while thinking of Holly, of Holly’s legs, long and tan and perfectly relaxed as she sailed backwards over the bar. If he could have chosen a moment to freeze time, he would have stopped her just before her dangling ponytail touched the fat, blue cushion, the toes of her white track shoes pointing at the sky.
The freeway drew the Range Rover out of the city and up into the mountains, where the dry grass was a perfect golden yellow, the color some Beverly Hills stylist had tried to make his daughters’ hair. Grazing black cattle were so dark against the luminosity of the grass that they appeared as voids, four-legged holes to starless space.
The gray pipes and open chutes of the aqueduct climbed up and slid down the slopes among the dams and artificial lakes. On the other side, down in the valley, a dusty haze hung over the fields and orchards, muting the green of the leaves and making the whole place, a fertile place, seem barren.
They passed a dairy farm, shit-crusted cows milling around clammy towers of hay bales. Monty said, “Those are just milk cows, right?”
Simon nodded. “Right.”
“They still get eaten,” said Van. “Dairy cows aren’t retired to a petting zoo somewhere.”
“Why would you tell me that?” Monty said. She had always been a soft-hearted child, outraged by the mistreatment of innocents. “I didn’t need to know that.”
“You’re not even a vegetarian,” said Van.
“Yes, I am,” Monty said. “This week, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Simon asked.
“Monty’s doing the Master Cleanse.” Vanessa held Scarlett up to her face and pursed her lips.
“Which one is that?”
Monty waved a metal water bottle at him in the mirror. “Water, cayenne pepper, maple syrup, lemon juice.”
“That’s all you’re eating?”
“Plus the laxative teas,” Vanessa said. “You wouldn’t believe what comes out of you.”
“I don’t like this,” Simon said.
Monty shook her head fervently. “No, it’s good. It purifies your system. Mom does it sometimes.”
“I read that Delia does it, too,” Van added.
Delia Fairbanks was the star of a film Simon was producing, a teen comedy called Curfew. “Delia does lots of things I wouldn’t want you to do,” he said.
Vanessa leaned forward between the seats, radiating anger. He had refused to cast her, and she had not forgiven him. “Like what? Be in movies?”
Delia, who was nineteen, was trying to sleep with Simon. Delia was a coke-head. Delia was bulimic. Delia had an enema once a week — she had told him herself. Delia cried when she accidentally ate cheese. “She spends all her free time studying,” he said, “and she goes to bed by nine every night. She’s taken a vow of celibacy, and she’s sworn off shopping.”
“Shut up,” Vanessa said. “That’s not true.”
The house where Simon grew up was plain, square, and stucco, lonely in an infinite flatness of farmland. Simon had not been inside for five years. He had driven out every Christmas to collect his father, but Alfred was always waiting at the end of the gravel driveway, standing beside the green duffel bag he’d had since his army days. Once Simon was an hour late on purpose to see if the old man would give up and go back inside or at least sit down, but there he’d been on the road’s dusty shoulder, upright, listing at a slight angle, patient as a mailbox. Alfred hadn’t said anything when he got in the car, just turned on talk radio and folded his arms. The old man had died without fanfare and rotted in his armchair for at least two weeks before the guy checking the gas meter spotted him through the window.
Bell peppers grew in the fields around the house, land that had once belonged to Alfred, but the old man had sold it off to a conglomerate except for the few acres where he kept a vegetable garden, a row of orange trees, some dust and gravel, and bits of farming equipment too rusted to sell. As far as Simon knew, his father hadn’t been with a woman since his mother. Difficult to believe that in thirty years, Alfred hadn’t found a weathered floozy in a bar, a hooker, a lonely neighbor, someone. Simon’s mother had died young, a Chicago girl ill-suited to the heat and the work, though the climate could hardly be blamed for her aneurysm at forty-eight, when Simon was still in high school. Simon would be forty-eight in a month, an age that had once seemed impossibly distant, too young to die but old enough to be fully formed, and would have seemed insignificant, just another year, if his mother’s death had not turned forty-eight years into its own unit of measurement, a lifespan.
As he turned onto the drive, dust rose up and settled on the Range Rover’s shiny black hood. The house looked as it always had except for a swathe of tiles the wind had pulled off the roof and deposited near the front door in a heap of red shards. Alfred’s beater of a truck was parked off to the side, prickly brush growing up around its tires. In the far distance, mountaintops hovered against the newsprint sky, their bulk obscured by haze. A key used to be hidden under a rock, although Simon couldn’t be positive it still was. He stooped, pawing around while the girls loitered in the car, unwilling to concede they had nowhere else to go.
“Found it!” He held up the key but elicited no response from the Range Rover. He went and tapped on the window. Inside, Scarlett yipped faintly. He tapped until they opened up.
When they were all finally in the house, standing on the gritty tiles of the dark entryway and peering into the afternoon murk, Monty said, “I think I smell something bad.”
“No,” said Simon though he, too, was straining for any lingering, morbid whiff of his father. “The cleaners have been here. The chair was the problem, anyway, and that’s gone.”
Vanessa set Scarlett down on the tiles. The dog lowered herself to sit, found the tiles too cold for her bald little ass, and assumed a bow-legged crouch instead, shivering and pop-eyed. The girls, floating in their pale, diaphanous dresses and surrounded by their excess of luggage, looked like storybook figures, a fantasy of orphans. “Why can’t we stay in a hotel?” Vanessa asked.
“There isn’t one for forty miles,” Simon said, flipping a light switch without effect. “We’re going to go through everything and take what we want. Then we can go home.”
“I feel bad looting Alfred’s stuff,” said Vanessa. The girls had always referred to their grandfather by his first name.
“Why? You loot your mother’s things all the time.” For emphasis, he nudged a monogrammed suitcase with his loafer. “Say goodbye to the house while you’re at it. The people who bought the land are going to tear it down.” He hit another switch, and a lamp fluttered to life.
Monty’s eyes filled with tears. “You sold it?”
“To the pepper farm.”
“You didn’t tell us that,” she said passionately. “Why can’t we keep it?”
“It’s not a puppy,” Van said.
“You’ve never wanted to come out here before,” he said. “I couldn’t get either of you to come see Alfred.”
Vanessa scooped up Scarlett and started jiggling her again. “It’s not like you came either. That’s why Alfred was dead in his chair for so long.”
“He was dead in his chair because he was a hermit. It wasn’t my fault.”
“Just admit it. You hated coming here.” Van had Holly’s way of pushing out her jaw and raising her eyebrows, and Simon’s temper was goosed as if by his ex-wife.
“The day I was finally going to leave for L.A.,” he said, keeping his voice low, “Alfred slashed the tires of the car I’d bought with my own money. He pretended he didn’t know anything about it. He said some local kids must have done it — Mexican kids, he said — but I know it was him. I had to stay and work another summer to pay for new ones. He sold off his land for nothing just to spite me. He ruined himself to make me feel guilty.”
“How do you know it was Alfred?” Monty was still near tears. Simon wondered how she survived such an emotional life. She was like Scarlett, spending her waking hours in a tizzy of muddled feelings and then collapsing into extravagant periods of sleep.
“I just do.”
Vanessa looked distressed, but her voice still reached for haughty. “How was I supposed to know anything about your relationship?” she said. “If you told me anything ever, then I wouldn’t think the wrong thing all the time.”
Simon stared at her. He had long since given up on having any influence over Vanessa’s thoughts. “Everybody thinks the wrong thing all the time,” he said. “You’re not special.”
Simon bypassed his own room. He knew what was in there: nothing. A bed with a naked mattress. A desk with empty drawers, an empty closet. At one time a Dodgers pennant had been pinned to the wall, but it irritated his father (“What’s wrong with the Cubs?”) and disappeared as soon as Simon left for the city.
He went to his father’s bedroom and started going through the bureau. He felt a twinge of sadness for the socks and graying t-shirts he dropped in a trash bag, some stingy echo of Monty’s grief for the doomed house. Tired old suspenders, red paisley hankies, belts. He remembered sorting through his mother’s things. The clothing of the dead emanated a melancholy as pungent as mothballs.
“There’s nothing here,” Vanessa said from the doorway. “Seriously, I’ve never seen someone with so little stuff. All I’m taking is this.” She held up a record, Hymns by Johnny Cash.
“Do you have a record player?”
“Fine,” she said. “I won’t take it.”
“I only meant that you could take Alfred’s record player, too.”
“I don’t want a whole record player. Just…never mind.”
Irritated, Simon pulled open the last drawer, extracted a pile of fraying BVDs, and added them to the trash. In the back of the drawer was a tin of black Kiwi shoe polish and a postcard from Mexico City. He turned the postcard over. Nothing. Not even an address or stamp. The surface of the dresser, too, was bare. Cynthia, Simon’s decorator, was always complaining about how he cluttered up her tranquil, Zen designs with impulsively purchased objets d’art, like the four-foot-tall electric green vase acquired while filming a rom-com in Paris. “Nothing should even try to compete with this spectacular view,” she had said, opening her arms to encompass his enormous windows, the distant horizon, Natalie on the couch. But Simon didn’t like expanses, flatness. The Malibu house made him uneasy. He preferred Holly’s neighborhood with the curving streets, high walls, and cascades of bougainvillea that conjured, for Simon, the secluded, beguiling atmosphere of a harem.
Van gave a big sarcastic wave. “Hello. Dad. We’re bored.”
“Can’t you find something to do?”
“We’re bored,” Monty said by way of rebuttal, sidling around Vanessa and flopping on her back on the bed with her feet hanging off the edge. Her legs looked twiggy in her clunky boots. “This is sad and boring,” she said to the ceiling.
“Why don’t you two play outside?”
“I don’t play,” Vanessa said in disgust. “I’m not a child.”
“Neither am I,” said Monty.
But they went out anyway. From the bedroom window, Simon saw them sitting on plastic crates under the orange trees. When had childhood become such an embarrassment? He had not wanted to be young either, back when he was, but only because he had recognized that age and work and money would be his means of escape. His daughters wanted the allure of youth but not the simplicity.
Monty was combing Vanessa’s hair with her fingers, and Vanessa was talking on her phone, probably to her boyfriend. Simon tried to fight off the usual images and failed: Van fucking, Van being murdered. Since when was boredom a humanitarian issue? He was supposed to swoop in with rations of gossip magazines and satellite TV. Simon was bored, too, bored with his work, his children, his father’s bleak possessions, his eager, nubile wife. Where was the person assigned to make him un-bored?
Delia Fairbanks had, at first, herded him into a sort of avuncular familiarity when he was on the set of Curfew, punching him in the belly, telling him odd lies and calling him gullible when he believed her, stealing his cigars. Then, while popping her small fists against the slight softness at his waist, she had whispered, “Is it true what they say about you and the casting couch? Should I be offended you haven’t tried anything with me? What makes those bitches so special?”
“It’s not true anymore,” he said. And it wasn’t. He was old and wise enough to avoid a mess as toxic as Delia. But then one day he had sat with her in craft services, and while she flirted and nattered at him in her cokehead way, he watched her pick fat black olives out of her salad and eat them absentmindedly off her fingertips like a child. She popped one black-capped finger into her mouth after another, and he felt the beginnings of temptation. That seed of purity buried in so much counterfeit smut intrigued him. During his early career he had wanted to make gritty dramas about urban crime, but he’d been destined for candy-colored high school flicks and films that ended with a couple kissing, the camera pulling back to reveal a charming, sunny street, a skyline, back and back to suggest that the whole planet was merely an elaborate backdrop for a kiss.
From the top shelf of his father’s closet, Simon pulled down a red leather valise, a woman’s bag, cracked with use and age, empty except for an ancient packet of marigold seeds and another postcard of Mexico City, also blank. Had his parents even been to Mexico City? He had no idea. Probably his father had forgotten about the valise years ago; probably there was nothing for Simon to decode, no secret message having to do with Mexico City. The plainness of his father’s possessions, their paltriness, made them seem like clues to something, some larger mystery involving Simon and his parents. In Simon’s memory, his mother and father had been quiet in each other’s company, placid, not affectionate, which he supposed for some people might be happiness and for others could be misery. In the bathroom, he found a threadbare towel and a dreary collection of old creams and ointments. Toenail clippers. A stray tube of lipstick turned pale and waxy. A straight razor. Simon was holding that murderous instrument up to the light, marveling at his father’s technological stubbornness, when Vanessa said, “Dad.”
He jumped and spun around. “What? What is it?”
Confronted with the razor, she looked surprised but not afraid. In the horror film, she had come into her pink and white bedroom, humming to herself, while the killer was hiding under her bed. From that angle, through the killer’s eyes, the audience watched her strip off her cheerleading uniform. Then her ankles danced up to the bed, and the killer reached out and grabbed one. Van’s 30-foot-tall face had opened in a scream, showing the fleshy darkness at the back of her throat and her perfect white teeth. “We’re still bored,” she said. “We’re going out to get some food.”
“I thought we’d all go to Louie’s later.”
“We’re hungry now, and we hate that place.”
“You don’t hate Louie’s. I thought Monty was only eating syrup anyway.”
“I’m just riding along,” Monty called from the bedroom. “Hey, whose bag is this?”
“Grandma’s,” said Simon, realizing he couldn’t know for sure that the red valise and the lipstick had indeed belonged to his mother and not some other woman.
“I can’t get it open,” Monty said.
Simon craned around the doorway. Monty was not talking about the valise, which sat unnoticed on the dresser, but was lying on her stomach on the bed and fussing with something on the floor. He could see straight up her dress. The sight of her thong shocked him, a ruched purple V that disappeared between her shadowy, childish buttocks. He retreated back into the bathroom. “Where were you going to go?” he asked Vanessa.
“The truckstop. They have a Subway.”
“By the freeway? You won’t eat at Louie’s, but you’ll drive twenty miles to get a sandwich? We can go to the Chinese place instead.”
“We hate all the places around here. People look at us too much.”
“But of course you’re not trying to be conspicuous.” He made a sweeping gesture at her bare legs and clavicle, her eyeliner, her hair. “You’re the one who wants to be in movies. Think of all the people who’ll look at you then.”
“I get paid to be in movies.”
“In a movie.”
“No thanks to you.” She pushed her jaw out, just like Holly. “I wouldn’t be getting paid to eat a hamburger at Louie’s while a bunch of Mexicans stare at me.”
“Don’t be racist,” Monty said in the other room, her voice muffled.
“While a bunch of farm workers stare at me.”
“No,” he said. “We’re eating as a family.”
“Oh my God!” Monty squealed.
“Is it so horrible that we’d eat together? Jesus!”
“Oh my God, oh my God!”
Monty had dropped from the bed onto the floor. Only the yellow top of her head was visible. He went around and found her straddling an open briefcase he’d never seen before, full of photographs, hundreds of them, all of naked women.
“Get away from there,” he said.
Monty leapt up onto the bed and rolled around, squeaking with shocked excitement.
“Let me see!” Van demanded.
“No.” Simon closed the briefcase and set it on the dresser, his back to the girls. Van grabbed his arm. He shook her off. “Get away, Van!” He opened the case.
“Who are they of?” Van asked Monty. “Did Alfred take them?”
“Oh, my God,” Monty said, breathless. “I think they’re of Grandma.”
Simon pushed the photos around. They were all of his mother, naked or in pushed-up nightgowns or big, plain bras but no panties, in varying poses, her skin canary yellow from the fading of the prints and the lamplight that had illuminated her on the same bed where Monty was burying her face in the pillows.
“It’s true!” Van yelled in Simon’s ear. She had snuck up behind him to get a look. “Oh, my God! She looks like a banana! A hairy banana!”
“Freaky!” Monty said. “Grandma and Grandpa were such freaks!”
Vanessa threw herself onto the bed. “What’s so freaky about taking naked pictures?” she said, seizing her sister’s thigh and squeezing. “What do you know?”
“I know tons!” Monty shrieked, trying to fight off Vanessa. “I know more than you think!”
Simon looked from the mess of jaundiced skin and rampant bush that was his mother to the flailing legs and disheveled blond hair of his daughters. They were yelping and laughing, verging on hysteria, tussling the way dogs will when seeking release. He felt the early swelling of a nervous erection, the kind he used to get when he was around Monty’s age.
“Stop!” he cried. “Enough!”
The girls went quiet and still, watching him with alert, steady eyes. Monty lay on her side, crowded up against the headboard, her dress flipped up high on one thigh. Vanessa, lower on the bed and curled around her sister’s legs, held her father’s gaze as she reached up and tugged Monty’s hem down into place.
In the field that abutted Alfred’s property, hunched workers picked bell peppers and carried them in tall buckets on their shoulders to a truck parked between the rows. Simon stood on the front step and watched, fingering his cigar case in his pocket. Usually he loved the ritual of cutting and lighting, but now the prospect seemed tiresome and overwhelming. He had told the girls they could go and eat whatever they wanted because that had seemed easiest, an efficient retreat from chaos. In the dusty gloaming, the peppers had the muddy color and dull shine of organs, hearts or livers. He checked the time. Van and Monty had been gone more than an hour, and he had done nothing but stand and watch the harvest. An afternoon in the house and he was turning into his father, becoming someone who stood and stared.
He considered what to do with the photos. Burning them seemed melodramatic, but he had no wish to take them home and begin decades of custodianship. He wondered where his father had gotten them printed and if he had been embarrassed to pick them up. Whenever Simon was single, he used an old nude Polaroid of Holly to bookmark whatever script or novel galley was on his bedside table. When he wasn’t, he kept the photo under the pen tray in his desk and checked on it occasionally, wanting to make sure she was still there, only eighteen or nineteen, on her back on the rumpled sheets of an afternoon bed, legs crossed, face averted in giddy embarrassment. He would have to destroy that before he died; he should have destroyed it already.
He couldn’t know what Vanessa had seen in his face or, heaven forbid, the contours of his pants that had made her cover up her sister. Sometimes he tried to imagine what life would be like if sex did not exist, if humans divided mitotically and there were no cause for the mess of desires that had led Simon to have had many, many lovers, more than he could remember. He had kept track for some years but eventually stopped counting, thinking it was better to forget, simpler. After all that, he could still be surprised by the real grief he could cause even the most casual partners. He took the necessary precautions, unspooled airtight, preemptively exculpatory talks about just having fun, keeping things light, but two people in the same bed, almost in the same body, could operate according to radically different systems. During the act he went away somewhere alone, somewhere internal but empty as space, and then, while he came back unchanged, relieved of a simple pressure, sometimes — often — the woman underwent a mysterious shift, became euphoric but fragile, melancholy in anticipation of being discarded or flippant in an effort to conceal a new, hard edge of possession. He always tried to do what was easy. He philandered when it was easy, married when it was easy. Decades on the path of least resistance and yet nothing was easier. Had it been easiest for his father to hole up in his house and wait for death? The photos revealed everything and nothing. He didn’t trust himself to tell healthy marital lust from compulsion or experimentation or unwelcome obsession. Few of the photos showed his mother’s face, and those that did captured a neutral, detached expression. He had seen, in harrowing close-up, the flesh from which he had emerged, but the meaning of those ruddy folds eluded him.
The Range Rover appeared down the road, moving slowly. It turned and crept up the driveway, stopping in front of him. Monty’s stricken face stared out through the windshield. She rested her forehead against the steering wheel. He went around and opened her door. A strange smell struck him: perfume and teenagers, something sour underneath.
“Where’s your sister? What are you doing driving?” he demanded. “Why are you driving?”
Monty shook with huge, infantile sobs. She lifted her hands imploringly and let them fall back to the steering wheel, clutching the leather. He wondered how long it had been since she’d eaten.
“You don’t have a license.” He felt a twinge of vertigo. Did she have a license? It seemed possible he had lost track of his place in time, dropped through a few years without noticing. “Monterey?”
“There was a dog,” she gasped. “Van hit it, and then she wouldn’t stop.”
“It ran into the road. She didn’t even try to miss it. I said to stop, to see if we could help it, but she wouldn’t. She drove faster, Dad. She tried to tell me it was a coyote and not a dog — but it was a dog, I saw it, a grey dog — and then she said there was nothing we could do, but she didn’t know that. And I called her a murderer, because she is. We could at least have tried. She’s such a bitch. She thinks she’s a movie star, but she’s just a bitch.”
How could Monty have this much passion even when she was half-starved? Where did it come from? “Where is Van?”
“I left her at Subway.”
“At the truckstop?”
She nodded. Her face, full of grief, was a child’s face. Strands of hair clung to her damp jaw. Her mascara, running down her smooth, downy cheeks, made her look like a tragic urchin, a child whore, Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodi Foster in Taxi Driver. He saw Van’s face, thirty feet high and full of light, retreating from him, her lips parting as the knife rose into the foreground. His mother, yellow, on all fours. Van wandering through a maze of parked trucks in the dark. An animal tide washed through him. He wanted to strike Monty and to embrace her, but could do neither.
“I worry so much about dogs,” she said. “All I wanted was to get through my life without running one over.”
“Monty,” he said, “you can’t worry about all the dogs in the world. It’s too much.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, and he thought she meant about the dogs until he saw she was pointing at the passenger seat. Watery vomit had collected in the seams of the leather, an afternoon’s worth of lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper. She started to cry harder. “I’m really sorry.”
“Okay,” he said, patting her shoulder. “All right.” He pulled his phone from his pocket. “I’m going to call your sister. Do me a favor, and go get something to clean it up.”
She slipped past him, then turned back. “Why did you bring us here? You made us come when we didn’t want to.”
“I just wanted some company,” Simon said, but she was walking away. He remembered how, when she was a child and had thrown a tantrum in the car, he had pulled over, dragged her by the arm to the road’s grassy verge, tugged down her shorts, and whacked her twice on the ass. Monty had watched him over her shoulder with the same disappointed expression he’d just seen, her small face coated again with tears.
A whimper came from the car. He opened the back door and found Scarlett on the floor, staring up at him with mournful, buggy eyes. He lifted the dog and held her quivering body against his chest with one arm, jouncing her the way Van did, like she was an infant. She felt fragile, breakable as a bird. Van had been a small baby but not a fragile one, and he had never worried much about her getting hurt. He worried about her running away, being lost or taken. And now she was lost, and he was doing nothing. He was too afraid, too daunted by the scene that must ensue — the scolding, the mediating, the reconciling — even to call her, to retrieve, at least, her voice.
His phone buzzed against his palm, startling him. It was Holly.
“I’m in the car,” Holly explained. “On my way to pick her up.”
“She called you?” Simon said. “You’re driving all the way out here? That’s crazy. I’ll get her. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“No, I’m almost there. We thought it was better not to call you right away.”
“So now I need to be finessed.”
“It’s not like that,” she said. “We all know women aren’t your strong suit. I mean, they are but they aren’t. We’re trying to make this easier for everyone. It will be better if I’m there.”
She was manipulating him — easier — but, in spite of himself, he relaxed. “It would have been helpful to know my thirteen-year-old was driving around by herself at night.”
“Everything’s okay. There’s nothing to hit out here except dogs. ”
Holly had a way of stating facts while being completely wrongheaded about their context that incensed Simon. “Nothing to hit but dogs. Okay. She’s thirteen. She’s — never mind. Why wouldn’t Van just stop and see if they could help the damn dog?”
“She says she couldn’t deal.”
“What does that mean?”
“She didn’t want to know if it was dead. She didn’t want to see it close up. She was afraid.”
“That’s no excuse,” Simon said, knowing he would have been afraid, too.
Monty was milling around the kitchen with her wretched water bottle, and Simon sent her outside to work on his passenger seat with towels and some saddle soap he’d found in a cupboard. After she sopped up the mess and cleaned the leather, a mania seemed to take possession of her, driving her to soap and polish all the other seats and to uncoil Alfred’s ancient garden hose and wash the car in the dark. “You don’t have to wash the whole car,” he told her. “I just wanted you to clean up your puke.”
“It feels good,” she said. She crouched down, sponging a hubcap. Somewhere in her frenzy, the bottom of her dress had gotten soaked, and the hem dragged in the dust and gravel. “I need to do something.”
“You should eat.”
“No!” She looked up at him, fierce but supplicating. “I have one more day. I won’t quit.”
“Okay,” he said, backing off. “One more day. Then you eat.”
When they came up the drive, Simon was standing in the front door watching Monty buff the Range Rover with a towel. Holly’s car stopped, humming a low note. The engine died, but the headlights stayed on. Van and Holly were getting the lay of the land, exchanging a few final strategic words. Simon, caught in the glare, shielded his eyes. Monty went to stand in front of the car, letting the towel drip, backlit in her filmy dress so that her body was a shadow in a glowing cocoon. She lifted one hand in greeting. Vanessa got out, arms folded over her chest, and came toward her. At first it looked like they would embrace, but then, with remarkable speed, Monty whipped Van across the face with the towel. Simon saw the knotted bones of Monty’s small hand as she drew her arm back and the flash of white cloth. He heard the wet, vicious slap but reacted slowly, almost dreamily. Van had dropped to the gravel, and Monty, shocking in her savageness, was kicking her with one of her complicated, fashionable boots before he managed to move from the doorway. Vanessa rolled away, arms over her head, as Simon lifted Monty, still kicking, into the air and hauled her away. “She’s not a person!” Monty was screaming. “She has no soul!”
His daughter’s body was light but wild, coiling and uncoiling as she struggled to free herself. Van stood up, and in the fan of light he saw her scraped and dusty face, her maddened eyes, the blood dripping from her nose over her lips. She took a step in his direction. Monty strained, wanting to be set loose, her boots scraping at the gravel. Vanessa strode toward them. “Holly!” Simon shouted at the car. “Holly!”
Vanessa was a slapper and a clawer, and she fell on them with open palms, going for her sister’s face and shoulders with messy swipes, catching Simon as often as not. Monty’s boot heels scraped his shins as she kicked at her sister. Then Holly was there, too, behind Van, grabbing her arms and pulling her back until they’d opened a few tense feet between the girls. Monty stomped hard on Simon’s foot. The pain was so sharp and so surprising that he let her go, or pushed her away, really, and she charged at Van and Holly, knocking them over and going down with them in a heap onto the gravel. “Quit it, you little psycho!” Van yelled. Holly wriggled out from under Van and got to her knees, trying to separate them.
Simon limped for the hose that Monty had left running. He pushed out a strong, cold spray with his thumb, aiming it at Monty, then Van, following them as they scrambled away, catching Holly accidentally at first and then coming back to her on purpose, methodical as a hitman, spraying one then the other then the other, filling in any dry areas left on their clothes, riding a malicious high that he would never quite understand and that would still trouble him years later. He had always perceived a chaos in women about to break loose. Now he was driving it back into them, putting shattered pieces back together like film run in reverse.
When he still lived in this house, he had seen his father break up a dogfight this way, driving the snarling animals apart, filling their snouts with water so they grimaced and sneezed.
“Simon,” Holly shouted, “enough!” He kept spraying. Holly picked herself up, walked back to the house, and cranked the water off. Simon let the hose droop in his hand.
“What are we doing?” she said. “What kind of family is this?”
Simon and the girls looked at one another in guilty solidarity, co-defendants. The word family shocked him slightly. He did not think of himself as having a family, only wives and children.
“Answer me,” Holly said.
In the headlights, the thin jersey of her long-sleeved shirt, now drenched, showed the elastic edges of her bra, the line of her ribs, the shallow dimple of her navel. Holly was not so different from how she’d been — the lithe high jumper, the young body in his faded Polaroid. He had been young, too, on the other side of the camera, just being a little kinky, taking a picture of his girl, wanting to preserve that afternoon and the way he felt and the shape of her body on the bed. He had been unaware of how time would flow through the image like water through a grate. Van and Monty sat crying on the gravel, ghosts of their mother. The man and woman who had conspired to make that Polaroid had made them, too. Simon might have fanned them into being as he waved the photo in the air, waiting for the image to appear. When he went back to L.A., he would destroy it. Like his father’s photos, it was a memento of a loss that had already been endured.