Champ de Mars

by Mireille Silcoff, recommended by House of Anansi Press

EDITOR’S NOTE BY JANICE ZAWERBNY

In 2013 House of Anansi Press launched Astoria, a new imprint dedicated exclusively to publishing short story collections. That year, one of the first collections to be published under the imprint — Hellgoing by Lynn Coady — won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in Canada, beating out a longlist and shortlist dominated by novels.

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I joined Anansi three months after the launch of the new imprint, and the first short story collection we acquired was Chez l’arabe by Mireille Silcoff. What first caught my attention was a set of interwoven autobiographical stories about a woman battling a rare neurological condition. The disease leaves the unnamed woman on bedrest for months; she is trapped in her house, in her body, and in her mind. These four first-person stories are a fascinating examination of physical and mental confinement. As a reader, you feel the claustrophobia of the character’s limited existence, the frustration of her complete dependence on others, and her longing for corporeal and psychological freedom.

These four stories merge seamlessly into the rest of the collection, which includes the story published here, “Champ de Mars.” In this story, a woman named Ellen must contend with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in her once-successful husband and her own pent-up rage and resentment. Throughout their marriage, Ellen has lived in her husband’s shadow: he’s an internationally renowned architect and she is as invisible as the glass walls in her husband’s designs. Ellen feels like an outsider in her own body — eating and baking compulsively — and her own family. She has already lost a daughter, and she is rejected once again by her husband, who sits day after day in a subway station he designed, drawing intricately detailed hearts for strangers.

There is a recurring theme of failure in Chez l’arabe: of our bodies, our relationships, and our best efforts. But the stories are always tempered by sharp humor and shrewd emotional insights. Silcoff’s ability to articulate a deep appreciation of the beauty in the world around us is one of the hallmarks of this collection: from a meticulously set dinner table and luxurious old furniture to modernist subway stations and exotic California flowers.

Eudora Welty once wrote: “Some stories leave a train of light behind them, meteor-like, so that much later than they strike our eye we may see their meaning like an after-effect.” That describes the experience of reading Silcoff’s stories: they possess a distinct visual and psychological resonance that imprints itself upon the mind long after you’ve finished reading. As only the very best writing can.

Janice Zawerbny, Senior Editor
Canadian Fiction, House of Anansi Press

Champ de Mars

by Mireille Silcoff, recommended by House of Anansi Press

Ellen Wölke was the shape of an apple, round and enormous. She had been heavy for years — and every year it surprised her, the way it surprises a person to learn that they graduated forty years ago, not ten. Still, she knew it to be different now, because when she ate, people watched. People used to look at Ellen for other reasons, this wispy woman, with long, rib-skimming hair the color of red milky tea. Now it was only: how does such size happen? (Or if they knew Ellen: yes, that’s how that size happens.)

Not long ago, Ellen counted the number of times she’d eaten in one day: fourteen. That was more than usual, and half of it was blind eating, emotional eating. She counted silently, tapping her fingers on a placemat with a plate of plum cake on it and a half-drunk glass of milk. Dory was sitting across from her, with his own slice of cake, his glass of milk full. He was wearing his dress shirt buttoned up but without a tie, a purgatorial mode Ellen associated with architects and people who didn’t dress themselves.

Dory was now both of those things. Although he’d always worn a tie before.

“You look Amish,” she said, not really to Dory, and also not to May, who was making herself busy washing Ellen’s cake pan, and was from the Philippines, and wouldn’t know the Amish. In truth, Dory looked more retarded than anything, his eyes reverting to childhood, his features slowly, giddily capitulating.

Even a year ago, he had still been the old Dory, the real Dory, forgetful, but not so much that it turned his insides out: he couldn’t remember the name of Ellen’s place of work, the institute that she’d founded decades before — The Children’s Place? The Children’s Center? It’s the Learning Center? Are you sure? Then he couldn’t remember how to adjust his drafting table, then he didn’t know where his fine-tip pens were.

When they were first married, forty-five years ago, Ellen used to accuse Dory of a hyper-vigilance that bordered on the obsessive. An architect is an architect, and a German architect, enough said, but still, it was something to get used to, something Ellen could only work around. All the fine-tip pens had to go in a certain narrow white ceramic cup. The cup needed to be in the upper left-hand corner of the desk. There were a million things like that. Dory used to say that when he was a youth, his head had always been in the clouds. He would lose a shoe on his way to school. He would become deaf when drawing pictures of fanciful mazes or crazy Christmas trees in class, the teacher repeating his name over and over: Dorian, Dorian Wölke, bist du da?

To become an integrated man of line and angle he had needed to train those tendencies out of himself. The fine-tip pens needed to be in the cup, said Dory, because if not, they would be in the bathroom, the bedroom, the fridge.

Ellen found pens in the fridge. She phoned the doctor. Dory’s diagnosis was Alzheimer’s. Early.

“Must we call it early when I am seventy-one years old?” asked Dory.

“You could have thirty years ahead of you,” is what the doctor answered.

At first, it wasn’t what Dory called the heart of his brain that was being affected, just the outer areas. Ellen sent Dory to buy canned artichokes and when he returned bewildered, saying he was unable to locate his reason for being in the supermarket, that he felt he was “half in a dream,” Ellen’s legs began to tremble, like the ground was shuddering under her feet.

“Well, I know that I still like artichokes, and fresh more than canned,” said Dory defensively, as if having his tastes about him meant nothing could be too wrong.

Of course taste had always been a fortress for Dory. He was famous for a kind of rabble-rousing sternness — the sort that went over better internationally than at home. He often argued that his ideal building would be totally invisible, making his structures in gleaming glass as if it was a concession. Ellen met and married him while he was embroiled in the controversy over the last project he would ever undertake in Montreal (from then on he would always favor work in Europe and Japan): the Champ de Mars metro station, 1967, a merciless glass box aboveground with expanses of glass wall underground, displaying monolithic rock face. The other stations were friendly affairs with bubbly orange plastic seating and op-art murals. Ellen still remembers watching her new husband on a small black-and-white television, sitting placidly in his chair as a critic in a psychedelic shirt called the station a mean, modernist throwback.

“Aha, but there cannot be such a thing as a modernist throwback,” Dory corrected, his square face poreless as paper under the hot lights. “Only a modernist throw-now, or in a degenerate state, a modernist throw-forward. A train goes along a track, through an underground tunnel. There is a sense to be followed there. It is not orange plastic blobbery.”

Dory’s symptoms worsened after the diagnosis. The doctor said this often happened — a letting go — although when Ellen described some of the examples of degeneration to the doctor, he said he could not comment on whether these were Alzheimer’s symptoms or changes in aesthetic preference. Dory had eagled in on a very small tear in the low beige loveseat in his study, where for more than four decades he’d sat every morning to gather his thoughts. Dory wanted Ellen to fix the tear with a patch he’d found in the house — something from when their daughter, Sam, was a girl, heart-shaped, red gingham, insanely wrong for the subdued sable of his Italian loveseat.

The day prior, she’d found a greeting card propped up on Dory’s drafting table, blank, as if waiting for inscription. On the front of the card was a photograph of a baby, sleeping in a flowerpot, wearing a costume hat that looked like a large daisy. Dory’s standard stationery sat in stolid stacks nearby — the white stock with letterhead so light you needed full sunlight to see it properly: DORIAN WOLKE AND ASSOCIATES.

When Ellen asked Dory about the baby card, he looked at it as if he had never seen it before.

“Oh, isn’t that sweet?” he said, bringing it close to his face, his narrow black glasses. “Remember when Sam was a baby, and she’d look up with those eyes?”

It wasn’t usual, either, his pulling Sam into conversation, just like that. It was always better between them when they didn’t speak of Sam.

Dory was still going to the office every day, a short walk from the house, but Ellen became anxious when seeing him go. He’d stopped talking about builds and articulations and elevations. He ambled out the door every morning with none of his normal velocity. And what if baby cards were infiltrating the office? All those tight, strict people.

It had occurred to Ellen to follow her husband, and one morning she got as far as the car in the driveway. Keys in the ignition, she talked herself down. Dory was just going to the office. If there was a real problem, Dory’s partner Suskind would phone her. When Sam had begun cutting school, leaving the house in that same unbusy way, there had been a call from the school soon enough. How was Samantha’s mononucleosis?

But Suskind didn’t call, so Ellen phoned him. His silences were long. He said Dory was coming in late and taking unusually long lunches. Otherwise, he said Dory looked to be keeping very busy, drafting in his office for hours.

“Oh, so he has a new project?” asked Ellen.

“It seems more like doodles,” said Suskind. “Personal stuff.”

Ellen vaguely said that Dorian was taking medication.

“He made a very intricate drawing of a dollhouse for a junior partner’s eight-year-old daughter,” continued Suskind, who, after so many decades, still had no name on Dory’s intractable letterhead.

A few times, Ellen had caught herself counting backwards, dazedly tapping a table or chair or steering wheel: 2014, 2004, 1994, minus 2 = 22 years. She had reached the point where her old pain was such a familiar padding, she was able to feel it in a way that didn’t cause immediate suffering. For years there would barely be a day when she didn’t have a minutes-long freeze-out moment, standing stock-still in some hallway, overcome by everything she was holding down.

But with all this Dory stuff, past reactions were returning, storylines coming back. Sam’s “mononucleosis” had been hooky on a grand scale. Ellen watched her current students, with their pinging phones, and thought about how it would be impossible to disappear as effectively as back when Sam started skipping class to ride the metros all day. Now, the child would come home and the parent could say, I couldn’t reach you, and begin their investigation.

Back in 1992, Sam could do more of what she wanted, and what she wanted was to experience the connections between metro lines; to see whether she could travel through every intersection, from every possible direction, within a certain time frame. The mission had taken on some edge of urgency.

“And every day you’re doing this metro thing alone, Sam?”

“Well, Mom, it’s not exactly a group activity.”

This type of quirky experimentation wasn’t unusual. Sam went on these trips: spans of not eating meat, or boycotting any but primary colors, or only taking down class notes in code. Once she decided not to speak for a week. She walked around with a notebook opened to a page on which she had written, I have taken a vow of silence. Thank you for your understanding. Dory had always been enchanted by these eccentricities. At dinner parties, he would describe his daughter’s stints, roaring with laughter, while Ellen had to force herself not to make connections between her daughter and the type of behaviors she saw every day at the Learning Center. After all, the Center wasn’t only for kids who had to wear helmets or couldn’t be touched. It was also for the growing number of borderline cases, kids nearly functional, or just functional. Colleagues increasingly used the term “on the spectrum.”

“Don’t worry,” Sam said, flinging her lanky legs out in front of her, her undone shoelaces whipping her shins. “I am doing all my homework. I am just doing it on the metro.”

She would enter McGill the following year, at fifteen.

The dean of the university, the brother-in-law of one of the architects at Dory’s firm, came for coffee. Ellen, an excellent and prolific baker, offered plain cookies from a box. Sam went on some long, dazzling spiel about Montreal’s concrete architecture, something she probably memorized — likely by accident — from one of the journals Dory often had stacked on the kitchen table. The dean was convinced, and Dory, who was set on getting Sam out of her wholly regular high school early, beamed at the done deal.

But Ellen knew it was trouble to put a teenager in university three years early. Sam didn’t have an easy time with friends. And this metro thing gave Ellen a creepy feeling, like some gateway had opened, although into what, who knew.

Ellen also noticed that Sam had taken to fishing out old toys from the garage: a pony with a long pink mane you could brush; a sticker album with a sparse collection in it; a few cats, hearts, babies with pudgy faces in scalloped frames. Sam never cared for these things much as an actual child. She always showed more interest in maps, or indeed math, or making small, complicated universes of her own design. Once, when she was eight, she spent days creating an increasingly elaborate metro system that ran throughout her bedroom, ransacking Ellen’s sewing basket for buttons and the pantry for chocolate chips and Dory’s trash can for punched-out holes. Ellen and Dory tiptoed over the dozens of snaking dot-lines.

“Sam, dear, why does this metro line climb the wall?” asked Dory, lifting his glasses to closely examine a row of buttons taped straight up a wall, like a done-up shirt, ending at the window above Sam’s bed.

“Well. All my train tracks are elevated,” Sam explained in that bossy, know-it-all way that often annoyed Ellen. “That,” she said, pointing to the window, “is where they turn into air tracks.”

The night after they found out about Sam’s absences, Dory took off his glasses and put them by his low bedside table and then got under the white sheets of the broad white bed he shared with Ellen. Scratching his brows, as if to free them of tics, he said he saw Sam’s subway project as “exploration.” Ellen wrenched the sheets off herself, and stood over the bed, her nightgown quivering, her arms crossed over her then-bony chest.

“Sam is clearly overwhelmed!” she said, half hoping that their daughter, down the hall with her twitching antenna ears, heard. There was no question McGill should be deferred. “And I don’t care what strings the dean pulled! I know my Sam!

“I just don’t think we should coddle her for the sake of comfort,” answered Dory, measuredly.

“Comfort can foster laziness,” he continued, as if musing about one of his glass cubes.

Ellen watched her husband’s square face, his mouth opening and closing with pompous stupid words, his small eyes nude and pathetic without their glasses, and she hated him and Sam at the same time, the two of them, with all their collusion — their big alien brains and cold-fish affection and long accordion-legs. Sam would miss stairs, curbs, and Dory would tell her that she needed to think her limbs into submission, the same way he had when he was her age. Head in the cloud and knees meet the ground, he would drill, while Ellen was reduced to flapping mother, dabbing with antiseptic.

“Ow! Leave me alone, Mom!”

“Yes, leave her already, Ellen.”

The first semester at McGill was difficult. Sam didn’t show up to classes. She called her art history professor “the pedophile,” and her urban design class her “urban disaster” class. She refused breakfast in the morning, and at night wouldn’t have anything but strawberry jam sandwiches and Perrier. One morning, she refused to get up and Dory physically lifted her out of her bed and plunked her in the hallway.

Ellen heard the strange bodily thud from the kitchen and ran upstairs to find her daughter lying like a corpse on the floor, her eyes closed, her arms crossed over a pink stuffed monkey that had come with her out of bed. Oddly, Ellen still remembers first thinking how unusual it was, that Dory and Sam had had this close contact, the house’s two avowed “non-huggers,” both of whom would flinch when embraced, even by her.

That was the beginning of that day: November 6, 1992.

The people in the Champ de Mars metro who later saw the tall girl with the backpack and loose shoelace step off the platform said they could not tell whether she had wanted to. She just looked like she wasn’t thinking about what she was doing. “It was like the platform ended under her feet,” said one woman, hoarse with tears, because she’d seen everything from just a meter away, the pink monkey blasting out of the girl’s backpack on impact, “and her feet didn’t notice.”

For a while, after that, Ellen had needed Dory out of the house. It looked bad, him leaving to save some European bank building in the month after Sam’s death, but the truth was that Ellen wanted him away. She looked at him and all she saw was Sam, and all the instincts Ellen had ignored, because she couldn’t manage to hurdle them over Dory’s certainties.

The split lasted several months, Ellen deciding eventually that even a Dory she found guilty was better than the new loneliness alone. During his absence, Ellen could do nothing but bake, for hours, tears welling into her flour, her mixing bowls weirdly the same, her cakes coming up impossibly the same, and every single thing besides them floating off in all directions, in some stark, over-clear atmosphere, air she didn’t know.

Her skirts were increasingly too tight. At night, sleep was distant. Ellen would close her eyes and imagine putting her entire face in a big white cake with white icing. She’d get out of bed, and go downstairs and bake something more sensible — as if bran muffins or zucchini bread were some normalizing force. It still makes Ellen shudder in nearly intolerable shame, now, when she recalls the night she ran out of most ingredients, and the sun came up to reveal countertops crowded with six hundred meringues, and Ellen still sweating over the stove, as if catering an Easter wedding.

Somewhere in herself, through all the years since, Ellen thought that her pain, a pain that came to feel sealed, but never healed (and all mothers who lose children know this, how the pain becomes like a hide you get used to, but which is never useful, the way other pains can be), would absolve her from future hardship.

She organized her continuing life around this belief. She would never divorce, no matter how much love was lost. She would not become ill, no matter how fat she became. If Dory died, he’d die an old man, suddenly, in his sleep. Because the worst thing had already happened to her, and she’d absorbed the blow and remained upright. Surely, for this, some kind of immunity? Some reward?

The day Dory didn’t show up at work, Suskind had waited until noon, and then phoned. Was Dorian with Ellen? No? Well, he was not at the office.

Ellen put on her coat, which billowed like a tent around her round waist in the city wind. She scoured the likeliest streets, trying not to miss a corner, a block, every hour explaining to Suskind from her cellphone that no, he should not be calling the police. In truth, she began wondering whether the police were needed. She was losing track of where she’d been, dizzy in her coat, her face mapped red with exploding blood vessels, and Dory was nowhere. She found herself outraged by her own worry. How long was the right amount of time to do this? She imagined waiting at home, in the kitchen, the kettle coming on. Eventually, Dory would return, or be returned.

Then she knew where to find him.

Before the city redesigned it, commuters had nicknamed Champ de Mars the Stone Aquarium, the Glass Coffin. And even with Dory’s ingenious dehumidification techniques and innovative glazing, the windows showcasing the underground rock often wept with condensation. They were replaced with black granite. Ellen recalled how Dory railed that his station had been made to look like it was “coated in nouveau riche kitchen counter.”

Walking to the station, an embedded shard shifted in Ellen’s heart. She envisioned Dory, confused in his new way, with those too-bright eyes, on the platform, being roughly handled by security. He gains his old self too late, asking in his wrong-accented French, Do you know who I am? I built this bloody station.

Oui, oui, monsieur, of course you did.

Banishing the fantasy before she could dissect it — because something in her did relish it — Ellen paid for the metro, took the escalator underground, and, from the concrete mezzanine over the tracks, saw Dory. He was sitting on a bench, his back against the granite wall of the eastbound platform, his briefcase on his lap. He was using it as a desk. He seemed to be drawing.

With his glasses and fine pens, Dory still looked like himself, even while his metro station was nearly unrecognizable. He had been totally right about the new materials being wrong. Over time, the black granite had taken on strange stains. In the sections backing the platform benches, the stone had absorbed the heat and oils off the people sitting and waiting for the trains, making darker, human-shaped blobs appear in the granite. The Ghosts of Champ de Mars, people called them, not without superstition, because the station had by then gained a reputation for being jinxed, dark beyond its design flaws. They said you could feel those shadows on your back.

A security guard approached Ellen. She must have been there a while. Did Madame need help in knowing which train to take? Ellen pointed at Dory. She spoke with the overspecific voice she used with parents at the Learning Center. She needed all her powers. “That man with the briefcase,” she enunciated. “He is my husband. He is okay. He is an architect — ”

“Oh, he’s here all the time,” said the guard, chuckling, motioning to Dory with his chin. “The guy who makes pictures. He draws like that for hours, and then he gives it away and leaves, like he’s finished his day of work. Me? I’ve talked to him; hello and good day. I could tell he was an artist or something, not just a crazy — ”

The guard suggested Ellen go back up the escalator, to see the woman who took tickets upstairs. Dory had given her one of the drawings. Nearing the glass ticket booth, Ellen was bothered that she couldn’t remember if it had been part of Dory’s original design. She’d have to get a longer view. If there was a certain amount of room on either side of it, then she’d know it was Dory’s. His symmetry was to her predictable.

The ticket taker had a tan the color of doll skin and pink nail polish, too thickly applied. She held up the page for Ellen, her spidery, fake-looking lashes blinking. Ellen wondered whether it was normal for women like this to take jobs in the metro. Maybe it was.

“It’s nice, you know?” said the ticket taker, her voice crackly behind the booth’s glass. “To have something that somebody really made?”

The drawing was Dory’s, but unlike anything of Dory’s Ellen had ever seen. It was a heart of unimaginable complexity — full of rooms, staircases, landings, elevations, a heart almost limitless in its tiny, line-drawn chambers. Ellen became breathless with ownership and irritation: this girl behind glass, with this loony valentine Ellen could barely comprehend as being related to her own life. She arranged her big coat about herself.

“How do I know that he really gave this to you?” said Ellen, more sharply than she’d wanted.

“Well, why would I make it up?” said the ticket taker. “Getting a picture from some guy who hangs around the metro drawing hearts all day?”

Soon Dory was forgetting basic things: where his clothes were kept, how to dial Ellen’s cell number, how to eat a muffin still in its paper cup. He was home all the time. Ellen needed to place an ad for a caregiver. In fielding calls, Ellen felt a little bloom of relief, a warmish ember of freedom amid the grey exhaustion clouding her lower back. She could just leave for the Learning Center five mornings a week. If she needed a haircut, she could just leave the house and get one. A nurse would stay with Dory. Ellen could just leave him. That would be fine.

All the caregivers were middle-aged Philippinas with springtime names: April and May and Vivian. When June Phan called, Ellen thought she was also caregiver. June quickly corrected her. She had that irritating young person’s habit of making every line sound like a question: “I’m, like, a reporter?”

“Dory!”

“I’m with the McGill Daily? The student paper?”

“Dory, pull the paper off the muffin — Dorian!”

“Should I call back?”

“No — Dorian, can you hear me? Paper off! A reporter. Okay. Yes?”

“I am doing a story. I mean I want to. About Dorian Wolke, I mean, your husband — ”

It’s a wonder Ellen didn’t hang up then. The old Dory had hated journalists. He never gave the people writing about buildings any of his time. He used to call what they did “dancing about architecture,” in other words, skirting the point. He always said the same thing: his buildings were entirely transparent. No interpretation required.

But June Phan had information. Did Mrs. Wolke know about Dory’s drawing in the metro? She did? Well, did she know there were at least thirty of these drawings? Always hearts, always given to girls, usually college students, or, June suggested, girls who looked like students to Dory.

“And just so you know, like, I don’t want you thinking I am going to make him look perverted for that — ”

June began seeing Dory in the same week as May began working for Ellen — May, with her many depressing accessories: strings with clips so Dory could keep things around his neck; large-print checklists placed everywhere from bedside to toilet; plastic baskets for grouping stuff together; all things Ellen hadn’t even come close to thinking of.

Watching June Phan remove her knit hat and fold her long, maroon-tinted hair over one shoulder, Ellen considered how death was simply the only way out now. It would be her death or it would be Dory’s, and if it were hers, she might not mind that much. Dory used to say the way to deal with this type of feeling was to remove yourself from it. Look at it in hard light and say, oh, hello, idiotic emotion, you are not me, you are just an emotion. In Dory’s view, there was no such thing as a person trapped by feelings. Position yourself correctly, and all the trouble in the world could just slide over you, water over rock.

In the kitchen, May was giving Dory applesauce.

“The applesauce is homemade,” Ellen said to June, addled by the day-lit vision of Dory and his nurse — he with his shirt done all the way up under a red-striped bib, she in a tunic with an all-over teddy bear pattern.

“Oh, lucky Mr. Dory-Dory! You have a young girl visitor! A beautiful girl!”

June removed from her backpack two well-worn notebooks, a pile of photocopies, and a digital recorder.

Dory beamed at June from above his candy cane bib, an accidental Santa Claus, an avuncular uncle, a Werther’s butterscotch chef with gleaming eyes.

“Will you be okay with everyone leaving the room?” June asked Dory directly.

Dory nodded, clearing his throat.

“Just, first, dear!” he said. “Can you please tell me and your mother why it took you so long to get here?”

Usually the interviews lasted twenty minutes. Ellen made a project of cleaning the basement, filling garbage bags for the charity truck, when June was with Dory. She had gotten as far as the room they always called the larder — a dry, windowless warren in the middle of the basement that she used as a second pantry. It was one of the few places in the house with no windows, its dry smell of old flour and paper bags of sugar never changing. Ellen found a bunch of dead meal moths on a shelf, disintegrating. She brushed the powdered wings and carcasses into her palm, and found she could hear June from where she stood. She now had the cadence of a teacher.

“Can you talk about this heart you drew?” asked June.

“I made that?”

“You made it in Champ de Mars. Do you remember?”

“I know that place very well. Champ de Mars!”

“How do you feel about it? Do you miss your glass walls?”

“Oh, they won’t be taking those down for some time yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, my dear, we are long before any of that mess.”

“You think we are before? Like, we’re in the 1990s? Sitting in this kitchen? Now?”

“Of course we are! After all, you are here, right?”

Ellen put down the open flour bag she was holding, flecked with moths like chocolate chips in batter. She clomped up the stairs and was soon pulling open her kitchen drawers and cupboards. The spoons, the bowls, the mixer, four black plums from the fridge.

“I am baking a cake,” she announced, clattering her pans.

“What kind of cake?” asked June, above the din, as if this too was material.

“Plum, as you can see, from the plums,” said Ellen, unkindly.

“But Ellen!” said Dory, standing up in the noise. “Sam doesn’t like plum cake. She likes chocolate cake. Chocolate cake with cream cheese icing!”

Ellen looked at the counter, June at her tape recorder.

“Sam doesn’t like plum cake,” Dory said again. “She likes chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. So why don’t you make us some chocolate cake, then?”

As Ellen ushered June out of the house, apologizing firmly, she didn’t know that June’s newspaper article would lead to many more like it, like one dagger after another, all of them framing Dory’s decline in the same feel-good way. The New York Times called her husband’s dementia “a historic creative awakening,” this man who made so many glass boxes back in the twentieth century.

June Phan will move to New York for an internship, and before she leaves she will call Ellen and say she would like to come and say goodbye to Dory. On that day, Ellen will hide his diapers and his wheelchair and his cans of protein drink, and wait with the kettle on, listening for the doorbell, as if something in its ringing might awake another beginning, or at least an end, but the girl will forget, and never come.

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