AN INTRODUCTION BY CATHERINE LACEY
Grief is a difficult home to leave, everything outside it seeming foreign and incomprehensible. Though it’s musky and poorly lit, at least this home is familiar, protected. At least it’s yours.
Most of the characters in Kathleen Alcott’s richly layered second novel, Infinite Home, are pacing the dusty corners of loss and estrangement, but they also share a literal roof, the brownstone where they all rent apartments from Edith, their elderly landlady who is descending into dementia. Edith’s tenants — Edward, a burned-out comedian, Thomas, an artist mournfully recovering from a stroke, Paulie, a young man with a rare neurodevelopmental syndrome, and Adeleine, a woman nostalgic for an era in which she never lived — slowly creep out of their private stagnations and into each other’s lives in surprising ways.
This excerpt shows Thomas in San Francisco, searching for Edith’s long-lost daughter, Jenny, with the hopes of bringing her home. Meanwhile Edward and Paulie are on a long, strange road trip with his sister, as Adeleine is trying to protect Edith and her brownstone from Owen, the heartless and opportunistic son who is threatening to evict everyone, sell the building, and send his mother to a retirement home.
As evidenced here, Alcott is an expert at coaxing a whole fleet of brilliant, full characters from the page with each elegant sentence. Her narration is bursting and energetic, dashing in and out of the characters’ apartments to weave together several storylines with short, streamlined chapters. Here we have a passage from the center of the book after each character has been forced to face what they thought was impossible, and finding unexpected senses of resolution.
Infinite Home, full of compassion and grace, tells the story of leaving grief behind.
Author of Nobody is Ever Missing
Infinite Home (Excerpt)
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
by Kathleen Alcott, recommended by Catherine Lacey
Excerpted from the novel
Thomas hadn’t visited San Francisco since losing his old body, but there was a time he had flown out once or twice a year: he would casually tour the spectacular heights and views, stay with friends and spend unfocused hours on foggy rooftops. He had always arrived with no definite plans and found a city that didn’t require any. As he looked away from the airport’s organic grocery store, its rainbow bounty of produce, as the escalator carried him down from ARRIVALS to GROUND TRANSPORTATION, he reminded himself of the wholly different shape of this visit. Imagining himself as he’d last been on the same steel moving walkways — his linen thrift store slacks, his military-green duffel bag, his carefree stroll towards the line of cars outside and the warm way he’d greeted the friend who’d picked him up — he constricted and grabbed for the handrail.
There was no one pulling up in a car for him out front, no one waving and grinning: he hadn’t let anyone know he was coming, couldn’t imagine summing up the last two years or explaining his total lack of plans for the next few. He followed the signs to other transportation, fumbled with the unfamiliar ticketing system, pulled his rolling suitcase into the train car, and waited for motion.
His plans were vague, loose as algae. He had wished — so hard that he’d begun to expect — that he would divine some clue or plan from the sea-brined air, the Victorians that seemed to lean crookedly uphill. Instead he was a man in a city not his own, holding the decades-old mementos of someone’s lost daughter, standing at the exit of an unfamiliar station with no itinerary besides a stop at the library. He had smothered such hatred of himself since meeting Adeleine, had distracted himself with the unfolding mystery of her, but now he felt the creep of fog under his light sweater and tugged at his sleeves, furious with himself for failing even to look after this basic aspect of survival.
He narrowly skirted an argument between two bearded homeless men but not the thick odor of urine it seemed to agitate, pulled Declan’s cardigan against him, and cut a path towards the library, a seven-story building of angular granite that abutted its neighbors’ stone reliefs of angels. The automatic doors acknowledged him and opened.
Three hours later, on the top floor, where the city records lived in quiet decay, Thomas had found an excess of nothing concerning Jennifer Faith Christine Whalen, save the small fact that she had attended, or at the very least signed up for, a class — on what the registrar didn’t reveal — at the city college the year she arrived. It was as though she had never assumed an address, or cast her ballot in an election, or subscribed to a journal, or taken any of the measures that mean inclusion or community or home.
Why, he wondered, in all the photos of her, did she seem uncomfortable in the world of domesticity and people: why had she seemed to hover over the couch rather than let the cushions receive her? Why hadn’t she reached out to hold the volunteered crook of Declan’s elbow? Why had she only packed such a modest suitcase on the day she left, forsaking the playthings of childhood and pinned-up photos of idols so easily?
Thomas’s frustration with the lack of results nudged at his aching for Adeleine; the smell of browned papers and the creak of century-old book spines in the records room had irritated it, reminded him of all the antiquated things she worshipped so stubbornly. The sound of the chair as he pushed it back reverberated, a loud screech in a room full of things still and near soundless, and he took the stairs down at a clip, determined to hear her voice on the telephone.
Outside, settled uncomfortably on a ledge that barely accommodated his body, Thomas listened as her phone rang but she didn’t answer, and vividly pictured the worst. She had recounted to him the psychiatrists and the pills, those prescribed and otherwise, and he had grown to sense her need for him, had seen her darken when he told her about his plans to travel. Three thousand miles away, he imagined the mass of her orange and beige anti-anxiety pills emptied out, the sleeping agents spread in lines, or her water-pruned body drawn in a tight shape in the bathtub where she had hid for hours, murky, loose as algae. His imagination, he considered as he withdrew from the fantasy, had never lacked ambition. Looking up towards the inscrutable gray of the sky, which hung low and concealed distance, he dialed another number.
Edith’s voice rang out so firmly when she said hello that Thomas, on the other end, could almost believe her as capable as she once had been: he could fly back at once, let his mind flow into calm under her maternal reassurance, grow tired by the hiss of her worn blue kettle. It was mid-evening there, and he imagined her stroking the tufts of her hair, rocking slightly as they talked.
“You’re in San Francisco!” she chirped. “Why, that’s where our wild Jenny went off to.” The careful conversation he had led, informing Edith of his purpose, begging that she rummage for any more information about her daughter, quickly diverged.
“Yoo-hoo,” she giggled. “You wouldn’t believe who has joined me this morning. Ad-e-leine! And she’s got the loveliest housedress on, and I think I’m going to take the train into the city and find one just like it at Bergdorf’s!”
Standing upright, newly chilled by the fog, Thomas watched a homeless man in a shrunken sweater listlessly rearrange the cans in his shopping cart, and forced a chuckle.
“Listen, Edith, do you think I could speak to her?”
“To whom, dear?”
“Adeleine.” The phone emptied of sound.
“Oh — yes,” Edith warbled.
Adeleine greeted him girlishly, with forced and uncharacteristic affection. He wanted to warm and unclench at this, at being addressed intimately for the first time in days, at being recognized, but her chipper tone bore a suspect echo.
“What are you, uh… doing?” It was not like her to get out and socialize with the neighbors, no less the demented and capricious landlord. He supposed he should congratulate her, but the suspicion arrived first and made its demands like a guest at the table too hungry for manners.
“Edith was having” — she paused while she searched for safe language — “a bad day, you could say. I heard it from my apartment and I came down.” She offered this information blithely, as if she were not someone who received her groceries exclusively by delivery, who had turned defensive and morose when Thomas suggested that she might someday join him on a camping trip.
“You could… hear her bad day?”
“Yes, well. I was on the floor, so. Anyway, I’ve been writing down some memories for her — she was upset because she said they were sort of losing their foundation, like they were flooded and pushed into the wrong rooms.”
“Flooded?” Thomas remained astonished. He didn’t recognize the uptick in her voice, or the assertive clip of her intentions; he tried to imagine her eyes focused in the muted lamplight while she urged Edith on in her remembering, while she pushed a pen across the page with a strong wrist, but couldn’t.
“Point is, I thought I should help. How are you?”
“I miss you.”
That was all he could manage. He had never had a talent for speaking on the phone, was always hovering over the conversation’s true purpose or cowed by the speed of the interaction, reacting too slowly, forgetting to assent with his voice as well as his face.
“Okay,” Adeleine agreed hesitantly. “Me too. I think I’ll get back to Edith now, but I’ll talk to you soon.”
“Okay,” he echoed, but she had already ended the call. How could it be, he thought, that the people he had gone galloping off on this fool’s mission to help were so comfortably supporting each other in a warm room? He felt glad for them, for the idea of Edith’s chatter being caught and held, but the phone call had left him more and not less lonely, and he knew that every passing hour was another in which he hadn’t earned his way home.
Thomas slept late in the exorbitantly priced hotel room, succored by the white anonymous space as he dreamt, slowly, of untouched earth. Even as he walked through the dream, he knew it was strange that his mind, so accustomed to an urban setting, would conjure rivers rapid and green, footpaths curving under the grand theater of forest. When he woke, he thought of water. He wrapped the plush, bleached robe around him and crossed the empty hall, where he stepped into the washed glow of the elevator.
The pool possessed a certain type of lavish 1920s grandeur: the curved glass ceiling demarcated by thin white panes, the pale tiles and plush lounges immaculate, the verdant fronds tall and loose in each corner of the room. As he willed himself to float, he looked up through the glass at oxidized copper roofs, at office buildings pulsing with light, and marveled at how his liquid surroundings rendered the paralyzed side of him just the same as the other.
In the late afternoon, dry but still drunk with the sensation of floating, Thomas stepped out of the lobby and walked. He carried the last photo of Jenny in his pocket, studied it on various benches, patted it while he ascended and descended the hills that seemed impractical for the purposes of a city. Why build on such angles? But he admired them, enjoyed the performance, the way succored by the white anonymous space as he dreamt, they routinely hid the next mile from view and surprised with an abrupt path downward. After two hours of walking he realized what he’d known but ignored: that the city wasn’t as large as New York was, wasn’t a place that offered getting lost as a gift. Through some unconscious set of lefts, he had already begun to return: to his scant luggage, the pennies and dimes on the night table.
He walked down Market Street, the early stretch of it still dominated by strip clubs and SROs and the woven dens of the homeless, constructed of scraps of cotton and cardboard as though designed by earthbound birds. Thomas dodged a handful of requests for change that varied in tone and volume, stepped over a half-dozen sleeping bags, and then he saw her. Her outstretched hands, her skin that appeared to have experienced flood and drought in an unending cycle, her eyes unchanged.
Hardly feeling the dip between curb and street, he glided towards her. He was sure, or nearly, that this was the child Edith and Declan had lost. She was standing with a foot on the concrete ledge of an angular fountain, working a denim pant leg up with one hand and holding the plastic handle of an overflowing shopping cart with the other.
He approached and stepped into the fetid scent, understanding too late he was interrupting her bath.
The woman wrinkled her forehead to regard him, and the dirt on her face realigned. She was worn in the way of broken things left out in brown yards, stretched and sun-bleached and sagging.
“Who are you to ask,” she spat. “You a cop?”
“No, I — ”
She pulled on his sweater and tilted her head to the side. “No, you’re not a cop.”
“I came to talk to you — ”
“I’m hungry,” she barked. “You gonna get me some fuckin’ food or what?”
Before he could answer she was shuffling off, pushing her cart against the light through protesting honks. He tried to keep up, weaving through traffic and raising his hand in thanks to the drivers who let him. In front of a McDonald’s she acknowledged two hunched and gaunt men pinching cigarettes between diminished lips and leaning against the intricately scratched window, and parked her rolling pile of possessions there.
Inside, she told Thomas what to order, grabbed a booth while he waited in line. She’d brought in four bulging plastic bags, which she examined and sniffed. Thomas looked up at the backlit photos of hamburgers, unsure if this was how he had wanted to feel when he found her. It had happened too quickly: he had not been prepared: but how, he wondered, could he have readied himself for this?
She didn’t comment on the way he crouched to slide the tray, one armed, onto the table. While she inhaled a double cheeseburger and gnawed the ice from the soda, splintering it in her open mouth, Thomas looked for words, aware he’d spent much of life like this, stammering and searching. Wasn’t this outcome more likely than any other he’d considered — couldn’t he have guessed that the lost child, damaged by an era that chewed up so many, would be somewhere between life and death, growling, pushing her rotting blankets and talismans through depressed intersections?
“I guess I’ll get right to it. Your mother? Edith? Is sick. Your brother is trying to take the property from her against her will.”
She said nothing, kept eating, opening ketchup packets with her sawed-down teeth and picking at her gray gums with a pinky nail.
“I know it’s been practically a lifetime, but — ”
“I don’t know who the fuck you are, but you must be a lunatic or somethin’,” she said, finally. “Don’t know why you want to tell me this shit. Like I don’t have plenty to deal with. Everything I can do just to survive. City making new laws to illegalize me every day.” Her frustration soon became unintelligible, and she was speaking in schizophrenic apostrophe. “Little bitches,” she said. “Flying around, not even my own age.”
Her cool anger seemed to flash, vanishing from her face before it appeared in her body. Their circumferences like those of dinner plates, her enormous hands spread and hovered over the table, then slammed down. “Fucker. Motherfucker.”
“Jenny?” He said it again, though he knew now how wrong he was, and longed at once for all the clean, quiet moments of his life, as though summoning them might give him some power in the barbed present.
“I’m leaving, and I don’t want to see you again.” She removed a butter knife from one of the plastic bags that swayed from her arm and stood before him, swiping it through the air vertically.
Thomas found himself laughing, everything suddenly a well-earned punch line: the carving on the bench that read SUK OR FUK MY DIK, the irate homeless person he’d tried to offer free real estate, the filthy woman’s eyes protruding as she gripped the dull, bent knife.
“Lunatic is right!” Thomas said, as she backed away. Freed in some way, he closed his eyes and sank into the vinyl backrest.
He folded his arms on the table, buried his sight in the scratchy wool once Declan’s, and found the memories of his past life there: himself at an art gallery, shaking hands with suited men, later sharing their cabs, waiting for the girls in belted linen dresses to come to him, packaging his pieces for shipment once they’d sold, taking a nap in the afternoon, knowing the world would be ready to receive him when he awoke. He sighed and rose and pushed the door open.
Before he felt the force of hands around him, he noticed the scent of old sweat. Then the voice of the woman who wasn’t Jenny, skirted by two others, and the coughs as they slammed his head against a wall, searching his body as though it were a cluttered drawer. The greedy push of their fingers was several seconds gone before he opened his eyes, saw them running and the man in the blue uniform approaching.
A few days after the ambulance took Edith away, Edward and Claudia sat on his tiny couch, dark bottles of beer in hand, their faces lit by a stand-up comedy special. Paulie sat between them on the floor, leaning his head lightly against Claudia’s knee and occasionally patting Edward’s calf. They passed things to each other wordlessly as they laughed: Claudia handed Edward the carton of lo mein; Edward removed a cushion from the sofa and placed it behind Paulie’s neck; Paulie, without taking his eyes from the screen, removed a pinecone from his pocket and placed it on Claudia’s right foot. That afternoon, while the three of them picnicked in the park, Drew had placed a trash bag on their stoop: Claudia’s dirty laundry, worn underwear and coffee-stained nylon button-ups she hadn’t bothered to wash before she left him.
Paulie finished eating first and began silently farting. Edward’s face contorted as though witness to a quick accident, a knuckle hacked off in shop class.
“Paulie! What the fuck! That smells like if celery were homeless!”
Claudia choked on her beer at this, sprayed it out the side of her mouth, and Paulie’s face reddened furiously. They were hidden in the safety of the moment, the comfort of intimate ridicule, when the lights went out.
The fact that the woman who wasn’t Jenny and her bumbling street colleagues hadn’t managed to steal anything made the humiliation worse. A stronger person, thought Thomas, would brush this off with a laugh, the thought of blindly following a homeless woman into a McDonald’s and babbling on while she devoured greasy food, preparing to rob him. The way they had wrenched his body left a series of bruises, and on the back of his head he felt a raised welt, but he knew it didn’t warrant the two days he had spent almost entirely in the hotel room. He had accomplished nothing, eaten little, felt that he deserved to remain hungry. On the third evening he resolved to rise early the next day, take himself to a museum, and develop some plan in the unfettered mental space a concentration of art almost always gave him.
At the Museum of Modern Art the next day, Thomas wandered through a photography exhibit focused on Depression-era small towns, thought how the dirt-faced children were all most likely dead. Later, he nearly stumbled into a sculpture that took up a whole room, a netting of tied rope that seemed to fall naturally but was in fact hardened with shellac. Signage prohibited venturing in or under it, and he felt a silent camaraderie with the others who skirted the edges as he did, looked a lingering while, perhaps thinking of parts of their life that had once seemed flexible and had irrevocably calcified. He drank expensive coffee on the rooftop garden, which seemed to gather all the heat the gray city had to offer in the bright steel of its abstract sculptures, its polished wooden benches. Nearby a new family talked loudly, their idealism pouring into a high-tech stroller, and from the street below came the sounds of someone with a bullhorn, trying to rally people for a cause that was not quite discernible. Thomas decided to try the library again, if only for the quiet.
At his pleading, Edith had finally admitted, in the benumbed voice she seemed to reserve for protected memories, that the last they’d seen of their daughter was a shot of her tangled hair in a television news segment. He thought it possible that if a news network’s team had been there, so had some local reporters, and he resolved to spend the afternoon at the microfiche machine, watching the nicotine-colored celluloid whir by like water escaping a hole. At the base of the library, a sloping lobby that looked up at six floors of smudged glass walls and people moving slowly behind them, Thomas felt a new wave of surrender to the search and followed the feeling into the elevator.
Edith had been unsure of the precise year, had finally whittled it down to two possibilities, and Thomas requested the reels of the Bay Guardian and the San Francisco Examiner. His hand on the lever, he spent hours moving the blown-up images forward, hastening the speed, quickly absorbing then rejecting headlines about the rare heat wave, the murder of a police officer, the kidnapping of a child. At the end of it all he had nothing; the final strip reached its ends and retracted back to its spool, and the screen, deprived of anything to project, glowed eerily white. Comfort had replaced purpose: the idea of Jenny had splintered and lost focus, but he felt calmed by the dated technology, the rolls stored in their time-stamped boxes and handled by librarian after librarian, the stories they held immutable, and so he requested two additional rolls from later years.
His right wrist, loose, let the blown-up reproductions float by rapidly, and he basked in the therapy of the changing ochre light, the steady hum. He settled back into his chair and imagined soothing, unlikely futures, apartments he and Adeleine might rent and furnish together, children he might have and carefully watch.
And there, unmistakably, appearing for half a second in a photograph that championed most of a page, was Jenny.
Thomas stood on the top floor of the rapidly emptying library, dreading exit, ignoring the announcements about closing, printing several copies of the photo.
Jenny and another girl stand in the shadow of a man wearing only jeans and sunny brown hair hanging past his nipples. His hipbones, distinct above the denim’s low waistline, gleam. A variety of greenery, spiked and reedy and leafed, moves up their legs. Jenny, on his right, rests her hands on the wooden handle of a shovel nearly as tall as she is. On her biceps is a tattoo of a circle, perhaps something more that Thomas can’t make out. To the man’s left, the other woman leans her soft face and long braids against his sculpted shoulders. In the unfocused background sit lopsided structures made of waste, bits of crates printed with half names of brands, deformed soda bottles, slices of tire, all of them thatched with twisted steel and strips of faded cloth.
The accompanying article, dated 1973, concerned a group of people who had departed San Francisco, gone farther north, in a return-to-the-land movement characterized by an emphasis on quiet. While they specifically avoided terms such as “leader,” the twenty-odd individuals — mostly young women — had followed the man in the photo, who called himself Root, to the property just below the border of the Trinity Alps Wilderness, an area rich in conifer diversity and poor in people. The son of a prominent senator, he had washed himself of his family’s reputation and spent their money on three hundred acres.
They spoke only one hour of the day and harvested simple crops, arugula and tomatoes and corn. In what little of an interview the reporter could manage, Root offered few words about their rejection of identity. “We’re no one, just like everybody else,” he said. “And we’re not afraid of it.” Regarding their notions about silence: “It’s not a hard and fast rule. Nobody is upbraided if they need to talk outside the hour of the day we set aside for it. But we find that the lion’s share of verbalization is an unnecessary excess, a vehicle that brings us away from ourselves.”
Jenny, who had begun to call herself Song, spoke only when asked about her home — had she come far to join this? Did her family approve? — and she answered only, “I was born in a place surrounded by water you can’t drink. Can you imagine?”
When an Internet search confirmed the community still existed, Thomas felt the return of obligation. Back in the hotel room, he parted his hair neatly and combed it, took a harsh gulp of the tiny mouthwash. He kept expecting to find an out, to follow a selfish wish, and felt some surprise in the cab en route to the nearest car rental, as he spoke clear directions to the driver, and in the moment after the uniformed employee dropped the keys to a bland sedan into his hand and he crossed the parking lot, humming. He hadn’t driven a car since the stroke, and some part of him had expected a test demanding he raise both hands and make fists. He pushed away his mounting anxiety until the road was already rushing invisibly under him, then transferred it to the pressure on the gas pedal. The indirect route he’d planned, he hoped, would work to collect his confidence. On the Golden Gate, he ignored the way his left hand wilted across the steering wheel and watched the light perform on the bay. North of San Francisco, the land turned first into a near canopy of deep green, then cow-spotted hills that sloped modestly into imposing height.
The country Thomas had reached boasted of its beauty in a way that seemed to erase tract housing and mini-marts and rat-infested public transportation; the overwhelming height and age of the trees, the loud proof of the river beyond them, nullified his memory of anything else. When the map he’d hand-drawn at the library — a childhood habit and a comforting pleasure — indicated his location on the curving two-lane highway as half an hour or so from the possibility of Jenny, he pulled over on an untended shoulder. He would find his way to the water, which he believed he could smell.
On the silted bank, he accepted the probability of Jenny’s being long gone or dead, and he watched as the river, rather than bracing for impact, hurried its pace around the bend ahead. Picking up pebbles with his toes and letting them drop, Thomas waited there twenty minutes, until he felt his breathing had refined. Back behind the wheel, he signaled before he pulled out onto the concrete. He had not seen another car in hours.
At the point in the road where there should have been a turn into the community’s property, he searched for a clear demarcation but found none, let alone the hand-carved wooden sign or softly lit path of loose earth he had imagined in his more sanguine moments. The road neatly divided two biospheres, one that tumbled down in sharp angles of rock and trees that grew almost horizontally into the bleached altitudinous sky, the other a level forest dense with age and nearly lightless.
He left the car door open, the sensor dinging and nagging, as he paced back and forth along the road’s shoulder, pausing at points to will some divine clue and then blushing at his foolish- ness. On his final lap, ready to get in the car and scan the next few miles of road, he felt the pang of an approaching aura. Unwilling to embrace the uncomfortable swirl of color at the margins of his vision — This doesn’t help me, not now — Thomas settled horizontally on the damp and green side of the road with a hand over his eyes and waited for the ache to strike. As the pain descended, he tried to focus on the view, the trees that triangulated in their height and framed the lowering sun.
Closer to him than the wash of sky, thirty feet above the ground, a length of faded mauve cloth stretched from one branch to another. A foot above glinted a section of pink ribbon, taut and pearled with the near-dusk. A slash of green. Orange. Yellow. He gripped grass in his fists and looked, but saw no clear indication of how whoever tied them there had scrambled up, no marks in the tree but those of weather. The aura rippled and bled his perspective of the colors, and he waited for them to clear, his mind renouncing worries one by one, like muscles giving out.
It felt difficult to believe that an hour before, he’d lain curled in the throes of a migraine on the shoulder of the road: now he walked through patches of light where the trees parted their tangled meetings, now he saw — far ahead, but not unreachable — the system of structures.
He momentarily believed, with the kind of unblemished optimism that only accompanies new places, that he had nothing to be afraid of: he would end up with Adeleine or he wouldn’t, he would find Jenny or let the blurred idea of her go, he would accept the lost agency of his body and find another use. Fed by rosy resolve, he approached the cluster of buildings set against the forest in ragged lines, and made for the largest, where a slipshod porch cast blue shadows. The shade of a veranda, composed primarily of a drooping sweep of fishnet, was woven with the spines of hardback books, the lone soles of hiking boots, gnarled pieces of wood that varied in lengths and browns.
In the small of his back and the balls of his feet, Thomas felt the men approach.
He turned to witness their congruent outlines, long hair that fell around stern faces, clothing patched and repatched so thoroughly it obscured any original layer. Their ages seemed indeterminable, as if instead of possessing a certain number of years they shed and gained age, as circumstances required, from one great shared well. In one motion, all of them extended their arms upward in Vs. Either like reaching for something hidden, Thomas thought, or preparing for a fall.
“Raise your arms up to greet us,” said one with gray eyebrows that nearly met and a tattered rope of violet cloth in his long hair, not ungently. He was trying to guide him, Thomas could tell, attempting to lead the foreigner’s first communication.
“But I — can’t,” said Thomas, pointing at his limp arm with his virile one. “But I can’t.”
Later, inside, a hardening clustered among the men. He was a stranger, and he had asked to speak with Jenny, had used her birth name as if he owned it. “I’m here,” he had said, “on behalf of her mother,” as though that would make it better, as though it weren’t offensive enough, his arriving there insisting she belonged more rightfully to some other life.
They were seated in what he assumed was a common area, under polished conch shells that sat on foot-long shelves of birch high up the wall. Bags of rice rested on tapestries of crudely stitched images of forests and rivers. Tortoiseshell cats entered and exited, turning corners purposefully. In a specious reversal of power, all the men sat on square pillows they had removed from a pile in the corner and arranged in a half orbit below Thomas, who balanced in a modest rocking chair. Looking at them, he noted they had mastered the art of listening and threatening simultaneously. The door, which leaned slightly off its hinges, was half open and suggested escape, but he understood they would not permit him to walk out.
“Her son is trying to take her home from her,” he said, his voice hushed with exasperation. “Jenny’s brother.”
“Song,” they said. Every time he said Jenny, all the figures in the room murmured Song in correction, further contributing to the impression that they were forever collectively processing.
“She was one of the first ones here, wasn’t she?” Thomas heard himself continue. “She came with Root.” He hoped that this might indicate a respect for their mythology, that he had not arrived to beg without understanding what they risked by giving, but the mention of the lean man in the forty-year-old photographs made them lower their heads.
“I’ll take you to see Song,” said the one Thomas now understood to be the eldest, “but after, it will be time for you to go.” He rose without checking to see whether Thomas was following, used a careful thumb and forefinger to open the door. Thomas, who hoped to express some thanks, stood to speak, but their heads were pressed into their laps, and their long hair in grays and browns ran over their ears and onto the dusty hardwood. The man he was meant to follow was already outside, and the day was already losing its downy heat.
How long had he been cross-legged on the stiff cowhide rug by the darkened fireplace? What was Jenny’s intention, sitting up in the wide sun-bleached bed, looking impossibly old? The tattoo on her arm was the same as that in the newspaper photo — a faded black circle that he recognized now as a snake eating its tail — and the line of the freckled jaw was similar to that of the little girl in Brooklyn, but she looked as though her body had been systematically deserted, memory by memory emptying out in single file. He kept searching for evidence of her taking in or releasing air. The room seemed a near-total void of history or evidence or yesterday or tomorrow: the sheets white, pristine in the way of nothing else on the property; for a nightstand, a slab of unpolished tree trunk; the curtainless window. Just beyond her, a doorframe revealed a small, low-ceilinged room, within it a black woodstove and two simple chairs stacked together. The smells of food, of things warmed by time and by bodies, were absent.
Finally, without opening her eyes, she spoke.
“Edith sent you.”
“Well — not — you see — ” he answered, although it had been clear this wasn’t a question. The woman, once a child on the steps of the building Thomas had come to need, stopped him before his unorganized mumbling achieved any pattern.
“I’m afraid I can’t help.”
“But your brother — ”
She put a palm up with the patience of someone directing the weak and hospitalized.
“That person is named Owen.”
Thomas sensed Jenny’s language was one half-forgotten, its structure uncharted, the pressure of the tongue against the palate to make a sibilant sound uncomfortable.
“I should not need to say that these people you mention are not part of here.
“However,” she continued, “I can and will give you the same option I give others who come to me. You can stay here for a week, and stay quiet. If you still have the same concerns then, you may pose them. But I find” — and here she readjusted the pillow behind her back and put a hand to her jaw — “the questions tend to change.”
Only through trial and error did Thomas learn that Jenny — or Song, as he’d tried to start remembering her — meant precisely what she said. No one punished him for speaking — not when he addressed her, or any of the men who arrived with plates of grainy cornbread and boiled, dirt-caked spinach and fried eggs over brown rice — but his words didn’t seem to make it any farther than his lips. They didn’t glare at him or admonish him when, during the first twenty-four hours, he continued to ask, “Would it be possible for me to bathe? Could I make one phone call?” But neither did they acknowledge the sound; they only gazed and blinked, as though waiting for some unseen photographer to press down a button. It’s either like checking into a hostel where no one speaks your language, Thomas thought, or regressing into preverbal infancy, conceiving that care will be bestowed without even grasping the concept of trust. Neither option seemed ideal, but then neither seemed impossible to master. The discomfort of it was like a pulled muscle, unnoticed if he remained still.
By hour thirty-four, he had consigned his old urgency. He dipped his feet into little pools of memories, walked in and around them, trying to absorb every side. A nameless and cinnamon-scented teenage babysitter guiding Thomas’s tiny fingers into pots of primary-colored paints, then across the page. His mother at her happiest, alternately darkened and illuminated by a romantic comedy at the multiplex theater, her hand hovering over an unending bag of popcorn, sometimes squeezing his in delight, calling him my love. His high school biology lab partner, a red-haired girl who had undressed in his bedroom while his back was turned and insisted he draw, instead of the assigned feline skeleton, her. The variously svelte and pilled couches he slept on his first months in New York, the friends and acquaintances to whom they belonged. An afternoon he draped himself across the parquet after he had hidden all his art away, trying to forgive it for leaving. His ear pressed to the wall to better hear Adeleine’s song. The end of a film moving across her face. He entered and exited these rooms blithely as the hours passed, sometimes dozing off under a thin blanket, sometimes waiting, with a flat, simple hope, for food.
Thomas sat on the uneven slats of Song’s wooden porch, observing a lone chicken cross a patch of dirt in a jagged line. He didn’t know where his shoes were. It was morning, and already warm, but with the extended absence of language also vanished observations about things like temperature and time. It had been seven days, although he didn’t know that; he’d stopped counting, or forgotten to measure, at four. When Song emerged and situated herself on the handwoven chair behind him, he reached to squeeze her left ankle, and she patted down the unruly parts of his hair. Pale as the early light, the chicken paused to investigate an unfamiliar plant. Two men appeared at the crest of the hill; Thomas and Song watched as their faces became clear, and nodded. The wood creaked to accommodate two more bodies. Mugs of tea, carried a mile, changed hands. The chicken moved in its rhythmic way, a step and a pause and a gawk, a step and a pause and a gawk, into a patch of cedars. Water rushed nearby: they could hear it.
By the time Song finally opened her mouth to speak, Thomas had long since stopped expecting it. The unfamiliar travel of human speech confused him, and he looked around the small house, at the peak of the ceiling and the slanted gap beneath the door, as though to find where the word had landed. It was afternoon. He sat cross-legged on the floor, sorting through rocks the color of long-circulated money, and she watched him from the wicker chair by the room’s one window.
“Hello,” she said. They had grown so comfortable with each other’s silence that the greeting seemed unnecessary, even foolish. Not quite ready yet for whatever it was that language might reveal, Thomas kept his fingers on the stones, thumbing the smoothest stretches, admiring dramatic variations in shade, and nodded. “I’m prepared to speak about the issue of your friend Edith,” Song said. “I trust you now. We grew that.”
“Oh,” he said, searching himself for a feeling of concern for their conversation. “Well?”
Hunting for the pivotal speech he’d filed away, he played back images and sounds: the locked door to Edith’s apartment and Owen’s impatient words behind it; the rigid form of her body in her son’s presence. Adeleine on the top floor, every object placed to amuse and comfort her, the safety that finally played across her face as she slept. Paulie at the keyboard, the clamor refining into pristine patterns and flying up the stale stairway. Edward, whispering something to Paulie as they made their way down the street, towards the park and the last of the sun. Claudia waiting for them on the stoop with overflowing grocery bags, heads of watermelon, ears of corn, smiling at Thomas with a muted, infectious contentment.
“It’s the house,” he said to Song. “She left it to you.”
“To the person I was, once, a long time ago.”
“Okay, yes, to who you were. But Edith is sick, and Owen is trying to put her in some retirement facility against her will. He wants to get rid of her and take over the property, push us all out of our homes and rent them for six times as much.”
Song’s face had not turned. Her peace rivaled a houseplant’s.
“He’s rough with her, Song. He herds her around like she’s his f.”
“Oh.” Her eyes closed briefly, and he could sense her muffling a response, pushing memories down as they surfaced, like things in a basin of water not yet clean. She gripped the arms of the chair, and a bellicose purple stood out in the veins of her throat.
“Please present your purpose.”
Thomas went to Song and knelt, as if positioning himself like that might let him catch some of the unwanted, unhappy recollections that spilled from her.
“You have to take the house, Jenny,” he opened gently, careful about how he called out to her past, careful not to send it scurrying away from the light. “You have to save her like she wanted to save you.”
She released a ragged sound, as though some long-struggling part of her body was trying to open.
“Jenny,” he said.
“Jenny,” she said.
Almost as soon as her moan filled the room, it seemed replaced, eliminated by the atmosphere’s familiar muting of extremes — the structure never too cold or warm, the sun always filtered by trees, only the necessary words spoken — as if snatched up by some invisible maid who didn’t prefer the messiness of suffering, and swept back out into the wild. Thomas couldn’t locate the moment before, the split second when he’d connected her to who she had once been, and her eyes, placid again, revealed nothing.
“A sweet person,” she said, with apparent regret. “The girl you’re looking for doesn’t exist, don’t you see? I gave up my past when I came here. I made a commitment. I was born after, do you understand? I don’t have any right to that place. In fact, the system we built here precludes ownership.”
“But — ”
It felt as though his blood were moving through him at a perilously slow rate, but he continued, even knowing how little power he held. “But she was your mother. She was your mother and — ” His voice broke as he thought of the photo, of Edith on the lumped and sun-strewn bed, holding up the tiny new human to the concentration of light; then he recalled his own mother, throwing an arm across his chest at sudden stoplights, the bashful smile she always gave him after.
“She never stopped missing you, do you understand? She was sorry her whole life. She never stopped looking.”
Song turned away with a long gaze, taking in the horizon in no hurry, but Jenny’s mouth softened and quavered. In an expeditious series of motions Thomas wouldn’t have thought her capable of, she was up and at the door, lacing up her boots, reaching for a hat.
“I’m going for a walk,” she said without affording him a glance. “I have some listening to do.”
After the rattle of her exit ceased, Thomas listened for the last sounds of Song on the porch and crawled onto the great blank bed. He didn’t understand what he was searching for until he knew it was missing: it was not in the snowy wool blanket that lay folded at the foot, or in the folds of the enormous down comforter, or lying on top of the pillows. He discovered no odor, no stray hair, no impression of a body’s weight resting. The lack of evidence of her gave him a feverish chill, and then fatigue settled, vaporlike, around his collarbone and temples. He had come all this way and failed: she felt nothing for the property across the country or the woman decaying inside it. He wanted sleep the way the terminally ill finally turn their curiosity towards death and begin their small negotiations with it.
When he awoke, he saw the men’s faces arranged around the bed like beads on a shared string, moving in one line, secured by Song’s place in the center. He gathered the blankets around him, and Song smiled without showing her teeth. From the lilac patch of sky through the window, he knew it was the hour in which they would use their saved-up speech.
“We hope you slept well,” she began. “I’ve done the listening I need to, and think I’ve found a bridge of a kind.” Thomas looked up at the woman, her white hair backlit by dusk, and realized his position in her bed would make disagreement absurd and impossible. Though she spoke in gentle peals, and glowed the pink of a long walk, she had not arrived in the spirit of compromise, but rather to offer one firm solution. The men now bowed their heads, and he saw, for the first time, the shared aquiline nose, the eyes the color of alpine lakes. These were her sons.
“We don’t have any right to that property, unfortunately.” They nodded. “Or interest.” They tittered. “However.” Their heads dropped again.
“I’ve come to believe that your friend Edith and I might enjoy meeting each other. Reuniting, you might say. We could forgive each other for who we once were. She could live out the rest of her identity here. She would rest. She would be safe.”
Presented with the possibility of Edith in this strange place, all of Thomas’s repressed intentions for her appeared in vivid presentation. All along — on the airplane that had crossed the Midwest in the middle of the night, in the darkening library where he’d looked for any meager trace of her daughter, around the curves of the narrowing two-lane highway — he had assumed he would be the one to protect Edith. He would be gentle with her when she was furious, would keep her mind at ease with whispered comforts, preside over the moments in which her febrile confusion became fear, bring her water with decorative straws and simple games in subdued colors. He would hold the crook of her elbow and guide her through the neighborhood, naming the streets she had known much of her life. It was supposed to be me, he thought, and knew, simultaneously, that the reality of the task, the hushing and the spoon-feeding and the laundering of soiled sheets, would have been too much for him to hold.
The only word of protest he summoned was weak, led nowhere.
“But — ”
“Of course, there’s the matter of the house. I cannot accompany you back there, but I am willing to assume the temporary authority, of my former self and name, in order to sign over all rights to you, if you can arrange for her to arrive very soon.”
“Song, I would have to go back across the country to get her. I’m not sure I can do it so quickly — ”
“I can give you two days. You’ve already upset our arrangement by coming, and I can’t guarantee my answer will be the same beyond that. We will welcome Edith, and you will deal with the building however you see fit. She will be cared for here. We’ll build a bed for her near mine.”
Jenny’s sons — Edith’s grandchildren, Thomas reminded himself — nodded in echo of her earnestness. He let himself imagine it: Edith waking and breathing in the elevation, the clean air like none she’d had in sixty-odd years. Edith sitting in a little wooden chair by the vegetable garden while someone picked jewel-dark roots and rain-polished greens for her dinner. Edith on the porch at dusk, babbling out the fragments of her life as they surfaced in her mind to an audience of passing chickens, then growing quiet again. And just as he had in the days after his body betrayed him, he tried to cajole acceptance with outward expressions of agreement he hoped would move inward. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.” His chin wagged up and down wildly, like a simple toy sent into motion by an eager hand.
Read Electric Literature’s interview with Kathleen Alcott here.