It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Look Down

"Nearby" from ONLOOKERS by Ann Beattie, recommended by Halimah Marcus for Electric Literature

Introduction by Halimah Marcus

“Nearby,” from Ann Beattie’s new collection Onlookers, follows the day of Rochelle, a well-to-do woman who is called in as a substitute for a writing class at the University of Virginia. She has no teaching experience, but a woman in her book club heads the Creative Writing department, and she is really in a bind. In class, Rochelle lists introducing her husband—a successful lawyer—at public events as one of her qualifications, a testament to the extent she identifies with and values her role as her husband’s wife. 

Though she takes the invitation in stride, one senses that this is the call Rochelle has been waiting her whole life to receive: to teach, if only to impart her love of Hemingway and Munro. As Rochelle rearranges her schedule to accommodate the class, Beattie writes that “the world suddenly seemed like a merry-go-round of substitutions,” channeling Rochelle’s organized excitement. 

Over the course of the story Rochelle does a favor for a student, chats with her husband, comforts a distraught friend. On more than one occasion, she muses how, if she were a character in a Munro story, her life might be more significant or unexpected (if not appreciably different). A student observes that in Munro’s stories “you see a lot there with how those women characters think one thing and do another.” It’s fun to anticipate the moments when Rochelle does this herself, but they don’t happen the way you might expect. Munro is a master who a master like Ann Beattie can afford to evoke.

I’m tempted to call “Nearby” subtle, but subtle is a lazy word. This story is leagues better than subtle. The dialogue foreshadows and fills in; the stage directions are confident and material. The descriptions are unadorned, yet vivid.

“It’s a mistake to pretend you know any story when you don’t. You always get caught,” she said, standing.

“They’d entered the crosswalk. Every car had immediately stopped.”

“The orchid was lit by streetlights that also illuminated the falling snow.”

Nuanced is better than subtle, precise is closer still. Restrained is also tempting, but another vagary. What would Beattie be restraining herself from? She has no investment in delivering a message. The story is set in a contemporary context—campus protests, statues being torn down—but there is no veiled political agenda. 

No, the story is not restrained—because Beattie is not holding anything back. The writing is intentional and patient; comfortable lingering in those ordinary moments that in other hands might present as flat and monochrome. Look closer: there is texture there, blended colors, a complex catching of light.

– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Look Down

Nearby by Ann Beattie

Midway through the semester, Rochelle stepped in to pinch-hit at the university for a teacher she’d never met, though she hadn’t taught before. CFS, the famous visiting writer claimed: chronic fatigue syndrome. How excruciating it had been, he’d reported, sitting on the edge of his bed, frustrated to tears at the exhausting prospect of pulling on his socks. (“Maybe he should have forgotten the socks,” Jeanette, who ran Creative Writing, said witheringly to Rochelle.) It was assumed by much of the faculty—at least, those who knew he’d been there—that since his new love had been his only topic of conversation, he’d flown back to Ireland to reunite with his girlfriend.

Rochelle Warner-Banks (her husband was the well-known lawyer Reggie Banks, who’d argued several times before the Supreme Court) had gotten Jeanette’s desperate call only the day before the abandoned class would next meet (“Please, please; just come once, see if you like it”). What a surprise! She’d hung up and immediately texted six women in her book group (Jeanette had belonged to it, until she got too busy) to say that she was sorry, but she wouldn’t be able to make her presentation on The Waves the following afternoon because she’d been called into service at UVA. She called Sage Versa, and asked—since she knew Sage had loved the book—whether she could step in. The world suddenly seemed like a merry-go-round of substitutions. Fortunately, Sage was very smart and didn’t fear public speaking. Forty-five years before, when Reggie was attending law school in Ann Arbor, Rochelle had worked at an ad agency and made monthly presentations to one of the firm’s biggest clients, because her boss considered her so “amazing”—and the client had been a New Yorker, by definition hard to please.

You can do it, you can alter the syllabus, you can find a way, she silently reassured herself, though the pep talk made her feel like she was talking to a horse.

For the first meeting, she’d worn a long-sleeved tunic over the regimental black winter tights. Everyone in town wore Arche shoes, and so did she. She’d entered the classroom accompanied by Jeanette, who’d introduced her and explained the situation. Apparently, most of the students never picked up email messages, and Jeanette wasn’t reassured by a smiley face in response to a text message. Jeanette’s husband was a stockbroker. She and Jeanette had played mixed doubles at the Boar’s Head a few times. They crossed paths at ACAC. Jeanette had brought a bunch of flowers to welcome Rochelle, which she plunked down on the seminar table in a vase improvised from a wide-mouthed iced tea bottle.

Her predecessor turned out to have been more than a bit odd. He’d asked, “If this character could be a twee, what kind of a twee would he be?” which, he’d informed them, was not an entirely joking question: it had been inspired by a lisping American interviewer who’d routinely asked such things of famous people on television. (Thank god television had improved; his imitating the lisp, though, had certainly not been PC.)

Surveying the students’ faces as they attempted to suspend judgment, she realized the other teacher’s eccentricities might work in her favor. Indeed, she did not care if a story offered clues about a character’s astrological sign.

She’d been forthcoming: She’d explained that while she’d had jobs that seemed to involve aspects of teaching, she wasn’t going to pretend to be an experienced teacher. “I majored in English myself. I belong to an excellent book group in town, and I do freelance editing. I used to work in advertising,” she told them. She added that in recent years, she’d more than once had to introduce her own husband at public events (“a well-known lawyer”)—and if they didn’t think that was intimidating . . . She’d let the sentence drift into its silent, implied meaning.

“Why couldn’t he introduce himself?” a round-faced student asked. Several bracelets on his wrist clanked when he raised his hand before speaking, though the gesture seemed more like a reflex—what a person would do if a door was about to slam in their face.

“I think because having someone else introduce you is a formality.”

“So, did you say what kind of a twee your husband would be?” (This was how she’d found out about her predecessor’s tic.) Her expression must have indicated that she didn’t get the joke. Most of the young women glanced tiredly at the questioner, who nevertheless smiled at his own witticism.

“Fritz always goes off-point,” a young woman sitting near her said.

She’d gotten through the first two meetings pretty well, and Fritz had gone silent. One of the girls who frowned most deeply turned out to ask thought-provoking questions. Reading the Cavalier Daily, she discovered that another of her students was organizing a protest in DC.

She began to fall into her new routine of teaching. She didn’t like the long walk to the building (barricades everywhere, even if you were on foot; if you were driving, forget it), but the students’ generally alert manner (eight were female, four were male) was encouraging. She told them she was happy to be there, because it had gotten her out of having to explain The Waves, a notably complex book by Virginia Woolf. After class, Lauren Li asked where she stood regarding Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, vs. Mrs. Dalloway. (Later, though she had assigned nothing by Raymond Carver, Lauren had asked what she thought about Gordon Lish’s “extreme” editing of Carver’s stories.)

Soon the semester was half over. (Her initial condition for continuing had been that she could add some books she liked and forget about The Executioner’s Song; no one could care what tree the murderer Gary Gilmore would be, and the book was interminable.) This day, when class ended, she’d started down the hall, when Fritz came up behind her. He wanted to know if he could ask her a personal question.

“If I don’t have to answer, or if I can lie,” she replied, straight-faced, pushing the elevator button. It seemed better than impulsively saying yes or no. Her husband, Mr. Always Give a Question Three Beats Before Answering, would be proud of her.

“The thing is, I teach karate in Staunton tonight, and I’ve got my brother’s car, but the tire’s sort of bald, and I got a warning. Like a ticket thing when the cop walked around kicking the tires? But, so, I’ve got to get there. Is there any way you could possibly loan me forty dollars?”

“Yes,” she said, simply. (He considered this a personal question?)

“Great! I can have the money back to you by the end of the month. I just got a job at Crazed, and the tips are good. At least, when certain bands don’t play.”

“What’s the relationship between tips and bands? Customers leave more if the band’s good?”

“No. I think, like, okay, for example, Nate, who used to be with Girlyman? So, everybody watching is whatever, transfixed, and everything else goes out of their mind: hooking up later, tips. They tend not to leave a decent tip because it’s not like Nate himself’s going to get it.”

“Ah,” she said—though what he’d said only further confused her. Her husband would have warned her not to enter the labyrinth of speculation. To wait and see what was revealed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go to the cash machine, though. Can you walk over to Bank of America with me? And maybe you can give me a ride to my parking lot afterwards? I’m in K-2.”

“Oh, sure thing. It’s the least I can do. This is really nice of you. Thank you,” he said. “My roommate offered me fifteen bucks, but I already owe him twenty, and he’s down to eating oatmeal for dinner, so I just couldn’t.”

“That was kind,” she said, ignoring the oatmeal information.

“I live over in Belmont,” he said. “Near the Local. I have four roommates, but never see half of them. Nobody goes to the university. One guy, over the summer he moved in his girlfriend and she had fleas. We had to get the place exterminated. K-2’s the name of a notoriously scary mountain in Nepal. That’s where you said you parked, right?”

“What? Oh, the parking lot. Yes. Are you a climber?”

“It’s cool to think about, but I’m more into other stuff. I just want to say, we really lucked out. I mean, I could do without Alice Munro, but you see a lot there with how those women characters think one thing and do another, I get that.”

“You’re not persuaded, though.”

“Pizza and snails.”

“Excuse me?”

The office door closed. She pulled the handle to be sure it had locked.

“People prefer pizza, most do, but other people prefer escargot, which are snails.”

Again she noticed the bracelet collection when he crawled his fingers through the air.

“I’ve eaten snails,” she said. “Once, in Paris. Those were the best, but maybe it was the restaurant, and it was my first time there.”

He didn’t offer to help her on with her coat when she paused to put it on. She managed fine. She reached into her pocket for her cashmere hat with the two tiny moth holes and pulled it on.

“You were in France to introduce your husband, or something?”

“No. Actually, we were on our honeymoon.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“It’s my husband’s favorite place. He wanted to show it to me.”

He didn’t walk ahead of her to open the door as they exited the building.

“My mom’s had three husbands, or sort of husbands. The first one died. The second one was the brother of the guy she’d been living with. When she got pregnant with me, my father joined the army, but it turned out she got a thing going with his brother, and when my dad didn’t come back, Pete married my mom. Hey, that’s Lauren! You know her mother’s a famous pianist?”

“I didn’t know that.”

Lauren, walking toward them, faltered. She adjusted her backpack, shrugging it higher onto one shoulder. There was no way she could pass by without speaking, though, in spite of her contortions. In all the wide-open space, she looked cornered. She said, “Hi, Ms. Banks, I mean”—she blushed—“Ms. Warner-Banks. Hi, Straight Punch. That was an awesome class, Ms. Warner-Banks. I never thought about the beams of the house being like the scaffolding of the story.”

“I love it when something like that occurs to me after I’ve read a story many times. Munro does that: she finds something that seems ordinary, that you can point to, that actually carries clues about her story.”

“Like a mystery.”

“Exactly. They are mysteries, in a way, aren’t they?”

“Oh! I am so late, excuse me, goodbye Ms. Warner-Banks, bye, Straight Punch.”

“Later,” Fritz said.

Lauren had dropped a mitten. He picked it up. She thanked him profusely when he caught up with her, before she began running.

“ ‘Straight Punch’?” she asked, when he returned.

It was his nickname, he told her. It was a karate move.

“Her mother’s fighting to get custody of Lauren’s sister, this baby she had when Lauren was in high school? It’s in, what’s that place, Dabai?”


“Right. The husband works there. He kidnapped the baby.”

This seemed too complicated to pursue—more like a case her husband would tell her about. She prompted him: “You were telling me about your mother?” The path sloped steeply; she avoided an ice patch.

“Yeah. She married one guy when they were eighteen who died when he was twenty-one in a race-car accident. He was infertile due to German measles. When he died, though, she found out he’d only been seventeen when they got married. I guess they didn’t go to Paris on their honeymoon. She saw a snail then or now, she’d stomp it! The husband she’s got now was my dad’s, my biological dad’s, brother. Turns out I was one of two kids she had with my dad, but she’d sent the other one to Baltimore to her mother’s. Then she married Pete, and my brother came back. They were also business partners.”

“I’m sorry. Who were the business partners?”

They’d entered the crosswalk. Every car had immediately stopped.

“My father and his brother. Pete’s at Wintergreen now, running the lifts. He’s not afraid of heights. That’s why he climbed up the Stonewall sign. Before Wintergreen, he was assistant manager at a sporting goods place by the railroad tracks in Staunton, then he fell and had to get a hip replacement that got infected or something, and they let him go. He can still get stuff thirty percent off, if you want any North Face.”

She said that she’d never been to Staunton, but that she appreciated his offer. Reggie had a fleece North Face jacket, so she knew what they cost. She waited three beats, then said, “You mentioned Stonewall? Did you mean the bar in New York?”

“Bar? No. Oh, I get it. You’ve never been to Staunton. There’s a hotel called the Stonewall Jackson. Everybody’s saying it’s going to have to change its name because he was in favor of slaves, so the sign’s got to go. Somebody called Pete to inspect it. They sent him up in a cherry picker, over to a ladder that went to another ladder. Sucker’s really up there. Nobody knows what they’ll call the hotel.”

She nodded. Even in Charlottesville, there seemed endless complexities related to long-unfinished buildings, air space, height restrictions. Her husband’s pet peeve was that when a park was renamed, it then had a second renaming: “All right, it’s not Lee Park, that’s entirely understandable, but what was wrong with Emancipation Park? Now it’s Market Street Park. You know, one of my colleagues said that when his wife put their house on the garden tour, she was told that there were new nicknames— nicknames!—for the roses. Not to use their old-fashioned names.”

“Pete’s got two sons from a previous relationship living with them now, so I don’t much stop by. They’re always fighting. They know I do karate, so they leave me alone.”

Finally, the person withdrawing money from the cash machine stepped away, still staring hard at the receipt. She unsnapped her wallet, reaching into the pocket where she kept her credit cards. She slid out the red BoA card.

He stood far back from the cash machine as she withdrew two hundred dollars. A receipt curled out; she glanced at it and pushed it into her pocket, thinking: five roommates; two jobs, in addition to his class work; his father vanished, the man who would have been his uncle now his stepfather. A brother. Two stepbrothers. Could he always remember this without effort, like someone who’d long ago memorized “The Twelve Days of Christmas”? She turned and walked back to where he was standing. She held out two twenty-dollar bills, saying, “Here you go. Good luck with the tire.”

“My car’s right there,” he said, pointing toward an area where three cars could nose in next to a bicycle repair shop. “Let me give you a ride to your car.”

“Thanks. Do you know where K-2 is?”

“Yup,” he said.

The car was so old, he opened the door by turning a key in the lock. Once seated, he quickly lifted the lock and pushed open the passenger door. “Your chariot awaits,” he said. “Did I already tell you this is a loaner? From my brother? Like I said, my mother gave him to her mother in Baltimore before she had me. Apparently, when Pete married her, he thought that kid was out of the picture. Bro didn’t come to Staunton until I was walking. A year or so ago, he was an extra in a Netflix movie shot in Richmond. Now he goes on a lot of dates.”

“Amazing,” she said. Such an avalanche of information. Reggie, of course, would only have nodded slightly. He disliked stand-up comics because he never registered the conclusion of their joke as the punch line. When she pointed that out to him, he’d done a double take before admitting it was true, and cracking up.

“There, the silver car,” she said, pointing.

He said, “I heard there’s supposed to be more snow coming day after tomorrow. Nice car you got. Okay, thanks again. You’re totally saving me. I’m going to give Alice Munro another try.”

“Drive safely,” she said, getting out.

As he drove away, she beeped open the Lexus, got in, clicked on the seat warmer, and retied her scarf. No need to check her phone; she’d be home in fifteen minutes. Now that he wasn’t talking—now that there was lovely silence in the car (she decided not to turn on NPR)—she wondered if, in his agitated way, he’d been telling her what he took for granted, or if he’d meant to test her reaction. It was as if he’d wanted there to be some, what . . . some dissonance between them. Some acknowledgment that they were nothing alike. Every reality of his life clashed with hers: She was an only child and had had an almost idyllic childhood, except for kidney surgery. She had a stable marriage; no children. (Reggie’s son from his first marriage, Edmund, was an architect in Sydney, Australia. They spoke every couple of weeks.) What would Alice Munro write, if she wrote the story of Rochelle and Fritz? Too easy, to have the mismatched pair fall in love. Munro would never do the obvious. But maybe things could flip, and she’d be (as she was) financially secure, yet needy, and he, with no money, would turn out to be stable. Centered. That would be the word. But Fritz certainly wasn’t that. His gushing talk made him seem immature—friendly, but with an edge that scraped like a dull knife.

Every reality of his life clashed with hers.

She’d pulled out of the parking lot and began driving down Main Street—fortunately, no rush hour traffic yet—past the old Sears, whose building was now university-owned, used for shipping and receiving. Just beyond that was her former hairstylist, though the salon had moved off 29 North. The tire place was just past that building, and there stood Fritz, Straight Punch, in the lot, talking to a man: Saved by a mere forty dollars, she thought—ah, youth. She pulled in without thinking, as if they’d always intended to meet up. “Oh, hi,” he said. “Hey, this is my”—he paused—“friend, who really saved my ass,” he said to the man. The man wore a hoodie and an orange cap, pulled low. His glasses frames were rectangular, so smudged she didn’t know how he could see.

“This boy needs two tires, with them back ones rotated forward,” the man said matter-of-factly, without greeting her.

“He does?”

“You don’t want your son driving on tires with no treads,” he said. “We sell the best used tires in town. Them front ones gotta be replaced and rotated. That’s still just going to buy you another five hundred miles.”

“You said it’ll drive with one new tire,” Fritz said, sounding frustrated, embarrassed. Newspaper pages blew across the lot. A wind was whipping up.

She did not correct the man and say he wasn’t her son, though it seemed to her that he’d made quite an odd assumption. She said, “How much would that cost?”

“Forty plus forty’s eighty. Plus tax. No charge for tire rotation. If I said the seventy-two-dollar brand-new Goodyears were superior, you’d think it was a hustle, so best keep it simple.”

“Fine,” she said. “Two forty-dollar tires.”

“Oh, jeez, you can’t,” Fritz said. “No way.”

“Mama don’t want you skiddin’ off Afton Mountain.”

“That’s right,” she said.

The man said, “Why are we standing here? Step inside.”

Walking beside Fritz, she said, “Let me have the money back, and I’ll put it on my card. It’ll be easier that way.”

“I am so sorry,” he said, reaching into his pant pocket and pulling out the folded money, along with ChapStick that fell to the ground, and two pennies that rolled some distance apart, which he quickly plucked off the asphalt.

Would Reggie have picked them up? Only if he’d felt like he was littering, she thought. Would she have? No. Simply, no. “I’ll be glad to have the cash if the prediction about snow turns out to be right,” she said.

Inside, there was a space heater. Near it lay an old dog, sleeping atop a pile of newspapers. The dog never opened its eyes. She felt in her purse, found her wallet, removed her credit card, and said, “I’m running late. Would you mind processing this now?”

“Glad to. The faster I get paid, the better.” A landline—a red desk phone—was ringing. He ignored it. He ran the card and handed it back, the bill already curled into a tube. When he lifted his thumb, the piece of paper looked like a lavish shaving of white chocolate to decorate a cake. She took out her own pen to sign her name. The man gestured to a coffee can with a hand-lettered sign above it, stretched between two chopsticks: tips thanks. The can’s rim was covered with duct tape. She reached into her wallet again and took out two one-dollar bills. She folded them and dropped them into the jar.

“Thank you kindly, now to work,” he said.

“I really appreciate this,” Fritz said. “How did you know where I was?”

“I didn’t. I drive home this way. I live at the far end.” She gestured, and as she did, she realized that she could have been standing in a different town, the five or six blocks seemed so far away, where Main Street ended and you had to decide which way to go.

“You mean down by the Omni Hotel”—he pronounced it Om-i-ni—“where everybody’s suddenly got an objection to that Indian statue?” the man asked, snorting, as he rolled a tire into the garage.

“Nearby,” she replied.

“I guess General Robert E. Lee up on his horse Trigger”—was he kidding?—“ain’t enough to object to, you also got to get rid of two great American explorers because there’s an Indian girl’s bent over near them.”

“Sacagawea,” she said.

“Sack a whatever, sack a potatoes, sack a Scrooge McDuck’s gold coins, maybe. Personally? I’m hoping they object to all them one-way streets and make ’em run the way they used to. Let ’em fix that too, during their break from swinging tire irons and topplin’ statues.”

She bit her lip, raised a hand to signal goodbye to Fritz (Straight Punch; what move, exactly, was that?), and hurried outside. Why hadn’t she initially suggested he go to the tire store on Preston Avenue that Reggie always used? No matter. Now she really did have to hurry. Dinner would take a while to prepare, and Dr. Winston— David Winston and his wife, Dr. Bronwyn Winston—would be coming, to check in on how Reggie was doing after his knee replacement. No doubt, David would take in the beautiful view from their window (the part not obstructed by the tall building under construction, whose panes of glass turned lavender at sunset), which offered (not for long) one of the higher vantage points from which to see the rooftops of the houses and buildings that now seemed so small, so antiquated. As well as the wine, there’d be Reggie’s insistence on tap water (“Of course, others should enjoy Perrier, as they please!”). And she’d wear something a bit more dressy—did anyone call putting on a dress being “dressy” anymore?

“Best view in town,” David Winston always said, sipping his old-fashioned (minus the cherry), silently toasting the sky, the trees, the mountain, followed by his wife’s inevitable “Let’s not allow the green-eyed monster to take hold, David, darlin’!” Bronwyn, Reggie’s primary care doctor, was from Mobile, Alabama. Her husband had been born in New England. Years earlier, they’d relocated to Charlottesville from Brookline, Massachusetts.

Hunched against the breeze (how had the pansies in the big pots escaped getting frostbitten all winter?) she punched in three-three-three. Mary Ralston Cooper was waiting for the elevator. She had no coat, so she must have come down to check for mail. Mary Ralston lived on the fourth floor; Rochelle and Reggie lived in the penthouse. Again she took out a card, the one to slip into the slot to access their unit. Mary Ralston asked immediately how Reggie was doing.

“A little more pain than he’d admit, but he was up for company tonight, so I guess that’s an improvement,” she said. She liked Mary Ralston. Her indolent middle-aged son, who spent his days listening to conversational Norwegian with Bose headphones clamped to his ears, she could do without. Mary Ralston’s husband, twelve years older than she, had died the year before. He was always the elephant in the room or, in this case, the missing presence in the elevator.

“You have a wonderful night. Tell Reggie he can always call downstairs, you know. If he might need anything and you’re not here, I mean.”

“Very kind . . .” she was saying, as the elevator door closed.

Two dollars had been too little to leave in the tip jar, but she’d had to choose between that or a ten-dollar bill.

There were east and west penthouses. Theirs faced west, with a view of the mountains out the long row of sliding glass doors across the back, another bank of doors facing Main Street, and what had been the Greyhound terminal. During the past year, two attractive middle-aged women had bought the east penthouse, one a retired dental hygienist who was writing a mystery about a missing dentist (she’d learned this from Bronwyn), the other a mystery woman who left early in the morning, before 5 a.m. Bronwyn knew only that she was doing research at NIH she wouldn’t talk about. She and Reggie had twice invited their now not-so-new neighbors to dinner (the women had bought the other penthouse as a cash sale, in a bidding war), but they’d declined with regret, giving no specific reason, which Reggie maintained was perfectly fine. She and he disagreed about whether they were being brushed off.

“I’m back, honey,” she called. “I’m running a bit late. How are you?”

“Well, the damnedest thing,” he called back, elbowing himself up to a higher position in bed, still wincing as she came in, unbuttoning her coat. She draped it on the bedpost. He looked sheepish, registering her surprise at not finding him in the living room. He hurried to say that he’d taken a quick nap (she could see that; his hair stood straight up on one side). “I got a call this afternoon from Bronwyn. She said they’d had a terrible fight, and not only could they not come tonight but, she said, ‘Thanksgiving’s canceled.’ I said, ‘Bronwyn, we just celebrated that. Thanksgiving?’ and she said, ‘Reggie, you can be such a pedant. I meant Easter.’ ”

“Oh dear. I’m sure that was a difficult call for her to make.”

An orchid on a table caught her eye. Could the physical therapist have brought an orchid? she asked him.

“Yes, she did. Becky’s an angel. Infinite patience, and kindhearted. But get this: it seems David’s been keeping company with a woman he met at the Miller Center, all of it right out in the open. Bronwyn went into Feast, and there they stood, holding hands, surveying the cheese counter.”

Really? What did you say?”

“I don’t remember. Can I help you put the groceries away?”

“I shopped yesterday. To be honest,” she said, stepping out of her shoes, “I’m relieved not to have to cook.” She slid into her sheepskin-lined black booties. She walked over to the plant. A tiny transparent butterfly clipped the stem to a green stake. The sinking light illuminated the flowers just so. “Lovely,” she murmured. “We can have the Thai place deliver. But I think we should still open that new French wine.”

“Sit down,” he said, patting the bed. “I’m not finished. I’ve inhibited your impulse to question. Wait till you hear the rest.”

“Oh no. What?” she said, sitting beside him. It was warm in the room. In a way, so much heat felt consoling. This seemed to be a day on which everyone could talk endlessly. The encounter with Mary Ralston, at least, had been mercifully brief.

“She said—and keep in mind that this came from a woman who didn’t know what month it was—she said David resented being asked to dinner here. That he’d said we were insincere—that was his word. Insincere about what? And apparently—this really surprised me—she found out he’d been negotiating with the women across the way to buy their condo, and they were entertaining the notion. One of them does commute all the way to Bethesda. But David and his girlfriend came to look at the place a second time last Saturday, and while they were there, he realized that he didn’t want to live near us. Us!

“It sounds like he’s had a breakdown.”

“Yes. You’re right! But I could hardly concentrate when Becky was here, even though I know it can’t really have anything to do with us.”

The baseboard heating came on with a tiny pop they’d never understood. She thought of the tire store’s space heater, and the dog sleeping on the pile of newspapers.

“When I’m not at the office or in the courtroom, apparently I’m not at all prepared for daily life,” he said, clasping her hand.

She lifted their hands and lightly kissed his fingers. “You always feel such things can’t happen to you, right? But who knows? He and Bronwyn have been married, what, twenty-five years?”

“He’s clearly in no shape to be working at the hospital. I wonder what will happen—whether Bronwyn feels she needs to deal with it, or whether she’s gone off the deep end herself.”

“Should we call her?”

He looked skeptical. “That’s like asking if we should take in a cat in the rain.”

She did a double take. “Reggie!” she said. “The Hemingway story?”

He looked confused.

“ ‘Cat in the Rain.’ Were you thinking of Hemingway’s story?”

“I suppose I might have claimed credit for the allusion. I blew it.”

“It’s a mistake to pretend you know any story when you don’t. You always get caught,” she said, standing. She picked up her coat and draped it over her arm.

“Is his story as good as one by Alice Munro?” he asked. He was trying to gently, gently slide his leg off the bed. His hair made him look like he’d been electrocuted. His shirt was wrinkled. That morning, he’d let her talk him into wearing his gym pants, since they were baggier and easier to get on and off.

Was it as good? That was such an annoying question. Predictable, too, especially from people—such as her husband—who didn’t read fiction. She’d read him several Alice Munro stories during his recuperation.

She ignored the question and said, “It’s about a young couple in Italy, at the end of the war. It’s raining, and they’re in a hotel. But everything’s left unsaid. It’s all about displacement. And inference. The hotel looks out on a war monument. And the wife, who I don’t think has a name, expresses her sadness and frustration about being there by saying what she wants. Things like candlesticks. She’s meant to sound shallow, but also sort of desperate. There’s a hotelkeeper, who finds out what she wants—the candlesticks I mentioned, and a kitty. Eventually there comes a knock on the door. The proprietor has sent one of his employees with a cat slung under her arm. She’s there to give her what she wants, but of course it’s all wrong. It’s not a kitty. It’s a big, wet, ugly cat.”

“Those students are lucky to have you. Open some wine, why don’t you”—he’d managed to stand; it was best not to interfere, to let him do it on his own—“and I’ll toast your wonderful ability for description. If you can find that story, I’ll read it tomorrow.” He stood still for a moment to get his balance. She pretended she didn’t notice his frown and preceded him out of the room, thinking that soon she’d order her favorite rice noodles with extra mushrooms; he’d get at least three things. Reggie’s philosophy about food, slim as he was, was that more was always better (because of the medicine, though, he should really have only one glass of wine).

The sky was darkening. A streak of pink the same color as the orchid (did Becky have a crush on Reggie?) had slid across the sky. She listened to make sure Reggie was okay in the bathroom. In this case, silence seemed like a good thing. Her mind wandered back to the ugly tire store. There’d been something ominous about the way the man had mentioned, so casually, cars going over Afton Mountain—though, of course, that was a grim reality. On the other hand, she read too much, so that sometimes she found in banal daily life a foreshadowing of terrible things to come. Of course, there were many ways to think of everything—the sunset, for example—all involving projection. The sky might be sliced by pink. Tongued by pink. Flatlined with pink, as if the heavens were a vast ICU.

She uncorked the wine and poured two glasses, took down plates, pulled out the drawer to remove linen napkins. When next she looked, it had started to snow. It hadn’t been predicted for another two days. Wasn’t that what Fritz had told her? And hadn’t he said his mother had had three husbands? Well, technically two. Though it hardly seemed the woman had gotten to know the first by the time he died, and it was probably her good luck that when the man in the military disappeared, his brother stepped forward.

At a certain age, replacing a man—friend, lover, or husband— became less and less imaginable. That was why, if your husband died, as they tended to do, predeceasing their wives, women expected to be alone, so that anyone, simply any man who disabused them of that notion, was not only acceptable but a gift from the gods, a miracle. That was the way Sage, in the book group, talked, bringing her husband into discussions of characters not even remotely related to his existence. Sage never stayed for coffee, but raced home to this Apollo, unemployed, in debt, a daytime drinker, one of those men who counted on everything being forgiven when he bought her a heart-shaped box of candy on Valentine’s Day. Make that the day after, when it was half-price.

At a certain age, replacing a man—friend, lover, or husband— became less and less imaginable.

Reggie had changed into a fresh shirt underneath the cable-knit cardigan with leather buttons that his son had sent for Christmas. He’d combed his hair. His cheeks were razor-burned.

“You know, maybe you—”

He picked up the glass of white burgundy and raised it to peer through, so that to him, the lightly falling snow must be golden-tinged. She’d not yet taken a sip, she realized, and his lips had just touched the rim of his glass, so she said nothing about being cautious when mixing alcohol with pain medicine.

He said, “What were you about to say?”

“I thought better of it,” she said. “I guess we can’t get any reassurance about how you’re healing, can we? Not tonight, I mean.”

“You’re exactly right that David must be in emotional distress. Surely his colleagues know. Someone must be doing something. Though I was thinking as I was shaving that we should call her. She was so belligerent, so really irritated with me. I think she could use a friend.”

That was it. She needed a friend. Not Bronwyn; she herself needed a friend, because except for the occasional foray into the world, she did next to nothing—at least, compared to what she used to do when they still had their house. The Boar’s Head was so stuffy, her ACAC workout repetitive, and this place—this spacious condo—wasn’t Valhalla. You existed in limbo, regardless of all it overlooked: in one direction, West Main Street; in another, Carter Mountain. It was neither country nor city. (Why was she feeling sorry for herself? She’d never, ever admit that, just as no Alice Munro character would confess such a thing, though those women’s sorrow was like gum they’d stepped in, a hard little gray ball, the accident that had been waiting to happen, cringeworthy in spite of how ordinary it was—really, because it was so ordinary: a nub of reality that must nevertheless be dealt with.) It was the Southern way to de-emphasize everything: your penthouse was your “apartment,” your SUV your “car.” Your Arche boots were “these old things.” She could just imagine what the man at the tire store thought of her, driving in wearing her cashmere hat and her quilted down coat, a Charlottesville White Rabbit who was late, late, and had to leave.

“Why don’t you make the call?” she asked. She supposed it went without saying that she lacked the courage.

He pulled out his phone without a word, swiped up, tapped the phone icon, began typing, stopped when he found Bronwyn’s number, hit Home. She was near enough to him that she could tell he’d forgone splashing on the lemon verbena aftershave he liked so well. It was no longer available after the apothecary on Water Street closed.

If she could speak for Reggie? Among the things he wanted had been this iPhone 5000 or whatever number it was (it took great photographs); a glass of wine from the Rhône, by way of Market Street Wine. And she would like: a cashmere scarf to match her hat; Michelin radials (she’d immediately regift them); a first edition of In Our Time.

“Bronwyn, it’s Reggie and Rochelle. We’re concerned. We’re just sitting down to a glass of wine, and we wondered—weather aside—if you might want to stop by.”

“What part do you not understand?” Bronwyn screamed. “You’re so sensitive, you’re both so sensitive, but don’t try to tell me you never knew what was going on. They were going to be your neighbors! And—”

His finger—either accidentally or intentionally—had activated the speakerphone.

“Bronwyn,” she broke in, “David’s had a breakdown. He’s not himself.”

“Himself!” Bronwyn gasped. “You know who he is? He’s a man so hateful, he told me years ago to watch out for you, that you always sucked up—that you did, Reggie; he said it about you. Of course you wanted access to the great endocrinologist, and he might need your services someday too. Now I wonder, how paranoid was he? Who calls somebody back so soon after they’ve been hung up on? A glass of wine? Let him have that hussy, and all his important friends too!” She hung up.

“Good heavens! Well, she’s really in a state. Who’s going to intervene there? Though right now she’s exhausted me enough for one day.”

“It’s so awful, it’s funny,” she said. “What if she’s calling all over town? Remember Martha Mitchell, during Nixon’s presidency— John Mitchell, the attorney general, incapable of muzzling his own wife?”

“Yes,” he said. “Hard to believe there was a time when those antics seemed utterly shocking.”

“My mother thought Nixon was the devil, to her dying day.”

“She did? Well. In any case—we’ve done what we can.” His pink cheeks had turned pinker. Bronwyn had really upset him. “Let’s watch the snow fall and be glad they aren’t here,” he said.

“She was so loud, my ears sealed up like I was on a plane.”

“I had ringing in my ears today. I felt like I might get dizzy, but that passed. Maybe it was the fumes.”

“Fumes? Where were you?”

“At the tire store. Near where I used to get my hair done.”

“A tire store?”

“It’s a long story.” She poured more wine, unwisely refilled his glass, and sat in a chair next to his. “It’s boring. It turned out—oh, the problems young people have; we’ve forgotten how hard life is for them. One of the students needed a tire, it was as simple as that, so I gave him, loaned him, forty dollars, and then for some reason, when I saw he’d pulled into the tire store, I turned in behind him. It was good I did, too, because he actually needed two tires. Reggie, he has no money. He’s from a poor family in Staunton.” Was that right? Did anything suggest they weren’t poor? “He drives there in a broken-down car to teach karate.”

“Well. That was a good deed, then. He got his tires, did he?”

“Two. The man explained that the other front tire was almost bald too.”

“Without your even having to wear a Santa suit,” he said, raising his glass to her, much the way David—had he come—would have toasted the sky.

“I had a premonition something bad might happen to him.”

“A premonition? Based on what?”

“Based on, I think, poverty. The way things turn out when people have no money. And he was so guileless. It was as if he’d been betrayed when the man said he needed two tires. He all but said to the man that he simply wouldn’t do it. I told you this was boring. Let’s order dinner.”

In the drawer where the takeout menus were kept, she saw a tangle of more green rubber bands than they could use in their lifetime. He cared nothing about string, but Reggie could never part with a rubber band. A little fruit parer she’d given up on finding lay right in front of her, its Bakelite handle protruding from rubber bands. She thought: To my list of wishes, I could have added the tiny, irreplaceable, sharp little implement I’ve been missing—the one I’d convinced myself I’d accidentally thrown away.

She glanced at the restaurant’s flyer, but since she knew what she wanted, she handed it to Reggie. “Seems like a vegetable soup night,” he said, “as well as a night when it might be nice to actually nosh on something, so maybe the chicken satay, then crispy duck, if you might share some?”

“You can always have leftovers for lunch,” she said. The next day would be Wednesday. She would not see Fritz again (Straight Punch—it was good she’d omitted getting into that with Reggie) until the following Tuesday.

“That’s true,” Reggie said, bracing himself to rise out of the chair (that worked), picking up his phone, though it was almost comical, the way he hesitated, as if touching it might make Bronwyn’s voice explode again.

A cluster of lights below attracted her attention in the more quickly falling snow. He gave his name and placed the order (they’d know his address from the phone number; they ordered dinner every week or so). “Thank you. Twenty-five minutes,” he repeated, disconnected, and joined her at the window.

There were five or six people. No, more; two men threw open the back doors of a small car and jumped out. Someone else stepped off the sidewalk and ran up the middle of the street. People were once again congregating at the Lewis and Clark statue on the triangle by Main Street, a statue that had been in place for a very long time, now considered offensive because of Sacagawea’s subservient position. She was a tracker, that was why she knelt—though some people viewed it differently, objecting simply because Lewis and Clark were white men, no longer held in high regard.

“Here we go again,” Reggie said.

A light atop the truck arriving from the local TV station illuminated the statue. All these protests had begun after the white nationalists gathered at Lee Park in 2017, and would continue until every monument had been viewed in the most skeptical light. Someone carried a sign that jabbed the darkness, though it was raised and lowered too fast to read. Two figures linked arms and briefly danced in a circle, like a Cuisinart blade whose purpose was to turn everything to pulp. It was an open question as to whether the statue of Jefferson, the father of the University of Virginia, would remain standing on the Grounds. Her thoughts raced. It was certainly possible the sculpture would be taken down, even if Jefferson was not, at the moment, in complete exile. She couldn’t fail to see the situation from another perspective that was at once valid and ludicrous; maybe a dirigible with Sally Hemings’s face on the side could hover above the heart of the place as a reminder of the way things had really been, her visage looming above the grassy lawn that stretched between the Rotunda and Cabell Hall. She could look down on everything, like Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby.

Some of the talk below was audible: a shouted curse, a rhyming chant. Traffic slowed, as gawkers took in the scene. A tall man walked toward the statue with a baseball bat. That—a piece of wood—was going to effectively whack a bronze statue? Reggie squeezed her hand. When she looked again, she saw a man in an orange cap striding into the group.

“Reggie, that’s him!” she said. “From the tire store! In the orange cap.”

“Your student?” he asked.

“No, no—the owner. Or the employee. Whoever he is.”

Then she saw the dog jump up, nearly knocking the man over with its big paws. She’d never have suspected it had such energy. The man pulled off his cap and swatted it. The dog turned and ran, darting in front of a car making a right turn, whose driver didn’t see it. She and Reggie were too far above the commotion to hear the squeal of brakes (if there’d even been time for that). The cap lay on the ground. The man spread his arms and charged the car. She could look no longer. Reggie’s hand squeezed hers so tightly, she had to say his name to make him release his grip.

But then she did look again. Now there were more women; they were chanting, “Sacagawea shows the way! Sacagawea shows the way!” as police cars converged. Through a bullhorn, a man hollered, “Bring the fuckers down!” Was Sacagawea included in his indictment, or was he only focusing on the two towering male figures?

The flashing lights cast polka dots on her chair and Reggie’s. She felt sick. The dog had to be dead. It had run so fast. And yet, might that have been what she’d anticipated—not foreseen, she hadn’t foreseen anything—but might this be the bad thing she’d anticipated back at the tire store?

When the buzzer rang, she’d entirely forgotten they’d ordered dinner. She went quickly to the control panel to unlock the doors for the delivery person, hazily viewed on-camera. She stood in the open doorway, waiting. Tonight it was a thin, black-jacketed Black man, various scarves coiled round his neck. He carried two bags, though one would have held everything.

“Shitstorm down there, excuse my language,” he said, lowering his mask to speak.

“Yes, it certainly seems to be!” Reggie exclaimed, coming up beside her. He teetered slightly (she reached out instantly) as he removed his wallet from his sweater’s deep pocket and paid in cash, no doubt giving his usual generous tip.

“Okay, folks, thank you kindly, you have a good night,” the deliveryman said, offering Reggie a quick salute.

“He must have served in the military,” Reggie said, after he closed the door.

Atop the contents of each bag lay the same scattered detritus that was always included, even if they explicitly asked that it not be: plastic forks and an excessively large pile of already half-damp napkins, plastic knives that wouldn’t cut, packets of finger wipes that would reek of ammonia, spoons too shallow for soup. Under this foul plastic nest lay the recyclable boxes—small brown caskets filled with food, which she always emptied into serving dishes. Should they be having this feast, though, when everything that had created the opportunity for it had been discredited, when they were only ascendant because they hadn’t yet died out? She hated to think that way, even if others did.

“Have a seat, I’ll get bowls,” she said.

Someone tapped lightly at the door. Reggie didn’t react. He walked slowly toward the tiger maple dining table he’d been so pleased to buy at auction—how they’d laughed when he found a secret drawer in it, with a lavender thong stuffed inside. A thong and a penny and a dried-up pen. He pulled out a chair and sat down. He sat so erect, it looked like he was at church, or a schoolboy again. In winter they moved the table farther from the windows (cold did leak in), though the lights and the commotion below continued: the revolving lights atop the police vehicles, the (why had that come?) ambulance. Though since the ambulance was there, could they help the dog? Or was it possible—possible, if not probable—that the dog had escaped being struck by the car? All of it was happening in what now appeared to be a heavy snowstorm. And who was tapping at the door? It had to be someone from the building, because no one had rung them.

Rochelle put her eye to the peephole. She wanted it to be—though it could not be, it never would be—Straight Punch, alive and well, a present in himself, the mere sight of him compensation for anything otherwise lacking: candles unnecessary (she’d bought their candleholders, reproductions of the originals, from the gift shop at Monticello); no kitty wanted; of course he’d have no war wound.

She opened the door.

“I’m here to beg forgiveness. I was trying to work up my courage when Mary Ralston Cooper came into the lobby, poor thing, crying. Some protester said the nastiest thing to her when all she was trying to do was bring in groceries. These are terrible times, and I don’t doubt that’s a small part of why I’ve lost my mind, though nothing excuses what I said.”

Rochelle awkwardly embraced Bronwyn while simultaneously guiding her inside. Again, Reggie appeared at her side. Bronwyn thrust out her hand. Inside the bag she held by its fake leather handles were two bottles: premier cru Chablis and Sancerre (said Bronwyn), separated by cardboard. Bronwyn reached around her to hand the bag to Reggie. “Rochelle. Reggie. Please accept my apology. I got so upset, I forgot to take my medicine, though that’s no excuse for such rudeness.” Reggie stepped back, allowing Rochelle to take the bag, his pleasant expression calculated not to match his pain, or how taken aback he’d been by what she’d said.

“Bronwyn, we certainly understand,” Reggie said. “I must ask: Did Mary Ralston let you in?”

Rochelle and Bronwyn looked at him, each confused for a different reason.

“No, I came in, then I saw Mary Ralston crying, hurrying toward the front door.”

“But how did you get into the building, dear?” he persisted.

“I pressed three-three-three.”

“That’s our unit,” he said.

“Reggie, it’s the code for the whole building,” she said.

“It is? All this time, I thought it was our code.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disabuse you of that notion. You know, I have two other friends living here. And an acquaintance,” she added.

“Bronwyn, hang your coat over there,” Rochelle said, gesturing as she put the bag on the kitchen island. “Reggie, dish up a plate of food for Bronwyn. And, my goodness, should we check on Mary Ralston? I’ll just be a minute. I’ve got to make a very quick phone call, then I’ll be right back.”

“Please, Bronwyn, after you.” Reggie gestured.

“It smells divine, Reggie,” she heard Bronwyn say, as she walked down the corridor. Quickly she pushed open the bedroom door, then closed it. The orchid was lit by streetlights that also illuminated the falling snow.

She went to the bed, sat on one side, took out her phone, and silently rehearsed the question she wanted to ask. She tapped the screen. The phone was picked up on the first ring. Were there any reports of accidents tonight on Afton Mountain? she asked the policeman. There was a lot of background noise. “No, ma’am, not that we’ve heard,” he replied. She thanked him and disconnected, though she continued to sit there, not so much gathering her thoughts as letting them float freely, imagining herself to be Hemingway’s “American girl”—the unnamed young woman of his story. Young! So much for that!—a character who was in over her head, confused, angry, not knowing how to say what it was she really wanted. In time, you did find that out.

Fritz was safe. So, too, was she. And her husband. There was even a chance that Bronwyn would recover after a drink and some food.

She stood quickly. Instantly, something broke under her foot; she felt it through her thin-soled booties. Jewelry? No, her luck was not that bad. It was a one-winged, smashed butterfly—another of the orchid’s tiny clamps that must have fallen off. The potted plant had been given with such generosity, such good intentions: a lovely gesture, an instant cheer-up for an aging man who was part of the old order—in which she had to include herself; she was his wife, who held many of the same beliefs, even those infrequent times she wandered slightly off the beaten path, then dared to look over her shoulder to see people noticing her for what she was, and for what she was not.

Had she been gone for only a few minutes, or had she been gone longer? Racing down the hallway, reentering the room, she saw Bronwyn’s wineglass flash, filled with golden nectar. A more cheerful Bronwyn gestured as she spoke animatedly, and Reggie looked up and smiled, not so falsely.

“Ah! Here comes my love,” he said, as Rochelle dropped the broken bit of plastic into the trash. So relieved was she that it was almost day’s end, it mattered not at all that she’d pricked her finger.

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