At first it was simply Paul’s absence that left her shattered and aimless, every moment of the day like the sudden drop to hardwood when one descends a staircase and expects there to be one more step at the bottom than there actually is. There were scores of these tiny freefalls, so that two months after her husband’s funeral, Annalee was persistently dizzy, reaching into the bathroom cabinet for the motion sickness pills she used to keep on the ready for their vacations. She was sixty-five years old and had married Paul when she was twenty. Mornings, when her left arm fell through the empty air on his side of the bed, she felt that the axis of the earth rested just under their mattress and that some catastrophic change had occurred in the night—a pole shift that made jungles into taigas and deserts into flood zones. Pole shift, she mouthed into the blue dawn the first morning she articulated the thought. The term was a remnant of her brief stint at college in Iowa City, something she’d learned in a biology or physics class, and its survival through decades of accumulated memory surprised her.
In those first few months she discovered tricks for transitioning into this new solitude. She bought a body pillow and kept it on his side of the bed so that when she rolled at night there would be something to stop her forward movement. She had essential oil diffusers in the bedroom and kitchen, and instead of the sweet orange and peppermint her friend Moira had recommended for “energy and inspiration,” she trickled in drops of Paul’s cologne until the scent of him suffused the rooms. She’d always eaten breakfast alone, as he was out the door by six each morning for a brisk walk, even after his retirement, but at dinner she’d set a place for him and pour the second glass of wine. When those freefall moments came, she reminded herself that his death had been no shock: Paul was seventy-one and it wasn’t his first cardiac event. A life of tremendous stress, his long-time doctor and friend, Nelson, told Annalee. She’d bowed her head in acknowledgement. A life of tremendous output.
Four months in, she was settling down, returning to her old life of comfort and pleasant routine. Paul had provided beautifully for her in every sense of the word. Over the course of his career in pharmaceutical sales, he’d played his stock options well, and the end result was this four-bedroom timber-framed home in Townsend on the borders of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They’d moved in when Paul was sixty-five and spent weeks prowling through artisan shops for new furnishings and wall décor. It was a stunning retreat, the envy of their neighbors, none of whom had a parcel of land as large as theirs. And it had good bones, as Paul liked to say. He’d made sure of that. The furnace was new, the roof was fresh. “When I die,” he’d said, ever practical, “you won’t have to do a thing. Maybe hire someone to come clean when you don’t feel like it.” They’d had a good laugh over this—as if Annalee would ever allow someone else to clean her home. The house was her domain and had been all their lives. The upkeep of this small kingdom was her crowning glory, a phrase her daughter Carla sometimes uttered with disgust.
The house’s sheer size and its multitude of knickknacks to dust, carpets to vacuum supplied Annalee with the work she needed to feel like her old self again after Paul’s death. Her friends had always admired her inexhaustible attention to such things (“It’s an art form, homemaking,” she always told them), not comprehending that it wasn’t talent, but commitment that made her so good at what she did. She was conscientious to an extreme, remembering to clean behind the refrigerator and wash the curtains and dust the twisting vines along the banister when others went months or even years without tending to such things. Her home with Paul even before their retirement had always been a place of absolute, irrefutable order, down to the last compartment in the last sliding drawer, with the sole exception of the heavy old desk in Paul’s basement study with its mammoth bottom drawer. The Chaos Drawer, they affectionately called it. That was his territory, he told her from the beginning; if ever she tried to organize the thousands of papers and files ensconced in that cavernous space, she’d only confuse everything and cause him problems, as she had no idea what it all was. She agreed. It frightened her, those official-looking documents with their graphs and charts and tiny print, the red and blue binders and the financial records. Paul’s greatest gift to her had been a reprieve from all things intricate. She’d never even had to fix a blown-out fuse, and before he died, he left her a notebook with the names and numbers of dozens of companies, people who could step in and attend to everything from federal taxes to a running toilet.
Amidst her chore-frenzy in the fourth month, she decides to have all of Paul’s old business clothes dry-cleaned. She enjoys the long drive out to Maryville and then returning a week later to load the cellophaned suitcoats and button-down shirts into the backseat of her car. This is meaningful work. There is something almost religious about it, something ageless; she thinks of monks caring for the robes of their deceased Father, or nobles laying out the robes of a perished king. She feels good, solid in her purpose. But it is here, at the dry cleaners’, that her unraveling begins. When she reenters the shop to retrieve the second round of suitcoats, the attendant hands her a plastic sandwich bag and says, “We always set aside anything we find in pockets, just in case. Here you go.” Bewildered, Annalee takes the bag, but she’s unable to study its contents closely until she’s swiped her card and exited the shop.
In the car, she flattens the plastic against the steering wheel. The bag contains two inky ticket stubs for a film she’s never seen, and a folded napkin, red along its borders, bearing a phone number. The dates on the ticket stubs are faded but she can just make out the year. It was before their retirement, long before. The phone number is in her husband’s handwriting—she’d know that deep slant anywhere—and when she pulls the napkin out of the bag and unfolds it, she sees the name Beryl, also scrawled out in Paul’s hand. She doesn’t move, just sits there holding the napkin.
She jumps when someone honks at her, waiting for her parking space. Trembling, she puts the car in reverse and exits the lot. The nest of nerves in her solar plexus has awakened like some long-hibernating animal, and she focuses on breathing deeply. “How ridiculous,” she says aloud when she reaches the first stoplight. Probably they saw the film together and she just doesn’t remember it. She’s getting old, after all. And Beryl—she knew there were plenty of women who worked in pharmaceutical sales, not to mention female doctors her husband sold to. A woman’s number would have been a matter of business, nothing more. “Ridiculous,” she affirms, and yet when she pulls into the driveway a half hour later, the plastic bag is still clenched in her left hand, slick with sweat.
Back in the house, she leaves the bag atop the bedroom bureau and engages herself in hanging up Paul’s clothes in their walk-in closet. She has a schedule; her plan is to wash the windows and then polish the silver when this task is done. But when the clothes are back where they belong, she finds herself in another closet, the big hallway one with the slatted doors where they have always kept their winter coats and scarves. Her mind is deliberately blank and she’s humming something tuneless as she fishes through the pockets of her husband’s old jackets. There’s a hard curl of Kleenex like a dead shrimp, a Ricola cough drop in faded yellow wrapping. A handful of quarters, a receipt for gas. Nothing. Then, in the pocket of the sporty black one he hadn’t worn in twenty years but would never let her donate or throw away, she almost impales her finger on what feels like a needle. She fishes out a single earring and holds it up to the light. It’s silver with a little nub of moonstone that glows milky white beneath the closet’s bulb. She’s always worn earrings; very probably it’s hers. But as she closes the closet doors she feels certain she’s never owned a pair of moonstone earrings and that she would remember if she had. She walks slowly back to the bedroom and drops the earring beside the plastic bag on the bureau.
“Ridiculous,” she says again, a bark of laughter escaping her lips. “I’m paranoid.” Then, “I’m so sorry, Paul.”
She goes about her tasks for the day, putting in more energy than is necessary. Later she does further penance for her insanity by sitting in Paul’s easy chair, breathing in his aftershave in front of the bathroom mirror, pouring herself coffee in his favorite mug. Carrying the coffee, she goes into Paul’s library and runs her fingers over the long line of leather-bound books. History, religion, canonical literature—she never saw him read any of them, but he’d told her it was important that they own these books. Carla, who’d finished both college and a master’s degree, teased them both incessantly about this, calling the books “Dad’s Faux-and-For-Show Library.” Annalee didn’t care that her husband didn’t read the books. If he didn’t want to, she didn’t blame him; they scared her almost as much as the minefield of documents downstairs in the Chaos Drawer. Her brief glimpse into those worlds back in her one year of college had been more than enough.
The doorbell startles her. She’s forgotten that Carla is bringing over Chinese. Her daughter has always lived close by, in Knoxville, and yet Annalee has seen more of her in the four months since Paul died than she did over the course of the previous ten years. It still feels awkward and strange to her to open the front door and usher Carla in.
“Why is it so cold in here,” Carla wants to know as she unloads cartons of Chinese food onto the kitchen counter. “It’s got to be forty degrees, Mom.” From a second plastic bag she removes some paper plates and silverware.
“We are not using paper and plastic,” Annalee says, opening a cabinet for plates.
“I brought them so I wouldn’t have to watch you do dishes. Just be in the moment, Mom, for ten minutes.” She’s already scooping fried rice and spicy chicken. “You like the lo mein, right?”
“Yes. How’s Mark?” She only asks out of habit and doesn’t really listen to Carla’s answer. Mark has always baffled her. He teaches in the automotive shop at a Knoxville high school, and every time she’s seen him, he’s as ruffled and dirty as a ten-year-old boy fresh off the baseball field. She’s never understood Carla’s attraction to such a man, but here they were, still married at forty and seemingly happy despite being poor as church mice.
“ . . . and he didn’t think poor Todd would even graduate, but he did, and Mark’s thrilled,” Carla finishes, filling two Styrofoam cups with tap water. “The kid might even apply to tech school.”
Mark is a mystery, but it’s Carla, who teaches history part-time at the university and part-time for the Knoxville Institute for Continued Learning, that Annalee has never understood. Oil and water, she thinks as she uncaps the diffuser by the sink and pours in some lavender to calm herself. Oil and water was what they’d always been, an impossible blend, and even Paul could not find a way to filter their separateness into a comfortable harmony.
“You know you’re a terrible listener,” Carla says softly, seated at the table. “You don’t even look at me.”
“I was listening. Todd graduated.” Annalee sits down across from her and moves her plastic fork into the pile of fried rice. “I really hate plastic.”
“Not as much as I hate watching you clean while I’m trying to talk to you.” Carla chews a piece of chicken. “So how are you, really, Mom? What have you been doing during the day? I mean, besides housework. Are you getting out? Seeing friends?”
Annalee knows where this is going. “I was hoping you were just here for dinner, not to give me a lecture.”
“I’m not. But I worry, with you out here all alone in this huge house in the middle of nowhere. I wish you all had retired to a condo in the city instead.”
“I’m busy morning til night.”
When Carla only purses her lips, Annalee says, “You don’t know what it takes to upkeep a place like this, Carla.”
“That’s true, I don’t. But plenty of people have big houses and still have lives.”
Annalee stabs her fork into a broccoli floret.
“I wish you’d think about taking a class with the Institute,” Carla goes on, trying to meet her gaze. “I brought you a catalogue—” she stops and reaches down into her purse, comes back up with a thick, glossy brochure. “They have it all, Mom. History, creative writing, science, politics. They even have birding classes. It’s never too late to start.” She slides the catalogue across the polished oak of the table.
Annalee doesn’t touch it. “Never too late to start what?” Anger is rising in her, stiffening her jaw.
“You know what I’m talking about. I’m trying to help you—you get that, right? I want you to have . . .” She hesitates. “Now that Dad’s gone, it’s okay. You can do these things.”
“He never would have said no. That’s an absurd thing to say.”
“I meant—you don’t have him to take care of now. Your time is all yours.”
Isn’t that the truth, Annalee thinks dully. It’s all hers, and that’s what’s scaring her, driving her to dredge up household tasks even she wouldn’t have thought to do four months ago. Maybe it’s the extra time on her hands that’s prompted her paranoia, too. With strained brightness she says, “What do you think of the fried rice? I like it better with pork.”
“Okay, Mom, message received. I’ll just leave the catalogue here. Maybe you’ll want to look at it later.”
“I won’t. You might as well take it home with you.”
Carla shakes her head and resumes eating. They go quiet. The dining room clock ticks away and then, striking seven, begins to toll. It’s weirdly intrusive, this sound she’s heard every day of her life for years, and she’s glad when Carla breaks the moment by asking her to pass the spicy chicken.
They’re in the kitchen, dumping the plates and plasticware into the trash bin, when Annalee hears herself say, “Did you ever know someone named Beryl?”
Carla opens the fridge in search of the iced tea carafe Annalee always keeps on the ready. “Beryl? Is that even a name?”
“I guess so.”
“Should I know her?”
Annalee lets out a little laugh. “I don’t know. No. Forget it.” Then, seeing her daughter’s curious stare, she makes something up: “An old friend of mine whose last name I can’t remember. I’d like to relocate her. My mind’s getting fuzzy, I guess.”
“Don’t you keep an address book?”
She does, a fastidious handwritten account of all their friends and Paul’s relatives. “I don’t know where I put it.”
Carla is incredulous.
“I’ll find it. Never mind. You want dessert? I baked brownies yesterday.”
When Carla finally leaves, Annalee stands for a long time in the doorway, looking out at the hot Tennessee night. Townsend’s countryside is silent. There are just a few amber lights blinking in her distant neighbors’ windows; a doe sniffs along the tree line on the western border of their property. Against her will she recalls an argument she’d had with Carla when the girl was nineteen or twenty. They’d been out to dinner as a family, celebrating some new success of Paul’s, and Paul had gotten up to use the restroom. In his absence Carla sat there and seethed, hissing through her teeth, “How can you sit there and watch that?” Annalee hadn’t a clue what she was talking about and said so. “The way he is with waitresses,” Carla snapped, wringing her napkin. “Waitresses, and receptionists, and all of them. If a man did that to me on a first date I’d leave him. It’s so fucking humiliating what he does to you.” Annalee had laughed it off and advised her daughter to order some tea to calm herself down a little so they might enjoy the rest of the meal.
It was Carla’s way—always looking for conflict, for ways to needle her. Annalee swore she was rebellious just for the sake of rebellion. Even as a little girl she did ferocious battle with Annalee, throwing fits when her mother tidied up her room for her or demanded she take her books off the table or her shoes out of the hallway. Once, catching Annalee reorganizing her underwear drawer, Carla had nearly cut off her fingers slamming the drawer closed. Then she’d gone into the kitchen, found a huge box of toothpicks, and returned to the bedroom where she dumped the entire box onto the floor. There were thousands of them. They rolled under the bed, under the bookshelf, everywhere. “Here you go,” Carla shouted. “You need something to do, here it is.” Annalee had even sensed a personal affront in Carla’s decision to go to college and then graduate school. “You don’t need to do all this,” Annalee once suggested mildly, and Carla’s reaction was as savage as ever. “Some of us do,” she’d spat at her. “Some of us would like to be awake beings.” It was exactly the sort of thing she was wont to say. As a child she’d once been given a Barbie doll whose eyelids were made of a pale blue, flexible rubber that you could pull down like shades on a window. Carla had promptly torn the eyelids off, giving the doll a perpetual look of astonishment, as though she’d never expected to see at all.
At two o’clock in the morning, Annalee climbs out of bed and goes into the library. It was one of Paul’s many ingratiating quirks that he preferred to keep his library and his study separate; the books and his computer stayed in one room, the desk in another, and in all three of the homes they’d lived in, the study was in the basement. He even did this in their first home where the basement was hideous and unfinished, little more than a cellar. “I like to compartmentalize,” he’d explained when she asked. She was twenty and had never heard this word before. She trusted him.
Now she sits down before the desktop computer beside the bookshelf and turns the monitor on. Paul had always worked with laptops, but he’d sold them after his retirement, claiming he never wanted to type on a flat keyboard again. When the computer’s blue screen flares to life, it takes Annalee a few seconds to recall their password—MiddleProng, an easy trail in the Smokies they sometimes hiked on the weekends. The desktop’s little icons assemble themselves. She’s only used this computer to look up the occasional question on the Internet, like what is a substitute for egg or how to get pine sap out of carpet. She knows it’s possible to look up someone’s “history” in terms of sites they’ve perused, but she has no idea how to do this, and what she really wants to do is to get into Paul’s old email account. There’s a shortcut right there on the desktop, and when she clicks on this, the login page pops up and fills the screen. What would his password have been? She plugs in one after another, testing dozens. Places they’ve been, his brother’s name, her name, Carla’s birthday, anything she can think of. Nothing takes.
Two hours of this and her eyes are leaking dewy tears, a headache gathering itself at the back of her neck. When she finally stands up, she gives the computer tower a kick with her bare foot. It’s something Carla would do, and the flare of rage in her is unfamiliar and upsetting. Why did he choose a password so obscure his own wife couldn’t guess it? He’d been retired for six years. And it wasn’t as though he’d been in the CIA or FBI. What could be in his personal email that was so dangerous? And who, besides Annalee, would ever try to break into it?
She remembers that the first year they dated Paul liked to keep her love notes tucked inside his textbooks. Perhaps he maintained the habit. In a kind of fever, tempered by her own exhaustion and the weirdness of being awake and moving at this hour, Annalee begins taking books off the shelves and turning them over, shaking out the pages to see if anything falls out. Book after book after book. There’s no logic to her selections—intuition tells her that only in disorder will she discover something—and when she finally stops, the vast bookshelf looks like a mouth marred by the gaping apertures of missing teeth. The mouth mocks her, inane as a jack-o-lantern. To the room at large Annalee says, “I don’t care that it’s crazy. I need to know. I’m sorry, Paul.”
She tackles the garage next. Paul kept his BMW meticulously clean, nothing but the necessities in the glovebox or center console, nothing in the cupholders or in the door shelves. But she checks anyway, even running her hands under the seats. It’s boiling in the garage, and she’s sweating, a little nauseous, when her fingers come into contact with something cool and slick. Paul’s phone.
Why had he kept this in the car? It was true he used it rarely after his retirement, making most of his calls on their house phone. But who kept a phone in their car, and under the seat? She can’t even figure out how to turn it on, and after a few minutes of desperate fumbling, she wants to shatter it against the garage wall. “Stop,” she says. Her voice is shrill in the humid space of the garage. “Think about it in the morning. It’s just a phone.”
In her room, she sets the phone atop the bureau beside the earring and the plastic bag, then climbs into bed. When she dreams, it’s of dark water, and massive scaled creatures slithering through the depths.
The phone sits on her bureau like a sleeping animal for the next three days. She doesn’t look at it, doesn’t touch it. She occupies herself with housework and yardwork and writing cheerful letters to old girlfriends. Her strategy is simply to give herself time to regain her composure. She doesn’t ask herself what she’ll do after that.
She has an appointment with Nelson, Paul’s old doctor, for a regular checkup. He’s a good man and she suspects he asked her to come in because Paul told him to a long time ago. “Keep an eye on her,” she imagines Paul saying to his friend. “Take good care of her if anything happens to me.” She replays this imagined dialogue over and over in her head as she sits in the waiting room flipping through magazines.
Nelson checks her breathing, her heart. “You’re breathing a little shallow, Anna,” he says, frowning as he moves the stethoscope on her back. “I wish you’d take in more air. It’s good for you.”
“I’m feeling fine.”
“You sure?” He comes around to face her. His pale blue eyes are kind, the wrinkles fanning out from their corners endearing. “I have to say, you’re pale. And you look like you’re losing weight.” He checks her chart. “Yep. Deanna wrote down that you’ve dropped five pounds since your last visit.”
“I’m not trying to.”
“That’s what worries me. Tell me, are you really all right? Are you coping?”
The words are out of her mouth before she can stop them: “Nelson, there’s something I need to know.”
He tilts his head, waiting. His hands go still in his lap.
“Did Paul—did you ever know of him having—” She stops. Her face is on fire.
“I have his whole medical history, Anna, if there’s something you need to know.”
“No. I’m asking about something else.” She takes a deep breath. “It’s crazy, Nelson, but I need to know. Was there ever someone else? You knew him for thirty years. Did you ever know of him having an affair, or a flirtation, or—” Seeing his face, the sudden freeze of his mouth, she panics. “I know what you must think of me for even asking,” she babbles on, “but I found something, a number of things, and I need to know.”
“What did you find exactly?” He’s not looking at her. She can see the thoughts racing, moving fast as a flock of birds; he’s stalling.
She says, “Actually, I didn’t find anything. Someone found me. She called the house looking for him. She said they’d been together a long time and she didn’t know he was married. Who was she, Nelson? I need to know.” She’s amazed at herself.
Nelson’s frozen features relax a little; it’s longer on him to confirm or deny the actual affair. She hates herself for giving him this reprieve. His mouth twists in a sad smile before he says, “Anna, I hate to speak badly of Paul, with him being gone.”
“I know. I’m only asking who she was.”
He sighs. “It may have been a woman named Helen who called your house. They were—friends. As far as I knew. I didn’t know her personally.”
Helen? She wants to ask about Beryl, but she grits her teeth. “This was recent? He was having an affair with her after he’d retired?”
“I don’t know when exactly they met but it was maybe two years ago. I’m sorry, Anna. I hope she leaves you alone. That was horrible of her, to call at the house like that. Totally inappropriate.”
She feels like she might throw up into the stainless-steel sink behind him. “Did he have any other friends?”
Nelson rises and turns away, powering on the office computer to update her file. “Not that I know of. I hope you let this go, Anna. It’s not healthy to dig up the past and worry over it. It can only do you harm. You want my advice, I’d say forget all about it and move on. Don’t look any further. Trust me, you’ll be happier if you don’t. And I want you to be happy. So would Paul.”
“Yes,” she says faintly.
“Now I’d like you to come by again in three months. We want to make sure you’re taking those deep breaths.” He’s resumed his warm but professional tone, somewhere between a grandfather and a guidance counselor, and suddenly, she despises it. She’d like to wrap his stethoscope around his neck and pull until his face turns blue and his eyes pop out. She stands up fast and slings her purse over her shoulder.
“That won’t be necessary,” she says, exiting the treatment room without a backwards glance. “Thank you.”
She calls the number on the napkin two nights later. It’s a Florida number, Pensacola, and no one answers. If occurs to her after the third try that if Paul had an affair with this Beryl the year he bought the movie tickets, there was probably someone else living in that house by now. She hangs up the phone.
In the library, she turns on the desktop and pulls up the internet. She types in a question, then another. She prints out all the instructions she can find and then carries the sheaf of paper into the bedroom where Paul’s phone still sleeps. Sweat blooms down her back as she sits on the edge of the bed, the phone in one hand, papers in the other. It takes forever but she gets the phone turned on and figures out where Paul’s contacts are. She finds a Helen, no last name, in the H’s. No Beryl. She returns to the A’s and starts scrolling. There are names she recognizes, family and business associates and a few of their neighbors, but most of them are strange to her. Lots of women. She writes them down on a sheet of notebook paper atop the blankets, punching holes through it when she dots her I’s. She notices that the majority are listed only as first names, unlike the rest of the entries. There is a Monica, a Patricia, a Betsy. Sarah and Christine and Lauren. Wendy and Vivian. They can’t all be lovers. The thought is ludicrous. And yet, when she clicks on the individual names, they all have area codes she doesn’t recognize. It was entirely possible Paul could have met them when he was traveling for the company, which he did virtually every week for the entirety of their marriage.
She dials Helen’s number.
The voice that answers is breathy yet self-possessed, full of pleasant expectation: “Paul. Six months and you don’t call?”
Annalee powers off the phone with shaking fingers and turns it face down on the bedspread.
As if Paul is watching and it’s important that she not reveal her true feelings, she rises calmly from the bed and walks into the kitchen where she re-washes her breakfast dishes and then sits down to work on a to-do list. She writes in her neat printing, wax kitchen floor, organize vitamins, and replace shower curtains. Then she goes into the half-bath down the hall and throws up.
Some semblance of reason has returned to her by morning. Perhaps Paul did make a mistake. Perhaps there had been a bikini-clad Beryl on a Florida beach a decade ago, a husky-voiced Helen six months ago. Men had these brief, impassioned flings that ended abruptly and meant nothing. Even Annalee knew about this. As for the other women in Paul’s phone—they were doctors or other reps he’d met while selling out of state. He’d simply been too lazy or too hurried to put in their last names. He could be like that; it was part of why he so appreciated Annalee’s punctiliousness in the care of their home.
She cleans up the mess in the library, the books she’d left open on the floor. The printout of phone instructions goes into the recycling bin. The reasonable thing to do is to be properly angry at Paul for his mistake, and let it go. Annalee rarely turns on the television, but it seems like fate when she flips it on and lands right on a talk show where the host is telling another woman the same thing. “Let it go,” this blond beauty advises her guest in a firm, competent tone. “Don’t think about it ever again. These things only have as much meaning as we choose to give them.”
She calls up her neighbor, Moira, and invites herself over. Normally she’d never initiate this sort of get-together, as Moira is too much like Carla, prone to fits of temper and always needling people. Moira is not widowed but divorced. She received a huge settlement five years ago and lives almost as well as Annalee does, but she’s still aquiver with rage, bitter at her husband’s betrayal and at men in general. She’s been ranting about the patriarchy since the day they met. Back when Paul was alive, Annalee would come home from afternoon visits with Moira and repeat the things she’d said, mocking her. Paul would laugh and say, “I think we know why Henry got out of dodge, eh? Where is he now, Alaska? Can you imagine living in that house?” “No,” Annalee would say with feeling, thinking of Moira’s stacks of dirty dishes and the way her two cats seemed to own the place.
It’s not exactly schadenfreude that she’s after. It’s a taste of Moira’s righteous anger, which she thinks she’ll enjoy sharing as one enjoys sharing a sundae or parfait. She’ll join in the rants, get a little high on all that sweet, furious energy, and then come home to a sugar crash that will put her right to sleep.
Moira answers the door in one of her bizarre multi-layered outfits. Her skirt looks like three different bedsheets woven together. “I’ve been wondering about you,” she says, beckoning Annalee in. “Haven’t hardly seen you since Paul died.”
“I know. I’ve been busy. Thanks for having me.”
Moira directs her into the living room and Annalee sits down on one of the sofas, inwardly cringing at the dog hair she’ll have to clean off her pants when she gets home. As soon as Moira has set their iced tea down on the coffee table, the small talk is over: “Something’s the matter, Annalee. What is it?”
Annalee shifts on the sofa. “I think Paul was unfaithful.” Saying it out loud starts the bile in the back of her throat. She swallows hard, praying she won’t vomit again. “It was a long time ago, but still.”
“Oh, my God.” Moira sinks down to the floor in a heap of skirt, instantly winning Annalee over with the melodrama of this. “Paul?”
“Jesus.” Then, “More than once?”
“Of course not,” Annalee says sharply. And then, “I’m not sure.”
Moira reaches up for her glass and rolls it between her hands, then touches her palm to the side of her neck to cool it. “Oh, honey. I hate to say it, but that’s what they do. I tell you, I don’t know a single woman whose husband hasn’t cheated.”
“They tell you don’t need an education, don’t need a career, and then as soon as you’re dependent and lost, they take off onto better things. Thank God Henry and I didn’t have children.” A pause. “Does Carla know?”
“God, no.” She shudders.
“You don’t have to protect him, you know.”
“It’s not that. It’s that she’d just say, ‘I told you so.’”
“She’d be right to, as nasty as that might seem.”
“Why do they do it, Moira?” She doesn’t really care about the answer; she just wants to work up Moira’s fury. Anything to pull her out of this hell.
“Why? I’ll tell you why. Biology is only so much to blame. Biology designs them to be man whores, but they make the choice to embrace it. You don’t have to be a slave to your instincts. We’re supposed to have evolved past that.” She puts her glass back on the coffee table, needing her hands for her speech: “The problem is that society doesn’t ask them to fight those instincts. It tells them they’re exempt. The patriarchy promises them success even if they rape and cheat and abandon us, their whole lives. You want to know who’s crushing us? It’s not Paul and it’s not Henry. It’s the patriarchy. If it weren’t there, if it didn’t do what it does, Paul wouldn’t have cheated, and Henry wouldn’t have traded me in like a junker car for a fresh new ride.”
She carries on, and Annalee half-listens, picking at a loose thread in a cushion. This isn’t working. Moira’s words are running together into the drone of a vacuum cleaner, and instead of carrying Annalee away into a safe space of righteous indignation, they’re forcing her backward, across the street and into her own house, then to the door to the basement. The stairs are carpeted a dark grey and the stairwell is always chilly and a little damp. At the bottom, the entrance to the basement is a black rectangle as opaque and faraway as space. And yet, sitting here on Moira’s couch, Annalee walks through it to find the green lamp on Paul’s desk already switched on, bathing the dust-coated wood with light. His fingerprints are still visible near the handle of the Chaos Drawer. She kneels to open it. She touches the handle—
“Annalee.” Moira is gripping her arm. “Honey. You all right?”
She shakes herself, realizes she’s spilled iced tea on Moira’s carpet. “Oh, I’m sorry. Let me go dip a towel in some cold water—”
“You looked like you were going to pass out. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said all that.” She really does look contrite, one hand at her mouth. “Maybe we should get out, see a movie in Maryville or something. There’s probably a matinee.”
“No, it’s all right.” With an effort, she rises from the couch. “Thanks for talking to me. I guess what I need is just to sleep a little.”
“Good. You should listen to your body. Here, hang on a second.” Moira darts into the kitchen and returns with a stout plastic bottle. “It’s valerian root—helps you sleep. It really does work.”
“Thanks.” She slides the bottle into her purse. “I’d like to go for that movie, maybe this weekend. I’ll call you.”
She lives a quarter mile away, and yet the walk home seems to take forever, as though there’s nothing she wants less than for each step to succeed the last.
She does not call Moira over the weekend. She spends most of the weekend outside in the sizzling heat, pulling weeds and watering her flowers, distancing herself from both her bedroom and the basement as much as she can. No valerian. She sleeps on the living room couch—a habit she once considered abominable in other people’s homes—with the television on. The blue light and the conversing voices are a comfort to her, forcing her to sleep catlike with her eyes partly open and her senses partly engaged. She has odd dreams about television characters in the reruns. Sheriff Taylor checks the perimeter for intruders; Frasier Crane pours her a glass of sherry. She completely forgets that Carla and Mark are supposed to come over for Sunday dinner, a routine Carla has insisted upon since Paul died. When the doorbell rings at six o’clock, she’s in the garden and can’t make it to the living room in time to fold up her blankets and put away the pillows.
Furious that they’ve let themselves in, angrier still at herself for having left the front door unlocked, she marches into the kitchen and flings off her gardening gloves. “I didn’t hear you,” she says. Carla is carrying a ceramic dish of casserole, Mark a salad. They both just look at her. She glimpses herself in the toaster’s spotless sheen—disheveled hair, running makeup, sweaty brow—and lets out a huff. “I forgot,” she says. “I honestly forgot about dinner.”
“You forgot?” Carla gapes at her. “Mom, we do this every weekend.”
“I meant, I forgot it was Sunday. I’ve been so busy.” She indicates the muddy gloves. “The garden was a mess.”
“Right.” Eyeing her, Carla sets down the food. Mark follows suit. His hands are calloused and dirty as usual. But he’s quiet and gentle in his movements, the kind of man who looks like he should be working with animals. Paul used to say he was effeminate, and it’s a small revelation to Annalee that the man is simply unswerving. Not a spark of flightiness or self-indulgence about him. Mark turns to look at her and his smile is kind. “It’s okay,” he tells her. “We don’t have to do this if you’re too busy. Maybe we can help you out back?”
“Oh, no. You brought the food—we might as well.” Her hand is at her throat. It’s not a characteristic gesture and she feels Carla watching her. “Mark, would you do something for me? Since you’re here?”
“I have a standing order at the bakery for our Sunday cake. I forgot all about it, obviously.” She makes a little face. “Is there any chance you’d be willing to run out and get it? It’s the one on the corner, next to the souvenir shop.”
“I know where it is.” He looks surprised, as does Carla. “I’ll go right away. You two go ahead and eat if you’re hungry,” he adds as he starts down the hallway. “I can eat fast when I get back.”
“It’s eighteen dollars,” Annalee calls after him. “I’ll pay you back.”
“No problem.” They hear the front door close.
Carla studies her. “You forgot it was Sunday. You forgot the cake. What’s going on?”
“It’s not Alzheimer’s, if you’re worried,” she tries to joke. She runs the tap to wash her hands.
“Were you trying to get me alone for something?” Carla edges closer, her voice softening. “What is it, Mom?”
The warmth in her voice undoes Annalee. To her own horror, she begins to cry.
“Oh, my God, Mom.” Carla’s eyes are circles. “What happened?”
“I need you to do something for me, too,” she says, refusing to look at her daughter. “In the bedroom, on my bureau? There’s a bunch of things—your father’s phone, some papers—and I want you to get them out of here. Throw them out.”
“Because I don’t want to think about them ever again. I want—” She struggles to finish the thought. “I want things to go back to normal.”
“They can’t, Mom. He’s gone. I know this is hard, but . . .”
“He was unfaithful, Carla.”
Her daughter’s hand freezes on her arm.
“I found out not too long ago. And I don’t want to know any more than I already do. So take the phone, take the papers and the rest of it, and burn it.” She snaps off the faucet, moves out of Carla’s grip to dry her hands fiercely with a tea towel. “Can you just do that, and not say anything else? Can you do that, and not say I told you so?”
Carla stands there shaking her head. Her eyes are wet. “Mom, I’d never say that. I didn’t know. I mean he was always a flirt, but I never knew he had a real affair.”
“Well, neither did I.”
“But I don’t understand—you think there’s more to it than that?”
Annalee doesn’t respond. She takes the casserole and lowers it into the oven, sets the oven on warm.
“There is, isn’t there.” Carla raises her hands to her head. “God, Mom. What did you find out?”
“Please. Just do what I’ve asked.” She’s halfway down the back hall, starting for the deck with no real plan in mind.
Carla follows her, but forks left to the bedrooms. Annalee pauses, then pursues her daughter into her room. Carla is standing over the bureau. “What are these names?” she demands, holding up the sheet of hole-punched notebook paper with its list of women. “What is all this?”
“Probably nothing. I’m crazy, I’m overreacting. It’s just because he’s gone and I can’t think straight.” She tries a feeble smile. “Just get rid of it all, okay? Sell the phone. Maybe there’s money in it.”
“Mom.” Carla sets the paper down, comes toward her. “I won’t let you do this. Fake yourself out, protect him like this. For Christ’s sake he’s not even here. Don’t you want to know the truth?”
“Why would I,” she says, turning aside.
“Because it’s important to know the truth.”
“Maybe to you it is.”
“That’s your problem, Mom. It always has been.” Disgusted, Carla picks up the phone and smacks it against the dresser. “So what do you want to do? Pretend it away and then clean up the house? It doesn’t look like that’s working. Why are you sleeping in the living room? Oh, I get it, the TV, right? It’s a great distraction. That’s the great love affair of your life, Mom—distractions. You know, you always gave me hell for spending so much time in school. Do you really wonder why I did that? I didn’t want to end up like you. You looked for messes around the house, you invented all those chores so you’d never have to think about anything else. You’ve been sleepwalking your whole life, and you’re going to die that way if you don’t change something.”
Annalee is trembling and she isn’t sure if it’s from rage or fear. “I don’t know who you think you are,” she says softly.
“Someone who cares about you.” Carla reaches for her; Annalee steps back. “Mom, I know what it would mean if this were true, if he’s been cheating all these years. It would mean you led this whole life for him, and he wasn’t even yours to begin with. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to learn something like that. But at least you can be honest with yourself. You can do things differently.”
“What things? What are you talking about?” She’s looking around the room, eyes wild as a horse’s, as if for the answer.
“That’s for you to figure out, Mom.” Carla’s face is haggard, and for the first time, Annalee notices the nosegay of iron-grey hairs at each of her temples. “That’s the work everyone has to do, at one point or another.”
For a long time, they just stare at each other.
“You think you’re so wise,” Annalee says finally. “And look at you. Forty years old and living in a cheap little house in the armpit of Knoxville, with a man who doesn’t even bring in fifty grand a year. No children. No retirement plan. No . . .” Her voice trails off. She waits for her daughter to erupt, but Carla only steps forward to touch her sleeve.
“I know who I am, Mom,” she says. “I know what I love, and what I want. You should, too.”
Annalee leaves Carla alone in the house, retreating to the backyard. She’s ashamed of herself even as she does it, feeling like a petulant child, but she can’t seem to move from her seat on the wicker bench beside the roses. She hears Mark return, and a few minutes later, they’re both gone, backing out of the driveway. They leave the casserole and the cake behind for her. Back in her bedroom, she discovers that Carla has left the phone and everything else, too.
She hovers at the head of the basement stairs for an interminable stretch of time. Then she’s descending into the chill, moving silently down the carpeted steps to the dark entryway. She passes through the blackness and moves to Paul’s old desk. Her fingers find the gold-beaded lamp pull and then the corner is awash with light. The knotty pine wall above the desk is obscured with framed photographs, all of Paul; it’s a shrine to himself, she realizes as she scans the old sienna images of him shirtless in rowboats or suited at awards ceremonies. She doesn’t exist anywhere down here.
But the pictures aren’t what she’s come for. She sinks to her knees and hooks her fingers below the handle of the Chaos Drawer. It’s so heavily laden that she needs both hands to get it all the way open. At first, what she finds is a relief: the old red and blue financial binders, the stacks of paper with fine print. She unpacks the drawer one ream of paper at time. It’s all just business, all blessedly dull, until she thinks to page through one of the binders she’s laid on the floor.
Love letters, scrawled out in Paul’s deeply slanted cursive. Love letters written back to him in flowery script. Mementos. More tickets, to movies and concerts and shows. Everything is tucked cleverly into the pages, woven into the more innocuous documents like a dark ribbon wound into a braid. There are even a couple of photographs. As far as she can tell, these women are scattered throughout the years, going back decades. She flips through a second binder and finds more of the same. He’d kept his mementos as some men kept collectors’ cards or coins; it was both an accomplishment and a means of remembering other times infused with more romance and possibility than the present afforded. At the bottom of the drawer, in a box labeled Paperclips, is a stash of condoms, the golden wrappers faded to a metallic sheen. She’d been on the pill since the year after Carla was born.
He’d had complete faith that she’d never open this drawer. He’d made an effort to hide his tokens, it was true, but she knows in her heart that he’d never believed she’d prowl through this space. It was not a testament to his arrogance or his belief in his own authority, as Moira might have it, but to how deeply he knew Annalee.
As she replaces all the papers and binders in the drawer, she thinks of how much she’d like to tell each and every one of them that they’re wrong. Nelson is wrong if he thinks it’s healthy to pretend it all away, that a lie is somehow safer than the truth. Isn’t his logic just a distant cousin to Paul’s? Moira is wrong if she thinks Annalee’s misery is the patriarchy’s doing. Paul may not have been a good man, and perhaps there were very few good men, but it was Annalee who willingly embraced the life he offered her, Annalee who was too afraid to look any further.
Carla is wrong, too. There was a time when Annalee was wide awake. It was that year in Iowa City when she was a freshman in college and away from her mother for the first time. She didn’t know what she wanted to do yet, but she was taking a rich array of classes and everything she learned intrigued her. She spent a great deal of time alone. In her memory forever afterward, this lonely year would be mauve and white, shining like icicles, because it always seemed to be winter in Iowa City and each day she spent hours walking up and down the river, watching the ice meet and break beneath a lilac sky. She was thinking hard. She pondered things she’d learned in her classes, glowing lines from poems and strange stories out of history, but she also thought about her own past. She revisited memories that felt unresolved, like the night her father left back when she was eight, or the day her first and only boyfriend told her “the spark had gone out.” She questioned the origin of her mother’s depression and wondered what could be done about it. She considered choices she’d made, weighing even the minute ones that had seemed insignificant when she made them. She began to notice the flaws in her own character and to sniff out what it was she wanted in the life to come, what sort of person she wished to be. All of this she thought about under the lilac light, as the river’s ice nudged against itself and sang out its strange music against the frigid wind.
Something was happening to her and she both feared and desired it. But then one afternoon Paul Dawson crossed one of the river bridges and walked right up to her. “Your nose is adorable,” he told her, grinning and offering her his scarf. “But it’s all red.” He was older, almost finished with a master’s in business, and over the next few weeks as he described his plans to her, she was awed at his togetherness, his mastery over his own life. He wasn’t like her, a child of a broken home raised in poverty and uncertainty, here on scrabbled-together federal aid. He came from a happy family down south and he saw life as a treasure trove he was meant to plunder. “Come with me,” he said one night in the amber glow of a coffeeshop downtown. “Come with me, Anna,” his hand covering hers. And so her mental harvest went ungathered. It wasn’t long before she was utterly transmogrified, a new woman as Paul’s wife. Only at the beginning did she have vague misgivings. A nameless irritability would possess her in a grocery store or in the car, and only now does she understand what that was. Ironically, she was exactly like a child woken too early from a deep nap: she’d been jolted out of her self-discovery before she was ready, and for months she was possessed by a sense of everything being unfinished. She’d taken it out on their first house after Paul landed the job he’d hoped for. She cleaned and organized until she convinced herself all was put right. In the end, what Paul offered was not marriage, but refuge; she’d had to confront neither the world nor herself in the years that followed. And what she loved was not a man, but her own easy existence, her own ticket out of responsibility and self-knowledge.
With heavy steps, she climbs the stairs and crosses back into her bedroom. She picks up the phone, the earring, and the plastic bag and carries them into the living room. These items she props up on the mantle beside her blown-glass vases like family photographs. Then she goes back downstairs and fishes out some of the photographs and letters from the first binder. These too go on the mantle. Stepping back to look at what she’s done, Annalee shudders at the thought of what her life will be now, with the ugliness of such truths strewn around her and the past stolen out from under her. Now is the pole shift, now is the evergreen forest turned to dust and the earth turned over on its side. The hopelessness of it overwhelms her like a wave, and she puts her hand against the wall for support. She has no idea what to do next.
But it occurs to her as she passes the library on her way to bed a few hours later that not all truths are born of the abyss. She switches on the light and runs her hand over the leather-bound volumes. She could take down any one of these, and read; no one can stop her except herself. She vows to choose one in the morning and force herself through the first hundred pages. She’ll at least do this. Then maybe, down the line, she’ll peer into the mirrors she’d avoided all her life, revisit her memories and set them aright. She’ll take on the burden of looking and finding and realigning, in the wild hope that the way back will one day become the way forward.