Phase Transitions
Photo by Anival Torres on Unsplash

Leaning over the kitchen counter, Allison watches the sun rise over the eastern plains of Iowa and lets her mind wander: The beginning of another week. End of summer. Beginning of fall. Change from sundresses and sunblock to sweaters and scarves. End of tornado watches, start of  blizzard watches. Another vacation season ended, another academic year begun. This time last year she was in Richmond as a guest speaker at the Faber Days literary conference, but following Alex and the sun west, she’s now in Ames and she’s pregnant. Living proof of the truth of America’s fruited plain. Ha.

She’s still listed as adjunct faculty back in Amherst, but the affiliation is more or less honorary and will end in May, by which time she expects to have her second book completed, Faulkner, Faber and O’Conner: The Shadow of Southern Gothic in Modern American Fiction. A bestseller for sure. Then maybe she’ll accept IU’s invitation to teach a graduate seminar. Or not. The six-month-old fetus inside her is already demanding attention while she tries to think. Little Diego, their son-to-be, the name their private joke.

Finally unpacked, her office is lined with crowded bookshelves and two windows facing east. Their old-new home is a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of the city. It sports a roof of solar panels, full insulation and a high-capacity EV charging port in the garage for their electric Fords. Also on the rooftop is a microwave antenna connecting Alex’s computers with his physics lab’s server farm on campus. They tell the neighbors it’s a ham radio to keep the tinfoil beanie set calm.

Allison doesn’t require any of Alex’s technology to receive texts on her cellphone, which interrupts her ramblings with its insistent buzz. She turns the phone over and reads, “Lily F died. Funeral Thursday. You must come” with a link to an obituary in the online Richmond Times-Dispatch. She becomes urgently awake, picks up the phone and calls her friend.

“Why must I come?” she says, a little testy. She’s left that phase of her life behind.

Savannah says, “Oh, hello.”

Her friend’s Southern accent immediately softens her mood. “Oh, sorry. Hello. Why should I fly back to Richmond?”

“It’s not just her funeral. Mamaw had a second stroke yesterday –”

“Oh. I am so sorry. How is she?”

Savannah sniffs, then the words come out in a rush. “Awake. Having trouble speaking. Doctor says that should come around with time but add to the weakness in her left side from the first stroke – somebody’s got to take over her B&B and there’s only us. So, we’re moving down to Atlanta ASAP. I know it’s pushing up the timeline on selling the Inn.”

Allison and Savannah co-own their own B&B, The Faber Inn. They’ve both been looking to sell.

The baby kicks and Allison gropes for a chair to sit. “Of course. You have to. What can I do to help? Do you need me to buy back your half? What about Joe’s bar?” Savannah and Joe own the tavern across the street from the Inn.

“The good news is that Fern wants it all. Bar, building, Inn, more. She wants your half, too. Hasn’t she reached out to you?” Fern is the sole survivor of her family’s generation of Fabers. In fact, she’s the last of the Fabers; her two sons are Marshalls.

“Haven’t heard a peep from her.”

“She must’ve emailed you about Lily’s funeral. She still thinks of you as part of the family.”

 “After I walked away from Faber Days last year?”


Because she’d been Bud Faber’s last love, he’d dedicated his last two novels to her and left her his house, which she and Savannah turned into a Bud-themed B&B. And because she is currently the leading Faber scholar, she’s a minor celebrity in her little corner of the little world of American Literature of the South and a regular star at the annual Faber Days celebrations. Until she walked away to follow Alex to Iowa. Who bookended the famous author phase of her life.

“Why do you think you’re done with the Fabers?”

Allison sighs. “I am done with being a semi Faber.” She hears Alex moving around in the bedroom overhead. “Lot to absorb. I’ll talk it over with Alex and let you know.”

“Don’t be too long. The funeral is Thursday and we’re moving next week.”

“Wow. So soon. Okay. Love you.”

“Love you too,” Savannah says and breaks the connection.

The idea of Richmond without Savannah disturbs her, though other than summers with Bud, she never lived there. Now, with Joe and Savannah leaving, most of Bud’s circle of friends are gone. Only Fern’s family is left.

If she sells her share of the Inn to Fern, her last link to a whole phase of her life will be gone, evaporated like hot breath on a frigid night. So, what does that matter? What could one person’s life even matter in the span of life on earth? Not Buddy’s novels or her academic books. Not even the children she leaves behind; her own mother didn’t give a damn, she just took off one day.

Allison recognizes the familiar pull of nihilism and shakes her head; what a strange mood for a woman entering her third trimester. She sighs and opens her email. Sure enough, there is a message from Fern about buying the Inn and a link to Lily’s obituary. Allison clicks on the link and reads – not so much an obituary as a news item:

Judge Lily Faber Dies

The Hon. Lily Gardiner Faber, 66, of the Richmond Circuit Court passed away last Tuesday. Judge Faber graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University Law School and received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Richmond in recognition of her support of local underserved communities. Judge Faber was Chair of the Board of Directors of the Faber Family Foundation, former Chair of the Board of the Richmond Museum of Art, Board Member of the Tuckahoe Country Club and former Chair of the Richmond Republican Club.

She was born in 1955 to Branford Faber, Jr. and the former Rose Lee Gardiner at Roselyn Plantation. Her late brother was the novelist Bud Faber. She is survived by her sister, Mrs. Fern Marshall and nephews Branford Marshall, Esq., (Tammy Jo), Michael, Jr. (Cherie) and grandniece Chiara. A memorial service will be held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Thursday next. Private interment will be at the family estate.

Fern’s email isn’t a request for her to attend the funeral, but the invitation is implicit in the fact that she’d sent it.

“What’s that?” Alex bounds into the kitchen heading for the Nespresso machine in nothing but red plaid pajama pants.

He makes her happy: wiry in a late-thirties way with a mass of unkempt curly black hair and deep-set Greek eyes. And brilliant. His quantum domain research is cutting edge, so far from her comprehension that his work chat sounds like a duck quacking.

“Look.” She passes her phone to him.

He stands over her holding a steaming espresso cup in one hand and her phone in the other and reads. “I had no idea she was such a mucky-muck.”

She takes her phone back. “Wealth and power. She had it all.”

“Except a long life.”

“The Fabers die early. Well, if you think mid-sixties is early.”

“I do.”

“Savannah and Joe are selling up and moving to Atlanta.”

“I met her that once.”

“Uh huh. And he was behind the bar across the street where you ate dinner that time.”

“Never met him.”

“Good guy, Joe. I like him a lot.”

He kisses the top of her auburn hair.

“I may have to go to Richmond.” She could have told him she was going, but she wants him to be part of the decision. He’d been jealous of her relationship with Buddy. With good cause.

“For the funeral? I thought you were done with the Fabers.” His tone is guarded, not hostile but not easy.

“I am, I am.” She gets to her feet, one hand on the table in front of her, the other on her belly. “It’s not about the funeral. I mean, I met Lily a few times but that’s all. It’s about seeing Savannah and Joe before they leave.”

“No reason you can’t visit them in Atlanta. After the baby comes, I mean.”

She knows what he’s really asking: Is she going to run out on him again for Bud Faber, even a dead Bud Faber, as she did all those years ago in Madrid? “True. But there’s also this. The remaining sister is buying the bar and Savannah’s half of the Inn.”

“You told me the only reason you’ve held on to it is because of Savannah.”

“I did. And Fern wants to buy my half, too.”

“Do you have to go to Richmond to sell it?”

 “It makes sense to do the deal in  person.” She hears defensiveness in her voice and calms herself. In her head she adds, fuck it, Alex, let the past go, I’m carrying your baby, but she says, “I want to see my friends. I’ll sell if the price is fair, but if not, I guess I’ll have to hire a realtor.”

“Is it safe for you to fly?”

 “I’m pretty sure. But I’ll check with Dr. Estrin.”

“You still happy here?”

She turns so he gets a full view of her baby bump. “We’re a family,” she says, “Trust me.”


Tall and striking in a bold Caribbean print blouse, Savannah is waiting for Allison as she exits the security area at Richmond International pulling her old, hard-sided rollaway. They embrace. Passengers from her flight flow past towards the exits.

Savannah takes Allison’s suitcase, and they start for the parking garage. “How’s Alex?”

“A little unsure of me, I’m afraid.”

“I guess you can’t blame him. In a way he sees this as a test.”

“What more does he need?”


“I love him, you know.”

“I know.”

They stop at her car.

Allison laughs. “My old Mini? You came to get me in my old Mini? How am I supposed to fit into that?”

“I’m six-two without heels and I fit in. ”

“You can bend.”

“You’re not that pregnant.” Savannah laughs and loads Allison’s rollaway into the back of the Mini.

“I’ll puke all over the vinyl.”

“I’m a mom. It’s seen worse.”

Allison squeezes into the front passenger’s seat. Savannah backs the Mini out of its parking spot.

“Another dead Faber,” Allison says, “and here I am again.”

“That’s your story with them.”

Savannah exits onto the Interstate. Rush hour is starting and traffic is backing up, so she has to concentrate on her driving. Once they are safely merged, she says, “We signed the papers on the bar and the Inn last night. Is that a problem?”

“No, I’m ready to sell, too.” Allison sighs. “It’s just taking time to get used to the idea. It’s my last physical link to him. To all of them.”


The Inn looks the same, a white house in the Federal style common to the district with a narrow front veranda, green window and door trim, a small lawn running to a sidewalk that’s buckling from the roots of the huge maple trees that lined the street. The sign out front reads “The Faber Inn,” black on white bordered with blue buds, green ferns and yellow lilies. Once again, a broad, black ribbon is tied across the sign, and Allison thinks about all the life and all the death, all the missed possibilities that are contained in that simple sign and its black ribbon.

Though she knows the place and the people well, the house that is now her Inn, the mother-daughter flower shop across the alley, Joe’s bar across the street, the ancient maples, the world of the Fabers, it is if she is seeing it all for the first time without knowing anything about what goes on inside the buildings, on the street, past or future, only the façades, pulling up to the house for the first time in her old red Miata looking for the genius who’d written ICUCMe and started a fever in her brain that still simmers. At the same time, she feels the weight of the years she’s lived in this place and the people she’s loved. A tear drips down her left cheek.

Savannah pulls the Mini into the alley between the Inn and the flower shop, then snakes the little car into a free space in back and parks. Savannah’s assistant Simone holds the rear door open for them.

“Hello, Miz Allison. We put you in the Blue Room,” Simone says. “Miz Marshall said she’d meet you for dinner across the street ‘round seven.”

“Thanks Simone. And hello to you.”

She carries Allison’s rollaway up to the guest room that was once Bud’s office, now the Blue Room, decorated with black-and-white photographs of him at work, a map of Richmond’s Fan District in 1923, a garish movie poster for Reconstruction Follies, a Civil War epic based on his first published novel featuring a young Meryl Streep inevitably wearing hoop skirt and torn bodice, though both were out of style by that time. His old desk is still there, though without the Remington manual typewriter he used or the messy piles of paper that once littered every horizontal surface.

Allison lowers herself onto the bed grunting, kicks off her shoes and swings her swollen feet up. “This room carries a lot of memories,” she says.

“I had to put you in here. All the other rooms are occupied,” Savannah says.

“Not a problem.” Allison rubs a palm over her belly. “I had some memories in this bed.”

“Long time ago now,” Savannah says.

“Not so long. This one was me and Alex,” Allison says, patting the mattress beside her.

 “In Buddy’s office? That’s making a statement.”

“Wasn’t really thinking of Buddy at the time.”

They laugh. “About the funeral. We can all go together. Tomorrow at ten.”

Allison sighs and nods. She already thinks that coming to Richmond was a bad idea, thinking of turning around and leaving for home right away, but being with her best friend is a gift.

“I’ll let you rest,” Savannah says.

“Okay.” Allison yawns and closes her eyes. “I want to call Alex and let him know what’s up.” She yawns again and shuts her eyes. “In a few.”


Allison walks through the door of Joe’s Place like she has hundreds of times before, unconsciously expecting nothing to have changed: the smell of burgers and fries; the L-shaped bar to the left, dark oak and mahogany booths to the right, four-tops running down the aisle between them; the golden-yellow overhead lights; the harsh whites and reds and blues flashing from the row of LED screens over the bar showing college football and basketball games; barstools filled with a mix of younger VCU students and older locals, same for the booths and tables.

And it is the same, except it doesn’t feel the same. It feels more impersonal. A young guy who isn’t Joe is behind the bar wearing a VCU logo tie and white shirt. A young woman wearing a striking scarlet pants suit with gold accessories on fingers and wrists is walking around, greeting patrons and acting like she owns the place. The special booth that had been Bud’s has been replaced by a four top.

A temporary sign taped to the wall over the booths to the right reads ‘Marshalls’ in serious black letters. It isn’t Joe’s Place anymore. It’s the Marshalls’. Fern has moved fast.

Two tables near the very back are pushed together. Fern is sitting at them with an open laptop and an old-fashioned glass. If anything, Allison thinks Fern looks even more imperious than she has in the past. A stocky young man in his late twenties, tieless in a blue blazer, sits beside her peering into the laptop’s screen. He looks like the kind of guy who would drive the Porsche Cayman parked out front.

Allison walks towards them feeling like a ghost floating through the room. Fern rises to greet her, holding out a hand, her signature diamond bracelets glinting.

“Allison! I had no idea you were pregnant. Congratulations!”

“Thanks! Our condolences on your sister’s passing.” She makes a point of using the plural.

If Fern notices, she doesn’t show it. “Thank you. My son Branford.”

They shake hands and Allison sits.

Fern signals to the bartender.

The young woman in the scarlet pantsuit comes over. Allison vaguely recognizes her, modest in height and trim with curly brown hair, yes, she remembers, a waitresses Joe hired about the time she and Savannah started to convert Bud’s house into a B&B.

“My daughter-in-law Tammy Jo,” Fern says. “Of the New Kent Claibornes. Bran and Tammy Jo are taking over the bar.”

“She is,” Branford says. “I  mostly work on mother’s real estate projects.”

“He’s a real estate lawyer,” Tammy Jo says.

“I remember you,” Allison says to her. Tammy Jo leaves with their orders.

Fern says, “You know I bought this place and Savannah’s half of the Inn.” Allison nods. “I want your half as well.”

“So, I understand.”

Fern swings the laptop over to her. “This is what I’m trying to do.”

The screen shows a street map of the area around them, the bar outlined in red, as is the Inn across the street. The house behind the Inn that fronts on the next street over is also outlined in red, as is the flower shop next to the Inn. A question mark fills the outline of the house immediately across the alley from the bar.

“I call it the Downtown Faber Center,” Fern says. “I bought the property behind the Inn, and we’re turning it into an extension with meeting rooms and additional guest rooms.”

“The flower shop?” Allison says.

“Knocking it down and converting it to parking.”

“If we can get a zoning waiver,” Branford says.

“If not?”

“We will,” he says. “I used to work in that office.”

“The question mark?”

Fern says, “Still negotiating with the owners. So Bran and Tammy Jo can live there.

Branford says, “We’re doing just fine in my condo.”

“Until you have children,” Fern says.

If we want children, we’ll decide where we want to live,” he says.

They exchange hard looks. Allison yearns for a G&T. The baby moves inside her.

A pair of servers in black jeans and black tee shirts bring their food and drinks. Allison drinks half her bottle of sparkling water in a single go, feeling the freed bubbles tickling her nose, and unapologetically wolfs down her ‘Spaghetti A La Joe’ with meat sauce, thinking at least something of Joe’s remains. Another ghost, another echo.

“You can see why I want your half,” Fern says, picking up the conversation as if her son’s comment never happened.

Allison nods.

Fern lays her hand on Allison’s. “I know what it means to you,” she says, “and it’s not that I don’t appreciate what you meant to my brother, I do, but –”

Allison knows she is being gently pushed aside, out of the Inn, the family, her past. She feels an impulse to push back and assert her ownership, but Fern is right; this phase of her life is over.

“– but we’ve all moved on,” Allison says. “Yes, I understand. You can have my half of the Inn for what you paid Savannah.”

“Done,” Fern says. They shake on it.

“I’ll draw up the paperwork,” Branford says.

“And you know you’ll always be welcome,” Fern says, her smile like water freezing into ice.


Later in the Blue Room Allison reports to Savannah and wonders, “Why is Fern creating yet another Faber center when there is already ” –she lifts a hand and ticks off items on her fingers– “an endowed Faber chair and Faber Days at the U, a Faber library annex at VCU, the family foundation and the estate?”

Savannah laughs delightedly. “Lily left her half of the estate to a charity run by descendants of the family’s enslaved people.”

“No. Really?”

“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? It stops Fern from moving into the family home without their permission. And they haven’t given it. But it also stops the charity from using the estate, either. Gridlock.”

“I had no idea there was bad blood between the sisters.”

“Fern’s always had a huge chip on her shoulder. I mean, a famous brother like Bud and a sister who was a judge and look who she married – Plumbing Supply King of Richmond, who, by the way, moved out on her six months ago – and now she’s as good as locked out of the home she was born in. She’s challenging the will, of course.”

Allison shakes her head at the melodrama of it all. She’s reminded of her father, Mr. RV World of Tampa. “So, this Faber Center here is her Plan B.”

“And she’s welcome to it.”

“My feeling exactly,” Allison says. She wants to talk to Alex. He’ll find some physics analogy. He always does.

Later, he doesn’t let her down. “All that energy wasted trying to stop a chemical reaction when it just speeds things up.”

“Money, dear. Money, not energy.”

“It’s an analogy,” he says. “How much did you get?”

She is pleased. He is in a good mood. “In the upper six figures.” She knows it is only a superstition not to name a number until the check is cashed, but still.

“Not that money has been a problem for us lately,” he says. “When are you coming home?”

 “After the funeral. Might as well. I’m here.”

“Oh,” he says.

She hears his disappointment. “Fitting end to the story, don’t you think?”

He says nothing.

It means nothing. He must know it means nothing.


Lily’s funeral at St. Paul’s the next day is a big draw in the city, though nothing like the international media event that was Bud’s funeral. But then, Allison thinks, Lily was a local notable not a global celebrity, and judging by the Rolexes and diamonds on display, the satisfying turnout includes the top layer of the political and business elite of Richmond. Fern was, after all, a member of one of the founding families of Virginia Colony and a sitting judge.

The exception is a substantial delegation of Black and Latinx women and men sitting together near the back. Allison remembers Lily’s obituary highlighted her philanthropic support on behalf of Richmond area minorities. Meaning she gave lots of money away. Presumably more will be forthcoming when Fern’s lawsuit is settled.

Allison sees the evidence of a public life well-lived. Yet there is no mate, no child, to mourn her. The fractured family she’s left behind doesn’t mourn her. She thinks about the family she and Buddy almost became and allows herself to feel the knot of grief at his loss that she carries before she puts it away. She glances over at Savannah and Joe seated on either side of little Aretha, willing to upend their lives to care for Savannah’s mother.

It feels more like a business meeting than a church service. Since it is a workday, the pace is brisk with no choral interludes and no invitation for people to come up to the lectern and share memories of the departed, so the service will be over in time for lunch before those in attendance have to return to work.

In the middle of the priest’s droning ritual she hears, “…Word into Flesh…” and unexpectedly she is filled with a weightless glow: Within herself she is the embodiment of the dead past and the unborn future, of memory and the unknowable. Then the moment is gone, and she slumps, sweating and exhausted.

Savannah turns to her, concerned. She wipes her face and reassures Savannah with a smile. She’s felt a transcendental moment like this once before, standing in front of the Velasquez painting in the Prado with Bud’s novel in her hand, a conduit of elemental forces.

The receding tide of feeling rushes back once more and floods her with vast, oceanic love for the child she carries. She gasps. Tears stream down her face. Then feeling recedes again. Her heartbeat slows and she re-enters the world of Lily’s funeral, but she has changed, the love for her child remains, an undertone to every thought, every moment.

The casket is whisked away, and the organ plays a recessional, and Lily’s life on earth is over.

Allison texts Alex: On my way home.

About the Author

Peter Alterman

I’ve published science fiction, literary fiction, mainstream fiction and literary criticism. A complete bibliography is at