by Finola Prendergast
I didn’t notice the girl on the curb till I had already pulled up beside her.
The sun had yet to rise. Night blacked the glass of the car windows except where the snowdrifts were glowing. Behind me the 7-Eleven glowed like a squat idol in forest green and orange. The girl was standing inside the streetlamp’s cone of light and giving the road a thumbs-up. The light had a theatrical effect, leaching reality from her. Her neon lipstick printed a sexy cartoon mouth, two-dimensional as a vintage poster, on the air before her. Her thumbnail was a perfect oval. But a thin rim of dirt split that oval where nail met quick and she was dressed wrong for the cold: grimy sneakers, jeans thready at the knees and cuffs, a thin white tee. A cut of uneven width, sickle-shaped, curled across her temple. It had missed her eyeball by millimeters, snagging the fleshy edge of her lower eyelid and pulling it down. The asymmetry made her face melancholy, clownish. Breath ghosted between her cartoon lips and vanished.
I came to a stop and she gave me the side-eye as if to say: You asshole, are you going to pick me up or what?
I rolled down the window. ‘Where are you going?’
She bent over to peer at me. Somehow I knew she was deciding whether I was dangerous—a rapist, for instance, or a serial killer with his last victim still cooling in the trunk. I sat up. I had never had the opportunity to find out if I had the face of a rapist or serial killer. It seemed important. I used to think that our purest perceptions of other people came when we first glimpsed a stranger. Without preconceived notions of his personality or history, we would see a glimpse of his face as the thing it was. It sounds like pretentious bullshit, I know. I came up with the idea during my sophomore year of college, back when I was smoking too much pot and propounding materialist philosophy.
But variations on the idea had come back to me several times since then. Last time it recurred was the first time I met Duncan. I had been lurking outside Maggie’s apartment building. We had had a fight at dinner the night before, about our father’s funeral. We had escalated nearly to shouting before Maggie shot to her feet, laid her napkin beside her half-eaten Cornish hen and left the restaurant.
When handing me the check, the waiter, a teenager with a discreet eyebrow stud, told me to buy her flowers. ‘Don’t dismiss it because it’s a cliché. My girlfriend says that’s why it works. They know that you know that flowers are for when you fuck up big-time.’ I told him I wasn’t sure the gesture would translate, because the woman who had just left was my sister. He blushed enormously.
Outside the apartment building the next morning, I had just decided to buzz Maggie and apologize when Duncan knocked into me. His shoulder clipped mine as I waffled in front of the videophone. It knocked me forward; I slammed my forearm into the brick wall, to prevent my head from doing the same. I had seen photographs of Duncan on Maggie’s Facebook page, candid shots that lopped off an arm or an ear and made his face oily and sunburned. He was in a few posed pictures as well, in which he and Maggie and their friends from the construction firm clutched one another’s shoulders and grinned out from the rigid center of the frame. He hadn’t struck me particularly, though. I’m not sure I recognized him right away.
‘Sorry, man,’ he said when I had righted myself. He had turned his face toward mine and I saw him entirely. A broad and lineless forehead beneath hair like straw. Dark eyes so widely set he seemed to look in two directions at once. Flat cheekbones. A large nose with large nostrils. A lantern jaw. Each feature of his face taken individually seemed designed to indicate masculine strength of the superheroic kind. But the lantern jaw hung a little slack, the dark eyes a little unfocused; his thin lips had a complacent looseness. Immediately the beige head of a bull, blunt teeth working over a moist bolus, superimposed itself on his shoulders: It had the same pleased bestiality.
‘No problem,’ I said. I turned away from the videophone, from Maggie’s apartment building, thinking meat, meat. … Eventually I apologized to her, over the phone so I wouldn’t have to see her face.
So when, after a long moment, the hitchhiker girl shrugged and walked around the hood of my car to open the passenger-side door, I felt something like relief unlock in my chest.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked again.
‘Wherever,’ she said. The word came from her chest rough and vibratory, as from the chest of a chain smoker or jazz singer. No doubt she had practiced the voice.
‘Buckle your seat belt,’ I said.
During the first hour of driving, she asked me two questions:
‘Can I have some coffee?’ I said yes. Her lipstick left a faint stain on the lid. The next time I took a sip, I flicked my tongue against the stain before tilting coffee down my throat. I was thinking about her cartoon mouth, how frankly unreal it seemed; I tasted a trace of wax.
‘What’s in the crib?’ She jerked her thumb toward the back seat. There indeed sat a crib, massive and delicate as stratocumuli. The pale blue bars were touched with gold at the edges. I had picked this crib from a dozen with the same heavenly coloring. Good parents keep their infants trailing clouds of glory for as long as possible, I suppose.
‘I’m bringing it to a baby,’ I said. I intended the answer ironically, but she nodded as if she had suspected as much.
I placed the girl in her late teens. Once you got past the starlet’s makeup and the sickle-shaped cut, you could see the baby fat rounding her cheeks. Her hair must have been dyed: It looked like black licorice. There was a circular scar above the cut on her temple, from chicken pox, maybe, or a bug bite whose scab she had picked. I could hear her breath over the whir of the car engine. It came irregularly, as if every few rounds she forgot to inhale and then had to catch up. She smelled like snow, deodorant, cereal, oil, sweat.
We had been driving down I-84 a while when she said, ‘I like your car. Bold color.’
The sun had risen. It floated, blood orange and fat, over the spears of pine. The light throbbed in my eyes. I wanted badly to crawl into the dark of my own bed, where I could close my eyes and leave behind the world of people and objects, the body that forced me into a series of actions and an identity that I didn’t want to accept, didn’t want responsibility for. I resented her artificial voice.
‘It’s a rental,’ I told her.
‘Too bad,’ she said absently. She was staring at something in front of her. The cartoon mouth contracted.
‘What are you looking at?’
She stretched out an arm and trailed her fingers down the windshield. A greenish bruise swelled the webbing between her thumb and forefinger. ‘Rental company didn’t clean it too well,’ she said. ‘You’ve got streaky wiper fluid all over the place.’
I squinted. She was right: Dried fluid shot the glass with veins, like the capillaries that appear behind your eyes when you close them against a too-bright light. The windshield seemed to advance on me. Focusing on a roadside tree, I blinked it away.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
Drawing a knee to her chest, she planted a dirty boot heel on the lip of her seat. The leather squeaked. She cut me a canny glance through her eyelashes. ‘Alice,’ she said. Liar.
She laughed. The neon lips slid back to expose her teeth, which were off-white and slick with spit. ‘I will. I think I’ll call you Mister Sarco. I had a substitute teacher named that once. The school hired him after our real biology teacher got pregnant.’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He got fired,’ she said, with relish. In her mouth ‘fired’ had two long, singsong syllables: fiiii-yerrrd.
Alice stretched, back arching, arms rising over the headrest. Her knuckles bumped the ceiling. I could see the rib cage beneath her thin shirt straining out and up. Her ribs, spread like that, looked like wings in search of wind. The scant curve of her abdomen islanded the fabric near the hem. The pattern on her bra (leopard-print) pressed through the white. Did she intend this display as an answer?
Like a rubber band, she snapped back into her slacker’s hunch. Hugging her knee, she said, ‘Some Christian parents got him fired. He was teaching us stuff like, people are just the chemicals in their brains. Neurons firing. One time this girl—her name was Carmella Bradley—she asked him if we had souls. He said no. He said that, effectively speaking, we were just meat.’
‘Do you believe him?’
‘Sure.’ She smirked thinly. ‘I’m an animal. Genus Homo, family Hominidae. I remember that much from class.’
We were passing into New Hampshire. Snow bunched over the dirt along the highway guardrails. Up ahead, a lumber truck turned a curve and disappeared behind a stand of leafless ash. No one had appeared in the rearview for miles. If I turned on the radio now, I wouldn’t find voices through the static. The sun had paled as it climbed, winter daylight bleaching the sky, the road, the flesh of my hands on the steering wheel. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’m Mister Sarco.’
Alice watched me with irises so dark they each seemed one huge and blooming pupil. Her arms tightened around her knee. For a minute we listened to the muffled engine and the air parting and streaming around the body of the car. I was waiting for her to correct me, or tell me to let her off at the next exit.
‘Yeah,’ she said, solemnly as if making a promise. ‘You’re Mister Sarco for sure. But you don’t teach science, not anymore. You’re a …’
‘I’m a foreman,’ I said.
‘A foreman. I’m in charge of a construction crew. We’re building a gym.’
Alice tilted her head and, reviewing this, nodded. ‘One of those swanky places, with a sauna and masseuses and shit. They’ll give yoga classes. None of your constructions guys could work out there.’
‘You’re right. But they don’t need to.’
‘They don’t need a gym to stay in shape, not with the work they do—the physical labor dumbbells and treadmills are aping.’
‘They don’t just take their bodies out for a spin twice a week. They live in them.’
Alice snorted. ‘Yeah, like everybody else. But OK.’
We had reached the stand of ash. Up close, you could see thick curls of bark peeling from the trees. They looked chapped and old. Even so, they had a bony grandeur, like the fossils of whales and other huge, accidental creatures. I took the curve around them easily.
‘I’m the daughter of one of your construction worker pals,’ she told me. ‘Wait, no. You’re not old enough. I’m his sister.’
‘Is that so?’ I said.
‘Uh huh. I don’t think he knows you drive me places, though.’
‘He knows. In fact, he asked me to give you a ride today.’
‘Oh, yeah? Where?’
‘To your audition.’ She would enjoy that. ‘He’d have driven you himself, but his car is in the garage. It won’t start, he has no idea why. Remember?’
She snickered. ‘Yeah. Can’t believe I forgot. I sure hope the mechanics can sort him out. And in the meantime, you’re driving me aaaall the way down to NYC so I can get my big break on, like, Broadway. Sure you’re not wasting your time?’
‘I’ve heard you’re talented.’
Sputtering laughter, she kicked the dashboard. ‘Fuck you, I’m so talented. What I mean is, Mister Sarco, you don’t seem to be getting much out of it.’
‘I was headed this way anyway.’
‘And you brought me along out of, what, the goodness of your heart?’ Her cartoon mouth curled in scorn.
‘No, I guess not.’ I saw no point in insisting otherwise: She would never believe me. Worse, she would find the lie contemptible and hate me. It meant something to me that she didn’t hate me. This game of make-believe we were playing—it felt, strangely, like the camaraderie of two children who had broken their father’s vase and were telling each other the fictions necessary to keep from crying: He won’t be mad, he never liked it anyway, we can hide it. I hoped to God, actually prayed, that her cut was an accident and she had somewhere to stay where she was stopping.
‘Pull over at this exit,’ she said.
It didn’t sound like a time-out. I guess that’s all it is, though. I turned the wheel, hand over hand.
The night before, I hadn’t slept—suffering from an unease that kept me pacing the cracked linoleum floor of my apartment’s kitchen. As I paced, I ate stale marshmallows from the bag and wished I could stop believing in God.
I had tried to stop, had closed my eyes and imagined my body unintentional, soulless—soul a myth the ignorant used to explain the evolutionarily contingent phenomenon of consciousness. The thought resonated in my mind at the same frequency as other intriguing and obviously counterfactual propositions. At the same time, something in my body—a tension in my head and back and stomach—always heaved the thought away against my conscious wishes. I was as unable to deny God as I was to deny my own inadequacy, but He was unbearable so I kept trying. I had performed the thought experiment a dozen times in the past few years. Each time it left me exhausted, eyes gritty and smarting, but too restless to sleep more than three or four hours before waking dumbly in the alienated gray light of predawn.
Inside Saint Catherine’s, the temperature dropped 10 degrees. I hadn’t entered a church in three years, but the chill air, heavy with frankincense, produced its effect: Guilt and jilted resentment settled in my stomach like a stone.
At the far end of the anteroom, a woman was examining the pictures of old parish priests hung along wall. Her boyish haircut bared a white neck. Though small, she was well proportioned, like a mannequin built not quite to size. She wore a long monkish dress that swept the floor, but under its hem winked orange Converse. Startled, I laughed.
She turned and it was Maggie.
As always, she disoriented me. Not that we looked so much alike—she had darker hair than anyone in the family, and lighter eyes, and her face was cheekily round. But she cocked her head at my angle, and stood with her weight in her heels, with my attitude of digging trenches. Only her birdlike grace, something I’d always lacked, kept me from believing that I could inhabit two places at once.
In a few quick steps, kicking her long skirt forward, she had reached me and flung her arms round my neck.
‘Hey, bro,’ she muttered to my sternum. ‘Long time no see.’
The church had infused her hair with its ambient incense, which mixed strangely with her coconut shampoo. The smell tickled my nose and I suppressed a sneeze.
‘I’d forgotten how short you are,’ I told her.
She snorted. ‘You’ve been waiting to say that all day.’
She stepped back to examine me. Her hands still gripped my shoulders, holding me literally at arm’s length. I became sharply aware of the differences in her. She had gained weight from the pregnancy: Her face was fuller, her collarbone softer. In high school, counselors and doctors used to drop hints about Maggie’s potential anorexia; some guys told her she looked like a little kid, others that she was stunning. Now that there was more of her, her aggressive bones hidden, she looked paradoxically smaller. Like any young mother, unnoticeable.
When we had finished examining each other, Maggie and I had identical deflated looks, like twin soufflés left too long on the counter. It seemed as though three years of faceless phone calls weren’t enough to efface my anger or to let Maggie forget how to see it.
‘Well, do I pass muster?’ I asked, not without an edge. I couldn’t have said whether I was fishing for reassurance or trying to provoke her.
She hesitated. For a panicked second I thought she had smelled something on me. ‘You’ve looked better.’
‘Yeah, you too.’
She began to giggle. After a second, I joined her. Our overlapping laughter unlocked the tension between us. It acknowledged the necessary truth: We were angry and tired and in some interminable adult fight about God-knew-what and we didn’t know how to fix it. But here we were anyway.
‘At least I have an ass now,’ Maggie said. ‘Did you bring the crib?’
‘Yeah, it’s in the car.’
‘Thanks.’ She let out another giggle. ‘You should see the one Duncan tried to assemble. By the time he gave up it looked like one of those wretched public sculptures no one understands. He’s hopeless sometimes.’
I could imagine. ‘Where is he?’
‘Inside with Mom. It’s about time to join them, actually. Game face?’
She grabbed my hand. Pulling me up the nave and into the side aisle, her sweaty fingers gripped mine with the same complicity as, when we were kids, we had crept from our tight-mouthed, kneeling mother into one of the side chapels, where we hid among the foldout chairs and talked to God out loud.
The church looked identical to itself three years ago, a few months after the funeral, when Maggie was getting married and I was giving her away. The kneelers were still upholstered with thinning red velvet, the pews stippled with wax from a century of Easter Vigils. Stained-glass martyrs loomed large in every window. Behind the altar, Saint Catherine, head reattached with spiritual glue, surveyed the nave with calm, distant eyes and patted her broken wheel.
Mom had pitched camp in the fourth pew from the altar. Beside her, Duncan was presiding over the baby, which gurgled into his chest. I dropped Maggie’s hand to wave her into the pew, so that she could stand between him and me. I didn’t want to speak to him, or to my mother, particularly. But I hadn’t seen Duncan since the wedding, and my mother in almost as long. Maggie was stabbing me with little glances. In a moment she would elbow me in the ribs—hard, and obviously.
I leaned over, affected a whisper. ‘Hey, Mom, Duncan. How’ve you been?’
‘My construction team just finished the gym, which is good, because we’ve had our hands full with the baby,’ Duncan said immediately, in a stage whisper louder than my speaking voice. ‘She’s great, but she likes to pee herself in the middle of the night and wake up screaming. Did you bring the crib?’
‘Like I said I would.’
‘Great,’ said Maggie, patting Duncan’s arm.
‘Did you use the back parking lot?’ Mom asked. ‘Because we share the front lot with Murray’s, and if they have too many customers you could get towed.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ve been here before.’
“You knew this Father Colin guy, right?” Duncan asked me.
‘He’s been our parish priest for ages,’ Maggie said. ‘Since Father Galvin died. I was—man, how old was I?’
‘Third grade,’ I said.
‘So you would have been 6 or 7. Father Galvin, wow.’ Maggie looked up at Duncan. Did she ever get a crick in her neck? My mind flitted to the logistics of their sex life and flinched away, as from a hot stove or pictures of a donkey show— too painful and vile to consider. ‘You saw his photo, babe. It’s on the wall in the anteroom.’
‘Oh, he’s the one that looked like a skeleton.’
‘He probably still does,’ I said.
Duncan snapped his fingers and whispered happily: ‘See, that’s where I was going. The man looked like a real priest, you know—bony, no lips. A real sackcloth and ashes guy. Whereas this Father Colin—he has a belly, and one of those florid faces. It won’t look as good in the photos, hey, honey?’ Duncan beamed, pleased with his wit.
‘He’s baptizing our daughter,’ said Maggie.
‘I’m just kidding around. It’s a baptism no matter who dunks her, right?’
‘We just pour water over their heads, these days,’ I said.
‘It matters that you take it seriously,’ Maggie told him.
At the end of the pew, Mom was screwing up her mouth. She disapproved of Duncan’s spiritual airiness. He was a perfect son-in-law for her otherwise.
‘I take it seriously,’ he was saying, cow eyes wide.
‘Go easy on him,’ I said. ‘He didn’t practice much growing up, right? You can’t expect him to have learned all his lines yet.’
I nearly recoiled from the envy and rancor in my own voice. Like me, Duncan was sealed in a world of blind flesh and sin and failure. Unlike me, he didn’t suffer from it. He didn’t even notice.
Of course, he thought I was taking his side. He winked at me over Maggie’s head. Maggie just whispered, ‘And you’d know all about practice.’ Then she turned her face from mine.
By now parishioners were rustling and murmuring into place. As the sun shifted, the nave filled with grainy light and the rose window washed us in color. I began surreptitiously to dye my hand with green, with blue, with red.
Father Colin processed down the aisle with his ministers; the organ rolled. And also with you rolled from my mouth and all the mouths around me. As the Mass progressed, I saw rites performed and I seemed to be seeing every performance of those rites that I had ever attended. I felt as if every second of my life were folded inside my ribs like the pleats of an accordion. Maggie wrapped a cold hand round my wrist. She hadn’t forgiven me, but she felt it too, and she wanted me to know.
Mom and Duncan stood up.
‘Come on,’ Maggie told me.
The four of us walked down the main aisle to the baptismal font. The font was a block of granite, 3 feet high, carved into the shape of a squat chalice. Maggie and I had been baptized over it. Mom claimed it was impossible, but I had always remembered my baptism: the rough nail of the priest’s thumb scraping a cross on my forehead, the cold splash of water, the dark ceiling, the noises ghosting over me.
Father Colin walked down the aisle to join us. He had the same straight back and advancing belly, the same labored breathing that had replaced dying Father Galvin’s two decades ago. What in his jowly face could still summon a phantom of awe?
‘What name do you give your child?’
Maggie was nearly levitating. Duncan’s paw on her shoulder seemed the only thing preventing her from floating up and bumping the Gothic Revival arches like a freed balloon. ‘Alma Brooke Adler,’ she and Duncan chorused, a little out of sync.
The accordion in my chest sucked shut. Its pleats flattened, back to back to back. I was back inside the bathroom of that Exxon gas station. A light bulb was buzzing above my head. The floor smelled of urine and air freshener. The fronts of my thighs bumped the lip of the sink. The girl’s heel was digging into the small of my back. Our foreheads touched, gently, and when she cursed through her locked teeth, her breath struck my face. I had never felt so close to anyone, so understood. It had felt like a blessing.
‘Hey, hey,’ Maggie was whispering, there at the font. She had never released my wrist. She was squeezing it now in a clammy grip, which felt not so much like flesh as an incarnate reminder.
Duncan turned nervously to us, as if he sensed a mistake.
‘… by loving God and our neighbor. Do you clearly understand what you are undertaking?’ asked Father Colin.
‘We do,’ Maggie said.