Exquisite Corpse

By LAUREN GROFF

My wife has always been a kind woman, but during the six months when I was in prison, her kindness grew to be a firm, beating thing. She called me every day and sent small and constant gifts. She brought our children to visit, and the kids soon lost their fury and held their smiles behind their palms, watching me with a kind of incredulous wonder. My wife was so graceful in the newspaper photographs and interviews, shining on me so much of her own quiet light, that by the time I was released I was more a figure of pity, even a scapegoat, than the monster I’d been painted as throughout the trial.

And so, when I was released, I took her on a trip to Hawaii to thank her, to say how sorry I was. I chose a quiet resort that catered to the camera-sore. We had a private beach, a banana tree, a bed so large we could barely swim to meet in the middle. During the day, my wife grew tan and supple under massages given by pretty young women with hyacinths in their hair. Because of my bad heart, I was no longer allowed too much of anything, sun, food, exercise, and so I read my books and magazines in the fluttery cabana on our private beach. We skirted one another, shy as newlyweds, nuzzling lamblike in the late afternoons, excessively kind. I couldn’t stop looking at her. How marvelous she looked: young and dimpled and lean, far too beautiful to be mine.
In the evenings we dined in a restaurant where an entire vast wall was a blacklit aquarium, in which jellyfish glowed like ghosts or memories, ethereal and balletic. As they passed over the lights, their shadows would fill our faces, and those brief, cool darknesses felt like a kind of salve.

There on our little island, I felt myself moving toward a kind of peace. Despite what I had thought before I put on those orange pajamas, prison is not really something oppressive outside of you, binding you, keeping you down. It is a coil within you, tightening every day, liable to snap wild at any moment. In those moments when I watched my wife’s smile or the gentle lap of the curtain on the sun-rich sand, I felt a slow loosening and was glad.

On our final night at the hotel, we drank a little too much at dinner. It was windy, and the roar of the surf was so musical, an entire orchestra of timpanis, that we were tempted out onto the beach with our shoes in our hands and a bottle of champagne. During the day, our beach was as blonde and groomed as a socialite, but it turned wild and raging in the darker hours. The wind gnashed against my wife’s bare legs and pushed us out of the protective glow of the resort and into the thick black night. We laughed and shouted over the noise, seeing the other as only a slightly thicker darkness in all the other dark.

We walked on, maybe for a mile or so, and I would have happily kept walking until we came to the end of the island, but my wife gave a shout: a piece of sand had blown into her eye. I stepped close to look, to see what I could do, though her entire face couldn’t have been more than a silvery outline in the light of the skinny moon. I reached my hand up to touch her. She wasn’t expecting to be touched, though, and in her surprise she smacked me across the cheek.

It must have felt good to smack me, to let something in her break, because she began to hit me in earnest. She screamed at me, things I would never have guessed she’d be able to say, gross cusses from a woman who never allowed slang from our children. She said terrible, howling, venomous words, words she couldn’t take back had she wanted to. I stood, pummeled by the wind and the sand and my wife’s fists until she was spent and dragged herself back over the sands, toward the far glow of the resort. I followed at a distance, following even when she had disappeared into the lobby and up the elevator, where I rode alone in all that glossy wood and brass.

When I reached the room, my wife was already in bed, pretending to sleep, but weeping under her eyeshades. I have never been able to bear the weeping of women. I went into the bathroom and had a hot shower, coming into bed only when my muscles were soft from the heat and I was sure my wife had cried herself to sleep. For a moment, I remembered the old injunction to never let the sun go down on an argument, but

I thought better of waking her up to finish what she had started. What, in truth, I had started years ago.
We slept that night back to distant back in the enormous bed, under the one white sheet. It was warm and humid, despite the wind. In the middle of the night, one of us, I suppose, began to feel that the other was stealing most of the sheet and pulled it even tighter, claiming more. There must’ve been a series of reprisals, because when dawn cracked itself in window, I awoke, sweating, having stolen such lengths of sheet in the night that I was wrapped tight as a mummy. My wife was also wrapped up, her face only six inches from mine, looking weary and sad, watching me wake.

When I looked at her face a memory rose, a strange one, of my girlfriend from high school whom I hadn’t thought of in years, a girl who was deaf and had a great cockroach of a hearing aid stuck to her otherwise lovely head. Unlike hearing people, she used her eyes to their greatest expressive extent, and when I kissed her delicate lids, it felt as if my lips were touching the seat of her soul. I think everybody has a place like this on his or her body; I think a true lover knows where it is. I looked at my wife and slowly kissed where her forehead met her nose. When I backed away, she was crying. I worked my hand out of the tight sheet, and helped to extract my wife from her own chrysalis. When she emerged she was herself again in the bright morning, and I watched her, and remembered what it was like to have hope.

*

I have always been a man of ambition and expectation, not of hope. My father was a man of hope. Perhaps this has something to do with his Old Amish upbringing, or perhaps the fact that he escaped the farm, the butter-churns and farmy smells and funny clothing. For him, there will always be something marvelous outside the realm of what he knows. Until just recently when he had a bad stroke, my father, deep into his eighties, worked twelve-hour days in his greenhouses, his great barrel of a body moving glacially but always getting the job done. If that’s not hopeful, I don’t know what is.

I love to imagine him in his greenhouses, hands deep in the dark soil of a fern, looking up to the light through the damp glass above. After he left his God and his kin in Lancaster County, moments like those, he told me, had become his entire faith.

But when he left the Amish for good at sixteen, it was his second departure. The first was when he was very young, about four, when my grandfather carried his sons and my grandmother away into the Englischer world. My grandmother was a sad, dark, tremulous woman not suited to modern times: she couldn’t speak English, and the train that roared on the tracks twenty feet from their little house turned her wobbly with fear. Within months my grandfather abandoned them and my grandmother, having turned her back on her family, felt she couldn’t go home again. In the hard, frightening outside, as the four boys’ needs pressed on her, she lost her power to move. At last she broke and took her sons on a bus to an orphanage.

It was an evangelical Christian place: an old converted summer camp of splintered wood and blistered paint and great angry clouds of dust. There was a baseball field with a fringe of grass near the fence that my father sat on when he played outfield; he smoothed it with the palms of his hands the way his mother had smoothed his hair at night. There were long hours of praying on hard wooden benches, and weak, porridgey food, and worms spread from bare foot to bare foot, and kerosene and cropped hair for the lice. The other orphans, skinny, furtive children, at first bewildered my father. But he was the youngest of the brothers and had the same wide-open round face and sweet blue eyes as he does now. He was irresistible. Always a ladies’ man, he even charmed the life-bitten women who cared for them, and they snuck him bits of candy and pressed them to their hard bosoms, their blouses smelling of urine and sweat. Even the boys, quick to violence, left him alone, though how much that had to do with his eldest brother, ten at the time and blessed with enormous shoulders and very hard fists, my father never knew.

After nine months, a terrible long winter, a buggy appeared in the orphanage’s yard. The boys’ grandfather climbed down, stern and bearded as God. They made the trip back to Lancaster over that cold spring night, the horse plodding along over the shoulder of the highway, ballooning breath into the air. When at last they came into the farmyard in the morning, my grandmother was there, opening her arms, tears on her face. She was sinew and bone, had lost teeth over the interim, had grown dark rings under her eyes. The boys saw this evidence of her repentance and forgave her.

Still, the orphanage had turned my three uncles angry, all three of them eventually, like my father, leaving their people. My eldest uncle became a lawyer and prosecuted wrongdoers with the zeal of the righteous, jurisprudence the hard fist of the adult world. When I was in pre-law in college and had a job with him over the summer, I asked him about his nine months in the orphanage. He told me that it had been a living hell, a place where the weakest were taken to the infirmary and never seen again, where teasing was vicious and the prayers were worse. His face grew dark as he told me, his hands began to shake. He cut short the conversation and for a full day was so furious with me I practically hid to get out of his way, and shortly thereafter changed my major to business.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I could ask my father how the orphanage had been for him. We had just warily connected again after years of my anger after he abandoned my own mother when I was eight. He’d offered me a summer job in his greenhouses in silent hope and I’d accepted. We were potting zinnias that day. I said out of nowhere, “Do you remember that orphanage when you were little?” and my father looked at me and smiled, fondly.

“Oh, it was a nice place,” he said, in his Pennsylvania Dutch accent. “I thought it was summer camp! My brothers sure didn’t. But, then again, I was the only one who knew our mother would come back for us. Loved us deep, she did. I knew that.”

This, from a man who had suffered from lice, whose belly had screamed from hunger, who had seen his brothers bloodied by other boys. In that moment, as he delicately lowered a zinnia into a pot, I realized how my father had been able to abandon my mother and me, this man who himself had understood how abandonment felt. It was blind optimism that had let him leave his family for a wild red-haired woman in South Florida: the belief that we would be all right, in the end. He held the capacity for hope so deeply until nothing in the world held horror, until it was all another version of summer camp.

*

After my father left us, my mother spent a year buried in some dark place within herself. I would come home to a cold house, the sound of sobbing. I’d warm her some soup, brush back her greasy hair, feed myself. She came through that era with work, transforming herself into a careerwoman, a designer, filling the homes of her friends with majolica jardinières and fancy bibelots. She was suddenly so busy she had to park me after school with an old couple down the street named Gil and Flo. Their house must have been the carriage house of the manor behind it because it was in miniature, neat, very white, exactly like the old people themselves. They were gentle and had little bodies round as potatoes and identical loose dentures that clattered in their mouths. I called them, as a couple, Glo.

They delighted in me but despaired in how to entertain a nine-year-old, and so after my homework we sat down to the serious business of amusement. They taught me euchre, canasta, bridge. We played Exquisite Corpse, in which each of us started our own drawing of a body part, and after three minutes on Flo’s egg timer we folded the paper until it covered all but a snippet of what we’d drawn. Then we’d pass it to the next person and try to add on to what we were given. In this way, piece by piece, our three hands drew monsters; many-limbed, no-headed creatures, or beasts that had eight staring eyes on their chests, because eyes were my talent.

They also told me stories, quieting me with gingersnaps, cookies I despised, but that Flo had so lovingly arranged on the good willow plate that I felt compelled to eat them. It was the price of the game: I slid disc by disc dutifully into the slot of my mouth, and listened to the scratchy, tinny old-time movie music that filled each story. The best was how they had met: World War One, she a nurse, he a soldier. She was an old maid by then, she’d said, and despaired at ever finding love. One morning, a fine, bright spring day arose. When Flo leapt up into a truck full of wounded men she came across a boy with hundreds of bleeding holes in his chest.

“Shrapnel,” said Gil proudly, pulling his shirt from his belted slacks, up over his paunch, to his chest where scars glistened among the white thickets of hair.

“Just flesh wounds,” said Flo, laughing her strange silent laugh, the dentures in her mouth click-clacking. She looked at Gil, flushed so prettily that I forgot for a moment how very old she was and fell a little in love with her myself.

Their courtship consisted of long, foggy visits in some stony English village where Gil recuperated. Back in America, Gil taught, and Flo sold tissue-paper carnations she made by hand, clearing it all away from the kitchen table when she heard Gil’s footsteps coming home to her.

When I grew old enough to care for myself, I stopped going to Glo’s after school. I visited them at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, my birthday, their birthdays, bringing presents—fancy jam or some glossy tchotchke from my mother’s storage room. We never played canasta or Exquisite Corpse again. In college, my visits decreased to one per year, usually at Christmas. They seemed grateful enough for that, crying out their joy when I rang their bell, feeding me the perpetual gingersnaps and thin coffee. I left Glo there in that little house like bond certificates in a bank, feeling that I could pull them out whenever I needed them, though I never ended up doing so.

One holiday during my senior year of college, just after I saw my wife for the first time (library; hair cut short; reading a novel and smiling her lovely, queer smile), my mother called me into her library. She set her cup of tea on the table and touched the lace of her collar.

“Darling,” she began. “I have something to tell you.”

Gil had died last week in his sleep, she said. She hadn’t wanted to tell me during my exams.

Then her voice dropped and she said, “But, you know, they discovered something very odd.” Gil had been living two lives. He had another family in the next town over, children and all. He hadn’t even been married to Flo, but to the other wife. He saw Flo after work, and returned to the other woman in the middle of the night. It was, she assured me, a great scandal. My mother’s hand shook.

I didn’t know what to say.

My mother waited. Her Waterford clock ticked.

At last, she murmured, “If only I’d known. I would never have sent you there.” Then she lost control of herself and spat,  “Wicked.” She raised her face to me, and I was startled. I was used to her sadness, but this sudden sharp anger was unfamiliar to me. She was ugly. I wanted to go to her and put my arm around her shoulder, to tell her I understood that she wasn’t mad at Gil. The boy I had been could have done so, but I was a man now, and too old for her comfort. I cursed my father in my heart.

When she was gone to a party that evening, I took my present for Glo from under the Christmas tree. It was a designer tin of gingersnaps, in my mother’s hand-stamped paper. I went out the door and down the street where I knocked, waited, and knocked again, until at last Flo came to the door. She looked like a squeezed lemon, all yellow rind. She sighed and silently let me in.

When we were sitting in our usual spots, she said, “You’ve heard.”

I nodded.

“I suppose you’re wondering why.”

I didn’t say anything, just looked at her thick part, the browning lenses of her glasses.

She pushed a pile of napkins across the table with her knuckles. “I had no choice. They were all true, you know, all those things we told you. But we came back home in quite a pickle. He loved his children, couldn’t leave them. I loved him, couldn’t leave him. And so there we were,” she said. “Trapped.”

I looked around in the long silence then, saw the walls bare, the boxes in the corner. “Where are you going?”

“Selling this old cage,” she said. “Moving to an old person home in Florida to die. Good riddance,” and she looked around the little cottage with tears in her eyes.

“Oh, Flo,” I said, and felt strange in my body, as if someone else’s limbs had been tacked to my torso. I didn’t know what to do. I handed the old woman her present and watched her gnarled hands rip the paper.

She began laughing, her dentures shifting when she opened her mouth.

“Gingersnaps,” she said. “Gil was the one who loved gingersnaps, honey,” and she thrust them back at me.

That is the last time I saw Flo. I gave her a kiss on her wrinkled-satin cheek, and left the little white cottage for good, the price of admission still in my hands.

*

We can’t always choose what we love, or what we can’t love. All my life I have been surrounded by people who would have loved otherwise, if they could: my mother who loved my father, my father who loved the red-haired woman, my uncles who loved their mother, Flo. My wife. Me. When I began to make money, a lot of it, I protested that I didn’t love it, I loved the life that came with money, I loved the good I could do with it, I loved the color and vibrancy and music that it brought into the world. In the end, in that small gray prison cell, the only music my heart’s slick swish in my ears, I realized how wrong I was.

Because my wife was right. I did love money. I loved it more than my wife, more than my children. Somewhere between this love and my denial of it, I stole from the stockholders an amount so enormous it has made hoary old judges laugh in surprise. I buried it in offshore accounts the way a dog buries a bone. We lived modestly, in the three-bedroom we’d bought fifteen years before, in one of the less chic neighborhoods of Greenwich. Our modesty became a kind of ostentation. My wife reviewed books and cooked gourmet dinners and worried when I gained weight and scheduled doctor’s appointments. My children learned to speak, walk, read, play ball sports. All the while, I was stealing. I would kiss my wife every morning and say goodbye, that I loved her. And then go off to my real life with money.

This is why I don’t blame either my wife or my heart for faltering. I was faithless. I was a sick man, and in prison I became even sicker. I was released early because they were alarmed that I would die in the hopper. I’m now waiting for a new heart, a new life for this time-bound body. It may come. It may very well not. Without work, with my undiscovered money silently growing in a dark bank account in Switzerland, I have nothing to do but wait. This morning, I looked up from my paper to find my children and my wife all watching me, something stricken in their faces. Then life started up again: the kids’ friends pulled up, blaring hip hop into the morning, honking; they slid from the table, kissed me on the cheek, grabbed their bags, ran out. After they left, my wife stood there, leaning against the counter, one wild strand of gray hair springing toward the sun.

And I looked at her, that body I knew so well enclosed in those fine new clothes, that pretty face made up so carefully, closed tight so that whatever going on behind it was kept from me. She placed her mug carefully into the sink and pushed away from the counter like a swimmer setting off for a lap, moving beyond me, from the bright-lit kitchen into the dark of the living room to fetch her handbag.

It was then that I began to understand: those clothes, that makeup, the yoga, none of it was for me. They were for someone else. I didn’t know long it had been going on. I still don’t. Perhaps since before I was indicted, perhaps starting while I was in prison. For one moment I was angry. In the next I knew she was only doing what she had to. There was something in her that had to break something of mine, and she did it as she did everything: irreproachably, beautifully.

I don’t know who he is or if I know him. I hope she never says a thing about him to me. I hope he is good to her.

My tea went lukewarm, then icy. The sun leached its gold and the window turned gray again. The newspaper was a long blank below me. When my wife came back, she was humming something under her breath and sat beside me in the chair. She reached out her hand, and folded one of mine within her two, swallowed it up inside. For a long time we sat like this, her head on my shoulder, listening, I think, to my suffering heart.

As we sat together, floating, translucent, I felt the shadows of her words from the beach a few months earlier cast upon us. I felt their sting. My wife, as I’ve said, has a kindness that throws off light. She still has hope for me. Though she could, and would be justified, she would not abandon me now.

She stood, at last, and jingled her keys and announced she was going grocery shopping. She slid out the door into the rain, no matter that her hair was neatly coiffed, her makeup perfect. I watched her go.

Long ago, fallen into the first wildness of love, I spent everything I had to take my wife to Paris. She had been my girlfriend then. Everything I had saved from the summers in my father’s greenhouses, the six months of rent money I’d prudently stocked away. I had just graduated, had my first job, and she was about to finish her last two years of college. I couldn’t bear to go to our separate cities without first knowing what it meant to fall asleep with her in my bed, or to wake up to her still there in the mornings. This was our first time in Paris, long before we became blasé about it, hopping over to go shopping for the weekend. We didn’t know we would someday have Paris until we were sick of it. Those first days we awoke in the mornings to a city filled with sun and pigeons and baking bread; we wanted to see, eat, feel. We posed in front of everything we saw. We saw Paris, each other, in a kind of tasty sepia light.

At the end of two weeks we had done everything we had wanted to do, and were feeling restless, risky. My wife suggested the Catacombs, something she’d rejected, with a shudder, our first week.

And so we descended into the dank and moldy pit. Around and around and around we went down a corkscrew staircase, into the limestone damp. We were alone: it was the fine day after a few rainy ones, and most people were outside in the sweet shy sun. Down the dark tunnel we walked, water dropping on our heads. There were distant scurries. Rats, I was sure: maybe ratlike people, turned feral and dirty, watching us from the dense shadows, ready to spring. My wife pressed to me. I smiled to myself; a little horror boded well for love. Up rose the sign above a rough door: Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort. We went through it, and passed into the sickly dark caves.

A deeper darkness, a ringing silence. The walls stacked high with bone, femur upon femur, like knobby cord-wood, skull-spangled walls, death-heads grinning down.

My wife kept close to me as we walked deeper. For a kilometer or so, I felt warm, manly. And then something shifted in me, opened. I looked at the careful stacks of bones, the chilling length and depth of them and began to sweat. I turned cold, sick to my stomach. I sped up, pulling my wife along. And then I ran. I held tight to her hand, the only living thing underground, and burst through the piles of death, climbing up to the surface until, at last, we came out into the loving sun, the stucco and stone and exhaust and human stink of the glorious world.

I had to sit and rest against a building, in a corner black with old urine. My wife sat beside me, cradling my head in her arms until my breath came back, until my heart slowed to a softer pace, until I could see again. She was smiling gently, as if I were a child who had done something sweet. Years later, she told me that she thought then that I had panicked because of the memento mori, the tangible evidence in the middle of our joy that I was going to die, that she was going to die, that our lives as we knew it would someday grind down. That was the moment, she said, that she knew she would marry me.

But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t the death. I understood that we both would someday die. What got to me was this: I could see the love, the care in the placement of each bone. I saw somber, pale people lifting these bones from piles, stacking them atop one another, each careful placement a deliberate telling, the way the old women in the cathedrals told and retold the beads of their rosaries. I saw armies descending into the darkness each day to once more line the walls with remains. Descending before the sun rose, coming up at nighttime, stinking of bones. It was the choice of those living people to face death every day and still be able to come home, eat their bread, kindle their fires. After all those hours of meditation on death, they climbed into bed and held close the warm body of another person.

When we were older and I told my wife this, she smiled, closed her book, plumped the pillows. She had just begun yoga and told me what a famous yogi had once said: “We are all ships, sailing out to sea, only to sink.” And then she turned off the light and threw her arm across my chest, arm of bone and blood and muscle.

After my wife left the house and drove off into the rain, I couldn’t bear the silence. I climbed into my car and went for a drive, but I didn’t want keep looking at the clock, so I went to my father’s retirement home. I walked into the lobby slowly so as not to stress my heart, up the elevator with an old man who was just coming up from the pool. His earlobes like pink cherries dangling under his swim cap, and I adored them, suddenly, the huge dangling ears and the man who wore them. Down the hall, into my father’s room. It was his nap hour, just before dinner, but he was sitting at his table, staring at the television.

He turned to me and beamed his great blue smile, with the good half of his face. The other side stayed stiff and still, a clayey thing that didn’t belong to him. He couldn’t walk by himself, his speech was slurred, his body unresponsive. One day a few months ago the most vigorous man I know had awoken to find himself a prisoner in a useless body.

“Sit, sit,” he said in his gentle way, and pulled up a chair with his good hand, patted my knee. Beside his great, strong bulk I felt as I always did, small, young. He smelled like detergent and shaving cream, but also like himself, an almost spiced skin smell, something I remember from childhood. I had come in during the middle of a show, and my father, who had never owned a television before in his life, sat watching with a deep and quiet intensity, his whole body so invested that even his useless side seemed tensed. I knew enough not to interrupt such pure pleasure, and watched alongside him, feeling equally immobile and foolish, like the prematurely old man my heart had turned me into.

On the screen, people who were too beautiful did things that were too important and spoke too eloquently while they did them. When the show was over, he shut off the TV and turned to me. Outside it had grown dark, but was still raining, and we were cushioned by the soft and fulsome sound. I must have been wearing a sad expression, because my father started, and leaned near. He lifted his hand to my face. He touched it the way he potted his most delicate plants, even though his calluses were so thick he could hardly have felt their tiny roots, their leaves. He brought his hand down from my face, and clutched his other hand, the cold and useless one, waiting for me to explain.
Outside his door came a constant shuffling, a low murmur of voices, old people caravanning down the hall toward dinner. The good corner of my father’s mouth opened, and he said, his accent still clear though his tongue struggled, “What it is, I don’t know. It could be I don’t understand. But it will be all right, you know.”

Outside the window the streetlights came on, and the fat drops of rain grew lazy, hanging for a long time, white and graceful against the night as they fell. I held his hand. In the dark, in the wash of television light, I thought of a denser darkness, the thick black of the ocean, the sweet and salty wind, the pulse of the waves. I held my father’s hand and, without talking, told him all that I knew.
Lauren Groff is the author of The Monsters of Templeton, Delicate Edible Birds, and Arcadia.

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