The following is an excerpt from Here Lies by Oliva Clare Friedman, out now from Grove Press. Click here to purchase.
From before I began, I loved her. This was what I knew. Before the beginning, before I was born from her, before bones and blood and body, before egg.
My mother Naomi was dead and not buried. Dead in fact for half a year. Her body burned to ashes by the state, bones, heart, feet, eyes burned to dust, against her wish, against mine, and that was that. I was trying to understand.
I was at the library for the first time since she’d died. Upstairs, on the second floor, the air was muggy and dim. I zoomed between empty carrels, toward the faraway corner, a place I used to call my own—a row of three computers. Here, I could be alone. No one, not for years, seemed to know the spot. To my right, were shelves of hardbacks, amber and green, the color of jewels. To my left, out the smudged picture window, I could watch the sun-sopped field of weeds and goldenrod shake in the wind, feel my own insides shake in an answer.
I walked to the spot, heard my own breathing. I reached the corner and stopped—in front of me, a girl sat at one of the keyboards, hunched and glum. She’d been squinting into the screen when she heard me and glanced up—a burst of hazel-gold eyes, silky blue eyeshadow—said nothing, went back to her screen. I said nothing too. How long had she been coming? I wanted to make her get up, shove her chair, force her to leave. That was what the meanhearted me would do, or the boldhearted me, and sometimes I allowed my dolty-dolt heart these fantasies. All I wanted was peace. I wanted to do what I needed to do, alone.
I told her to go away in my head. Get gone, get gone, get gone. I sat down on the other end, left a computer station between us, logged myself in. The girl clicked and typed, typed and clicked. Her fingernails were painted a clean, frosty blue. She breathed through her mouth, loud puffs of air. She put a foot up on the chair, adjusted a pink, sparkling flip-flop, the kind you see in the drugstore aisle with water baby sunscreen and inflatable beach balls. She scratched her naked toes.
“They have computers downstairs,” I told her. “Downstairs they go faster.”
“Mm-hmm.” She looked at her screen.
“These are dinosaurs,” I said. “You can’t even watch a movie.”
I hit the back of the monitor hard, as though it weren’t working, as though that would show how feeble it was, but it was working just fine.
“I know that already,” she said.
I glimpsed her screen. She was speed-scrolling through pictures and paragraphs of gossip about TV stars and blog celebrities and Hollywood he-said, she-said heartbreaks. She looked younger than me, but near enough to my age, give or take, and I was twenty-two.
I said, “Downstairs, the AC won’t blow on you.”
“I’m not cold,” she said.
I said, “Downstairs, the librarian sneaks you free Cokes.”
“I’m not thirsty,” she said.
We both knew the first floor’s bank of computers was crowded with people watching the news, talking to relatives on video chat, streaming everything from car chases to girl-gone-missing crime shows. She rolled her bottom lip under her front teeth. She brought her lean leg up, focused on the screen. Even doing that, she was graceful. I went to my screen. We sat like that, squinting and pecking. Get gone, get gone. I talked in my head. In case she was watching me, I didn’t do what I’d gone there to do. Instead I watched a video on mute about glowing jellyfish in the deep sea, another about people at their toilets finding coiled up snakes. She’d taken the spot by the window with the clear view of the wild field. Sometimes she’d turn, look out to the field, but then she’d turn back to her screen, back to her nothingness, her nothing news, gossipy gunk. She didn’t care about the field like I did. I knew the names of things. Sprouting bluets, stray pink lilies, tattered dandelions, bermuda grass.
The next day it went like that too. Me watching soundless jellyfish and snakes. I came up to the second floor in the afternoon, and there she was, with her blue-shadowed lids and a paisley purse she kept under her chair, and there I sat, and scratch-scratch-scratch and scroll-scroll-scroll and peck-peck-peck. She smelled like sweat and damp roses and green tea, like cheap mall perfume I’d bought in high school. She watched videos of baby hippos and skateboard stunts and kittens stealing dog beds. She turned the volume up, laughed to herself, leaned closer to the screen. We stayed that way, not talking, each one lost to the other.
On the third day, I sneaked two icy beers in my purse. The library started its shut down at four-thirty, dimmed the buzzy fluorescent lights. Pegeen—I’d known Pegeen all my life—called out over the PA, the library was going bye-bye, nighty-night, off to sleep now. That was how Pegeen always said it. I dug deep in my purse, brought out an Abita Purple Haze. They were hard to get, but I knew a place.
“You want one?” I asked the girl.
She turned to look for the first time that day, a new kind of life flickering in her face.
“Fuck, yes,” she said.
I’d meant it as a bribe. Take this, don’t come back tomorrow. But seeing her that happy for a beer—I decided I wanted the other. I’d drink it quick, talk for a few minutes, ask her to get gone, to stay home tomorrow. No offense, nothing personal, just be gone tomorrow.
We took our beers to the field. Bluets stood strong as stars in the late afternoon. The lilies were tall as toddlers. We sat in downy weeds, and I told her my name. Alma. What was hers?
“Bordelon,” she said.
“That’s a last name,” I said. “What’s your first name?”
“That is my first,” she said.
She reached inside her bag, took out a pair of Jackie O sunglasses and put them on in one elegant motion. She uncrossed her legs, sipped her beer, stretched out lazily in the grass. Sunglasses weren’t needed in this light, but I took it she didn’t care. Up close, the tips of her pink flip-flops were mud-caked and grungy. My own canary-yellow Keds weren’t new, a rim of dirt staining their bottoms.
“Where’d you go to high school?” I said. “Not St. Gen High. I never saw you there.”
“Didn’t go to St. Gen,” she said. “I’m from Opelousas. You went here?”
“Unfortunately,” I said. “Grew up here.”
Maps didn’t show St. Genevieve. Most people who found us were lost. Watching the local news told you nothing—it started with weather, floods and storm surges, then parish politics, then maybe a feel-good portion on pet adoption or soup kitchens or hymn-singing children pulling at your heart cords. Sometimes there was mention of a late-night house fire, or a rocketing eighteen-wheeler fatally colliding with a family-packed minivan of clean-living types. These were meant to remind us of the grim dooms of life.
“You like St. Gen?” said Bordelon.
“Sometimes I do,” I said. I stood my beer between my knees. “I’m just kicking and living.” That was something my mother would say, but I said it as though it were mine.
“I’m twenty-two,” I said. “Graduated from St. Gen a few years ago.”
“I’m nineteen,” she said.
“You were doing what in Opelousas?”
“Living with my grandma,” she said. “She raised me. She’s dead.” She said it plain and turned to look at me. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”
“Wasn’t going to,” I said.
I wanted to tell her I understood, that I didn’t want anybody telling me sorry for my mother too. I could have said all that, let the words spill between us, let the beer and starry bluets put me in the confessing mood, but instead I told her I’d been working remotely for a Louisiana lifestyle magazine out of Baton Rouge when the magazine went bankrupt and laid me off. I was on unemployment. Because, goddamn everyone I knew who was my age was in a crushing job or out of a job and we’d have to get used to it. She had no equally angry response. Somehow I’d been talking for a full few minutes. For half a year I’d been alone, felt funny talking, didn’t know how to control my voice, what to do with my hands. I felt, as my mother would say, a liable fool. A dolty dolt. A dumb-dumb chickadee.
Then I said, “I’ve got internet at home, but it’s faster here.”
“Must be bad at your place, then,” said Bordelon.
“It’s better on the first floor,” I reminded her.
“Mm-hmm,” she said, tipping her head back, her hair glancing the grass.
“Bathrooms are better there too.”
“You got porn you’re looking at?” she said. She directed those Jackie Os right at me. “That why you want to be alone?”
“No porn,” I said. “And just tomorrow I want to be alone.”
“Bullshit,” she said, but she smiled, then sipped from her beer, sucked at the rim like it was a mouth. I thought I’d drunk a lot, but I was just through my beer’s neck. I looked out at the cluster of flowering weeds leaning in the wind.
I could tell she’d just hear what she wanted, so I lied. I told her I wanted to be alone so I could turn up my music, crank the medieval speakers. I told her about articles I had open, innocent people who’d sat on the toilet and found a crazy-eyed snake. Bordelon claimed she knew someone who’d gone to the bathroom and seen a baby alligator swimming in the bowl.
“And I’ve seen a picture of an alligator under a parked car,” said Bordelon.
“Read an article about that just yesterday,” I said.
“They can come at any time.”
“Well,” I said, hopping up, snatching my beer. “Let’s go take a look.”
“A look?” She sat up, took off her Jackie Os, put her hand like a visor over her eyes.
“Bet there’s something under my car right now,” I said.
“Ha,” she said, understanding. “Let’s do it. Let’s go.”
My Honda, tomato red, bug-smeared, sat in the empty parking lot. The car had been my mother’s. A blue faded hatchback stood near. I only peeked—the backseat was heaped with clothes and food wrappers and magazines.
“That yours?” I said to Bordelon.
“In all its glory,” she said.
We were pretending to check for reptiles, just for shits, but I was watching her. I could get a good look at her now, backlit by the lowering sun. Her eyes with heat behind them, near-gold, a broad, confident forehead. Concentrate, I told myself. I was supposed to be looking for an alligator.
We wouldn’t find any animals, we knew, and that wasn’t the point. I crouched and looked under my car, and Bordelon crouched and looked too, her head and torso swinging into view.
“Damn it,” I said. “Not even one.”
“I was hoping,” she said.
We swung our heads back up and stood. She was taller than me, not difficult. I was hardly over five feet with very ordinary blue eyes, very ordinary brown hair, very ordinary small teeth. There was nothing humdrum, ho-hum about her. She was one of the most beautiful people I had ever seen.
I didn’t know why I said this then, but I did: “What was your grandmother’s name?”
I thought she’d tell me to leave the subject alone, yet without even taking a breath, she said: “Beatrice.”
Beatrice. The name of someone no longer with us. I liked thinking of my own mother’s name. Naomi. Naomi. Naomi. For now I could only hold the word in my head, never speak it aloud. It was like the syllables of a spell.
Naomi. The name had shock and thrum.
“Beatrice,” I repeated.
I leaned on my car, and Bordelon looked down. Just like that, two tears fell from her eyes to the ground. I thought of the girl in the fairy tale whose tears turned to seeds, to sprouts, to flowers. We said nothing for a minute, just stood. Silence was as near to us as a third person. Something I’d started to know was this—grief was a string that held people together.
“I don’t really need to be alone up there,” I said. “It’s not like I own the second floor.”
“I get it,” she said. She was still looking down, letting her eyes search the ground.
“I’m always alone,” I said. “Maybe too much. I like the company.” I half-meant it.
She looked at me, finally, her lids and lashes damp. I had no tissue.
“I won’t watch what you’re doing,” she said. “I never do. Turn up your music, I don’t care.” She sniffled and smiled, rubbed snot from her nose with the back of her hand, her chipped blue fingernails. “Read about all the snake toilets you want.”
I laughed, heard thunder. Raised my eyes to the lightning crazing the clouds. I was ready for rain to follow, but this time it didn’t come. It was August. Any mild or mean weather could and would arrive.
I took out my phone, put on music. Something sulky and punk from the 90s. I had a six-pack litter of Abitas in my backseat. We sat on the trunk of my car and started in on those. It would be light for hours. I looked at her face every chance I could. Her smooth forehead, her eyes gone to clear gold in the light. Her hair was long and dark and frayed. I gave in. We both had another beer, and then another, as the night cooled and flickered and zoomed.
Olivia Clare Friedman is the author of the story collection DISASTERS IN THE FIRST WORLD and the poetry collection THE 26-HOUR DAY. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The O. Henry Prize Stories, Granta, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, among other publications. Raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she holds the title of Nina Bell Suggs Endowed Professor. HERE LIES is her first novel.