Author’s Note: I enjoy writing about characters who walk away from everything they know even when it means submitting themselves to everything they don’t. Like the protagonist of my last novel, The People Who Watched Her Pass By, Erica explores the disparities of her “normal” world like an astronaut exploring outer space. Lead on, Erica!
Adventures in Responsible Living
THE FIRST TIME Erica Summerfield left her husband and three children was on a Thursday morning in May while standing in her recently renovated oak-veneer kitchen, spreading mayonnaise on several slices of wheat toast and sprinkling bottled capers on the mayonnaise. It began as a slight decrescendoing of sensation, as if somebody was reducing the volume on the various radio chat shows playing discordantly throughout the house. Everything grew less vibrant and impressionable: the aromas of wildflowers in a glass vase, the textures of wooden cooking implements suspended from a chrome ceiling rack, the shimmer of thickly resined cabinets, and even the scowling, deeply frustrated expressions of Erica’s three daughters, who stood observing her like a set of miniature interns being guided through the exhumation of a cadaver.
“I don’t like capers,” Molly said. It didn’t sound like Molly, or the voice of any five-year-old Erica had ever met. For a moment, Erica suspected the words were being beamed into her head by some fugitive radio satellite in outer space.
“Shut up, stupid,” another child said.
“Don’t call me stupid,” Molly said.
“Dad, do you want capers on your sandwich?”
“Dad doesn’t like capers. Dad doesn’t like anything green.”
The more they spoke, the less Erica heard, as if her consciousness were expanding to the point that nothing registered outside it. The only body of determination that existed for Erica right now was the jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise on the countertop. It was one-third full. It contained an indifferent quantity of whiteness, thickness, coherency, and determination.
Then her bubble of awareness diminished again and Erica felt herself descending through thick regions of temperature. It was like the time she went skiing: everything was so white and unremitting that the whiteness eventually grew indistinguishable from itself.
The other voices continued speaking.
“Honey? Can you hear me? Are you all right? Sit down— let me take that. Sally, get your mother a glass of water. Molly, stop crying. Go upstairs and get ready for school. Stepahanie, go with her.”
It was definitely his voice, Erica thought. But she wasn’t entirely certain what she meant by his “voice,” or who he was when he used it.
“Honey? Please let go of my hand and sit down. That’s my good girl. You’ve gone as pale as a sheet. Let’s get a blanket around you. Do you know where you are, honey? Just nod to indicate if you hear me. That’s my girl. Okay, you can stop nodding now. I’m going to call a doctor, but I won’t be gone long. Give me a few seconds to find the phone and I’ll be right back.”
AS IF SHE were responding to some long-buried hypnotic suggestion from the pre-conscious past, Erica found herself regarding the broad bulkhead-like freezer, clean and white and immaculate with silver trim and blinking green indicators. Then someone was helping her to stand on her inflexible feet, turn her face away from the indicators, and proceed in a direction she didn’t understand. There was a car, and then another car, and then a parking lot. There were big glass doors and black men in white jackets. Elevator doors opening and closing, pinging like submarines in a movie. Sometimes Erica was inside the elevator; sometimes she wasn’t.
Eventually she was sitting in a room somewhere. Someone was speaking to her, either a man or a woman. She didn’t care if she recognized them; being recognized was their problem. She just needed to carry on with this thing happening inside her. “I’m going to ask you a few questions,” the unrecognizable person said. “Can you feel my hand when I do this? Clench your fist to say yes. To indicate no, just leave it. Understand?”
Of course she understood. Her fist could speak for itself.
“Good. Now, is your name Erica?”
“Do you live on the moon?”
“Is your oldest daughter named Molly?”
“Is Molly forty-seven years old?”
“Can we make you more comfortable? Maybe tea or coffee? Or something to eat?”
“Would you like to be left alone? Think about that for a moment, Erica. There’s no hurry. Just tell us what you want.”
Yes, she told them. The answer is yes.
After a moment, something changed in the way his hand rested in her lap. It stopped visiting. It started to reside.
“We need to know if you’re in any pain, Erica. Or if you feel disoriented or frightened. If you’re trying to speak to us and can’t move your lips or articulate what you’re trying to say, then I need to know that right now. Maybe you’d like something to help you sleep. Or a small television. All you need to do is ask.”
You had to stop answering questions sometimes. Otherwise they never went away.
“I’m taking that as a no, Erica. I need a really firm squeeze if you want me to leave the room. Good. Yes. A firm hard squeeze like that one. You’ve made your point. You can let go of my hand now. That’s a good girl. I’ll leave.”
FOR THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS, she measured time as a sequence of interrogations. How was she feeling, did she need anything, did she want to see her children, was the soup too hot or too cold, how many fingers were they holding up, how much was four plus four. She was asked if she wanted to listen to music. (She didn’t.) She was asked if she wanted to watch TV. (She didn’t.) She was asked if she wanted to see her children. (She thought about it for a while, but eventually decided that she might actually prefer TV.) She was asked if she wanted to be left alone. This was the only question that answered itself.
Then one morning she awoke and it was over. The room was dark; in the hall outside, the overhead fluorescents glowed dully, like the glimmering corridors of a spaceship in a seventies science fiction movie. She heard thrumming machines in distant rooms, someone shouting in Spanish, a squeaky wheel on a gurney. She sat up in a hard bed, surrounded by a web work of tubes, steel winches, levers, trays and bird-like feeding devices, as if she were some sort of human excavation, an old building being broken down to its foundations and transformed into a taller, more energy-efficient one.
“What does she respond to?”
“Light. Changes in temperature. Voices. It’s not a tumor or a stroke. Her blood’s fine. She’s self-sedating. It’s like she’s totally relaxed.”
“Should we take her home?”
“There’s nothing we can do for her here.”
“What do I tell the girls?”
“How long will the resting continue? What about her bones and muscles? Won’t she start to, I don’t know, disintegrate? Go soft? What happens to your muscles when you lie around in bed all day? Deliquesce?”
“Yesterday, she sat up and ate the cheeseburger and fries. You’d be surprised how many comatose patients get all randy when it comes to a simple cheeseburger and fries.”
“I have so many questions. I don’t know which ones to ask first.”
“This will definitely be a bitch when it comes to your insurance. Are you with Blue Cross or Standard? It probably doesn’t matter. They’ll both be a bitch.”
“Her skin feels like bread dough.”
“Maybe you should take her home, put her in her favorite stuffed chair, and offer her a big bowl of ice cream. She needs to remember who she is and where she’s from. Remind her of her responsibilities. Impress upon her that there’s only so much freedom that can be allowed for a person in her condition. Tell her, in no uncertain terms, ‘Hey, wake up! You’ve got a house and family to look after. There’s no such thing as a free ride. Especially in times like these.’”
AND SO THEY TOOK HER BACK to East Windsor in the Range Rover, and she tried to re-establish her familiarity with furniture. There was the cherry veneer Cascade china cabinet, displaying various primary school art projects that had accumulated over the years: a thickly painted green egg-carton caterpillar with pipe-cleaner antennae and pearl-button eyes; a lumpy, imperfectly glazed ceramic ashtray; a macramé of seagulls on a blue ocean framed by popsicle sticks. Or, next to it, the Louis Philippe-style six- drawer sideboard, on which boxes of crayons and water-soluble paint sticks had established residence like trilobite etchings in a Dead Sea bed. Bookshelves filled with everything but books; closets filled with everything but clothes. And finally, the only furniture that mattered anymore: a king-size four-poster bed in the master bedroom, where Erica lay each afternoon watching daytime television programs while her youngest daughter Stephanie played with dolls on the floor.
“You mustn’t wake mother,” Stephanie whispered, speaking for one weirdly attired doll after another. And then, in another, harsher voice: “What do you mean, ‘Don’t wake mother? I wasn’t waking Mother. You were waking mother.”
It was like every conversation Erica had overheard in her entire life. One person filled with several little persons. And none of them got along.
Meanwhile, daytime television delivered images of flat- screen women in various stages of attractiveness trying to relate to one another about their failures as mothers, daughters, wives, or promoters of “hope” and “change.” “I just sat up in bed one day,” confessed the third highest-paid over-fifty movie actress in America, “and it hit me like a truck. Just because I made lots of money, and drove around in big fancy cars, it didn’t make me happy. At the end of the day, I was just a normal middle-aged woman looking for love, and I wanted that love from somebody other than myself.” Often the same people appeared on the same show for several days and weeks at a time—so predictably, in fact, that Erica grew afraid of the TV, as if she were reliving the same irresolvable scenario over and over again. It was like transcendence in reverse.
“I don’t know why she can’t drive me to school,” Molly said. “I don’t want you to keep driving me, Daddy. I want Mom to do it. Just like always.”
Sometimes Erica sat in the living room and ate her meals off a folding aluminum TV tray that, after every meal, she wiped down with a damp white dishcloth and stored behind the sofa. On something called the DAB display of the console radio, she found a classical station that featured broad sweeping arrangements of strings and reeds, and frequent vocal interruptions by men with foreign accents discussing concepts like “timbre,” “melodic control,” and “tonal technique.”
“Your mom will start driving you to school again very soon,” the man who was her husband said. “But you need to be patient. She’s taking more time to recover than we’d hoped. Now go in there and ask if she’d like more juice. Then let’s all drive out to Friendly’s for ice cream. That should perk everybody up.”
Back when Sally was born, Erica had driven her around the winding two-lane highways of eastern Connecticut every afternoon until she fell asleep in the car seat, her fat little head slumped brokenly to one side, as if she had been drained of animation. It was the best part of each day—that brief period of inertia that occurred whenever Sally stopped crying, and soft roads unreeled freely beneath the car’s tires like a memory of the forgotten life.
“I would just continue driving up and down the same roads, talking to myself about my stupid job, or old friends. And you’d be fast asleep in the back seat, Sal, and it was like you were the best friend I ever had. I could tell you anything and you wouldn’t judge me, or take me too seriously, or hold it against me later, like you probably do now. I almost hoped you wouldn’t wake up, you’d just carry on sleeping, and I could carry on driving and we’d never go home, just you and me driving down that same road forever.”
Since Erica was the only one in the car not shoveling chocolate sauce and ice cream into her mouth with a plastic spoon, she could talk as much as she wanted and they had to listen.
“But why did you tell me those things when I was asleep?” Sally asked. “Why didn’t you tell Daddy? Isn’t he your partner? Isn’t he the person who’s supposed to help you overcome personal issues like those you were going through then, or the ones you’re going through now?”
“Because Daddy was at work,” Erica replied simply. “And when he was home, for some funny reason, I’d forget all the things I wanted to tell him. It was like living two separate lives. The life I lived with your daddy and the life I didn’t.”
Molly, her face smeared with butterscotch sauce like one of her finger paintings from school, said: “But Daddy’s here now. You could tell him what’s bothering you now. And why you went to the hospital and came back and didn’t seem any better than when you went in. Then you could have ice cream too, Mom, instead of just sitting there, you know. And just talking. Like you don’t care what we say back. Like those women you’re always watching on TV.”
Their car proceeded through arcs of light and smatterings of shadow, as if they were journeying through the frames of an old black-and-white movie. Her husband steered with one hand and, with the other, took occasional succinct bites of his mint chocolate chip cone.
Erica hadn’t trusted ice cream since she went away, but the idea of mint chocolate chip was starting to look pretty good about now.
“It’s not always that simple,” Erica said softly, already losing interest in the explanation she was trying to give. “You’ll grow up and understand someday, honey. Or maybe someday I’ll grow up enough to explain what I’m trying to say.”
SHE THOUGHT ABOUT JOINING A SUPPORT GROUP, but she didn’t know what she needed support for. She had never taken narcotics; her alcohol consumption never extended beyond maybe two glasses of wine per month; she didn’t gamble; and, so far as she knew, she had never been abused as a child, not even emotionally. In fact, the worst thing that had ever happened to her, she recalled one morning while browsing through the Yellow Pages for any concept that might snag her attention (Home Decor, Physical Therapy, Pest Control) was the divorce of her parents and her mother’s subsequent illness, degeneration, and death from a late-diagnosed breast tumor. But even while the memory of those events still filled Erica’s mind with a sense of vacancy and indetermination, they didn’t feel like impediments to well-being; they just added up to a flat sequence of disparate memories: administering medication to a hollowed-out woman in a damp bed, fixing prescribed meals, performing awkward back rubs and foot rubs, and driving an increasingly gray and thin woman in her “housecoat” back and forth to radiotherapy in Hartford.
“You’re probably right, Erica,” Dr. Robinson told her during a free introductory self-assessment at the Wellness Center in Manchester, even though Erica couldn’t recall putting forward any proposition that required his approval. “People put too much emphasis on ‘overcoming’ adversity in our culture—it’s very American. Often, we just need the time, commitment, and guidance to explore personal issues on a no-win, no-fee basis. I promise, Erica, that if you want to explore any of these well-being issues, I won’t attempt to cure you, or convert you to any pre- existing standards of my own. I don’t want to make you better, or improve you; you’re already perfect as you are. If things work out, Erica, I’ll probably learn as much from these discussions as you will. In fact, I may learn a whole lot more.”
On the way home from her first “therapy session” (though Dr. Robinson encouraged her to think of it as a “wellness appreciation interlude”), Erica felt so good she pulled out of the parking lot and went straight to the Buckland Hills Mall, where she purchased jeans and shoes for her daughters, shirts and socks for her husband, and a set of matching palomino white terrycloth towels for the guest bathroom. Everything seemed new, precious, monumental, and preternaturally useful at the mall, as if it had been scrubbed free of the most minute human affinities. The high vaulted ceilings were cathedral-like in their importunity; and the streams of multiracial people in new clothes parading across the wide tessellated concourse all smiled to themselves as they passed, as if they were reflecting on a strangely satisfying dream. I could stay here forever, she thought, standing in front of the huge gaping mouth of Dick’s Sporting Goods with her plastic sacks of clothes and home furnishings. I could eat Chinese food every night in the international cafe. The children could visit me on weekends, and I could dress them in brand-new clothes three times a day and put them to bed in those huge inflated goose down-stuffed mattresses at Sears. And the best part would be that I’d never have to cook or clean for any of us ever again. Everything that needed to be done would be done for me by other people.
FOR THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, Erica felt reborn and replenished, inhabited by a soft consonantal glow that wasn’t hers, so she didn’t have to feel guilty about it. She was just the visitant, the person to whom this sense of satisfaction happened. She couldn’t control or regulate or summon it. And she couldn’t make it stop, even if she wanted to.
“We need to spend more time together as a family,” she announced one morning at a full cooked breakfast—bacon and eggs and pancakes and onion-fried potatoes, just like she cooked for her husband before they were married. “That means eating breakfast and dinner together, and not just running off to our various appointed stations in front of our computers or televisions. It means good, open healthy conversations about what we’re looking forward to each day and what we hope to achieve. So, let’s start with you, Molly. What are you most looking forward to today? Does it have anything to do with that art project you were working on last night? Or do you mainly look forward to spending time with your friends at recess?”
Molly’s mouth was filled with fractured toast and orange marmalade. She looked at her father and then at her sister. By the time she looked at her mother again she was slowly, thoughtfully ingesting the secret laryngeal bolus like a python with a rat.
“I’d like more toast, please,” she said. “And more marmalade.”
Sally, who sat slightly apart from everyone, laughed inwardly. It was a really annoying habit of Sally’s since she turned eleven.
“You can have more toast,” Erica said coyly, lifting the plate of buttery toast in one hand and the jar of orange marmalade in the other. “But let’s finish the conversation we started—and we started with you, Molly. What’s your favorite part about Thursdays? You don’t have to be certain—it’s not a quiz. Just say the first thing that pops into your mind.”
Molly tested the inside of her mouth with her tongue, as if seeking a button that might produce the flavor of more food.
“Thursdays are like every other day,” she said. “Math sciences. Volleyball. English. Most of us don’t have any choice in the matter.”
Erica smiled at her husband, who was popping a shard of crisp bacon into his mouth.
“Help me, honey,” she said.
He kissed the tips of his fingers with mock insouciance, as if he had just tasted the world’s best veal at a five-star restaurant. Erica hardly noticed the fragment of muesli on his lapel. He was that confident.
“For example,” he said, placing his arm around Molly, “I’m looking forward to our big marketing pow-wow this afternoon, when I get to unveil my strategy for monitoring calls to our customer relations center. I’ll emphasize the importance of making every customer’s call to our service center a satisfactory experience in the otherwise humdrum monotony of their day.” He smiled at Erica, as if they were sharing a double entendre. “And we will do this for all our callers indiscriminately. No matter how nutty some of those callers happen to be.
“WHAT WERE YOU THINKING the next time it happened?” Dr. Robinson asked. He was taking a long swallow from a tall, opaque stippled plastic drinking glass, and they were sitting in the garden behind his office. Bees drifted around his head like a dubious mobile. The garden boasted several tall glazed ceramic lawn ornaments—a pair of long-beaked amorous storks and a lime green Dutch windmill as tall as Molly. “Can you recreate the scene in your mind? Pretend you’re watching yourself in a movie. What’s happening in that movie? Do you enjoy watching it?”
It was the easiest thing anybody had ever asked her. It simply meant doing what she had wanted to do for months.
“I was waiting at this red light at this big confusing intersection in Vernon. On one side of me was a huge CVS with a full parking lot; on the other side was this almost derelict- looking Taco Bell. And while I’m waiting, I’m trying to think three steps ahead—one, two, three, the way I do whenever I have to make choices. Like what happens next, and what do I do after that, and after that. First thing, the BP station, high-octane fill up, I need to get into the right-hand lane; unless I don’t go to the BP station, which means I have to hit the Shell station on my way home, which means making a left turn at a left-turn signal, and that’s always more confusing than simply turning right. Sometimes, I try to think several steps ahead, anticipating multiple-choice possibilities, and I’m concentrating so hard on what to do next that I forget what I’m supposed to be doing now, and then the cars start honking, and eventually I realize they’re honking at me. Normally, this is when I panic. I’ve forgotten something, like maybe even the whole world; and now I have to please that world, but I don’t know how. Then I find myself staring again at the big revolving CVS sign on my right, listening to some news bulletin on the radio about an airplane crashing, or a ten-car pile-up on 84. And I just let that person keep honking— maybe they’re honking at me, maybe they aren’t. I let them keep honking for so long that I don’t even notice when they’ve stopped. I’m just vaguely aware that cars are pulling around to my right and left, like I’m this log in the middle of a busy stream. Meanwhile, I’m still staring at the CVS sign. The CVS sign is still there, and I’m still here. And eventually someone comes over to my window and starts to ask questions, like would you please roll down the window, Ma’am, and can I help you with anything, Ma’am, are you okay, and when I don’t answer, they go away for a while and come back and then they’re helping me out of the car, I feel like an old woman after a stroke, and they’re helping me into the back of an ambulance, all these lights and sirens everywhere. And suddenly I’m somewhere else. And a lot of different things happen that I can’t remember. And eventually here I am talking to you, even though I hadn’t intended to see you ever again.”
Dr. Robinson wore brand-new shoes—pale calfskin with leather tassels. A bit faggy, Erica thought. But they pleased her.
He didn’t say anything for a while; it was his method.
“So what happened then?” he asked softly. It was like the softest car horn on the smallest, least-threatening car on the road—a gloaming little VW Beetle, perhaps, or one of those so- called Smart Cars.
“I started to imagine,” she continued, “what if I wasn’t waiting at this specific intersection anymore, on this specific street corner, staring at this specific CVS. What if this specific place opened up onto somewhere else, like it wasn’t any single intersection anymore, but turned into every intersection that ever existed. I found it sort of comforting, like I didn’t have to make decisions; I could just go along with these things that happened to me. Like I wasn’t this specific woman named Erica Summerfield anymore. I was suddenly a lot bigger and more interesting than myself.”
IT BECAME IMPOSSIBLE FOR ERICA to consider what the words “getting better” meant. Perhaps they were being used ironically, or in an admonishing tone. Sometimes it felt as if they were being dangled in front of her like a carrot in front of a mule, but other times they just seemed like the sort of words people used when they couldn’t think of anything else to say. “You have to get better,” the man called her husband kept saying. “The girls need their mother.” Or the girls might say, “You’re getting better, Mom. You look so much better than yesterday.” And the doctors—there seemed to be several doctors, and they seemed to agree on almost everything—used the words in so many different contexts that it was hard to keep track of what they meant, or to know if they knew what they meant when they used them. “You won’t get better overnight, Erica.” “If you want to get better then you have to give this new medication a try.” Or: “Getting better” doesn’t mean taking a wonder drug or finding a magic bullet, Erica. ‘Getting better’ is a continual holistic process of maintaining the continually escalating failures of our minds and bodies.” Or even: “I know you want to ‘get better,’ Erica. I know you don’t want to make your family suffer when they see you getting worse and worse. And you will ‘get better’ if you think you’ll ‘get better.’ ‘Getting better’ has a lot to do with how you see yourself and how you see yourself in relation to others.”
She wasn’t entirely sure when she actually forgot what was happening to her and when she simply stopped paying attention. Sometimes she often found herself lying face down on a sheet of thin white paper in a fluorescent white doctor’s office while someone inserted something into her ear or rectum. Or she might find herself in her husband’s car being driven home by someone who wasn’t her husband, but who seemed to know a lot about him. “Your husband wants you to get a lot of rest,” the man or woman might tell her. “Your husband will be home soon.” Her children seemed to come and go from various locations with a sort of errant willfulness, wearing bright backpacks and plastic shoes that sparkled with cartoonish fairy-dust, or newly acquired cosmetics and spiky hair. Sometimes, being around other people felt like lying at the bottom of a swimming pool gazing up at figures moving back and forth across the blue surface of water. Sometimes those figures noticed her and pointed and said things to her through the warping melody of water. If Erica held her breath for a while and focused all her attention on the faces gazing down at her, she could even speak back.
“It’s all just a period of reflection and rest that my mind’s telling me I need,” she told them. “I really do want to ‘get better,’ and I will ‘get better’ very soon. I don’t like being a burden to everyone. I really will start pulling my weight. Now look at me, I’m getting out of bed, I’m putting on my slippers and robe. Pass me my brush there; and I’ll even wear a little lipstick today, something simple and not too colorful. Why don’t you help me into the kitchen and I’ll fix everyone grilled cheese sandwiches and glasses of cold milk. It just takes a little bit more effort these days. The way I see it, our lives go on and on, and every day it takes a little bit more effort to get out of bed and fix grilled cheese sandwiches. But we have to get up and make those grilled cheese sandwiches or we forget everything about ourselves. We develop unhealthy mental outlooks. We start to go away.”
THE THIRD AND FINAL TIME she left her family it was almost December. They were finishing their McDonald’s in the parking lot of the Christmas Tree Shop on a hill overlooking I-84, and the low afternoon winter sun reflected off cars and hood ornaments spread out in the parking lot like an aluminum lake. It hadn’t snowed that winter, and the cold, bright air was like a realization. The girls were getting milkshakes and secret sauce was all over their best school blouses while they argued about priorities. One of them was supposed to go first but the other one hadn’t gone first because she had gone first the previous time. Just ask Daddy. Slow-moving elderly white couples cascaded past their windows in time-lapse photography. Latin-looking couples, and pale Anglo-looking couples and Asian-looking couples pushing huge steel shopping carts loaded with bushy green artificial fir trees, cardboard cases of broken cookies, dented boxes of plastic-sealed pound cakes and pancake mixes, spools of copper wire, and green garden hoses. It was like the desultory tail end of some organized looting expedition at the end of the world. All that stuff coming out and nothing going in except people with wallets and credit cards and children bickering over chocolates.
“Bed sheets for the guest room,” her husband said, dabbing the corners of his mouth with the little finger of his left hand. He loved McDonald’s, but he hated getting it on his face. “Christmas cards, a school lunch box for Molly, plastic forks for the party, and then get the hell out. If there’s one place I hate, it’s the goddamn Christmas Tree Shop.”
Erica didn’t hate it; it helped her identify the passing of time. She had witnessed its many incarnations over the decades as a gigantic furniture outlet, a gigantic remaindered book outlet, and a gigantic remaindered clothing outlet; one year they had even sold actual Christmas trees in the parking lot, bound like hostages in wire mesh. It was the only place so big and busy that other people didn’t stop long enough to recognize her—parents of other children, receptionists at orthodontists and dermatologists, former neighbors and paperboys. You couldn’t avoid them, but you didn’t have to talk to them, either. Everybody was in a hurry to get out of everybody else’s way.
“Just stick together,” her husband said. “Don’t anybody get lost. Not like last time.”
Erica was holding Molly’s hand, and Molly was holding onto the right side of the shopping cart.
“Stephanie? Where the hell—oh, there you are. Don’t you need a pencil case and art brushes? Look, these are ninety-nine cents.”
It felt like entering a crowded harbor in the middle of the night, looming angular stacks of boxes hoving into view and out again, broken objects squealing against the hull like rubber buoys and then swinging sternward into another barely open pathway. Erica spotted huge bins filled with plastic wreaths and frizzly tinsel and afro combs and laundry detergents and fabric softeners and generically labeled beer. It felt like getting lost in an episode of The Simpsons. At any moment, she expected to stumble upon croaky Marge with her leaning monument of blue hair.
“Oh, look,” her husband said. “Chamomile and Herb Conditioner for Oily Hair.” It wasn’t the worst thing he had ever said to her, but it was the last thing she had expected.
Time and perception went all diffuse and limp. She watched bins of dented bargain opportunities turn away from her like faces on a bus, and after a while she realized it wasn’t them turning away from her, but her turning away from them. Something closed up inside her. It wasn’t a door or a window; it was a box. She was putting something away in a box; it was hers and she was putting it away, and suddenly she found herself walking alone past huge glass walls, leather sofas, and weirdly elongated vanity tables, totemic upright rolls of carpeting and linoleum and wallpaper. It was like transecting the weird history of commerce, she thought, moving towards wide windows and vistas of freeways and trees and multiply gleaming waterfall-like cars and hood ornaments. She couldn’t see her family, but she could hear them far away across the flat distance. With her and then not with her. Maybe they were closing up boxes inside themselves. Maybe it was like this for everybody.
“I think Mom’s having an episode.”
“Honey? Where are you going? You have to stop this behavior right now.”
“I think we should call Dr. Robinson.”
“Who’s Dr. Robinson?”
“Some therapist Mom met at the hospital.”
Her arms were being scratched by leaves and twigs and branches, and her feet were sliding on something soft and loamy, and something else snagged her shoulder, the sleeve of her sweater, she couldn’t make it stop. There were more leaves everywhere, red and amber and gold and riddled with rust and mud and moss, you just couldn’t make the world hold together long enough to understand it sometimes. But if you were lucky and persistent and smart, you could hold yourself together long enough for it to understand you. Just keep moving. Carry on through whatever restrains you. Otherwise it might keep you; it might win; it might take you back to the Christmas Tree Shop over and over again. And next time, you wouldn’t have any choice. They’d make you stay until it was actually Christmas.
# # #
Scott Bradfield is a novelist, short story writer, critic and college professor. “Adventures in Responsible Living” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year. His works include The History of Luminous Motion, Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog, and The People Who Watched Her Pass By. His writing has appeared in Triquarterly, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Baffler, and numerous “best of” anthologies. His stories and essays are forthcoming in The Weird Fiction Review, The New Statesman, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Bradfield lives in California and London. His short story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Delmarva Review selects the best of new short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction from thousands of submissions annually. The literary journal is a nonprofit supported by sales, contributions, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Print and digital editions are sold by Amazon, most major online booksellers, and local bookstores. For submissions and other information, visit: DelmarvaReview.org.