It’s nearly time to turn on the lamp and close the curtains; the light’s gone lilac and it’s getting hard to see, to even trace the movement of the second-hand on the wall-clock. The dog knows it’s time to eat; he’s pacing in the kitchen, his nails clicking on the linoleum. The clicking of his nails mingles with the clock’s ticking and I can still hear Edie’s voice even though the phone is silent on the couch beside me.
“Jane, I’m so relieved that you still have the same number, I worried I’d have to hunt you down,” was how the voicemail began. Funny to hear that from Edie who is the one always moving, while I tend to stay in one place, or if I go anywhere, only take small, careful steps, like someone on a tightrope.
In the first few seconds of the message, her voice sounded the same as it did when we last spoke, which was five years ago, right after graduating from college, and even then it was only briefly. We nearly collided as we both rounded the corner on Church Street. Both of us smiling, we said each other’s names and then didn’t know how to continue. She’d said she was in town for a week to spend Christmas with her grandmother who was too old to travel but was still able to live on her own. I said that was great to hear, thinking of Mrs. Truax, so dependable with her iron-colored hair, always in a bun, and the peonies she kept on the kitchen table.
Edie was still wearing an eye patch, which was another surprise. I didn’t even know you could find suede eye patches, but the olive green went well with her blond hair. Throughout college I’d thought about it, obviously, wondering if she still wore the patch or would go for a prosthetic, and I have to admit it was a relief to see the patch. It suited her, the willingness to be vulnerable and unashamed.
We hugged and promised we’d meet up before she left town. I was hurt that she never called me, but in many ways I was very much the same person I’d been in high school, a little less guarded but simultaneously proud and reluctant, and I knew right after I said it that I wouldn’t see her again. Before long I saw that it made more sense that way, but hearing this voicemail has made me reconsider. The dog’s nails and the clock are stirring everything up and I feel all wobbly and soupy inside. Here comes the familiar guilt, surging up like gas, and again I have to remind myself that it wasn’t my fault—it was no one’s fault, and having been there doesn’t incriminate me. I don’t know why I continue to think some kind of crime was committed.
Edie had been talking about Maxine’s party for weeks, but when she pressed her hand to her belly and said she had a stomachache, I convinced her she was fine. It was time to leave the house; it was going to rain and her makeup looked great; I checked her teeth and they were lipstick-less. She had nodded and smiled, laughed—I think at herself—and after we said goodbye to Mrs. Truax, we skipped across the lawn and dove into my car, barely noticing the sky that was mottled with dark clouds like bruises.
I think immediately of the end of the night—Friday turning into Saturday—Edie in the hospital bed with her head wrapped in a lopsided turban of white bandages that covered her left eye. She was tiny under the papery backless gown, having relinquished the shirt she’d bought only hours before. At the time I couldn’t help regretting that the shirt was ruined, and she brought it up later, too, before we lost touch.
“It’s tragic,” she said, as if the shirt was the major loss.
I still remember how sour she smelled and how difficult it was to hold her hand. I’d let go of her under the pretense of reaching for something—I can’t remember what, now, probably water, or a magazine. And I kept wondering where Mrs. Truax was, why was it taking her so long? She was probably too shaken to drive and had called a cab, which was for the best, because even then she shouldn’t have been driving.
Mrs. Truax probably isn’t alive anymore, despite the family genes. Edie used to say, “She’s vanishing, but she’ll never die. That’s how it is in my family. Everyone lives into their nineties at least, no matter how unhealthy they are.” At the time, Edie’s great-grandfather was still in Mississippi, living alone in the house where he was born. He’d just turned ninety-four and he still drank two ounces of whiskey every night before bed.
The people in my family don’t last. They all die of unnatural causes. “Heart attacks, suicide, plane crashes, all of it,” I’d told her, feeling proud and then immediately ashamed. But I was right. It doesn’t feel good to be right, but lately nothing really registers in me, and that’s fine. I felt so much and now I’m tired of feeling, and I want to take a break.
“I heard about your mom,” Edie said in her message. “I’m so sorry, Jane.” Her voice sounded like glass, and for a moment it was so obvious that we’d grown up some—something people don’t often notice about themselves, I think.
Even though we were high school seniors and had submitted college applications, were getting ready to do the next thing, we were particularly young and inexperienced. The party was hosted by Maxine, a girl in our Spanish class, whose older friends supplied the liquor and other things Edie and I knew nothing about. Maxine’s parents were out of town and she’d told everyone, even people she didn’t like, to come over. It was an opportunity.
The beginning is still clear to me. We had burst out of the school at three-thirty, energized by the prospect of an adventure. I drove us to Savage for a margarita pizza, then to Stefan’s to pick through racks of vintage clothing. I tried on fur coats and hats with gauze veils that hung like a fog over my eyes. Edie scavenged, digging through silk scarves and polyester dresses with expert speed, finally finding the shirt: button-down and covered in a pattern of foxes jumping through French horns. She’d taken a step back from the hanger.
When she put it on, the foxes leapt and sailed all over her, never stopping, never tiring. It was a real find.
Invigorated, we sped down Clifton to North Decatur, stopped at CVS to browse the clearance nail polishes. I bought Twizzlers, which Edie never liked but which are still my favorite. We pulled into the empty parking lot behind the Montessori school—the sun was just beginning to set—and I drove the car in tight circles until we were both dizzy and sick, Edie with her hands over her eyes, shrieking.
At Edie’s house, Mrs. Truax was in the sunroom on the orange velvet couch watching Matlock and eating pistachios. We went up the narrow stairs to Edie’s room with its vaulted ceiling and the window that looked out over the little league baseball diamond, where kids would go in the summer to make out or smoke pot in the dugouts. The walls and ceiling of Edie’s room were soaked with secrets, secrets Edie told me about her life in Mississippi before she came to live with her grandmother. That was only a couple years before. But she revealed details one by one, dropping them like a trail of crumbs. It was clear that her life had been hard, and I didn’t know many people who’d had hard lives. Whenever I thought of her past—what I knew about it—I was overcome with embarrassment at how easy my own typical middle-class life had been. I struggled to dig up some ugly secret. But Edie’s open face, so trusting and ready to listen, made me check myself.
“Does your grandma really not care when you come home?” I’d asked.
Edie laughed and threw her hands in the air. “I don’t know what she cares about!” And sounding not concerned but amazed, she continued, “She’s disintegrating. She barely eats or sleeps. That’s how old people are, I guess.” I couldn’t imagine living with someone so frail and elderly, but Edie didn’t seem to mind; she was entertained by Mrs. Truax’s habits and idiosyncrasies.
We were always very different. Of course the last time I ran into her I couldn’t tell how much of the old Edie was left. When we became friends, the differences were somehow complementary. Sometimes I thought I was keeping Edie from floating away, that I was helping her maintain some sense of the real world, or what my seventeen year-old self thought was the real world. Now it makes me cringe, realizing how insufferable and moody I was. Later—but not much later—I saw she was probably tolerating me.
She was unabashedly lustful. That was always bewildering to me. She let herself be moved, she laid her heart down in the road, she spread herself out like a starfish. She was in love with so many things and people; she pined for Maxine, for example, the way one pines for an older sister she doesn’t have, or in Edie’s case, an older sister who is better than the one she already has. I didn’t understand the feeling, but I listened anyway when Edie wanted to talk about Maxine. She was in love with the statuesque woman who worked at Stefan’s, and she was in love with Jimmy Page’s perfect lips from the back cover of Led Zeppelin’s first album. She was in love with BLTs from Little’s Grocery because they had so much bacon and mayo. “They use Duke’s,” she said to me once. “That’s the secret!” She was like a little kid, with bacon crumbs and mayo grease on her lips.
She wore a locket with Paul Newman’s picture inside, and once in the record store after school, dipping her fingers in the piles of LPs and gazing at posters of Bob Marley and Jeff Buckley, she sighed and said, “All my true loves are dead.” She seemed flighty and innocent, but it was only a superficial innocence. Late at night, she toiled secretly and steadily through college applications.
Edie wanted to be happy and I wanted to be bad. I used to tell my parents that I wanted to be a proctologist just because I knew how much it would irritate them. I didn’t know how to say that all I wanted was to live and be content and not work. But my siblings, even then, were successful; my sister graduated from University of Chicago, Phi Beta Kappa.
“Sonia Sotomayor is a Phi Beta Kappa member,” my mother said, several times. “She’ll be in good company.” And my brother took a gap year before college, volunteering at orphanages in Ethiopia where he gallantly plucked gnats from the eyelids of starving children. He would call our parents on Skype every week. I remember seeing how quickly he had changed; he was tan and capable, fulfilled. While he updated our parents on his volunteer activities, I would go to my room and tell myself it was all a charade.
I can’t think about my mom right now, though. I don’t know how Edie found out that she’s sick, who she talked to, but it’s amazing the things you can know about people—really about almost anyone—the internet is so frightening and I try to hide, although there are so many obligations, it’s impossible to disconnect now. I feel as though I’ve been chopped into pieces. Even the dog is constantly wanting things from me: at this very moment he’s standing in the doorway with his eyes fixed on me like he could draw me towards the kitchen with some kind of telekinetic power, and I find myself sinking deeper into the couch, telling myself he’s far less intelligent than he looks.
Everything felt so fraught then—the stakes were so high—and I relied on Edie much more than I wanted to. I would have never gone to that party, or even let myself look forward to it, if it hadn’t been for her. When I pulled onto Maxine’s street, a street lined with Tudor houses and oak trees, the rain had subsided and Edie smiled at me, and it was obvious that her stomach no longer hurt. As I parked on the curb I realized that I was crabby—it was Edie’s idea to come here, after all—and I knew that as usual Edie would have fun and I would lurk, and then end up driving us home, wishing I had better social skills.
“What’s the matter?” Edie had asked me.
I think I made some defensive comment about the snobby neighborhood. She told me I needed a drink, which was probably true, though it wouldn’t be enough. And after going into the house and saying hi to Maxine who put sweating cans of PBR into our hands, and after drifting through the kitchen and living room and seeing how many people were already there and how many bottles and cans were already open, I took a sip of my beer and still wanted something bigger, something riskier. I thought, vaguely, that I was just a little too smart—too scared, honestly—to ever act out in any real way.
I had never gotten into any serious trouble, even during my middle-school shoplifting phase when I would go with my at-the-time best friend Maggie to the drug store and steal makeup. Maggie taught me how to use foundation, though not very well. I had shown up on the first day of seventh grade in overalls and braided pigtails, but I graduated from eighth grade wearing icy pink lipstick, plastic gemstones glued to my fingernails. Maggie and I would go with our posse to the carnival in the mall parking lot, where we would buy funnel cakes and wander through the crowds, prowling for boys from school. The boys were all very short and terrified, but I let a boy with powdered sugar above his upper lip finger me behind the port-a-johns. This earned me Maggie’s admiration and respect—at least, until Maggie had similar and more complicated encounters—but it left me feeling strange, as if I had lost a small part of myself; one of my fingers or toes, maybe.
It’s strange what fades and what remains, continues to rise so long after the fact. The endless bookshelves in Maxine’s living room, so many of them glossy how-to books written by her mother about “maintaining a healthy sex life not only with your partner, but also with yourself,” and Edie’s fingers closing around my wrist and her voice in my ear. “Hey you, there’s a fire pit outside,” she said, something like that, and I followed her into the backyard where the trees were dripping and the air smelled sweet and our shoes sank into the soft earth.
In the orange light I could see the red foxes scampering across her shirt, the French horns gleaming and curled like scrawny seashells. People talked in subdued voices. The fire and the big sky and the black stalks of the trees gave the backyard a solemn, almost holy feeling. The moon was big and yellow, like an eye watching all of us. A joint was passed like an offering hand-to-hand, making its way around the circle. Edie and I had never smoked pot, but when Edie inhaled, she shut her eyes and raised her eyebrows, like it was effortless, like she was slipping into a warm bath. People left and others returned; the crowd around the fire shrank and swelled. A boy lowered a hand into his pocket and pulled something out that caused several other kids to draw closer, and then the small group withdrew, and others stepped in to close the circle.
And also clearest in my memory: the yard extending like a black tongue behind the big house, the urge to cling to Edie who was looking into the darkness. She listened with her eyes narrowed, and then said to me, “Who’s back there?”
I kept opening and closing my mouth, outraged how everything—school and people and just life—seemed so easy for Edie, but then reminding myself that Edie’s life wasn’t really easy at all, that Edie had a mother who doled out her daughters like re-gifted presents, and some emotionally-damaged sister in Biloxi that she never talked to, and a dad with a new family, and it was like a cliché, but it was—is—real.
“I think it’s Maxine,” she whispered. Then I heard the laughter too, and she could tell I heard it. She grinned. “Let’s go see what they’re up to.”
I didn’t want to go, though I couldn’t have said why. I could hear the voices and drunk laughter, and I thought about staying behind by the fire, not knowing what to say to anyone. Then I thought about Edie and Maxine—not even picturing them in my mind, just their names together, just knowing Edie was tracking Maxine, as if she had picked up her scent. I followed several feet behind, sulking, as she tiptoed deeper into the yard, between trees. Her hair hung down her back like a white flame.
I was complaining about how no one wanted to talk to me and Edie was swatting at the air, saying, “Forget those bitties.” That’s when she fell, or tripped—neither of us was sure how it happened. But I heard a thud, then a frail bleat. I groped my way through the dark yard, not breathing, and when she started puking, I did too.
Then in the front yard, dragging Edie toward my car where the streetlight revealed her face, the left side red and shining and cut open like she’d been turned inside out, her hair stuck to it, and her shirt where all the foxes leapt through the vomit and disappeared into the blood that was like black shadows. I drove with my mouth open the whole way, having to remind myself to breathe, with Edie whimpering and choking in the seat next to me. I rolled the windows down so that the whistling and the sucking of the air drowned her out, but I still heard myself saying, over and over, “Soon, soon.”
In Edie’s hospital room that she shared with an enormous, splotchy-faced woman who was snoring, big content snores, I looked at the green blanket, I asked Edie if she was still high and then realized what a stupid question it was.
There was no way the eye could be saved. It was, as Mrs. Truax put it, “popped.” After her surgery, Edie stayed home for a couple of weeks. One afternoon I went to her house after school and we sat in her room and listened to Jeff Buckley. She wore a black patch; in the purple afternoon light it looked like a hole, some portal to another space. She was sitting on the pillows of her bed, leaning against the wall with her nearly white blond hair draped across one shoulder.
I asked her if she was going to get a fake eye, but she said she’d probably stick with a patch. She thought a prosthetic would be creepy, like an effort to trick people into thinking she looked normal.
“And you know that soap opera my grandma loves? One of the characters lost her eye when she was sitting in a restaurant and a car flew through the window, and she got an eye patch covered in diamonds. So, you know.” She was smiling, but her smile was crooked and she looked down into her lap and began pulling at her cuticles.
“You know what, though,” she said a moment later. “It’s a real shame about that shirt. I’ll never find another shirt as cool as that one.”
About a month after that, Edie called me and told me she got “the big envelope.” She’d be going to college up north, an expensive liberal arts college. She had a free ride. I got a big envelope too, but it was from the state school downtown, the only school I’d bothered to apply to. I pictured Edie moving into a dorm on some leafy campus—lots of brick, archways, historic plaques—and standing on her bed, tacking her posters and pictures up on the wall, her eye patch strapped cavalierly to her head. Her accent, the twang of it so slight that it snuck up on you, and her Paul Newman locket. Edie would always be able to figure out how to get where she needed to go, which hoops to jump through.
I don’t remember the things people asked me about—what did she trip on, why were we wandering around the garden, how big was the garden stake, and all that. They want to see the gore for themselves. It’s the same thing with my mom, or I feel it turning in that direction—that certain things are dissolving, settling back, and all I can make out with clarity is what doesn’t seem to matter. As more people find out about my mom, they press closer, trying to—to what? Usually misfortune brings people closer together. So I don’t know how to explain why Edie and I drifted apart. It was slow and quiet—shorter and shorter phone calls, quick emails and only occasional texts, and before long we only saw each other briefly, when she came home to see her grandmother. Both of us pretended not to notice the distance, which only made it more obvious.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I was a counselor at a kids’ science camp. The campers all looked forward to the last day, when the biology instructor would lead dissections. Groups of twelve year-olds at laboratory tables huddled over sheep eyeballs in disposable aluminum pans, squealing and murmuring. I sat beside my favorite camper—a quiet, tow-headed boy with scabby knees who spent lunchtime alone with his X-Men comics—and watched as he slipped the scalpel into the wet eyeball, unwrapping it like a present. At the back of the eyeball was a shimmery film, thinner than paper. It caught the light like mother-of-pearl. A tapetum lucidum, the teacher said in a dreamy voice. “It means ‘bright tapestry.’” She told the kids that this film was what caused animals’ eyes to glow—she called the glow “eyeshine”—and allowed them to see in the dark.
“I wish I had this in my eye,” my camper said, running a tiny finger across its surface.
I couldn’t help but think of Edie, but my first thought wasn’t about what happened at that party—it was how she would have cherished the sheep’s eye, the silvery membrane.
I know I could call her back and tell her my mom’s going to be fine, that as crass as it sounds, breast cancer isn’t such a big deal if you catch it early. I don’t know if I agree, but that’s what my mom keeps saying. She says cancer is everywhere now and people are frantically stuffing their faces with blueberries and getting headsets for their cell phones to try to prevent it. When my mom told me about the diagnosis, I knew my younger self would have felt some kind of perverse validation: “It’s not all as easy as it looks for me,” I would have said. But I know better now; I know better than to rank misfortunes. Edie never did that.
It’s dark and my spine is aching from being on the couch for so long. The dog has given up—he’s lying dejected in the doorway—but when I unfold my legs and stretch them out, crack my toes, roll my ankles, his triangular ears twitch and stand alert, and by the time I’ve stood up he’s on his feet too, willing me toward him, into the kitchen, his eyes glowing ardently in the dark like tiny twin lanterns.
Kerry Hill recently received her MFA from Oregon State University, but many of her stories are based in Atlanta, Georgia, where she grew up. Her work has appeared in Anamesa Journal and the Head & the Hand Press Breadbox Chapbook Series, and in May of 2015 she received the Reynolds Price Award in Fiction from the Center for Women Writers.