The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 11, No. 1

Some Paradise

by Nicholas Montemarano

On the third consecutive day Claire's husband's mistress came demanding half his ashes Claire finally let her in the house. This wasn't a gesture of goodwill or reconciliation—Claire felt no need to reconcile with a woman who had been her husband's lover for the past decade. She opened her door only because Kim—that was the mistress's name, though Claire continued to think of her, namelessly, as "the mistress"—was sobbing and carrying on to such an extent that Claire could see her neighbors parting their drapes to look. This was the kind of neighborhood in Queens where people espied from their windows such dramas as double-parked delivery trucks or loud car radios or any nonwhites, especially en masse, and so the scene Kim was threatening to cause might very well elicit from Claire's neighbors a call to the police. She did not want to have to explain to the police or to anyone, for that matter, the identity of this woman on her stoop. She did not want to hear herself say that her dead husband had been a long-term adulterer and that she had known about it but did not leave him. She did not want to hear herself list the reasons why she hadn't—a long and padded list whose essential contents could be summarized as follows: she wanted to avoid the embarrassment of divorcing a man her mother had warned her not to marry. She had imagined that one day, when her mother was dead, she might leave Richard, but her mother was eighty and showing no signs of physical or mental decline—aside from hearing loss—while her husband was gone at forty-five, the heart attack that killed him a surprise to everyone.
     Kim, now pacing Claire's living room, was almost twenty years younger than Claire yet had clearly sunned too much, Claire thought, and was already showing signs of significant skin damage. Still, she was thin and pretty, her teeth among the straightest and whitest Claire had ever seen, and she had nearly a decade of prime husband-meeting, baby-making years ahead of her. When Claire dared to look into her own future, she saw a life alone or with a second husband, the consolation prize of widows and divorcées, a kind, doting man whose love, if he loved her, she could never fully return. However, her Catholic guilt checked her—after all, her husband had been dead less than a month—and so she tried to focus on the woman manically stalking the living room, her eyes searching (Claire could see) for the urn.
     She wouldn't find the urn; Claire, in a moment of anger, had scattered Richard's ashes in the backyard garden, which wasn't so much a garden as a tiny, unkempt plot of soil where Claire had been trying in vain to grow tomatoes for years. Too many stray cats peed on the plants for anything to flourish, but Claire kept feeding the strays anyway, sometimes a dozen or more at once, scrawny females and their mewing, tailless kittens fighting for space around five or six vittle-filled bowls. After she scattered the ashes her anger gave way to regret; she imagined cats impregnating other cats on her husband's remains. Raking her hands through the soil, she managed to gather a handful of Richard, which she kept, for now, in a coffee can on the kitchen counter.
     She thought of offering Kim a drink but didn't, and then tried to dredge up whatever anger she could find; there wasn't much, even now. She decided to say nothing. She would stand beside the couch, a wedding-gift vase within reach should Kim charge her, and wait for her to speak. She was the one who had explaining to do, apologies to make, forgiveness to beg. Regardless of whom Richard had been sleeping with, Claire had been his wife, she reminded herself.
     But for a long while Kim said nothing. She walked from room to room, nervously fingering her hair away from her face and turning over every picture of Claire and Richard together. She wore a lacy shirt-dress over tight jeans, and pink sparkly ballet slippers, the kind of ensemble Claire had noticed in fashion magazines while waiting to have her hair frosted. She felt an urge to defend the sanctity of her marriage yet quickly realized there wasn't sufficient sanctity to defend.
     Claire had moments (she was having one now) when she feared that someone—a neighbor or friend or relative—did know about Richard's infidelity. She couldn't think of anything worse, not even the infidelity itself. She worried that strangers had seen Richard and Kim kissing or holding hands or leaving a motel together, as if these strangers possibly could have known that Richard was married and that somewhere sat a clueless or furious wife, or a wife in denial, which is what she had been, and maybe still was.
     With the pictures overturned, Kim sat in a recliner and crossed her legs. "Much better now," she said, though she did not appear to be better at all; she appeared to be looking around the room for something else she could change. "I don't want to hurt you any more than you've already been hurt," she said, "but we need to be truthful with one another."
     "Don't you think the time to be truthful was long ago?" Claire said, and felt proud of herself.
     "Yes," Kim said. "Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. We all should have—Richard should have left you years ago."
     "He didn't."
     "Fine," she said. "That's one in your column. Great. You win that one. Regardless, I want half his ashes. I deserve to have them."
     "They're gone," Claire said. "I scattered them."
     "I don't have to tell you."
     Kim stood as if something had bitten her. "I don't believe you. You have the ashes in this house."
     "You can look," Claire said, "but you won't find them."
     As Kim searched the house—she looked in the vase Claire had imagined using as a weapon; she looked in a water pitcher in the breakfront, in candleholders and letter boxes and pill bottles; she went through a bag of recycling—Claire took pleasure, if only small pleasure, in Kim's obvious frustration. Before Kim reached the kitchen (she very well could have looked in the coffee can), Claire surprised herself by saying, "OK, enough of this. We're leaving. I need to take you somewhere." She was further surprised that Kim immediately followed her to the car, passing the few neighbors still at their windows. Even as Claire pulled the car out of the driveway, she had not decided where she was going; she knew only that she wanted Kim away from the house, and that she could bait her with mystery, with clues, with the promise of answers, though she intended to give none.
     She drove Kim to the park she and Richard used to walk through on summer nights after they were married, the park their children, had they had children, would have played in. During the brief ride Kim kept saying, "When are you going to start honoring his wishes, Claire?" but Claire, hating the sound of her own name coming from Kim's mouth, did not respond. They had been through all this on the phone.
     It was Kim's contention that Richard had wanted his body vitrified, so to be reanimated when medical science could cure whatever disease had befallen him. "I have him on tape saying this!" Kim had shouted into the phone, and Claire had said, "I don't want to see any tapes of anything. Now would you please leave my family alone." After she hung up, she felt ashamed that she had said "my family" rather than "me."
     The park didn't deserve to be called a park, not now that the benches were missing half their planks, not now that the central flower bed was filled with syringes and plastic bags and fecal matter. There was nothing green here. Squirrels masticated stale hot dog buns softened by the morning's rain. A young man holding up his pants argued with himself beside a veterans memorial emanating a stink of urine. During that first year of marriage, before Richard began cheating, they would sometimes sit here on clear nights and eat ice cream and talk about baby names. The neighborhood, Claire wanted to tell Kim, was better than this park would indicate.
     "Why are we here?" Kim said.
     "I didn't want you in my house."
     "If you spread his ashes here," Kim said, "I swear, I'll . . . I'll sue you."
     "I can't think of one reason why I should be speaking to you."
     "I knew more about Richard than you did."
     "Is this where I'm supposed to say 'Did not' and you come back with 'Did too' and then we pull each other's hair?"
     "You don't even seem to care that he's gone," Kim said.
     When Claire did not respond, Kim added, "He told me you were having an affair, too. So you have no reason to complain."
     Claire stared off into the cemetery adjacent to the park. Rows and rows of the dead. She had read somewhere that in this neighborhood there were more dead than living. She remembered now an impish moment when she and Richard had snuck into the cemetery near dark to have sex. He backed her against a mausoleum and kissed her but then pulled away and stared wide-eyed behind her until she screamed. There was nothing there, of course; he had a habit then of trying to scare her—he thought it funnier than anything. Some nights he would come home with fake bad news—he had lost his job, the car had been stolen—just to see her reaction. That night in the cemetery, before they found a place to lie down, they came upon another couple, the man's pants at his ankles, the woman's skirt pulled up over her waist, the man grunting doglike, the woman periodically crying out. The woman, Claire remembered now, was wonderfully fat, and the man grabbed her thighs hungrily; and when she and Richard got home and he did the same to her, she felt that she wasn't having sex with her husband but was watching him have sex with someone else.
     "I never had an affair," Claire said.
     "If only the dead could speak," Kim said. She surprised Claire then by walking away. At the edge of the park she turned and said to Claire, "I won't let this go. I've hired a lawyer, and he says I have rights."
The infection in what remained of his left index finger was getting worse—the pain about a six on a scale of one to ten, ten being burned alive—yet he could not stop peeling back the bandage and pressing at it. He'd cut off the top two inches of his finger two weeks before by accident after a fight with Jo, his wife, about another accident. The other accident was by far the worst of many accidents that had befallen Bennie in his life, though Jo claimed—and had recently nearly said so directly—that it had not been an accident, that to call what had happened an accident was to remove blame where one must assign blame. If he was accident prone, as even Bennie admitted he was (though no longer jokingly, as he used to), if misfortune on both small and great levels followed him around like a proverbial dark cloud, then "it has to make you wonder," his wife told him, "what's truly an accident and what's not." What frustrated Bennie—what he was trying to explain to her when he severed two inches of his finger chopping carrots for stir-fry—was that Jo used to find his klutziness endearing; she had been drawn to him, at least in part, because of his fumbling, his propensity to spill, his gangly attempts at dancing.
     They met in a physics class she would have failed without him. During their first few months dating he had locked himself out of his apartment once and out of his car twice, one time with the engine running. By the end of their first year together Bennie had spilled coffee on his computer, lost his wallet, had his laundry stolen, been mugged, and fractured both his wrists falling down the stairs. She liked playing nurse to his patient, turning the pages of his books or typing his notes; but now, five years into their marriage, the worst that can happen to a couple having already happened, she watched him finger his stump without the least sign of sympathy.
     Despite Bennie's lack of grace or good fortune, Jo considered his mind among the most refined she had encountered, especially when it came to physics and astronomy, and she would sit up with him nights and listen to him talk about his research. He studied black holes, specifically the center of a black hole, the singularity, the point where the laws of physics break down and matter is crushed to zero volume but infinite density. Like a grain of sand weighing more than all the suns in the universe, he told her. Like nothing weighing more than everything. Jo used to joke with Bennie that any day now, with his track record, he would probably be sucked into a black hole and never be seen again.
     Which wasn't so much of a joke anymore. There'd been no jokes in their home since their daughter died. Bennie was convinced that his marriage was over—that it had, in fact, already expired—and he was incapable of mourning so much at once. So instead he fingered his stump, maintaining sufficient pressure to increase his pain number from six to seven and further infecting the wound. He embraced even phantom pain. Approximately five seconds after he touched the left side of his face, the missing tip of his finger would tingle and become cold. At night, when Jo was asleep next to him, he would move his hand close to her side, closer, until he could feel the finger touching her skin, though he could clearly see it was not.
     When he argued his defense in his mind—most of his fights with his wife were waged mentally, theoretically—he could reasonably convince her that accidents were accidents, that too often in this world bad things happen to good people, and that tragedy does not necessitate culpability. But all it took was a certain tired expression on Jo's face, or for her to sleep from seven on a Friday night until late Saturday afternoon, and Bennie's case would fall apart.
     With his nail he broke through the membrane at the top of his stump, sending a brief but intense wave of eight pain through his nerve endings and into his brain. Water leaked from his eyes; he hoped Jo would look at him from the couch and think he was crying (he had not cried in front of her since their daughter died, for fear she would think that he of all people, after what he had done, or rather had failed to do, did not deserve such tears), but she was sleeping. Again. She had lost weight—he could see it mostly in her face and in the way her clothes fit—and had not shaved her legs in weeks and had resumed smoking five years after quitting when she was pregnant with Stella. He could not bring himself to urge her to quit smoking or to eat more or sleep less, just as now he could not bring himself to wake her. He did not know what he would do or say should he wake her, what reason he would give her.
     Blood from his stump made a line across his hand; he cupped the blood in his palm until it began to drip onto the rug, and then he went into the bathroom and rebandaged the wound. His pain number was holding at seven until he looked at the bathtub, the battleground of the current stalemate with his wife, the place where their daughter had died. It was clogged with gray soapy water and clumps of hair, and for four days Bennie had stood in the filthy water to shower as if nothing were wrong. Another two or three showers and the water would overflow onto the bathroom floor; he might keep showering until water filled the entire house—such was the enmity between them.
     Jo had not showered since the tub clogged; her hair was greasy, her body starting to smell. A plunger would do the trick, at least temporarily, but he would not unclog the tub and his wife would not ask him to. This was a war he could not win. If he unclogged the tub, Jo would take this as a kind of confession; if he did not, she would assume she had been right all along—the fetid water rising inches with every shower was all the proof she needed. Their stalemate, of course, was about something else entirely, something neither Bennie nor Jo was willing to confront directly.
     As if to hasten the outcome of this war—whether in his favor or not no longer mattered: he knew they would either win or lose together—Bennie took a long shower that began hot and ended cold; and by the time he finished, the water sat precipitously at the lip of the tub. Despite his desire for resolution, he thought better and stepped out gingerly to avoid a spill.
All day an especially spirited spirit had been showing David Shine an astronaut spilling milk, and now she was showing him Brando in Streetcar; and he had no idea what any of it meant. At first he thought she might be his sister finally coming through, but this spirit was too young—she had held up four fingers to indicate her age. Shine was a somewhat famous psychic; he'd published three books, he starred in a syndicated television show and headlined lucrative speaking tours. However he didn't contact the dead; the dead contacted him, whether he wanted them to or not. And so for the seven years since her death, he'd been waiting to hear from his sister.
     Yet again, this determined—that was the polite word—girl was showing him a tight-shirted Brando as Stanley Kowalski. Or was it Brando as an astronaut? Had he ever played an astronaut? Now the astronaut wasn't Brando but was spilling milk again. He tried to remember: had he known a Marlon or a Stanley or an astronaut who had crossed over to the other side? It was difficult enough to decipher what spirits were trying to say when he was fully concentrating (he described the experience to his TV audience as "looking through a dark veil and trying to catch a glimpse of faces and clues as they pass by on a speeding train"); however, to unravel these images while driving on the Long Island Expressway was impossible. He wanted the girl to leave him alone. As if she'd heard him, she stepped back, and for the first time since Shine left his house he saw only the road.
     He hadn't given up on Gail, his sister. Before losing consciousness, she'd whispered into his ear, Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray, answer, look, tell, answer, answer, tell. It was code for Rosabelle, believe—a message she'd send him from beyond. Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess, had conceived the same plan seventy-five years before. "Rosabelle" was the name of a song special to them—the word engraved inside her wedding ring—and in retrospect Shine was particularly grateful he and Gail had chosen a backup message; after all, if Shine did hear those words, how would he know they weren't from Houdini himself? Their backup message was related to the first: Good night, Harry. These were the last words Bess said to Houdini in her final attempt to contact him. As if to seal the pact, Gail's last words to Shine were, "Good night, David."
     So Shine was now driving through Suffolk County, approaching an abandoned lighthouse he'd read about nicknamed "Rosabelle" for its resident ghost. The structure was set on rocks near the ocean, grass and weeds growing up its rusted sides. A lone crow perched in the hole of a blown-out window. The crow's caw and the breaking waves were the only sounds as Shine walked through the dunes, whacking weeds away from his face. Stepping over beer bottles and empty cigarette packs, he entered the lighthouse; he climbed the stairs, feeling an unfamiliar fear. When he reached the top, he saw that the floor had rotted away and collapsed and now lay in a pile below him. It didn't matter—there was nothing here anyway. He had hoped to find a message from his sister spray-painted on the walls—"Forgiveness" would have been nice—but these walls were bare. At the bottom of the stairs he closed his eyes and concentrated yet felt nothing. This place wasn't even haunted.
     The girl returned during the drive home and stayed with Shine even while he ate dinner and played with his own daughter, and then while he lay in bed beside his wife. She kept showing him four fingers and Brando as Kowalski and the goddamn astronaut spilling milk, and finally he had to get out of bed and watch TV. His wife was used to this by now. Whenever he would sit up in bed and stare at the wall, his wife would know they weren't alone. So it was not unusual, at least not in this house, when Shine said to his wife, "I can't sleep. This little pain-in-the-ass spirit won't leave me alone. I'll come back to bed a little later."

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