Fiction and Drama
This was definitely not what Ken wanted.
In the beginning it was an in-ground swimming pool Ruth wanted, but she got over that idea pretty quick — too expensive, all the upkeep. She first mentioned koi on her birthday, about two months after Ken got the job at Hofstra and they moved to Freeport.
She had always liked koi, she explained — their unreflecting googly eyes, their fussy barbels. Their toothless mouths like open sucking nostrils. It was impossible for a koi to smile, Ruth said. This stayed with Ken, because she herself was smiling when she said it, like it brought her true joy, this other creature’s fixed expression of stalking hunger. He was struck by her insistent preference for white longfins splashed and ringed with orange flames. She, usually so silly and loose, became specific and grave over the matter of the orange flames. She knew about them. She was reading things when Ken wasn’t around, or maybe right under his nose, clandestinely.
All of which is to say that Ken knew that Ruth wanted koi but also that she liked talking about things more than doing them, which suited him fine. She threw out the idea now and again, and for two years Ken never denied that they had the perfect setting: a hi-ranch at the end of a cul-de-sac, a half acre of fenced-in yard flanked by shrubbery and shaded by the neighbors’ trees. A stone patio jutted out from the back door, providing what the real estate agent called a “transition.” Their old house had been a Trinity with plush aquamarine wall-to-wall and a poured-concrete outdoor space; it had soft insides and hard outsides. This new one was the opposite, and Ruth was surprised at how often she missed sitting cross-legged in comfort, and burying her face in carpet as comedic protest when Ken said something she didn’t like.
It wasn’t clear, when Jeff and Terri announced that they had built a koi pond, whether they had known that Ruth had been so long suffering for one. The two couples were sitting in Jeff and Terri’s living room on a stiff modern sofa that lacked arms. They never stayed at Jeff and Terri’s long enough to relax, mostly because it was horrible sitting there. Terri worked on visual culture and talked a lot about “clean lines” and the “provenance” of this or that object — a planter, a frame. There were other rooms in the house, rooms that were habitable or looked to be in passing, but Terri always shepherded guests to this room, which she repainted every two years a different shade of neutral. The current color was Butter Cookie, a name whose associations did not at all capture the feeling of being in the room. Ruth preferred it to Oklahoma Wheat, which had been insincere, but was looking forward to Lemon Sorbet, which promised to be cleaner, more open to the future.
“Lemon Sorbet is the color of the year,” Terri said, and Ruth imagined Terri fingering the paint strips, holding them up to the window, examining them against her skin, licking them in surreptitious delight.
Jeff and Ken and Terri taught in the same department; that’s how they all knew one another. Ruth had recently acquired a real estate license but she didn’t define herself by her work.
Jeff and Terri were much better looking, in a conventional American way, than most professors: lean, elegant, small tactful features. This fact was starting to bother Ruth less, but it had been a problem, historically, in the foursome. Things work better when everyone is about the same degree of good-looking, and in the same way. People have known that for centuries.
It seemed like Terri was going to say they were having a baby. She acted just like women act when they announce they’re having babies. She smoothed her stretchy black pants and she looked sideways at Jeff and twisted her wedding ring and grinned ear to ear like the cat that et cetera. When she said, “We built a koi pond!” Ken asked her to repeat it, because he had been busy preparing his baby face and thought he must have misheard.
Ken put a hand on Ruth’s knee, steady unlike his own, which was bobbing and broadcasting nerves — typical Ken behavior. His body had been built for the tarmac, one jolt from takeoff, always about to be somewhere else. Ruth was radiating serenity, her face painted with a sweet smile like she was also the cat that et cetera. Ken felt his mouth twisting dementedly into a smirk. They followed their hosts through the sleek glass door that slid open soundlessly, and under the full flush of a golden sunset sky they loudly admired the pond. Ruth nodded as Terri pointed out this or that feature, and playfully refereed the debate over the dollhouse-size pagoda. (Jeff wanted a lacquered black one, Terri rustic white.) Ken could not understand how Ruth could be smiling and nodding and never saying a word that betrayed her expertise. He tried to remember why they hadn’t built their pond already. He guessed that it had seemed like there would always be more time.
This pond, the pond that had been built already, was elaborate and it looked good: there was no doubt about that. A triple shelf of askew slate-colored rocks formed a waterfall. It was no trickle, either, but full curtains splashing down. Plants, ferns, and mosses bordered the pond on three sides. The water was a natural-looking brownish-green. Three dozen pea-green lily pads clustered together, trembling since the group’s arrival, when a frog had plunged into the water to escape. Jeff sprinkled some fish food from a metal bucket that stood at the pond’s edge, and a dozen koi snaked to the surface, mouthing the air, thrashing. They were white, streaked and blotched with red and gold. A gentle breeze rustled the grasses.
“I never thought that Terri would clutter up her yard with any landscaping,” Ruth said in the car, innocently. Ken wasn’t in the mood for pretending not to be in a mood, but Ruth plowed into the silence. “I guess she figures it’s Japanese, so it’s elegant.” Ken reminded her that Terri had studied in Kyoto in the ’90s, and that was all anybody said until a cat leaped into the street and Ruth slammed her leather moccasin on the brake pedal and screamed something foul at the windshield.
They were off-script now. This was a contingency Ken had not foreseen. He worried, as he lay curled and counting backward from 100 en español, trying to bore himself to sleep, that Ruth would want to sever or otherwise diminish their contact with Jeff and Terri. They were his colleagues, and the only ones he and Ruth socialized with outside of the command performance of the end-of-the-year department party. He feared isolation.
By the time his phone broke into arpeggios, the alarm steadily increasing in volume, Ruth was handing him a cup of coffee and a Cheshire grin, a smile without a face. She seemed to have been up for hours.
“A pond, a pond!” she sang. “I’ll call the man today.”
In the early 2000s, at one of the first Christmases Ken spent with Ruth’s family, she received from both her mother and her sister vegetarian cookbooks. (Different chefs.) She was so angry at this double lack of originality, a twin nullity, that she refused to pose for any pictures around the tree, and two months later Ken found both books in a bag for Goodwill. That was the scene Ken was expecting. A fight. Yelling. Frozen silence. Complaints, more curses directed at windows or doors or animals. A finale of total renunciation of ponds, perhaps a rejection of landscape architecture altogether. He had expected dismissal, not pursuit.
“Did it seem to you,” he asked, hoisting himself to a seated position, “did it seem to you like Terri was going to say she was pregnant?”
Ruth scoffed. “Terri doesn’t want children,” she said. “Everyone knows that.”
Terri didn’t want children and Ruth wanted a pond. Now more than ever.
“I wanted that pond first,” she said.
Ken pointed out the potentially devastating effects on their friendship. Ruth shook her head from side to side. “No, no, no,” she said. “It’s not like they’re the only people with a pond. Lots of people have ponds.”
“The balance of pond power is shifting!” Ken said, and dribbled coffee on his chin and chest hair. He wiped it with the sheet. Ruth took his cup and drank from it. She seemed very caffeinated already. She hadn’t slept well since they moved to Freeport, but she didn’t complain. She didn’t make it worse for him. Ken asked if he should mention her plans to Jeff.
“That’s up to you,” Ruth said. Ken had to admit that he found Ruth very sexy in her newfound greediness and impatience, and he lost a nice ten minutes of his afternoon imagining her naked and with her mouth on various parts of his and other people’s bodies. Some of these fantasies also involved Terri, which is normal, he counseled himself as he washed his hands in the single-occupancy unisex bathroom, which had no mirror above the sink.
Waterfalls, grottos, waterfalls overhanging grottos. Bowers. Stone walls, hanging plants, saltwater, freshwater, filtered water, springs, fountains. Docks. Pumps, sealants, tubes, rocks, plastic rocks, fiberglass rocks, rock lids, drains, cleaners, diverters, skimmers. The Watergarden World catalog, world inside a world. Ruth pointed to a page in the floppy book, a shelf of askew slate-colored rocks that formed curtains of water that dropped into a greenish-brown basin. Plants, ferns, and mosses formed a border on three sides. Three dozen pea-green lily pads clustered together. A metal bucket leaned against the foot of the flat stones that formed the hidden stairway.
“That’s the one Jeff and Terri have,” Ken said.
He took the opportunity to say that Jeff and Terri’s pond was very busy, with many kinds of plants and rocks, and that if they were also going to have a pond it would be best if it were simple. They should reduce the pond to its elements: water, grasses, orange flames.
“No one likes a copycat,” he said. “Our pond has to be different.”
Ruth did not understand how building the most elemental and quintessential koi pond would be a way of making their pond different — it seemed to her that it would be a way of making their pond the same as every pond — but she didn’t argue. Eyes on the prize.
It takes very little time to build a pond. After so many years of pushing it off, the project had come to seem stupidly Herculean, like rock climbing or running a marathon, and Ken had expected to have men in their yard for weeks, many men, with many loud machines. But the entire affair took one weekend. Ken and Ruth watched from inside the house as the men dug, lined, filled, filtered, planted, and arranged.
“See,” Ken said to Ruth. “It’s taking less time because we’re making ours so simple. That’s another advantage.”
Ruth had her way on two points. She insisted the pond be installed directly off the patio, so that even with their faux-wood alfresco dining chairs tilted into a semi-recline, they could hear the water lapping and, through half-slit eyes, admire the grasses and, when the orange-licked white longfin koi arrived from Tri-State House of Koi, be soothed by the hypnotic swimming circles of their submarine forms. They ate outside that night, cradled in the chairs’ granny-apple-colored cushions, and the white of the pagoda glowed like a fallen moon caught in the light of the citronella candle. The pagoda was the second point she had carried.
They could not hear each other talk over the din of the cicadas. Ken was not used to crickets, let alone cicadas, and had transferred all his citified loathing of cockroaches to whatever thrumming he heard coming from the woods, which he imagined as the noise of an army gathering strength on its long march to victory.
It was Ruth and Ken’s turn to host, and Terri and Jeff arrived punctually bearing a bouquet of bare twigs that Ruth made a point of arranging in her favorite terra-cotta vase.
“I have no idea where I got this vase!” she said. While Terri helped to set the table, Jeff yanked on the sticky sliding door and wedged himself outside. Ken was fiddling with the grill.
“Hey!” Jeff said. He pointed, past the alfresco dining set, to the clumps of grasses bent crookedly like paper cranes. “You built a pond.”
Ken put on his casual voice. “We always wanted one. I guess you inspired us!”
Jeff inspected it closely. “You didn’t tell me you were doing this,” he said. He crouched down and whispered to the fish. “Puh-puh-puh-puh-puh,” he said to them. “Where do you keep their food? They look hungry.”
Ken used the underside of the spatula to press down on the steaks so that juice dribbled out. He would have to clean the grill later. “I don’t know,” he said. “Ruth handles all that.” He jumped back. Jeff was under his legs, pulling beers from the red and white cooler that leaned against the white vinyl siding of the house’s backside. He handed one to Ken. They were slick with sheen, the men and their bottles.
“I like longfins,” Jeff said. “We talked about getting those, but we decided not to. They don’t live as long as true nishikigoi.” He paused and shrugged, a tiny and enclosed movement, a gesture for himself and not for Ken. “Of course, they’re beautiful.”
“I thought the koi were Terri’s thing,” Ken said. “Because she’s been to Japan?”
Jeff never liked talking about things Terri had done before he met her. “Her thing, my thing — they’re our thing,” he said. “We’re a team. That’s our theory of marriage.”
There was nothing to do out here except circle about the pond, balancing on the jagged shale of false starts.
Jeff went back inside. “Terri will want to see this,” he said. His emphasis was on the word this; Ken thought it should have been on the word Terri. Since they were a team.
He was alone with the steaks and the fish. Ken carried his beer to the water’s edge and knelt down to try out the “puh-puh-puh” that he had heard Jeff whisper. The koi ignored him. He worried that longfins were fated to brief life. How brief would it be? He had no idea what a brief life span was, for a koi. And should he water the grasses, or did being in the pond make them wet enough?
Ken’s office was so full of books that they called it the storehouse. Ruth had named it that. She had never been there, but the shelves were visible behind him in his picture on the department website. The books were organized by color, a system Ken had deplored until he tried it and discovered its analgesic effects. A framed poster of an exhibition from the Philadelphia Museum of Art reclined against a file cabinet. It was an office-warming present from Ruth. He liked it, but when he looked into his soul he knew that he would never hang that poster on the wall.
“I’m sorry for bothering you at work,” Ruth asked when he picked up his desk phone. Her voice was low and morbid and her own.
“The koi are gone,” she said.
She had noticed, she said now, that there seemed to be fewer koi several days ago, but hadn’t said anything about it. She wasn’t sure; didn’t want to jinx it. She thought — it sounded loony, but it had to be said — that maybe they were hanging out near the bottom of the pond, where the water was warmer. Maybe they had been cold; it had been a mild spring. Then today, while working at the kitchen table, she saw, through the window, an egret swoop in and carry one away. Ken googled “egret eating koi” and clicked on a YouTube video with that name.
“I’m watching it on YouTube,” he interrupted and described what he was seeing. The YouTube egret had chosen an exceptionally large koi, and juggled it in his beak several times before choking it down his gullet. You could see it, koi-shaped, cartoonishly descending. It was appalling.
Ruth asked what the video was called and pulled it up on her own screen. “No,” she said. “Our koi are smaller. He swallowed them midflight.”
Ruth had run outside, smacking wooden spoon on pot, but she was too late. The bird was gone. The pond was empty.
“Let’s watch it again,” Ken said, but Ruth didn’t feel like it.
In 1977, a koi named Hanako died in Japan. Hanako was 226 years old. What Ken found most interesting about Hanako, when he started looking into the matter of life span, was that Hanako was said to recognize the sound of her own name. Dr. Komei Koshihara, the women’s-college president who served as Hanako’s last caretaker, said that he would call her from the edge of the water, saying, “Hanako! Hanako!” and she would glide directly to where Dr. Koshihara stood. Sometimes, he said, he would take the elderly fish out of the water and hold her in his arms.
Ken found this story hard to believe. It wasn’t Hanako’s age. There’s plenty of reason to hang around underwater, Ken thought, if there were no predators to interfere; everything was provided for, like being 226 years old in utero. And it wasn’t the facts that got to him, either: the problem of how-could-a-fish-breathe-out-of-water, the problem of a-fish’s-slippery-body-that-would-slide-from-human-arms, the problem, the admittedly glaring problem, of a-scholar-who-should-know-better-willingly-exposing-himself-to-aquatic-bacteria. It was that Ken could not imagine having Dr. Koshihara’s relationship with a fish, that experience of affection or comfort or needs mutually proffered and satisfied. He could not imagine a koi coming when called.
The night that the egret cleared the pond, Ruth was distracted. She kept talking about “Jackie” and “Lily” and “Pete” — it went on, the names she had given them. He hadn’t known.
Ken recalled Hanako’s longevity and felt failure spasm in him like a muscle he had forgotten to stretch: Hanako had been protected. Ken tried to push from his mind the thought that they had asked for this defeat, by rushing into koi before doing the proper research. Who did they think they were, that they could just go out and buy koi and they would thrive. They weren’t experts at all. They were barely amateurs.
“I can’t believe they have koi and we don’t,” Ruth said. Her emphasis was on the word they; Ken thought it should have been on the word we. Since they were a team.
She flipped through the channels and found a cooking show that she hated. A famous white chef was eating squid from a Styrofoam cup at a stall in an alley somewhere in China. “If they were going to die we could have at least eaten them,” she said. “I bet Terri knows a great recipe.” And then, with real passion, “Those assholes!”
“Come on,” Ken said. “Terri and Jeff are our friends. And we don’t eat fish,” he added.
“Are they?” Ruth said. The famous white chef was now slapping the backs of the Chinese men who had prepared and sold him the squid. Ken wished a stomach virus on him. Nothing deadly. Just to teach him a lesson. “Are they really our friends?” she asked.
Ken didn’t appreciate the challenge, so he raised it. “If we asked them, they would give us their koi,” he said.
She searched his eyes, black and blue, twitching in the corners. The lines between his brows broke his face into two pieces like scores in a round loaf. If you had asked her, she could not have said what he would do next. “OK,” she said. “Call them. Call them now.”
This was definitely not what Ken wanted. Not this bowing and scraping and generally losing face. Not this asking for help and a handout, assuming the role of a student peddling excuses, angling for exceptions, exposing everything he had not learned in time. He, who had planned a pond perfect in its simplicity and totally self-sufficient in its essence. But Ruth. She was waiting. “Call him now,” she said. It was a test.
Jeff was large and gracious on the phone and more than proved Ken right. He was a friend, acting like friends do. “This happens to everyone,” he told Ken. It had not happened to them, but that was because they had read the horror stories and had strung fishing wire across their pond. To deter aerial attack. The threat to koi comes in all forms, Jeff added in the voice he used for lecturing and faculty meetings: egrets, herons, hawks, raccoons, foxes — even bears.
“There are bears here?” Ken said.
“Of course not,” Jeff said. “But in other places.”
There was relief in Jeff’s voice, relief that there was a favor that Ruth and Ken needed. It put him at ease to know that their ponds were connected in this way. They would be caretakers of the same family; it was like they were in-laws! Both couples passed the phone back and forth and everyone talked to everyone. “Lily!” Terri exclaimed. “I named one of ours Pat!”
The next day Jeff and Terri brought two koi over in an old fish tank that Terri had borrowed from a neighbor. (This detail delighted Jeff: the giving trail went on forever.) They toasted glasses of wine and watched the koi find the perimeters of their new home. Ruth swore she would put up the fishing line immediately.
“Get busy, guys!” Ken said to the pond. He was having a hard time feeling anything for these new and un-homesick fish. Their prehistoric suction cups mouthed the air with what looked like despondency and what he knew in his disappointment to be only dumb instinct.
There was no reason to be on campus in the mornings so Ken sometimes lingered, drinking coffee in the kitchen. Ruth, who worked from home, ignored him. Today she was going to install the fishing line — just as soon as she went to the store and bought it.
Ken was rinsing his mug when he saw it happen. He ran to the sliding door and pulled but it was locked and in his confusion and haste the moment came to him as a choice between watching and unlocking. He watched.
Egrets are sky giraffes erased to blankness, plump and balanced on emaciated legs; their boneless necks curve like the Big Dipper. Very tall. This one was picking its way over gray chalkboard rocks, and it plunged into the water. Wings extended, it skimmed the surface in circles. One, three, four times, the feathered arms cocked wide and dangled, as if broken. But they were very strong. The bird hopped out with the koi in its beak, and bobbed its head up and down, pacing at the edge of the pond. It flapped its wings and bobbled its neck. Ken thought about the times he had eaten a slice of pizza while walking down South Street. This was what the egret was doing, or seemed to be doing, until Ken realized that he had stopped mouthing the koi and was beating its long, thick body against the patio. Now Jeff’s ivory-white and golden-flecked nishikigoi was sagging and dead, and as the egret choked it down whole, out of the sky another bird dove, skimmed, nabbed, and pecked at the second fish, the mate. It flew off, the lifeless koi pinned in its banana-colored bill. The first egret left the way it had come, walk-hopping over the rocks and taking a long low running start over the yard and back up to the sky.
Ruth looked up from her computer. “Why are you standing like that in front of the door?” she asked.
“It happened again,” Ken said. “The koi.” If only he had left for work on time, he thought, he would not be responsible, he would not have met the depths of his own impotent inaction so early in the day.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” she asked, her tone flinty. Ken, fundamentally a soft man, deflated under the accusation. He seemed to be leaking mass. If he stood there all day, by dinnertime he would be a thin man. It was his poor posture, of course, that accounted for this. Ruth knew that.
“If only you wanted a bird sanctuary instead of a koi pond,” he said. “Then everything would be perfect.”
It had taken all his energy to make this one bit of weak wit. Ruth did not like to see Ken puddling and losing shape in front of her. She laid her head in her lap and ground the heels of her hands into her eye sockets and did not move until he was gone. He did not try to kiss or touch her when he passed by on his way to the garage.
That evening Ruth told Ken that she was sorry for acting out and was fine now. She had decided they didn’t need any more koi. She liked them but they were a lot of trouble, and having the pond was perfectly good on its own. What mattered to her was that Ken had agreed that they could try to have them. Now she knew what it was to be a person who had koi.
“You also know what it’s like to be a person whose koi get eaten by an egret,” Ken said.
“Exactly,” Ruth said. “You really get me.”
A few weeks passed, filled with things that had nothing to do with ponds or koi or the outdoors. They caught up on a popular television show about a child murderer, and talked about the criminal justice system. Ruth bought a rug so she had something to sit on when she wanted to sit on the floor. It had a black-and-white checkerboard pattern. It was large and expensive and soft, and little tassels hung off its edges that she intended to comb straight on a regular basis. “I can’t believe I didn’t do this right away,” she said, stretching out on her back and flexing and wriggling her feet. “I love it down here.” She jumped forward into a yoga pose whose name Ken didn’t know, buried her palms and fingers in the plushness, and pushed her backside into the air. Her shirt fell over her face and exposed her bare breasts. Each of her toenails was painted a different color of the rainbow. Ken was very attracted to her. Then one evening he came in slumping and stooping and shuffling and slow.
“Were the students bad today?” Ruth asked.
“Yes,” Ken said, his face all folds, the skin turning in on itself like it was running away. “But no.”
It turned out that Jeff had called him to say that it was a silly situation, one of life’s ironies, but now all of their koi were gone. He had emphasized it. “Now all of our koi are gone,” Jeff had said. “I don’t see how it could have happened, because of the fishing wire. But I guess our bird is really smart.”
Ruth laughed and all her teeth showed. “He said that? He said his bird is really smart?”
Ken wasn’t laughing and so Ruth made her face serious and empathetic. “Of course our bird is smart,” she said.
It turned out that then Jeff had asked Ken for the koi back, so they could repopulate his pond. “I hope those two like each other,” he had said, “because we need them to get busy!” Ken was especially stuck on this joke, which he had made first, and which now tortured him with its crass anthropomorphism. Hanako did not know the sound of her name and no koi was capable of “liking” any other.
“Jeff is a philistine,” Ken said. “He gets his ideas about nature from Disney movies.”
Ruth disagreed — didn’t Jeff have experience? Didn’t he know about the fishing line? — but nodded in appeasement. She had wished death on Jeff’s koi and now they were dead. She felt no more regret than the egret did. Nature was on her side.
“You told him that the koi are gone, right?” she asked.
Ken had his head in the refrigerator and Ruth couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“What?” she said.
He turned around and yelled. “I told him no!”
It was some work to make her understand the sequence of events, but in the end it was clear. Jeff had asked for his koi back and Ken had said, “I don’t think so,” and then, quickly, “I have to go, I’m at work.” That was it. That was how it ended.
With exaggerated tenderness and guilelessness, offensively gentle, his wife asked why Ken hadn’t told their friend that the koi he had given them were dead.
Ken drank from his beer and put it down on the table. “I didn’t want him to think I was a bad steward,” he said.
Ruth placed a coaster under the bottle. “A bad steward?” she repeated. “Now he thinks you’re an asshole.” It occurred to her that maybe Ken was an asshole, and she had never known it. Her anger popped like a balloon. He still had surprises, her husband — she had not reached the end of him yet.
“Or crazy!” Ken said. He could relax now that Ruth was laughing. He got into the spirit of the moment and circled a finger near his ear in a “crazy” gesture. Ruth loved this gesture. She grabbed the finger and nibbled on it. Afterward, as she rolled away from him, wrapping herself in a cocoon of stolen blanket, she said, cheerfully mannish, “G’night, steward,” and gave him a pert two-fingered salute. She emphasized that word, steward, that she had never before spoken out loud. It kept Ken awake for hours; he sat in the kitchen snacking and stewing. In the morning she greeted him with it, “G’morning, steward,” and another little salute, and that was when he asked her to please stop.
“But it’s funny,” she said.
“It’s not funny,” he said. Ruth didn’t believe him. He’s proud, she told herself, and went downstairs to put the coffee on. Harsh light was filling the kitchen unpleasantly. She was wearing a black kimono that Ken had purchased for her many years ago. She started most mornings in it and she never washed it because she was afraid it would shrink. As she drew shut the curtains, red and seeded with knots like strawberries, she thought that today she would order another shipment from the Tri-State House of Koi. They would be a gift for Ken. +
It was my birthday and we were drinking white wine and waiting for the palm reading to start. We were at Henry’s apartment. Henry was a friend of Carla’s, and a scholar of illuminated manuscripts. He lived in a converted firehouse with his boyfriend, a fund manager, and he liked hosting parties, because it made use of the space. There were no closets. All their worldly possessions were displayed on modular shelves or hanging off horseshoe-shaped hooks. The palm reading had been Henry’s idea. The palm reader had been recommended to him by a friend of a friend, and he kept saying she was the best, like he could tell the difference.
The palm reader, when she arrived, moved in a way that suggested she was not in too much of a hurry to arrive in the future. She was like some piece of human clutter purchased to give the room more character. Ceramic roses were clipped to her earlobes and beneath her black crocheted dress her breasts strained to get away from each other. On her left hand was a diamond the size of a Brussels sprout. She was between 40 and 65 years old. I was the guest of honor and I got to go first. She led me away from the drinks and the stereo and the cheese to the corner under the skylight, and sat me on an egg-shaped orange chair. The palm reader sat herself on a low wooden bench, a Shaker pew that had been bought at auction.
She smelled like lemongrass. The first thing she said was that I would change jobs many times, a statement that had the advantage of being already true. I had had all the jobs a young person has. I had been a telemarketer, taco maker, babysitter, barista, waitress, and tutor, and I had modeled for a life-drawing class, even though the money wasn’t very good. I liked variety; I lived like a gatherer. At that time I believed that if you string enough moments together life becomes a collection, something worth talking about. Like that movie I saw at the repertory theater, La Collectionneuse, at the sea with the people talking on telephones. Collectionneuse is a word that feels good in your mouth, especially if you don’t speak French. It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time when it really mattered if you spoke French or not.
The palm reader asked me to quiet my mind so she could concentrate. She told me that I had extra vitality. Then she told me that, vitality notwithstanding, I was strongly controlled by fate. I asked to see her palm for comparison, but she refused.
“That’s against my policy,” she said in her voice that was gravel crunching.
“You know,” she said, “in a way, none of us are self-made.”
I assured the palm reader that she did not have to persuade me that destiny was a good thing.
“What’s personal responsibility anyway?” I said, mistaking our conversation for a dialogue.
“Why do you clean houses?” she asked. I looked at my hands. If it was a guess, it was a good one. There are lots of ways to ruin your hands.
“I need the money,” I said.
When the palm reader opened her eyes, nothing else on her face moved. She leaned in until our foreheads were a hair from touching.
“Maybe,” she said. “You also want something else. But it’s not what you’re going to get. Also” — here she pulled away — “I don’t think your relationship is going to last.”
“It already ended,” I said.
“The next one won’t last, either,” she said.
The next morning at eleven o’clock I was sitting on a bench under a tree whose name I didn’t know waking up with a large sweet coffee and reading my own palm. The park was laid out like the spokes of a wheel. It was warm for October — it might have been the warmest October on record. The basics were easy. Every hand has a heart line, a head line, and a life line, but not every hand has a fate line. Having a fate line is special. For some people life is just one thing after another. Having a fate line means you have a purpose, and your job is to discover it.
I didn’t have any jobs lined up that day so I finished my coffee and went downtown to see Diary of a Chambermaid. It gave me ideas. It also showed me the limitations of my own situation. In Diary of a Chambermaid Jeanne Moreau triumphs because life presents obstacles to be overcome; also, a little girl is raped, and dies. Perhaps cleaning houses on a drop-in basis wasn’t going to give me enough material; perhaps I needed to become a live-in housekeeper. From reality would greatness issue. Living together presents a different kind of interest. Whatever was happening could not yet be fate.
Carla had said she would meet me at the movie, but something or someone came up and so she came over that night for TV instead. We both liked shows about sex crimes. Before she arrived I noticed a spider of hair behind the bathroom door and picked it up with my fingers and threw it away. I dragged a piece of toilet paper over the lid of the toilet bowl and took a paper towel and picked up the dust bunnies that had gathered along the living room moldings and near the front door, but I didn’t have the energy to disturb the untidy stacks of papers and books and the piles of clothes. Uncompensated labor had started to seem like a phase of life I had grown out of.
We got high and watched four episodes of SVU. Somehow or another we started talking about greatness. Carla said that greatness resides in the pursuit of greatness, in simply making the attempt; Carla is the child of artists, and she has a tendency to go easy on herself. But at least she thinks greatness is something. Most people I know don’t believe in it at all. Of course, when these people talk about greatness, they are not meaning the same thing that I do. I don’t care about prizes. I only care about recognition.
She left and I ate more pizza and looked at the dishes piled in and around the sink and worried: What if a high professional standard inevitably meant that you slipped up at home? Did I care too much about getting paid? I stripped and got into bed. What’s the most important thing in life? I wrote in my journal, longhand. Food-shelter-water. But how do you get food-shelter-water? By being good at your job. What else separates us from the animals?
Most of the clients were one-offs — people hiring to impress a dinner party, or for a visit with family. People who would never hire a cleaner regularly but justified it for a special occasion. Like how maybe you do cocaine at parties, but you wouldn’t buy it yourself.
Not everyone was awful. Once a cool dad was there, watching his daughter, and he was making a kale-celery-lemon cold-pressed juice in a German juice machine, and he offered me one, too. He ran out of kale so he gave me the good juice and he drank the celery-water. This showed his character. Once a middle-aged man hired me to clean his mother’s apartment on the Upper West Side. The mother was a hoarder. I filled twenty trash bags with takeout containers and the man sat in the corner and held his mother while she cried. Once a skinny brunette followed me through the apartment apologizing for the mess and picking at her arms. The place was so clean that I stopped pretending and followed the brunette, assuring her that she had done a terrific job. But every time I told her it was great, she kept saying, “It’s not professional quality.”
Once I was in the big dining room of a posh townhouse on the east side, polishing silver, when a tax lawyer who worked from home called down that he needed help with a “big job” upstairs. It was annoying to be interrupted. I liked polishing. It made me feel noble and useful and a bit tragic, like I was Stevens in The Remains of the Day. I liked all the parts of the job that felt old-timey, like dusting. I usually got high before work, so it was easy to get into a good rhythm with it, to really get in there and make it gleam. Polishing also cost extra.
“Coming!” I called, nicely.
Up the plush stairs, steeling myself for the nasty hairball, silently pumping myself up with mantras, like It’s just dirty hair, and If you do it once you never have to do it again. I held a red plastic plumber’s snake in one hand. It had jagged teeth to catch the hair and draw it up to the light. Last time I had plunged a drain, the sight of the hair slick with dirt had made me gag — but I held it in.
Up the plush stairs, through the French doors of the master bedroom, sinking in the sea-blue carpet, looking through the open bathroom door. Months of weekly business magazines were stacked on a stool that was imitating something but I didn’t know what, maybe one of the Louis, like Louis XIV. The oval mirror was wreathed with painted gold leaves. The lawyer was naked and holding his dick in his hand. His chest and stomach, round like a loaf of new-risen bread, were matted with glistening wiry black hair. His hand was moving furiously.
The lawyer was looking just to the left of my head.
“Do you want to touch it?” he asked and held it up, like he was willing to share.
The entire region had been rendered optimistically hairless. Keeping my eyes on the potato of the lawyer’s round vacant face, I unbuttoned the top two buttons of my sky-blue uniform — not enough to see anything, but enough to suggest that seeing something wasn’t so far behind. His eyes tracked down and hovered at the tit area.
“How much?” I said.
“A hundred dollars,” he said.
“For what?” I said.
“You know,” he said, but neither of us did.
Sometimes sex is a thing we do for those in need out of compassion, or for ourselves, out of curiosity. I unbuttoned another button. The lawyer, who in all this time had not stopped handling himself, took a step back and collided with the sink. I pulled one bra cup down and lifted out a single breast. The executive shuddered. It was finished.
He wiped his hand on a washcloth and turned away from me to pick his pants off the closed toilet bowl and rummage for his wallet. He counted out five twenties and handed them to me without turning around. I made sure to finish polishing and put away the silver before I let myself out and locked the door behind me. I thought that was just what Stevens would have done. On balance, it had gone pretty well. I had been efficient and sensitive. I had not had to touch anything.
At home that night I turned on the kitchen light and something scuttled into the corner with the trash — a rebuke for leaving my professional zeal at the door. I took my computer to bed and stared at the white screen and tried out first sentences. Dick was better than cock, for this situation. It left more dangling. I texted Lawyer = Flasher! to Carla and spent some time in front of the mirror lifting one breast and then the other out of my shirt. They both had advantages. The next day Carla brought over a picture she had drawn of a fat man jerking himself off. His face was pockmarked and punctuated with a bread-roll nose. We hung the picture on my refrigerator. The money, we agreed, was a problem. What does $100 buy you?
This was a problem I had faced before. In college I babysat for a philosophy professor named Talia who had adopted a little girl from China. She needed a regular babysitter because most weekends her dog traveled to compete in obstacle courses against other dogs. The dog was an excellent competitor and the dining room was filled with trophies and ribbons and medals. When I graduated Talia gave me a $100 gift card to the local liquor store. I went in alone and asked the first person I saw to show me a $100 bottle of white wine. The person suggested a nice Chablis, but at the register it rang up for $20. I lowered my voice to explain to the cashier that there had been a mistake.
“She wants the $100 bottle!” the cashier yelled across the store.
That night I drank the whole bottle myself and had no hangover the following morning, because that’s what you’re paying for with a $100 bottle. One thing I learned from that experience that I hadn’t known before was that there is a $100 version of everything, even Chablis, which I had only associated with church ladies and Tennessee, because I once heard about it in a country song.
Carla, who knew this story, proposed that I use the lawyer’s money to buy another nice wine, but I wanted to feel like I was growing.
The air had that very clean taste, like breathable ice. I felt healthy in it, new. It was Saturday afternoon and to kill time while we waited for a brunch table we went to the park to enjoy the leaves, and in the park we saw Henry, walking with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s dog. The dog was tan and tall and had four skinny legs. We said hello and tried to pet the dog, but the dog was pulling on the leash, so the boyfriend gave up the slack. We all silently watched the dog scurry on its twiggy legs up to the top of a nearby pile of wood chips and tremblingly squeeze out a pale log of excrement. Henry’s boyfriend groaned and scrambled after the turd and rejoined us holding a lumpen plastic bag a ways out from his body.
“Your dog is the king of that pile of wood chips,” I said.
“He thinks so,” he said.
Henry was reminded of a research librarian he had seen in a rare-books room some years ago who had the most fastidious manner of handing him extraordinary objects from the special collection and a way of presenting and opening the materials as if the two of them were joint explorers on a sacred mission.
“I felt that I loved him,” Henry said, “in the way that you love someone for only an instant. I loved that he was opening this world to me.”
Henry’s boyfriend made a joke about opening “something else” and everyone laughed too heartily and then Henry went on.
“But later in the afternoon,” Henry said, “we were next to each other at the urinals. After the librarian zipped up, he left without washing his hands.”
“What does this have to do with the dog?” his boyfriend asked. “She doesn’t have hands.”
Henry and his boyfriend often had these breakdowns in communication. The boyfriend just didn’t have a poetic imagination.
“I taught myself how to read palms,” I said. “After the palm reading at my birthday.”
“What?” Carla said. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“Will you read my palm?” the boyfriend asked.
“Twenty dollars,” I said, and he laughed and stopped laughing when I didn’t start.
“I have my future to consider,” I said. “If I start giving it away now, where will it end?”
Henry’s boyfriend gave Henry the plastic bag to hold and opened his wallet.
“I only have a five,” he said. I took the bill and examined his hand, twisting it this way and that in the shadowless light. No matter what I did, his great love would die terribly young. Whether this was Henry or not, though, I had no way of knowing.
“You have a fire-shaped hand,” I said. “That means you’re bold.”
He was pleased, and asked me to go on.
“You are very healthy,” I said, stalling.
The boyfriend didn’t care about getting his money’s worth. The dog started pulling and straining on the leash, and they lifted a hand to wave good-bye. After they were gone I told Carla what I had learned about the young death of his great love.
“Maybe he is going to leave Henry and date someone else, someone young, and that person is going to die,” Carla said. “Or maybe Henry is going to die. Are we still young?”
I felt uneasy that I hadn’t told the full truth to a paying customer.
“It wasn’t ethical,” I said. “It wasn’t professional.”
Carla shrugged. She’s a good person, but it’s hard to interest her in questions like this.
That Monday I got my schedule for the week and saw that the lawyer had left me an online review: five stars for professionalism and four stars for satisfaction. I had not realized he had such a keen sense of humor. Still, I was proud. Is that so wrong? I had comported myself admirably in a difficult moment. It was like those five golden stars all colored in in a row were five golden hands tipping five golden hats, saying, I see you.
I knew that the best moment of my house-cleaning career was behind me. I would have to work another year at least to have an encounter like that. I was done with research. I logged on and deleted my account with the agency. Instantly I received an email asking me to rate my experience as an employee. Instead, I set up a user account with a different email address and scheduled a cleaning for my apartment. The woman they sent was named Yasmin. She was 50 years old and wore a diamond crucifix and a hairnet and talked about her very intelligent grandchildren. She was there for one hour. She cost $60 and I gave her a $45 tip. Problem solved.
My tenure as a maid had lasted forty days. To celebrate my freedom, Carla took me to a dark bar where we toasted our past and future selves. Carla said she would let me read her palm and I promised to tell her the truth.
“Even if someone is going to die,” I said. “I’ll tell you.”
It was hard to make out the lines by candlelight. I held her hand close to my face and touched the inside of her palm. She giggled. Carla has always been ticklish. Once I saw her kick a Korean lady in the face during a pedicure. She didn’t mean to do it, but when the lady started scrubbing the sole her leg jerked out and she made contact. The Korean lady was a real professional. She wiped off her glasses and finished the job. We never showed our feet in that nail salon again.
On Carla’s hand I saw vitality and creativity and success. Then I showed her how her health line branched out from the life line.
“Your life will be threatened in old age,” I told her.
“That’s what the palm reader said on your birthday,” she said. “But everybody’s life is threatened in old age.”
“Not like this,” I said. “It looks like something violent.”
Carla was pleased. Everyone wants to meet a dramatic end.
We got drunk and talked about Henry and how long he had to live; and if he died, how he would die; and when he died, would I tell everyone that I had known all along? Because what was the truth? There are some things you can know about yourself, and there are some things only someone else can know. There are things you can’t tell now that you find out later you knew all along.