Posthumous Fragments of Veronica Penn

From My Escapee

Corinna Vallianatos

2007. Even now, she could summon the moment that she met her husband, though she didn’t often want to. No, she liked to daydream about another young man, whom she could still see—it was uncanny how crisply—walking toward her, his face full of what she’d thought was confidence but later recognized as the irreverent beginnings of love. Saying, “I really should know your name.” Veronica, she’d answered, and never had it fit her so well. This was at Grinnell. She remembered the greedy way he kissed and how, after the first time they had sex, he was suddenly hard upon her from behind saying he could go again, but she had long forgotten her own telephone number. Her existence wanted to flow in the opposite direction from where it was heading, from annulment. Her facts, what medicines she was taking, her daughter Jane’s email address (written on the top of every page of her wall calendar), the name of her doctor (Pender-almost-like-thunder), so uninteresting. Just data.

But this college boyfriend—what was so special about him? She’d known him before she knew herself.

Her husband had died two years earlier, his ashes whisked away to California, where Jane lived, and where he was originally from. Jane had traveled up the coast from her home in Los Angeles to a little town called Cambria, and scattered him. She’d mailed Veronica a picture of the occasion: her standing on a beach with a wooden box in her hands, the wind whipping her hair back to reveal a face scoured clean by intent. Veronica could see she so wanted to do this thing, honor her difficult father by setting him free. She had stared at the picture until the 6:30 news came on, and then thrown it away.

1971. In the medicine cabinet: nail clippers, jar of Oil of Olay, a comb, deodorant, tweezers. She allowed her hair to bang around her face. The dire little wrinkles between her eyes bothered her only slightly. She was thirty-five, wore jeans and clogs, an expression of strident neutrality. She’d had her one child and would have no more, because Jane was all she needed. It was amazing how flaccid and disorganized one moment could be, and the next sparking with possibility. Her husband, Franklin, was gone most of the day, teaching history at his sub-par college. Jane was in third grade. Veronica had time to figure out what, exactly, she wanted to do. But she was distracted. Franklin no longer came to her at night—it had been five months, at least. Distracted by absence, as solid as a real thing. She went to work as a book buyer for the local library system. On her desk: paper bag of granola, Jane’s kindergarten picture (tender uneven homemade haircut), Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which she’d read twice already. Telephone. “Do you want me to bring dinner home?” Veronica called Franklin to ask.

“The refrigerator is empty,” he said accusingly.

“I’ll pick up Chinese.” The crowdedness of the road and restaurant lobby made her frantic to get the food, as if there was a great famine and this a rare, fought-for meal. When the man handed her the bags she wanted to cry, confused by the temporary largesse of strangers.

1964. Jane’s high chair was crusted with a paste of Cheerios. Veronica stood in front of her daughter, watching her eat. She was fascinated by everything: a straw wrapper, a toilet paper tube, Veronica’s wedding ring. She’d have stuffed it all in her mouth if Veronica didn’t intervene. Motherhood was lifeguarding ordinary shores. Elation, exhaustion, elation. Jane threw a Cheerio into her hair. Veronica strapped her into her stroller and they walked. Up the streets and down. Others smiled at them but did not speak, afraid of being drawn into something they’d never escape. Jane clapped, squealed. Veronica wondered how she should experience this. It was in the cool air, it was in the ardent leaves of the trees, but it wasn’t in her for some reason. They went back home and she changed Jane’s diaper, and then they drove to Bloomingdale’s and she let Jane crawl about on a floor that was surely cleaner than the floor at home. Past the legs of stools on which women sat settling the difference between lipsticks. Through the shadow-paces of shoppers. Time was sludge-slow. A million gestures a day.

1946. The edge of the stream. Sound of birds and woodpeckers and branches scraping other branches and the buzz, barbershop-like, of insects. Wonderful, really, the plain mystery of what else was right where you were, in the same square foot of air. A wilderness not of your own making, and perfectly suited to you. There’d been a health resort here once, built to harness the healing powers of the springs’ high iron content. Now only the foundation of the hotel remained, massive stone pilings that rose from the water like squared teeth, and that Veronica and her brother Julian were in the habit of crossing, despite being told not to. The trick was to hop from one piling to the next.

“Try to catch me,” Julian said. He whooped off across the stream, arms outstretched. Veronica followed more carefully, stopping to rest along the way. The water was ten or so feet below, blinkingly eddying. Shards of light like tiny hammers, miniature blown sails . . .

He was already crossing back. “It’s never a competition with you.”

“You’re too fast,” Veronica said, and that seemed to satisfy him. He hopped onto her piling and they sat down, back to back, letting their legs dangle. The sun made her sleepy and happy. When one of her sandals slipped off and fell into the water, she limped home half-barefoot, and her mother scolded her in a shrill, protracted way that meant the lost shoe was an insult to what was really wrong. She realized she should have just gone ahead and raced him. Risked falling and not fallen. She lay with Julian on his bedroom floor, her stomach growling, unwilling to appeal to the keeper of the kitchen.

“I’ll get us something,” Julian said, and returned with a bowl of pretzels and two cold bottles of lemon-lime soda. A treat. Their mother’s way of saying sorry.

What was wrong: a life of slavery to four children. This was what Veronica guessed. That her mistakes and the demands her mistakes made (like the need for new sandals) were the most annoying of the bunch, because taking care of a girl was different than taking care of boys. Because she was her mother in miniature. Because boys were distant enough to pity and prize.

1988. Veronica sat watching the weather report on TV. She had a great need to know what the weather would be like here in Virginia and, just as urgently, in other parts of the country. A nice day for her was gliding about town on errands, walking the dog. A miserable day was a handful of miniature Hershey’s bars and a cup of International Coffee, letting the pounds pile on. Ice storms, snow storms, wind and rain. T-storms, condensation. Cloud cover. The language was eerie and exact. When it was warm here, but cold where someone she knew lived (like Illinois, where her parents remained until they died), she experienced a kind of thrill, a little loving superiority and concern. When it was nice elsewhere (like California, where Jane was), and awful in Virginia, Veronica went to bed early and burrowed under her blankets, picturing her progeny sleeveless. How just that Jane lived in a place with better weather than she. It would be all wrong if it were the opposite. She would worry incessantly about black ice, skidding tires, doomed decisions becoming doomed results. Staring at the weatherman’s face was like admiring something for all the wrong reasons. Wet-newspaper skin and lips like internal organs. Glistening, wiggling. They would never put a woman who looked like that on television. The weatherman extended his pointer to the glowing Mid-Atlantic. White fleece rushed by, and swooping, swirling lines, meant to show wind currents. “A brisk weekend,” he intoned, and Veronica shivered under her chenille throw, “followed by a warming trend,” and she extended her foot from beneath. Her big toenail had gone yellow at the edges, like a pearl being swallowed up by sickness. read more >>

1960. He unloaded the food from his tray: meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, a slice of lemon meringue pie. “Thanks for that,” he said, as if they were continuing a conversation, though he’d just asked if he could share her table. The cafeteria was crowded.

“You’re welcome,” Veronica said. She was wearing a peasant blouse and linen pants. Her hair was long and her face was lean and focused on his pie, as if she were fascinated and compelled by its complexity. She never allowed herself pie.

He noticed her looking. “Would you like some?”

She nodded. He extended the plate to her with its untouched fork. She took a bite, wiped the fork on her napkin, and put it back. The filling was deep and cool, the meringue crackly. She decided that when he asked if she wanted another bite she’d say yes. But he didn’t—instead, he launched into a story about a biology class he’d taken there at the University of Illinois. Each student had been given a dead cat to dissect, and he’d carried his home on a bus. “It was wrapped in newspaper, but its tail was sticking out. I was sitting there stroking it, making purring sounds,” he said. She smiled a smile of adjusted expectation, a little chink of emptiness. They exchanged names. He reached his hand across the table and lifted one of the ribbons that fell from the open collar of her blouse, on the end of which was a turquoise stone. He tugged at it.

“Can I buy you dinner sometime?” he asked.

She was in library school, surrounded by quiet, gum-chewing women. Occasionally the gum ended up on the books, and then there was a ruckus of self-recrimination. “Sure,” she said.

“Will you wear a skirt?”

An odd question. Franklin’s dark eyes did not leave hers.

“If you want me to,” she said.

1949. She and Julian were crouched behind the living room sofa. “Watch,” she said. Their parents had been at a dinner party across the street, and now they were making their way home. The reason she wanted Julian to watch was because she’d seen their mother come home earlier, to check that their younger brothers were sleeping, and she’d been acting strangely. The figures approached the door and their mother walked smack into the long rectangular pane of glass beside it. She fell to the ground and started laughing, a febrile sound. Their father said something indiscernible, but the laughter was clear. There she sprawled, in her emerald green cocktail dress, legs ajar. Veronica could picture the expression on her father’s face—more an absence of expression. He extended his hand to their mother and pulled her to her feet. The doorknob rattled and turned. Veronica hunched into a knot.

“. . . makes Marty tolerable,” their mother was saying as she came in. “And Lucille just standing there with that look on her face. Like she’s gulping down medicine.”

“She’s quite pretty, though. She has a fine figure,” their father said.

Veronica could feel Julian’s back tense. “A little pyramidal, perhaps,” their mother said. “I’d like another drink.” Clink. Glug. The sound of kissing was the sound of darkness. “Pretend I’m Lucille,” their mother whispered sloppily.

“Come now, that’s pathetic,” their father said.

Julian’s back was quivering—was he crying? Trying not to laugh? Veronica’s legs were asleep. Four kids, and they all had their own bedrooms. A zipper’s nasal undoing. “I’m leaving,” she practically shrieked into Julian’s ear, and they ran for it. Surprised shouts behind them, and then her door closed and locked.

1980. Franklin was teaching at Evergreen State for a year, and Veronica had flown to visit him, allowing Jane—a high school senior—to remain at home by herself. He met Veronica at the airport and took her to his office. Over his desk, National Geographic photographs of the small brown breasts of African girls whose smooth faces were utterly unconcerned with their nakedness, and a topless Marilyn Monroe whose smile acknowledged nothing else. It seemed he wanted all sorts of nipples aimed at him as he worked. “Have any of your female students complained?” Veronica asked.

Franklin laughed. “Some males too.” He would offend everyone here as he offended everyone everywhere. The hippie sensibility of this place wouldn’t save him. Veronica imagined Jane at home, standing in front of the refrigerator, drinking chocolate milk out of a carton. She imagined this was how Jane would spend her freedom.

They went to Franklin’s apartment. Beer bottles on the floor next to a fold-out couch, newspapers and books in ragged piles, an open jar of caramel sauce with a spoon sticking out of it. All stillness and scattered tools, a museum display. She had never, in her adulthood, had such a place.

She put down her bag. “This reminds me . . . “

He was opening a window. “Of what?”

“Meeting you. The boarding house where you lived, how I tried to make it cheerful.”

“You sewed curtains, didn’t you?”

She started laughing. “That must have been someone else. I wouldn’t have known how to do that.” Her laughter was turning into crying, as it sometimes did. Franklin had once been a real person. Now she knew him so well he was indefinable. Not husband or best friend or lover. A smudge acting on itself to blur its own outline. A hot whir of color.

He came to stand in front of her, taking both of her hands in his. “You’re right, you wouldn’t have. But I liked that about you. It made you serious.”

“I think I was serious,” she said.

1991. The tumor was pressing on the part of Julian’s brain that controlled speech. “Broken crackers,” he’d say, meaning cereal, and “can-water,” meaning juice. It was baroque, the way he now expressed himself. “Rain-cube” was the bath, and “magic carpet” his bed. “Why a magic carpet, do you think?” Veronica asked their younger brother Avery. They had all gathered at Julian’s apartment in Hawaii. There wasn’t much time left.

“He’s transported while he sleeps?” Avery guessed. “He’s always had really vivid dreams.”

“Oh, I do too,” she said. Her dreams were logistical nightmares of missed planes, the dead zones of cut phone lines, people from the future trying to talk to people from the past through the dirty mouthpieces of space helmets. She felt chatty and panicked. Their youngest brother, Jack, stood at the foot of Julian’s bed massaging his feet. Julian was dozing. Veronica decided to go out and buy a lei to place around his neck, so he’d smell it when he woke up. She could just picture it, a loop of purple orchids, fragrantly exhorting him to stay. Its beauty needing a witness.

Their mother was still in Illinois, too averse to travel to have made the long trip. Veronica thought of her while she was in the car, how she seemed never to want to leave her house. Dying was for the brave, those foolhardy enough to have lived. She found a woman selling leis at an abandoned gas station, the flower necklaces hung from the pumps. She was so moved that she bought six of them, each more colorful than the last. When she returned to Julian’s apartment, she slipped them around his wrists, his ankles, his head. Decorating his body for the here-and-now.

1981. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of Jane’s dorm room. A sheet had been draped over the window, the mattress dragged off its steel frame onto the floor, and there the disconsolate figure of her daughter lay. As she moved toward her, a piece of typing paper half-emerged from a word processor caught Veronica’s eye. Quickly, she bent forward; it was an essay on the poetry of someone named Louise Bogan.

“Jane,” she said, crouching beside the mattress. “I’m here.” Her daughter feigned waking up, unfolding her body from its fetal curl. Her hair was wet at the brow.

“Oh,” she said. She used to say this when she was pleased with something, when told there was no school that day, or that she could have a set of vampire teeth. Oh. An affirmation. A charm clipping another charm on its silver chain. Now it was something else. Other words had proved worthless, so Oh, she said.

When Veronica gave birth to Jane, she assumed her loveliness would last her whole life. And for a while, it did. But then Jane turned sixteen, and grew depressed and fat. Or perhaps it was the other way. Sadness overlaid loneliness, which overlaid the logical reasons for her loneliness (and there were probably many). A shameful memory: Veronica had put her on a scale and told her that she should try to weigh at most 129 pounds. She told her that when she was sixteen, she’d not let herself go above 125.

“Let’s get you showered,” she said. She found Jane’s pail of toiletries and accompanied her down the hall to the bathroom. Her daughter stepped out of her underwear as soon as her feet touched tile. The largeness of her body, the unwieldy way it had gotten the best of everything . . . Veronica stood in the fringe-spray of hot water and handed her a fossilized bar of soap. Jane dug under her breasts, under her arms, in the black flap of pubic hair. Bubbles blossomed from her skin. They did not say anything. The sound of the shower was glorious, prohibitive. Things would work out, surely, but for now it was like Jane was four again and Veronica was overseeing this exciting new way of washing oneself that wasn’t a babyish bath. Another girl came in, wrapped in a terrycloth robe. Soon the air was filled with the ripe scent of banana.

1944. Veronica had a great-uncle who was very rich, and who was coming to her parents’ house on Rice Road. Her mother had been cleaning for a week, first wearing her absurd cloves-and-cinnamon-sticks apron, then with the apron looped over her head but not tied around her waist, and finally not wearing it at all. Her hands stank of scouring powder and her face of fatigue. Veronica wanted to tell her mother she was making the house nice at her own expense.

“Little girl,” her great-uncle said when he finally arrived, “and you, little boy,” to her brother, “and you too,” to her other brother, “are there any more of you hiding around here?” He looked about in mock alarm.

“Not yet,” her mother said. There would, in fact, be another child very soon, but her great-uncle was choosing not to acknowledge her mother’s pregnancy, so her mother, of course, did not mention it.

“Good,” he said. He pulled Julian onto his lap. “Now, I’d like to get each of you a gift, something you’ve been longing for.”

Julian didn’t hesitate. “A new baseball glove.”

“Splendid,” Veronica’s great-uncle said, and slanted his legs so that Julian tumbled off. He turned to Avery. “And what would you like?”

“A sled,” Avery said, though he was so young the words barely came out. Veronica’s great-uncle did not have any children of his own, and Avery, with his padded bottom and preposterously large head, must have seemed an abomination.

“Fine!” he said. He turned to Veronica. “Well, young lady?”

“A trip to Europe,” she said. “Thank you.”

“Veronica!” Her mother’s face was red.

Her great-uncle laughed. “Ah, ha, you certainly can’t have that.”

“Of course not,” her mother said quickly, but her uncle wasn’t listening. His head was cocked to the side as if an invisible guide were telling him something.

“Europe doesn’t allow girls in, you see,” he said.

Veronica’s heart pounded as she wiped her palms on the pale-yellow skirt of her dress. It was up to her to defend the borders of Europe, to disabuse her great-uncle of his thought. So much he didn’t know! The world this possible thing, but to her great-uncle just the opposite.

“Then I’d like to be a boy,” she said.

1996. The lamps shone in all shades of yellow, pull chains dangling like earrings against the necks’ pale stems. Lamps on tables and lamps on the floor. The whole room a declaration of light. It hardly seemed you could be angry here—could be anything but reminded of your own childhood, perhaps, of reading on the couch while the adults creaked and groaned around you—but apparently Franklin could. He possessed an ambition to be heard. As she moved, bewitched, through the store, heading toward a lamp with a marble base, he said, “The shades will catch fire. They’re cheap. And why aren’t you being helped?” He jerked his head toward the proprietor, who was conferring with someone who’d arrived before them. “Ask for help! Pardon me, ma’am!”

Veronica whispered, “Be quiet. You promised.” She’d spoken with him earlier, as she was forced to do before all of their errands: prepare him for what was going to happen, wager and beg, qualify and threaten. And though he’d said he wouldn’t interfere, here he was being terrible, a minute in.

He thought she couldn’t do anything well, that her every idea was driven by gullible need and stupidity. That she was stupid, yes. Thirty-five years of marriage had come to this—he in his basement office, she watching harmless little shows on TV. A shared dinner in front of the news with their old dog Sylvie on the floor in front of them, waiting for scraps. The dog’s back to the TV because the TV didn’t feed her.

Now he waved his arm and whistled. She felt faint; it was the injustice of it. “Hey!” he called, and again, “Shrreeee!”

“Stop it,” she hissed, grasping at him, but he laughed and shook her off.

The proprietor approached them, her other customer pretending to examine something. “Can I help you?” She was a youngish woman with a heavy layer of foundation on her face, like a green leaf made up to look orange.

“I’m sorry,” Veronica said, and exited the store she’d have happily wandered for an hour if Franklin were not with her.

1984. The best thing she ever did was give birth to her daughter. The worst thing she ever did was allow Perry Lopez to stay over for a week while Franklin was off teaching somewhere again and Jane was in college. Most of her activities fell someplace in between, where there was only commerce and worry and busyness. Jane’s birth happened in three swift hours, from the first labor pains to the last wild push. She’d been more confident about that one act than anything else she’d done in her life. Odd that blood should have accompanied it. Perry was someone she’d worked with. He had a soft furry stomach and a penis that he treated like a compliant pet. They’d put on Evita and listened to Julie Covington sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” and he’d insisted on undressing her using only his teeth. Engaged places on her body that hadn’t been disturbed in a decade. The scaly tips of her elbows. The placid inner thigh. They called in sick to work. Nighttime noises made Veronica leap. Why was this the worst thing? Teleported back in time. The loose philosophy of teens without the amnesiac ability. Her guilt surprised her with its staying power.

1991. Franklin tugged the dog’s leash. He never gave Sylvie as much time to sniff as Veronica did when she walked her. They turned the corner and saw a woman with straight blonde hair and a baby on her hip looking in the gutter. “Did you lose something?” Veronica asked.

“My earring,” the woman said. She lifted a strand of her hair and tilted her head to show Veronica the other, a tiny, strenuously glinting diamond. Then her forehead wrinkled. “Are you Jane Penn’s mom? I went to high school with her.”

Veronica could tell—the diamond earring, the sleek spill of hair—that she and Jane had probably not been friends. Who had Jane been friends with? There was a Chinese boy named Nathaniel with a skin tag like a lollipop stick growing out of his ear. He’d never said a word to her. It didn’t matter. All he’d not said he was saying now, to someone else. The awkward were not usually awkward for life. Jane was a college professor and mother of a young son. In the process of getting a divorce, yes, but that too took confidence.

“I am,” Veronica said. “What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth,” the woman said. “Isn’t it funny.”

Veronica held her baby—who cried and kicked his legs a little—while Elizabeth scoured the sidewalk. At first the baby’s cry alarmed her, and then became just a tuneful annoyance. Waa-waa-waaah. Waaah-waa-waa. A kind of lullaby.

Franklin called from a few yards away, “Is this what you’re looking for?”

Elizabeth hurried to him. “Oh, wow, thank you.” She slipped the earring into her pocket and took the baby back on her hip.

“Your precious things,” Veronica said. The baby’s eyelashes fluttered with nearly sensual relief.

1999. Laundry in the washing machine. Dishes in the sink. Everything had a place where it was, and a place it should be. Dirt on the sills, dun-colored gluey mucus ringing Sylvie’s eyes. The dog looked at her, Veronica thought, reproachfully. The fur on her muzzle had gone all white. Easy to read her aging as acquiescence, each day undoing the day before. Franklin was on prostate medication that made him dizzy if he stood up quickly. Veronica’s lower abdomen had become a roadmap of veins which bulged softly from beneath her skin. The grass was ragged at the borders of the lawn. The sky threatened complete closure. Dinner was Franklin’s fried salmon and sweet potatoes to the staccato roar of the television. There was pleasure in this because it was simple, because she risked no exposure or embarrassment. Franklin cursed at the people on the screen, female newscasters in particular, and no one but Veronica could hear. Auditory head-banging. Vitriol. It offended her, but she was so thankful that she was the only one offended it was nearly okay. After tidying up the kitchen, a special on PBS. A comfortable chair. She wasn’t too proud to admit it. There was pleasure in this.

2003. Things that made her sad: a childhood friend who’d gone blind. Sylvie’s last gulped meal. The slights Jane used to suffer at the hands of her unthinking friends. Animals in cages. Animals being hunted. A mess of feathers protruding from a cat’s mouth. Franklin saying she was hard to love. The time they were fighting and she ripped Jane out of his arms. Animals in impoverished countries. The little dog who lived around the block dying of cancer. Her grandson getting her cards with their twenty-dollar bills and pocketing the cash and throwing the cards away. The sight of her breasts in the mirror. Any animal being unhappy, confused, scared. Tubes or needles. Lab coats. Singing stringent words across the phone line to her daughter. The way they hurt one another. Jane asking how she could not have known she was clinically depressed. Veronica thinking that term was stuff and nonsense. Her brother dying while she slept in his apartment and the ocean whistled outside. Her father and mother dying. The game of jacks, which she used to be so good at. Spilling the little knobby pieces and the ball from their cloth bag. The way the flesh of her fingers bunched up around her rings. The bald faces of neighbors’ children come to sell their parents’ houses. The brochures for nursing homes she got in the mail. The pallor of the pastels of the nursing homes’ walls. Doctors’ handwriting. Bath mats with their blooming suction cups. Photo albums, even empty ones.

2008. She wondered more and more what death would be like. Falling asleep? Going under anesthesia? Maybe it would be best in a dentist’s chair, her head raised a little. The blandness of the room nothing to covet in the last minute. Some recognizably unrecognizable song playing, and the smell of fillings like hot medicine. The hygienist’s touch. “Mrs. Penn? Are you all right?” Then her silence.

Anywhere but a bed, particularly a hospital bed. Walking along, window shopping. The stores in Old Town a bit stuffy for her taste: doggie bakeries, hair salons, places where Persian rugs were piled three feet deep. The egalitarianism of her Midwestern upbringing chafed against this. A carefulness to people . . . so that when she collapsed upon the sidewalk, there’d be a pause before a passerby rushed to her side. Her slack body so untidy.

In a movie. Going to movies alone had become a pleasurable habit in her later years. She would eat her popcorn and subside into non-thought, reacting only to the bold prompts that cinema offered, the beautiful cues. Her dying would go unnoticed—unless she yelped or cried out—until the theater emptied and an employee came in with a dust broom. Poor soul. Would it scar him to find her, or would she become a tale to tell friends?

At the bank. A man stood outside the bank and opened the door for anyone entering or exiting, all day long and every day, as far as she could tell, for he was always there when she went to deposit a check. This was the sort of man who would attempt CPR on her, no matter how dead she appeared. A half-hero. A volunteer fire fighter, a police academy flunkee. He would pound away at her bony old chest, and a crowd would gather because he wanted one to.

During the act of love. Ridiculous. But it could happen. It had happened to someone out there, surely. A nice thought. Comforting. But it would be hard for the other person. He would wonder if he’d been too forceful, too violent. Would there be a way of conveying, from the other side, that it wasn’t his fault? That her heart had simply given out like a tomato falling from a kitchen counter onto the ground?

2008. From the other side: oh, the things she’d tell people! She’d warn them not to honk at your child when she’s riding her bike, causing her to fall and break her pinky (still, still she felt guilty); stick your arm through a ripped screen door to pat a dog that you don’t know (emergency room stitches); lie, cheat, navigate the waters of life clumsily. But of course she couldn’t undo events that had already happened—or she’d undo her own death, wouldn’t she? It would have to be future warnings, avoiding what hadn’t yet transpired. Advice to Jane: always have a good novel to read in bed, don’t waste too much time on reality. Advice to Franklin (assuming the departed could communicate with one another): bury your anger in a hole and walk away. To Avery and Jack: try being the greatest slabs of men that men can be. To Julian: I miss you and I’m going to find you. Yes, she knew that wasn’t advice.

2009. She had not really thrown away the picture of Jane holding Franklin’s ashes. Instead, she had stuffed it deep in her bottom dresser drawer and it had felt like it was gone. So that every time she dug it out it was a resurrection. Jane’s face and fleecy jacket. The ocean in whitecaps. The way she held the box so carefully.

Fifteen years earlier, Veronica and Franklin had remodeled the kitchen (which they’d done once before, much more cheaply, when Jane was a child), and the same thing happened. A time capsule opened. The old wallpaper came off and the cupboards were removed and there, suddenly, was their daughter’s nine-year-old handwriting. Jane was here Nov. 7, 1972. Whoever finds this is dead, it said. Deadly as a champ. A drawing of a triumphant figure hoisting a trophy over its head. One of Jane’s early talents had been her art.

The past’s demands on the present. Look at me, indulge me for a moment before you slide the drawer shut, cover me up. Isn’t it true that I’m all you have?