Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Alberta Clipper 8/18/15: “The Telephone of the Dead” by Goldie Goldbloom

By: Kara Cosentino

August 18, 1955, Hurricane Diane (not to be confused with Diana) ravaged Wilmington, North Carolina, killing 184 people, destroying 813 homes and damaging over 4,000 others, and leaving $754 million worth of damage in its wake. The effects of this terrible weather battering the east coast didn’t reach as far as Lincoln, Nebraska, where August 18th was a scorching hot day, at 97 degrees. Fifty-five years later, The Telephone of the Dead by Goldie Goldbloom appeared in Prairie Schooner. The story follows a woman who loses her husband in a horrible lightening storm and the husband who refuses to let his memory be forgotten. –Kara Cosentino


Marnie Gottfried's husband, Steve, had been dead for two weeks when he called her for the first time. She had just returned from Israel, hadn't even unpacked, was as unhinged and raw as she would ever be, and the telephone call sent her windmilling to a therapist. When she mentioned the telephone call to the polite little man, he prescribed something, but even after she was regularly swallowing antihallucinogenic chemicals, the calls continued. In fact, she got a three-thousand-dollar telephone bill, collect charges from an 800 service distressingly called The Telephone of the Dead. She didn't share this with the therapist, surmising— quite correctly—that he would think she was hooked up with some necrophiliac outfit.

Her husband had come home in a summer storm, the clouds boiling like a pot of scummy soup, his little Citroën pulling between the pines as she bent to wring out the mop in the kitchen. The lightning was directly overhead, had—in fact—hit the chimney again and fried the computer. She was growing tired of changing the surge protector, bored with the childlike scream the computer made when struck by lightning. It simply wasn't true that lightning didn't strike the same place twice. It had favorite places, places like their chimney and their pines, where it loved to run riot, cavort wantonly, drive deeply into the earth again and again like a serial rapist.

It was sensible of Steve not to try to make it to the house through an electrical storm. She peered out the kitchen window at the car, waved, but couldn't see a thing. The rain vomited down, uncon-trollable, the thunderous belly noises deafening, truly. She finished mopping the floor, dumped the water down the drooling toilet and was heating up the meatloaf when Steven opened the back door.

"I think I've been hit by lightning," he said, in an odd high voice strung through with glass. Freshets of water ran from his clothes onto her brilliantly waxed floor, and he held his arm out to her. On the soft, white part, just below the elbow, was a red circle, covered with a bunch of soggy tissues. She reached out to brush them off but he screamed, "Don't! It's my skin, Marnie!" The fur on his arm was gone except for a few shriveled hairs that turned to ash as she watched.

"I told you not to go out in a storm," she said. "I warned you."

He looked at her strangely, not at all with his usual obsequious good humor.

"I think I died," he said, cradling his arm and rocking slowly forward and back. He still stood, dripping on her floor. His hair noodled down his face and into his eyes.

"You're just being melodramatic," she said, "Put those clothes in the bathroom. You're ruining the floor. How did you really burn your arm? Starbucks?"

"No," he said, "Something hit me. I fell flat on my back. I was looking up at the trees, the rain all but drowning me. I felt some part of me lift up out of my body, out of my eyes, but I could still see the house and Polly in her crib and you. You were waxing the floor."

It gave her a jolt when he said that. He never noticed anything in the house. It wasn't even a good guess because he had no clue that she ever cleaned the floors. He thought they stayed sanitary through sheer force of will. He thought shirts arrived from the Garden of Eden, freshly starched and lined up in his closet, clinking and jostling to be first in line. He hadn't graduated from magical thinking.

"There was a bright light. I know this sounds like everyone else's story, people who almost die, but it really happened. I was pulled along toward the light, and I could taste things in the air. Colors. I don't know. The further I went, the better I felt—light and free and warm, so warm. By God! It was fantastic! I didn't want to return, but I felt myself being dragged backward. I bumped into my body, and a squirrel was scrabbling onto me, trying to climb onto my face. Out of the wet."

"Well!" she said. "How's that for selfish? You'd have left me and Polly and Ronnie just to be warm and free? Nice! Where's your sense of responsibility?"

He looked at her with deep loathing. Something squirmed across his face and ran down into his collar.

"You're the selfish one," he said, "Wanting me to give that up."

He pushed past her, imprinting his wet clothes on her cotton sundress, went upstairs, and slammed the door to their bedroom.

He didn't unlock the door or come down again until he went out for tests the next morning. The doctors claimed he would be fine, except for possible blindness. That he would live to one hundred and tell his grandchildren the story of how he had been hit by lightning in his own backyard, but he still hadn't spoken to her when he died of a heart attack three days later. Silly man.

"Darling," he said, on a Friday afternoon, the first time he called, and she knew it was him from the way his tongue skipped the r. It was a lucid dream, deliciously, comfortably real. Not worrisome at all. "Have you paid the pool guy?"

"Why did you die?" she asked, floating pleasantly, bobbing in the late afternoon light, jetlagged and shell-shocked and tranquilized within an inch of her life.

"Heart attack," he said, "I thought you knew."

"No, no. What I meant was . . ." What had she meant? Why did you leave me? I've been so angry that you wimped out of life, went AWOL. I needed you.

"Are you all right? Is it nice there?"

"Oh, you're wondering about the three-square-meals, roof-over-your-head kind of thing. It's not like that," he said, "But I'm feeling wonderful, better all the time."

She didn't know what to say to that. She was feeling worse all the time. Every day dawning with a newer version of pain laid out for her to try on. Even though he hadn't been a fully satisfactory husband, she had been used to him and relied on his company and help with the children. And he'd had a regular paycheck, was punctual with the bills.

"Where are you calling from? I didn't think . . . I thought . . . what kind of phone is it?"

"British," he said immediately. "Red phone booth. Smells like cigars and wood with a bad case of dry rot. Heavy old-fashioned black receiver."

And since she was dreaming, she hadto be dreaming, she pictured Dr. Who, beset by Daleks, purling through infinite space in a red telephone box. She was still laughing her new psychopathic laugh when he hung up on her.

The calls came often after that, always late on Friday afternoon, and there were many times when she was not in a drugged torpor, or dozing on the couch, or in a suggestible mood brought on by the death of a thirty-seven-year-old husband, and the telephone bill made it quite impossible to suppress the belief that this wasn't some delusional coping method cooked up by her more officious neurons. It might be, it was, real.

He usually called her late in the afternoon, when she was on the couch, reading, Polly napping in her crib, Ronnie not yet home from school.

"So, how was your week?" he asked, as flat and disinterested as the asinine robot voice that had guided her through the flight arrival times in Israel. She wanted to say it had been hideous, horrible, the Grand Canyon of desperate weeks, but can you say that to a corpse?

"All right, I guess," she said. "Polly's cutting a tooth."

She'd been dreaming away her days, but once night fell, her bedroom filled with cats in heat, chanting "Now! Now! Nauwooo!" Their shrieking filled her ears; she was deaf to all but the lusting of invisible cats, and she certainly couldn't sleep. Polly had been hysterical when she finally went in to her, a glaze of snot over her entire face, shuddering and juddering and rigid with misery. "What's the matter, Polly Wolly?" she'd asked, lifting the baby out of her crib. But her daughter had stared at her as if she had turned into a fluorescent midnight Medusa, and screamed piercingly, striking at Marnie's face and clawing at her eyes. In the morning, there was a sliver of ivory glowing in Polly's swollen gum, and a two-inch scratch on her own eyelid.

"Mmm," he said, and he may as well have said "Who's that?" His memory was cotton candy, fairy floss, things melting at the edges, and poor Polly must have been at the edge, a newborn memory with too few sticky strands spun around her.

"Your youngest child. A girl," she said, prompting him. Steve had brought Polly to nurse at night. He'd massaged the infant with almond oil, tracing circles on her heels with his thumbs. He'd carried her everywhere, draped over one forearm, like a butler's towel. The room slid by sideways, the sun darting happy summertime spears into her eyes. Polly was the baby who had slept between them for three months and kept them apart. Close. Apart.

"So, how was your week?" he asked again, and then, before she had a chance to answer, she heard him talking to someone else, a woman. "Just a moment, madam." Was he talking to her? When had she become "madam"? Her husband, Steve, was softly pleading with another woman, a kind of moan in his voice, and, dear God, it made her heart race. Had the Arabs got it right and fifty virgins waited for a good man in paradise? Was he, even as he spoke to her, being massaged, fondled by some unearthly nymphet?

"Steve?" she called, clutching the phone and willing her auditory centers to amplify those bleached sounds of climactic urgency.

"Excuse me . . . I'm talking to my wife. Let go!"

She heard scuffling, rustling, a crescendo of sound and was picturing imminent ecstasy at the hands or mouth of someone remarkably like Shula, her husband's sexy assistant, the one she'd made him get rid of, when a smoker's voice, a voice plugged with gravel and clay, totally unfamiliar, came boiling down the line.

"Mommy!" it drawled, "I ran away and was killed. You don't have to keep on putting my pictures on the milk cartons. You don't . . ."

"I'm sorry," she said, "I'm not your mother. I have my own little children. I'm . . ." and for a moment she couldn't remember her name, and only the sound of her dead husband's voice, begging in the background—"Marnie! Marnie! Let go, you harpy! Let me speak to my wife!"—was capable of reminding her. "I'm Marnie Gottfried," she said, "From New Haven."

"I want my mommy!" the thing wailed. "How does this stupid phone work?" which was Marnie's own question. It might be like black holes, or the Bermuda triangle, or conception. Subject to theories but difficult to prove.

"What's your name?" she asked the murdered thing, whose voice pelted her ears with gobbets of red clay and tiny bullets of granite. "Can you remember your name?"

But the girl, the murdered one, bayed, and there was a noise of beating leathery wings, and that awful wolflike howl, drawn out endlessly and magnified over the line, and once, in the middle of it, she heard Steve croak "Marnie?" and then a new voice said, "Who is this? Are you God?" This was a streetwalker's voice, still chewing air gum, still with traces of mascara in it. Behind this voice, she could hear her husband remonstrating with the murdered girl, and then there was screaming, a catfight in paradise, and things were said that made her hair rise; her tail, if she'd had one, would have been a liatris. When she could no longer hear her husband's voice, she lay the telephone back in its plastic bed and sat in her floral Queen Anne chair, as still as a corpse, until the room was utterly shrouded in darkness.

A week later, he was calling again.

"So," he said, "How was your week?"

"What the hell was that?" she asked, still bruised from the howling.

"What?" he said like Ronnie caught stealing a freeze pop. Incredulous that you suspected him of wrongdoing.

"The harpy, the whore, I mean, who's in charge of room assignments?"

"The boss, of course."

"Oh," she said, nonplussed. "That makes sense." She could have kicked herself. Nothing made sense. Nothing. "Why do you always call me on Friday afternoon?"

"That's when they let us out."

And this truly silenced her. Out of where? She didn't like to think of the possibilities when she thought of the others who stood in line with him to use the telephone.

Ronnie plowed through the summer, not looking right or left, no longer loving Mrs. Brown, the camp director, no longer talking to his friends, ex-friends, because they couldn't understand the for-eign language that came out of his mouth. His father had died. They knew that, secretly imagined what it would be like if their own fathers disappeared from the dinner table, and some of them — the divorced kids—thought they knew what it felt like, thought they felt the same wound running from the top of their heads to the seat of their spines, splitting them in half; the operation performed with a dull bread knife, the sawing, the hacking unceasing until they were divided. Yeah. They thought they knew. And as they passed him, some of them blurted the things their parents had told them to say: "Sorry" and "Too bad" and "He was a nice man" and "Where did the lightning hit him?" But mostly he was ignored and that was just fine. He wanted to finish circle time and pinch potting and banana boating, turn in his projects and get graded on what kind of kid lets his father get killed. He wanted— more than anything—to lie in the earth and stare up at the sky until he drifted up there too. Until his insides leaked out and evaporated, became clouds and rain and lake and ocean and clouds again.

This was all written on his face, and his friends avoided him because of it, but when he came home, Marnie held his hands, hugged him, washed him with the rough washcloth, sat too close, touching, touching, not letting go.

"How was your day?" she asked. "Anything special happen?"

Her words ran over him like water, meaningless. He slung his backpack in the closet and went to sit in the Citroën. She wanted him to see a kiddie psychiatrist, a Virginia Axline, a therapist with a sandtray, where he could bury little coffins and drive little Citroëns round and round plastic pine trees and torpedo his mother with Playmobil bombs right where she stood mopping the floor.
The gym teacher from camp called—a morning call, a call she picked up callously, knowing it wasn't Steve—and asked if there was a history of seizures in the family.

"I'm talking petit mal here," he said, "Eyelids fluttering, spacing out momentarily. Sound familiar?"

"Why?" she said, scanning the outrageous bill from the telephone company, a bill she'd have to argue: Israeli hotel, Middle Eastern long distance calls, the Telephone of the Dead.

". . . Ronnie on the floor."

She'd missed what he was saying. "That's fine," she said, not caring, "He's fine. We're all fine. Thanks for your concern."

And she'd hung up thinking they were fine. They were alive. It was Steve who had the problem.

In her garden, the next morning, with pads like monstrous mushroom caps strapped to her knees, she sunk her hands as deeply as she could into the rotting soil. A thin root ran past her fingers, like an underground power cable, and when she blindly touched it, she received the smallest shock. It was a dandelion spearing down, obsessive in its desire to take over the earth. She encircled it, tightened her grip and yanked hard on it, downward. The weed listed beneath the earth and she crowed. That was what it was like to be a mole or a gopher or a vole. Powerful. Subversive.

The phone began ringing, a ringing that struck her like an atomic blast, the windows of her home blowing out in fountains of glittering, somersaulting glass, but when it stopped, when she stood up to remove the fungal extrusions from her knees, the house was standing, the windows staring placidly at the sky.

Her husband's Citroën was still parked underneath the pines, and she wondered where she'd left the key. It would be like her to have buried him with the key in his pocket, but she couldn't really remember. Shrouds don't have pockets, and the Chevra Kadisha had been adamant about protocol. No suits, no glasses, no notes from Ronnie, no teddy bear from Polly, no kisses, no flowers, no music, no mirrors.

She had found a letter in the top drawer of his desk marked: "To Be Opened in the Event of My Death" and, at first, it seemed like it had been written by another man. No mention was made of her or the children, or their rented house under the trees, or his job with the Whiffle Poofs, or any of it, and she thought the letter might have been written many years ago, before they'd had children, and he had forgotten to tell her about it. But the paper was the heavyweight Crane stuff she had bought him for their most recent anniversary, and the letter was dated the day before he'd died.

He had asked to be buried in the traditional way, the religious way, with the assistance of the Sacred Society, and he wanted to be buried in Israel. He had bought a plot for himself, and an officious little yid showed up with the paperwork. She thought the man probably lived in the freezer down at the morgue, but it turned out he'd recently spoken to Steve on the phone and taken his credit card number and was only doing his job, delivering the deed. "Such a young man. How sad," he said, as he handed her the manila envelope. Karka in Israel, which sounded like shit in Israel but meant land in Israel. A tiny plot indeed, in the stony heart of the world. There was a slip with telephone numbers, names, the El Al flight schedule for God's sake. Steve had it all organized.

They'd never been religious people. Or, at least, she hadn't. She was no longer sure about Steve. Certainly they'd gone to a cocktail party on Yom Kippur the previous year, eaten treif in dozens of places. And now he wanted to be buried in Israel?

But she'd done it all. Followed his plans to the letter. Schlepped the casket to Israel on the plane, sneaked in at night to polish the simple wooden box with lemon oil—only to see the anachronistic shtetl Jews in their black polyester shtetl suits pry off the lid, lift out Steve, and lower his linen-swathed body into the crater. She had really cried then, seeing the Jerusalem rock pitched down onto his unprotected head, the ants already on the march, men from Invasion of the Body Snatchers rattling on in Hebrew. A heavily bearded woman had approached her and then muscularly ripped the collar off her best suit.

So the keys probably weren't in Steve's pocket.

In one of his first calls, she'd asked him why he wanted the religious funeral, but he hadn't answered. It mattered to her, though. She wanted to know.

"Steve," she said, "I had to go to Israel. My God! It's a third-world country. Always blowing themselves up. Polly and Ronnie stayed with Mom. What were you thinking?"

"Thank you," he said, "It's a relief."

"What is?" she said, almost screaming, almost scratching her eyes out.

"Being in the earth," he said, and she heard the dull clunk of the rock hitting his skull. "It's freeing."

"Oh, freedom," she said, "That's all you care about. You don't care two hoots for your family. It's all about you. That lightning blew your fuses."

"No. That's not it. The less there is of me there . . ." he said, slowly, thinking it out as he said it, her throat closing as she realized he was using "there" for the world, her world, her life, ". . . the more there is of me here."

And where was here, exactly, besides a British telephone booth that was definitely somebody's idea of a funny joke?

"The worms and the beetles and the ants, they're important; they nibble through what connects the soul to the body. Like being tickled. Like picking off a scab. It feels good."

She walked into Polly's room and stared at her daughter, wetly sucking her thumb in a real heaven. She held onto the edge of the crib and waved the telephone at the unhappy crawling things that swarmed from the walls. A different time, on a day when she felt stronger, she asked Steve about cremation, the designer label of being less in this world, and he choked. Gagged on her words.

"Don't!" he said. "It's murder," and he abruptly hung up.

He was a weak man, the kind to kowtow to anyone, bow down and lick the boots of the oppressor just for personal advancement, just to get ahead, and it revolted her. When they'd first come to New Haven, before they had children, he'd taken her downtown to see the Yale campus. It was a summer evening, and as they walked along, peering into the frivolous shops and admiring the very Englishness of it all, she'd felt she might be able to love him. She could force it out of herself, like a bowel movement.

Her mother's succession of flaccid husbands appalled her, convinced her that Steve wasn't so bad. That he must be lovable, if only for the way his hair became transparent when it was wet, a quirk that had entirely charmed her when they were dating.

But then they'd turned down an arcade, and a man—a security guard, she thought—ran up behind them and pushed them along, his hands on the small of their backs. "Sorry folks," he said, "I'm real sorry about this." He made them sit on steps at the blind end of the arcade, and she saw he was holding a long serrated knife, and his eyes glowed and spun like marbles, and he shook from head to toe with something she couldn't identify. This man, this criminal, was wearing a bright Hawaiian shirt and red high tops. "I'd hate to cut you," he said, as if he meant it, and she stood up then, behind Steve, ready to run or kick or bite or whatever was necessary to survive. Her husband's knees, she saw, were bludgeoning each other, his skin was the color of canvas.

"I need a fix, man, they're killing me here. They shut down all the hospitals. No one gives me a chance."

Steve had seven hundred dollars in cash to pay the movers, and it was a fortune to them then, but what the hell. Give the guy the money, she almost shouted. Almost kicked Steve in the back to get him moving. She wanted to get home in one piece, all her limbs attached. Steve took out his wallet and glanced inside at the thick bundle of twenties.

"I've got a twenty," he mewled, "but I need a ten for the baby-sitter. Will you take a ten?"

The man sighed and lowered his knife. "Damn it," he said, "I always get the Jews."

He took the ten and walked quickly away, and her husband, the man who had been playing with their lives, turned and vomited on her shoes.

"You know," he said, the next time he called, a humid afternoon full of greenflies and the shouts of children out of camp, "if you'd do something for me, I wouldn't be stuck here with little Lolita and a bunch of anal anesthesiologists. Flotsam."

She was probably flotsam. Or maybe it was jetsam. She could never tell which was which. Or maybe she was ballast. The heavy bottom of things.

"Pardon?" she said, "I thought you were beyond help at this point."

She laughed, the mirth of the anchor chain as it is borne down into the depths of the sea.

"Not at all. The scuttlebutt around here is that you can get pretty decent accommodations if you suck up to the boss. Shmear him a little. What say you light the Shabbos candles. For me."

Her mind boggled at the thought of shmearing God. Slipping Him a little bribe on the side. This really had to be a prank devised by some evil bastard down at the Whiffle Poofs. Or maybe it was those Skull and Bones boys.

"Marnie," he said, "Are you still there?"

"What?" she said. Religious coercion direct from heaven or hell or wherever it is that dead people hang out. It was unbelievable. Despite his sadly depleted state, he was still forging ahead with his pathetic plans for advancement.

On hot summer days, driving home from work, Steve used to wind up the windows and turn on the ancient heating system in the Citroën. He wore three sweaters and two scarves, a woolen balaclava, and a pair of rubber gardening gloves, and by the time he got home, his skin would be a bright, slippery purple, like the underside of a tongue. They had a claw-foot tub in the cellar, with a hose from outside hanging through the jalousie, cold water only. After parking the car under the pines, he'd come tearing through the house and launch himself into the tub. There'd be screams from downstairs as the water hit his skin, and eventually yodeling. "Great sauna," was what he always said to her when he came upstairs wrapped in a towel. "It's incredibly healthy for you. You should try it someday."

At the yoga class he'd given her for her birthday, when she was supposed to be emptying her mind of distracting thoughts, she secretly pictured what would happen to him if he was stopped by the police dressed in his woollies and his gardening gloves, the heater blazing. She'd willed it to happen, pictured it so solidly that it seemed inevitable that he'd be pulled over and wind up in jail for at least a night. Get the Breathalyzer test. A cavity search. And the police officers would look at her with pity when she came to bail him out in the morning and hand her the rubber gloves.

"How did you call me?" she asked Steve for what felt like the hundredth time. "What is it that you say to the operator?"

She rubbed her thighs, warmed her hands in her armpits. Lately, she could never get warm. Some vital internal engine had turned off. She pinned the phone to her ear with her shoulder and blew on her hands.

"I already told you," he said. "I ask the operator to put me through to my wife. That's all. Listen. Are you going to light the candles? It has to be before sunset. None of that after dark malarkey."

"Who is Ronnie?" she asked. "Who is Polly?" She paused, blew a single smoky breath into the ice-cold air. "Who is Marnie?"

There was a silence at the other end, and the wind strummed the invisible telephone lines, plucking a deep B-flat that sung through the phone and sussurated in the marrow of her collarbone.

"My wife?" he guessed, his brain gone porous, licked down to the stick, freeing itself a little more each day.

"Oh, Steve," she said, "Yes. Your wife. And your children." It was like being married to a victim of Alzheimer's who was locked up in some prestigious Long Island facility, making furtive phone calls when the staff wasn't looking.

"You'll do it?" he asked, still puffing around his version of the fast track.

"I don't know. Maybe," she said. "Listen, Steve. I'm just not into all that claptrap."

He began to give her the telephone number of the local Chabad House, where she could pick up a brochure of candle lighting times, and she felt her fingers tightening into talons around the receiver.

"No!" she shouted, louder than she'd intended. "Forget it. I'm not doing it."

There was a hiccup and then, loud and clear down the line, the sound of Steve crying.

"You don't really love me. You never loved me. If you did, you'd light the damned candles and get me out of this armpit."

It reminded her of when he begged for oral sex. "If you really loved me," he'd whined, "you'd swallow." But he'd cried then too. It was the usual way he gave her a guilt trip, to get her to do what he wanted.

"Oh, stop it," she said. "I'll think about it."

It was ghastly: a shade, a spirit, a dybbuk telling her what to do but offering nothing in return. So utterly selfish. It shocked her (although after the telephone booth nothing would ever truly shock her in all her long life) that the World-to-Come could be so base, so craven. And what was the deal with the telephone? A backdoor business line? They call out for pizza when the staff goes on strike? They call the riot police when the harpy goes canine?

She'd received calls now from Steve at Ronnie's camp and once at the gym and once when she was visiting her mother in Boston, so she knew that the simple request "Put me through to my wife" would connect them, wherever she was. Or he was. It was maddening. She'd never wanted a cell phone, that degree of connectedness feeling like an invasion. And yet, here was her husband, ex-husband, whatever, trailing her through the woods of her life like a bloodhound.

One particularly hot Friday afternoon, as she lay on the couch, idling, there was a miserable thunk, the lights went out, and the air conditioner stopped working. She went down to the basement to reset the circuit breaker and it was there, in the darkness, that she knew what was amiss. The power had been cut off. An image of the last five checks she'd written swam in front of her eyes, checks she didn't have the money to cover. Sweat crept down her back like an insect. Unless she got a job, she and Polly and Ronnie would soon be on a cat food diet. "Ronnie?" she called, climbing the stairs. "Polly? Who wants to go to Grandma's?" She found Polly asleep in her crib, splayed out like a starfish, but Ron didn't answer. "Ron? Ronnie?" she called, as she walked through the house, horribly aware that she had no idea where Ronnie had been for the past six hours. Since breakfast, in fact. Some mother.

She searched through the garden and the mildewed apple trees along the back fence. This is what desperation feels like, she thought. Mounting desperation. She glanced at the Citroën, still parked under the pine trees after its last unlucky trip. The windows were fogged up, a lopsided heart and "Daddy" scrawled across the windshield. Ronnie was in the car, slumped on the driver's seat, wearing his father's sauna clothes; the thick woolen sweaters, the scarves, the balaclava, even the gardening gloves. He looked like a potato she'd once exploded in the microwave, his mouth open and foam on his lips. "Ronnie," she said, gently shaking his arm. "Wake up."

The car was incredibly hot and moist. She pulled his arm harder, and when he still didn't move, slapped him on the backside. "Get going, Ronnie. I've wasted enough time looking for you already. I'm not going to stand here all day."

A humid breath stirred the pines and raised the hair on the back of her neck. "Ronnie?" she said again. The little boy had the keys to the Citroën in his hand, and she pulled them away from him, taking in the slow slide of his rubbery arm to the floor of the Citroën before moaning "Oh God, no." She shoved him over to the passenger seat and got in, started the car and revved the engine. "Not Ronnie. God damn you, Steve." At every red light, she leaned over and squeezed the little foot that had somehow gotten hooked up on the ashtray. He was breathing. "I'll get you there, honey. You're going to make it."

It was only when the policewoman was asking her yet again how Ronnie had come to be parboiled in a car, how he hadn't been noticed for so many hours, and why it was, exactly, that he was wearing all those heavy clothes, that she remembered another important thing she had forgotten: Polly, at home in her crib. "Excuse me," she said to the policewoman, who eyed her as if she was something that fell out of a vacuum cleaner bag. "I'm just going to dash home and pick up some pajamas." When the woman made a move as if to stop her, she added, "For Ronnie." The woman nodded but said, "If you're not back in twenty minutes, I'll have to issue a warrant for your arrest."

"Do you think it was deliberate?" Marnie wailed. "That I'm an abusive mother?" The policewoman stared at her and said nothing. Dear God, what would happen if she found out about Polly?

The phone was ringing as she pulled up under the pines, and she ran to answer it, afraid it was bad news about Ronnie, but it was only Steve.

"So," he said. "How was your week?"

"You bastard!" she screamed. "You couldn't call and tell me about Ronnie?"

"Ronnie?" he said, and she let the last good memory of her husband go, felt it slide out of her like his semen.

"Your son. Look. I'm too busy to talk right now. I've got to get back to the hospital."

There wasn't a sound from Polly's room. She had a premonition that the baby had died in her crib. She pictured the little girl strangled in the Mickey Mouse bumpers; smothered, face down, in her own vomit; her head caught between the bars of the crib. The silence chattered demonically at her nerves. But Polly was still sleeping, thumb in her mouth, a ring of mustard yellow baby poo on the leg of her onesie. It was oddly annoying to find her alive.

"I'm just checking," Steve said. "You have the candles, right?"

"I don't want you to call me anymore. I want you to stop this. It's abusive, it's . . . just leave me alone. Okay, Steve? Please. You have no idea what I'm going through."

"Did you speak to the rabbi yet?"

"Steve. Stop. Your son, Ronnie, is in the hospital right now. He's badly dehydrated, unconscious. I really have to go."

The house smelled like rotting flowers, like pseudomonas. The flowers that people had sent after she returned from Israel were still on every surface in their cheap florists' vases. Dead. That was the stink. The flowers were all dead.

"You're not going to drive to the hospital on the Sabbath are you?"

She came close then to using a word she had avoided her entire life. She could taste it on her tongue like a piece of wasabi, bringing the water to her eyes.

The next morning, she woke, blinking against the staleness of Ronnie's hospital room and the fug of Polly's breath on her face, hearing Steve's voice whispering over and over, like a dog snuffling at her heels, "Put me through to my wife. Put me through to my wife." Her brain stalled but then started with a roar. He was able to connect with her only by asking for his wife. She watched several cute young doctors and a gentle-faced middle-aged man walk by. Suddenly, they all looked like possibilities. Ways to get away from Steve. She inquired of a passing nurse if there was Internet access available for the patients, left Polly in the reclining chair they'd slept in, and trotted down the hall in her fluffy slippers. In the patients' lounge, she turned on one of the computers. The screen flickered, green letters sprinting across the abyss. She swiveled her chair to face the screen, typed in online dating services, and pressed Search.

Marnie guiltily read every one of the Happy Endings, peering at the faces of the men to see if they looked as if they might have a job with the Whiffle Poofs. If they might have been barbecued under some pine trees on a hot summer day. None of them did. They looked cool and scrubbed, like new cars in a dealership, still smelling faintly of plastic.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Fall 2010)


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