May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
March 12, 2020
It was not yet daylight, but Emily Rhett was up.
Up and alone, or at least as alone as she could be these days, curled onto the back-porch swing with her infant son and her story. Her infant son, Kyle, was currently occupying both her arms and a state of listless bliss. And her story? Well, it wasn’t actually her story—there once was a man, she thought, involuntarily.
OK, it was sort of her story, she supposed.
The story was connected to her work as the county solicitor, and since she had left on maternity leave in the spring, she couldn’t quit telling it to herself. There was once a man, she thought. See the way it starts like a fairy tale? See the way it fools you?
There was once a man who set his wife on fire with a bottle of Kingsford lighter fluid and a flaming tampon, her mouth gagged, her hands and feet tied to the bedposts. The woman begged and cried through the sock that was duct-taped in her mouth, but the man was meticulous, the man was focused, and then whoosh! the woman was burning, whoosh! the woman was a great pyre of suffering and light. And the man, her otherwise doting husband, watched her burn, and watched her burn, and then, perhaps having grown tired of watching her burn, decided to call 911, and out came the fire truck! and out came the police! out came the Life Flight helicopter that sat down in the street and the woman was off to the trauma center and then off again, weeks later, to the burn unit, and it was over, but actually, for the woman, it was only beginning, and what was left to Emily, seeing as she was the county solicitor, was to ask why? Only Emily Rhett, née Greaves, Richard and Clara’s second child and only daughter, mother of three sons and four cats, husband to Knox, no longer allowed herself to ask why.
That was over now, that sitting on the porch at dawn—just as she was sitting now—riddling out the why, as if such a thing as why just might exist. She wasn’t thinking of that today. Today she was praying—right, Emily?—or at least she intended to be praying.
She worked her right arm free of Kyle and gently brought her coffee to her mouth.
The porch overlooked the backyard, the unmown grass needled with Nerf darts and banked with overgrown azaleas. Past that, the swing set and trampoline no one used anymore.
Everyone else—her husband, Knox; her sons, Hunter and Judson—was inside, presumably, hopefully, asleep.
She was hoping for five more minutes.
She’d taken to getting up earlier and earlier to have some time alone but lately realized she had hit a limit. To get up at four would mark her as crazy, and she wasn’t crazy. She just needed to gather herself. She liked that word; that word felt stable. It seemed important to gather herself for the day if only because life seemed to have gathered in her absence.
Over the next fourteen or so hours much would happen. First, she would direct forty-seven teenagers in a performance of Germantown! a skit—play was too generous a word—celebrating the town’s sesquicentennial. That was this afternoon and, again, Saturday at Oktoberfest. This evening, postgame, she would play hostess at her twenty-fifth high school reunion (she’d managed to book the oh my god best bartender in all of the south! according to Yelp).
It was also, lest Emily forget, her last day of maternity leave. Come Monday, she would be back at work. On Monday, she would hand Kyle over to her husband, exchange him (and the quiet mornings, and the coffee, and the reminder that she should be praying—all that gathering) for the DUIs and the domestic abuse and the woman—still in a burn unit in Toccoa—who had been set on fire by her—the expression stayed with her—her otherwise doting husband, a man Emily had sworn to herself she would send to the state penitentiary for at least one thousand years.
Only she was thinking of not going back.
Over those months holding Kyle, it had occurred to her that she could have been something easier, something calmer, the executor of estates, the writer of wills. Only recently had she realized she could be it still. She thought of that single year after law school when she and Knox had lived in his family’s beach shack on Hunting Island. The way the sand threw itself at the glass door. The way their clothes scattered around the bed. They both had been studying for the bar. But that wasn’t what Emily had been doing, not really. What she had actually been doing was taking a leave from all things Greaves, from the grand sense of duty on which she was busy building a life. That year, she’d been on sabbatical from herself, drinking white wine and becoming the sort of woman who always seemed to arrive with wet hair, happy and laughing in some strappy thing.
The year after Hunting Island, they came back to Germantown.
They came back to earth, back to the vinyl siding and yard dogs, back to lowered expectations but expectations just the same. Nothing had changed, and because nothing had changed, she took a job not with some well-heeled white-shoe law firm but with the domestic violence task force of the county solicitor’s office. Once there, she dreamed of becoming Rachel Corrie, the American activist killed by a bulldozer in Gaza. Someone who changed lives for the better. Someone willing to give up her own life.
This was her real life now, but there remained the possibility there might be one realer still, one in which quiet mornings with her family, coffee on the porch, and actual prayer were not a reprieve from the everyday but were the everyday itself.
She looked at her watch.
“Mom? You out here?”
The voice came from inside, but it was approaching. Four minutes she had been granted. Maybe five if you considered the seconds, which she hadn’t, so there—maybe she had been praying after all. Maybe her prayer had been answered.
She eased up from the porch swing, Kyle still dozing, and slid open the glass door.
Her middle son, Judson, was in the hallway, already dressed, hair gelled and upswept in a little cresting wave of ambition. Eleven years old in black jeans and Steve Madden shoes and a collared shirt by Under Armour. This is what he did with his money—or, more accurately, what he did with his grandmother’s money. He caught the sweep of her eyes. His own eyes sparked in the way of children who know themselves to be clever.
“Hey, honey.” She could see the rectangle of phone in his front pocket. “What are you doing up so early?”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Just sitting for a minute?”
“Is that a question?”
“What do you need, baby?”
“You look sad.”
“Sad? No, honey. Sleepy, maybe.”
“Is Dad up?”
“How about some pancakes?”
“Still asleep, I guess. You want French toast?”
“I’ve already had my milk. You bought the Fairlife SuperKids, by the way.”
“And that’s the wrong one?”
“The one with DHA. It doesn’t taste right.”
“And you don’t want the Fairlife?”
“No, I want the regular Fairlife. Not the SuperKids.”
“Because it costs like twice what regular milk cost.”
“I do want the Fairlife, Mom. That’s not what I’m saying at all.”
“Besides I think your father bought it.” She guided him into the kitchen where the chocolate milk—wrong kind or not—still sat on the counter, several dark splashes beaded around it. Normally she would make him clean this up, be responsible for yourself, but not today. Today, she wiped it herself.
Did she really look sad?
Tired, sure. Tired she could have lived with. But sad?
Guilty, she knew that one.
Occasionally, she would take a sleeping pill, and every time she felt guilty for it. She told herself it was a physical thing, her guilt. She shouldn’t take it because it did damage. It made some obscure heart valve leak, some rarified lobe deep in the prefrontal cortex degrade. You’d die fifteen minutes sooner for having taken it.
But it wasn’t that. It was the way she hid it in her hand, the way she swallowed it when Knox wasn’t looking. That she needed it meant something was wrong with her life, something wasn’t quite in place. Otherwise, given the manic twitching of her day, the driving, the nursing, the cajoling, the considering, shouldn’t she sleep at night of her own exhausted accord?
She should fall into bed every night and sleep the sleep of the just.
But she was not sleeping, and the not-sleeping part, did it signal sadness? And not just a personal grief but some sort of larger cosmic thing? There were days it seemed her family was coming apart, that something had unhinged. Other days it felt fine. It was—quoting either Confucius or Donald Rumsfeld—what it was. Today, she thought, could go either way.
“You look very nice,” she told her son.
“I’m going to go wake up Dad.”
“He’s probably up already.”
Not that she knew anymore. There had been a point at which she would have known, would have felt it. That feeling, that intuition, would have been definitive.
That feeling was gone, her marriage yet another thing flowing beneath the bridge of middle-aged uncertainty, like the way they were sexting more but having sex less, agreeing on what new Netflix series to watch but hardly caring to watch, commiserating over their children’s bad/selfish/ridiculous/beautiful/altruistic behavior but speaking rarely.
There was no more talk about either of their “careers.”
There was much talk of phone plans (do we really need four lines?) and carpools and strategic campaigns for “after”—after the end of her maternity leave—which was necessary, but also somewhat ridiculous. There was much talk of chocolate milk, for God’s sake, which was straight-up ridiculous. But no matter how ridiculous something is, ridiculous has a way of seeping into the everyday until it becomes something like the all of the everyday—the everyday itself. That, she thought, was when it became absurd.
It was also when it became your life.
To say nothing of her marriage.
Kyle was fully and deeply asleep now, and she tiptoed back to the nursery—that feeling like she was walking on cracking ice—and gently lowered him into the crib.
When she came back into the kitchen Judson was back, having another glass of chocolate milk, apparently no longer caring that it was the wrong kind.
“Let me fix you something,” she said.
He shook his head.
“What about your brother?”
She needed to call her own brother today, both her brothers really. She should check in on her parents, her grandmother, her—
She looked up at Judson who had apparently been talking to her for some time.
“What’s that, honey?”
“I said Hunter’s up.”
“Oh, good. Is he in the shower?”
“I have no idea.”
“Well, if he isn’t, he’ll be late.”
“I know that,” Judson said, as if insulted by so obvious a declaration. “I was the one up on time, remember?”
“Please don’t prosecute me, Mom.”
“I’m relaying information without commentary.”
“I’m sure you recognize my voice as free of inflection.”
“Completely and totally,” Emily said. “Got it. Did you tell him to come up for breakfast?”
“He doesn’t want any.”
“Go tell him again, please.”
“Tell him now, please.”
“Now as in ‘come now,’ or now as in me ‘go now?’”
“Otherwise,” Knox said, having, apparently, just entered the room, “we try him as an adult. Good morning,” he said and kissed Emily’s temple.
“Try him for what?” Judson asked.
“Kyle down?” Knox asked.
“Try him for what?” Judson asked again.
“For anything,” Knox said. “For overconsuming Fairlife SuperKids? For testing positive to an abundance of DHA?”
“Is that a joke?”
“Judson,” Emily said. “Come on.”
“I’m just saying that if it’s a joke I don’t get it.”
Emily pointed with the spatula.
“Be a good son,” Knox said.
“I wouldn’t know how,” Judson said. “Or so I’ve been led to believe.”
“Then make it aspirational,” Knox told him. “Believe it, achieve it, and all that.”
“Is that an order?” Judson asked.
Emily still had the spatula.
“From high command,” she said, “Absolutely.”
“High command?” Judson shook his head. “You gotta get woke, Mom. You too, Dad.”
“Woke. Like politically awake.”
“I know what it means,” Emily said. “I just have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, that’s shocking, truly,” Judson said, but at least he was moving.
“You sleep OK?” Knox asked when Judson was gone.
“Big day today, right? The reunion, the play.”
“I guess. What are your plans?”
He shook the chocolate milk. The truth was, she was the one who had bought it. She’d simply forgotten.
“I’ve got the thing with the house in Beaufort,” he said. “Remember?” and then smiled so that it wasn’t quite so loaded. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“No, no, I just—”
“It’s OK. I just can’t really miss it.”
“It’s a showing or something?”
“I’m meeting the realtor.”
“I don’t know exactly.” The house was an antebellum mansion that had belonged to Knox’s family since the 1950s. Three stories of Greek revival, glorious if now a little shabby and moldy and in need of five figures of rehabilitative attention. It had been for sale for the last two years. It was overpriced, because Emily knew he didn’t really want to part with it. Overpriced, because Emily knew they didn’t need the money. “Something with the air conditioning,” he said. “No Freon, maybe.”
“And you have to be there?”
He shrugged, smiling, but not exactly at her.
That thing with the house in Beaufort, she thought, and then Kyle began to cry.
By the time Emily made it back to the kitchen—Kyle assuaged and now in Knox’s arms—her oldest son, Hunter, was hunched over his Raisin Bran. He was running late, she knew, because he hated school. Or maybe not hated—maybe it simply scared him or confused him. Which meant it scared and confused Emily too, since motherhood—at least motherhood as she had found it—was as much a form of proxy suffering as anything else. Some joy—yes, absolutely—some joy, but so much suffering.
He looked from his bowl, his mouth full of flakes.
She smiled. She had said it just to say it.
His jaw working methodically, speaking through the fiber-enriched flakes, the New! Strawberries and Apples.
Yes, he was, is, had been. Would be again. Until the day he wasn’t. Until the day he was gone out of their lives, or she was gone out of theirs. This was a thought that intruded more and more frequently of late, how at some point something awful would happen. Not a flaming bed but a wreck, an illness, a phone call announcing That Which Cannot Be Named. You could count every day that it didn’t happen a blessing, a little miracle of sorts. But you could also understand that every day that the worst failed to arrive, the statistical likelihood of it coming the next day only increased. Life burning like that poor woman in her accelerant-soaked bed.
She had told it all to Knox, these thoughts, and he had performed all the necessary acts of marital comfort. Held her, soothed her, talked logic to her—these are normal thoughts, honey. Especially when you’re home all day with Kyle, and so on and so forth. But she had detected the perfunctory, the man playing the role of strong-jawed husband to the woman who played the role of weepy, sensitive wife.
Hearing it confirmed for her that a certain zero-sum ruefulness had entered their lives, a game of more but also less—one more glass of wine for Emily but one less bedtime story for the children. Sleepovers meant one more night to herself but one less night with her sons. No more Monopoly. No more chess or Ticket to Ride or even Axis & Allies spread over four afternoons and two-thirds of the kitchen table. Car rides started to count as “quality time” even if NPR or some Prince-tribute CD was going at 80 decibels. For NPR News in Washington, I’m Nora Raum . . . . I’m Jack Speer . . . . I’m Lakshmi Singh, and this is what it sounds like when doves cry.
But it was a private sound, to each his or her own, everyone retreating into private worlds of headphones and screens until one day the boys realized they needn’t beg for MP3 players. They simply made mention of it, and two days later Amazon Prime dropped them on the front stoop, two of them, so no one even had to pretend not to be talking anymore. A year later—though they had sworn the boys wouldn’t have phones before they were eighteen—the boys had phones. It was a relief really. Not to be talking was no longer a thing, it simply was.
“Go brush your teeth,” she told Hunter. “If you don’t want to be late again, you need to leave in the next five minutes.”
When he was gone—she was granted, she thought, something less than two minutes—Knox entered to pass Kyle back to her.
“We need to go in like three,” he said.
“Hunter’s brushing his teeth. Where’s Judson?”
Knox nodded toward what she understood to be the boys’ shared bathroom.
“Primping,” he said.
“How much hair gel does one boy need?”
“Wasn’t that Tolstoy’s question?” she said.
“Or maybe Justin Bieber’s?”
He smiled and shook his head.
“Honey,” he said, “no.”
“What? Not funny?”
“Not unfunny, just—”
“I think the word is lame.”
“Could you call him?”
“I think ‘dad joke’ is the genre to which that belongs.”
“Forget it,” she said. “I’ll call him myself.”
“I’m going to hit the road right after dropping the boys, all right?”
She nodded, although what the motion signaled she had no idea.
“What is this again?”
“The realtor,” he said, sounding almost aggrieved. “The air conditioning.”
“I remember now.”
“It’s been on the calendar for weeks.”
“I said I remember.”
And she did remember.
She remembered other things, too.
She remembered watching him once at one of Judson’s T-ball games—T-ball, for God’s sake—the way people had been drawn to him, his grand magnetism pulling mothers and fathers and coaches and kids, all wanting, it had seemed, nothing more than to be near him. He’d intended to be an artist, a sculptor, but had wound up doing probate work.
So much, she thought, more than a little self-consciously, for our dreams.
In place of their dreams, there was the woman, burning in her bed.
Her presence, her ghost, Emily thought, were it not for the fact that she was still alive. Ghost or not, she floated just above Emily’s bare shoulders in a feathery cloud of gauze and grafted skin, IV lines tethering her like a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Floating just above her was the prospect of Emily’s return to work, the granular falling of hourglass sand which had, she realized, more or less run out.
She carried dishes to the sink.
She didn’t want to go back.
There. She had said it.
But having said it, what was she supposed to do with it?
It wasn’t some abstracted sense of duty, at least not exactly.
It wasn’t an issue of pride.
It wasn’t an issue of money or ego or anger.
But then she didn’t know what it was, which meant, perhaps, it was nothing. Only it wasn’t nothing. It was her life, but also there was this whole other life, this world that was built around holding Kyle in the swing or directing Hunter in a skit—a play, be generous Em—or marveling at Judson or cajoling Knox. There was this world where things were simply easier. No one was raped or burned or shot in the parking lot of the Dollar General over a case of Coors.
But was it easier? she wondered, this retreat, or was it simply a retreat?
She had followed the news too closely, that was part of it. All through her maternity leave, it had played in the background, CNN, NPR, and here they would all be, in the living room getting ready to watch whatever they were going to watch on Netflix, but then they would find themselves watching the overcrowded boats. The orange life vests and bottled water. The Greek Navy in their gray cutters. The way the beach sand clung around the ankles and, when the bodies washed ashore, around the hands and faces. She would see her sons seeing this, her lanky, good-hearted sons worried about whatever it was that consumed their days, and Emily couldn’t decide if an awareness of such was a good thing, something to make them stronger, something to make them more grateful. Or was it something to be avoided?
It was only later still, lying in bed, that she would realize how awful it was to contemplate another’s tragedy, another’s death, as an object lesson. A teachable moment for her beautiful and privileged children.
She knew it, yet what could she with such, against such?
She could go back to work. But was that enough?
It had to be, she supposed. Because there was nothing else.
Someone had once told her that the world was the manifestation of God’s consciousness, and if that were true, if you believed it—and she thought, perhaps, that she did—you couldn’t be disappointed by it. Yet she was, sadly, she was, because what was around her simply wasn’t enough.
The emojis while the bombs fell.
Je suis Charlie! and a red, white, and blue filter on your profile pic.
This was life?
It was, after all. It is. At least a form of life, and she could drown in it, or she could go back to work because, honestly, what was the alternative? Get the kids into good schools while they rape girls in Nigeria. Put the whole thing on Instagram. Isn’t that what one did?
The lost a string of tears in a text message.
It wouldn’t touch the Rhett family, it couldn’t. Their life was so safe, so cushioned, yet here was this sense of impending collapse that was held at bay only by—
So Emily, said the burned woman floating above her, go home, retire, why shouldn’t you? I would if I were you. Retreat behind the gate of your semiposh neighborhood with its cart paths and boat slips. Get the Mexican yard crew. Get the West Indian nanny and the Peloton bike. You’ve done your duty, Emily.
But what was this duty business? She wanted to know. This implication that you put in x hours or years toward the greater good and thereafter you were free to spend your days tightening your core at Pilates or sitting on the veranda at the Grove Park Inn, both activities, to be fair, that she very much enjoyed but also felt should be judiciously rationed. But why? Why ration them? Why not simply live?
You’ve done your part, Emily.
You’ve done . . .
A few minutes later, they were all assembled in the kitchen and then rushing out of the kitchen into the garage, Emily calling goodbye and the boys calling back. Knox kissed her cheek. He had his overnight bag with him, and she could see how anxious he was to get out the door so OK, go ahead, don’t let me stop you.
She stood on the porch to watch them pull out of the drive and up the street, a last wave, a blown kiss. Goodbye. I love you, all of you. I love you so much.
It was only when they were gone that she reminded herself to pray.
Mark Powell is the author of six novels, most recently Firebird. He directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Romania.