Sadie’s mother was tall and narrow, with a long braid down her back, black when Sadie was very little, then silvery, then silver, an instrument to measure time, an atomic clock. Her father had been tall, too, both he and the mother the tallest members of short families. In photographs and at reunions, they loomed. Everyone was happy when they had a short child: they’d decided to fit in after all. Sadie was small and plump and blonde, and when she was nine, her father died, and it was just the mismatched mother and daughter, a different kind of sight gag.
Years later Sadie brought home Jack to meet her mother, Linda Brody, who still lived in the green house on a hill in Swampscott, with its view of the ocean and its cyclone fence. Windy on that hill. All his life Jack had felt like an interloper. He might as well, he decided, interlope on purpose. The doorbell was a little button with an orange light so you could see it in the dark. It was daylight. Sadie pushed it.
“You can’t go in?” Jack asked.
“It’s her house,” said Sadie. She opened the storm door and her mother opened the front door, a minuet, and mother and daughter met on the threshold. They hugged each other so long Jack wondered whether he should leave. Finally, they disentangled, Linda in her apple-red cowl-neck sweater, Sadie in her cherry-red winter coat. Linda offered Jack her hand and said, “Linda.” But she wouldn’t look him in the eye.
She’s basically a hermit, Sadie had told him, and Jack imagined a lady lighthouse keeper, a kind of nun—not a nun nun, since Linda was Jewish, but a woman of the book, devoted to reading. She was a high school librarian; she’d gone back to school for it once widowed. Here she was, with her cheekbones and her hair in its braid, her little house bound up in aluminum cladding the pale green of an after-dinner mint.
“Come in,” she said, “before the wind takes you.”
She strong-armed the storm door open so that Jack and Sadie could step inside, but she seemed unable to look at him. In his life he’d been ignored, but in ways that had made him feel invisible. The way Linda Brody looked away from him: he felt blindingly bright, gargantuan. He took himself to the window and watched Sadie’s mother unbutton Sadie’s down coat, take it off shoulder by shoulder, elbow by elbow, wrist by tender wrist. Down the hall was Sadie’s childhood bedroom, and Jack understood that he wouldn’t see it this visit, might never see it, it would be shut to him forever.
“Let me look at you,” Sadie’s mother said to Sadie, and set her hands on Sadie’s hips, and frowned.
“It’s a lovely house,” Jack offered interlopingly, though it wasn’t. There was a general disorder to the room, books on every table, venetian blinds at odd angles to window frames. The furniture looked as though it had been bought all at once from a catalog. There was not a piece of art on the walls. Jack gestured at the window. “Look at that view!” Truthfully the view was only good in that you could see a pennant of ocean in the right upper corner. The rest was taken up with hedges, the across-the-street house, television aerials, telephone wires.
“It’s nice,” Linda agreed. “You need a new coat, Sadie. Let’s go shopping: you can pick one out.”
“I’ll buy you a coat,” said Jack.
“We’ll go to Lord & Taylor’s,” said Linda.
Her father’s death had bound her to her mother. How could Jack not have known this? Everything that Sadie had told Jack about Linda, her height, her seriousness, her occasional unkindness, the way she fussed over Sadie’s weight, couldn’t carry a tune but sang, couldn’t remember the name of any of Sadie’s friends—none of it had prepared him for this truth. Sadie’s mother loved her unnervingly. Not in a way that meant she’d love him, too. The opposite. Their love was a piece of furniture designed for two people only. Their love was an institution that barred men. Their love was love, provable and testable, solid, documented in any number of ways. What Jack and Sadie had was something different, built quickly, a lean-to, like all young love.
He’d imagined he’d walk into Linda’s life through Sadie’s door. That was how it had worked in his family: Sadie belonged to him; she arrived with him as luggage, to be understood only as a part of his life. He saw that this wouldn’t work with Linda. He would have to come around the other side and talk his way in.
He left the window and sat in a leatherette armchair seemingly made of the skins of Gideon bibles. It sighed under his weight. “Oh!” he said. “Jordan almonds!” He reached over and took a handful from the bowl on the glass coffee table, and Linda lunged and slapped his forearm, really slapped it, and said, in the voice of a shocked dog owner, “No.”
She was instantly contrite. “I just always get those for Sadie,” she said miserably. “She loves them. They’re harder to find than they used to be.”
It had hurt. She’d meant it. He looked at Linda, then at Sadie, and understood that they were all going to pretend this hadn’t happened. He had the almonds in his fist, which he opened. The pastel coating had started to transfer to his palm. “Of course,” he said. “You have them.”
That was the start of their lives together. It went on for years. A mistake, to go to the house. Linda wasn’t a hermit; hers was the sort of shyness that dissolved in a crowd. What she hated was to be seen in her own habitat, among her own things, the nest she’d built around her. Soon after that meeting, she finally sold the house in Swampscott and rented a room from a colleague at the high school. Then she moved to Nahant. Then, once retired, to an apartment in Melrose, and finally to a studio in a converted elementary school in Waltham. Jack was invited to none of these places. Perhaps she was trying to throw him off her trail. He couldn’t even remember whose idea it had been, that disastrous first visit. Had he said, Why don’t you bring me home to meet your mother? Had Sadie said, Sure, no big deal, we’ll just go to the house? We’ll go to the place where my father died, and you’ll meet my mother, and we’ll all be happy.
Ever after Jack worked on winning Linda over. Mostly he succeeded. He needed a role for those times. He was not her child: what was more grotesque than that American trampling of boundaries, calling your in-laws Mom and Dad, I haven’t lost a daughter I’ve gained a son, that whiff of incest and separation at birth? Nor was he a replacement husband, a tinkerer, an offered elbow at the opera, Aren’t I lucky to have two such beautiful dates: that was just as disgusting. He wasn’t a friend, though he grew to love Linda Brody decorously, a business relationship, a fond one, a banker or butler. A trusted member of staff. He was never invited to her home.
Of the three of them, only Sadie worked year-round, as an editor for a numismatic magazine (her father had been a coin collector, a biographical detail that had landed her the job). After grad school Jack had lucked into a visiting position at Boston University, then a permanent one. Summers he accompanied Linda to games at Fenway—for her sake, he’d affected an interest in baseball, which eventually became genuine, he would have thought lifelong, but then the Red Sox broke his heart by becoming successful, not once but over and over. He learned the secret of Linda, perhaps of all in-laws, which was to fold his own personality in half, and quarters, and eighths, then tuck it into his pocket. He allowed himself to be lectured; he offered himself up as the brunt of jokes. The Widow Brody. Baseball, museums, movies, but Sadie was what they had in common, though they did not speak of her. They both respected her privacy.
Sadie’d been so little when her father died, an only child. A freak accident, she told Jack once. Did she want to talk about it? She did not. He thought he’d be the sort of person in a marriage—they weren’t married yet—to whom anything might be told. That was true of the small stuff, the nutshell jealousies, the unusual rashes on inner thighs, the basest functions of the body and the psyche. Not the big things. She had one picture of her father looking toweringly tall, a sort of diamond-shaped monolith, wider at the beltline than anywhere else. He smiled, showed off his bad teeth.
Sometimes Jack thought that if only he could solve the riddle of Timothy Brody he could go forward in life. They’d get married. Have a kid. They were waiting for a sign. As though they would follow a sign. As though they’d be able to read it.
In July of his twelfth year with Sadie, Jack answered the phone to hear a man with a thick Boston accent say, “Is that Jack? I’m a friend of Linda.” Linder. “She could use your help. She took a tumble.”
Jack could hear Linda in the background saying, Tell him I’m fine!
“She’s fallen down?”
“She’s just in a bit of a pickle. Could you come over to her place?”
“Sure,” he said. “Let me just call—”
“She says don’t bother Sadie,” said the voice. In a stage whisper he said, “She’s embarrassed.”
“I’ll be right over. But—can you tell me the address?”
He didn’t tell the voice that he couldn’t drive; he grabbed a cab. It was hot in Boston, the kind of heat he resented. The building was called The Schoolhouse, which sounded picturesque but was only accurate, twenty apartments, some with blackboards and some with tiny porcelain water fountains. His cell phone sat in his pocket, accusing him of treachery. He should call Sadie. It was Sadie to whom he was bound.
He rang the bell by the front door and was buzzed in without having to explain himself. The hallways were air-conditioned and he relaxed. Sadie had been enchanted by The Schoolhouse when she visited her mother, but Jack knew that no place once devoted to the education of children is enchanted without also being haunted. He could smell, quite suddenly, gym class. Not kindergarten gym class—cinnamon toast, artificial fruit, the squeals of five-year-olds allowed to run at top speed—but sixth grade. Half the girls budding, three or four in full bloody bloom. Boys, too, with wobbly chubby tummies and weak arms. The smell of burning flesh: thighs on climbing ropes, knees on the floor, what Jack would have called Indian burns. Maybe they still called them that. Lunch: square pizza, pickley tuna salad. Smoke from the teachers’ lounge. Turning a school into a residence, thought Jack, was as bad as building your home on top of a cemetery.
Linda’s door was marked Principal in black paint on chicken-wired glass. A short fat man of Linda’s age in a baby blue polo shirt opened it.
“Hey! Come in, Professor. I’m Arturo. Vitale. You’re the son-in-law.”
“No kidding? You’re not married? I got the idea you were married.”
They went down a little corridor into the apartment, four long windows letting in four tranches of sunlight, exposed brick, a kitchen in the corner, handsome green-shaded lights hanging from the ceiling, and, in the middle of the floor, Linda Brody, leaning on a wooden chair. She held a cloth to her head. She was surrounded by boxes, though she’d lived here a while. Was she moving out? Were the boxes permanent? Jack felt as though he were the one who’d been in the accident, hit by a truck and pushed through miles and walls to end up here. In the years he’d known her, she’d aged very little, but now she looked ancient with worry. Her floral dress was hiked up. He could see too much of her legs.
“Not married yet,” Linda said.
“Not yet,” agreed Jack. He kneeled down next to her and surreptitiously pulled down her skirt. “Linda,” he said, “what’s going on?”
“Well, I feel stupid,” said Linda. She took the cloth away from her temple and regarded the pink streak left behind. There was a matching streak in her hair. “I’m not sure what’s happened.”
“Took a tumble,” said Arturo, squatting down.
Jack looked at him. “Why isn’t she at a hospital?”
“She said, don’t want to go. Hey, maybe me and Lindy will beat you two to the altar.”
“We’re not getting married,” Linda told Jack.
“You don’t know,” said Arturo. “Who can predict the vicissitudes of life?”
Linda frowned, put the cloth back, and Jack touched his own head. His brain felt injured; he wanted somebody else to take charge of the situation, load him onto a litter. The boxes around her were filled with items wrapped in newspaper.
“Are you moving again?” he asked.
“No. Just putting things in order.”
“Selling some stuff off, hopefully,” said Arturo.
“Who are you,” Jack asked, and Linda answered for him: “Antique dealer. Old friend. Do you think you can help me get to my feet?”
“Shoulder,” said Arturo, pointing.
The arm that wasn’t holding the cloth to her head dangled, as though she had no shoulder at all.
“Bet any amount of money that’s dislocated,” said Arturo. “Head, shoulder, let’s don’t touch her.”
“Linda,” said Jack. He couldn’t stand to look at the wrongness of arm. “I’m going to call an ambulance. Then I’m going to call Sadie.”
After a moment Linda said. “If you must, call the ambulance.”
“For the record,” said Arturo, “I wanted to call both.”
“Sadie’s terrible in situations like this,” said Linda.
“Tell her afterward, when I’m all patched up and home.”
“You don’t think that will hurt her feelings?”
“Tough if it does,” said Linda. “I mean, maybe. Jack, don’t call her. I know you think I spoil her, but—of course, you understand, you were basically an only child yourself. Sadie told me—what with your sisters grown and out of the house. I’m sure your parents coddled you.”
He was thirty-six years old and had never been coddled a day in his life. Even when he went out with Linda, he paid for everything, the movie tickets, the museum admissions, the almond soups and strong coffees at Café Pamplona.
“All right,” said Jack.
Arturo squatted by one of the boxes, knees apart to give his stomach room. “I called 9-1-1.” Then he pulled a newspaper-wrapped lump from a box. “Might as well, while we’re waiting.” Inside was a blue and white vase with twisted handles, a scowling profile painted on one side, Breton, Jack knew. He’d grown up with pottery like it, though nothing so fine as this. That old notion: a thing of beauty. Jack wanted it.
“Tim had good taste,” said Arturo to Linda.
“That thing,” said Linda. “I haven’t seen it in years. Plenty more like it, from what I remember.”
The EMTs rang the bell, then came with their stretcher down the corridor, three bland young people, all with lank ponytails. “What did you do, Linda?” one shouted at her. Another said, “This place is cute.”
“It’s not cute,” said Linda. They lifted her to the stretcher.
“It’s cute,” said Arturo, “you’re cute, it’s very cute.”
“I’m a grown woman,” said Linda, rolling out the door.
“For sure,” said Arturo. “And now you live in a schoolhouse, in the principal’s office, like a storybook mouse.”
Once they’d taken her away, Arturo said to Jack, “Come on. I’ll drive you to the hospital. Where you from? You got a little accent.”
“Upstate New York,” he said.
Arturo had a set of keys; he locked the front door. “Oh. I thought Linda said you were British. Look at the bubblers!” he said, coming down the hall. He tried to operate one of the low water fountains with his foot.
In his mind Jack saw first Linda’s shoulder, then the Breton vase, then all the boxes around, then Sadie. “What’s she doing with all those boxes?”
“Unburdening herself?” said Arturo, shouldering open The Schoolhouse’s front door. “Past twenty years she’s had them in storage. When Tim died she just—packed ’em away. She’s been paying monthly ever since. Crazy. Here you go.” Arturo unlocked the passenger side of a pristine old Mercedes-Benz. Jack had imagined a piece-of-shit car, filled with old books. “It’s all her husband’s stuff. I think she thought she and the kid would move. You know he died in that house. Somehow, they got stuck. Stuck in Swampscott. Nice girl.”
“Sadie? She is.”
“I’m not asking you she’s a nice girl, I’m telling you: she’s a nice girl.”
“You’ve met her.”
“I knew her when she was a kid. Lived across from them in Swampscott. I did see her a while, Linda, till she moved away, another thing don’t tell Sadie. Last week she—Linda—called me up to say she’s clearing out the storage, did I want to look at some of Tim’s stuff, I say sure, why not. Mostly I deal in prints, but you know: overlap. Newton-Wellesley’s up this way?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know a lot,” said Arturo.
Inside the ER, Jack was trying to orient himself when he heard what he understood, though he had never heard it before, was Linda making a long animal noise of pain: a bay, a caterwaul. It did not sound like something you could live through. Instinctively he began to run, toward the source of pain or past it. The little area where he expected to find her had been closed up with blue-gray curtains. He stood outside of it trembling, and then one medical professional drew the curtains and another stepped out, and there was Linda, forehead spangled with sweat.
“Ah,” she said, “that’s better. They put my shoulder right. Arturo knew what he was talking about. You shouldn’t have bet him.”
“I didn’t bet him. Jesus.”
“They call it reducing a shoulder,” said Linda.
Because of the head injury they wanted to keep her overnight; they wanted to keep an eye on her foot, too. She would stay in the ER till a bed was found on some distant floor.
“A bother,” she said.
“You’re not a bother.”
She said, “I need to ask you something.”
“Sadie was nine when her father died.”
“That’s a bad age,” said Jack, trying to sound sage and empathetic.
“They’re all bad ages,” said Linda. “Let’s not rank them. I have a friend who says, if you lose a parent early, there is part of you that stays that age forever. And of course it’s worse for Sadie. Because of the trauma. Of being there.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
“She saw her father die. You know that.”
He did not but he couldn’t say so. “Yes,” he said. Then, “I will.”
“Look after Sadie.”
“Not after Sadie,” said Linda. “Me. I don’t know that she could do it, worst comes to worse. Your parents have all those daughters, so I don’t feel too bad about asking. Will you?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Don’t worry too much,” said Linda, though he was already worried and planned to worry for the foreseeable future. “I have every intention of dying in my sleep.”
Then there Sadie was, in a linen jumpsuit against the heat, billowing and flowered and wrong for her, beige and bright yellow, who would put an empire waist on a jumpsuit, and they both loved her so dearly in it. She’d taken the afternoon to get a haircut, an old-fashioned bob when all the other hair of Greater Boston was pulled back into ponytails that day, or shorn into buzzcuts.
“Mom!” she said. “How are you?” She went to the opposite side of the bed.
“Furious, you want to know. I told Jack not to call you.”
“He didn’t. Arturo Vitale called me, that weirdo. What’s going on?”
“Tripped over a box and now they want to do surgery on my foot, if you can imagine such a stupid thing.”
“Well, I guess you should get surgery,” said Sadie. “Good grief.”
“They wanted to put some stitches in my scalp but I said no.” Linda touched her hair. “Most things they offer in hospitals you don’t really have to do.”
The dog in Jack wanted to leap over the bed. He wanted to find somebody in the hospital to marry them—there must be a chaplain, people were always getting married this close to mortality, though Linda was fine: she would live through this and go back to her storybook apartment, or so they thought. Everything seemed fine then. Everything seemed absolutely ordinary, Sadie in her terrible jumpsuit with the empire waist, looking like an ottoman, Linda intact. He stayed where he was. He didn’t leap.
Later, as Sadie drove them home, he said, because there was no right question, “You saw your father die.”
“My mother told you that.”
“It’s not true?”
“No, it’s—I mean, it is true.”
“Oh, honey,” he said, because it was a moment for endearments though they never used endearments. Her new haircut matched her Weimar Republic eyebrows, the thin lines she’d plucked them into years ago, expecting that they’d grow back. Her lipstick was red. It suited her. It was only from the neck down that she looked clownish.
“Oh honey,” she repeated. “That’s why I didn’t tell you. He had an aneurysm.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Not a freak accident.”
“I never said a freak accident.”
He was sure she had—
“A freak thing,” she said. “A freak thing.”
Her father was crinkle-faced with bad teeth; he wore short-sleeved polyester shirts with black neckties; she loved him. He liked to show her card tricks. He was showing her one when he died.
“Look,” he’d said. “There were once four thieves, and they decided to rob a department store.” Jack of Clubs, Jack of Diamonds, Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts. “And they landed their helicopter on the roof of the building.” He put the jacks on the top of the deck of cards.
She was sitting in her bed, a little white Eastlake bedframe he’d found at a yard sale, such a long narrow shape they’d had to have a mattress made for it.
“The first thief went to the basement, fine china,” he said, pulling a card from the top and inserting it in near the bottom. “The second, to the ground floor, perfume.” Another card. “Third, lingerie. Fourth, jewelry. Then they heard the police outside, and they ran up—”
At this he riffled the cards but lost control of them. They flew into the air, then he himself folded up: he fell to his knees, as though surrendering to the imaginary playing-card police force, he sat, he had a dopey expression on his face, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, and his hands made funny giving up gestures. She had laughed. Her father was very funny. Look at his hands, I give up, I give up.
That was the thing about her father’s death, what she never told anyone, that she had thought it was a joke. It was not the sort of secret that explained everything, or even anything, though she knew that was what Jack believed: a key for a lock. Something architecturally essential that couldn’t be disturbed without the help of professionals. A spell of the Snow-White variety that might awaken her to a different life. Better? Worse? Probably not worth the risk. Maybe the beast preferred being a beast, the swan brothers the power of flight, the boy kidnapped by the Snow Queen the ability not to care about the feelings of others and also the luminous cold.
A knot on a vital net. An undiscovered organ. A tumor left alone for fear of rupture.
None of these. It was merely a thing that belonged to her.
There was a certain emotion that she’d felt, when she was looking at her father thinking it was a joke, then understanding it wasn’t, but not knowing yet the right response, what this meant for the rest of her life. Not shame: she’d hate for anyone to think that. Not sorrow, though sorrow was nearby. It was an emotion she’d never felt before and never would again, close to a religious conversion: deep certainty over a mystery. She couldn’t bear another’s interpretation. Couldn’t imagine converting any of it into words. The memory—not of the facts of her father’s death but of this one moment—was hers, only hers, like one of those morbid Victorian lockets with a dead beloved’s woven hair. How strange, to use the dead matter of a person’s head to stand in for all of a dead person. How right, too. Put it behind glass. String it on a chain. Wear it close to your heart. Don’t submit it to anyone else’s unraveling.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of three novels, one memoir, and three collections of stories, including the forthcoming The Souvenir Museum, which includes “The Get-Go.” Her work has been published in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Prize, The New York Times Magazine, and many other places.