Phillip Fanno was playing with his food. He gave his pork chop a mashed potato beard and moustache, a julienned-carrot nose and mouth, and, not finding suitable eyes on his plate, cast about the table for them.
“Very cute,” said Alisha, his wife, glancing briefly.
“He’s just doing that to get attention,” his daughter Christine said. She was nine.
“See, it worked,” said Phillip calmly. Bowing to necessity, he got up and fetched a pair of raisins from the kitchen. He admired the effect for a moment before he cut a triangle out of the pork chop’s face and speared it with his fork. “I’m a cannibal,” he said. “You’re witnesses. But remember what Oscar Wilde said: ‘If we must eat meat, why not eat the best?’ ”
“I don’t get it,” said Christine.
“That wasn’t Oscar Wilde,” said Alisha.
“May I be excused, seeing as I don’t even know who Oscar Wilde even is and I’m all done anyway?” said Christine.
“He’s dead,” said Phillip, with simple tragedy.
His daughter looked squeamish. “How’d he die?”
“He died a long, long time ago before any of us were born,” said Alisha impatiently. “And you may be excused.” Christine ran away down the hall, singing. Alisha rose.
“Would you clear and wash up this once?” she said. She rubbed between her eyes with a forefinger. “I had a draining day.”
“Right,” said Phillip, chewing. He had no idea what his wife did with her time, except that it usually seemed to leave her exhausted. She ascended the stairs still rubbing her forehead, leaving Phillip alone with his smiling pork chop. “I throw myself on the mercy of the court,” he said in a low voice.
Phillip Fanno was a tall, gaunt, untidy-looking man, who owed his professorship at a small liberal arts college to the intensity of his glow, made up of equal parts intelligence and gall. Having attained the goal he had pursued with all the considerable manic charm and fervor at his disposal, he now found himself increasingly aware of a billowy, shimmering quality to the landscape, as if it were painted upon a vast canvas curtain being jostled from behind.
But maybe it was just the weather. It was November, and an aching dry wind hurtled around the house, smelling of snow but delivering nothing but twigs and torn bits of paper. When he slid under the bedclothes in the dark that night, Alisha having gone to bed early, he said, “This is the kind of weather that gives people bad dreams.”
“No,” protested Alisha, dreaming.
He fell asleep and had a bad dream. A woman was lying on hard, damp earth in the black shade of the most ancient fig tree he’d ever seen. Its branches wept to the ground. She was naked; she and the cool clay were pressed together like two hands. She was fair, like his wife, but he wasn’t sure if she was his wife. He could tell she was dreaming, because as he bent over her he could see her mouth move, her brow furrow, as if listening to someone she wanted to interrupt. He knew to whom she was listening.
He awoke in the dark. There was an odd repetitive sound in the room, which he slowly recognized as teeth chattering. He touched Alisha’s back tentatively. She was trembling violently, which was not surprising, as she was icy cold and wet. Her hair was sopping and she smelled like seaweed. In fact there were shreds of seaweed in her hair; he bit one to make sure. It was crisp and tasted of iodine. He decided he had not really woken up, and fell asleep again.
In the morning she was dry. He lay in bed watching her dress. She had danced as a girl, and she retained a sinewy, angular grace. She turned her back to him, her long bony back, with the deep curve at the waist that still moved him. She adjusted her sweater in the mirror, smiling rather mistily at herself. Phillip said, “I dreamed you were dreaming about me.”
Her smile vanished. “Well, I wasn’t,” she said.
“That’s all right,” said Phillip irritably. “It was my dream.”
He was still dawdling over his newspaper and coffee as she and Christine were preparing to leave; Christine was enrolled in a private school an hour’s drive away. His daughter fluttered her fingers on his neck in farewell. It felt like a small, soft bird. He caught her hand and noisily kissed the palm, making her squeal in delighted disgust.
Alisha said, “Did you remember your science book? I saw it in the bathroom last night.” Christine dashed up the stairs.
What long legs she’s getting to have, Phillip thought. Her mother’s long legs. He was about to speak but Alisha said quickly, “Would you be really careful when you lock the back door? There’s something wrong with the catch; if you’re not careful it just blows open. I think we’re going to have to replace the lock.”
“I can’t find it,” shrieked Christine from the upper landing.
“Try the top of your bureau, under your nightgown,” Alisha called back.
“It just blows open and the weather comes in when we’re not here,” said Phillip.
Alisha’s jaw tightened. “Will you just lock it?” she said. Phillip felt the shock of her uncharacteristic flash of anger as a small, white star exploding under his solar plexus. Too far, he thought. Christine slid down the bannister clutching a book.
After they’d gone, Phillip drifted through the house, touching things lightly with his fingers, claiming their solidity. He winced when he passed his desk. On it rested a small mountain of unread student papers, promised back that afternoon, under which was a note from the dean, expressing his concern at the rumors that seemed to be gaining substantiality about “your professional conduct.” He was certain his wife was planning to leave him. The whole house began to smell vaguely of kelp.
He remembered a long-ago late-night party, when they were both grad students, not even dating yet; on a dare Alisha had climbed the fence surrounding the university pool and dived off the high dive in a silk dress. He saw again the arrow-perfect fall, cleaving the water, and her coming up laughing in her transparent clothes.
Her dissertation had been on the nervous system of crayfish. When he arrived for dinner at her apartment, she would have a saucepan of melted butter and a pot of boiling water on the stove. “Go pick the biggest ones,” she would say, but though he would have done virtually anything to impress her, she would always find him sitting on the edge of the bathtub, staring at the creatures, trying to get up his nerve to grab one. She had still found him entertaining then. Smiling, she would bend over the water, casually scanning, then with a peculiar lightning flick of the wrist would suddenly be holding a dripping crayfish behind its waving claws.
Only last week, at a reception for some distinguished old European import, another faculty wife asked her in Phillip’s presence why she wasn’t using her degree. “Biology doesn’t interest me anymore,” she replied, with a calm, gracious, arctic look. The woman wandered away blinking, and Phillip murmured, “Catty, aren’t they.” Alisha said nothing.
Sometime when he had not been paying attention, she had stopped being amused. That masculine reticence he had always admired in her had become pessimism. Or had it always been? He didn’t think so. She was slipping away, receding from view, and everything was going with her. He saw himself bereft, strewn about a bleak, dim landscape. He already missed her terribly and she was still there.
To escape the ocean smell, he drove to the college with the student papers in his briefcase, determined to work on them in the odorless privacy of his office, a place he generally shunned. Students were very apt to discover him there, and today was no exception.
He had only finished five before he was interrupted by a knock. “Chelsea,” he said, charming and aghast. “Well, come in, sit down.”
She was a slight, pale girl with black braids and a set, almost exalted expression. She pressed her back against the door, ignoring his invitation to be seated. Phillip said lightly, “You look like Joan of Arc at the stake.”
“I could get you in a lot of trouble,” she said without preamble.
He nodded. “Yes,” he said. This simplicity disoriented her slightly, he could see, but she quickly regrouped.
“But I’m not a vindictive person,” she went on. “I just want you to hear what I’m saying for once, that’s all. I wonder if you ever listen to other people’s feelings? I mean did you ever think about my feelings, what it would be like for me to get something like this?” She shook a piece of paper at him. Phillip could not recall the exact wording except for the unfortunate close, “All the best, Phil.”
“I’m listening,” he said, surreptitiously glancing out the window. It was still a two-story drop.
“Do you understand how cold you are?”
“No,” said Phillip, despairing. “How cold am I?”
But instead of answering, she began to sob. He got up and put his arms around her, which she allowed for a moment, then socked him viciously in the stomach, getting in several hard blows before he could escape. “Don’t touch me, don’t touch me,” she said. “I don’t want you to ever touch me again.”
“Right,” he said, subsiding into his chair.
She had stopped crying. She stared at him with bitter disbelief, slowly shaking her head. “I would hate to be your wife, Phillip Fanno,” she said at last. “That’s all I can say. I would hate to be your wife.” She turned and was gone as abruptly as she had appeared.
“No one asked you to be,” said Phillip acidly to the door, but this could not be maintained, and he sank his head upon his hands. Not cold, surely. What did she imagine should have happened? No one as intelligent as Chelsea could have dug up all his articles published in obscure literary journals and asked him to explain the parts she didn’t understand, without hoping to be seduced for it. He thought of the way Alisha’s eyes had momentarily widened until the white showed around them in a ring. He thought of the note from the dean, a crumpled ball in his pocket.
This would be the right moment to reach into the secret drawer for the whiskey bottle. He deeply regretted that he didn’t have either one. Outside, the landscape shimmered more decidedly, through a thin, cold rain. He imagined that soon he would see the actors’ feet moving in the crack between the curtain and the stage. Even near things, his desk, his books, which had remained stalwartly three-dimensional so far, had begun to acquire that mocking, insubstantial quality. “My wife swims with mermaids at night,” he said aloud. He drew the curtains, locked the door, and picked up the top paper on the stack, entitled “Culture in Conflict in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.”
“Oh please, anything but culture in conflict,” he muttered, and took up his pencil.
That night, he tried to listen to his wife, but she didn’t say anything except, “I got the bill for the washing machine.” He watched her moving purposefully around the kitchen, saw her strong, noble wrists, her cool misery so deeply contained it was as reassuring as love, her inward eyes. He thought, this is what happens to perfect couples. She was found in the bathtub, what was left of her after the crayfish had — well, skip that part. She’d apparently been stabbed 108 times with an ice pick, probably the same one found buried in the perpetrator’s heart . . . appears to have been a suicide pact. Phillip composed several pathetic suicide notes for himself, forgetting Alisha’s.
The rain had increased through the afternoon, and now the wind shattered it against the house, hissing and booming like the ocean itself. “She can’t go to sleep because of the storm,” Alisha said, coming into the living room where Phillip leafed desultorily through magazines. “She wants you to come tell her a story.”
“Isn’t she a little old for that?”
“It’s the storm,” Alisha said.
Christine was lying enthroned in a deep drift of stuffed animals. “You’re sitting on Piglet, Daddy,” she said.
“Excuse me, Piglet,” Phillip said, retrieving a minute, fuzzy pink object from beneath him.
“Aren’t you going to tell me a story?”
“I’m thinking of it. Don’t rush me. Once upon a time there was a young man who lived all by himself near the ocean.”
“In the dunes?”
“In the dunes. It was very sandy; you would not believe how much sand there was. If he took a clean cup out of the cupboard to make himself a cup of cocoa, by the time he finished drinking it there would be a quarter-inch of sand at the bottom of the cup.”
“You’re exaggerating,” said Christine.
“You could get arrested for using such big words without a Big Word license,” said Phillip. “This young man lived all alone in the sand, until one day he saw . . . a woman swimming in the ocean like a seal. At first he thought she was a seal, the way she disappeared for ten minutes at a time, then bobbed up again at some impossibly distant spot. But she looked at him once, and he saw her little white face. It gave him quite a shock, I can tell you!” He glanced down at Christine. Her eyes were closed and her smile fading. He reached over her and switched off the lamp. The door creaked behind him, but he did not turn.
“He decided to go out after her in his rowboat, and he took his fishing nets and his harpoons. I don’t know what he thought he was going to do with them. Especially the harpoons. And he rowed around and rowed around and sometimes he thought he saw her and sometimes he thought he saw a seal, until after a while he thought he had imagined the whole thing.”
Christine was faintly snoring. She always went to sleep like that, a sudden falling away, one moment here, the next vastly distant.
“So he gave up,” said Phillip more softly. “He let the boat drift on the current, not wanting to go back to shore, where the wind blew the sand through his house and banged the doors open and closed. And maybe, while he was drifting, she bobbed up next to his boat and leaned her arms on the gunwale, and they looked at each other, and he said, ‘Will you marry me?’ ”
He sat silent in the dark for a moment, listening to the rain rattling the windows, then rose and walked out softly, guiding himself by the light coming in the partly open door. Alisha leaned on the outside of the door frame.
“She’s asleep,” he whispered, closing the door. He followed her down the hall to their bedroom.
“Was that the end of the story?” she asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.
“I doubt it,” said Phillip. He kissed her under her earlobe, where she was particularly vulnerable. She drew a sharp breath.
“I think she comes to land,” Alisha said.
“Does she marry him?” asked Phillip, his lips against her neck.
“She comes to land. She walks on the beach.”
“But does she marry him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She can marry him if you want,” she said, the light going out of her voice.
“I could crush your head between my hands like an eggshell,” said Phillip, feeling very much inclined to attempt it.
“You could not. I dare you, you liar,” she replied, as unsmiling as he.
But instead of rising to this challenge he kissed her on the mouth and she him and they went down together in an agonized welter. Violence; weeping. They surfaced and fell away shaken. They lay simply breathing, listening to the rain hammering to get in. Alisha groped for a tissue and blew her nose. She was lying on her back, and she stretched her arms up to examine her hands, both sides, fingers spread, seemingly to ascertain they were still in working order. “All right,” she said, as if acquiescing to someone not seen. And sighed deeply. “All right.”
“If you leave me I’ll kill you,” said Phillip, watching her. “I’ll cut you up into little triangular pieces and put each piece into a tiny plastic bag and bury it in a different part of the world.”
She put her hand on his. She said, “Would you just shut up for a minute?”