Mary waits at the foot of the stairs. She means to go up the stairs and back to bed but feels too exhausted to make the climb. Last night she was awake until disastrously late, first at the office preparing three final articles for the newsletter, then at home on the telephone with her tearful daughter, who was suffering a premarital panic attack. This morning she lugged herself out of bed at 6 a.m. to pack sandwiches and coffee and see off her husband, Ryan, and her son, Peter, on what was to be their last great adventure together. The boy is starting his first year of college next week. Now that they’re gone, she waits with one hand on the banister and her right foot on the first step, barely aware of how she came to be there, deflated and silent.

She stands and waits. The house makes noises; Mary counts the creaks and bumps of its settling.

Finally she goes to the den and turns on the television, lies on the sofa, and slides into an immediately deep sleep.

 

“Mary?” Dog voices snarl at one another. “Mary?”

Mary opens one eye. Ruth. “Hi,” she gurgles.

“I’m sorry to wake you,” Ruth says. “Should I leave?”

Mary’s gut reaction is indeed to shoo Ruth, roll over, and drop back to sleep. She must have left the door unlocked. “No.” She makes a smile. “How are you?”

“I thought I’d see if you want to go into town with me to do some shopping.”

A woman on television with outrageously silver hair, sculpted into spikes that make her head look like some sort of medieval weapon, is threatening another woman with blackmail, possibly murder. Mary pauses to pay distasteful attention, her eyes barely open. It’s about an illegitimate child.

Do some shopping. “Oh, no, I don’t think so, Ruth. Do me a favor and turn that off, will you please?” Ruth moves across the room and silences the women’s passion. “I’ve been asleep ever since the boys left. I don’t feel like doing anything.” Especially shopping. Things things things. The very thought makes her feel bloated and ill.

Ruth sits beside the couch. “You know, you don’t look right. Have you come down with something?”

“Not that I know of,” Mary says. “You’re right, though, I don’t feel too well. Am I feverish?”

Ruth tests Mary’s forehead. “Well, maybe a little.”

Mary remembers. “I was up awfully late last night. Stayed till 10 at the office, and just when I got home, Julie called. She has cold feet.”

“Well, that’s to be expected, of course.”

“Of course. But you’ve met Robert. Talk about adding problems to problems.”

“You didn’t say that to her, did you?”

Mary shakes her head at the hopelessness of it. “I should know better by now. I was forbidden from giving advice long ago. I begin to speak my mind and she gets mad. I have no idea why she calls.” Mary props herself up on an elbow.

“Well, Mary, you’re her mother.”

There’s no escaping it. “I think I’m just going to spend today right here, Ruth. Thanks for the invitation. I think I’m going to take it easy. It’s nice when the boys aren’t around.”

“It’s your own little vacation,” Ruth smiles.

“Exactly. I need some peace and quiet. Haven’t stopped going going going all week.” All month, really. All. . . .

“Well, call me tonight and maybe we’ll get together, go to a movie.”

“OK.”

Mary boils up some turkey dogs and returns to the couch. She spends the day there in a fog, reading a little, mostly sleeping and watching television and mechanically eating sweets wrapped in red and gold foil. Time slips by in glassy five- and fifteen- and twenty-five-minute increments. It’s very loud. Mary’s stomach grows uneasy. Finally a particularly awful movie commercial comes on — split-second visions of black, sliding passages, men growling and firing guns through the dark, a gigantic slimy insect arm reaching through a hole in a floor, a young girl screaming and running — and Mary’s stomach boils over and up into her throat. She runs for the bathroom.

In the den, the television has gone on to greater things. “Hey, you out there. Smell this. Here. Go ahead. Smell!” She knows which commercial it is; the image — a woman holding a pile of clean laundry out toward the screen, smiling with delight and knowledge — pops into her head. She remembers the product, the price, the jingle. That’s exactly what they want, she tells herself. They’ve got you; they’re inside your head.

The telephone rings before she can stand to get near the television. It’s Ryan calling to let her know that they’ve made it all right. Mary listens with the receiver against one ear and a finger in the other.

Ryan says, “Mary? Are you OK? You sound kind of strange.”

“I’m fine, dear.”

“Lonely?”

“Well, not yet. I’m sure I will be. Don’t worry.”

“What did you do today?”

“I didn’t do anything. I took the day off. Watched TV.”

“Good for you,” he says. “You deserve it. Ree-lax.” She drinks him in, feeling closer to him than she has in weeks, loving the sound of his voice from hundreds of miles away. Why are they so far from her? Why didn’t she go too?

She has trouble hearing over the noise in the next room.

The call is brief. “Well, that’s it,” says Ryan. “Off to conquer Mount Shasta. See you next weekend!” Peter calls, “Hi Mom, bye Mom,” in the background, and Mary sets down the receiver gently, not wanting to hear the click that means genuine disconnection.

She turns off the television and sits down, and the house unwinds around her. The kitchen clock embarrasses her: the entire day has gone by.

Mary eats two turkey dogs for dinner, enjoying the hush, and then wanders about, letting herself be pulled from room to room by residual currents of long-gone traffic. Coming down the long, unlit hallway upstairs, away from the large bedroom and toward the kids’ adjacent rooms, she recalls all the late-night emergencies, times she was roused out of bed and came on the run for one reason or another, anger or dread or just a vaguely sensed interruption of the night’s stillness. Childhood nightmares and nosebleeds, and angry, weepy Julie who night after night couldn’t fall asleep. Peter and his friends staying up way past midnight — on school nights — talking and laughing, listening to music, occasionally dropping a football to the floor. Peter was so bad at getting away with things that Mary was often less interested in punishing him than in forcing him to acknowledge some basic life dictums: “Peter, when you’re doing things that are going to get you in trouble, you don’t call attention to yourself!”

Mary wonders how the boy will survive at college.

Standing in Julie’s doorway, she remembers waking at some god-awful hour with the funny feeling, no more than that, that something strange was afoot. Even though all lights were out and all seemed quiet and right, she was drawn to Julie’s door and cracked it open. There was her seventeen-year-old seated by the window, swinging her leg and sucking slowly on a shriveled-up little cigarette, blowing silver clouds of unfamiliar-smelling smoke at the moon. The red smolder at the tip of the joint lit up Julie’s face, and her hair formed the shape of a cathedral, dark columns rising from below her chest to a point at the top of her forehead. The girl was so out of it, the idiotic pot-induced peace on her face so complete, she had no idea she’d been caught. Mary yelled, “Julie!” Julie jumped and cried out, dropping the joint.

Her stomach hurts. She shouldn’t have eaten all those turkey dogs. Turkey dogs. Why didn’t she have something healthy?

Why does Julie think of her parents as the enemy? They’ve gone over this so many times, assuring her of their love, their support, their concern. Mary’s family is everything to her. It’s not so bad, she supposes: Julie has turned into a lovely, intelligent, principled woman; but she’s troubled, always seeming angry, ready to fight battles that her parents dropped years ago. And now this marriage. . . .

Stop it, Mary.

She moves on. It’s not her problem. That’s what Julie would grunt: Don’t worry about it, Mom.

In the living room, Mary sits at the piano, now played a handful of times each year. She realizes that she misses the boys in only the most general, physical way. Certainly it would be nice to have them around, but this silence is also nice. There are moments as she slips lightly from room to room, the house paying no mind, that she imagines herself a ghost, a forgotten thought cruising the passages of someone else’s brain, barely there. The image pleases her. She could easily disappear, wink out behind the eyes. Only the house is.

The piano waits. She really ought to play more often. Once upon a time she was good.

Finally she climbs into bed. She finds the book on her nightstand, a trashy hospital thriller, unreadable; why she even began it is now a mystery to her. She turns off the light and sinks back against her pillow. The voice inside her head chatters on, singular and clownish, without interruption. It has been doing this since the television was silenced, recounting and commenting on all the memories, reminding Mary of tasks that need doing, musing about Julie and Peter; the chatter is endless, like a nervous, tapping foot, unobtrusive until the lights go out and then driving her crazy, filling the walls and ceiling with talk talk talk talk talk.

 

Sunday morning the telephone rings. Mary has to rise such a distance to meet it that she knows she would have slept much longer.

It’s Ruth, trying to get Mary to go for a walk. Mary considers it — it might be nice to go out, get some exercise, chat with her friend — then decides to stay home and get some things done. They volley back and forth on how Mary is feeling, whether she’s blue, whether she’s lonely.

“Mary, why didn’t you go with them?”

Why didn’t she? It’s the last trip before Peter leaves for college. She’s gone before and always had a fine time. No doubt she would have again.

She’s tired. That’s all. She feels like being alone. She needs some sleep, some quiet time. Everyone’s acting like it’s a sign of imminent mental collapse. Ryan asked her again and again, in the days before the trip, what was wrong. Was there anything she wanted to talk about? Was she feeling depressed?

Strangely enough, Julie is the one who respects it. When Mary told her how busy she’d been, how tired she was, Julie said, “Well, stay home. Good for you, Mom,” and left it at that. Mary supposes this fits in with Julie’s perennial advice that Mary get in touch with her inner nature, go with her feelings. “Don’t think, Mom, intuit!”

Ruth suggests dinner and a television movie later on.

“I don’t think so, Ruth. Thanks.”

“Mary, are you sure everything is OK?”

“Everything’s fine,” Mary says. “I really am just worn out. I guess it’s not like me, is it?”

“Well, no. It’s not.”

Is that resentment? “It’s just that I’ve been killing myself at work for weeks now, and going shopping with Peter, getting him all ready to go, and trying to . . . maintain some balance, I guess is what I do, talking to Julie. It’s been a hectic summer. I haven’t been alone with myself here in a long time, Ruth. That’s all.”

“Well, I guess you’ve earned it.”

“Thanks, Ruth.”

“Call me sometime.”

“I will.”

The conversation ends and Mary lies back in bed, embarrassed. How many times, in years gone by, did she try coaxing Julie into doing one thing or another when the child was alone on a Saturday or friendless over vacation? “Why don’t you call Robin, or Lisa, or Beth?” Mary would smile, reminding her daughter of the world of friends that waited right outside. A natural impulse, she supposes, wanting her child to be happy. Julie would barely look up, mutter she was fine while reading or lounging in her room, staring out the window, writing in her diary, listening to music. Later, when Julie was eighteen, twenty, twenty-two, and Mary still pushed her toward friends and activities on those occasional solitary afternoons or weekends or visits home from college, the not-so-young woman would tell Mary to stop bugging her. “Mom, I find it insulting that you feel you have to tell me how and when to have friends. I’m perfectly capable of seeing or not seeing friends as I choose. And right now I’m fine on my own!” It was true — Julie was never at a loss for friends, and often chose to be alone despite them.

“This is ridiculous,” Mary tells herself, getting out of bed. “Take care of yourself. Forget Julie, forget Ruth, forget the newsletter, just forget everything!”

Most of the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator shelves turn up near-empty or stocked with obnoxiously bright boxes of food. She showers, dresses, hops into the car, and drives into town. At the library the trashy novel disappears down a chute. Mary combs the shelves for the volume featured on the front page of the current New York Times Book Review, a biography and critical study of a woman poet she’s never heard of. She picks out recordings of piano music and symphonies she knows — Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Aaron Copland — and, on a whim, an album of classical Indian ragas. The dark man in robes playing a gourd-shaped instrument on the record cover inspires her to seek out a vegetarian cookbook.

She decides on curried potatoes and green beans for dinner, and heads next to the grocery, where she buys the necessary ingredients, along with good food for the week: rice, cheese, nuts, raisins, fruits and vegetables, milk, juice, and whole wheat bread. The afternoon is spent cleaning the house, humming while “Appalachian Spring” and Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony cheer her on, celebrating her victory. Mary Unger is free, alone, vigorous! The house is as neat as a pin and lush with fresh air and music.

After a short rest, she turns on the radio and happily sets about creating dinner. She follows the recipe carefully, preparing the rice, the potatoes, the beans, and then the curry itself, combining pinches of pungent red and brown powders from small paper bags. The smell is marvelous. When she looks back at the potatoes and beans simmering in the pot, something is obviously wrong — they’re burning onto the bottom. She fights it with a wooden spoon, jimmying the white and green mixture from the bottom, stirring, and finally — where is her brain today? — adding water, which frees it up. But the potatoes are still white and greasy, frightened-looking. (Something from childhood about “little children in a pot. . . .”) Beginning to worry, she mixes the curry powder together with a drop or two of water until it becomes pasty, adds it to the pot, and, with surprising quickness, the mess changes into exotic, inviting golden shapes. Food. The odors rising from the pot are heavenly, strong, crisp, and foreign. She covers the curry and waits, aware of the news on the radio without really listening, smiling as she stirs. After a while she clears the table, sets a place for herself, and goes out to the garden to pick a flower for the table.

There is no wind at all in back. The leaves don’t even whisper. Mary stops on the porch. The single large tree in the yard stands tall and inert, lush green. The silence is surprising and quite perfect; Mary feels held aloft, unexpectedly scooped up and suspended by the air she has breathed into her lungs. The sun is hidden behind a great arrowhead of blue-gray clouds that splits the sky into glowing orange diagonals. Silenced by the hush of this back-yard world, Mary lingers with the sudden sensation that she can feel the curvature and movement of the Earth. The difference between herself and her surroundings seems to disappear as if it had never been there — a simple illusion, a trick of perception; she is a part of it. The thunderous dark arrowhead looks exactly like clouds do in photographs taken from space, and just as Mary begins to sense the roundness of the planet, she also feels the cloud and herself reversed, so that she can tell what it’s like up above simply by being down below.

She thinks of nothing.

Then she remembers the time Peter bashed himself against the big tree when he was small, running fast while looking behind him to see the cape around his shoulders flutter in the wind. Mary was downstairs reading with her face turned away from the window. She heard Ryan call from upstairs, “Peter! Watch out!” and looked up: there was Peter, his face against the tree, and then his knees buckling as he fell back onto the ground. His face and legs were horribly cut up, she remembers. It hurts her to think about it even now — the way the poor boy cried. . . .

Annoyed, Mary plucks her flower and goes back inside. Memories. Leave me alone. Radio news has ended and another program begun. As Mary sets the flower in a glass of water, a calm woman with a pleasant voice is urging, “This music is incredible.”

A man says, “And now, Miss Chambers will sing four songs by Franz Liszt.”

Mary eats, listening. The piano and the woman’s voice explore a moody landscape with a wide range of soft feeling. The tune never ventures far into either a major or minor key before quietly shifting into the other; the effect is one of subtle, unpredictable color, a shape strange and sorry, appealingly dissonant. Mary thinks of birds, of sweetness and pain from her childhood and college days. She thinks for a long time about getting old, and about Julie getting old, forever angry and unhappy; she nearly weeps. The words are in German but slow enough for her to catch pieces of the singer’s heart, and Liszt’s, inside her own.

Dirty dishes and pots surround her. Mary clears the table and starts the job, the singer still calling between bursts of the faucet.

When the dishes are done, she turns off the radio and begins to play the piano. It makes her even sadder. When she stops, the silence in the house is thick but her head is full of voices. She pulls a chair onto the back porch, and attempts to read the biography and listen to more of the records she’s borrowed. She cannot tell whether she feels pleased with the day; she imagines she ought to.

Maybe she should do some more cleaning. It’s amazing how work is never done. Ever. This house will suck her dry.

Monday morning she calls her office and says she has come down with what she thinks is the flu, and probably won’t be in all week. It isn’t a complete lie; she has not been feeling quite like herself. Much of the day, again, she listens to music while drifting uneasily through the house, wondering what she should be doing. She keeps reminding herself that she took care of all her errands yesterday. If she doesn’t make a mess, she won’t need to clean it. She uses the kids’ bathroom with the door wide open, looking down the hall toward her own bedroom and adjoining bathroom, thinking of the freedom she has: all the rules she is free to break, the laws of behavior she could ignore. Alone in her empty house, with the shades drawn and door locked, she could go about her business stark naked. She could roll around on the floor, curse, fart freely, get roaring drunk, dance, sing out loud. Strange: it’s a feeling of virtual obligation, when the house is empty, to act out secret desires, do unusual things. She tries walking around naked; it’s no great thrill. The pressure of ought hangs on everywhere, growing. Ought what? Ought what?

She waters the plants, lingering for a while on her baby, an avocado in the open window that is exploding with leaves and new branches at an amazing speed. Testing the dampness of the gentle dark soil and watching the oval leaves tug in the breeze, Mary thinks of families. Families are like this, pulled apart and trembling in the wind of the world. . . .

She remembers herself and the kids at an indoor pool. They were at a resort hotel in Pennsylvania, skiing, about fifteen years ago; Julie was ten and Peter three. Ryan was off somewhere, Julie was in the water, and Mary, in a red turtleneck and blue slacks, sat with Peter in her lap, reading him a story. Peter was laughing delightedly, and she with him. When Mary looked up to find her daughter, she located the girl’s little body floating face down in the shallow end. “Julie, honey,” Mary called. “Julie?” She dropped the book and moved Peter quickly off her lap. “Julie!” No reaction. No lifeguard. Ryan came through a door at the other end of the pool. “Ryan! Quick!”

Ryan was strolling. “What?” There were at least fifty yards between them.

Mary ran to the edge of the pool. “Julie!” Her daughter continued to float face down, her limbs spread and limp. “Oh God!”

Ryan began to run. “Julie?”

Mary knelt at the edge, tried to reach and couldn’t, and hopped in, her heart whamming and hands held out. “Julie!” Julie’s upper back and the back of her head bobbed like shiny islands above the water line. Mary pushed through the waist-deep water, leaning forward to scoop her up, soundlessly praying, Oh God oh God.

Julie came to life and looked up with a splash. “Mom?” She rubbed her nose, mystified.

“Oh God,” Mary gushed, clasping her daughter against her. “Thank God.”

“Mom, what are you doing?”

Ryan helped Mary out of the pool, her slacks and socks and shoes drenched through and dripping. Everyone in and around the pool stared. Mary and Ryan hurried up to their room, dripping on the floor, and Mary fell on the bed, cold and blubbering. “I thought she wasn’t breathing! I was terrified!”

“I know,” Ryan said, helping her out of her clothes.

“There ought to be a lifeguard! The whole time she’s just happily staring at the bottom, floating around. . . .”

“It’s OK, Mary,” Ryan said, hugging her. “It’s OK.”

Mary sits rigid on the sofa, her feet and fingers cold, sick of herself. Her arms and legs and belly are all tedious reminders, place-markers. She feels hunger, and knows it is only the latest in an endless succession of appetites from which she can never be free. She was and is and will be hungry so many times a day every day of her life — stab raise right hand bite chew chew chew swallow stab raise right hand bite chew chew chew swallow stab raise right hand bite chew chew chew swallow. She wonders how many times she has chewed in her life.

This body. These thoughts. She will always think these thoughts, in this voice of hers. Julie Peter Ryan. She will never stop missing her dead parents, never stop wondering at her daughter’s bottomless anger; she will never stop, period. Until she dies, she will be Mary Unger without vacation. She is a victim of Mary Unger; she can take days off from work but not from herself. Will she never be able to think of her daughter without a tug at her gut, a welling of tears? She’s a trash heap of associations, a towering, leaning skyscraper of overstuffed file cabinets. It all weighs. She feels so full. The boys gone off on their camping trip my feet are cold there’s something stuck between my teeth my feet are cold the car is gray the door shuts badly Julie’s face the back window has a crack my lower back aches Julie’s face that article I’ve meant to read for a year read it, dammit the way my parents died the way Peter and Julie both cried when they were babies my feet are quite uncomfortably cold.

Can she never shut up?

She would love to know nothing.

She goes to her bedroom and puts on an extra pair of socks.

The furniture in the house is oppressive. The chairs and couches, the piano in the living room, the lovely wall shelves in the den — all clutter. When she and Ryan were new homeowners, they used to enjoy keeping the place neat and tidy. It thrilled them, their spotless home, the squares of sunlight that slid undisturbed, flat, across blank floors and white walls, tables bare but for flowers and books, everything in its place. Such a feeling of clean! Today, keeping the house neat feels like rearranging rubble at an iceberg’s tip. Hidden away in the closets, attic, and basement is enough junk to flood every floor. Knowing it spoils everything.

Wouldn’t it be nice to keep one room bare and white? You could go there and sit down, relax, look at nothing. Rest here, friend, the room would welcome. Be here. Be nothing here.

Mary stands in Julie’s doorway. They used to call it “the hippie hovel”; even now the walls glow with wild posters and trinkets like multicolored wax that hardened while dripping down. Does the smell of incense linger even now, or is Mary only imagining it? (The fights that caused! The times poor victimized Julie was sentenced to shampoo and vacuum her carpet!) Crayon drawings of unicorns and rainbows, a peace necklace hanging from a nail above Julie’s bed — a nail that caused yet another confrontation; and a bed that was not a proper bed but a mattress on the floor. Crystals dangle on black threads in the windows, spraying needle-thin rainbows around the room. Buttons, feathers, calligraphied lyrics to pop songs, small wooden boxes (probably where she stored her dope). The desk and dresser tops are cluttered with stacks of letters, framed photographs of friends long gone, pens and pencils in a glass, a pair of round, blue spectacles, candles, jewelry boxes, books with titles like DO IT! and How To Know God (surely the how-to title of all time). On the walls are photographs of frowning young men, many of them shirtless and emaciated, buried under hair so long it is truly disgusting. One particular clump of them she knows to be the Beatles; she is reasonably certain that another is the Rolling Stones. And others: Led Zeppelin? Yes? And the Who? The What? The Flaming Leopard-Skin Banana Brains? Julie clenched her fists with anger, persecuted as always, when Mary and Ryan teased her like this; they meant it in fun, but the girl saw nothing funny. Mary recalls Julie cross-legged in the center of the floor, her back straight, her eyes closed. A wandering ribbon of smoke poured from a brown wand in a small vase on the desk. Mary had opened the door when Julie ignored their cries that she was stinking up the house.

“Julie,” Mary said, and Julie’s angry eyes opened. Mary smiled, scared. “At least open the windows, honey.”

Julie stared, still motionless, her lips moving soundlessly.

Mary’s smile disappeared. “Julie, open the window now. Got it? Right now.” She stomped away, banging the door open so Julie would have to get up.

How she wants to cry, throw this life away and start over again!

She begins pulling things off the walls. It’s 10 at night, but she is full of energy. What is all this stuff still doing here, anyway? She moves the desk chair into Peter’s room next door and gathers up an armful of brown paper bags from the kitchen. She sets up her little radio to keep her company; classical guitar music begins. Loosening posters and photographs and dropping them onto the bed is like raking a lawn of leaves left untouched all autumn long, making piles and turning up areas of plain grass. The empty regions grow and spread until the remaining splotches of color seem foreign. The room is reverting back to its essential self. Amazing how easy it is. Mary pulls nails out of the wall with a hammer. Occasionally she stops to examine a particularly bad hole — a place where the wall has cracked or the paint peeled. Later she will look for some wall-spackle and white paint in the basement.

As she rolls the posters into a thick tube and rubber-bands them twice, the radio announcer introduces a symphony by an unfamiliar composer. Strong horns burst from the box, building something big and impressive from the beginning, something modern, unorthodox, with strange intervals.

Mary pulls books and knickknacks off the desktop and shelves. She wraps the glass bowls and blue glasses and other trinkets in old newspaper and lowers them carefully into one bag; she loads the books into another. She flips through a few of the more interesting ones — random wisdom, numbered and in boldface, from How To Know God (she still can’t get over that title). “The pain which is yet to come may be avoided.” “Concentration may also be attained by fixing the mind upon the Inner Light, which is beyond sorrow.” “Or by fixing the mind upon any divine form or symbol which appears to one as good.” Thanks a lot.

Before long, Mary has cleared the desk, the shelves, and the dresser top of their contents, and wiped them down with a wet cloth. The surfaces shine as if wind and rain had passed through. Dust soars everywhere. Mary sneezes and opens both windows wide.

She lifts old clothes out of dresser drawers and the closet and piles them into more bags. Emptiness has become the rule in this room. Unless Julie expresses some interest in these things, Mary will give them to Goodwill. The desk drawers are crammed full with dried-up pens and worn-down pencils, more letters, diaries, high school papers, illustrated wall calendars. Mary empties the drawers and makes several trips to the basement, where the bags line up under the stairs like convicts waiting for a train.

Nearly midnight. The horns and violins are rushing and blaring like cracking ice. Mary fills in and covers the nail-holes and scrubs the walls with a damp, soapy sponge. Finally, she pulls the plug on the radio so she can admire her creation in peace. The blank walls have come forth as if from behind screens and now stand pure and white as stars. The white silence is strangely Biblical. She’s at the center of a desert. The open windows permit a fresh nighttime wind to enter. Mary runs the vacuum, growling, over the carpet. She shoves the bed away from the wall, and gleefully sucks up the last of the dirt there, then moves the desk.

Behind the desk she stops. There is a hole in the wall, inches around, bashed in and sunken, hidden by the desk for who knows how long? It looks like it was kicked in. Mary sits on the floor, tracing the indentation with her finger, her energy shriveled up, gone. For a moment she thinks she should weep, but the hole does not hurt her. She sits and looks at it for several quiet minutes. It is a hole. Yes: a hole.

Then she goes to her bedroom and sleeps.

Her dreams are strange and colorful. Paddling a dinghy at twilight across an ocean in the direction of the setting sun, she suddenly throws the paddle away and jumps in and swims down, down through still water, her feet straight up over her head and kicking in pleasant, regular strokes like deep breaths; she hasn’t the slightest interest in coming up. She’s on the telephone with voices she vaguely recognizes — friends? her parents, perhaps? Julie? — voices that bark and yelp messages in gibberish; their emotional charge is intense and constantly, bewilderingly shifting, now happy, now angry, sad, threatening. Mary listens, calm and silent, concerned but removed, loving them all but remaining quite separate. Then she is back in Julie’s room, still tearing things down and cleaning up, getting rid of garbage and moving out furniture. When she has finished, a great calm descends and she finds she is in the back yard. Mary watches the big tree.

 

In the morning she phones Julie.

“Mom, I’m glad you called.”

“You are?”

“Yeah. I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about that call the other night.”

“Oh.”

“I’m not in very good shape right now, Mom. You must have figured that out. I just don’t know what to do. I’m pretty mixed up.”

“Yes,” Mary says, “I noticed.”

“So I just wanted to tell you I’m sorry about giving you such a hard time. I know right now I’m not making too much sense.”

“Well, that’s very nice of you, dear,” Mary says.“That makes me feel much better. Want to come over and have some lunch and talk? I’ve taken the day off.”

“That would be great, Mom. I could use a sympathetic ear.”

“I’m always here, dear, you know that,” Mary says. “And Julie, while you’re here, I wonder if you could take the time to look at some old things. I’ve done a bit of cleaning up.”

 

Walls. Empty, simple walls. The ceiling is a wall as well; if there were no carpeting and the windows and furniture were removed, the room would be a featureless white cube without front or back, top, bottom, or sides. No differences — you couldn’t even say “This is a wall” about one side and “This is a floor” about another. Nothing to say, nothing at all. Wouldn’t that be delicious!

She’ll have to get Ryan to help her move things out.

Mary closes the door and windows, sealing herself inside. She pushes the desk back into place, covering the angry kick-hole. She’ll fill it; its time is long gone. She sits on the desktop and smiles at this featureless new room. Space! Clearly visible out the window, the giant tree in the yard stands silent, brown and green in the sun, lush with leaves. She feels she can watch forever. When she hears the telephone ringing, calling her faintly through the door and across the house, she does nothing. She is in church. She contemplates the tree until her eyes close, and the world goes away, and she is faced with nothing but her own silent mind, her own sparkling home. When inner voices begin to mumble or sing, nag at her, whine, she gently calls her attention back to what is real. This empty room. This empty room. This empty room.

Mary Unger sits and breathes, clear and empty. Sits and breathes. Sits and breathes.