“If a blight kill not a tree, but it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”
— William Blake
When Izzy gets to the boardwalk, she thinks about turning back. Maybe he won’t remember her, maybe he’s forgotten it all. But he’s a psychic; of course he’ll remember her. The past, lives already lived, are his specialty. If it’s water under the bridge, he can reach in and pull out the stones, the small, hidden, calcified truths worn smooth by years of forgetting. For Izzy, maybe he seized the wrong stones, but he’s an old man, and she owes him something.
The oil from the fish she brought for him is beginning to seep through the paper, smearing the black ink, somebody’s old news. She hopes he won’t notice where she has made the incision, where she has carefully sewn the two pieces of silver skin back together, her fingers sticky with iridescence.
The beach is deserted, littered with what the sea abandons in winter: carp skeletons picked clean by gulls, broken shells, arthritic crabs scuttling through black seaweed. Only now, in late December, when the wind blows across the gray beach, over the gray boardwalk, and into the empty arcades, can Sparrow be found.
Between the Skee-Ball Palace and Jazz Ella’s Soft Pretzels is the red door, his door, the small brass knob shaped like an egg, and the hand-painted gold lettering above the weather-beaten frame: Lives Re-Told! Pasts Illuminated! Ghosts Given Up! Faith Restored! $5.00 – $50.00 Per Session. And in small script on the door itself, Sparrow, Proprietor.
When the sun slips toward night, the sea pulls what color remains from the sky, the tall sea oats, the crouched buildings. But the red door is unmistakable, defiant, brilliant with borrowed light.
Izzy sees the small brass knob turn, the door open. Sparrow, a small, bent shadow of a man, thick white hair curling around his ears, steps outside to roll a cigarette and to watch, to bear witness to the sun’s desertion. Each day, neatly ended like this, adds to his repertoire. This is how Izzy, also a resident of the island, first met him a year ago. And now she has come back. Now she can pay what she owes.
So he recognizes her.
“Izzy,” he says, smiling, “what’s happening with you? It’s been so long, a whole year.”
“I’ve brought you something,” she says.
“Look at you, Izzy,” he says, suddenly concerned. “You look different. There’s not as much of you as there used to be.”
Izzy moves one leg, abstractly. She doesn’t want to say anything more. She doesn’t want to start a conversation or get tangled up in Sparrow’s concern, which always leads to coffee and stale pretzels, a consultation, a disinterment of old sorrows. Saying nothing, she holds out her package for him, a leaking, spoiling gift, a wet and salty prophecy of her own making.
“You’re so thin, Iz,” Sparrow says, walking toward her.
“Well . . .”
Imagine a woman, now thin, her yellow dress hanging from her shoulders like a slack piece of cloth, who used to be much larger, enormous really, a woman composed of rolls and bulges, a woman who had eaten her way through despair, who would fall into fitful sleep next to half-empty cartons of sour cream, half-eaten loaves of bread, half-gorged pans of manicotti, drained bowls of cream-of-anything soup, her lips glistening, stomach bloated. Her body was a burden to her, a foreign country to which she had been exiled. She imagined her heart as a thick, overdone pudding no one wanted to taste. She lived alone.
It was Jazz Ella’s pretzels that first brought Izzy to Sparrow. Last December, when Jazz Ella and everyone else had gone to the mainland for the winter, Izzy would drive to the boardwalk and lean with longing against Jazz Ella’s abandoned stand. She would run her tongue along the ridges of the steel gate, imagining the flour and butter inside, the empty mixing bowls, the shakers of salt, the jars of mustard: all that food in limbo, all that doughy heaven.
The night she met Sparrow she had stayed too long. Her tongue was raw, her intestines lay coiled inside of her, tense with expectation. A line of purple light hovered over the black curve of the earth. Everything was waiting. Waiting.
“She’ll be back,” he said to her.
She jumped, one thick hand on her generous chest, her shoulders twitching, her ears echoing with the rasp of Sparrow’s match, his slow exhale, the scratch of the sea clawing its way up the beach. Izzy wasn’t used to people talking to her.
“She’ll be back?” she repeated.
“Jazz Ella. She always comes back. Me, I’m here all the time.”
“Me, too,” she heard herself saying. “Sort of.”
“Did you ever hear her sing?”
“What?” Why is he talking to me? she thought.
“Jazz Ella. Did you ever hear her when she used to sing?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You’d remember if you had.”
Sparrow recalled Ella’s whiskey vibrato, her courageous forays into jazz’s darker side, the blues, the way her throat would tremble when she sang “Summertime,” a song that held out a promise it couldn’t keep. Izzy listened to Sparrow with only one ear, one hip, the rest of her leaning into the dark, trying to leave. She came to the boardwalk only in the off-season or at night, when she was sure no one would see her — the sight of a woman who could block out the sun caused a general kind of anxiety — but that night she was hungry, and when Sparrow invited her upstairs, for coffee, salted herring, and stale pretzels, she had accepted. Certain things can’t be refused.
“Ella always gives me her leftovers,” Sparrow had explained.
When they were both seated, coffee cups balanced on their laps, he told her, “I only see people in the off-season. I don’t really advertise. That’s how you find the neediest people.”
Izzy didn’t know he was talking about her, that she was the needy person, that needy persons came to him like this, hungry, unaware, a tingling in their tongues. What is he talking about? she wondered, licking the salt from her fingers.
She felt strangely comfortable in Sparrow’s apartment, which was cluttered with brass reading lamps, several over-finished pine end tables, stacks of newspapers, a small yellow fish swimming in a bowl on top of a bookcase. Her chair was large and comfortable even though the brown leather was cracking in places. There was an odor of cloves and spearmint.
“You’re a psychic?” she asked.
“Sort of, but don’t ask me about the future. The future’s a mystery to me. The future could be any number of things, you know, depending on which way you want it to go, but the past is something that has to be dealt with on its own terms. You might say I remember things for people, things that happened to them that they’ve forgotten.”
“Like a psychiatrist.”
“Oh no, Izzy,” Sparrow said, leaning toward her, laughing, “not like a psychiatrist. They make you do all the work. I just show people things, that’s all. You might think knowing someone’s past is no big deal on an island like this. But God gave me this gift. In a person’s past there are hidden things, lost things, things you don’t even know you’ve lost. One day you’re a child, you’re playing with marbles in the hallway of your house. You lose a marble under the stairwell, or under a sofa, a chair; another day you lose another marble. Then you get older, you forget about the marbles, you know?”
“Not really,” she said, leaning as far back in her chair as possible. “Marbles?”
“Forget the marbles,” he said. “I know things, that’s all. I know things about you, Izzy. I know things about everyone who comes in here.”
She was suddenly terrified, crumbs stuck in her throat, her knees locked together. She had eaten this man’s food, and now he was going to take something from her. Everything had a price. Something was stuck in her throat. She began coughing.
“Izzy,” he said, rising and taking her cup from her lap, slapping her back, “are you all right? Can I get you some water?”
Without waiting for an answer, Sparrow left the room and returned a few moments later with a glass of water. Izzy had stopped coughing and was wiping her chin with the back of her hand.
“Just relax,” he said, handing her the glass. “Drink the water. You’ll be OK.”
Izzy didn’t know what he meant. What was “OK”? She had never been “OK.” She was still wiping dribbled spit from her chin, hitting her chest with her fist. She took the glass of water and drank greedily, sloppily. Sparrow was sitting again, observing her intently.
“I should go now,” she said, but she didn’t stand up.
“Izzy,” he said, “you don’t have to go, really. I’d like you to stay, please. There’s nothing to be upset about. So I know some things — big deal. What are you afraid of?” He leaned toward her, his legs apart, his hands on his knees. “It’s a blessing you showed up here, a good omen is what it is. What are you afraid of?”
Placing her glass on the table in front of her, Izzy felt serene, placid as still water. So she was in this man’s apartment and he knew something about her; the island was small, but what could he know? What could he really know? It would be easy to leave.
“Mr. Sparrow, I really think —”
“Sparrow, Izzy, just Sparrow. It was my grandfather’s name.”
“Sparrow,” she said, “I really should go. I . . . I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s late.”
“What is late? Late for what? Look, Izzy, I don’t want to mislead you. No one ends up anywhere by mistake. You’re here, and I have something to tell you. I’m no fortune teller, sure. I never knew if you’d come here or not, but you’re here. I’m a patient man, you’re anxious. Still, what I have to tell you, it can wait, it can wait a long time. I know a lot of stories. Some people never come here, never make it here.”
Stories, Izzy had thought. Story was not a word she had ever associated with her life, a life she felt was more random circumstance than carefully plotted event, though she knew the world was always constructing plots, setting snares, and that was why she never went out, not if she could help it. That was why she stayed indoors during the day, peered at the mailman through the shutters as he placed her letters, junk mail, bills, and monthly welfare check into the black box screwed to the pink aluminum siding of her house. She would wait for him to leave, then venture out cautiously. The world was always bringing her things, trying to lure her out, to catch her in daylight, to see the sun fall on her like a spotlight.
“I know why you eat so much, Izzy,” Sparrow said, bringing her attention back. “You can’t stand yourself. You think you could have saved your mother’s life? You were only a child. Only a child.”
“I know that already,” she said, wanting him to stop. She imagined herself standing up and leaving as quickly as she could, but she couldn’t stand. She couldn’t think of what else to say, or how to say, Stop, I don’t want to hear any more. She wasn’t used to people talking to her.
“Izzy,” Sparrow said, “some things you don’t know. Maybe I can help you. You were only twelve and when your stepfather came home he was so drunk — he was always that way — but that night was different. Do you remember? He was so angry that night, yelling at your mother to stay out of his way, but your mother wouldn’t leave him alone, remember?”
“Maybe you didn’t understand,” Sparrow continued. “You were too young. But your mother, she’d had enough. She told him he wasn’t going to stay in her house anymore, not like that, not drunk every night and swinging his fists at her.”
Izzy remembered the knife, the way her stepfather had pulled it out of his boot, her mother pressed up against the stove. She remembered the way the blood had rushed out of her mother’s throat, staining her white dress a dark red, the color of the apples sitting in a bowl on the kitchen table. She remembered the way her mother fell to the floor, like a woman falling asleep.
“OK,” Sparrow said, “so you ran outside, so what? What else could you have done? That pile of stones you had left on the back stoop — you knocked them over, they went flying all over the steps when you pushed open the screen door. You forgot they were there, I know. You ran and hid in your mother’s car.
“Sure, your stepfather was drunk, everyone said he couldn’t see straight, he just tripped down the steps, then bam,” Sparrow hit the table in front of him for effect, “he hit his head, he never gets up again, and it’s just as well; a man who kills his wife should burn in hell. But that’s not everything, Izzy.”
Izzy could feel her nails pressed into the palms of her hands, her life being peeled open. How could that not be everything? Her mouth was dry, a pink, wrinkled desert. Yes, the island was small, but who had told this man, this Sparrow she had never seen before, never even heard of?
“If it weren’t for the stones,” he told her, “if you hadn’t left them there for him to trip over, he would have made it down those steps, and he was heading straight for Oyster. He didn’t have any shame, your stepfather. Remember Oyster, your old basset hound? He was your mother’s favorite. Mr. Oyster, she always called him, my sweet Mr. Oyster.”
Izzy remembered how her mother had found Oyster, how she had told her husband that she had been out walking and found the dog on the fishing pier, abandoned by some heartless fisherman, it seemed; the dog was asleep on a pile of blue mussels, flies buzzing around his head, and she couldn’t leave him there all by himself with no one to take care of him. Izzy’s stepfather had taken his beer bottle and swung it at her mother. Since when do you go out walking alone? he had said, the bottle cracking against her mother’s jaw, the beer spilling to the floor, the dog standing underneath the kitchen table, wagging his brown tail.
“Your stepfather couldn’t stand that dog,” Sparrow said, bringing Izzy back to herself. “Stinky, he always called him, Mr. Stinkbreath. He had so much anger in him, Izzy. He was going to stab Oyster right through the throat, over and over again, if he’d had the chance. Why don’t you give yourself a break now? You’re forty years old. You hold on to grief too long, Izzy, it starts to bite back. The dead, they stay that way, but we have to keep living, Izzy. We have to keep going.”
She still didn’t know what to say. She waited for the rest of the story. So the dead stayed dead; she knew that already. There had to be something else, something more. But Sparrow leaned back in his chair and folded his arms against his chest as if there were nothing else.
“It doesn’t seem like much,” she finally said. “A dog.”
“A dog isn’t nothing, Izzy. A dog has a life, just like us, a life that has to be lived, happily or unhappily. Anyway, your mother loved that dog.”
But Izzy hadn’t loved the dog. The dog had been an interloper, an intruder, a thief of her mother’s affections. He had slept at the foot of her mother’s bed in the afternoons, been petted and cooed at, fussed over, except in the evenings when Izzy’s stepfather would come home and the dog would be banished to the back yard. At night Izzy would sometimes hear him on the porch, scratching the wall underneath her mother’s bedroom window, whimpering. During the day he padded through the house on four slippered feet and cheated her out of everything.
When they had come to take the dog away, to take it to the pound, to see if anyone would want it, Izzy had thought they were coming for her, but she was ignored, left in the back of her mother’s Chevrolet, police sirens howling, men slamming car doors, pushing through the crowd of neighbors toward the house, picking up her stepfather’s heavy body and swinging him onto a stretcher, his spine as loose as a piece of rope. Then they found her mother splayed on the floor next to the stove. Everyone ignored her, the one survivor.
Who said she had wanted her stepfather to die and go to hell? Sparrow couldn’t understand. While her mother had been terrified of her husband, then finally fed up, angry, not caring what happened to her, Izzy had been secretly thrilled by her stepfather’s brute anger, by his whiskey-drinking and violent tempers. Her mother, depressed because she had married the wrong man again, had mostly ignored Izzy, sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her hands, or spending the day in bed, nursing her bruises with gin and tonics. She never asked Izzy why she wasn’t in school, why she was always out back digging holes and stacking rocks, the whole yard a kind of potter’s field.
When Izzy’s stepfather would come home and stand over her, drunk and incoherent, upset with her for blocking his reeling path, his bellowing had made her pores tingle, her bones vibrate and knock together. His rage was a kind of love, the only love she knew, and she knew it was love because it filled her up. It made her tremble. There were other ways he filled her up, stumbling into her room late at night, bloated with something he had to give her. There were many other ways, terrible ways. But at least she was something to somebody.
So Sparrow was a fraud, a nice enough man, but wrong, so very wrong. What could he know, this old man who lived alone, about love, about what a person needed in order to be happy? Her mother had been nothing to her — another fraud, an imposter in ultrasuede, beautiful in her own aloof way, but so unfit for anything.
Unless Sparrow could conjure up spirits, bring her stepfather back from the dead to loom over her once more, large and unsteady, to let her go, to explain how his love was the wrong kind of love, an error in judgment, a soggy mistake, the past would remain unexplained, unalterable, illegible, a scrawl.
But Izzy had found something out, something she needed to know: that the past, anyone’s past, was filled with hinges and hasps, well-oiled secrets anyone could pry open, at least part of the way. And she knew debts, even questionable ones, had to be paid.
“How much do I owe you?” she had asked.
“Oh, please, Izzy,” he said. “Don’t be silly.”
Now a year has gone by and Izzy is whittled down, reduced. She has brought Sparrow a gift, a fish from Tillie’s Market, a turbot pregnant with her mother’s pearl necklace, a fake, which she has sewn up inside. She wants Sparrow to be surprised. She wants something from her past to get stuck in his teeth, in his throat, something that isn’t what it appears to be, shiny as money, but worthless as dirt. She doesn’t hate Sparrow — he tried to help her. She just wants him to know what it feels like.
Before, she had only wanted to step out of her thick skin, leaving it behind her like an old coat while she slipped away unnoticed out to the sea, her bones cutting through the green water with silent grace. She’d swim and swim until the horizon ate up what was left of her. She’d eat and be eaten, and everything would make sense: how some people end up in the wrong body, the wrong place, how it’s necessary sometimes to refuse the assignment. They’d find her discarded skin, the loins and chops of it, and no one would know it was her.
Now she’s afraid of letting anything in. She doesn’t know what’s in the meat she buys at the market, where it comes from, who yanked it from its bones, carved it into cutlets and thighs, flanks and shoulders. She doesn’t know what misery might lie on her plate, roasted and inconsolable, waiting only for the right moment to reveal itself.
Sometimes, when she’s walking — anywhere to get away from all the things that want to crawl inside her and confess their despair — she’ll feel the urge to get inside someone’s car, anyone’s, to lie down in the back. She imagines being found hours later, someone opening the car door and saying, “You can come out now. It’s OK now, you can come out.” That was the only time in her life she had felt safe, when they had finally found her in her mother’s car, when they had told her it was OK. But it hadn’t been OK. And now a year has gone by.
“Izzy,” Sparrow says, crushing his cigarette under his heel, “let’s go in and have some coffee. You look tired.”
“I really can’t stay,” she says. “I just wanted to bring you something.”
“One cup of coffee, Izzy. Whatever it is, bring it inside. You don’t look so good to me.”
She feels so weak she can’t protest. She thinks, One cup of coffee, that’s all. I can’t stay here. She follows Sparrow upstairs. He takes her damp gift into the kitchen and tells her to sit down, to relax. He asks her, over and over, why she’s so thin, why so thin, Iz, why?
“I don’t know, Sparrow,” she says. “I’m OK. Anyway, you’re the psychic.”
He doesn’t answer, but she can hear him in the kitchen unwrapping the newspaper, the water running. She doesn’t know how long it is before Sparrow comes back and sits down beside her.
“Izzy,” he says, taking one of her thin hands, stroking her gaunt knuckles, “I don’t understand. Some things I don’t understand.”
“I’m OK,” she says. “Don’t worry about me.”
“How about if I cook the fish? I’ll cook the fish and we’ll eat it together. I’m a good cook, Iz, you’ll love it. It won’t be fancy, just plain fried fish, maybe some garlic, some basil.”
“I can’t, Sparrow, really. I just wanted you to have it.”
Izzy closes her eyes and leans her head back on the chair. She’s so tired, she couldn’t possibly eat anything, especially not the fish. She has to leave before he cooks the fish. She knows she shouldn’t fall asleep, not here, but maybe she will. Sparrow watches her arms and fingers go limp, her hand slip out of his. He bends over to kiss her forehead, her neck. There are other ways to find things that are lost, but he has to hurry. There is only so much time a person can steal.
When Izzy wakes up, Sparrow’s white head is nestled between her thighs, her dress pushed up around her waist. A warm sensation, a ticking in her veins, is moving from her shoulders to the soles of her feet. She feels dizzy, drugged. Sparrow’s tongue is inside her, moving hesitantly, searching — for what? Time passes, she doesn’t know how long they have been together like this, Sparrow’s coarse hands grasping her narrow hips, kneading her waist.
She feels a tugging between her legs, a dull pain below her kidneys, a scraping in her uterus. For the first time she feels as if she is standing outside of her body, watching. She feels a vague excitement, some kind of expectancy, hope, moving through her body like the hands of a clock: turning, descending, turning, descending. Sparrow pulls something out of her into his mouth, a strand of stones clicking over his teeth. With each click, her body trembles. It’s her mother’s necklace, each fake pearl glistening with his saliva, that he’s taken out of her.
Sparrow stands up awkwardly, his mouth full, but still he can say, “I’m not too old yet to make a little magic.”
Izzy is speechless. The necklace. Inside of her. She is suddenly hungry, so hungry she thinks she could eat the entire fish now lying on Sparrow’s kitchen table, its stitches undone, its wound reopened, its gills fluttering up, then down, shuddering with desire, with the anticipation of their teeth, Sparrow’s and Izzy’s, tearing gently through its skin, its blanched flesh, its lungs, its heart.