Kim Magowan ~ Wheels Inside Wheels

Her death is sud­den, so there is no time to prepare—no pro­tract­ed sick­ness. A stroke: Henry wakes to find her dead beside him, stiff and cool.

You have nev­er met Elaine. You have only seen pic­tures: the one on his desk with the lac­quered frame, and the wed­ding pic­ture on the hall table that one time you went to their house, when Elaine was vis­it­ing their son in col­lege. I imag­ine you encoun­ter­ing that pic­ture of Elaine in her white gown and dark lip­stick. You had to study it quick­ly; Henry’s hand was on your shoul­der, ready to pro­pel you to the guest bed­room. He wouldn’t have sex with you in their bed. Their bed, where a year lat­er she dies.

So I imag­ine you had only sec­onds to absorb Elaine’s face, her hair thick and glossy, a pelt. Seconds to take in the knick­knacks flank­ing the pic­ture: porce­lain box­es with brass hinges, shaped like fruits and veg­eta­bles. You rec­og­nized the Limoges box­es because your aunt Harriet has one. Cherries on a stem, a peapod, a radish, an avo­cado half. You touched the bul­bous pit of the avo­cado. “She col­lects them,” Henry said, before steer­ing you away.

Now, when he tells you Elaine’s body was cool, you think of that porce­lain avo­cado pit.

A stroke. She was only forty-sev­en, younger than Henry, though not, of course, as young as you. After he calls, you spend the whole day think­ing about the word stroke: strokes of luck, clocks chim­ing, pet­ting the silky fur of Persian cats.

Going to the funer­al could be con­strued as respect­ful: the least you owe her, this wom­an from whom you have siphoned. But Henry emphat­i­cal­ly does not want you there. He does not want you any­where near there. Consider sneak­ing in any­way. Who is Henry to order you away? The hot way he said “No,” when you said “Should I?” But you don’t have the courage, final­ly, to defy him.

He needs time, he says, and while you could retort that you have given him plen­ty of time—nearly five years—instead you nod. Because he can’t see you nod—you are talk­ing on the phone—say, “I under­stand.”

There is a joke your friend Hannah told you. Why does the adul­ter­ous man stay with his wife? Because the mis­tress will always under­stand; because the wife will nev­er under­stand.

***

When you were grow­ing up in Kansas City and you got sick, your moth­er would pre­pare a queue of foods. First, clear broth; then, dry toast and flat gin­ger-ale; final­ly, soft-boiled eggs. Always that order, step­ping stones to recov­ery.

Design your own reg­i­men. One week eat only red foods: rasp­ber­ries, toma­toes, roast­ed beets that turn your very urine red. Think of that line in Wuthering Heights where Catherine Earnshaw describes her dreams going through her “like wine through water.” Perhaps because your name is Catherine, you always loved that char­ac­ter, self­ish and vicious, desired by every­one.

Do not call Henry. Instead, take long walks. For years, you have kept to your wedge of San Francisco—North Beach, Nob Hill, the finan­cial district—but now walk all the way to Ocean Beach. On the­se wan­der­ings, talk to Henry in your head. At first, be cheer­ful and patient. Discuss plans to go some­where sun­ny. You can swim and drink mar­gar­i­tas, you can help him grieve. As the weeks go by, though, and you don’t hear from him, the­se con­ver­sa­tions alter. They begin, “How can you.”

From the shore of Stowe Lake, watch a cou­ple ped­dle-boat­ing. Think of the man before Henry: Ricky, your first lover. When you got preg­nant, he offered to mar­ry you. You were twen­ty, Ricky twen­ty-two. His expres­sion was grim and despair­ing. But still, he could claim those words—“I asked you to mar­ry me”—so deny any account­abil­i­ty for the back-alley abor­tion that left you (you were told) unable to have chil­dren. He could break up with you and have a con­science as clean as the alu­minum sinks in his lab. Ricky was so skill­ful at blam­ing you for what he want­ed you to do. Eight years lat­er, you under­stand this is how he can love him­self. But then, you were wrecked, like that doc­tor told you your uterus was wrecked. You moved to San Francisco in 1959 because it was the fur­thest you could go with­out sink­ing.

On your walks, observe San Francisco chang­ing. It is the sum­mer of 1967. In Golden Gate Park, see girls wear­ing pon­chos who are the age you were when you moved here. Feel old and long­ing. From a card table on Haight Street one girl sells tie-dye shirts. Buy a blue and yel­low one that makes you think of wheels inside wheels.

***

Have a drink with Hannah, who is now your only friend, because Bea had no tol­er­ance for your rela­tion­ship with a mar­ried man. Hannah tells you she saw Henry in Grace Cathedral, and that after the ser­vice, he was sur­round­ed with wom­en: wid­ows, a divorcee. “Like flies to a syrup pour. Don’t wait too long,” she says.

He told you he needs time.

Concentrate on his defects: his teeth are stained. He is fifty-one, you are twen­ty-eight. But who else will want you, crooked as you are?

So test that: con­vert the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion into a real one. Timid 1950s girl, you have slept with two men in your entire life: now, have sex with anoth­er. Meet him at Vesuvio’s, the bar next to your favorite book­store; go home with him. His skin makes you think of bour­bon shots. Feel tempt­ed to stay in his Victorian flat with its view of Alcatraz, a hel­met in the bay. But do not ask for his last name; do not give him your phone num­ber.

Try LSD. Put a tab with a pic­ture of a win­dow­pane on your tongue: feel you are step­ping through that win­dow into an under­wa­ter world. Drag your hand past your face and see con­trails. Your hand is a dinosaur with a horned frill.

***

Assemble on your bed all the presents Henry has given you, over the past five years. Finger your favorite, the gold silk shawl embroi­dered with par­rots that he bought in Mallorca. He was there with Elaine, on their twen­ty-fifth anniver­sary. She got Spain, you got a yel­low shawl cov­ered with bird claws.

All this walk­ing has made you so thin. Study your­self in the mir­ror. Put on the lin­gerie Henry gave you and feel dis­mayed. Your breasts have deflat­ed. They look like emp­ty paper bags.

The lace scratch­es, but you wore lin­gerie because Elaine would not. You were always on the alert for the things she refused. She wouldn’t give him head. She hat­ed oys­ters, Henry’s favorite food. So you pre­tend­ed to love them. You sat on bar stools with him at Swan’s on Polk Street and ordered dozens, though their slip­pery tex­ture repelled, though the look of the shells on the chipped ice was appalling. You paid atten­tion to what Elaine balked at, and you cor­nered that mar­ket.

Now the mar­ket is so wide: you are alive.

~

Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teach­es in the English Department at Mills College. Her fic­tion is pub­lished or forth­com­ing in Arroyo Literary Review, Atticus Review, Bird’s Thumb, Breakwater Review, Broad!, Cleaver, Corium Magazine, Crack the Spine, des­cant, The East Bay Review, Fiction Southeast, 580 Split, The Gettysburg Review, Gravel, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, JMWW, Literary Orphans, Moon City Review, New South, Oakland Review, Parcel, Sixfold, SNReview, Squalorly, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Word Riot. She is work­ing on a nov­el and a short sto­ry col­lec­tion.