Mary Grimm


Here we are, and it’s nice that we’re togeth­er. We are sis­ters. We may be dead. I’m not sure I want to clear up the ques­tion, for what good would it do to know? We might have to take action of some sort, and there are no instruc­tions, no help of any kind on offer.

How appro­pri­ate that it seems to be a cof­fee house. A place where cof­fee is served and you can sit for hours. Is it still called that? Time may have passed, things may have changed. My posi­tion was always that I was au courant, on top of things. My sis­ter said no to change. But she had a cell phone. It was only a no in principle.

She purs­es her lips, she knows I’m think­ing this. She can read my mind. But this has noth­ing to do with being dead, if we are, because we could always do this in an unre­li­able way. “Are we dead?” I ask her. “What do you think?”

She refus­es to answer. She doesn’t like to be wrong, or out of con­trol. She likes to steer, metaphor­i­cal­ly but also lit­er­al­ly. There is a fam­i­ly sto­ry that we were in a canoe, placed there by our well mean­ing par­ents, who always thought we were going to turn out to be more active or ath­let­ic or com­pe­tent than we were. A canoe—anyone can do it. An idiot can pad­dle a canoe. I was twelve and she was nine. By chance I was put in the end of the canoe where you have to steer. The bow? the stern? both ends looked the same.

The lake was small, flat, near­ly wave­less, except for the thrash­ing start­ed up by oth­er canoers. There was no ques­tion of drown­ing, or almost none. Our moth­er stood on the dock mak­ing exag­ger­at­ed pad­dling motions with her arms, dig­ging great scoops in the air. She called instruc­tions to us, but even with­out hav­ing done much we had float­ed far enough away that we couldn’t hear her any­more. Or didn’t want to. She was wear­ing a coral blouse, new then, which she wore until it was a rag and beyond that, final­ly let­ting it end its days in pick­ing up dust in tan­dem with a can of Pledge.

We were alone in the canoe, mak­ing fee­ble stabs at the water with our pad­dles, mov­ing out into the mid­dle where, we knew, some­thing fear­ful wait­ed. How deep was it, we asked each oth­er. My sis­ter has a good head for facts, but this one had elud­ed her. Twenty feet? fifty? How deep was fifty feet? We’ve nev­er been good at spa­tial think­ing, and we had to imag­ine fifty feet as a series of six-foot men (our father) stacked on each oth­er, head to foot, the bot­tom­most one stand­ing on the floor of this lake, the eighth with his head still two feet below the water. I imag­ined I could see this head under the waves, its hair (sparse, like our father’s) lift­ing away from the scalp, and said so, but my sis­ter rebuked me. “You can not,” she said, and of course she was right.

It was some­what like being dead, out there on the mid­dle of the lake, with no idea how to get back. No idea how to turn the canoe around, or how to steer it in any direc­tion at all. That is, if we are in fact dead.

My sis­ter rec­om­mends that we make a list. She is the prac­ti­cal one. We don’t have pens or paper, so it has to be a men­tal list.

First, are we dead? Find out.

Is there any­place else besides this?

If dead, how did we die?

Do either of us by any chance have a can­dy bar?

It’s a short list, but we are pleased with it. “Did we die on that lake?” I ask, even though I know we didn’t.

Don’t be sil­ly,” she says. We laugh.

I know we didn’t because I have all the mem­o­ries of what came after. Not just the mem­o­ry of being towed in, and oth­er peo­ple laugh­ing, and our moth­er explain­ing how we’d nev­er been in a canoe before, but every­thing after. My deci­sion not to play at dolls with my sis­ter any­more, high school, dat­ing a boy just because he was taller than me, my job at a bank where my boss came on to me, ear­ly mar­riage, being preg­nant in giant, elas­tic-waist­ed blue jeans, dying my hair for the first time, my deci­sion to go on estro­gen, all that and more.

Of course, as my sis­ter points out, these could be false or implant­ed mem­o­ries. It could be a con­struct of the mind in the moment of death, as Swedenborg the­o­rized. The mind can’t accept its dis­so­lu­tion, and so cre­ates a world of mem­o­ries in an instant, fur­nish­ing a life with elas­tic and Miss Clairol Auburn and coin-count­ing machines. But why wouldn’t I make up a bet­ter life for myself, I say to her. Why let my hair go gray? Why would a twelve-year-old think of estrogen?

Maybe the canoe itself is false,” she says. “Did you think of that?”

I don’t want to let go of the canoe, and I hug to myself its curves, its shab­by green col­or, the pud­dle of murky water that had gath­ered in its low­est point. Our par­ents had grown small. From the cen­ter of the lake, they were no big­ger than half my fin­ger. “We were empow­ered,” I say to her. “It was the begin­ning of adulthood.”

See how well that’s turned out,” she says. She gets bit­ter when she’s feel­ing depressed, and I squeeze her fingers.

I won­der if there is any cof­fee,” I say, to dis­tract her. I don’t drink cof­fee any­more, because of my jumpy heart, but if we are dead, maybe I could tol­er­ate it. If there is any cof­fee. If the dead drink.

The cof­fee house is dusty, disheveled. The chairs are pulled out as if every­one else got up and left a minute ago, in a hur­ry to go some­place else. There are emp­ty cups here and there, and crum­pled nap­kins. “We could write on the nap­kins,” she says, and I know she is think­ing of the list, but there are no pens that we can see.

There is a dis­play case on one side, the kind that show­cas­es pas­tries, but there are no pas­tries in it. It’s emp­ty except for a flash­light, a wood­en stat­ue, and a few paper­back books, which I am glad to see. I hate to go any­where with­out read­ing material.

The cof­fee house has two doors, one to our left, one behind the counter where a cash reg­is­ter should be but isn’t. An espres­so machine hulks on the oth­er side of the counter, rusty and ancient. There are no win­dows, and even though this seems like a minus, I am glad. I don’t want to know just yet what might be out­side these walls.

Isn’t this iron­ic?” I say to my sis­ter. “A cof­fee house with no coffee.”

Just as well,” she says. “It’s not very san­i­tary.” She runs her fin­ger across the table and shows me the fur of dust it has picked up. Fastidiously, she wipes her hand on one of the nap­kins and brush­es at her skirt to remove invis­i­ble motes. She has always dressed bet­ter than me, wears skirts more often, often an accent scarf at her neck, ear­rings even on ordi­nary days. It used to be that I had bet­ter hair to make up for it, but this advan­tage waned as my hair got gray­er, more wiry, and final­ly start­ed falling out. Unless this is a false mem­o­ry. Maybe I have nev­er had to resort to Rogaine, 2% strength for women. Maybe my hair is still lux­u­ri­ant and well behaved. But where would this docile and beau­ti­ful hair be, in what uni­verse or plane of exis­tence? It’s enough to give me a headache.

So,” I say with the air of one plan­ning a cam­paign, “are we dead?”

I remem­ber a hos­pi­tal,” my sis­ter says hes­i­tant­ly. “Beeping, machines, a nurse with ted­dy bears on her scrubs. A pur­ple vase of car­na­tions falling on the floor?”

I remem­ber that, too,” I said, “but that was when Dad was in with his bro­ken hip.”

So, not us.”

Unless it’s a false mem­o­ry,” I say. Which takes us back to the canoe. Just as then, we are inde­ci­sive. We look around the cof­fee house as we looked around the lake, want­i­ng some­thing to hold on to, some­thing to give con­text. I remem­ber think­ing in the canoe that per­haps if I had been a bet­ter girl, more reli­gious, bet­ter behaved in school with the nuns, that I could have walked over the water. I thought about try­ing. I thought I might be able to fig­ure it out and teach my sis­ter. It would have tak­en only a few min­utes to walk back to the dock if we got the trick of it. I remem­ber putting my hand in the water, test­ing its softness.

We knew how to swim,” my sis­ter says, and this time it seems more strange that she has read my mind. The air seems more elas­tic, a lit­tle gelati­nous, a fit medi­um for thoughts. We did know how to swim.

I didn’t like the look of the water,” I tell her, and she nods. The water was opaque, unlike the translu­cent blue water of the swim­ming pool at the Y where we had lessons, where you could see the black lines on the bot­tom mark­ing the lanes. The water in the lake was dark green, bot­tom­less. There were prob­a­bly fish in it, and we had no truck with fish, no desire to know them more inti­mate­ly. If we had had to swim back to shore, we would have stayed in the boat until the lake dried up, until the glac­i­ers crept back and engulfed us with ice, until the atmos­phere lift­ed off and was sucked into space by the close approach of a black hole.

I had told her at the time of my plan to walk across the water, and she had pre­tend­ed to con­sid­er it. We both pre­tend­ed. Our par­ents seemed so far away by then that they might as well have died and been rein­car­nat­ed into a new life which was being lived out on dry land, leav­ing us behind in a watery world, fur­nished by a water bot­tle and a dis­card­ed pair of sun­glass­es in the bot­tom of the canoe. We had one Snickers bar squashed into my sister’s pock­et, which she divid­ed fair­ly by bit­ing it in half.

The mem­o­ry of the Snickers bar made me hun­gry. Do the dead hunger? It seemed that they might, and even though I hadn’t eat­en a Snickers bar for years, I longed for one. “Do you remem­ber the Snickers?” I said, and she nod­ded. Later, we always ate Snickers bars when we got high—the inrush of dope made a space in the brain that was exact­ly fit­ted for caramel, nougat, peanuts, chocolate.

I got up and went behind the counter, dri­ven by this can­dy vision, and start­ed going through the draw­ers and cupboards.

Is there any­thing?” she asked. I shook my head, even as I opened more doors, peered into the backs of more shelves. A few cof­fee fil­ters, some ancient crumbs, a mouse trap, still unsprung. Nothing inter­est­ing or useful.

Are we dead?” she asked, and I didn’t know what to say. If we were, it seemed like such a point­less kind of death. (Although wasn’t death always point­less?) And bor­ing. I went to the dis­play case to check out the paper­backs. There were three: a horserac­ing mys­tery, a Zane Grey, and a nov­el by some­one named Wilson. I brought them back to the table, and we exam­ined them, but if they held clues, we couldn’t fig­ure out what they meant. They had been read hard. Corners of the pages were bent back, the cov­ers soft and worn. Wilson’s book was falling apart, the pages would have scat­tered like leaves if we had tak­en less care. The pages were stained, as if they had got­ten wet and dried out imperfectly.

The Zane Grey made me nos­tal­gic. I had read a num­ber of them the year I was thir­teen, the year of the canoe. I had imag­ined myself on a horse, rid­ing hard to someone’s res­cue. I had imag­ined myself in the canyon with a man who loved me. “Roll the stone, Lassiter,” I had imag­ined myself say­ing as Jane does at the end of Riders of the Purple Sage. This vision of myself as hero­ic had tak­en a hit from the canoe inci­dent, for not only did it turn out that I couldn’t walk on water, couldn’t res­cue my sis­ter, couldn’t even turn the damn canoe around, but I had to be res­cued myself, and not roman­ti­cal­ly by a good look­ing slight­ly old­er boy who might ask if I was doing any­thing lat­er after my par­ents had gone to sleep in our mildewed cab­in, but by the park man­ag­er, who was bald and red-faced and real­ly mad at us. I had some­times dreamed about him as I got old­er, those unhap­py dreams where the world skews around you and there are spi­ders under the rugs, and your hus­band won’t vac­u­um them up, but pre­tends they aren’t there.

We were mar­ried, right?” I said to her.

I believe so,” she said, as if con­sid­er­ing it, as if remem­ber­ing some­thing that had tak­en place a long time ago. “If it was not a dream.”

When we were in the canoe, we had already thought of mar­riage, of course. We had bride paper dolls, and we mar­ried them off to stuffed ani­mals or the Indian doll in his fake leather and feath­ers. We expect­ed we’d be mar­ried, but it would hap­pen in a dif­fer­ent coun­try. We hadn’t learned the lan­guage yet. We knew we had to go to high school first and per­haps to Niagara Falls, which was always promised but nev­er hap­pened. Our father’s vaca­tion was always too short. By the time we mar­ried, we would be some­one else, and this turned out to be true. “Did we have chil­dren?” my sis­ter said.

We might have,” I said, hedg­ing even though I remem­bered chil­dren. I didn’t want to bring them here, not even in a mem­o­ry. Not even in a mem­o­ry that might be false or cre­at­ed. The only chil­dren we had were the two of us in the canoe, in the mid­dle of the lake, on the dark water. We drank the water in the bot­tle, we ate the Snickers bar. We took turns try­ing on the sun­glass­es. We described our clothes to each oth­er, pre­tend­ing we were mod­els. In the dis­tance, peo­ple called. Cars zoomed on the high­way far away. Picnickers sat at their tables on the shore and ate out of cool­ers. Our future hus­bands might well have been there, our employ­ers, the beau­ti­cian who dyed my hair orange when I dis­tinct­ly told her dark red, the man at the bank who always pre­tend­ed he didn’t remem­ber my sis­ter although she’d come there a hun­dred times. The librar­i­an who saved books for me, the neigh­bor who was a min­is­ter and insist­ed on talk­ing to my sis­ter when she only want­ed to go into the house and pour a glass of wine.

Had we got­ten into a car that day? had some­one wrapped blan­kets around us even though we weren’t wet? Had some­one called the ambu­lance? Did my head rest uncom­fort­ably on the stony ground? Did my sister’s hand lie limp across her chest, show­ing the bit­ten-away vaca­tion nail polish?

The lake, the beau­ti­ful, pos­si­bly false, implant­ed lake lay across my mem­o­ry, its sheen bright and blind­ing, its depths unfath­omable. The canoe float­ed hes­i­tant­ly on it, like a leaf or a scrap of light. When we held our hands in the water they looked green­ish, translu­cent, and we snatched them up because they seemed ready to float away, hard­ly a part of our­selves any­more. When we bent over to see our reflec­tions, we looked old­er, our hair dark­ened, our eyes filled with knowledge.

I took my sister’s hand. “We are dead,” I said to her, because I was the eldest and a deci­sion had to be made.

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