Brett Beach’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Hobart, The McNeese Review, and elsewhere.
After college, Mary worked as a secretary in a high school on the east side of the city. Each time the news ran a story on students bringing guns into classrooms or selling drugs in bathroom stalls, her mother called to ask, “That’s not you, is it?”
She really meant, When are you going to get a real job? She was saying, Do you think I’ve always had this much gray hair? Let me tell you, young lady, I most certainly did not.
Mary didn’t know why she liked lying to her mother so much. She just couldn’t help herself: the words tasted as sweet as melted caramel on her tongue. She’d been working at the school for two months when her mother called, frantic. “You have to get out of that place,” she said. She’d just read a newspaper article about two boys who had gotten into a fight during their gym class; one boy had stabbed the other.
The school where the incident took place wasn’t even in Mary’s district. Still, she hedged in a way that implied a personal knowledge of the incident, and told her mother not to believe everything the newspaper reported.
“Well,” her mother said, “one boy was taken to the hospital with stab wounds. I think that’s pretty serious. Children with knives, shanks, whatever they’re called.”
“They didn’t have knives,” Mary said, seeing the lie unfold like a bright tapestry in front of her. “They had sporks.”
On the other end, her mother gasped and said, “What on earth?” Her voice got quiet. “Is that a gang thing?”
Mary excused her own lies because her mother was gullible enough to believe any terrible half-truth,; and because, no, her school wasn’t the one in the news that particular evening, but it could have been. The inter-office communication was still pecked out on old typewriters, and copies churned out of the machine with a sound like a locomotive engine. The teachers passing in the halls scowled with dark feral looks aimed at students and faculty alike, as if their only goal was to survive the day. More than one carried a small canister of mace, flashing from a belt loop or inside the big pouch of a purse.
The high school was not at all like the private one Mary had attended when she was a teenager, St. Ursula’s, with its nuns and plaid-skirts and white blouses buttoned up to the collar. Because of this, she felt brave returning to the school each morning. She saw herself lit anew with courage. Before the first bell, a line of boys posted near the front door whistled at Mary as she approached. She tried, and always failed, to not smile at them. On the days when her boyfriend Claymont dropped her off, the young girls huddled around their cell phones looked up and hooted as he waved at them from the driver’s seat.
“She know how it is,” a girl said one day, pointing across the main office to where Mary sat behind her typewriter. The girl was pregnant, and her boyfriend had punched her in the face after he heard the news. She stood now with a wad of brown paper-towels pressed to her nose. The girl cocked her hip and said, “You know why she know?” She ticked her finger at Mary. “She got a brother.”
That night, Mary told Claymont about the girl. They were lying in bed, in Mary’s small apartment on the west side of the city. Claymont tipped his head back to laugh. His teeth glimmered, white and perfect, and Mary wanted, very suddenly, to kiss him. “So now I’m a brother,” he said, rolling toward her. “And you got me. I’m yours, girl.”
He pulled himself close to her, draping his arm across Mary’s chest, the length of his body pressed against hers. She felt secure in his warm wet sleepy breaths on the back of her neck. Blue moonlight came in through the window. A breeze pushed through the screen, and Mary fell asleep, trying out the words: I got a brother. I got a brother.
Mary had gone to college with one goal: to inhabit a different universe, to reinvent herself and do it right this time. She saw her teenage blunders like a dress after a party that she could slip out of and leave, wrinkled and stained, on the ground. But the girls living on her dorm floor were no different than the girls she’d known in junior high and high school. They were all part-time vegetarians. They all had long-term boyfriends who called faithfully each night, boys who put up with various rages and inarticulate abuses. These girls kept photographs of their childhood pets taped to the walls above their dorm room beds. Mary had her own picture taped up: Mr. Tucker, the yellow lab she’d tearfully led through the halls of the vet’s office after his diagnosis of cancer. She’d kissed his snout and whispered nonsensical chants into his ear as the vet put him to sleep. She had considered it, at the time, the saddest day of her life.
The boys Mary invited back to her dorm room touched the batik fabric draped over her nightstand lamp and smelled the dried flowers tied around her bedpost, as if they were all dancers following a routine they’d learned on Orientation Day. They examined the photos of her family taped to the wall, the snapshot of Mr. Tucker drooling in sunlight, the poster of John Belushi in his “College” sweatshirt. The boys looked at Mary in a bemused way, as if they knew the secrets of her heart but liked that she tried to hide them. The girl they wanted to kiss was not the girl Mary thought herself to be, and certainly not the woman she was aiming to become. She didn’t fool herself into ever believing she was in love, but she also wasn’t strong enough to hold out. So she pretended for one boy and then the next and then the next. She liked how they made her feel: pretty and important and wanted. Why change now, she thought every so often, why bother? Only rarely did Mary worry that she was forgetting how to be herself.
In the summers she worked as a waitress at a chain restaurant and lived alone in a series of cheap studio apartments off-campus. Her parents treated this exercise in enforced poverty with a humored skepticism. Mary’s mother, visiting a particularly grim one-room walk-up, asked if Mary had a case of white guilt. She’d read about the condition in a magazine, and pulled the clipped article from her purse. “Well,” she said after a long pause, “I think charity work would be more effective. It gives back. Directly.”
But Mary liked the long thoughtless hours of serving food. Each customer presented a new start: if she messed up, if she forgot a side dish or dropped a cup, the mistakes were forgotten fifteen minutes later. She came home each night with aching calves and a wad of dollar bills and loose change in her pockets. She counted out the tip money and wrote the figures in a marble-covered notebook, tallying the proof of her efforts.
The summer after she graduated, Mary discovered that her waitressing job, which she’d always considered temporary, was the one constant in her life. Gone were her dorm room and her hall mates; disappeared were the boys who called out her name from down the hall, who brought her flowers to dry and hang from the bedpost.
She noticed Claymont one June night. He was sitting at the counter opposite the front door. He had high cheekbones and a thin curl of hair along his jaw line. He was beautiful, not just handsome like the frat boys, or solid-looking like the business majors. He ordered a meal to go and waited, propping his elbows on the countertop and folding his hands under his chin. It was a slow night, and Mary wanted to feel his sleepy brown eyes turn to her, so she walked over and offered him a drink. He seemed not to hear at first, but later she realized he must have, because he looked at her and then away and asked for iced tea. She returned with the glass, and he touched one of the ice cubes floating on the top. He sat for another forty-five minutes, even after his food was ready and bundled beside him on the counter in a to-go bag with plastic handles and a set of wrapped silverware inside.
He asked Mary when her shift ended, and if he could come back and possibly drive her home. “Or,” he said, “we could get coffee. Or tea. Whatever you drink.”
Later, Claymont said that he thought he’d offended her. He was always careful about what he said when he went out. It was because of the city they lived in, he explained, and because the people in the restaurant saw a different situation when a guy like Claymont spoke to a girl like Mary.
But she’d heard none of his hesitation, none of the cautious edging he’d laid between them. “Coffee would be nice,” she said. His mouth was already relaxing into the grin she’d come to love, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes making him seem both old and young. She told Claymont she expected to be finished with work by eleven.
“All right, then. I’ll be outside.” He nodded. “Eleven.”
Mary’s mother often said that men who were good-looking like Claymont expected things from young women, and that any young woman would be smart to avoid those heart-breakers altogether. Mary guessed her mother was partially right, but perhaps she wasn’t. She picked up a rag from a bucket of soapy water kept under the counter and wiped at the ring of moisture where Claymont’s glass had rested on the countertop. When she looked up, he was still there, watching her.
“Eleven,” she said. “You promise you’ll be right outside?”
“Girl.” Claymont leaned his head to the side. He stood a foot or two back from the counter, with the carry-out bag in one hand and his check in the other. It felt like the beginning to Mary, like a moment she’d want to remember even if she didn’t know its significance yet. He smiled at her. He said, “I promise.”
Claymont’s sister lived on the east side of the city, not too far from Mary’s school, in the house where she and her brother had grown up. Mary had dated Claymont for close to three months before she met Annette, though the two had spoken before when Claymont’s cell was dead or he forgot to pay his bill and had to use Mary’s phone.
Annette stood waving on the front porch when they arrived, looking just as Mary had imagined: a pretty, softer version of her brother in a sweater and jeans.
The street, however, was not how Mary had pictured it. Elms and oaks lined the front yards, and a canopy of October leaves shadowed the driveway. The houses were large, with wooden porches that stretched along the fronts like ship decks. The second-story windows were capped in half-moons of stained glass and the sky overhead was unusually bright, blue and cloudless. Mary said, “My school is so close to here. I can’t believe I’ve never been over this way before.”
Annette smiled, not unkindly. “Why would you ever come over here?”
The house was old but revealed its age in a stylish manner, with intricate paneling around the doorways, and a series of checkered tiles in the hallway that had the faded look of a well-used chessboard. The bathtub’s metal claws were green with oxidation. Behind the gold-plated mirror over the sink Mary discovered a box of Band-Aids and a half-finished roll of toothpaste. She hadn’t meant to snoop, but then she was checking through cabinets, peeking in doorways, trailing her hand along the wall in the hallway. She paused to look at photographs displayed on a shelf in the front room of the house. She was struck by the complexity of entering another person’s life. There were so many faces to remember, so many people she didn’t know but wanted to know. How could anyone ever decide to stay alone, she wondered, how could anyone not feel curious and lustrous in the glow of someone else’s family, with all of their secrets and their love and their history? She thought of people she’d known in college who would have only found the house intriguing in its eccentricities; the type of people who would present the worn-down staircase as a sign of their bohemian sensibilities, but would never be curious about the people who had lived in these very rooms before them.
She came upon Claymont fixing the closet door in Annette’s bedroom. He squatted beside the doorframe, screwing a new hinge into the wood paneling. Mary watched him from the hallway. “You know, if you ever sell this house, you guys could make a fortune,” she said.
“Sell.” He repeated the word as if were in a foreign language.
“I know a ton of people who’d buy a house like this.” She walked across the room, over to the window. Metal bars slatted over the glass, the four of them still warm to her touch from the afternoon sun. “I mean, look at these,” she said. “It’s so weird. But kind of cool. Who would put these here?”
“What do you think those are there for?” he asked. He stared at her. “Girl, where exactly do you think we are?”
Mary turned away first with the feeling of a chastised child.
In the kitchen, Annette cooked dinner while Mary watched her daughter totter between the cupboards and the table. The little girl was just learning to walk and her steps were tentative but heavy, her bare feet slapping down on the linoleum.
“Tell me something,” Annette said. She stood at the stove, stirring a red sauce with a wood spoon. “You went to college, right? So why are you working at that school? Secretary. You know you could get a better job.”
“I like it there,” Mary said.
“Hey, I love this city as much as the next person, but that school is dangerous.”
Mary clapped her hands at Annette’s daughter. The girl wobbled toward her, arms outstretched. “That’s what everyone says, but I’ve never felt scared.”
“It doesn’t matter what you feel,” Annette said. “I’m telling you, I wouldn’t even work there. Me.” She gestured with the spoon.
They ate dinner in the living room, with a game show on the television and the curtains pulled open to frame the street. The houses and cars outside grew purple in the dusk. Neighborhood boys on bicycles circled the block, hoods pulled tight over their heads, until only the sound of their tires on asphalt could be heard.
“You guys seem to get along,” Mary said to Claymont as they drove back to her apartment.
“We used to fight like you wouldn’t believe.” He smiled over at her, as if to see if she believed him.
Mary asked, “Do you think Annette likes me?”
“She didn’t say anything to you?”
“I don’t know,” Claymont said. He was driving, but he took one hand off the wheel to find Mary’s. “We don’t talk like that to each other. And I wasn’t asking for her to like you.'”
“So you don’t care?”
“That’s not what I said. I just meant that it’s different for us.”
Claymont lifted his hand from hers to make a right turn onto Mary’s street. The car’s headlights flared bright against the fronts of brownstones. He said, “You see a space?”
Mary wanted to ask what he’d meant when he said “us,” but he was distracted in his search, and she wasn’t sure of the point anymore. He’d called forth a group to which she’d never belong as if he were reciting his address: so easily dismissing her, without thought. She felt words brimming in her chest, a sort of righteous indignation that had no aim. Was Claymont to blame? No, she couldn’t go that far; he hadn’t meant to belittle her, she was certain. But surely she couldn’t take on all the responsibility, simply by feeling this difference between them when he didn’t.
Mary’s college roommate got married at the end of April, in the groom’s hometown three hours upstate. Both Mary and Claymont agreed that renting a hotel room was a waste of money, but the drive would be too long to make after the reception. Mary’s parents said they could stay over; their house was forty-five minutes from the reception hall. Eileen even offered to leave a key under the potted hydrangea on the front porch, in case they arrived in the middle of the night.
Mary finally consented. “But we can’t stay long,” she told her mother. “Claymont has to be back before noon.” The lie was insignificant in the history of untruths Mary had unspooled for her mother; she simply didn’t want to do the strained-silence-breakfast, the early-morning-false-conversation. “Oh, how interesting,” she imagined her mother saying to Claymont, when she really meant, Do you have to cover up your gang tattoos when you’re at work?
In the end, the wedding reception didn’t last much later than midnight. As the last song played and the staff packed bottles of liquor into cardboard boxes, Mary sat at a table strewn with napkin balls and toothpicks. She spotted Claymont by the door, talking to some of the groom’s buddies. All night, he had danced well and Mary had floated around the room on his arm. She felt the whole evening had been a success, but in the parking lot, Claymont unlocked the doors of the car and got in without a word.
“What?” she said. It was hard to see his expression in the odd light. The car keys hung from his hand, tinkling like little bells each time he flicked two of his fingers together.
“Just go to sleep,” he said. “You’re exhausted.”
“I’m not drunk, Mary. I’m fine to drive.”
“That’s not what I mean.” She sighed. “You don’t know where the house is.”
He put both of his hands on the steering wheel. He was looking straight out the windshield, but nothing significant lay before them: a few other cars, a dark hill and a distant blinking red light atop a radio tower. He said, “I’ll wake you when we get close, then. You can direct me.”
He parked on the street outside the house and they shut the doors gently, to avoid making noise. Mary had never snuck a boy into her house as a teenager, but walking with Claymont through the familiar hallways and up the stairs, she understood the appeal. A girlish giddiness made her forget being tired. When they passed her parents’ bedroom door, she reached for his hand as if he might go into their room by accident. She laughed as she stepped out of her heels and turned, asking Claymont to unzip her dress. He did, quickly, and without touching her. Mary hoped to dispel whatever irritation had overcome him, so she draped the dress over a chair and walked toward the bed naked.
Claymont was sprawled out with his eyes closed. He looked like a slumbering giant; his feet nearly hung off the end of her bed. Mary said his name, and then again, but he didn’t respond. She touched his shoulder. His chest rose and he exhaled a slow sleeping breath.
In the morning, her mother made pancakes and set out a bowl of fruit salad. While they drank coffee, Mary’s father offered Claymont advice on which highways and bypasses to take. Once they were in the car, Mary told Claymont to go the way they’d originally planned. “He just needed something to say to you,” she explained.
“Oh,” Claymont said, “was that it?”
He navigated through the neighborhood and soon they merged on the interstate. They had a straight shot south now, a little less than two hours to go. The land on either side of the road unfurled into stretches of cornfield, like a billowing yellow cloth held down at the corners by barns with rusted rooftops, hemmed in by wire-strung fences. At first the sun was hidden by a copse of trees in the distance, but as they drove the branches lit with a fiery dawning light.
Mary asked, “What was going on with you last night?”
Claymont reached for the radio and scanned through the stations.
Mary turned the radio off. “Can you at least tell me what you think I did wrong?”
“Okay.” He glanced over at her. “Okay, tell me something. What do I do? What is my job?”
“You work for the city.”
“No,” he said. “I’m a garbage man, Mary.”
“Right. And the Sanitation Department is part of the city.” Mary felt the beginning of an ache in her stomach. “Is this really what you’re mad about?”
Claymont said, “I’m in the union. I make good money.”
“I don’t understand. You’re acting like I lied.”
She hadn’t, not exactly, not the way she lied to her mother. She’d told people at the wedding Claymont worked for the city because it sounded better. She knew how those people looked at the world; they wouldn’t see him like she did. He’d tell a joke and they’d think only of the green-outfitted men working in the hours before dawn, the sound of clattering garbage cans against the sidewalk, the big truck motoring down the street. She’d wanted to protect him.
“I’m not ashamed of myself,” Claymont said.
“But you think that I am.”
Mary had to look at anything but at him. She tried to focus on the back of the car ahead of them. She thought that if she stared at the rectangle of the license plate long enough, she wouldn’t cry. She asked, “When have I ever said that?”
“Never,” he said. “You’re right, you never said that.” He lifted his shoulders, then let them fall. “But I guess in my mind, if you can only prove it to me by saying it out loud, it’s the same thing.”
At the end of the school year, Mary was called into the school’s personnel office. It was just after the last bell and the hallways were ghostly in their stillness, with loose pages of notebook paper pushed against lockers, and classroom doors shut against dark interiors. The woman in the office, which was actually a janitor’s closet packed with a desk and a lamp, explained that Mary wouldn’t be needed over the summer, or for the following year. “There are school-wide cuts going on,” she explained. Bad test scores were to blame, high-dropout rates. “And frankly, there’s no more money.” She held out her hands to display the empty air.
The lease on Mary’s apartment came up for renewal around the same time, and because the timing felt serendipitous, and because things seemed to be lining up to push her in this direction, she decided to move back in with her parents. Temporarily, she told her mother.
“Of course,” Eileen said. “But know that you’re welcome for as long as you need.” She mentioned a receptionist position she’d heard about, with an engineering firm up north.
Claymont took the news quietly, sitting in the living room with his elbows propped on his knees. “So you’re leaving me,” he said.
“No,” Mary said. “You’re not listening.” She just wanted to save money, and the city was too expensive. It had nothing to do with him.
“Exactly. You did all this stuff without even talking to me.”
Well, yes, she thought, but no. She was tired of the dirty city streets and walking with her keys brandished like a weapon. She hated having to check that her doors were always locked. The sense of urban exploration she had once felt was now gone. She wanted to get out of here, and she wanted Claymont. Why couldn’t she have both?
“Come with me,” she tried.
“I live here.”
Mary reached for his hands. “I want you to come with me.”
“To your parents’ house?” He made a raspberry sort of sound with his lips and brushed her hands away.
“We can still be together.”
“I know what this is,” he said. “You want me to say I can’t go. Then you get your exit. You’re just too scared to say you don’t want to be with me.”
“Don’t do that,” Mary said. “We can figure this out.”
“You mean,” Claymont said as he studied the ground between his sneakers, “that I’ll have to figure it out. Because you already have a plan. Really, you’ve been out the door for a while and I just didn’t want to see it.”
“Stop,” Mary said. “Be nice.”
“Nice? You want to talk to me about nice?” Claymont lifted his face to gape at her. “Girl,” he said, “I loved you.”
In the worst parts of the months that followed, Mary believed that Claymont really did love her and that she had ruined a good thing. When they first began dating, she’d made him list out the reasons he liked her. She was pretty, he’d said, and she had a wild laugh. She was interested in things, and he respected how she listened when other people talked, even if she didn’t agree with them. She regretted never telling Claymont that he was the most sincere person she’d ever met, that she always worried he would recognize how unworthy she was of being his girlfriend. She’d made him work and work but never given a bit of herself back; she felt, retrospectively, lucky that he’d stayed with her as long as he did.
Most days, she ate lunch at her desk, and she turned down offers to go out to drinks or dinner with the engineers after work. Some days she had an off-center feeling in her chest. Other mornings she woke from a dream of Claymont lying alone on his bed, whispering, You had a brother, you had a brother.
Eileen was perplexed. “It’s not as if you were going to marry him.”
“But we were practically engaged,” Mary said. It was a lie.
Her mother’s eyes narrowed. “No. No, I doubt that very much.” She reached to touch her daughter’s shoulder but stopped short of the actual gesture. “Listen. You moved to a different city. What did you expect? I just don’t think you two were very serious.”
The more and more Mary thought about it, the more and more convinced she became that her mother was right. It helped to believe that she had never been serious. At best, Claymont and his life and her job at the high school were some grand experiment to her. Worse, they were details in a story she’d tell about how she had slummed for a year or so. She’d been trying out a life that would never be her own, and then had gotten caught up in surprise by the reality of it all.
In the spring of the following year, an engineer named Josh transferred down from the firm’s Michigan branch. He asked Mary out to lunch on a bright day when the sun filled the windows of the office with yellow light, and she said yes. Something in her mind clicked when he looked at her. Enough, she decided, enough. She was tired of eating lunch alone. She wanted to go outside and talk to someone.
They sat on the patio of an Italian restaurant. The traffic on the nearby interstate made a looping sound like wind blowing through a tunnel. Josh explained how the foundation had been designed to best compliment the landscape. Mary didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, just as she couldn’t decipher the large blue maps that passed through the office, or the green and black computer models the engineers clicked and fretted over. Still, she liked how Josh made off-ramps and overpasses sound beautiful. He tried to show her what he saw when he looked at the world. A sign, she thought, of a good and compassionate man.
A week later, Josh asked Mary out for a second, official date. When she told him about her last boyfriend, the terms she used were vague and the details hazy as if she couldn’t remember. Not lies, exactly, but a refusal on her end to examine too closely what had happened. She felt ashamed and didn’t want Josh to know that part of her, not yet, not ever if she could help it.
He asked Claymont’s name on that second date, and when Mary told him, he said, “That’s not one you hear every day,” and then didn’t ask any more questions.
A few days before Christmas, Josh took Mary out to dinner in the city where she’d once lived. The restaurant was expensive and in a neighborhood she’d never been to before. It had snowed while they ate, and now a great white cloth had spread itself over the street. Her mother had said on the phone that she thought Josh would propose soon, perhaps that very evening. Mary felt almost certain she’d say yes.
“Let’s walk a little,” Josh said. He took Mary’s hand to lead her. A block over, visible between the tall corporate buildings, a pine tree stood decorated in cords of gold and silver. White lights in the branches reflected against the windows of the nearby buildings. In the plaza, a man sold hot chocolate in white disposable cups, and foreign-looking women in shawls wandered around with baskets of roses.
A small orchestra of men in overcoats began to play holiday melodies. The players were arranged like a tableau of metal figurines on a wooden stage to the left of the tree, and polite applause followed each number. Josh went to buy hot chocolates and returned in a cloud of steam trailing up from the cups in his hands. He smiled and stood once more beside Mary.
“Look at how many people are here,” he said in a pause between songs. “Traffic’s going to be a mess.” He always noticed what Mary did not. She’d missed the swell of bodies, how the crowd had grown thick and the air steamy with so many people talking and laughing. No one applauded for the carols anymore.
Mary wondered if she would see Claymont. She imagined the crowd moving to reveal him, standing just beyond the pine’s branches with his sister and her kids. She was certain he’d be wearing a ski-cap and scarf, but no gloves. She remembered, in a winter that felt like another life, taking his hands between her own and rubbing his fingers to circulate the blood.
She stared across the square, trying to find him. What had seemed a possibility now became a certainty in her mind. He had to be here, this was his city. But he was not by the glimmering tree or by the stand where hot chocolate was sold. She looked toward the stage and then watched the cars gliding past on the street, smears of red taillights projected onto the snow banks, bodies paused at the intersection.
She wanted to see that Claymont was happy, his life continuing on without her. Then she didn’t want to have to think about him anymore. She thought of a distant future, of a better version of herself who had learned from this experience. But not yet: what she’d done still unnerved her. She had never imagined hurting anyone the way she hurt Claymont. He’d cried when she left. Cried, which was so sad, but also kind of exhilarating. She’d always been out of place with Claymont; she could see that now. She wondered how he’d never seen it. Or how he’d never let it bother him. But Mary didn’t think a person could live like that, feeling like a quasi-symbol of progress. She’d tried, though. Didn’t that say something about the type of girl she was?
A second group of performers lined themselves in rows on the stage. They lifted brass bells on wooden handles and held them partially aloft, poised. The first peal broke through the air, and then many more, until the chorus of reverberating notes became endless. The wind ruffled the branches of the pine tree. The star on top of the tree, oversized and previously unlit, broke open into five glittering white points. A few people clapped. Someone whistled.
Mary looked for him one last time, but it was hardly more than a gesture. Because of course Claymont was not here. Just as she had followed him to unknown parts, he could never have come to this place without her.