The Edge of Marriage

The Edge of Marriage

by Hester Kaplan

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The characters in this extraordinary debut collection fi nd themselves caught between commitment and responsibility. In one story, a wife struggles to care for her adulterous husband after a car accident. In another, a husband finds himself drawn to his wife's former lover. In language that is eloquent and precise, these stories speak to the mysteries of friendship

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The characters in this extraordinary debut collection fi nd themselves caught between commitment and responsibility. In one story, a wife struggles to care for her adulterous husband after a car accident. In another, a husband finds himself drawn to his wife's former lover. In language that is eloquent and precise, these stories speak to the mysteries of friendship and marriage. This startling and powerful collection is illuminated by keen insight and hope.

Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
Reading these stories is like watching a window shatter in silence—we become mesmerized by the stark beauty of disintegration.

New York Times Book Review
Graceful, accomplished prose.

Annie Dillard
The Edge of Marriage introduces a remarkable new writer.

Austin Chronicle
Like the tightly crafted stories of Raymond Carver and pre-postmodern Flannery O’Connor . . . Kaplan’s disquieting stories are a confluence of emotive narration, precisely placed dialogue, and shadowed imagery.

Rebecca Rego
Kaplan, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction, presents nine intense stories that share somber themes and explore desperate characters. In the title story, Jack watches his grief-stricken wife, Eleanor, fall apart when her best friend dies, and wonders if their marriage can withstand her breakdown. Would You Know It Wasn’t Love? tells the affecting story of Walt, who acknowledges his resentment toward his grown-up daughter Rosie after she returns to his Cambridge home to recover from a crumbling marriage. In Live Life King-Sized, perhaps the best story in this superb collection, Henry Blaze, a man dying of AIDS, retreats to an island hotel with his wife. Angered by the sick man’s presence, hotel owner Mr. Thierry brings Blaze meals in his room to keep him away from other guests, and Blaze tells him of his plan to die while on vacation. Tensions escalate when Blaze’s male lover arrives on the island. In all of these stories, Kaplan focuses on the darker side of life, but she guides us through the intimate worlds of these characters in spare, illuminating prose.
Every story is moving and intelligent.... [Kaplan's] images are so apt as to seem effortless.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, this debut collection of nine stories focuses on the turning points and crises of family life, when the very foundations of primary relationships are tested. In "Would You Know It Wasn't Love?" and "From Where We've Fallen," two sets of older married couples feel their stability and careful equilibrium threatened when a troubled grown child moves back home. "The Edge of Marriage" concerns a couple barely able to withstand the death of the wife's close female friend of 30 years; the husband, who narrates, must cope with his wife's depression and her suffocating dependence on him as her only remaining friend. Illness and age shade relationships in many of the tales. The wife of "Dysaesthesia" stays with her philandering spouse, who has just lost his hand in a car accident, not because she feels pity for him, but because she is unwilling to disrupt her beloved young daughter's life. Interesting variations on traditional family situations are probed as well. In "Claude Comes and Goes," a promiscuous theater critic suddenly re-enters the life of his former college sweetheart and her husband, seeking a family to care for him in the last stages of terminal cancer. The man who runs a resort in "Live Life King-Sized" finds his business threatened by the presence of an elderly AIDS-stricken guest who wishes to die at the resort. For Kaplan's characters, the depth and complexity of shared experience compensates for the anguish of pain, and the stories, full of sensory detail and blunt physical description, are spiked with revelations, small and large. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
"He's a man with a disease, out of control sometimes, sometimes hateful, he knows, but forgiven." Such is the tenor of these stories by Kaplan, whose Flannery O'Connor Award-winning collection is suffused with illness and resentment yet tempered with hope. Mostly told in the first person, these stories have an almost uncomfortably intimate quality. In one, a man who has lost a hand in a car accident fears that he will loose the other. A woman sorts through her dead mother's clothes, reflecting on how little she really knew her. And in the title story, a husband watches with anguish as his wife suffers a breakdown after the death of her friend. Though the stories are full of betrayal and defeat, they are elegantly written. Taut yet smooth, they are a glass surface reflecting emotional tension, complex relationships, and somber reality. A worthy addition to all public libraries.--Yvette Weller Olson, City Univ. Lib., Renton, WA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Tough-minded reports from the marital frontlines, by a writer with the keen eye of a reporter for the telling detail and apt metaphor.

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Product Details

University of Georgia Press
Publication date:
Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction Series, #12
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.85(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


When Walt thinks about his daughter Rosie and her disintegrating marriage, he can't help thinking about himself too. He's not moved to pity, either for his own sick self or for Rosie and Tim; what he feels instead is the misery and waste of this breaking-up of lives. He's edgy now when he's always been patient, but he's a man with a disease, out of control sometimes, sometimes hateful, he knows, but forgiven. His wife Helen, well ahead of him into Rosie's mess already, has bags under her eyes and a penchant for salty things which she eats until her mouth swells up. After dinner, Walt caught her gulping glass after glass of water at the kitchen sink. He felt as though he'd walked in on something he shouldn't have seen, but he couldn't look away. Recently Helen has stopped acknowledging his private moments—the time his swollen fingers refused to hold a glass, so that it fell and shattered on the floor, when his morning stiffness had him groping at the wall for something to lean against. He knows she's witnessed them. He's seen her worried shadow pass by, heard her gasp.

    On the downstairs extension in his study off the kitchen, and Helen upstairs on the bedroom phone, he talks to Rosie. Walt wants to understand what's going on, but she sniffles more than she speaks a full sentence so that, again, he isn't sure what the problem is. After Rosie says good-bye to her parents, Walt and Helen stay on the line. Tim is brooding and inscrutable, Walt says to Helen—has she ever met a man who wasn't?—but does that mean Rosieshould walk away from her marriage? It's an old theme he's brought up: the fear that they've babied their youngest daughter to the point of hobbling her.

    Walt thinks it's strange—but also a little easier—to talk to Helen tonight over the phone so they don't have to look at each other. He can imagine that she's not quite as familiar to him, nor he so familiar to her, that they might come up with something they haven't said before.

    The operator interrupts before Helen can answer, so Walt walks upstairs to finish the conversation. Helen turns to him as he enters the bedroom, and in the light of her reading lamp he sees the chapping around her thin mouth, like cheap lipstick. He wonders, too tired for passion, how long it has been since they've really kissed, tongues and all, with his hands on her solid body; certainly not since the start of Rosie's crisis.

    "Why are you telling me this about Tim?" Helen asks him angrily, and her face blushes red. Her eyes are a cold blue. "Inscrutable? Brooding? Those are ridiculous words. What am I supposed to do with them? Are they going to help the situation somehow?"

    Walt has no answer for his wife. He hadn't intended to sound so coldhearted, only firm.

    Helen returns to the student papers she's correcting for tomorrow, and Walt goes downstairs to his study again. When he kneels slowly in front of the closet, he almost expects to find that the rheumatoid arthritis has reached his knees, as his doctor has warned it might one of these days. But he is relieved to be spared so far and digs around in the back where he keeps all his cassette tapes: of his lectures, the babies' chatter, of his girls' clumsy and beautiful recitals and plays, of school speeches and dinner parties, Helen's singing tipsy at his forty-seventh birthday party. He's sentimental about these sounds the way others are about photographs.

    The sharp plastic boxes are a comfort to him. Walt is aware that he's a technological oddity these days, preferring his inoffensive, nonobtrusive tape recorder and cassettes when he could get sound and picture with a camcorder the size of his palm, the minor heft of a small melon. One day he intends to do something with all of the tapes he's collected, turn them into a kind of family history he might listen to when he's finally crippled. Through old corduroy pants, Walt's bones begin to grind against the floor, and it takes him a while to locate the cassette he's after. He finds it near the back finally, and stands up.

    Walt pushes the play button on his recorder, sits in his armchair the cat has scratched bare, and listens. His study needs repainting, he sees. The bad light plays up how much they've let slide in the past two years since he's been sick, as though the only thing to focus on is the mysterious course his body is taking. He remembers four years earlier deciding to leave the tape running even as his favorite dog vomited under the kitchen table, as Helen dropped an empty pan on the floor and the dishwasher started with its splash of water. It was the noise behind the negotiations he'd wanted to record as much as the discussion itself of the wedding's guest list and the meaning of an open bar. Helen and Rosie had hardly protested against the taping and what their own words might hold them to later on, and then only because they understood it was expected of them, just as the taping was expected of him.

    But Walt hears now, very clearly with nothing to distract him in his quiet house, that Tim was not so sure about being recorded, collected. The boy clears his throat too often and says almost nothing, as though it wasn't his wedding they were planning, but someone else's entirely. Again and again, over side A and B of the cassette, Walt hears Tim clear his thick throat. He swears it sounds like thunder rumbling behind Rosie's voice full of pre-marriage optimism. If ambivalence makes a noise, this is it, Walt thinks, and he turns off the tape recorder with a jab of his thumb.

    "You motherfucker," he mumbles, though he is not quite sure who he is naming.

    Walt knows the tape isn't going to tell him what to do about his daughter's problems. After all, it didn't tell him that his adored dog was going to die two weeks after the tape was made, choked to death on a splintered pork chop bone dug out of the kitchen garbage. It didn't tell Walt that the reason he sometimes winced from pain as he held a pencil, or answered his wife irritably when he didn't mean to, was the onset of arthritis that wasn't going to go away.

    As he puts the cassette back in its box, he knows that there's nothing really to do but let Rosie come back home for a while, as she wants. Helen has said yes, of course, immediately, come to us, we're here, but Walt already feels the burden of having her home again. He sees in the wrinkles of his face, his thinning hair, his thickening joints, a man who has no room for this sort of thing at the moment, a man who has no idea how much room is left at all. But Rosie is still his daughter, and he adores her, even if he doesn't feel like being anyone's father right now.

The following Tuesday, it is close to eight as Walt nears the Greyhound bus station, but the expressway is crowded even for a weekday in early December, and the traffic has stopped moving. Helen, on her way out to her reading group earlier, told him to take Cambridge Street downtown, but he's ignored her advice. Walt knows he'll be late meeting Rosie's bus from New York, and he worries about her in a familiar way. Rosie is twenty-five years old, has a job as a paralegal, an apartment on 73rd Street, a husband—is he still that? Someday she'll have kids. She's an independent person, he'd like to believe, but will she know enough to come and look outside for her father instead of expecting that he'll find her?

    Walt remembers asking Rosie the same about Tim once: Does he know to meet us in your office? Meaning, is this man you're in love with, the one your mother is sure you'll marry just by the tone of your voice when you talk about him, capable of thinking of others? Walt had been in Manhattan for a conference at NYU. After lunch, he took a bus uptown to meet Rosie at work; Tim was supposed to meet them there too. As he watched the city through the sooty window, Walt found it hard to believe that his daughter lived in a place where there were so many things to do, to go wrong, and so many people to choose from. He carried in his briefcase a glass paperweight he'd bought for her in a store off Washington Square that morning.

    Rosie's office was a small room off a hallway of other small rooms inhabited by women bent over papers or keyboards, fingering their earrings. She had a picture of her parents on her desk, which made Walt feel a little weak, and she put the paperweight next to it. When Tim didn't show up, and Walt and Rosie ran out of things to say after a while—easy without the clutter of the family—Rosie began to look miserable, her dark eyes watered, and she pulled hair loose from her ponytail. It was a habit she and her sister shared, as they shared their mother's thin face and his high forehead.

    "I don't know, honey," Walt said gently, and looked at his watch, "maybe he thought we were going to meet him downstairs. Do you remember what you told him?" He hated it when his daughter acted stupid and here she was stupid about love, the worst of all things. It made him feel sorry for both of them.

    Tim was on a bench in the building's courtyard, reclining long-legged and reading a book, when Walt and Rosie came out. He'd picked a spot shaded by a cherry tree in bloom, too beautiful for the city. Tim seemed content, so why should he think others wouldn't be, that they might be waiting for him.

    "He doesn't have a watch," Rosie whispered to her father. She was clearly charmed by this, Walt saw, by her prince in a garden. Tim unfolded slowly to meet them. Rosie bounced on her tiptoes, her heels lifted out of her blue pumps, and Walt noticed she smelled a bit sweaty. She should be wearing red, rubber-tipped sneakers, he thought to himself, and approached Tim.

    "Thought we were going to miss you," Walt said, and raised his eyebrows. It was a voice he often used with his students, a gentle challenge. The boy would not look at him. Tim's surprisingly handsome face was darkened by a two-day-old beard.

    "No way," Tim said, and picked at the blossoms of the cherry tree. "Where do you want to go now?"

    As if, Walt thought, this alone isn't enough for one father for one day, not to mention your dirty fingernails, your lack of a sense of time and expectations, your hold on my baby daughter. You'll take her away from me; I suppose I'll always dislike you for that. But he put his arm across Tim's shoulders, the way he had with his other daughter's boyfriend because he knew it would make Rosie happy.

    "Whatever you two would like," Walt said, "is fine by me."

    Later, when Walt told Helen about Tim, she laughed. "Pure jealousy," she'd said. "Fathers and their daughters. Rosie's a grown-up, let her go. You're the one who always says we baby her too much."

    Mothers, Walt thinks now, looking for his daughter in the crowd bulging at the bus station entrance, accept when they have to, let go when they must, but watch out; they'll also turn their back on whoever hurts their child so quickly you'll feel the wind cut your face. Fathers, though, are rigid in the end; they suffer for their hearts that have been won so easily. Or is it my episodes of pain, Walt wonders, that's made my chest feel so tight lately?

    He circles the station again but doesn't see Rosie in front. Now he'll be damned if he's going to look around for a parking place when it's cold and dark and he's in prime mugging territory. If Rosie really wants to come home so badly, she'll look outside for him. Walt pops one of his books-on-tape into the player and drives around the block—the traffic pattern is oval, with a light at each end. He's so engrossed by the true-life story of a baseball player (his other daughter gave it to him his last birthday) that it takes him a second to realize the person in the green parka trotting alongside the car and tapping at the window when he stops at a red light is Rosie, and not someone trying to take his car. She looks so much like his little girl, like both of his little girls at the point when their faces took their final beautiful shapes, her eyes bright with lack of understanding and the red Greyhound sign, that he wonders what year it is, and what year he'd like it to be.

    When he unlocks the door, Rosie throws her duffel bag in the back seat. He can't help but be dismayed by the size of it, the amount of stuff she's packed for what he thinks is going to be a short visit home. She slips into the front seat and is slightly out of breath when Walt leans over and pulls her face to his lips. Her skin smells of diesel fumes and Jergens, Helen's lotion, so familiar he doesn't want to let her go. Walt notices that Rosie hasn't worn a hat and the tips of her ears are flaming cold, and he wants to touch them. Rosie seems lighthearted for the moment as they drive back to Cambridge, chatting about the bus ride, looking around at the familiar sights, avoiding any mention of Tim, or why she has come home. Walt again feels a touch of dismay at this, at how easily she can leave one thing and fall into another, like an experienced traveler crossing time zones.

    He remembers driving four hours one July when she was thirteen to pick her up at camp mid-session. She was miserable, she'd said in her letters, she felt like she was in jail. The black flies by the lake were torture. Walt had glared at the camp director, his daughter's warden in khaki shorts, while Rosie had skipped—skipped!—off to her cabin to get her things, which naturally were not ready, as though this was a game. On the way home they'd stopped for lunch at a diner, and over grilled cheese and thick chocolate milk Rosie told him about the wonderful things she'd done for the past few weeks. He couldn't understand her changing from misery to delight so quickly. He felt his solitude shattered—the prospect of both girls away at the same time, just him and Helen alone—but also his loneliness abating.

    "Got a couple of days off from work?" Walt asks. They are almost home, and he wants to know how long she'll be staying.

    "Until Monday," she sighs, "but I may quit anyway. I'm not crazy about the job." Walt knows by the way she's caught her breath that she's looking at his twisted hands on the steering wheel. When he looks down too, he sees rocks under his skin.

    "Well, being crazy about something isn't always the standard to measure things by, Rosie. In fact, the older you get, the less good a standard it becomes." When he realizes how sad and defeated this sounds, he pats her on the knee and tells her that he's looking forward to spending time with her. "I'm really glad you're visiting."

During his standard end-of-the-semester lecture, Walt is aware of the wheels of the tape recorder that he's placed on the lectern going round and round, a tiny hiss only he can hear. He thinks of the letting out and taking up of the tape, and looks at Diana Lux's long legs in their black pants. She is in his sociology course on community structures, a small, bright head in the first row. Walt is not really listening to what he's saying—he can always rewind later to make sure he hasn't lost his rhythm, just his breath—but wondering if Diana still calls her parents Mommy and Daddy.

    Rosie, who has been installed in her old room for a week now—the Monday to return to work come and gone—has taken to calling her parents Walt and Helen, has taken to phoning her older sister long distance every night. She emerges from her room after a conversation with Tim looking sleepy and red-eyed. Walt would like to call his daughter selfish and spoiled for the way she's descended upon them, but he calls her Rosita and Rosebud instead, and when she needs some money, or she asks him to get her a soda while he's up, he gives it to her. He sits with her at the kitchen table and they talk, they play Scrabble at night. She visited him at his office and they went to the Museum of Fine Arts, and afterward, at the gift shop, he bought her a silk scarf with a Matisse print on it.

    The day after, when he woke in the morning, he felt as though his upper body was encased in cement. He called for his daughter down the hall. Helen had already left for work. Rosie drove him into Boston to the doctor's, dropped him off and parked the car so he wouldn't be late for the appointment. She was there when he finished, went with him to the pharmacy, and asked how he felt.

    Her voice was wobbly with concern, so he showed her his new prescription for Auranofin. "These pills are made from gold extract," he told her. The doctor said they would slow the progression, a word Walt found particularly menacing. "If I take enough of them," he added, not to worry his daughter, "maybe you can melt me down into a pair of earrings."

    Meanwhile, Helen has gone from salt to sugar, Walt notices, and hovers over Rosie's problems. Her mouth has stopped swelling; now she has pimples tiny as grains of sand and grease on the sides of her nose, and she talks a lot.

    Diana Lux's face is so bright Walt can hardly stand it, and he looks down at his hands on the oak lectern. He would like Diana to tell him that he doesn't look old enough to have two grown women children, or that he's too old to have one tear at his heart, but he knows she's unlikely to be thinking anything so complex.

    Rosie found a therapist in Cambridge, and tells her parents when she joins them for dinner in the kitchen. "I need a safe place right now," she says. Walt thinks she's looking thin and exotic dressed in black with her hair loose. Her earrings, though, are like something his secretary would wear, big gold globs, panic buttons. "She thinks I didn't feel safe with Tim."

    "He didn't beat you up?" Helen says, half stating, half asking. They both hold their breath for her answer.

    "No, of course not," Rosie says. All she's eaten is a breadstick, Walt sees, and he wonders why this detail takes up so much space in his head.

    "Of course not? Is that so obvious?" he asks. His mouth is full of chicken and he swallows. "The way you ran out of there, I thought maybe he did hit you or something, maybe you're afraid to go back. That at least I can make sense of." He is very angry, and both women look a little scared of what's happening to him.

    "It doesn't have to be physical abuse, Dad," she says. Helen nods. "There are other kinds." He wonders at her authority now as she talks with someone else's words.

    He is Dad again suddenly. He remembers a time when his daughters came to him with stomachaches, and he could soothe them with a story. Later it was cramps that bothered them, they soothed each other, and stayed far away from him. It was like being fenced off from a place you used to live. He wanted to break back in.

    "Please. In my day," he starts, and spews a fleck of food onto the table, "you didn't just leave because you didn't feel `safe.' What is this shit anyway about safety? This has always been your problem, Rosie, you never feel you have to stick with anything, you can run home any time you like. Your mother and I are to blame for that too, I'll admit. You come, we take you in."

    The women tilt their heads at similar angles.

    "She's your daughter, for God's sake," Helen says. "Of course we take her in."

    Walt sees that Rosie is close to tears. He puts his napkin on his plate—something he knows Helen hates—and leaves the table. In his study, he hears Helen and Rosie talking in the kitchen, and thinks how easily Helen has become a complete mother again, how little she fights this return. Walt feels bad for what he's said but justified in saying it. In a while, he puts in the cassette from his afternoon's lecture.

    He can't believe that the voice he hears is his own, and he adjusts the tone on the machine. He sounds flat, dated is how he really thinks of it, the voice of a half-asleep man. From time to time, a staccato cough punctuates his drone, and he imagines that it's Diana Lux trying to rouse him and get his attention, even at this moment in the privacy of his own home, calling him to imagine her in her dorm room in her flannel pajamas. He pictures her tumbling like a gymnast over futons and beanbag chairs, like a doll with string joints.

    The light from the kitchen blinds him momentarily. "What are you doing?" Helen asks. It's not accusatory, just curious.

    "Listening to today's lecture," he says. "Do you think my voice sounds funny?"

    She puts her fingers to her lips. Being married to him for so many years has made her a good listener. "Not really, a little nasal maybe. Why, do you?"

    "I thought it sounded flat. Old."

    Helen sits on the arm of his chair. She smells like dish soap and chocolate. "Maybe you need new batteries."

    He pats her leg in wool pants. "Maybe you need new batteries," he jokes.

    Helen smiles and gets up to straighten a picture on the wall. It happens, by chance, to be one of Rosie at twelve, knocked slightly askew by the swiveling arm of his desk lamp.

    "In my day ..." Helen starts, doing her imitation of Walt, putting her head down on her chest so that a double chin appears and her eyebrows meet, "... in my day ..." She stops, looks at him, and talks in her own voice. "In your day, Walt? My day and your day are the same, remember? You didn't have that day—and what day was it, anyway?—without me." Walt shrugs.

    "Rosie's talking to Tim," Helen adds, matter-of-factly. How easily we pass these things by, Walt thinks, and feels affection for his wife and his long marriage. They've never talked about what will happen if one day he can't move anymore.

    "Yes? And what's this about her finding a shrink here? That has the ring of long-term," Walt says. "Doesn't she have to go home at some point? What about her job? And what the hell is she doing about her marriage? Isn't that the problem at hand, as they say?"

    Now Helen shrugs, and Walt knows that she too would really like to be done with this—after all, for several years they've been living a different kind of life—but can't bring herself to say so, won't allow herself. Rosie has always been trouble in one way or another, a baby is always—lovely, painful trouble.

    "And since we're talking about marriage, how's ours?" he asks and holds his arms open to her. It's as close as he can come to apologizing at the moment.

    "I'm not really thinking about it," Helen says, which doesn't surprise or hurt him. She holds his hands, and can't help but massage them a little. "I'm thinking about Rosie now, what she's going to do." Before she leaves the room, Helen kisses his forehead and reminds him to take his gold pills.

Walt has been told by Helen that Tim is coming up from New York Tuesday evening, but on the day he pretends he's forgotten and stays at work and eats dinner at the Faculty Club. He hopes Diana Lux will appear at his late office hours. When she doesn't, he thinks spitefully about giving her a C for the semester—she is mediocre at best. When he gets home just after nine, Helen's car is gone, and he remembers it's her reading group night. This means that now he'll actually have to talk to Tim instead of letting Helen buffer for him, excuse her husband's behavior. The house is warm and dark and smells like tomato soup, and in fact, when he goes into the kitchen, that's just what the smell is. Two empty bowls, skimmed with red, bisected by spoons, are on the table uncleared. Walt smells Tim too, salty and male, and thinks how much fathers are like dogs.

    By the time Walt reaches the top of the stairs, he can hear that his daughter and her husband are at it—he can't bring himself to think making love or even fucking at that moment—and the sounds are so easy for him to make out, he's at first delighted by his acuity and then horrified by it. Has he ever listened to other people—Jesus, his daughter!—making love except in the movies? She giggles, he groans, long breaths are let out and grabbed back in. The duet has the most incredible, indescribable fluid life, and he can't bear it.

    He reaches into his blazer pocket for the recorder he always carries in case he wants to tape random thoughts or reminders, or just the noise of what happens. If you didn't know who or what was making the sounds behind the door, would you know what it was? he wonders. He thinks of a radio contest he used to listen to as a boy where you tried to identify certain sounds—a sewing machine whirring, crackers being broken, a cat licking herself. Can I pretend this is not my daughter, he thinks now, but just noise too? Would you know it wasn't love?

    Walt turns the recorder on and lays it on the rug outside the door. He sits in his bedroom in the dark, sliding toward the floor on the slippery bedspread, and waits until it is quiet. Then he retrieves the machine, its red ON light like a rat's eye in the dark hall.

    "Dad?" Rosie says from inside as he picks it up. He is frozen in a painful crouch and wonders if he'll be able to rise again. Her voice sounds full, as though her throat has been opened.

    "Oh, hi," Walt says, straining, not to be defeated. He can just imagine Tim, arms behind his head, bare-chested, hairy armpits, staring at the ceiling. "It's late, sweetheart. I'll see you in the morning." He makes a point of shutting his bedroom door loudly, just as he's made a point not to acknowledge Tim.

    When Helen comes home and upstairs, Walt says he has a surprise for her. A small smile crosses her face—at fifty-three, she does want to believe in good surprises still, miracle cures. When he plays the tape for her, her eyes widen as though she's spotted something across the room and leans toward it. She is holding the book from her group against her chest.

    "Guess," Walt says. "Guess what it is."

    "What is this? Jesus Christ," she says, and rushes for the recorder, but she can't immediately find the button to turn it off, and for a second, turns up the volume. "This is sick, really crazy," she says, but hands the machine back to Walt and sits down on the bed next to him. "What are you doing?" she pleads.

    "I don't want them fucking in my house," he says, firmly. "If she doesn't love him, she shouldn't be fucking him either. Should I have to listen to this?"

    "Oh, Walt," Helen moans. "You sound like an old man." Her eyes narrow. "Rosie doesn't know what she wants. They're married, they're adults, they're allowed not to know. No one made you listen."

    "They should go home."

    Helen shakes her head at him. "Why are you doing this?" She is disappointed and crying when she says, "Don't make us hate you."

    The next morning Helen leaves early to teach a class, and when Walt goes downstairs for coffee, Rosie and Tim are at the kitchen table, posed over empty bowls again, their dark heads together. He sees that Tim's bare feet are resting on top of Rosie's under the table. Walt cannot bring himself to talk directly to them, but says a general hello to the room, and touches his daughter on the shoulder as he makes his way to the stove. Tim says hi. Rosie, still in her bathrobe, doesn't say anything. She is not capable of hurting her father. Walt wonders if Helen has told them something, warned them about him, and the shame of what he's done, what he's listened to, makes him back away quickly.

    "I'm going to be working here today," he announces, and moves into his study. "So ... I guess I'll see you." An hour later, his other daughter calls, but she wants to talk to Rosie and not to him, and he wonders how far his poison has spread. By mid-afternoon Walt can't stand the whispering between Tim and Rosie, both the urging and the caressing that's gone on for hours, and he goes to his office.

Several days later, Diana Lux comes to Walt's office to discuss why her term paper is going to be late. He admires her for not lying to him, but simply telling him that it's late because she didn't start it early enough. He commends her parents for teaching her honesty and self-reliance, although at the moment he finds it extremely unappealing. He makes his hands into a pyramid on top of his desk. She doesn't appear to notice the almost purple hue to his skin.

    "Fine," Walt says. Diana's sweatshirt has University of Wisconsin on it. They are nowhere near Wisconsin, and Walt suspects it's where her boyfriend goes to school, a big-chested blond sort of guy. "Drop it off in my box when you're finished."

    "That's okay?" She's done something strange to her hair, so that her bangs point to the ceiling. She sits like a ballerina, with only her pointed toes touching the floor. He doesn't answer her. "Really?"

    I'm not your father, Walt thinks, furious, and damned if I'm going to have to say it twice to reassure you and make you feel good about yourself, good about screwing up but being honest about it.

    "It's up to you," he says, coldly. "It's your decision, your grade."

    Walt knows that she thinks she's been pardoned, when he's done nothing of the sort for her.

    Later, when he straightens the papers on his desk before going home, he sees that Diana has left her pen. It's a fake fat tortoiseshell thing, with bite marks on the cap. He can't help thinking that her father must have given it to her as he sent her away, and that now she feels she's really lost something important to her, all her good luck and love in that cheap pen. He doesn't understand how the pen got on his desk unless she put it there, and he can't remember her moving toward him.

    When Walt gets home, he knows that Tim has gone. He also knows that Rosie is still in the house; she has not gone with him. He can't understand why people act like this, so inconclusive with their own lives, so dependent on other people to hold them up, but if anyone's to blame for Rosie being like that, he supposes that he is—he is her father. He sees Helen is home too, early, that life in his house is taking place without him.

    When he calls for Helen and Rosie, ready to be forgiven—he's sick, he's scared, he'll tell them, he's hateful and he hates his body—they don't answer. He feels a terrible need to be included.

    Upstairs, he hears voices again behind a closed door, this time in the bathroom. The water is running into the clawfoot tub, and he listens to Helen and Rosie talking quietly to each other. When he puts his hand out to touch the door, he swears he can feel the steam that clouds the bathroom, then Rosie's little sobs and sniffs, and Helen's comfort that finally shakes the house.

    He pushes the door open the smallest bit. He wants to witness as well as hear for once, and sees Helen sitting on a stool next to the tub. Rosie's head is resting against her mother's thigh, while one hand trails along the edge, her fingers dripping water onto the floor. They don't notice him there, and he doesn't want to be seen.

    Walt suddenly remembers a photograph he saw in Life years before, black-and-white, of a Japanese mother bathing her deformed and half-grown child in a wooden tub. There was no pleasure on either of their faces, but it wasn't displeasure or pain either, which had surprised him. The girl's hands were stiff claws, unable to hold the cloth, and her mother had to keep the hair back from her child's eyes. He had stared at the picture without understanding why. Back then he had simply shut the magazine and put it away. Now he admits to himself what he had been thinking about: that if the child had died, or if her mother had chosen not to care for her, to keep her, then there would be no bath, there would be no moment.

    Walt is crying as he shuts the door and goes downstairs into his study. In a while, he hears that the water has been turned off in the bathroom and the drain opened to let it out. In a gush, it rushes down from the second floor, down through the pipes that run through the wall of his study, splashing toward the sewer below him. It's a warm sound, warm as Helen wrapping a towel around Rosie, warm as he wrapped his last baby in a blanket and held her to his chest, warm as though the water's running over him. It sounds too much like life being washed out of his house, and he can't imagine there ever being a time when he'd want to hear it again.

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Meet the Author

Hester Kaplan's first novel is Kinship Theory. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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