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In “Leavers’ Events,” a teenage girl awaits exam results and has a sexual encounter with a teacher that she hopes will define her. In “Sunday’s Child,” a middle-aged actress evicts a homeless woman from her garden, which precipitates a crisis of conscience. In “The Bachelor’s Table,” a lawyer takes advantage of an accounting mistake and sets in motion a sequence of events that force him to evaluate his actions. In the title story, “Ether,” a blocked writer plagiarizes his own ...
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In “Leavers’ Events,” a teenage girl awaits exam results and has a sexual encounter with a teacher that she hopes will define her. In “Sunday’s Child,” a middle-aged actress evicts a homeless woman from her garden, which precipitates a crisis of conscience. In “The Bachelor’s Table,” a lawyer takes advantage of an accounting mistake and sets in motion a sequence of events that force him to evaluate his actions. In the title story, “Ether,” a blocked writer plagiarizes his own life with devastating consequences.
All the characters in Evgenia Citkowitz’s first collection of short fiction are connected by the quest for identity. Some are poised at a crossroads, while others teeter on the edge of a moral precipice. The stories are startlingly original, haunting, and often funny. From a hamster cage in Los Angeles to the bowels of the great houses of London and Long Island, Citkowitz depicts her characters’ frailties and humanity with a mordant humor and tenderness that never diminish their complexity.
Elizabeth chose the site: the funeral was to take place under a shock of fuchsia bougainvillea at the foot of her tree; a pomegranate planted by Candayce shortly after Elizabeth was born. Seven years old and in its prime, the tree was now in full glory: slender branches with a profusion of waxy blood-veined leaves supported tumescent, ruby fruit. Candayce never got around to picking the pomegranates—in any case it might have felt a little sacrilegious. So year after year, the fruit split open and rotted on the stem, providing a feasting ground for local wildlife, mainly birds, squirrels, and worms.
Digging was harder than Candayce expected. October had been scorching. The earth beneath the tangle of weeds had cracked into scaly fissures, unyielding to the jabs of her wooden spoon. Her eyes stung, smoke from the fires still burning fifty miles away. She thought of the people whose homes had been lost, their lives, quite literally, in ashes. Yet they still talked about rebuilding. The cost of living in beauty, they said.
Candayce knew what they meant. It was what had brought her to California: a husband’s career and a beautiful home. She was still trying to figure out what it had cost her personally. Once she had done that, she could finally ditch her shrink.
And now this.
She felt the weight of Elizabeth’s sadness compounding her own. It was unbearable to see her little face drooping with grief. Yet she was grateful to be part of it. Grateful to be given another chance. It wasn’t so long ago that she could magically soothe Elizabeth’s pains with a kiss.
Candayce hacked the soil, feeling shock-like spasms in her elbow and neck.
“There’s a shovel hanging on the side of the shed,” Elizabeth offered.
Elizabeth’s presence of mind was disarming. Only minutes earlier she’d been a sobbing mass of saliva and tears. As soon as the funeral was proposed, she pulled herself together and was now behaving with all the decorum such an occasion demanded.
Candayce picked her way across the garden, past the playhouse, once her beading studio, to the shed—so that’s where it’s kept—returning with the shovel to where her daughter reverently waited.
The service was ecumenical. On a stone Elizabeth inscribed “Happy Love” and “R.I.P.” above a representation of the deceased hamster in lavender gel pen. The corpse was laid on a bed of hibiscus with food and seeds for the afterlife. Then Elizabeth delivered a devastating paean: hopes for the deceased’s happiness, hopes for a heavenly garden he might grow with seeds enclosed, hopes for meetings with other fallen pets. Statements of sadness and longing followed. Then it was time to say goodbye to the Corporeal Presence—Candayce had to prod her on this. Elizabeth placed the lid on the Tupperware bower and lowered Peanut into the ground.
They walked slowly back to the house. She felt the calming warmth of Elizabeth’s body by her side. Until Elizabeth stepped forward and ran ahead.
It had been an overwhelming year. Candayce had only just gotten over the summer break, a two months expenses-paid holiday with Elizabeth’s Anglophile grandmother in Berkshire, England, and Antibes, in the South of France. It was draining being in someone’s debt that long, but Candayce had calculated the benefits for Elizabeth: an edifying European experience for her daughter was worth a little sacrifice. Staying with Elizabeth’s grandmother was like living in a first-class hotel, with a domineering staff that was always watching.
On returning home, Candayce discovered the switch. The Imposter was a slug who slept day and night, a listless mound of lumpy fur. In the past, when Elizabeth was at school, Candayce would hear Peanut rustling in Elizabeth’s room or a metallic twang as tooth or tail brushed against the bars of his Critter Condo. By night, Peanut was a dervish, racing across an imaginary desert in a DNA-induced panic. Round and round he went, creating a racket of beating plastic. When Peanut first came to them almost two years before, Candayce had been amazed by Elizabeth’s tender care for the rodent, and her ability to fall asleep at night with him racing maniacally on his wheel.
The house was too quiet now. Thanks to all the belt-tightening Max had been talking about, there wasn’t even the daily hum of the vacuum cleaner to fill the silence. The upside of her new poverty was that she liked doing her own laundry. It reminded her of bygone days when she hadn’t needed an army of people to run her life. And laundry was therapeutic: the sweet, dry static of warm clothes was as satisfying as the sense of completion afterward. The downside was that cleaning for dirt was defeating. Dirt was self-perpetuating: it was everywhere and could only be kept at bay. Cleaning made her obsessive—which was why it was better someone else did it.
When Max split at the beginning of the year, telling Candayce and Elizabeth about baby Dylan, Elizabeth cried with joy at the prospect of a half-sibling while Candayce inwardly died. It wasn’t so much the body blow of his treachery. She could deal with that—no one died from infidelity. It was more that the humiliation would be ongoing: that for Elizabeth’s sake, she’d be forced to embrace Max’s harpy attorney and his baby into an extended family group.
Candayce had known Max had wanted another child but hadn’t taken in how much. The betrayal was incredible. Her friends sympathized, while secretly agreeing that they’d seen it coming. You have to work at relationships, they said. During all those late-night conference calls (probably phone sex), his attorney had worked at it. Candayce had not.
Less than a year before the bombshell, Max had urged Candayce to try for another baby. Candayce had turned forty and no longer had the boundless energy that had characterized her thirties. Max was freaking out about money, something to do with his deal not being renewed. Bringing another child into their stressed family unit hadn’t seemed like a good idea. Yet a year and three-quarters on, Elizabeth was morphing into a young lady, Candayce could see it wouldn’t be long before she was up and away. With the reasoning behind her decisions as previous as her marriage, Candayce began to wonder whether having another child would have been such a hardship, whether maybe she should have been bold and gone for it. Maybe … maybe can make you crazy. She checked herself.
“Lizzie needs a sibling. Being an only child is too much pressure,” Max said.
So Candayce went out and bought her daughter Peanut.
A pet had been in the cards for a while. Elizabeth was no longer pacified by a series of canaries: Tweeties, all of them, who’d died and been replaced as necessity called. “I want a pet that will sleep in my bed,” she wailed. A dog was out. Candayce knew it would be up to her to do nocturnal walking duties. She’d be damned if she would traipse through deserted Hollywood hills, the specter of the Strangler hovering over her shoulder.
Peanut was the solution. He was a fluffball of charm, with soulful almond eyes and wavy chestnut-streaked fur. A teddy-bear hamster, don’t you know? He was a smash hit. Candayce and Elizabeth laughed at his antics, his overstuffed pouches, and lauded his skill at navigating the tubes by smudging himself up and down. When given the chance, he could flatten under doors and squeeze himself through bars. He was the Harry Houdini of the domestic animal kingdom.
With Peanut already a bond between mother and daughter, he soon became a point of connection for others in their circle. When Uma shared Elizabeth’s delight with the playful creature, it was only natural for Candayce to feel love and gratitude toward Uma, as she would anyone who happened to love Elizabeth and her furry friend.
Uma was the yoga teacher, an ethereal blond with eyes that stared in large pools of sympathy. Part two of the economy drive had been for Candayce to cut back on the private sessions with Uma, but this had proved impossible to sustain. In any case, privates at ninety dollars a pop were a mental health bargain—half of what her sometimes shrink charged. After her yoga sessions, Candayce felt her brain had been washed and balmed, her middle thoracic spine (repository of rage and anxiety) released. As a gesture to her business manager, Candayce attempted a home-practice but blanked on the sequences and cheated on the weaker side. Without Uma to cheerlead, the CNN loop showing a world with problems greater than her own was more compelling than her asanas. So Uma continued to come and generously offered to take Peanut while they were away during the summer.
First stop when they got back from Europe was to pick up Peanut from Uma’s. In two months away, Elizabeth had grown an inch and matured unbelievably. Candayce was relieved to see that Elizabeth still looked forward to her reunion with Peanut with a glee that harked back to pre-K days.
Together Candayce and Elizabeth drove downtown to Uma’s studio in Silverlake. Together they stared at the mammal formerly known as Peanut. How they stared. Gone were the brown streaks that had once given him his name. This hamster’s coat was streaked white and matted like an Afghan rug. Gone were the almond eyes that sometimes brought to mind her own daughter’s: this one had mad, bulging orbs. His nose was bovine, not cute. Nor petite. His backside was balding and rat-like. And he stank. Peanut had never smelled. He’d always been a talented groomer. No way was this Peanut. More like his bad-news brother.
While Elizabeth went to the bathroom, ostensibly to wipe poop off the sad pretender’s rear end, Candayce took the opportunity to whisper to Uma lightly, “What happened? Did Peanut cross over, you know, to the Other Side?” She made sure she used her friendliest, nonaccusing tone.
To her amazement, she saw Uma flinch.
“What do you mean? That is Peanut,” Uma snapped. Her mellifluous voice, suddenly harsh and defensive.
Candayce was stunned. She’d never witnessed the dark side of Uma or seen her harden like that. Everything Uma had taught her—to give, release, and surrender—ran contrary to her behavior now.
Elizabeth returned. Although at first she’d looked shocked by the hamster’s appearance, she was now cooing over it as if nothing had happened.
Candayce was reeling. She took the hamster and Elizabeth and left the studio, fast.
That night while Elizabeth was sleeping—the Imposter, flat out also (Peanut always raced)—Candayce paced around the cage, turning over the day’s events in her head.
Was it possible that this crude substitute could be Peanut? No … Then why would Uma try to gaslight her? Could she have formed an unnatural attachment to Peanut and decided to keep him? That would be too risky, karma-wise, not to mention downright mean. Most likely Peanut had escaped and Uma was too guilty to cop to it.
Candayce imagined Peanut living in a crawl space at the yoga studio, gnawing his way through Uma’s electrical cords. More sobering was the thought of Peanut roaming with the homeless and hungry in Echo Park.
She stopped and looked hard at the torpid creature.
Was it possible that she was imagining things and going insane?
Yes. No. Maybe.
Candayce dined out on the story, telling incredulous friends about the Switch. How she had to go along with the charade for Elizabeth’s sake. How Elizabeth knew deep down but was too loving to reject him and expose Uma at the same time.
Typical of Candayce to have a psycho yoga teacher, her friends moralized.
As if the situation wasn’t stressful enough, without Uma, Candayce couldn’t do yoga. And she was having to avoid the cage—partly because of the smell, partly to avoid the issue with Elizabeth.
Until Elizabeth called her in.
“Mom, there’s something sticking out of his cheek.”
Sure enough, there was a splinter protruding from a wound in his cheek. From the bedding, they presumed.
While Elizabeth held the hamster, Candayce tried to pull out the splinter with a pair of tweezers. Nothing doing. She felt resistance as she pulled.
It must be really dug in. Urgh.
More than anything, she was surprised by the dumb creature’s patience, that he didn’t bite or resist.
After a flurry of telephone calls, they found Dr. Rickman, the veterinarian.
The waiting room could have been in a funeral parlor: full of wrung-out, red-eyed people waiting for word of loved ones, with no expectation that the news would be anything other than bad. Candayce had to admire their slightly ludicrous depth of feeling: impressive, when all she could feel was mild resentment of what was proving to be a three-hour ordeal.
When Dr. Rickman finally appeared, they were sitting in their designated cubicle. Candayce was startled by his creamy-faced youth. She watched him earnestly examining his patient and tried calculating his age: he looked twenty but he had to be older. All those years of study and training. She wondered what had made this ambitious baby know his path. Had a higher quota of mommy-love given him the advantage over all the directionless losers?
Path. Direction. Ambition. Concepts abstract and unfamiliar.
Amorphous. Mysterious. Terrifying. That was life as she knew it.
She’d known few people who were possessed with the young doctor’s drive and certitude. Max was one of them. It was incredible to think that when they’d first met, her vaguely artistic, freewheeling spirit had been something to aspire to. Something Max had respected about her. Even loved.
She felt tugging on her sleeve—Elizabeth—and heard Dr. Rickman saying, “The splinter isn’t a splinter. It’s a tooth.”
Apparently a tooth, not sufficiently filed by gnawing, had grown through the hamster’s cheek and punctured it. “You know ‘rodent’ comes from the Latin ‘rodere’—to gnaw?” he added knowingly.
Candayce’s stomach churned in horror, remembering how she’d tweezed and pulled at the hamster’s cheek. No wonder she had felt resistance.
She was grateful when Dr. Rickman took him away for surgery, still nauseous when he returned half an hour later with a bloody-cheeked hamster and the tooth in a bottle for Elizabeth to keep.
The tooth looked like a tiny yellow tusk. A decayed trophy in miniature.
“Sorry,” Candayce whispered to the hamster that night. “You’re a brave little fella. Aren’t you?” It didn’t seem to matter who he was anymore. She was reminded of a movie she’d seen in her West Village days—The Return of Martin Guerre—but she couldn’t remember whether or not Martin had turned out to be Martin. His identity can’t have been that important, she concluded.
And then more horrors: the hamster started with the shitting. Candayce was already at her wit’s end: no yoga, no money (Max being even more of a prick). Off they went to Dr. Rickman. Four hours and four hundred dollars later they were back at home.
Candayce had been instructed to administer two medications, two times a day. In one hand, she cupped the hamster’s warm and pliant body, holding the pipette in the other. Suddenly, he opened his mouth, half-closing his eyes while he sucked the medication right up. Candayce was amazed. He looked so cute—squinting at her like a myopic uncle. And he liked the taste! The medicine was the same Barbie pink as the one she gave Elizabeth for ear infections.
He was looking at her expectantly. In fact his eyes weren’t cute: they had gotten small. Candayce felt a stab. Oh God, he’s really sick. Please don’t let him be really sick.
He slept a lot. But because she didn’t know him, she didn’t know whether that was normal or not. His eyes stayed the same, too rheumy for Candayce’s liking. Every time she saw him, she thought of his bravery that night when she’d tugged on his tooth and felt waves of guilt and affection.
This went on. The ritual, twice daily. Candayce noticed that Elizabeth seemed to have lost interest in him. In two weeks, she had barely paid him any attention. Was it because he wasn’t really her beloved Peanut? Or was she distancing herself from the inevitable—the slow death of a first love? She couldn’t tell. At least she could be there for him, whoever he was. She observed the lengthening time it took him to look up at her when she called. He was winding down, like a cartoon in slo-mo.
The second Saturday after the veterinarian’s, Candayce retrieved him from his cage for his afternoon meds. One thing she knew about mammals is that they’re meant to be room temperature: his body had grown colder since the morning. He could barely raise his face.
He’s going to die tonight. She knew it in her heart.
Unsure of how to prepare Elizabeth, she decided to say nothing. Death is experiential. There is no preparation.
After Elizabeth was asleep, Candayce took the Critter Condo into the stately dining room and placed it on the polished table that was never used. She sat staring into the cage, watching for his breathing, almost imperceptible now. From time to time, she took out his limp body and stroked his matted fur, uttering soothing thoughts to him. His fur was bedraggled and wet, she realized, from the tears dripping down her nose and cheeks.
Then she put him back to rest and kept vigil.
As she sat, she wondered whether his physical changes could be accounted for by illness and old age. Could sickness, combined with his dental problem, have turned Peanut’s hair white and made him unable to groom—hence the smell? Had mites made him scratch away the fur around his nose, making it seem more prominent, ditto his backside?
She remembered her mother’s transfiguration. The three weeks it took for her limbs to waste, her skin to turn a liverish yellow, and her mind to wash away on a sea of morphine. Afterward, the jocose Irish nurse opened the windows to set free her soul. Candayce looked at her mother’s frozen rictus—no soul there—and said, “I thought the dead were meant to look peaceful.”
The hamster formerly known as Peanut now rests under the shade of the pomegranate tree.
As Elizabeth said, “R dot. I dot. P dot, means rest in peace.” Happy Love.
Copyright © 2010 by Evgenia Citkowitz
Happy Love 1
The Bachelor's Table 15
The Clearance 33
Sunday's Child 59
Leavers' Events 79
Baby Charmer 97
Careful Mummy 121