Jenny and the Jaws of Life: Short Stories
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Jenny and the Jaws of Life: Short Stories

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by Jincy Willett

Jincy Willett is the high priestess of dark comedy. The classic stories in this collection cut through every convention, every idea of normalcy, with empathy and fearless wit, undermining all the old ideas about the happy family, the good son, the dutiful mother. In Willett's world, perversity and tenderness walk hand in hand; there's laughter and funerals,


Jincy Willett is the high priestess of dark comedy. The classic stories in this collection cut through every convention, every idea of normalcy, with empathy and fearless wit, undermining all the old ideas about the happy family, the good son, the dutiful mother. In Willett's world, perversity and tenderness walk hand in hand; there's laughter and funerals, ambivalence in the nursery, and redemption for the wicked. As David Sedaris writes in his foreword, "I'm prepared to wear a sandwich board for this book. I can't help myself. It' just too good."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“It's just the funniest collection of stories I've ever read--really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.” —David Sedaris

“A triumphant collection . . . Willett can provoke whoops of laughter, wonderment, and grim speculation about the brevity of good times for human beings.” —Chicago Tribune

“Exquisite . . . A great, darkly comic collection.” —Esquire

“Just to be absolutely clear: I'm not recommending this title. I'm telling you: add this item to your basket.” —The Guardian (UK)

“Willett is ready to join the select group of short story writers--Joyce Carol Oates and Flannery O'Connor among them--who treat lurid, graphic material with psychological acuity and deadpan wit.” —The Providence Journal

“Resonates with understanding.” —People

“Exhilarating. Her art has passed through anxiety and come out the other side, completely honest yet purged of the confessional whine or the need to call attention to its bravery.” —The Village Voice

Publishers Weekly
First published in 1987, this debut collection of morbidly funny stories has been given a well-deserved second life. Willett is a marvelous philosopher and humanist, even when writing about subjects that beg for a knee-jerk reaction. In "Resume," a run-of-the-mill man gives God a quick rundown of his life. He cheated on his wife once, but notes that he "cried once on someone else's account" while watching a televised unfolding of American POWs returning to Washington and asks God to consider granting immortality in return for nothing, just as "a fresh approach." "Under the Bed" is narrated by a woman who was beaten and raped in her own home. She says the rapist "measurably improved the quality of my life," because she no longer lives in fear of the unknown. In "Mr. Lazenbee," a sixth grader manipulates her school's new campaign to teach children about "touches that feel good" and "touches that feel funny" by pointing fingers at an easy neighborhood target. Willett is alive to the absurd in American culture and the tragicomic struggle for dignity that we often lose. "My mother is dying. My husband's mistress has myasthenia gravis. My younger daughter just gave all of her trust money to the Church of the Famous Maker.... I can't sleep, and I'm not so much depressed as humiliated, both by slapstick catastrophe and by the minute tragedy of my wasted talents," laments Willett's funniest subject, an advice columnist who has an existential crisis in epistolary form. Though some of Willett's observations are predictable, the best of these stories still seem ahead of their time. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Lingards were not a flashy couple, but people admired and envied their marriage, the symmetry of their mutual regard, their serene and constant intimacy. This perfect marriage was often held up as a standard against which other couples disparaged their own. In a typical argument the wife would say, “Kenneth never cuts her down in public,” and the husband would perhaps reply that “Maybe that’s because he respects her, because Anita doesn’t get bombed and blab her husband’s private remarks at parties. And even if Anita couldn’t hold her booze,” he might add, with somewhat more fervor, “she’d find some subtle way to let him know that they ought to leave early”; “And if she did,” his wife would shout, “he wouldn’t pretend not to notice her”; and so on.

Marital tension was high in their close-knit community, where most of the husbands and some of the wives were research immunologists, and the nonprofessional half of the couple (for there was no profession but medicine) was often lonely and alienated because the professional half worked hard and played hard, or worked hard and fell asleep. Had the Lingards not been so amiable, they would have been widely resented, like the one brilliant student who ruins a bell curve.

Common wisdom in the group (especially those on their second marriages) held that, while opposites may attract, they repel in the long run, and here again the Lingards were often cited, this time as the exception that proved the rule. He was lean and fair and austere, and she was plump and dark and voluble. To relax, he devised cryptic crosswords, and she practiced her violin, which she played, semiprofessionally, with a local quartet. His intelligence was disciplined and objective, hers unruly and bluntly intuitive.

They were absolutely unalike, and yet no one ever wondered what one Lingard saw in the other, or if each Lingard sometimes yearned for the company of its own kind. They had never been known to disagree on any issue of substance, and almost never even on trifling matters of fact. When they spoke, recounting some story, arguing some position, consecutive paragraphs, sentences, even phrases within a single sentence flowed seamlessly between them. And their spontaneous behavior was so often identical and synchronous that, for instance, the Lingard Laugh, sudden and coincident, was a generally recognized phenomenon, and one not too well understood, as the occasion for amusement was often impossible for others to detect. Talking to the Lingards, as Saul Goldberg said, you often felt as though you addressed one person with two faces, like the perfect multilimbed creature of Platonic myth, or the Lingards’ own freakish child. (The Lingards were childless.)

Of course no one knew what their sexual life was like—these people were not young, and the Lingards were especially discreet—but friends of both sexes imagined their marriage bed as a sunny place devoid of mystery and strife, their sex foreordained and utterly peaceful, and therefore oddly, and enviably, perverse.
In fact, in private fact, the Lingards were so perfectly suited that they were not even aware of the joy they took in each other, joy being their natural state. With other mates they might have known ecstasy, romance, resentment, the thrill and risk of sexual war; they settled, in their ignorance, on kindness and the modest pleasures of companionship. Their sex really was sunny, pleasant, free of effort and ambition. They were mated for life, simply, like greylag geese, and like those plain purposeful fliers they were incapable of imagining any other life but this. They hadn’t the sense to be smug.

Which is not to say they were inhuman. Once, while they were driving across Florida, Kenneth told Anita to “Shut up.” One morning he said “Look, I don’t want Grape-Nuts” with absurd emphasis, in a querulous voice that saddened and diminished them both. Once when she was practicing the violin, with an all-Beethoven concert upcoming, she told him to fix his own damn dinner. But with a single exception this was the extent of their empathic failure. They were two complex individuals who made a simple miraculous whole. In the middle of a sleepless night, at a boisterous gathering, in front of a television set blaring dreadful news of the perilous world, one would reach out and touch the other lightly, unconsciously, like a talisman.

They had only one real fight in twenty years, and that very early in their marriage, when Anita made an offhand remark about her horoscope in the morning paper. “According to the stars,” she told him at the breakfast table, “I must avoid undertaking any important projects today.” She was trying to think of a way to turn this into a joke when he asked her to repeat herself, as he had been reading the front page. She obliged, feeling a little foolish, since she had not meant anything by it in the first place.

Kenneth, who had been up working late five nights running, and who was ordinarily the most easygoing of men, was suddenly outraged that a reputable newspaper would run an astrology column. It was just that sort of bleak, caffeine-driven morning for him: any innocuous thing could have brought on his sudden, hungry outrage. Anita, who agreed that astrology was an insult to the intelligence, made a mild remark about the public’s right to get what they want, even if it’s bad for them. “And anyway,” she said, “it doesn’t really hurt anybody.”

For a long time they seemed not to be arguing at all, but merely carrying on an extended intellectual debate, the locus shifting from breakfast table to kitchen sink while she washed dishes, to the bathroom while he shaved, to the bedroom while they dressed, and at first they seemed mostly in accord, with Kenneth agreeing that people had the right to believe that the world is flat or that you can talk to the dead, and Anita agreeing that it was contemptible for nonbelievers to exploit their folly.

But it gradually emerged that they did not see eye to eye on what was folly and what was not: under the general heading of “claptrap” Kenneth included theories of ESP and telekinesis, which Anita had casually assumed were plausible; and when he refused to allow that scientists had any sort of duty to test these theories out she was unpleasantly surprised. Surely, she said, the sighted should lead the blind, and outright fraud should be exposed by those best qualified to do so.
“That takes time, Anita,” said Kenneth, tying his tie. “You can’t expect a Ph.D. to sacrifice a big chunk of his career just because some moron wants to believe that vegetables love chamber music.” Anita then supposed she too must be a moron, for she had more or less come to believe in the secret life of plants; and after this the argument became wildly emotional. Kenneth came from a long line of scientists, academics, and agnostics. Anita was the most rational woman in her family. Her mother and her father’s sister had each had out-of-body experiences, her sister was always talking about Velikovsky, and both her grandmothers had met Jesus Christ. Yet except for her sister these women were quite phlegmatic and otherwise sensible, and though she had always felt more intellectually favored than they were, she did not at all like to hear her husband call them “morons.”

In the end Anita lost control and bitterly reminded him, in barely coherent, tremulous sentences, that there were other ways of looking at the world, that science would never have progressed if Galileo and Newton had been so selfish, and that her people were every bit as smart as his, even if they weren’t educated.
Kenneth, white-faced and stony, delivered a frighteningly brilliant impromptu lecture on cultural evolution, the pernicious influence of Thomas Aquinas, the sheer staggering heft of human knowledge, generated only by the self-discipline and sober adherence to experimental verification of legions of scientists, who were anything but selfish, who were downright heroic, centurions of the enlightenment, committed to protecting and defending the truth; and he spoke, with as much feeling as if he had actually been present at the event, of the Great Library of Alexandria and its destruction by fire at the hands of an ignorant mob.
By now they were stretched out on their bed side by side, fully clothed, exhausted by the violence of their emotions. “I love you,” Kenneth said, with terrible dispassion, “but I would not burn the Library of Alexandria for you”; and Anita, drily sobbing, cried, “You son of a bitch.”

It was a profoundly silly fight; that is, a fight both profound and silly; it would never become a joking matter. They referred to it only implicitly, in the exaggerated care with which they attended to each other in the ensuing days, as though each were both nurse and convalescent. Privately Anita decided that they had really been fighting about something else, most likely their families, and who came from better stock.

Privately Kenneth considered and rejected this possibility. Although mortified by his own rhetorical excess, so that the echo of his speech, especially the part about centurions and the burning of the library, would, along with his “Grape-Nuts” pronunciamento, torment him for the rest of his life, he could not deceive himself about its cause.

Underneath his ludicrous show of passion lay the passion itself, the bedrock of his intentional life. He had suffered a brief indelible glimpse of his wife amid the torchlit stampede of his single enemy.

Their one serious argument became for both Lingards a warning sign posted at the verge of a precipice, a dark drop of unguessable duration; and with this sign in mind they built a marriage otherwise unbounded, which was the envy of all who knew them well.

Sixteen years later, on a gray October day, Anita and Marilyn Goldberg, whose husband, Saul, was Kenneth’s colleague and close friend, went together to inspect an attic full of old books that the executor of a recently deceased professor’s estate wished to donate to the University Women for their annual sale.
Though both women had fortified themselves against mold and book dust with strong doses of antihistamine, the air in Professor Giddings’s cluttered attic was so dry and sour that Marilyn suffered an asthma attack and had to run out to the car to get her inhaler. Drowsy Anita nestled back against a rafter, heedless of dirt and spiders, and thumbed through an old blue volume entitled Peeps at Many Lands.

Anita wallowed in these eccentric collections. She was an enthusiastic dawdler and without her industrious friend could easily accomplish nothing more on an afternoon like this than the further rumpling and soiling of her old woolen jumper. She liked best to imagine the lives of these dead collectors from the evidence of their books, the chatty or self-conscious inscriptions, the cryptic marginalia, the abrupt vandalism of a child’s crayon, the somber elegant script of the aged dead.
She was reaching lazily for A Girl of the Limberlost when she saw a real girl, a small child, standing in gloom at the top of the attic stairs. The child was wide-eyed and blonde, with a pale, pretty face distinguished by a small pink crescent scar in the middle of one cheek and another at the temple, suggesting that some animal, a dog, had bitten her a long time ago. “Hi, sweetheart,” said Anita, but the child responded with an unchanging stare.

The directness of watchful children had always unnerved Anita, but there was something particularly disturbing about this one. She was dressed oddly, for one thing: instead of practical play clothes she wore a drab, dark-striped dress of some cumbersome material, like homespun cotton, tied at the waist with a black sash, and hanging almost to her ankles. It was a very old dress, Anita realized, or old-fashioned, anyway. No. Old. The genuine article. The child’s feet were bare, but Anita would not have been startled to see them encased in tiny stiff leather boots, pointed at the toe, laced to the ankle.

“Kiddo?” said Anita. “Are you going or coming? Are you in or are you out?” But her own voice did not break the spell. Only if the child herself spoke would this happen; and Anita somehow knew the child would never speak. She held her breath, and the airless attic room ticked like a moribund clock, rocked in sudden October wind. Anita was unafraid. She regarded the child unblinking, taking in every detail, until her eyes burned; she rubbed them, and looked again, and the child had disappeared.

When Marilyn finally puffed her way back to the attic, pausing where the child had stood, to get her breath, Anita asked her if she had passed a little girl on the way, or noticed any kids playing outside. “No,” Marilyn said, and Anita, herself an instant graying child, laughed with delight and clapped her hands.

Kenneth learned that his wife had seen a ghost in the worst possible way: he heard it from a third party. They were dining in their own comfortable old house, with their old friends the Goldbergs, drinking their own liquor, stoking their own fire with cherry logs they had split themselves and stacked into a sturdy wedge in their own backyard. Anita was in their warm kitchen, standing over a cast-iron stockpot they had found together at a country flea market, her round cheeks brick-red in the fragrant familiar steam of their favorite beef stew. Kenneth was a sitting duck. In fewer than three years he would kneel alone in this very room, on the exact spot where he now stood, emptying the contents of his desk into cardboard boxes from the liquor store while his gaunt bitter wife reviled him in the Goldbergs’ living room, and choked the Goldbergs’ big brass ashtray with unfiltered cigarette butts, and if anyone were then to ask him for the secret of a happy life, he would answer: Stasis.

“What do you make of Anita’s ghost?” asked Saul, as Kenneth handed him his beer. “The little wraith,” said Saul, but clearly Kenneth had no idea what he was talking about. This delighted Saul. Marilyn was the mother of his children, and on that account he loved her and would never consider abandoning her, but on that account only. Gray-bearded Saul, short and rotund, sharply dressed in clothes selected and purchased by his wife—dapper, roly-poly Saul was a zealous adulterer, discreet but ruthless, the kind that loved the capture even more than the chase; and only the Lingards made him feel, through their example, the moral weight of his infidelities, the loneliness of his married state. He always felt, beside his dear uxorious friend, a little pathetic, a little shabby. “Never mind,” he now abruptly said, with a show of discomfort.

“A ghost?”

“Forget it. So. What’s new?”

“What are you talking about?”

Saul leaned into Kenneth and whispered, “Your wife has had a paranormal experience.”

Anita and Marilyn emerged from the kitchen with a cheese board and a can of cashews. “What’s he talking about?” Kenneth asked Anita.

“I’m afraid I spilled the beans,” Saul told Anita, “about the g-ho-s-t.”


“You didn’t even tell him?” Marilyn rocked Anita with the heel of her meaty hand. “You’ve been yammering about that ghost for a week.” Marilyn, thick-skinned and raucous, forever cuffing and prodding and nudging with her elbow, was everyone’s mother. She elbowed Kenneth. “Wait’ll you hear.”
Anita said, “There’s nothing to tell.”

“You saw a ghost?”

Anita stammered and undercut everything with ineffectual, dismissive flicks of her hand. “It was nothing. Marilyn and I went out to the Giddings estate the other day to sort through some books, and I thought I saw something, but it wasn’t worth mentioning.”

To me, Kenneth said with his mild reproachful eyes.

“I knew you wouldn’t be interested,” Anita said aloud.

Kenneth busied himself with poking the fire. “I take it this was the shade of old Mort Giddings. How did he look?” He grinned up at Marilyn. “Did he goose you in the vestibule?”

“She didn’t see it,” said Saul. “My wife didn’t see the ghost.” Anita described the attic encounter in an offhand manner, with shrugs and headshakes that were obviously supposed to belittle it. She addressed her husband but avoided looking right at him. She looked, to everyone, like a guilty wife reciting an alibi. “Probably just some neighborhood kid playing dress-up,” she said, and her husband saw the lie.

For the next hour, while they ate, they talked hospital politics and local gossip, but none of them forgot Anita’s ghost. Because Marilyn believed all women wanted children, she saw in the ghost child the incarnation of her barren friend’s unconscious wish. This, and the sudden strain between the Lingards, disturbed her. Marilyn loved her friends, and revered their marriage, in a sentimental way.

Saul shared Kenneth’s pure contempt for the mere idea of ghosts, yet he had enjoyed Anita’s flustered attempt to deceive her husband, the insight it had given him into the intimate dynamics of this ideal marriage. Too, he found the spectacle of Anita’s wifely submission deeply erotic and wondered seriously for the first time about her round little body, and its tidal rhythms—what sounds she would make when she crested, and how she would feel when she broke. Hypothetically. Saul would never betray his friend, except now, in this way, riding his beloved wife on the gravy- and wine-stained tablecloth, amid goblets and lighted candles and plates of steaming garlicky stew, while all around them four old friends, three of them blind as bats, speculated about future trends in immunology.

After dinner, over brandy, Saul told a funny story from his Cornell days, a good one with a late May blizzard and sex and frostbite, and when the laughter died down Anita sighed and said, to Kenneth, “I just wish you’d been there.” No one imagined she was talking about Ithaca. “I wish you had seen what I saw.”

“Forget it,” Marilyn said. “If God spoke to Saul from a burning bush he’d find some way to wriggle out of it. The boys have a smart answer to everything.”

“That’s what I want. The answer.”

“To what?” Kenneth asked.

“Why was the little girl dressed like that?”

“Some kind of costume. You just said so yourself.”

“Why was the old dress—I know it was the real thing—in such good condition?”

“It was well-preserved.” Kenneth frowned affectionately at her. “Really, Anita.”

“Why was she barefoot on a chilly October day?”

“Why not? What does barefoot have to do with a ghost?”

“It’s odd, that’s all.” Anita, who rarely smoked, lit her third cigarette in ten minutes. “How did she just disappear? All right then, she went downstairs while I was rubbing my eyes, but why didn’t Marilyn see her?” This was Anita’s trump card.

“She’s right,” Marilyn said. “I didn’t see anything.”

“You weren’t looking. You saw and forgot. She slipped out the back way.”

“Or shot up the chimney! Kenneth, you had to be there. This was a strange child. She came out of nowhere and stood still looking at me, and she was, I’m sorry, unearthly, I can’t help it, and that attic room, with her in it, was an enchanted place.” She had no proof, and didn’t see, quite, why she needed it. “You’ll just have to trust me on this,” she said.

Kenneth counted to ten, and when he spoke his voice was low and pleasant. “Were you on any medication?”

“Certainly not.”

“Benadryl,” Marilyn said. “We were sneezing our heads off that morning. Remember?”

She wanted to say “What are the odds?” but he would just ask “Against what?” and she didn’t know the answer to that. She had nothing on her side but experience. Kenneth didn’t have to say anything. He was attending to her now with every appearance of interest, as though she were a respected colleague, an equal, and they were hashing out some difference of opinion that could go either way. He was making a great effort for her. “I surrender,” she said, and felt relief.

Saul called her a pushover. “He hasn’t convinced you. You’re just backing off.”

“It’s not a question of backing off. I know my husband, Saul.”

The Lingards regarded each other in that intimate, delicately exclusionist fashion that so confounded their friends, especially Saul Goldberg. They were again, effortlessly, of one mind.

Marilyn snorted. “So! Your husband tells you what to see, how to feel about it? That’s cute. Does he dream your dreams for you?” She put her big square hand on her husband’s thigh. “What did I dream about last night?”

“You dreamed of me, Mama,” said Saul. “I was sensational.”

“What I saw doesn’t matter,” Anita said. “There are no ghosts.” She was still addressing her husband, and smiling in that maddening private way. Both Goldbergs thought of Kate the Shrew placing her hand beneath Petruchio’s foot; the image affected each in a different way. “If there were ghosts, then everything Kenneth knows—and you, Saul—would be wrong.”

“Or at least useless in explaining it,” said Kenneth.

“My sighting of the ghost is only . . . a historical event,” said Anita, recapturing Kenneth’s sixteen-year-old arguments. She said, to Marilyn, “It’s just like a miracle that way.”

“What she means is that it’s nonrepeatable,” said Kenneth, “which means it can’t be tested. Which is all, ultimately, that can be said about it.”

Marilyn was gaping at him. “Is this what you two talk about when you’re alone? What do you do, have seminars in the bedroom?”

The Lingards laughed suddenly, mysteriously, and blushed. “We have talked about it,” said Anita. “The problem is the same for ghosts as for other para . . .”
“—parascientific claims,” Kenneth said. “Parascientists just report these events. They have produced no theories to explain them. If there was a ghost in Giddings’s attic it existed independently of all known physical laws, and probably in violation of fundamental theory.”

“So?” Marilyn, outraged, rose above the derision of husband and friends. She scolded Anita. “So, you don’t know what you know? You don’t believe what you see with your own eyes? What do you care about known physical laws? What’s it to you?”

“It’s nothing to me,” said her friend. “It’s everything to Kenneth.”

“Ah-hah,” said Saul Goldberg.

And Kenneth, blindsided, glanced sharply at Anita, who reminded him just then of the glycerin-eyed bejeweled wife of a particularly obnoxious TV evangelist. He reeled before his own gross disloyalty.

Saul raised his glass to him and murmured, “Lucky man.”

“And you,” said Marilyn, pointing at Kenneth, “what if you had seen the ghost?”

“He wouldn’t have,” said Anita.

“Because he’s blind, or because there wasn’t a ghost to see?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does!” said Kenneth, but only Saul heard him, and roared with laughter, which everyone ignored.

This was better than soccer, Saul’s game of choice in youth. The true nature of the Lingards’ compromise was shimmering into view, a great bubble wobbling to and fro, sinking all the while, toward its comic doom. His own bighearted, domineering wife, unaware of the trouble she was making, went on berating Kenneth and Anita. Marilyn’s job was bossing children, and she never stopped to wonder if she had the right, or listen to her own strident voice; she had no subtlety and no vanity. She hunkered forward on the couch, her tight skirt twisted and straining, her big knees wide apart. Kenneth never even glanced down between her thighs; his lack of curiosity was mildly insulting. Saul himself reached over to pour himself more wine and sneak a peek.

Marilyn had by now forgotten that she didn’t believe in the ghost, so strongly did she disapprove of Kenneth’s bullying and poor Anita’s compliance. “How can you be so sure of yourself? You’d rather believe your own wife is nuts than be wrong about this thing. Shame on you.”

“You can’t expect him to throw his career out the window on my account,” said Anita.

“He doesn’t have to throw anything out the window! You can believe two things at once. He can believe his theories, and he can believe you. Don’t think so much! Who needs it? You people are crazy.”

“They’re not my theories, Marilyn. This isn’t some pet notion I have, that she has to humor me. . . .” There was something wrong. Kenneth felt discouraged, and annoyed with everyone, including himself, and some other negative emotion, so alien that he could not name it.

“You never answered me. What if you had seen the ghost? Never mind, Saul, shut up. Suppose you’d seen and believed. Then where would you be? It seems to me,” said Marilyn, her face brightening at her own cleverness, “that you’ve put your faith in something pretty iffy, if this is all it would take to make your whole world fall apart.”

Anita, eyes closed, trying to remember Kenneth’s exact words when she herself had raised a similar argument, spoke haltingly, like a hypnotized subject. “It is not possible . . . or necessary . . . to rule out the existence of a . . . Gegenbeispiel.” She grinned at Kenneth. “Pretty good, huh?”

Kenneth turned away from her and jabbed at the dying fire. “She means ‘counterexample.’ No, Marilyn, we don’t live in fear of absurd counterexamples.” Kenneth was lonely. For the first time in twenty years.

“All right, Smarty, but what if you had seen it?” Saul and Anita groaned, but Marilyn was like a bulldog with a bone. “Here you are, alone in an ordinary old attic, minding your own business, when all of a sudden presto! A little kid in weird clothes, only let’s say—why not?—she’s floating, no wires or anything, and there’s a human head tucked underneath her arm! And you haven’t taken any drugs, you pinch yourself and you’re wide awake, you check everything out. I mean, what would it take for you? Okay, you’ve got witnesses too. And meanwhile her head is swiveling around and around like that kid in The Exorcist, sparks are shooting out— I’m asking you, what would it take? How would you handle that, Mr. Science?”

Marilyn laughed then, with the others, and for a while nothing had changed after all, it had maybe been a false alarm, and Kenneth simply enjoyed the sight and sound of his happy wife. But she didn’t stop laughing when everyone else did; she would stop, and glance at Kenneth, and then start afresh. She kept saying, “I’m sorry,” but she couldn’t have been, because clearly all she had to do to stop was quit recharging herself, which she finally did. She stared down at her lap, biting her lower lip like a choirgirl with the giggles.

“What’s so funny?” Marilyn asked, and started her up all over again.

“He’d lose his mind!” Anita said, pointing at him, pointing him out as though he were some little blob on the horizon. She saw his face and laughed harder. “Oh Kenneth, I’m sorry, but HA HA HA they’d have to cart you away!”

During the next days Kenneth withdrew from Anita. He was pleasant to her, and polite, and frigid. This behavior was not entirely involuntary, as he well knew, but only he suffered from it. If he was trying to punish her, he was unsuccessful. Anita, to her astonishment, reveled in having displeased him. She was on her own and it made her giddy. She assumed that the estrangement would pass; she would make the most of it while it lasted. Although it did occur to her, when he would look right at her and decline to take her in and this would fail to move her in the least (except to a touch of admiration for his style), that perhaps she was numb.

One afternoon she picked him up early at the labs so they could go furniture shopping, and because her neck was stiff she let him take the wheel, and because one of the stores happened to be in the neighborhood of the Giddings house, Kenneth went a few blocks out of his way to drive past it: and there she was, the child, on a tricycle in the driveway next door, in Oshkosh overalls and a Cabbage Patch jacket. They were close enough to make out the little pink scars on her face.

“Is that your ghost?” he asked, and Anita could see that nothing much rode on her answer; that had this been the wrong child he would not have been embarrassed; that he was not elated now, because this was no victory for him, because there had been no contest. He had never needed proof. She could have killed him. She rolled down her window and shouted at the child: “Little girl! Little girl!” “What are you doing?” he asked, and she hissed at him, “She was trespassing, the little brat,” and he said “Jesus Christ, Anita,” and tromped on the accelerator, peeling away from the curb.

He didn’t know why he had driven by the damn house in the first place, and now he cursed the impulse that had led him there and the rotten luck of finding the damn kid. What were the odds? She should have been in school at this hour, or visiting friends; she should have been inside her own house, which should have been elsewhere, at least on the next block, preferably on the far side of the moon. She was as outlandish and unnerving to him in sunshine as she had been to Anita in the dusty gloom. She had made a fool out of his wife. Twice.

He told her he was sorry. He said it again that night, as they undressed for bed, and this time she answered. “Forget it,” she said; and the next day she brought the matter up herself, and joked about Halloween costumes and premenopausal insanity. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” he said. “The more I think about it the more I’d like to go back there myself and ask her just what she was doing there in the attic, and why the old clothes and the bare feet. . . . You know, it really is intriguing”; and she said, “Don’t patronize me, Kenneth.”

Then her mother, who lived alone a thousand miles away, fell and broke her hip; and though her sister lived nearby and could have taken care of her, Anita flew out to spend six weeks in her mother’s house, nursing, reminiscing, mending fences. “She won’t live forever,” she told Kenneth as she packed. “I haven’t been a very attentive daughter,” she said, not having to add, “since I married you.”

In her infrequent visits, accompanied by Kenneth, Anita had always suffered pity for her mother, because she saw, with Kenneth’s eyes, an intelligent woman who could have had a fine mind given proper guidance and discipline; a sucker for every hare-brained idea that mystics and charlatans could dream up. In the context of daughterly love and respect this had been hard: it had been hard to see her mother exposed to the thin, wintry air of Kenneth’s appraisal. Now, on this visit, she rediscovered her mother’s strengths, her effortless humility, her naturally good sense.

Her mother, an old woman now, had cast aside the spirit world for the spiritual. “Card tricks,” she scoffed, “tricks with mirrors, scraps for the lost and the easily led. I was one of them, Anita, and your sister still is.” She hefted the old Bible she now kept constantly with her. “You were the brightest one of the bunch of us. You knew dross from gold.” She never proselytized. Anita appreciated her shrewdness in this, the fine discretion with which, in all her enthusiastic talk of the Christian experience, she never once referred to her son-in-law, a man whose sole accommodation to her had been his love for her daughter; a man who, in the hardest sense, had taken her daughter away. She would say only: Faith is the other way of knowing. When Anita finally left for home she had faith, if not yet in God, then in the “other way of knowing.”

There was something different about the Lingards. People sensed it without realizing: a nagging little something that made their friends feel at once gratified and bereft. Occasionally, when her husband was holding forth on some abstract matter, Anita would laugh and roll her eyes skyward in mild ridicule, or fondly pat his knee and call him “stuffy.” Sometimes when Anita told one of her rambling, ill-assembled stories, or talked about God, which she now often did, in a hypothetical way, Kenneth would sigh and smile at her from a distance, with tolerant affection. These were terribly ordinary events, and people easily forgot—for they had never been a flashy couple—that the Lingards had once really had an extraordinary marriage. The more poorly matched pairs still envied and resented them, and yearned to be as close as the Lingards were now.

Even the Goldbergs did not understand why these occasional dissonant moments seemed so shocking. “I don’t know how Anita stands it,” Marilyn said on one tipsy, rainy drive home, when all that Kenneth had done was fall asleep while Anita was talking, and Saul was quick to point out that his friend had been working overtime and besides, “He’d heard that story at least once before, because I have, too,” and Marilyn said, “So! That gives him the right to be rude?” and Saul said, “It’s not rude to bore your husband?” And in this cross, distracted way they began to grieve for what their friends had lost.

They had New Year’s Eve at their house, with just the Goldbergs and two other couples. In midevening Anita consented to perform, so there was an unusual slapdash concert, Saul faking his way through the piano accompaniment to a couple of Mozart sonatas while Anita’s violin sang melodies so lucid and so congruous that they were immediately familiar. Even Kenneth, who had a poor ear, felt he must have always known this music, these sunny, disarming melodies. He guessed that she was playing well. He admired the incline of her head, her thoughtful expression, rapt yet untheatrical. He had never admired her before. It was an awful feeling. When she finished he clapped the loudest of all. I know that woman, he told himself, like talking to a friend—Hey! I know that woman!—but he didn’t, and he never had. He supposed that most people endured just this degree of solitude all their lives with good grace, even indifference. He would have given all he had to recover his durable old illusion; to spare himself the sight of his admirable wife.

Midnight came and went, with a particularly stupid ceremony. (“Good riddance,” said Saul Goldberg. “To bad rubbish,” cheered his wife.) Everyone but Kenneth got a little drunk Anita knelt in front of the fire, swaying very slightly in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Three or four times she caught his eye and winked and said; “I feel terrific.” He supposed this was true. Lately there had been an odd, raffish air about her, as though she found adventure in the everyday solitary life. With her hair disarrayed, and firelit, and her sturdy plump body, she was an attractive woman still. She was, he had recently come to see, the image of her mother. Once recently she had said to him, “You can quit worrying. I’m not going to find Christ.” She had smiled then, her new secret smile. “I’d never do that to you,” she had said, raking him with the old woman’s shrewd, patient eyes.

She held the floor now telling a story that the rest evidently found greatly amusing. People liked his wife. She was a likable woman. “Honestly,” she was saying, “it turned into a real knockdown, drag-out. He said, ‘Plants can’t think,’ and I said, ‘Well, excuse me.’ But the funny thing was, it really got under my skin for some reason, so that I didn’t let it go. And then—and then—he goes ‘Isaac Newton was a saint! Einstein was the savior of humanity!’ ” She deepened her voice and flung her arms about in a silly way, imitating him.

Everyone was laughing and glancing his way. Saul, after laughing the loudest, protested that his friend would never have said either thing.

She said, “Whatever. This is just the gist of it, you understand. The point is that we ended up crying and yelling at each other, and I’ll never forget—” she pointed to him, she said, “Sorry, honey,” and there was nothing in her eyes but simple mischief—“I’ll never forget as long as I live this deadly serious look on his face, and he says, just like this, he says: ‘I love you, honey, but . . . I Would Not Burn the Abyssinian Library for You.’ ” All their friends screamed and rocked with laughter.

“Alexandrian,” he said, but she couldn’t hear him. “Alexandrian,” he said again.

“Whatever,” she said, then did a double take, goggling at him for the benefit of her public, whom she now addressed with an awed smile at him. She said, “You’re wonderful. Isn’t he wonderful?” She held out her arms to him; she knelt, in firelight, in front of the world, exacting his embrace. “I love you,” she said.
Because he believed her, and because some things simply were not done, he joined her on stage, held her with sudden urgency, so they were both surprised, and she, startled into joy, momentarily forgot where she was, and he pressed her face gently to his chest, to hide and shield her, from what he could not say.
Exactly then for the first time there appeared to Kenneth a woman he had never met and yet already knew, a woman as intimate as his own history. She materialized nowhere, for she had no body, although he somehow knew she would be lean and fair, and probably, though not necessarily, young. She was an invisible bundle of his own ideas; she was Athena, the daughter of his own mind. Because he needed her, she had occurred to him, and she could never, ever unoccur. She could only gather substance. He was sorry, and he put her roughly out of mind, while he still could, and he shut out the witnesses all around, and gently rocked his loving, admirable, good wife, while all the time the next one, his true companion, set out from the alien provinces, like a constant, surefooted messenger, coming straight for him.

Excerpted from Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
Copyright @ 1987 by Jincy Willett
Published in June 2008 by St.Martin's Press under license from Pan Books Limited
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

JINCY WILLETT is a writer and editor based in San Diego. She is the author of Winner of the National Book Award and The Writing Class.

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