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All Soulsby Christine Schutt
The Girl No One Knows
Mr. Dell, in his daughters room, stuck his face into the horn of a stargazer lily, one of a . . . one of a . . . must have been a dozen, and he breathed in and said wasnt that something. And wasnt it: the pileup of cards, a stuffed bear, a bouquet of balloons, a banner, a bed jacket, books on tape.
We love you, Astra! The chorus to his daughter was always the same, and he, too, said the same, but he did not look at her famished face, did not meet her eye, did not take her hand; he wheezed out only so much cheer. That party at the Mortons” was how he started. Mr. Dell stood between his daughters bed and the window and described what he could of the Mortons party. Ive been to Sukis before, Dad.” Okay, he had forgotten, so other things, then. Not far into the kickoff fund-raiser, the host had stood on a piano bench to say he was not sorry to be so poorly acquainted with the parents gathered, but he expected to know a lot about everyone by the end of the school year when the money for the senior gift was raised. Then Mr. Morton expected he would never see any of us again.”
That sounds like Sukis dad.”
Sukis mother is funny.”
The room Sukis father had spoken in was a very big, cream-colored box of a room, a cake box, a hatbox, something large and expensive. Mr. Dell described the party to his daughter in the way Grace would have described it: how things looked and sounded, the gurgle of civility among designing adults. He described what it felt like to be known as the parent of such a child, his own, his only, his best, bright addition.
Dear, dear Astra, how are you feeling?” he asked now.
Daddy,” Astra said, and she smiled when she told him how corny he was.
He told his daughter who had come to the Mortons. Mrs. Forestal was there, so Mr. Forestal was not. Mr. and Mrs. Van de Ven, Mrs. Abiola, the Cohens, and Mr. Fratini were there. I talked a lot to Alexs mother—is that woman crazy? The Johnsons were not in attendance. The headmistress, Miss Brigham, was there for a short speech, and she asked after you—everyone there asked after you, darling. Everyone sends love.” Then he remembered that the Johnsons were in Europe meeting somebody royal.
Astra said, The Johnsons have expensive fights that end with new jewels.”
The Mortons apartment was all bloody mahogany and damask. Crystal chandeliers, those plinking rainbows, were hanging everywhere. Double sconces, elaborate molding, herringbone floors. The caterers were using monogrammed family silver. The word expansive came to mind, or a three-tiered cake on a crystal stand, a monument in buttercream frosting, swags of sugar violets, silver dots. That was the equivalent dessert to the Mortons apartment as far as Mr. Dell was concerned. He looked at Astra again and saw how tired she was; her eyelids looked swollen as if she had been crying, and perhaps she had cried. He hadnt been here for all the tests; he was at work.
I wish I could be hungry,” Astra said. She shut her eyes.
Good night, ladies, good night, ta, ta, or however it went. Mr. Dell thought literature should be a consolation, but what he most often remembered did not comfort him. He did not have his wifes gift, Astras inheritance from Grace for hope and serenity. Sick as his little girl was, she yet lay hopeful of recovery—fearful, too, at times, at times overwhelmed, given to deep, jagged sobs, and yet . . . she was sick and in pain on a sad floor in the hospital, and yet she seemed to feel his terror, his sorrow, and she consoled him by being mostly mild, sleepy, quiet. Most of the time when he visited, she slept and slept. She grew smaller.
Again he asked and again, day after day, How do you feel?”
Better. Not well. Sick. Hurting. Hurting a lot. Here is where it hurts the most. Look at what they did.
Why was it hard to look when he had already looked into disaster, into the broken face of his beautiful wife in a bag on a gurney? Yes, he remembered saying to the figures standing behind him—a row of janitors, a man with a mop at attention was that who? Policemen? Morticians? Yes. My wife. This is Grace Walker Dell, yes. My wife.
What business had Grace there on that street at that hour? Why had she not been home, but she was saving money looking for a new lamp on Bowery. He wanted her here with him at this other, terrible bedside. He should not have to be alone.
Theta Kovack called First Wok and ordered garlic chicken, noodles, soup. Two Cokes. Marlene, at her ear, said, General Tsaos! Get General Tsaos!” But Theta said, Arent you on a diet?” and she scuffed off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse. The twenty she extracted from her purse felt damp. For when the guy comes,” she said, holding out the money. She let her skirt slip down her hips as she walked to her room and shimmied out of work. Of course, she didnt want to see herself, but she saw herself, or parts of herself, her belly rucked by the band of her slip, an angry redness she rubbed at. Glad she had not gone to the Mortons party arrived wrongly dressed. Now the damp smell was surely hers, and nothing of Dr. Bickmans office—the minty wintergreen of mouthwash, the cleansing alcohol, the doilies on the trays of tools—remained. A subway with a few stops and a three-block walk was all it had taken to grease Thetas face.
Miss Wilkes, undressing at home, sniffed the bitter smell at the underarms of her turtleneck and said, My god!” She sniffed again. When did her sweat turn so peculiarly acrid? The face she saw in the mirror, her own, seemed still a girls, not a teachers, but the stink of her was something awful, old. True, the girls themselves were not always so fresh. Edie Cohen, in her usual rush, liked to announce she hadnt showered. The girls said, Keep your arms down. Stay away!” But the girls got up close to each other and examined each other and were amused or mockingly repelled by what they sometimes found. Want an Altoid?” Good girls mostly, polite, they offered her Skittles and mints, whatever they had secreted—and she allowed. Miss Wilkes said, Yeah, I would like,” and she took her favorite colors. They got up close for her to pick and seemed startled at what they saw. What did they see? But they were never so familiar as to fix her. They would let her go through a class smudged rather than say, Miss Wilkes, youve got ink on your chin.” Only Lisa Van de Ven had stopped her, had said, Wait.” Lisa it was who had tucked in the label of her shirt, who had said, Miss Wilkes,” holding out a box of Kleenex. Lisa Van de Ven, Lisa. Miss Wilkes was on the bed with the weight of her hand between her legs.
In a corner apartment with a southwestern view of Park Avenues islands bedded with begonias, glossy begonias, Suki Mortons mother held the phone in one hand and a drink in the other and heard her daughters screed against that fat Dr. Meltzer and his chem class labs. He keeps us late. He piles on the homework. Were seniors, for gods sake. Were under a lot of stress as it is. I hate Dr. Meltzer.”
Mrs. Morton could not come up with an expression. Dr. Meltzer was a name attached to a fat man who smelled like the movies. Buttery and smoky at the same time. Butter-yellow teeth. Short-sleeved shirt, pocket protector, high waist, and waddle. Surely encountered in the movies but a teacher to be found in a public school, never one like Siddons. Mrs. Morton hung up the phone and said, I never liked science.”
Ten blocks south, Sukis best friend, Alex, was watching cheese melt over chips. She was talking to herself, rehearsing a college interview, saying that what she loved about this college was there were more boys than girls, better parties, good drugs. Alex was saying her ambition was to be the most famous party girl the school had ever known, and she knew what she was doing, and she could meet this goal.
Car Forestal twisted utensils through food she had mashed to look like war salvage, drought gruel, rancid scraps from boarding school. She was at the orphanage and eating with her baby pusher,” the tiny silver spade from her godmother. Car pushed and smoothed and rearranged the food; she made patterns.
Copyright © 2008 by Christine Schutt
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