Listen to me and I will speak: but first swear, by word
and hand, that you will keep me safe with all your heart.
—Homer, The Iliad
n. a motor car.
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: abbreviation of AUTOMOBILE.
one’s own: autobiography
by one’s self: automatic
by itself: automaton
ORIGIN from Greek: autos ‘self.’
They were on the road later than they intended. They’d wanted to make Indianapolis by noon, but they overslept. Mark offered to walk the dog while Maggie packed up the car. He’d wanted her to pack up the car the night before, but Maggie said it was nuts to leave a car full of luggage on a side street in Chicago.
“Every time,” she’d said. “We go through this every time.”
“You worry too much,” he said.
“Maybe you don’t worry enough.”
It was dark by the time they’d had this argument and late, which meant Maggie had already won.
And so, in the morning, it was Mark — as promised — who took the dog out so that Maggie could arrange the car. But downstairs, in the private entrance to their apartment — private entrance! It had taken forever, but three years ago they’d finally found the perfect apartment with its own perfectly private entrance, which they didn’t have to share with a single other person, a fact that, to this day, continued to bring Maggie sharp, if fleeting, pleasure — was the week’s recycling, just sitting there at the bottom of the stairs. Mark swore he’d taken it out.
Clearly, he hadn’t.
She put down the luggage and was about to pick up the bin to do the job herself when she saw it: a pink-gold length of foil peeking up from beneath a newspaper. She pushed the paper aside.
Her heart sank — exactly what she thought: the foil was attached to an empty bottle of champagne. Her bottle of champagne. Hers and Mark’s, from their last anniversary. She’d been saving it. For what, she didn’t know. But she’d liked looking at it every now and then where she’d stashed it above the refrigerator next to the cookbooks. True, it had been a while since she’d taken any real note of the thing. Even so. It made her sad to think he’d thrown it out without ceremony, which was an overly sentimental concern — did an empty bottle truly merit ceremony? — but what was she going to do? Suddenly become a different person?
According to the Enneagram, which she’d taken on the recommendation of her therapist — former therapist, Maggie had stopped seeing her three weeks ago — everyone emerged from childhood with a basic personality type. Maggie’s was Loyalist. Think: committed, hard-working, reliable. Also according to the Enneagram (she’d done some recent reading on her own), people didn’t change from their basic type. Instead, throughout their lives, they vacillate between nine different levels within their type, the healthiest being a One.
Lately, Maggie was about an Eight. Think: paranoia, hysteria, irrational behavior. Her goal, by the end of the summer, was to be back at her usual Three or Four. There wasn’t an overnight solution.
She picked up the bottle. Even empty, its weight was significant. Mark had splurged because they could. Because life was good and on what else were they going to spend their money? “There are no luggage racks on hearses,” they sometimes said to one another. “Spend it if you’ve got it.” Mostly they were joking — they never spent beyond their means. But it was only just the two of them. They had no children’s educations to consider, and so why not enjoy an extravagance every once in a while?
She tore off a sliver of the pink foil — the tiniest of keepsakes! — then slipped it into her back pocket. Perhaps Mark was testing her, measuring her steadiness by relieving her of an ultimately trivial trinket. Yet he’d been so patient these last nine months, so generous with his affection — kissing her shoulder before clearing the table, squeezing her hand before falling asleep. Sure, they’d quarreled about the luggage and maybe the last three weeks had been more strained than usual, but quarrels, as Maggie and her former therapist had discussed, were the latticework of relationships. They were the branches — interlacing the pattern, strengthening the structure — that sheltered them and kept them together.
She put the bottle back in the bin, right at the very top. She didn’t need to say a thing about it. She would pass his test with flying colors.
Mark and Gerome were crossing the street when she emerged from the front door.
“What are you doing?” said Mark.
“The recycling,” she said. She held up the bin. “You didn’t take it out.”
She watched his eyes; they didn’t acknowledge the bottle.
“Gerome didn’t do anything,” Mark said.
Maggie looked down at Gerome, who was looking up at her and wagging his tail. He sneezed.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“He didn’t go.”
“He always goes.”
Gerome was still wagging his tail.
“You’re driving him crazy with the recycling.” Mark held out his hands to take it.
“You don’t do it right,” she said.
“If I chuck it all at once or put it in piece by piece doesn’t matter. It all goes to the same place, whether it’s broken or not.”
Maggie shrugged. He was right. She knew he was right. She wasn’t an idiot, but there was something so gloomy about Mark carelessly hurling it all away. Just as there was something equally gloomy about watching the homeless man who walked their alley take off his gloves one finger at a time before searching the recycling for refundable bottles. It was silly to think their bottles and cans contributed anything significant to the man’s well-being, but she couldn’t help it. The thought of him fingering broken bits of glass made her heart ache. Of course, she hadn’t actually seen anyone going through the trash since autumn, as she hadn’t taken out the recycling since her mugging, and yet here she was still thinking about it, and here it was filling her afresh with sadness, a condition both new and not new.
For nine months, the sadness had been a constant — a heavy, dull fog lingering greedily about the nape of her neck. She was aware of it in the morning when she woke, in the afternoon when she worked, in the evening when she scoured the Internet, seeking out the most miserable stories of human woe.
When Mark came home from teaching, he’d sometimes find her in front of the computer. He would ask, “What are you doing?” And she’d say, “Reading the Internet. Reading about this girl who just died. Reading about this boy who was killed. Reading about this teenager who kidnapped a jogger and took her body apart limb by limb.” He had been so devoted the first few months after the incident in the alley, when the sadness was pushing down around her. He would close the computer, take her hand, lead her to the living room, and read aloud to her. He had a magnificent reading voice. Sometimes he chose a bit of poetry. Sometimes history or philosophy. They both liked Augustine and stories of war. Yeats was also a favorite. Mark would occasionally ask about her therapy. The sadness had begun to lift. The appointments had been helping. She stopped seeking out those awful news articles and started reading about other Loyalists online, about their own struggles with fear and personal insecurity. Maggie had felt herself returning. She’d felt the fog lightening, her levels stabilizing. Things with Mark were as good as ever.
But then, just three weeks ago — out of nowhere and with no warning whatsoever — the police appeared. They showed up at the front door of the apartment with pictures of a body, a coed who lived just down the street. They presented them to Maggie. Why had they let her see them? She hadn’t understood then and still didn’t now. They also presented photos of a man, the one responsible for the coed. Was it the same man? they wanted to know. Was it the man who’d struck Maggie with the butt of a gun and left her for dead not two blocks from where she lived?