Excerpt

“Have You Ever Tried”

Anna Marschalk-Burns

June 20, 2017 
The following appears in Issue 20 of Slice Magazine, Corporeal. Anna Marschalk-Burns is from the Twin Cities and currently lives in New York, where she is an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College; her fiction has previously appeared in the Atlas Review. The story was recommended by Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas and Safe as Houses.

When Anna Marschalk-Burns was my student at The Sackett Street Workshops, her stories were marked by faultless dialogue and an elegant, unteachable insight. A broad understanding of human behavior infuses Anna’s details, the kind of phrases you underline. In “Have You Ever Tried,” Arjeane, a single mother of a daughter with autism, visits a bar with branches that “rested like elbows,” where she meets a new flame. Emboldened, she imagines a life that “spools out like ticker tape” where laughter will be a “quick-blooming flower.” The measure of tenderness in these images will be the exact weight of Arjeane’s anguish, more painful for the softness with which it is dealt. Autism can destroy the connective tissue of relationships, even though connection is what the affected desperately need. In addition to the lines, I admire that this story sheds light on the endless and frustrating reach of disability, a room contemporary literature too often leaves dark. I am a devoted fan of the muscular delicacy of Anna’s important work, and I’m delighted to help it find a home in Slice.

—Marie-Helene Bertino

 

 

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For once, Lily is still.

Arjeane knows it won’t last, but she is buoyed by a shameful hope that Lily won’t act up, won’t embarrass her. She pleaded with her and placated her in the hours waiting for the man to show up. A collection of her pleas now lies smashed or discarded on the play table in the dim, back room of their house—book with sensory felt, ball of Play-Doh, forbidden chocolates that could lodge themselves in Lily’s throat and stick while she can’t find words to tell Arjeane what is killing her.

She has tested all the possible combinations of light, settling on a few soft lamps, nothing too overt. A smear of lipstick wiped away and reapplied. Lily looks bewildered from her spot on the couch, disinterested in the frantic preparations. All of it seems a game.

The awful thing Arjeane’s mother, Sandra, said once: at least she’s beautiful. She stepped back from her as if slapped, and told her mother to get out, even though she’d had the same thought about her daughter herself, many times over. Beauty a talisman against the part of Lily’s brain that kept her from learning to speak, the part that no one could explain or fix.

Everything is arranged and quiet, a picture of ease.

*

Arjeane met the man when she and her sister Barb had gone out to the bar in the trees. It had some other name, but the signage had been covered up by the trees sneaking up and around the vinyl siding, wrangling themselves in through the windows so that branches rested like elbows on the tables, swallowed the place in a mossy dark scent.

They’d left Lily with their mother. Sandra took Lily’s picture at endless angles, uploaded them to an online album called “Angel of My Heart,” but turned fierce on a hairpin when Lily tantrummed. Lily came home once with a rosy bruise around her wrist, which Sandra claimed happened when Lily had lunged for a vase. What kind of mother was she to let it slide? She had a stack of taunting, unpaid bills on the mantle, a pathetic credit score, boots with holes she’d duct-taped to keep the rain out. Sandra was free day care; nothing she could refuse.

Barb and Arjeane drank vodka cranberries, looked around the bar.

“That guy’s staring,” Barb said. “You should smile at him.”

“For what?” Arjeane said.

“Encouragement. They need it,” Barb said. “I read that somewhere.”

The man had a plain face—wide, with a thick jaw. Ears jutting out, thin lips. The eyes didn’t belong. Too solemn for the surroundings. Still, there was something there she liked. So she smiled, for encouragement. Waved her hand at him slow like a pageant queen. What did she care? She didn’t.

Barb swatted her to stop.

“He looks confused,” Barb said. The man’s eyes had darted about to see who Arjeane could be waving at.

“Probably thinks I’m slow or something,” Arjeane said.

“Nope, he’s heading over,” Barb said. She scooped up her keys, planted a kiss on Arjeane’s cheek. “I’m gonna get. I’ll watch Lily tonight.”

Arjeane told her she’d text with an update.

“Better,” Barb said.

*

He had known certain things without asking. It had been a long time, so explaining seemed inevitable, the raw part of a deal like this. But he didn’t ask much about her job, or whether she had kids. Of course he didn’t. He asked about her childhood and her future, everything but the present. She told him about her plan to quit her job and start a dog-walking business along the boardwalk. He told her that sounded like a really good plan. She watched the way his face moved under the light with each thought, the way his hands fretted over the beer label, peeling it off in thin, silver strips. The way he seemed thankful to be asked anything in return. He drove her back to his place, and she sat on his front stoop waiting for him to bring her a beer, the cool rush of summer air reaching under her skirt like a welcome hand.

*

Arjeane answered customer service calls about an online banking system and had an 80% response rate to the post-call survey, in part, she believed, because she was so winning over the phone, so solicitous of the affection of strangers that they felt compelled to sing her praises.

Her job had been generous. Had given her as many days off as needed. They even let her bring Lily in a few times when the school called and asked her to pick Lily up. But those days often turned disastrous, and eventually someone from HR told her she’d have to come up with another plan.

The bank recruited her to do trainings on answering calls. She wasn’t allowed to lead the training—we need someone with public speaking experience, they said. But she was called in to model saying Is there anything else I can help you with today? in a way that made customers believe she meant it. “It’s the authenticity,” HR told her. “You don’t sound like a robot.” Fifty bucks to waltz in on a Saturday, pleasantly buzzed on the Percocet she took for her bum knee, say a few lines, and then gaze out serenely from her chair for the next hour, a model employee. She couldn’t believe her luck. Participants in the training were played three recordings and asked to rate which person seemed to truly want to help them. They selected Arjeane 93% of the time.

It’s like you’re incapable of insincerity, her boss told her.

This wasn’t true. She was insincere constantly, pathologically, with her co-workers, her customers, the few friends she still had. She worried that she would lose the ability to fake it, about losing her voice entirely, twinning herself to Lily. Two mute women growing old in that tiny house, eating cake off government checks while the leaves began to creep up and cocoon them darkly inside.

*

The man’s name was Levi. He dropped her off at her door the next morning, and she was relieved to find it looked the same. No evidence of any chaos in her absence. Barb’s car parked outside. Same chipped canary door, unruly raspberry bush, same fence left unfixed by her ex-husband, Wayne. Two posts left cracked in half, a splay of wood protruding out onto the sidewalk. A constant reminder of both his uselessness and usefulness. Shit he could have fixed, but did not. At some point in the months after he left, two years ago now, she had begun to let the exterior reflect the chaos inside. Like the week she’d stopped bathing—her desperation made visible, impossible for people to politely ignore. A shopkeeper had asked her to leave the store, told her to take the plastic sand rake she was clutching, a toy for Lily.

“On the house,” the guy had said, “if you leave and come back at another time.”

“No problem Jeremy,” she’d said to him, scary-cheerful. “I’m out.” She had pointed at his nametag like a threat, and he laughed, which enraged her even further, the fact that she was unable to terrorize with her sadness.

She wasn’t like that anymore, of course. Hadn’t been that angry in a while. But she also wasn’t good at taking care of the tasks that piled up around her every day. Bluntly simple but still impossible seeming. Raking, mail, dusting, combing Lily’s hair, cleaning out Lily’s fingernails that seemed perpetually filled with the gray sludge of dead skin cells she’d scraped off her legs in a frenzy of scratching. Looking in the mirror at the inward creep of her own eyebrows sent her into a tailspin.

“This you?” Levi said, pulling up to the curb as if to park, and she wondered what he could possibly want or expect. They’d already done the lazing-about thing, the coffee thing, the wrestling on the bed morning thing, where each tried to gauge if the other was at all interested in a repeat. Neither had been.

“Thanks for everything,” she said. “That was fun.”

“Fun, huh?” He looked at her like she’d dismissed him, like fun was code for dull or irrelevant, when she hadn’t meant it as either. Necessary, she might have called it. Fucking life affirming. But those weren’t things to say.

“Fun,” she said. “Something we could do again, if you wanted.”

“Okay then,” he said. His voice like a nudge for her to get out. “Take care of yourself, Arjeane.”

But her seatbelt was still buckled, and she didn’t move. She turned and looked at her tiny house and then back at him. She was scared he would say nothing and let her be swallowed up by the house. So she hooked her finger against her thumb and flicked it against his arm, too hard, she realized when he flinched, looking at her like she was some wild, unknowable creature. She scared him a little; this was good.

“Sorry,” she said. “Trying to get a reaction out of you.”

“You’re a strange lady,” he said. Laughed and rustled her hair with his hand.

*

She had already lost many people. Losing people was part of the deal. Everyone warned her about that. People would offer you some advice they’d read on the internet, a final parting gift, and then flee when they realized none of it could possibly change. You carried the loss of hope in your shoulders, an ill-fitting suit drawn tight across the chest. Wayne couldn’t stand to talk about it, the fixed nature of it, the unlikelihood of words ever coming from Lily’s lips.

“Don’t look at me like that,” he said, during one of their last conversations. “Every time you look at me, it’s like a fucking accusation. Like I’m not sufficiently devastated.”

Because you’re not, she thought. Because your despair is inadequate.

He wanted Lily gone. He couldn’t take the tantrums, the rituals. He wanted a trial run at an outpatient facility. She couldn’t stand it. She said no, fuck no, over my dead body. He put his face in his hands, and she put her arms around him. Even when she hated him, she couldn’t deny his smell. Cedar smoke, garlic, pine. The smell that reached inside and took root, the smell that screamed home.

“I never thought I’d be the kind of dick to give my wife an ultimatum,” he said.

She pressed her lips to his face, tried for tenderness. “Then don’t be,” she said.

He glared. Ten years together by the end. His glare no longer held any power.

She tried again. “Or do. Do whatever you want, man.” She shook her head, waved her hands like she was brushing off dirt.

“Man?” he said. “Man?”

*

Levi’s room had old cups of coffee left to stain his nightstand. Nubby gray sheets. Blinds drawn closed round slivers of sunlight. A framed photograph of a woodland scene.

“Where’s that from?” she asked.

“Oh,” he said. “Don’t know actually. I just liked it.”

She got up from the bed wrapped in his sheet while he showered, and she stared at the photo. A mild sense of pity overtook her, looking at the naked birch trees of a place he’d never been. Of course, she had that photograph of the crumbling abbey in her bedroom. She’d bought it during the one semester she’d spent in college, after a professor read aloud to them some poem about an abbey. One line she could still remember about little nameless unremembered acts. But that photo didn’t suggest falsified travel. It had some artistry to it. Not this stock photo he’d left in the frame like it was his story to tell, like it was representative of his life. There was a carelessness to it that repulsed her. He’d told her on their first date that he’d never been to Europe, or out of the country at all— cheerful, like there was nothing to be ashamed of. She hadn’t been either, but she knew enough to know not to admit it unless forced. He came back from the shower and kissed her wet against the neck. She bristled.

“I’ve never been,” he said, “but we could go sometime if you want.”

She imagined Lily eating soil from the ground, ingesting deer shit or worse, running too fast away from them, balling up the sandwich he packed for her and throwing it in the river.

“Sure,” she said. “Sometime.” He kissed her neck again, more insistent.

Maybe he would have to watch her restrain Lily, hold her arms behind her back to keep her from scratching at her own face, and Lily’s face would contort into a soundless agony, like Arjeane was murdering her in some fresh, inventive way.

Shouldn’t you just—she knew how his voice would start to interject. How he would feel beholden to some ideal from his own childhood about parents never hurting kids, and how she would want to snarl at him, tell him to fuck off, and then they would be walking through the birch trees in silence, Lil over her shoulder kicking. The sound of her howling would fill the silence of the car. She knew that once he dropped them off, he wouldn’t call again. The days would pass in anxious waiting and wondering. She wouldn’t be able to blame him.

But part of her would want to find him, injure him. Not for insulting her parenting—that certainly wasn’t beyond reproach—but for doubting her love.

His hands were snaking through the folds of the sheets she’d draped round herself like a poncho to find her skin. She let him find it. She arched her back into his chest. He was solid and easy. Stupid maybe, she couldn’t be sure yet.

“When do I get to come to your place?” he said.

*

The reason Barb thought this time might turn out better is gratitude. She is leading Arjeane in the practice of it. Barb has a warm, sun-creased face, thin arms, a fondness for pop psychology. She’d lived through a major depression and was now evangelical about thanking the stars, the stupid ants, the ground. She would pause when shopkeepers handed her change and say “thank you” with a meaningful tilt of her head. It was ridiculous. She tells Arjeane that gratitude, or lack of it, shaped what the future might be willing to offer us.

“And when things go wrong?”

“Inevitable,” Barb says. “You don’t have to be grateful for what’s shit. Be grateful you can handle it.”

She watches Barb write out ideas on thin strips of translucent paper that she will store in a cereal box and re-read on days when darkness creeps in. The solemnity of her sister’s ritual embarrasses her, the naive hopefulness.

“Can I read them?” Arjeane asks.

Barb nods with a beatific smile. “They’re silly,” she says. Arjeane learns that her sister is grateful that her new diet has alleviated her Crohn’s disease and grateful for the new man she’s been seeing. For her family, for Arjeane, for Lily. She reads these things—so irksome and optimistic. Arjeane wants to tease her. She wants to kiss her.

She thinks about the stick Lily keeps in her pocket. The stick of birch from the one time they attempted a trip into nature. The stick she and Barb joked was material from her first home. Her home before birth, the place she can’t describe but they imagine she came from. It was a cruel game of theirs, this story, but Barb understood it. The desire to give it all some explanation, some magical cause. The world they imagined was somewhere soft and dark, a nest. A place where her flailing held meaning. In this world, the stick follows her into the tub. Sidles up next to her cereal bowl. Sometimes it roots its filthy way into her mouth, cutting the soft tissue of her gums. The time Arjeane found Lily with blood pooled on her lips, one end of the stick gnawed and wet.

She knows she should take it from her, can’t bear to do it.

“How many things do I need to be grateful for?” Arjeane says.

“It’s not like filling a quota, Jeanie. However many you want,” Barb says. “Start with three.”

*

Levi calls to tell her he is running late, and she panics and changes course. She had positioned Lily on the couch, Play-Doh in hand, wrangled into the one dress that was still nice. Propped up like a creepy doll. She’d stood in the entryway and relished the image for a moment. The soft tendrils of her hair floated up in the coppery light, the smooth lavender cotton of her dress laid out against the ugly chintz couch. But after Levi’s call, suddenly the whole thing looks false, like she is trying at something she’s not. She decides to put Lily in the bath, the one spot where calm is guaranteed. Her bathing suit with the palm fronds and the grinning cheetahs.

He arrives with a bottle of wine. She tells him where they will be heading, and he laughs.

“Been a while since my last bath time.”

“Right this way, sir,” she says.

She presses a beer into his palm. He places the bottle on the sink, and she quietly moves it to the high shelves above the toilet. Lily sits in the bath, mouth agape. Some crack in Lily’s affect, some filament of curiosity about this hairy man with his sleeves rolled up, pushing water toward her like waves. He takes off his watch, and his arms are submerged to his elbows. Arjeane thinks to stop him, that the whole thing is decidedly strange, too much so by any standards.

“Batten down the hatches, kiddo,” he says. “It’s going to be a bumpy one.” He grabs the plastic floaties in the tub and starts sputtering them like wayward ships toward Lily’s bruised knees. Her voice cracks in delight. She splashes back, soaking the front of his shirt.

Arjeane gets out the blow-dryer and moves it in slow circles over his chest. “Having fun yet?” she says.

After the bath, she wrestles Lily into her pj’s, and she knows what is coming next. Part of her hopes the jolt to their routine might render it unnecessary. But Lily has out the DVD and runs into the living room to show it to him. Arjeane sees some softening of his face as Lily holds it out like an offering. “What do we have here?” he says. He looks like he would willingly crack open to take in whatever crazy they flail at him. This was the crazy she knew she’d have to admit: I watch the same movie every day with my daughter. It’s about a woman trapped in a unicorn’s body. I know every single word.

This one seemed worse somehow than all the others.

“Get out now while you can,” she whispers to him.

“Please,” he says. “I’ve gotta see this.”

A different life spools out like ticker tape—dinner parties, board game nights on the carpet around their coffee table crowded with sticky wineglasses. Someone who could restrain Lily when she got bigger, when the darkness became too much for Arjeane to handle. The mess of their life rendered in light: the two of them raising eyebrows over the weird objects they would find scattered and hidden in her jewelry boxes, over Lily’s strict dietary preferences. Shoes off, elbows up, blankets round their shoulders. Laughter like a quick-blooming flower.

Arjeane puts herself on the couch between the two of them as a buffer and hands Levi a third beer in a koozie shaped like a dolphin. The movie starts, and Schmendrick the Magician bemoans the harpy’s captivity. She presses a thumb to Lily’s knee to still her rocking, but it is useless.

She’d told him beforehand, of course. What had she said? Lily’s severely autistic. She doesn’t really speak. She’s amazing and difficult and perfect. But the reality of it is something else. Her gaze shifts between the two of them, her whole body prickly, waiting for someone to disrupt the quiet, to disappoint her.

Lily starts rocking and pointing at nothing, and the apartment seems cast in light like souring milk, yellow on the edges, faintly clotted. Please don’t, she wants to beg, please not yet. How has she never noticed the dust before, coated thick as fur along the mantle, along the coffee table? She steals a look at him, expecting to find the urge to flee, but his expression is calm, unreadable. The scene of the harpy’s escape casts across his nose and ignites blue light on the wiry curls of his beard. Lily thumps her hand against the couch louder, more insistently. Arjeane takes his hand and squeezes. His smile crackles electric.

*

At work she is writing a list on a legal pad. She is on the phone with an angry customer, cooing into the receiver. She is usually a master of de-escalation, but it isn’t working. The man’s fury comes through the line like a cord wrapped round her neck.

She can walk, she writes down.

“I transferred the money four days ago,” the man says.

She says, “I hear you saying you believe you transferred it four days ago.”

“I know what I fucking said,” the man says.

You know what you fucking said, she wants to parrot back. Resists, wisely.

“Did you receive a confirmation email, sir?” she says, ignoring the fuck.

She loves me, she writes down. She believes this is true, if love can be as simple as need for food, want of warmth, the craving of routine. How Lily goes to her sometimes and holds her arms up. She looks down at the floor, won’t meet her gaze, but Arjeane knows she is to lift her up. Arjeane puts her hand softly under Lily’s chin to tilt it toward her face, and those brief seconds when Lily’s eyes settle on her own before darting away again. Those seconds fill her. Sustain her for weeks. We are safe, she writes down.

“I already said I did,” the man says. “Are you even listening to me?”

I hear that you suspect I may not actually be listening, may not understand a word you have said, she says, in her mind. The writing down has a strange effect—whatever peace Barb claimed it inspired was clearly an illusion. If anything, she is more agitated. She taps her fingers against her desk. Flicks at the edges of the wall calendar hanging in her cubicle.

“I’m here,” she says to the man. “I’m listening.”

*

A conference center in Biloxi, two years earlier. She’d told the bank that someone had died and driven herself down. A banquet hall crowded with mothers, a few misplaced-looking men, all squeezed into chalky pastel suits and sporting nametags, drinking thin coffee and waiting for the speakers to start. Niceties exchanged with a barely disguised lack of interest so they could all land on the questions that pressed down on the room.

Have you ever tried Lactobacillus?

Have you ever tried ABA?

What about hyperbaric chambers? Floortime? Horses?

“There’s a new study out about the microbiome—” some woman said to her, some mother, waiting for Arjeane to jump in, to play off her in the game of who knew the most, who had tried the hardest. Arjeane always lost.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the woman. “I need to catch my bus.” She walked out of the conference center onto the boardwalk along the gulf. She took her shoes off and walked on the sand. Sidestepped the glinting bits of glass. Looked out over the shimmering blue.

*

She makes spaghetti, and he takes his time with each bite. Savoring, or trying to figure out the right way to convey his pleasure. He tells her about horrible things he did in the past in a whisper as Lily sits on the couch, and she appreciates the implication that Lily might overhear and understand. Stealing, cheating, lying. A game with his friends where they’d try to see who could have sex with the ugliest girl. She is not as disgusted as she expects herself to be. He won, he tells her. But the girl wasn’t actually ugly, he concedes. He looks embarrassed, saying all this, but he keeps going, like he’s got to get it all out. See what she can accept, what awful truths she can laugh about. She feels like she can accept it all.

“What about you?” he says. “What have you done?”

She tells him about the bruise her mother left, the one she ignored. She tells him about Wayne, casting him in a broad, generous light. She makes herself culpable. What had Wayne said about her? Being with you made me lonely. The details of the divorce are blurred and reconfigured in her telling. She becomes the one willing to bend. He becomes the one who shut down, the quitter. No one is around to correct her. She tells him what she misses most about the days before Lily.

“A dark movie theater. By myself,” she says.

“I could watch her sometime,” he says, “if you wanted.”

She is moved by his offer, the hesitancy with which it’s delivered, like she might be doing him a favor by accepting. Like he wanted to be of use.

Then it’s time to put Lily to bed. She doesn’t want to go. She croaks, she hums, thrashes about. Her ribcage rattles with what she wants to say. Her breath quickens, and her nails go to her cheeks, scratching down the sides of her face, an exaggerated position of despair. Your despair is inadequate. Arjeane feels herself winding up, the air thrumming with the inevitable struggle.

“Let’s go, Lil.”

She’s all noise, tiny limbs flailing against the TV screen, pounding the walls.

“To bed. Now.”

Levi’s got some approximation of a brave face on, the face she recognizes as confusion about what happens next, how bad it might get. He puffs his cheeks out in sympathy, lays a hand on Arjeane’s back. He sidles up to Lily and crouches low. He puts his big, dumb hands on her arms and tries to still her movement.

“C’mon, lil’ lady. Time’s up for you,” he says. Lily swings out and smacks him in the face. He looks to Arjeane stunned, unsure how to respond, but then Lily’s at him, trying to scratch him, trying to land her mouth and bite, and he freezes like prey that’s been paralyzed. His jaw slack, like he’s decided to take whatever she delivers. He puts his hands up like he’s scared to touch her.

But then Arjeane’s got her hoisted up over her shoulder, being pummeled all the way to Lily’s bedroom.

She closes the door behind her and turns on the CD player. The song with the plunking keyboard, the mountains as love metaphors—the song Lily desperately loves and wants replayed every night. The music has an immediate effect. She knows it’ll still be hours before bed, but Lily’s breath is already settling, her fists unfurling. She waits till Lily is bopping her head and leaves. Finds Levi still frozen in the living room, eyes fixed on the carpet, and she goes to him.

She goes to him and presses herself to him. Her gratitude so easy-won, so flimsy.

*

A couple days become three and then four, and she doesn’t hear from him. He’d said the same thing again—I’ll call, like it was a given. Not that she expects constant contact, or, god forbid, a play-by-play of his day. He is busy, he’s said that, but she’s not sure with what, exactly. She knows that he gets off his shifts at seven most nights, and now she imagines his nighttime hours like an unfinished story taunting her. He gets home, drinks a beer, doesn’t call. He takes a shower, watches hockey, doesn’t call.

How about that drink now? she texts him.

Out of town? goes another, or avoiding me?

Really? You’re really doing this?

Ok, fine. I’m done. I’ll stop trying.

But a few days later she can’t help herself. She’s already broken the rules. She takes another swing at a satisfying last word.

Can’t believe you’d disappear. After she already met you.

I thought you were better than that.

It’s a cruel thing, she writes, to make someone like you and then refuse to love them back.

*

The break room is crowded with dahlias, fat bunches of carnations. Someone’s birthday. A flurry of balloons herded into one corner to make room for the people who’d been told about the cake. Someone asks about her weekend. Her phone in her pocket. A grenade. She thinks to throw it out the window. She looks around and wonders if anyone is talking about her. She has worn the same shirt three times this week. Ivory-ish and plain. Maybe no one noticed? She wonders whether if she moved closer to the women whispering in pairs, she might hear what she longs for. A leaned-in confidence. The nasty jolt of truth.

*

If Lily notices that the man hasn’t been back, it doesn’t register. Not for the first time, Arjeane envies her daughter’s impenetrability. Her complete lack of shits-given. She holds Lily’s soft face in her hands and tries to meet her eyes, tries to measure whether she feels resentment toward Lily. But Lily wrestles out of her grasp and heads for the table. She gets out her picture dictionary and taps the card for water, which Arjeane gets for her. The plainness of the texts, their bare desperation, humiliates her. It’s like you’re incapable of insincerity. She doesn’t tell anyone—not even Barb—about the messages. She thought she could have tried for something flip, but each time the words come out sounding raw, the hurt pulsing beneath each letter. The worst of it: knowing she ought to brush her hands of it, ought to refuse the affection of anyone unwilling to take on her life as is.

Each time she sends a new message, she deletes the last from the chain. She loses track of whether it’s been seven or thirty. It has been too many.

One more, she tells herself. One more last word.

Is this because she hit you?

She waits ten minutes.

You fucking pussy.

Finally, a response. She’s goaded him into it, and it comes like a swift stab.

I’m sorry. But please stop.

*

She is leading a training with a new group of hires. Eleven of them sitting around the conference table, watching her. They are practicing the closer, the last line spoken before customers are routed to the post-call survey. Is there anything else I can help you with today? De-emphasize the else, she tells them; it makes people feel guilty. She has already gone over how to fill dead air when you’re searching for their information (type louder, she says, people like to hear the sound of your fingers on the keyboard) and what to do if someone curses, and now she is asking each of them to practice saying the words aloud. She encourages them to smile as they speak. “I know,” she says. “It seems ridiculous. They can’t see you smiling, but they can feel it.” Each of them practices repeating it, over and over, settling themselves into their new voices. Arjeane scoots in close to each of them, pretends she is hearing it all from across some great distance. To see if they sound like they really mean it.

*

She will think that she sees him a few times, after. In the slivered moon of a profile. The boxy coat of someone crossing the street, the deferential slope of his shoulders. She will tell Barb everything. Lily will grow taller.

At the bar in the trees, a man walking from one corner to the exit will send a prickle up her spine. She will start to stand, but Barb will yank her down by the sleeve, tell her it isn’t him. That it’s just the mind trying to close the loop.

 

 

This story originally appears in Slice Magazine Issue 20: Corporeal.




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