“The Life of the Palm and the Breast”

A Short Story by Christine Schutt

March 6, 2023  By Christine Schutt

The mirror, the mirror untethers the room and sets it afloat above the park. The mirror makes her tipsy, and perhaps she is tipsy here, turning to look out at the winter sky and shy black skyline, out at a dainty city with the lights come softly on. Such pleasures! The views from a building secure as a banker in his snug, plush coat—there is so much to be pleased by.

There is the flawless father who pleases her and the washed windows that front the seeping dark and pearly dusk. Inside, the colors she has picked are deep and expensive. Reds, blues. The fire is lit and the damp balsam, twisted up with spruce and draped along the mantel, smells green. Speckled pears, nuts, oranges—even a grapefruit—color the garland and double in the mirror they partly frame. No wonder she is dizzy.

Little boys are running through the room in velvet shorts. She cannot tell which boys are hers; they are so look-alike, she hesitates to take one.

“You?” The small neck pulses in her grip. There is, too, the familiar wet mouth, the cheeks, winter chapped and warm, the child-pungent hair she puts her face to.

The little boys at night in bed, they smell of soap the sheets are washed in; but in the morning, salty.


The guests have gone and the children are asleep and the au pair is drying the dishes when she invites the flawless father, the same she calls by many other names and all of them endearing, she invites the flawless man for a walk outside. Just up and down a few of her favorite blocks, under the fringe of pear trees. The streetlights make a lace of their blossoms.

“We live in a pretty neighborhood,” she says, and he agrees.

The little boys use their Sunday palm as whips while the girl cousins quietly flank him, this father, her lover—their uncle!— the faithful man who promises the boys won’t, no, not to the girls they will not. “Boys!” is all he says, and the boys drag their fronds like sticks across the fencing.

The park side of the street is guttered with elm seeds, and the catkins she points out, aren’t they sexy?

The timorous grace of new flowers in clean skirts, spring it is, yes, and the bare, skinned morning, opening slowly, seems to shiver.

“Yes,” she says in the tremulous light of late spring, Sunday, late, the children far below on the street at the park in the part of Sunday that is theirs, when she can walk through the kitchen undressed and calling to him, “What else would you like to eat?”

The flawless man says he would know where to find her on any afternoon, but his voice still comes as a surprise when the manicurist holds the phone to her ear, and she hears him ask, “Can you be ready for Paris—in an hour?”

Oh, it is fun to be rich and darling!

Wedding linen, cut flowers, drawers that shut soundly. The silver nestled in felt bags, passed-down pieces, tarnished spoons, she warms them in her hands. Mother Pet’s initialed tongs, the berry spoon from Nana.

It is always this way before a party, isn’t it? The dead are moving their mouths when the living come slamming in. “Back so soon?” she asks the boys. Caught in the spring rain, caught before lunch, the flawless father and the flawless boys are come back long before expected. “Stay away from me! Stay where you are,” she says. Stay there beyond the kitchen, where the muddy boots pant and lacrosse sticks drip wetly.

“You’re not still in Bermuda” is what she says to the boys when they sock-slide in the kitchen half undressed. Their bodies are tanned; only the flawless father isn’t peeling. His shoulders are hairless and smooth and freckled with runny freckles. She feels if the freckles are raised, and she feels how warm he is and keeps her hand at his back while he asks her who exactly is coming.

Pansy, Madeline, Lily, Georgia.

The young women friends, yes, he likes them—he likes all women, really, but these washed wands in small clothes especially! They are all legs and arms and don’t stand still to talk but rock on their hips and gesture. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” they say. They are late but they are eager. Even if they swing in on crutches with their own young husbands just behind, the young women are jaunty. She watches from across the room how the young women surprise themselves with what they say to him.

First lilac, everywhere. Smell.


“Whatever you want,” he says. “I’m painting.”

The ceremonies are over; it is summer and he is painting. Hatless, shirtless, he is on the ladder rolling paint on the mildewed cottage ceiling. Paint catches in his hair and in the hair on his arms and in the saddle of his back. He is paint-flecked with a color called French white. He is pollinated, a flower, dusted.

Look at him, the way the paint washes off in the water’s blast, swashing down his face, his malleable face, the tolerant mouth turned up at the ends, the eyes that when he smiles pleat sweetly—no other word for it. He is such a boy. The way he is about water, how he likes to stand in it.

The waters off Penobscot are sun chinked and cold; nothing skits the surface that might bite. The surface is a mirror to mirror the spruce tipped toward it, and the pink-cliffed shoreline blushes deeply. At sunset he swims. His heavy arms break water. His heavy, lifting arms are mostly water, and the water is cold; she has felt it; and when he wobbles out of the water over the mussel-stuccoed shore, he makes the noise of someone cold. He huffs and grins at what he has just done.

But what he has not done! He has not finished . . . and not finished, not finished reading Ulysses or even started the Thoreau. He is wall building in the garden still; he is walking the island, going out in the boat. “See where he is?” She points for the children. “He is at the water after stones for the wall.” See? He hefts a stone on his shoulder and holds another at his hip up the hill to the low wall with its band of black-eyed Susans.

How is it he carries these stones but easily, lightly? Oh, he is so perfectly good! He is the way, she thinks, a hero should be.


Late August—is summer so short and over? It is cold enough this morning for a fire! The rain clouds the fields, and the blown fog boils until they leave the cottage and it lifts. “Can you see?” she asks. The barrens have begun to redden, and the goldenrod wags gold.

Oh, snatch past reds that in passing smear! Shut your eyes on the sumac!

“Go fast,” say the children when the sudden road cleared invites them.

The flawless man’s hands and his arms and the hair on his arms, she takes pleasure in the sight of his arms when he is driving them back to the onrush of the city—September, October, November! Binders, apples, pencils, socks—so fast and already they are home, home, where an unexpected face she wears streaks past familiar mirrors and dismays her. Although he says . . . he says such things—oh, it embarrasses her what the flawless man says, and she wants to believe him. She does believe him!

Of equable temperament, generous, upright, faithful, kind: the flawless father, lover, friend is all of these; and his hands, turned outward, are cupped for her. Yes, she likes to be done to, she likes to be bossed and made to feel what she feels—fleshy, cleft, insatiable, a bit of a tramp on the spit of his hand, the same hand deft enough to catch in passing a doll the boys have twisted into splits.

He swipes up the doll—so much hair on a stick—and ever the flawless uncle, he shuts the doll’s legs and smooths her dress and says to the owner, “Avoid the boys. Come sit by the fire and play near us,” and when the girl goes home, the boys take her place and loll by the heat on their bellies, pushing trucks. The fire stuns them. Their cheeks are flushed, and when she finger combs their hair, their hair is wet. “Go to bed,” she says, and the flawless father walks them.

Falling and falling all night into sleep, the boys are noisy breathers and kick at their covers.

How has it happened they have these boys is something she likes to say, and she says it, walking to where he is sitting in front of the fire, “How is it we . . . ?” So much of what she says at night goes unfinished. She would rather kiss and be kissed and watch the soft collapse of cindered logs in the darkening room where they are themselves greater darknesses, touching.


Lap robes and cushions and candlesticks, greenery and oranges, spiky flowers, rows of things red, silver bowls of Christmas bulbs, decorations made of candies, these are some of the jammy comforts attached to this time when radiator heat squiggles palpably and whitely in the room. “Aren’t you thirsty?” she asks the flawless father, and she asks the boys; but the boys go on gouging chocolates and sucking out the cherries. Their lips, when she licks them, are sweet.

And other parts of them are sweet. The pocked baby parts of their hands, the sugared wells between their fingers, the boys are grooved for licking and taste good.

What makes her so special except that she is, yes, surely, look at the unfolded body the flawless man helps her keep: how he comes up from behind her, and the urgent first abrasive pleasure is a pleasure she would like to repeat even as it happens, so that she does. Her body flashes in the mirrored door where the city floats in the white light of winter, in the pink of spring, soft June, the heat wave that shrivels, August, October; the city wakes, rises, backdrops the dark head pressed against her breast.

Is it any wonder she is dizzy?

Shouldn’t she be afraid?

Christine Schutt
Christine Schutt
Christine Schutt is the author of two collections of stories, Nightwork and A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer. She is also the author of the novels Prosperous Friends, Florida, a National Book Award finalist, and All Souls, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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