The following is from Emily Culliton’s novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm . A Brooklyn Heights wife & mother embezzles a small fortune from her children's school & makes a run for it, leaving behind her poet husband, his lover, her two daughters, and a angry school board. Emily Culliton is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver for fiction and earned her MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Marion Palm is on the lam.
A blue JanSport knapsack filled with $40,000 rests between her ankles. She’s taking a train to a midwestern city. She’ll buy the ticket under an assumed name. She said goodbye to her two daughters an hour ago and lied about where she was going. She did not say goodbye to her husband. He’ll need to figure this one out on his own.
Marion Palm took her daughters to a Greek diner on Montague to say goodbye. She and her youngest agree: the cheeseburgers have a palliative texture because the meat, cheese, and bun present similarly. Her oldest has never cared for hamburgers and french fries but appeases her mother when she can.
Marion Palm ran out on the check because it was cash only and her cash was in the knapsack, organized with rubber bands. The rubber bands are multicolored and from her desk at work. She keeps them in a tray meant for rubber bands, paper clips, and loose change. Opening the knapsack at the diner would mean her daughters might see all the cash, and they would tell. Better to run from the $27 check.
Marion’s train moves up a line on the clicking timetable, and Marion taps the toe of her left shoe. She’s mimicking a woman ten feet away who is not on the lam. Police with German shepherds stroll through the crowd. Marion wants to smile at the police and say, Hi, officer! She wants to pet the dogs.
A homely woman is an invisible thing. This is her and her disguise. Her heart recognizes that she is on the lam and beats harder for her. This is a natural progression of criminal behavior. She is wrathful and sad that she must go on the lam. She will miss her daughters.
The money does not belong to her. There is no honest reason why she should have it.
A man stops in front of her to rattle coins in a creased paper cup. He wears filthy sweatpants, a parka, and a bag shaped like a tennis racket. He smells like urine. He bows to Marion.
“Spare change?” he asks.
“Haven’t got any,” Marion says. All the cash is needed, and she left her coin purse behind in the basement of her brownstone, along with her credit cards, Social Security card, passport, driver’s license, and cell phone.
The man intuits the woman’s fixedness. He moves on.
Her train rises up once more, and Marion knows she must purchase her ticket soon. She closes her eyes to stem her panic.
The Wall, Or Progress
Nathan Palm doesn’t know he’s alone in the house. He thinks his wife is downstairs because he hasn’t heard her leave. In his office on the third floor, he looks at a legal pad on his dark wooden desk. There’s a pen next to it. He can’t make any decisions because he thinks he may have done something terrible.
He writes half a line, but rather than finish the thought, he relives his morning, which was fine and normal until he opened his mouth. He stands to call out for his wife. He’ll ask her about their plans for the weekend. How about an excursion, a family excursion? He’ll plan it, he’ll say. He’ll do anything. He must fix this before he can write. He bellows her name and jogs down the stairs with his head still on the legal pad but also on the morning and now on the weekend. If he can just see her face and locate within her face that all is well, he’ll be allowed to keep writing. He looks into the bedroom, the living room. He pauses and listens to the house. The creaks and moans of the stairs and uneven hardwood floors give up occupants’ locations; the house is quiet. “Marion?” he asks. He has a first line, it could be a way in, but Marion hasn’t answered, and without that answer from Marion he’ll never write the second line. He checks his watch. The line in is never good, but he knows he has to write it. The doorbell rings.
The line isn’t it, but he won’t find it with the doorbell going. He waits for Marion to spring up from wherever she is and answer. The air is unsettled by the doorbell, but nothing moves.
Nathan opens the front door and discovers his daughters out there on the stoop, eight and thirteen, and they look abandoned.
Their coats are zipped, but his youngest shivers. At this time of day his children should not belong to him; they belong to school.
“What are you doing here?”
His youngest wails that she is sorry. She is really sorry. When his daughter wails, she is usually wailing that she is sorry.
“Mom signed us out. We had cheeseburgers and then she said she was going to visit Shelley for a week.”
This is his oldest, Ginny. She is good with details but has a capacity for cruelty. Nathan Palm relates more to his younger daughter than to his older daughter.
His youngest is now in the doorway with Nathan, wrapping her arm around his thigh and crying. When Nathan kneels to look her in the eye, she gives up his thigh in favor of his neck.
“Why is Jane so upset? Why didn’t your mom bring you home?
Why did she take you out of school?” His oldest frowns and shrugs.
“Don’t know. Dad, do we need to go back?”
Nathan pictures his work on the third floor. There’s that half line, which could be a full line, and now he believes it might be good. He imagines the book the poem would be included in; he conjures up the spine of the book, found on an old crowded bookshelf. His success is something past. The work is finished and he is content. His daydream is to be home again, but he has never commuted. He once sledgehammered away a low ten-foot-long concrete wall. When they bought the house, this wall bifurcated the backyard. Marion wanted to hire someone, but Nathan, inspired, bought a sledgehammer at the hardware store. It was a good purchase to make. He learned how to wind the sledgehammer behind him and up, over, and down into the wall. He repeated the action until the concrete fractured; then he focused on the fracture until he could dislodge a piece of the wall. The wall became less. There was movement. There was a display of accountability. When the wall was gone, he missed it. He would lose that line. It seemed good only on the first floor. It would sour on the third.
“No. Let’s watch some television and drink juice.”
The Palm girls watch a rerun in the den and sip cranberry cocktail. Nathan stands in the kitchen to phone his missing wife. He thinks of the terrible mistake he made that morning. As the phone rings, he lives his morning again but chooses not to see his wife in her nightgown, rotating her wrists, and because he does not see her, this wiser and ideal version of Nathan never says a word.
Women Who Embezzle
Marion Palm is an expert on women who embezzle. She does not think of women as embezzlers. Embezzlers are men; for women, embezzlement is a practice.
Women who embezzle do not live lavishly. The reason for the practice has nothing to do with status. It has to do with justice and enforced reciprocity. Women who embezzle will save the money, pay some bills, and then buy a Jet Ski for their family. Women who embezzle will bid extraordinary amounts on rare Victorian dolls on eBay.
Women who embezzle are not apologetic, but they may cry when caught. When women who embezzle embezzle from churches, they fall to their knees and pray. They do not pray for forgiveness. They pray for safety and protection. Women who embezzle from offices do not cry but cross their arms and stiffly smile, as if to say, What did you expect? They’ve worked at the office for twenty years and are seen as a piece of furniture. A filing cabinet. They may be eager to be caught. They may want credit for their greed and ingenuity.
Marion Palm has embezzled $180,000 over the years from her daughters’ private school in Brooklyn, where she works part-time in the development office. Her daughters’ quarterly tuition payments are paid by her husband’s family trust. She’s never seen his money and so it does not exist. It’s explained to be the interest from Great-Grandfather Henry Palm’s fortune. The money is now represented as a series of digits online, in unending transit through international wires.
She’s spent some of the money she embezzled on appliances, exercise equipment, and several family trips to Europe. Her husband, a writer of difficult fiction and terse prose poems, receives a monthly allowance from the trust and believes it is enough for a family of four because he does not know what things cost. He does not know how to worry about money, and Marion has never asked him to. He enjoys the Sub-Zero refrigerator, an environmentally friendly boiler, a state-of-the-art elliptical machine, and a new patio. He believes these are things all families deserve.
Marion Palm has embezzled $180,000, spent most of it on her family, but saved $40,000 in cash for herself. It was hidden in the basement of the brownstone. She collected it this morning after she read an email from her supervisor informing her that the school was about to be audited by the IRS. Her supervisor was panicking, because Marion has been, in essence, doing her supervisor’s job while the supervisor suffers a glacially slow mental break-down. What should I do? the supervisor asked. The board keeps asking me questions about the books and I don’t know any of the answers. When are you getting here? As you well know, these stress situations trigger my fight-or-flight. Come to my office immediately. Did you inform me that you would be late? Marion deleted the email.
Marion has saved the knapsack for an occasion like this.
Marion isn’t picking up. Daniel, her officemate at the school, hasn’t seen her. Neither has the hall master nor Marion’s supervisor. There was a meeting Marion missed, and Daniel reports to Nathan the meeting agenda. Daniel is another father and unpleasant. Marion sits across a desk from Daniel, and Nathan doesn’t understand how Marion can tolerate Daniel and why she bothers to try. Daniel air-quotes incorrectly. Nathan feels him air-quote over the phone.
“I haven’t seen her ‘per se,’ but if you do see her, please remind her that Deb needs to speak to her. She said it was urgent. We need to discuss the Pumpkin Patch vis-à-vis logistics and also, of course, marketing ‘strategy’ for the Wing Initiative.”
Nathan wonders if these words mean anything, and despairs for his wife.
“So you haven’t seen Marion today?” “No, as I said–”
“Thank you. My wife is missing.” Next Nathan must call his wife’s closest friend, Shelley, another Brooklyn mother. This one divorced her husband to move to the Hudson Valley to ride horses and sculpt and sleep with mountain men, or so Nathan hopes. He likes Shelley and was bored by her lawyer husband. When they divorced, he wished Shelley well. Marion hasn’t spoken to Shelley much since she moved, but now the girls say their mother has hopped on the Hudson Line to visit her.
He should have called Shelley first, but hoped the girls were confused and Marion was sitting at her desk listening to the terrible Daniel. If his wife left him, she would go to Shelley.
He calls Shelley and leaves a message. It’s a strange message to leave. He imagines his wife and Shelley hiking cathartically, discussing or not discussing him. Perhaps the girls know more than they say. But in terms of trauma for children, abandonment must rank high, so he sits on the couch with his daughters to watch television.
Two episodes pass and Jane is asleep, curled into her father; she’s the type who misses nap time.
Nathan runs his fingers over his Jane’s braids and asks Ginny what she thinks may have happened to her mother.
Ginny is wedged into the other end of the couch, as far as possible from her father and her sister, long legs tucked. When her body acts teenish, when she needs this physical distance between herself and her family, Ginny is disquieted. She feels as if her center of balance has moved. It makes her sad.
“Your mom is visiting Shelley?” “That’s what she told us.”
Ginny’s waiting to tell how they didn’t pay for their cheeseburgers. It was very odd, her mother’s behavior. When they finished eating, Marion told Ginny and Jane she would meet them outside on the sidewalk and left the diner alone. They were to sit for two minutes more at the table and then follow. After doing as they were told, Ginny and Jane found their mother hiding in a dephoned phone booth at the end of the block. She told her daughters to run, and she ran faster than them. Her blue knapsack was particularly unsettling, the way it bounced on her back. Ginny wants to understand her mother’s actions before she tells her father.
“I thought Mom was mad at Shelley,” Ginny says.
She was, Nathan thinks, but still took her calls during dinner. When Shelley started dating and painting and discovering and visualizing the self (“I allow myself to love myself,” “I allow myself to feel beautiful”), Marion said she was disgusted. Her friend’s self-absorption nauseated her, but she wouldn’t tell Shelley how she felt. Marion said to admit that anger would demand a scene, and the scene was impossible, because it would require from her more involvement, more patience, more listening. She said she would end up comforting Shelley, and it would still be only about Shelley, thereby giving Shelley exactly what she wanted: attention. Better to fade angrily away. Nathan feels women are more burdened by obligation than men. So Marion may be, at last, doing her duty by visiting, then confronting, then comforting. But though this is all possible, Nathan still believes his wife has left him.
The last time he saw Marion was their encounter this morning. The girls had left for school. He was reading the Times at the kitchen counter and drinking coffee. He looked to his left, and there was Marion in her nightgown, standing in the door frame. Bare feet. She stared at him and let her fingers curl up. Nathan looked at his wife’s feet; her toes curled down. She must be angry, Nathan thought at the time, and before he fully investigated that thought, considered what could have made his wife angry, he said, “I’ve got a thing in Dumbo today,” and Marion didn’t say, “Fine.” Didn’t say, “Till when?” She said none of the things she usually said when he said he had a thing to do. Instead she stood in the door frame and made and unmade fists.
He’ll avoid talking about Marion to his daughters until he receives verification that he’s been left. He won’t bring her up until he has some idea how long this punishment will last. He’ll pretend that this is normal.
Poor girls, he thinks. Poor women.
The departure will draw attention, but Marion decided when she began embezzling that she would not be waiting for the police when caught. She prizes her own ability to coordinate, once wasted on PTA functions and her husband’s literary readings. Now she is coordinating her own getaway and she is and will continue to be magnificent.
Marion Palm hoists the $40,000 up and takes her new driver’s license from the front pocket of her knapsack. She sent away for the fake ID and it cost her $300. She bought this fake ID after purchasing a previous one on West Eighth for $70. She’d over-heard the high schoolers discussing the operation. However, once she was in the basement of the store, which sold skateboards and bongs, she realized it was a scam for the underaged of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey. The lamination of the West Eighth Street ID curled up and the watermark too boldly announced itself. Marion wouldn’t make that mistake again. When it comes to a new identity, it’s best not to go with the bargain.
She still needs to buy her ticket to the midwestern city. She estimates it will be a fifty-hour trip. She chose where she would run away to as she would choose a destination for a family vacation. She read articles in The New York Times travel section and pictured herself at various restaurants, museums, and landmarks. She felt she made a good decision, and she made it sitting at her desk at work.
Marion remembers a movie as she approaches the ticket counter. Cary Grant tries to buy a train ticket from New York to Chicago, and the man behind the counter hesitates to look at a have you seen this man? photo of Cary Grant. He’s twisted charmingly to the camera and holds a long knife with an odd grip. Cary Grant must flee the ticket counter and stow himself away on a train, and lucky him, because he gets to have dinner with Eva Marie Saint.
Hitchcock shot the scene at Grand Central, a continuity error since that station is for the commuter rail, but it’s what a train station should look like. Marion would much prefer to make her escape from that location. She wants to be romantic about it. She wants to wear tortoiseshell sunglasses like Cary Grant and have that be, as a disguise, both sufficient and necessary. Alas, this is not a movie, and Marion must spend her time in Penn Station. Low-ceilinged, fast-food-smelling, spirit-crushing. It’s a structure seemingly built to make its current occupants question their significant life decisions.
There’s no line at the ticket counter, and only one barred window is marked as open for business. Marion looks into the office behind the window. Two women and a man chat in swivel chairs facing inward. Marion must knock on the Plexiglas behind the bars with her knuckles to get their attention. They all swivel to look at her, and stare. Eventually one of the women rises.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes, I need to buy a train ticket,” Marion says.
“You can do that at the ticket machine,” the woman says, gesturing vaguely to the great beyond behind Marion.
“Yes, but I’d like to use cash,” Marion says. “Cash,” the woman says.
“Yes, cash,” Marion says. She pauses. “I left my credit cards at home. By accident.”
“Okay, fine. Hang on.”
The woman taps the keyboard next to her and waits, eyes focused on the monitor. Marion believes she’s turning the computer on for the first time that day. The two other Amtrak employees are staring at the interaction in wonder. There is no wanted picture of Marion; she has not maybe killed a diplomat like Cary Grant. Detectives in fedoras may never ask questions about her whereabouts, but what if they do? There is a whole lot of other people’s money resting between Marion’s calves and ankles. She’s making an impression on the woman behind the counter as well as her friends in the back. She interrupted them, demanded something of them that was unusual. She imagines them describing to the police a nervous, frumpy woman who had $500 in cash but no credit cards, no bank cards, and a dubious ID. They would give a good description of her; there might even be security footage, and a computer record of her destination. The police would be waiting for her train at the midwestern station, ready to read her her rights, put her in handcuffs, and return her to New York City for prosecution, possibly on the same train she came in on. This ticket would be a waste of money.
“Wait,” Marion says. “I just found my card. It was in my pocket.” The woman stops looking at the computer. “I can buy my ticket at the machine.”
The woman throws up her hands in annoyance and returns to her swivel-chair group. Marion stands with her hands flat on the dingy white counter, then looks for her daughters on either side of her. She remembers that they are in Brooklyn while she is in Manhattan. She removes her hands from the counter.
Nathan orders a pizza when he notices the hours have passed and Marion still hasn’t called or texted. When Jane asks in the middle of dinner if she can play outside—a request frequently made at this time and usually denied—Nathan says yes, fine, and she leaves with her half-eaten slice in hand; Ginny, surprisingly, follows. Jane works on her slice of pizza, then forgets she holds the slice and carries it like a sheet of paper. Ginny reminds her sister that the slice is her dinner, but Jane is not hungry. The day is now gray and wet, the yellow and orange leaves slick, vibrant, and flat. The leaves adhere to the girls’ shoes and socks. The tree that deposited the leaves stands in the far corner of the backyard, which is long and rectangular and filled with strange unkempt vegetation. When parents and babysitters aren’t looking, the Palm girls climb the tree to peer into their neighbors’ yards for stray cats and other children.
They haven’t climbed the tree today because it’s damp and their father could be watching from the kitchen.
Jane is more imaginative than her sister, and likes that she is. She easily creates worlds, whereas Ginny gets hung up on the details or, worse, demands realism.
“Pretend we’re escaping from prison,” Jane poses. “Are we criminals?”
“Yeah, but we were right. We live in a police state. You be the secret police. I’ll be the underground.”
If Nathan were paying attention to his daughters in the backyard, he would be proud. He would talk about it at dinner parties to charm the wives of his friends.
Ginny interrogates various characters played by Jane. Ginny demands to know where the criminal is hiding. Is she in the attic? Is she in the basement? Jane’s characters clutch babushkas and wipe brows. The pizza slice is in the dirt. Jane climbs the tree, despite its dampness, to escape Ginny. Ginny marches. Jane swings.
Ginny was embarrassed by her mother at school and later at the diner. She’ll be required to explain to her teachers why her mother is gone. She’ll tell the truth, but it will look like she’s lying, so she’ll need her father’s confirmation, and it will be difficult to reach him on the phone.
Ginny believes her mother is in some great trouble, so she’s playing with her sister, even though she is too old for it. Her mother and her father have both lied to her today. Her parents have lied to her before, but she thought those lies were purposefully designed. The randomness of the day makes Ginny think of disease, even though no one is sick.
Inside the house, Nathan’s back on the phone. He dials and redials his wife’s cell. Marion’s voice tells him repeatedly to leave a message, and he leaves several. The messages escalate, and this is the last one:
“Where the fuck are you? Why didn’t you tell me you were visiting Shelley? I’m sorry. Okay. Is this you leaving me? Is it real this time? Did you forget to tell me? Are you insane? I’m sorry. Are you angry? Who does this? I don’t understand.”
Homeless at Penn Station
There is an area devoted to waiting for Amtrak trains at Penn Station, and one must have a ticket to enter it. Or so the signs claim. Marion passes the guard without a problem. She believes that the required ticket is a legal way to keep the homeless men and women away from the seats, where they could really set up camp. The gentleman who asked for Marion’s spare change, for instance, is barred from this central waiting area.
The waiting area is not conducive to waiting for a train. There are no timetables within most lines of sight, and the announcements on the loudspeaker, while frequent, are often unintelligible, and so a train could arrive and depart without one’s having been informed. There are televisions, and they perhaps once displayed track information, but these screens are now devoted to safety videos. They instruct the waiting on how to react to a terrorist attack or a lone shooter. Actors mime various scenarios, such as dialing 911 and correctly hiding behind a large pillar or a fern. The final scenario instructs individuals on how to engage with the terrorist, but this is advisable only if one’s death is imminent. It is suggested that by engaging with the terrorist, one will probably die but may save others in the process. Again, Amtrak does not want one to lose one’s life, but it feels it has to mention the possibility.
The best way to wait for a train at Penn Station is to stand in the central atrium and watch the flicking timetable with one’s luggage resting between one’s feet. One must be prepared to run when the track number is announced; one must be prepared to elbow fellow passengers–it’s the only way to get a window seat. Marion’s taking a break from waiting correctly. Besides, she was only pretending to wait for a train, too frightened to pick one. Her feet hurt from standing, and she kept finding her children in her peripheral vision. She kept extending her hand, expecting Jane to reach up and take it.
She wonders if she should buy a train ticket to a closer city. She could buy a ticket to New Jersey with cash without arousing suspicion. Once there, she could buy another, and see the country for a while; there is no need to arrive at a destination. But the knapsack is heavy, and with every interaction there is the chance of being found out.
She’s also too organized for that kind of unfocused escape. She wanted to buy the ticket to the midwestern city because it seemed like a good solution. She liked the idea of going West as an outlaw. In the abstract, it seemed funny.
She is 6.4 miles away from home. It is 7:04 p.m. She’s been at Penn Station for five hours.
She should buy a ticket for the next train no matter where it goes. But the woman behind the ticket counter will absolutely remember her. Buying a ticket from a human and with cash is an obsolete act. She may also remember that Marion looked for daughters who were not there.
Marion puts on the knapsack, heads out of the waiting area, and does not look once more at the timetable. She walks past the ticket kiosk, past the ticketing machines. She’s on an escalator, rising back to the street. She’s opening a glass door and leaving the dreary station. Hooking her thumbs underneath the straps of her knapsack, she walks confidently into the crowd.
From The Misfortune of Marion Palm. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2017 by Emily Culliton.