Listen to author

She had never sought it out. The transference of power, of kind, to overthrow him even in his failure, had not been her place until the man her husband presented it to her, carved it from that which had been his own, and she accepted, who found it not just open but demanding, an emptiness wishing and whimpering to be filled. So when he raised his hand she saw that he was pointing also to the coming end, that the blow she would once have considered it her natural duty to accept was now an invitation, and knew that it would be a mercy to release him, so that when his weakness itself called to her with a fishy slap across the face she was ready to answer it with the great power of the wire rope and the metal sheeting that made the planes. She hit him without waiting, ran a closed fist hard above his eye, and he staggered at the force, both of them taken aback by the dreadful knock of bone on bone; but there was no turning. He put out an arm but found only the bare light hanging by its twill cord over the table so that the shadows around them began violently to duck and swing, a torrent of light in a dark world. In the tilting room he threw a hand at her and missed; she struck him again now with all the power of her frustrated worker’s body, relieved happily of its forced idleness and inactivity, the power she had gained and earned in his lost war, and meeting again this power that had bested him once already and had been besting him since, he crumpled there in the tiny kitchen and hit his head first on the table corner beneath the dizzying pendulum of the circling light, then raised himself only to slip backwards to the hard edge of the sink with a resonant crack, and the blows called out his weak, thin blood, whose compliant procession bathed him in the medium of his passing. The man her husband fell to the floor, and she followed him. Between the table legs and the revolving shadows she watched bone-heavy and opaque as he left through the fractures in his body, fractures put there by time and bad luck and finally her own hand. She saw now what she had always understood before, but never in a manner physical and set and so pronounceable in words, that nothing could be taken unless something somewhere was also given in exchange.

She thought for a while about what he had been: someone not afraid of fighting, and confidant enough to lie to anyone about anything, because truth brings its own confidence but a lie is only as convincing as the liar. So he fought and lied his way into jobs all along the Jersey coast, holding them sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week or more, telling people whatever it was they needed doing, he could do it. She saw nothing deceitful in this: his lies were predictions, wagers against the future, which sometimes he won and which, when he lost, were quickly forgotten. The present was too urgent in those days to leave any space for the past.

He said he liked about her that she never bothered him with questions, never asked about his past or pestered him about children, not even when he got a position in the cannery and moved them into a cold-water flat near the river, a Pullman kitchen wedged into the corner, in exchange for which luxury they had only to shut out by their own will the endless noise. There was never quiet: here below was the boiler, the rumble of the coal chute, and there above the people who populated the lonely and invisible jobs done by night, or in morning’s earliest hours, or when everyone else was heading for home. Someone was always sleeping as someone else cooked a meal – dinner or supper, it was impossible once the clock had been turned upside-down to tell or to care. Few people ever came as low as the basement, so long as there was coal in the furnace. Here she found all she wanted: to be isolated from the world with the person she trusted, to orbit him like a moon.

She didn’t need those other things, she felt, the accessories of domesticity. The man her husband was the bridge she crossed, not from loneliness, which was a deformity of her bones, but from the terror of lonely suffering, and if she never loved him she admired him greatly, deeply, for the flexibility he introduced to the rules by which they were bound: he imposed himself on the spaces between them as vines use the spaces between the bricks of a wall.

Seeing him lifeless, she knew the challenge of justice: a death that was merciful, a release from the curse of frailty, but would be a crime according to the law. She had been forced to escape the situation that had never been her own making, but was the making of her weak and ever-dying father and her grieving mother, and the man her husband’s war, lost despite everything and in the face of public victory, and her own lot which was ugliness and nature’s darker part, the making also of the wire rope factory where her strength had grown to match the animal thickness of her brow and jaw, and then of the forming machine at the aircraft plant. We can do it, the posters had told her, and out of necessity in his absence, perhaps, but even more because at last the opportunity was there to be something for herself and of herself, she did, learning quickly to run the machine that laid the steel strands and to be fearless of its pounding rush and noise, the constant pull of its blind indifferent wheels and arms, endless demands that required her to grow strong so she could feed it. She grew stronger still when they moved her to the new aircraft plant where the huge sheets of metal had to be hauled all day in a frenzy of exertion, and in so doing she extracted from the war just that force the war was extracting simultaneously from the man her husband, call it what you will. It was a force which she admitted to herself later she might have accepted even if she had known then that to do so was at his expense, just as the soldiers who returned whole and victorious gave no thought to her when they took their jobs again, casting out of the factory those women who had come to learn its ways and the many names by which its parts were known. She turned, as she had before the war, to the man her husband, once a source of strength, only to find him fallen, swallowed tiny in his clothes, a church key clutched in one fist like a sign of office, the beer can in the other, and his eyes turned to look at a place in the back of his own head. Although she wondered at her future, she knew the man’s death was a great restoration.

When her father died at last, it had been with all the windows open. Afflicted by the petty thievery of mortality, he had loitered ill for years, from just after the turn of the century to right before the first war: illness seated in his grimy hair and wispy beard, illness astride his convulsing chest with its outdated clothes growing every day dingier and larger, too, on his receding frame; illness spread cloudy across his eyes, and her father aware, naturally, and not ignoring his bodily retreat but neither really accepting it, never fighting or embracing the darkness to come, an ambivalent prisoner attempting half-heartedly to appease his captor. Without the will to battle his end or even the honour just to go, to fold up and disappear, instead he would rot there in the midst of them, shrinking apathetically inside his celluloid collar and asking with his pitiful face for forgiveness. The household shrank in keeping with his reduction, the furniture departing piece by piece to those who earned the right to take it from them in exchange for the comforts that were no longer even comforting, they came in quantities so small.

The doctor, who visited so briefly that he would barely withdraw his shiny head from its hat, called always for fresh air in the sick room. Towards the end snow sometimes blew in, and her father had to be wrapped deep in blankets, all the few they owned, so at night the girls slept near the coal fire in a worming, hungry pile beneath their coats, and in the day they quietly crawled the streets of Trenton in the wake of departing coal carts for whatever was left behind, as sooty with the will to live as the old man was pale with apathetic death.

They were made clean to go visit him. The others he spoke to by name but to her he said, “My girl,” as if to remind her what she was beneath the unsightly miscalculation of her features, even though the others called it doting and slapped her for it after. Try as she might no other place would come to mind unless it was the dark and silent room where half a century before her father had called her “my girl” and finally breathed his life out.

All of this she accepted as part of the life that by the force of nothing more meaningful than chance was hers to accept as breathing was to be accepted, the part of nature that nature itself had kept, the part to which she believed her disagreeable face and thick hands gave her access, the hidden places others couldn’t share.

Thus she knew what the others would never have been able to perceive, let alone understand: that the man her husband with his hand raised had been a sign of acquiescence, of election, a signpost indicating the direction of the future, an admission that he would have lost his place, would need to lose it to save himself from further humiliation. He had recognized the aptness of the coming departure, a thing that was ripe, just as her own passing now was ripe for her, when she would leave behind who she was and become another. This readiness connected them again at last, not as love connects things but in the way that a face is connected with its reflection: a recognition and fastening never sought but not to be undone.

He had come back from the war not strengthened by battle and girt with valor but weak, half-starved on the rations of a prisoner, stringy and diminished, hated by his jailers for being the enemy and distrusted by his compatriots for his German last name, reduced to a thing that had needed liberating by other, stronger men. In this liberation he had been cursed, lost everything that mattered, and he returned broken from Europe, recognized her as little as she did him, for they had both changed so much. Collapsed across from his shell on the floor of the kitchen, she wondered for some time what she was going to do with a body that no one but her would ever miss unless they found it. The broken outside had no more meaning or importance or relation to the world empty than the inside had done when it was full of the crushed and reduced remains the war had sent back and forgotten. His disappearance would be no shock, but that passage must be at the forfeit of his right to return. If discovered, they would call his repose a crime, one to rouse every aspect of the great paper-work giant that was order and civilization. She imagined its huge movements, its fine scrutiny, saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open: from this, at least, she could protect him.

To consider this she did not need to move, or to stir in any way; instead she sat where she had found herself let the day return through the high dirty window from the alley, press the shadows of the table legs across the humid floor now tacky with the signs of life expired, the slow dark lake of his mortality, then depart again.

She could never tell how long she sat there, but eventually the ice in the box all had melted. The growing puddle mixed with the contents of the man’s emptied veins and bowels, it wet her clothes. She took the sensation as a warning, and she rose. To open the door, cautiously to walk the hall of the basement which from familiarity had become unseen and so needed to be encountered again: the door to the coal cellar was there, and to the boiler room; a double hatchway cut by a daylight strip that led to the street; the stairwell that would take her to the building’s hallway, where floated the unseen ones with their unseen jobs, porcelain-eyed and water-plain but present. Through the door to the coal room, where the new ton would be assaulted each time greedily and hard until there remained only the floating, over-shoveled dust in which nothing could hide. She turned instead to the boiler, discovered a resting place banging hard with its own heat, a future into which the man her husband could disappear for the third and last time, his body following his lost strength, his forfeit mortality.

Long she waited in the doorway’s narrow passage for the delivery of an alien thought, but she was bound by the impotence of poverty, had no resources to muster than what the building itself could offer: this place and she were, for the moment, one; and though it took time to reconcile herself to the terror of her thought, at last she returned to the closed door of the apartment, one hand on the rattling knob and another on the jamb.

She braced herself to work as before she had braced herself for her sisters’ slaps, or the rough fingers of the Trenton boys beneath her dress, or the unfamiliar singing mechanized danger of the wire-rope machines, knowing that eventually this, too, would be internalized and unfrightening, that a dullness would settle and let her to move through the worst of it without even noticing, that a numb new consciousness would be implanted.

She disappeared in a way at that moment, was dispersed, and in the spectral steam of her evaporation thought for this there can be no forgiveness, the truth of which was now her very being, even if she didn’t know who remained unforgiven, herself or the man or the world at large, then opened the door finally, and passed through it into a welcome, bewildering daze. The opening to the boiler was small, she knew, but of course it was only a matter of work, of setting herself the task and seeing it through.

She would remind herself that she, too, was invisible. She had felt herself losing substance at the huge rear entrance to the wire-rope factory, a place now in her unemployment both familiar and foreign. Here she had come to look for work while the man sat broken at home, his being coiled loosely around a can. The foreman was the same staring creature, hurling the stiff, short leg that had kept him from the draft. When first he saw her he was kind enough, rocking his uneven body out into the loading yard, but later when she returned bearing an ever more pressing need, he looked at her with frustration, expecting her to know without being told that it was a man’s work, though he knew that a woman had done it.

Finally he had ignored her entirely, watching instead the staggered paling of workers as they passed through the great gate. She knew from his hard-turned eyes that she was colorless and formless, a shape that had no meaning and no value, and thought then it was work that gave me presence.

It was the same when she tried at the sheet-metal plant, the eye of those she knew had gone blind, and it struck her as she stared through the opening at the shop floor with its winking constellation of welders that she wouldn’t find another like the man her husband, and she had mourned the man missing from the body that waited in the half-light of the basement, filling the gap with beer.

She would be the strong one now, the one who would have to fight, to dig her fingers into the wall of indifference that faced them, just as hers were the arms and hands that were strong with work, and the man her husband’s were deciduous, as in a permanent winter. It meant the sight in the watery glass was a strange one, but not somehow entirely unexpected: she, altered, not yet he, exactly, for that was a matter of more than clothing and hair, more than even the thick jaw and flat chest and strong hands – but it looked convincing, though there would be years spent forgetting the truth, the pattern of which would later fade so far as to be indecipherable, an era confused and indistinct. It required so little at first: the brush cut, the collared shirt, the legs of trousers. Not so different was this figure from the others who had left for war poor and come back poorer still, who were not part of the great new land that was to be built on the missing bodies of the dead. To the eye no difference worth noting – and yet she believed there would be this: that the many had been remaindered in the war’s great division, rounded down and set casually aside, while this new figure, invented in their gloaming, was no less than a successor, freshborn and taking its first steps where they were tossing down their last, and it was clear from the mirror’s face that no one would question or wonder. It was inconceivable, and in this inconceivability, too, it was a rebirth, bringing to life again the subversive and powerful spirit of the man her husband, the strength and freedom once his, now hers by bequest, something set carefully aside to be handed down, a tradition to accept. It belonged to the short hair and hard eye, the much-boned face in the mirror, to the man her husband’s first and only son: primogeniture, inheritance by proximity of blood. It had taken only a suit, a pair of scissors, and the sharp knife from the kitchen.