by Melissa Duclos
Maggie once saw their minivan plummeting over the side of the bridge, hurtling toward the icy waters of the Columbia River. Both kids were in the backseat, strapped into their car seats, eyes wide and reflecting the thin drifts of clouds in the sky above their heads. She detailed the escape: open windows beforeimpact, unbuckle her seatbelt. Hold your breath she’d called and then the icy crushing, the surprising ease with which her body propelled itself into the backseat, the click and click of car seat buckles as the car filled with water. She got them out, somehow through the open front window and up to the surface. They were freezing and gasping for breath and weighted down by their coats and shoes but she’d gotten them up. Somehow they’d found the air. The land.
“But no. It was impossible,” she’d told Tom as the two of them lay in bed one night, the specters of their children’s sleeping forms visible in the gray haze of the video monitor. She would never be strong enough to swim while carrying both children. Or the cold would get them. One of them would die. Simon had had a few swimming lessons, could help her kick, maybe, but then he’d be heavier, and more likely to struggle. Olivia was still small for her age—she’d been born a month early—but was perhaps less well insulated against the cold. Of course it would only be one, and so the other would live forever with Maggie’s failures, and the question of whether he or she had been chosen for a reason.
Tom shuddered with remembering. He never knew what to say to his wife when she narrated these horrors to him. He wanted to teach her not to fall victim to the tyranny of her imagination, to the notion that she could conjure her nightmares from the darkest corners of her mind.
“I’m sorry, Tom, but my hands are tied here. There’s nothing more to say.”
Tom looked up, startled by Mitch’s voice. Nothing more to say. He didn’t remember saying anything in the first place. He thought about Maggie.
Tom let the door of his office close quietly behind him. To slam it would have been unseemly. He paced in the hallway, heading first toward the elevator, then changing his mind and turning instead toward the bathroom at the other end of the hall.
He’d always liked working in the Pearl District. When they’d first moved to Portland the neighborhood had reminded them of Tribeca, more for its air of hipness than for anything specific they saw in the renovated warehouses, trendy boutiques, luxury condos. They settled on the other side of the river, renting first until they were finally able to buy, remembering all the reasons they’d left the East Coast behind.
But Tom enjoyed everything about working downtown: the bus ride, meandering through the wide NE streets, past the wet lawns and empty beds awaiting their seed, over the Steel Bridge with its views of the barges lazing in the Willamette; the walk along busy sidewalks from the bus stop to his office building a few blocks north; the food cart lunches he allowed himself every Friday. He liked, on the rare afternoon when he left work early, to stop in at Powell’s, just to look around. He never told Maggie.
The grey carpet in the hallway muffled his steps. His black overcoat was on but unbuttoned, as though he were unsure whether he’d really leave the building or not. Once in the bathroom he dry-heaved at the sink. He turned on the tap, held his hands under the cold water until the skin on his fingers was red, until they became numb, fleshy lumps, belonging to someone else.
He buttoned his coat with fingers that were still bright red, slightly numb, hefted his messenger bag, overstuffed with the picture frames that had sat on his desk, his favorite mug, onto his shoulder.
He didn’t call or text Maggie. He didn’t know what he’d say.
It was cold but sunny in Portland, a rare combination. The sky was a bright blue dome atop the conifers. Maggie pulled away from the preschool, inhaling and exhaling deeply. It was Olivia’s first year at the school. She was adjusting well. Simon hovered over her, herding her through the sign-in and over to her cubby like an eager Border Collie, making sure she tucked her mittens into her pockets before she deposited her coat and tiny empty backpack. Maggie nodded at them both and then waved, feeling insecure as always around the mothers whose children clung grotesquely to their legs, or the ones who made a big show about saying goodbye. She breathed deeply once the door closed against the smells of glue and homemade applesauce.
She was supposed to be sad about all of this—the growing up so fast and all of that. Simon would be starting Kindergarten next year. He was already learning to read. She wasn’t sad, not at all, but she kept that to herself. The truth was that their infancies had terrified her. Each morning that they’d woken up breathing in their cribs, she felt as though she’d been spared.She thought, briefly, of Simon teaching her the yoga breathing he’d learned at school: “Smell your flower, Mummy. Now blow out your candle.” It had become a joke between her and Tom: Smell your flower, Maggie. Smell your flower. She was fine today, though. Better than fine. She turned onto their quiet street in the Northeast quadrant of the city, stopped in front of the house that a few years ago had seemed like an impossibility.
It was burgundy with yellow trim, craftsman style, with a sweet front porch, set back on a street lined with other craftsman style houses, each with their own sweet front porches, each of them sheltering an old couch or a wooden swing, a gaggle of bicycles or a clutch of strollers. Maggie walked up the stairs past the barren flower pots and slid her key into the lock. She jiggled it once, twice, then shoved the door open with her hip.
That the door was difficult to open always made her feel better. She knew no one could get into the house without her hearing it from the bedroom upstairs: the wood scraping against the tile floor, the loose pane of glass rattling. She’d be out of bed, shaking Tom awake with one hand while with the other she dialed 9-1-1. After the noisy front door there were the baby gates—still installed at both the bottom and top of the stairs though Simon and Olivia were too old to need them now. She left them open during the day, but remembered always to lock them at night.
The gates gave them time. In those critical few seconds while an intruder—maybe with a gun in hand—stumbled against them, Maggie and Tom would race to the children’s room. They’d lock the door and immediately begin dragging the heavy oak dresser in front of it. Every room in the house had at least one reasonably heavy piece of furniture in it.
The children by this time would be lying on the floor of the closet. Simon would be singing softly to Olivia. The Wheels On The Bus. The Itsy Bitsy Spider. It took her an average of ten minutes to drive from the house to the nearest police station; the squad cars would move faster than she ever did.
Was it really all so ridiculous? Schools had evacuation plans—the paths children should walk in case of fire, and the more recently implemented lockdown plans, the doors to be shut, the closets to be hidden in. Her plans were just the same, arming her against the inevitability of this cruel world. She employed whatever tools she had: baby gates and anti-lock brakes and car seats and the stranger danger lessons she practiced on the playground with the children. She had the house, its locks and heavy furniture, its seventy-year-old walls a promise of protection against the unleashed dog, the rootless teens smoking cigarettes on the corner, the howl of wind and scrape of branches masquerading as a nightmare.
Tom hadn’t meant to walk into Powell’s, but a bookstore the size of an entire city block had its own gravitational pull. Or it was the tourists, amassing around the entrance after jogging out in front of the line of cars held up indefinitely at the stop sign on the corner. Tangled up in the crowds with their books and their phones and dogs on leashes and children in strollers and umbrellas swinging uselessly from their wrists, Tom found himself just inside the door, and then down the steps, lost almost instantly between the shelves.
More than anything else in a bookstore Tom liked the covers: the textured covers, and the ones on which the title and author’s name were scrawled as though written in graffiti; the covers with only a letter, or some other such mystery, always (it seemed to Tom) in dark colors; the fertile green covers that spoke of the earth from which the books were born, the blue covers reminiscent of the sky. There was nothing for Tom in the spine of a book.
How long, Tom wondered, would it take him to look at every cover in Powell’s? Not every single book, but every cover arranged specifically on a shelf or table
to catch his eye? Every cover that looked at him first? It was the kind of question that Tom liked—the kind that at first glance seemed impossible to answer, but upon reflection revealed itself to be so simple. The book covers were tangible objects; they could be registered and counted. Time could be caught and held.
There were nine rooms in the bookstore, on three levels: green, blue, gold, coffee, rose, orange, purple, red, pearl. Tom whispered the colors to himself once then twice then a third time, as though uttering an incantation, the spell that would save him.
He imagined Maggie’s brow, creased with worry, lips pursed in a question she couldn’t quite ask. They didn’t make book covers like that these days. These days you only saw the back of a woman’s neck, her slender waist perhaps, or the bend of an elbow. Tom understood why.
What could he tell her? They could cover two months of mortgage payments, maybe three if they really cut back. They’d take the kids out of pre-school. They could trade in the car maybe. Tom walked up the stairs to the purple room, stood in front of the shelves of books on the Pacific Northwest, the verdancy of their covers as obscene as the Portland Spring. What could he tell her? Two months. Sixty days. It was time enough to get another job. Of course it was.
He snapped a photo of a book with a mountain on the cover, the valley below awash with wild flowers. What could he tell her? Let’s just go here.
He stayed in the bookstore for hours. The kids would be napping by the time he got home. The telling would be easy. She would run to the door and ask him what he was doing home so early and he would answer her: I was fired. It would be easy. After those three words, though, things would get much harder. He would say don’t worry and everything will be fine but the words would be meaningless in the face of Maggie’s imagined trials. We’re not in trouble, he’d tell her, which was true only according to certain definitions of trouble.
At home Maggie washed the dishes, wiping the plates practically clean before placing them in the dishwasher, soaking the sippy cup lids in hot, soapy water. The floorboards in the kitchen creaked beneath her feet in all the places she knew they would. Otherwise the house was quiet. After dishes there was laundry and the soup she wanted to get on the stove; there was the film forming a ring around the kids’ tub that she’d been eyeing all week.
She was in the living room when she heard the scrape of the wood door against the tile floor, the rattle of the glass. She looked upstairs toward the children’s room; the baby gates were open, but still she had a head start. The footsteps in the hallway sounded exactly as she knew they would.
About the author:
Melissa Duclos has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and now works as a freelance writer and editor, and writing instructor. She is a regular contributor to the online magazine BookTrib, and the founder of The Clovers Project, which provides mentoring for writers at various stages of their careers. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Fiction Advocate, Cleaver Magazine, Pound of Flash, and Scéal literary journal, and is forthcoming on Mommyish.com.