Marilee was standing in line at the bank, waiting to cash her paycheck, when she realized she was disappearing. For weeks -- months? -- she had known something was wrong. Large men cut her off at supermarket checkouts, their broad backs almost touching her nose. When she was last in line, cashiers left their registers to take a smoke break, ignoring Marilee and her basket of instant rice, microwave dinners, and canned vegetables. The number nine had passed her bus stop twice the previous morning, despite her frantic arm-waving. It was not until a second person joined her at the stop that the bus finally pulled over and opened its doors.
There was a security camera trained on the customers in line at the bank. Mounted above the camera in the corner of the room was a television with a sign attached to its monitor. We see you! This bank monitored by Starmark Security. On the screen, black-and-white figures mirrored the full-color bank patrons: the woman at the front of the line scribbled in her checkbook; the fat man fanned himself with a copy of People magazine; the young man in Bermuda shorts crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling. A few feet behind him, a little boy standing with his mother waved his hand. Marilee glanced at the boy, then looked back at the monitor. Between the Bermuda shorts man and the little boy, where she should have been, there was only empty space.
Her billfold bounced on the green tiles and popped open, spilling grocery coupons and pennies. The Bermuda shorts man turned around and looked at her.
ýSorry,ý Marilee said, bending to pick up her things.
He shrugged. On the television, he shrugged at nothing. He shrugged at the air between himself and the little boy.
Marilee called the bank the following day. For a moment, she considered telling them there was something wrong with the security camera at the Wilson Street branch. Instead, she arranged to have her paycheck deposited directly into her account. She did not want to go back to the bank each Friday only to see that she wasnýt there.
She had made the appointment to get her hair cut weeks ago, but on Monday she thought of canceling. Steeling herself, Marilee arrived early for her appointment. But she had worried for nothing: The receptionist saw her, brought her tea, called her name when the stylist was ready. Seated in the elevated chair, Marilee was relieved to see her own reflection in the mirror at the beauticianýs station.
The stylistýs name was Toni, and she wore silver bracelets and eye make-up that reminded Marilee of pictures sheýd seen of ancient Egyptian women. Toni marveled at the length of Marileeýs hair, which was the color of charcoal, of shadow, and hung down her back, straight and heavy. She twisted Marileeýs hair around her hand and held it up.
ýLook at this hair! Itýs gorgeous! How can I cut it?ý
ýItýs too heavy,ý Marilee said. ýSometimes my head aches. From the weight of it.ý
ýHow much do we want to take off?ý
ýA lot.ý Marilee paused. ýSome. Enough.ý
ýDonýt worry,ý Toni said. ýWeýll only cut as much as you want. Did you have a particular style in mind?ý
Marilee frowned at her reflection. There was so much hair, her face seemed small in comparison, like a painting dwarfed by a thick, heavy frame. Toni ran her fingers through Marileeýs hair, gathered it in one hand, then dropped it, letting it cascade over Marileeýs shoulders. She considered the Marilee in the mirror.
ýI wonýt do anything drastic, sweetie,ý Toni said finally. She trimmed an inch of hair, then patted Marilee on the back and said, ýThat enough, hun?ý Her eyes still on the mirror, she brushed clippings from Marileeýs shoulders, then tucked a strand of hair behind Marileeýs ear. Her fingers were warm. ýDoes it look okay?ý
Wanting to ask Toni to take off another inch ý wanting to stay there in front of the mirror, and to feel the other womanýs eyes on her ý Marilee instead smiled at the stylistýs reflection and said, ýItýs perfect.ý
At home, she opened the phone book to Beauty Salons. There were more than a dozen along the bus route from her house to the office, and another six or seven within walking distance of the stop she used downtown. The Beauty Room, Shear Attractions, Normaýs, Lizetteýs, A Cut Above. She ran her finger down the column, choosing a phone number at random, and made an appointment for the following week.
Marilee worked nights in a law office three blocks from the bus stop. All night long, she worked alone, copying documents and shredding stacks of confidential records. Sometimes the stoop-shouldered janitor pushed his vacuum into the office and waved in her direction. After she started to disappear, she noticed that he never looked at her, just lifted his hand as he moved across the room, his vacuum already humming.
She liked the silence of the office at night, broken only by the sound of the heating system clicking on and off. She ate her lunch at midnight, took a coffee break at two in the morning, went home to sleep at dawn. On her way out of the lobby, she passed the employees of the other businesses in the building ý young accountants with heavy briefcases and somber ties, secretaries, businessmen and women already talking on cell phones. Before, the arriving workers greeted her with distracted smiles and pleasantries. Howýs it going? Looks like itýll be a nice day. Have a good one. But now the men and women swept past her, eyes on the ground or their watches, oblivious to her. They bumped her shoulder, slipped around her, saw through her. Marilee swallowed her voice, afraid to discover she could be neither seen nor heard.
At her neighborhood stop, Marilee disembarked through the side door of the bus while men and women on their way downtown boarded through the front. Her house was four short blocks from the bus stop, but she weaved through the neighborhood, cutting through yards and making use of hidden alleys. She had devised this route based on the avoidance of certain landmarks. Marilee was not the sort of person to keep mementos. Her least favorite word was souvenir. Because everything became a souvenir, eventually. Buildings, objects, and street corners ý they had memories. They absorbed and retained conversations, arguments, silences. And then they caught you unaware on your way home from work by reminding you of something that had happened months before, something you thought youýd forgotten. In the short time since she had moved to town, meaning had attached itself to the buildings along Marileeýs old route. When she walked down Chestnut Road past the secondhand store with the dusty model ship in its window, or the specialty coffee shop where the air outside smelled like burnt toast, it was like taking a tour through recent history. These places were haunted. She had discovered this in January, walking from the bus stop bundled in her winter coat. Stopping in front of the secondhand store, she had grown unaccountably cold. There was no wind, but the winter air found its way to her skin, burrowing beneath her scarf and climbing up her legs, under her skirt. Shivering, her teeth clenched, she had trudged home, where she spent the day in bed, feeling wilted, drained.
Now she took the long way home.
April was almost here. The snow had melted, leaving lengths of soft, black soil on either side of the paved walks leading to the front doors of the houses along Brookline Avenue. Soon, her neighbors would spend Saturday mornings planting chrysanthemums and pansies along those walks, but now the houses were quiet, their occupants still asleep. Somewhere, a dog barked. Marileeýs heels scraped against the sidewalk. It was easy to think of her neighborhood as a movie set, or a diorama. The houses could have been empty shells, constructed to be seen only from the outside, the lawns pieced together from squares of sod, the birdfeeders and trees and coiled garden hoses there only for show. Her neighborýs faces were like that, too ý friendly but indistinct, just as much a part of the set as the rosebushes and streetlamps.
There were names on mailboxes that she had memorized from this route but had never used. Abernathy. Hastings. The Grayling Family. The Picketts. She had always intended to introduce herself, to knock on doors and invite new neighbors over for coffee. How had so much time passed? The weeks immediately following the move were a blur, full of activity and distraction and six things that needed to be done at once. Thinking back to those first weeks last August was like looking through a fog. She saw muted figures, the movement of shadow ý and then nothing but the fog itself. How could she have been too busy to meet her neighbors? And now it was too late. Now, she couldnýt even be sure they would see her.
Her own house was quaint, charming, a perfect fit. The realtor had invented so many phrases to use in lieu of the obvious and more appropriate one-master-bedroom-with-a-hall-closet-masquerading-as-a-second-bedroom. There was an oak tree in the front yard from which to hang a tire swing, someday. There was a porch, and a picture window, and a garage. An oil stain in the empty driveway. Marilee collected the mail ý just bills ý and let herself inside.
Not pausing to take off her coat, she went straight to the bathroom and checked herself in the mirror above the sink. She was there, visible. But on her way from the office to the downtown bus stop, not more than an hour ago, sheýd been undetectable in the reflecting windows of the consignment shop on Vandalia. Was it medical? she wondered. Psychological? Had she inadvertently caused this herself?
She slipped out of her coat and hung it on the hook next to the front door. All winter, she had felt crowded, surrounded by too much stuff. Everywhere she walked, she bumped into tables and chairs, stubbed her toes on door jambs, tripped on the turned-up edges of rugs. Yesterday, sheýd cracked her head against the kitchen table while reaching for a pen sheýd dropped ý as if in the moment it took to bend down, the room had become smaller. As if the table had shifted to make space for other objects, things she couldnýt even see. In the master bedroom, clothes spilled out of the closet and single shoes lay strewn in the floor, searching for their partners. Eventually, she relinquished her room to stacks of old records, boxes of science fiction novels, running shoes. She moved her clothes from the bedroom closet to the laundry room off the kitchen. Her alarm clock, her toothbrush, a handful of favorite books: She found new homes for these things and began sleeping in the den on the hideaway bed.
In the kitchen, she put the tea kettle on to boil and poured herself a bowl of cornflakes. The cat could see her. He wound himself around her legs, purring, while she filled his water bowl. When she opened a can of tuna, though, he cocked his head but did not approach her.
ýHere, kitty.ý She dipped her fingers in the tuna oil and wiggled them at him.
He yowled once, turned around, sniffed the air.
Was her disappearance some kind of allergic reaction? Marilee dumped the tuna into the catýs bowl. He began to eat, but when she stroked his back, he startled and ran down the hall. Was it a symptom of some larger, more significant problem? But what could be more significant than this? Had anyone else ever ý the word caught in her throat, dry, leaflike, tasting of dust ý disappeared?
She got her hair cut again the following Monday. And that Thursday, and on Sunday, too. Each day, a different salon, a different stylist. Some of the salons were named after the women and men who ran them ý Raeýs, Alanaýs, Mr. Moeýs. Marilee liked the ones with funny or clever names: The Mane Thing. Hair Apparent. Snip, Snap! She liked the stylists, who were young and chatty, and talked about their jobs, the weather, TV shows that Marilee missed because of her unusual sleeping habits.
Sometimes they asked her questions, as if they were ladies at tea, or destined to be lifelong friends. Marilee gave them unrevealing answers: Yes, at a law office. I like it all right. Iýve never seen that show. To her own ears, they sounded like the answers of a stranger. She tried to recall other haircuts, other conversations with the stylist sheýd used when she still lived in St. Louis. In those days, sheýd gotten her hair trimmed two or three times a year, like a normal person, always using the same stylistýShannon, who had colorful tattoos on one arm from shoulder to wrist, like a sleeve.
On a Tuesday late in April, the bus driver closed the door before she could board. Marilee walked home in steady rain; her thin jacket was pasted wetly to her shoulders and back by the time she unlocked her door. That morning, before going to bed for the day, she made an appointment with Richard at A Cut Above.
She needed how each stylist looked at her ý really looked ý before concluding the appointment. At A Cut Above, Richard swiveled Marileeýs chair so that it faced the mirror. Her hair curled under just at chin-level, shorter now than it had been in a year. Richard examined her reflection, sliding his hands down the sides of her face, ensuring that the cut was even.
ýWhat do you think?ý
Wishing she had more to say, Marilee nodded her approval. ýI love it.ý
That Saturday, she came home to find the light on her answering machine blinking. A handful of friends had left messages after the new year, and an aunt had called before Christmas, inviting Marilee to spend the holidays with her, but Marilee had never returned those calls. By Valentineýs Day, her phone had stopped ringing altogether. The old messages were still saved on her machine, though. She had played them over and over through January and February. Her friendsý voices sounded strange, as if they were phoning from halfway around the world.
She pressed the button on the answering machine. The machine hummed a moment, then sent her friend Genevieveýs voice into the den.
ýMarilee? Itýs me. I havenýt heard from you in a while, and I know Mike and Ollie have tried calling, too. Weýre worried about you. I want to come out and see you. I know you must be having a hard timeýý
Marilee yanked the machineýs cord from the wall outlet, cutting Genevieve off before she could say more. Looping the cord around the machine, she carried it upstairs, opened the bedroom door, and tossed the machine inside.
Maybe it was better to disappear, she thought. Years ago, after her mother died, Marilee had watched her father do his own disappearing act. Physically, he remained visible, showing up each morning at the breakfast table, ferrying her to school in his red pickup, hunching over her desk to help her with long division in the evening. There were many times, though, when she had called his name from the kitchen ý over and over, louder each time ý then went searching, only to find him in the next room, seated at the dinner table, his hands folded, his gaze fixed on nothing. He was easy to sneak up on. Even when she stood before him, directly in his line of sight, his eyes failed to register her. It took her hand on his shoulder to bring his mind back to his body. Then he would smile and pull her onto his lap, his stubbled cheek scratching her face as they hugged.
But he never completely disappeared, and in time her father grew present again ý for her sake, Marilee suspected. But she had no children to care for. Her father had died years ago. Even the cat could survive without her. If she disappeared completely, who would notice?
She had been alone many times before, but she couldnýt remember ever having felt lonely, until now. Even as an only child, she had never longed for siblings. Happy in her solitude, she had climbed the apple tree behind her fatherýs house, clenching a paperback book between her teeth as she maneuvered from limb to limb. There was a certain branch halfway up the tree that split into a V, where she liked to sit and read. She remembered it vividly: Her father, sneaking up on her as she sat absorbed in her book, reaching into the branches and grabbing her ankles, snatching her from her perch. It was like dying. The suddenness of it ý the plummeting stomach, the certainty of impact, the anticipation of hard ground beneath her broken self. She had dropped her book ý Sense and Sensibility landed in a puddle ý but her father had not dropped her. And her scream dissolved into laughter as he carried her into the house, even though she was too old to be carried.
Even now, she remembers it as though it had happened only days ago.
The grocery store, the bookstore where she bought her monthly magazines, the post office: She hesitated before going inside, bracing herself for the possibility that no one would see her. It happened more and more often. Walking from the office to her bus stop each morning was an obstacle course; she threaded her way between people on the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding crushed toes and collisions. Her body bore bruises from the impacts she was too slow to avoid. Strangers spun around, rubbing their elbows or shoulders. She could see ýexcuse meý on their lips, but when they saw that they had apparently run into nothing, the words died before they hit the air. Some never reacted at all.
She had gotten her hair cut eleven times and was on her way to a twelfth appointment when she found herself passing the floor-to-ceiling windows of Beauty Mark, where Toni worked. Marilee hurried down the sidewalk, hoping that Toni would not glance out the window and see her. Her hair was shorter than it had ever been before, in what the last stylist had called a ýPixie cut.ý What if Toni recognized her, what if she thought Marilee had lied, had hated the haircut sheýd gotten at Beauty Mark? Yet as she passed the window, her pace slowed until she dragged her feet across the pavement. She moved glacially, staring through the glass at the black-smocked beauticians inside.
Toni was there, laughing at something a spiky-haired coworker was saying. Before she realized what she was doing, Marilee tapped her fingernails on the glass. Toni looked up from the appointment book she was holding and locked eyes with Marilee. For an instant, Marilee felt the stylistýs gaze attach itself to her, pulling at her, drinking her in. But the feeling lasted only a secondýless. Toni searched for what she had seen only a moment before, and frowned.
At Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, the reception area was empty. Marilee cleared her throat and announced, ýIým here for my appointment!ý She waited. In a nearby room, rock music blared through static on a radio. There was a small silver bell on the desk. Marilee rang it once, twice. She touched her hairýthere was hardly any left; the only thing to do now was ask the stylist to give her a crew cut, or shave her head bald.
The song ended.
ýHello?ý Marilee wished there was a mirror over the front desk. Instead, there was a clock, its second hand ticking audibly. Womenýs voices rose and fell in the next room. Someone laughed.
Finally, she turned to go. Her hip struck the desk, knocking the bell onto the floor. It clanged as it rolled behind a chair.
The stylist who appeared in the doorway to the adjacent room scanned the reception area. ýWeird.ý
ýHey, Deb,ý a voice called from the other room. ýWhatýre you doing? Mrs. Haines needs a rinse.ý
ýI thought I heard the bell,ý Deb replied.
Marilee let the door swing closed behind her.
Marilee began spending evenings before work at the library, scouring the shelves for a book that would give her an answer. The Physicianýs Handbook. Medical Marvels. The Doctorýs Index of Uncommon Diseases. Fantastic Cases in Medicine. She worked her way through the medical section until one day, standing at the reference desk with a call number on the index card in her hand, she felt the library clerkýs gaze slip through her. Marilee cleared her throat. The young manýs eyes found her, then grew unfocused again. He turned his back to her and began filing papers in a cabinet behind the counter.
There was a stack of heavy books on the corner of the reference table. Marilee seized the top book and, lifting it above her head, slammed it against the wooden surface of the desk.
The clerk spun around. ýJeez, lady. Was that really necessary?ý
ýDo you see me?ý Marilee asked.
ýOf course I see you. What can I do for you?ý
Marilee had forgotten the index card, which sheýd balled up in her fist. The clerk raised his eyebrows, waiting for her question. ýYou got a call number on that card? Let me help you find what you need.ý
ýYou canýt,ý Marilee said. Already, she could see, the clerkýs eyes were growing fuzzy again. He was losing sight of her. ýYou donýt really see me. You donýt have any idea whatýs happening to me!ý
She turned on her heel and ran for the exit.
She bought subscriptions to The New Yorker and Time magazine so she wouldnýt have to stop at the bookstore anymore. She found a grocer who made deliveries, leaving the items she ordered outside her front door, sending her a bill in the mail once a month. At work, she sat at the receptionistýs desk and used the computer while she ate her lunch, ordering the things she needed onlineýstamps, a new bra, a pair of gardening gloves.
As summer approached, the weather became spectacular. Sunlight invaded the den, pouring in through the picture window and making the cat jump at illuminated dust motes floating in the air. She couldnýt remember the last time the cat had seen her. Each morning, he tilted his head quizzically at the food that had magically appeared in his bowl.
With all this light, she couldnýt sleep. The curtains on the picture window were seafoam green, made of a nearly transparent fabric. Upstairs, there were heavy dark blue curtains packed away in a box in the master bedroom. Light-obliterating curtains. Unattainable, locked-away curtains. Why had she crammed everything into that bedroom, hiding it from sight? Countless things, things she missed. Things she needed, like the glass casserole pan with the daisies etched on the side. The coffee press. The rabbit-shaped corkscrew.
And she was constantly discovering other questionable objects, things sheýd previously thought safe. A set of wooden bookends. A black nylon duffel bag. The iron. Like the secondhand store and the coffee shop on Chestnut Road, these items were haunted. She hated that word, hated to think of ghosts hovering in the corners of rooms, waiting to pounce on her when she was least prepared. But that was exactly what happened: She picked up the iron to smooth the wrinkles from a blouse now, and suddenly she was slamming the iron down on the kitchen table almost a year ago, shouting, ýFine! You iron your shirtsýI never wanted the job!ý From there, she found herself recalling other fights, other reconciliations, other days when absolutely nothing happened except the ordinary mechanics of a marriageýwake, shower, cook, clean, work, make love, sleep. She remembered these things in minute detail, every inflection of voice, every gesture, every object in the room.
It was so simple to be sideswiped, then swept away. And so Marilee tossed the iron, the bookends, the bag into the bedroom along with all the other things she needed to avoid, including the bed itself, and the closet full of sports jackets and blue jeans and neck ties.
Saturday was particularly bad. She woke in the afternoon, twisted in her sheets, her neck aching. After dressing, she tried to read her book. Each time she reached the end of a line, her eyes dropped off the page and darted around the room, as if sheýd heard a sound and was searching for its source. Finally, she spotted the stereoýs remote control, half-hidden under the coffee table. Its top and bottom pieces were held together with grimy masking tapeýthe only thing theyýd had in the house to fix it. Marilee snatched it and, taking the stairs to the second floor two at a time, opened the bedroom door just wide enough to throw the remote inside.
After that, the stereo itself had to go. And the box of mixed tapes she found behind the stereo cabinet. Returning to the den from her third trip upstairs, she spotted the mug on the end table, the one sheýd used for yesterdayýs coffee. It was blue, emblazoned with the call letters for the St. Louis public radio station, and had a chipped rim. How had she not noticed it before? It had to go. As did the phone book, a lamp in the hallway, a set of chopsticks, two pairs of her own socks, and both of the crock pots she found in the kitchen pantryýduplicate wedding presents theyýd somehow never gotten rid of.
The yellow curtains over the kitchen window, tooýshe took them down. Through the naked window, Marilee spotted a boy in her back yard. At first, all she could see of him was his shirt, a bright red flash visible between the branches of the apple tree he was climbing. Then he emerged on the lowest limb, sitting down and swinging his feet. He was eight or nine, with blond hair and denim cutoffs. Placing his hands on the branch, he launched himself into the air and landed neatly on the grass. He pulled brown sneakers onto his bare feet, stood andýlooking directly at the kitchen window, where Marilee stood looking back at himýwaved.
Before she could register the significance of his gesture, the boy dashed from Marileeýs yard, down the alley behind her house and out of sight. She was left to study the tree heýd been climbingýan apple tree she remembered from her childhood, one that didnýt belong in the yard of a house sheýd lived in less than a year.
Yet it was exactly the same as she remembered. The place where a dead limb had been cut off, the exposed wood painted over with tar. The bare ground around the trunk, where puddles gathered when it rained. The branch that split in two, forming a V perfect for sitting and reading. This was why sheýd kept the yellow curtains drawn over the kitchen window; she told herself to hang them again and erase the view of the backyard. Instead, she turned from the counter and went outside to stand on the small patio behind the house.
The truth was, sheýd lived in the city as a child. And she had dreamed of climbing trees. Was it so difficult, then, to remove this tree ý this particular apple tree ý from where it belonged (here, behind the house, their home, the first thing theyýd owned together) and to plant it in some safer, less immediate place in her history? It had been easy, just as avoiding the coffee shop was easy. She had hidden everything else from sight, had locked doors, had sold the car, had mapped out the safest routes. But there would always be something else, an unexpected trap that would trigger her memory. The simplest thing ý a Halloween pumpkin in the Abernathyýs yard, a Styrofoam cup in the gutter on Cape Street, the stereo remote with its gummy masking tape. She never kept anything out of sentimentality, believing that memory was stronger than an object or a photograph. And it turned out, she was right. She could disappear, but he would not. He clung to objects, to life, persistently, even after death.
Standing before the apple tree, Marilee placed a hand on the trunk. She lifted herself onto the lowest branch and thought of the stack of books on the coffee table, the copy of Sense and Sensibility on the bottom of the pile. It was not the same one sheýd dropped into the puddle under the tree last fall, but a new copy, a replacement for the sodden paperback. Because she couldnýt live without that book, her favorite, but she couldnýt live with the copy sheýd dropped when he grabbed her out of the tree. This tree.
Marilee sat in the V where sheýd spent her afternoons late last August. Stolen minutes when she should have been unpacking the legion of boxes they had accumulated over the years. How do we end up with so much stuff? Had she said this, or had he? After so much time together, so many conversations, it was impossible to remember who said what. When unpacking became overwhelming, she had fled the house and climbed her new tree with her book held between her teeth. The leaves hid her well, so that her dangling feet were the only sign of her to anyone looking out the kitchen window.
Now she could not climb down. No matter: She felt dry as a husk, light enough to be carried out of the branches by a breeze. She closed her eyes, and waited to be snatched from the tree. It would be like dying.
When the cat went missing, Marilee did not panic ý at first. After all, getting a cat had not been her idea. But concessions are made when there are two of you. Things are agreed upon. Genevieve, who had gotten married a year before Marilee, had told her this. Donýt fight over a cat, she advised. There will be bigger things to fight over soon enough.
Marilee wondered if the cat, like herself, had disappeared. Was it contagious? Had she somehow contaminated the cat, perhaps by touching his food or poisoning the air inside the house with her own breath? Would two disappeared creatures be able to detect each other?
A week after the cat had gone missing, faint meowing woke Marilee from her sleep. It seemed to be coming from outside the front door, but when she opened it, the cat was nowhere to be seen. And so she found herself pulling jeans on under her robe, slipping her bare feet into her sneakers, so she could prowl the neighborhood, calling for him. ýHere, kitty. Come out, come out! Kitty-kitty-kitty.ý She clicked her tongue as she wandered, checking under bushes, grateful for once that no one could see her. ýCome on!ý she shouted, stomping a foot. ýStupid cat! Where are you?ý The sky had grown dark with thunderheads. She wiped her nose, which had begun to drip. ýWhy do I even bother?ý
But she knew; the answer was easy. Because what if he came back? An impossible notion, but still: What if he came back, and the cat wasnýt there?
She circled the neighborhood, cutting across the Abernathyýs lawn to the alley leading back to her house. As she neared her own yard, Marilee slowed her steps. The boy was back. He perched in the V of the apple tree, this time dressed in a blue shirt and dingy khaki shorts. Oblivious to her, he observed the neighborhood through a pair of binoculars.
Across the alley, in the yard adjacent to her own, Marilee saw the fuzzy shadow of a woman behind a flat white sheet hanging from a clothesline. Her legs were visible below the edge of the sheet. The woman plucked pins from the line and dropped her clean laundry into the basket at her feet.
The breeze picked up, lifting the sheets on the clothesline, sending peals of music into the air from the wind chime on the womanýs porch. Beneath the sleeves of her robe, Marileeýs skin prickled.
Her husband had been a runner. He liked to wake up early in the morning while she slept in. This was before she had found her job at the law office, before he started teaching English and government classes at the high school. Every morning, he would go running, returning sweaty in his jogging shorts and bringing reports on what heýd found: The grade school nearby has a slide. The blossoms are falling from the cherry trees on Olive Street. The neighbors got a dog. He brought gifts, too, from the coffee shop or the secondhand store. Squares of carrot cake in cardboard boxes. A potholder with a needlepointed frog. Styrofoam cups of coffee. A wind chime he had promised to hang near the front door.
The wind chime was in Marileeýs bedroom now.
The little boy clambered down from the tree and trotted across the alley. He tugged on the womanýs hand, then pointed to Marilee.
ýAsk her, Mama,ý the boy said, pulling the womanýs hand again.
ýMarilee?ý the woman said. ýItýs Marilee, isnýt it?ý
The first drops of rain fell, landing on her face and arms.
ýIým Claire,ý said the woman. She picked up the laundry basket and handed it to her son, then shooed him inside. Gravel in the alley crunched under her feet as she walked toward Marilee. ýItýs nice to finally meet you.ý Claire shook her head. ýGod, that sounds stupid. I feel terrible about everything. I know we donýt know each other, but weýre neighbors, andýwell, I should have come to see you.ý
Words gathered on Marileeýs tongue, bottlenecked at her lips.
ýIým sorry,ý Claire said. ýI heard what happened, and Iým really sorry, Marilee. How are you?ý
At last, she found her voice. ýIým here.ý
Iým here! He announced it every time he returned from a run. Always bearing news and presents. Directions to the library. Blueberry muffins. A photo heýd taken with his digital camera of two fat crows atop the street sign on Chestnut Road.
Silence fell between the two women. ýI miss him,ý Claire said suddenly. ýI mean, I never really met your husband. But I used to see him jogging every morning when I dropped my son off at school. He always said hi to me, like we were old friends. Your husband.ý
ýAaron,ý Marilee said.
From the porch of Claireýs house, the little boy called, ýAsk her, Mama! Donýt forget!ý
ýThatýs my son, Matt,ý Claire said. ýHe wants to know if itýs all right to climb your tree. I guess Aaron told him he could. Apparently, the two of them were buddies. I saw them playing Frisbee together a couple times, but I never came out to introduce myself.ý She touched Marileeýs hand. ýI should have taken the time. Iým sorry I never met him. Or you.ý
The morning newspaper. Cinnamon rolls thick with icing. Descriptions of the flowers outside the post office. These were the things Aaron had brought her in the days before the accident, the things she could not get rid of, no matter how many rooms she sealed off, no matter how she weaved her way through the neighborhood. Had he known? she wondered. Had he presented these objects as going-away presents, attaching himself to this new town so that she would remember? He had told her once that as a child, heýd developed a fear that the earthýs gravity might one day fail to hold him there, that he would float away, untethered, growing smaller and smaller in the sky until he disappeared altogether. Thatýs what itýs like when you die, sheýd said, not knowing. How could she have known? You didnýt disappear when you died. You left others behind to do that, stark, naked, invisible in their grief.
The rain began to fall in earnest.
ýWeýre going to get soaked if we stay out here much longer,ý Claire said. She put her arms around Marilee impulsively. ýIým glad I saw you, Marilee.ý
They parted, promising to meet again soon for coffee. But Marilee did not return to her own house right away. Later, she would go inside and open up the bedroom. She would sift through Aaronýs belongings, returning things to their proper places in the house. When the cat found its way back, she would welcome it home. She would learn to live with these things ý the house, the cat, the residue of her previous life. She would fit them in, not wanting to forget, but moving, necessarily, ahead.
For now, though, she walked down the sidewalk past picket fences and flower gardens, under the growing rain, her robe damp and heavy, her shoes waterlogged. All along the street, the windows in the houses held the silhouettes of her neighbors ý Abernathy, Grayling, Hastings ý who looked out at the storm and saw her: a woman with short, dark hair looking back at them, and waving.