Weekend fiction returns in 2013 with excerpts from Gillian Devereux’s unpublished book, All About. Here we learn about a family in pieces, about x and about y. These abouts add up to a larger work we can look forward to seeing in its whole. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
About the Parents
Long ago, the parents used to be people. They used to wake when they wanted and sleep alone. They had little use for money, little time for labor. The father spent what he had on beer and typewriter ribbon, spent his afternoons on the boardwalk reading novels written in another century. The mother sewed all her own clothes. She frequented second hand stores and sidewalk cafes, wore coral lipstick, carried a camera she never used. They met for the first time at the height of summer, on a cold July morning, the wind and rain throwing salt and sand in their faces, throwing strangers together at the drugstore lunch counter. They ordered coffee and sandwiches. Later they shared a piece of cherry pie. Later the sun returned, and he asked to borrow her camera. He took her picture as she stood at the water’s edge, her head tilted towards the horizon, her eyes grey and clouded.
About the One They Forgot
The baby refused to use words to articulate its thoughts and opinions. This is a common practice among babies.
If the baby had been willing to speak, it might have described itself as a machine built to make demands. Certainly the mother would have described the baby this way, if she had ever taken the time to consider the baby and its purpose in the world. The mother thought of the baby rarely, if at all, although she occasionally experienced a vague sense of unease—a slight pull on some invisible cord, a string tied round her finger to remind her of some vital task.
The father felt he should love the baby and resolved to spend more time with it. He perched by its side like an anxious bird, kept one hand on the shallow rise and fall of its fragile chest, marveled at the strange translucence of its seamless skin.
About the Help
The mother and the father disagreed often and loudly. Their disagreements were primarily of a semantic nature. They disagreed on the difference between foyer and anteroom, between cellar and basement, between love and affection. They disagreed on the best way to raise children and the surest way to avoid the less pleasant aspects of parenthood.
The father favored hiring a nanny, preferably one of Eastern European descent with wavy hennaed hair and impossibly sad eyes. The mother considered nannies far less desirable than governesses. She felt nannies lacked mystique and required constant supervision.
In the end they compromised on a girl who answered to both titles, among others. Her straight black hair disappointed the father, but no one could deny the sorrow in her eyes. It clouded her pupils, left them dark as blown out stars.
About the Nanny
Like many in her profession, the nanny disliked children. She found their bodies misleadingly compact and complex. Children bruised too easily and tired too slowly. They had unpredictable appetites and incomprehensible desires. They had secrets.
The nanny had secrets too, but she never flaunted them the way children do. Her secrets remained secret, lodged between her ribs and lungs, fixed in place with a sharp needle of doubt, kept quiet. If she drank too much, or slept too little, her secrets would squirm in their hiding place, twist this way and that, try to slip past her trachea, slide over her larynx, slither out. She caught them every time.
She caught the sisters too, showed them up, stared them down. They tried to outwit her. Outrun her. Outlast.
Sometimes she let them think they had won. Sometimes she let them win, sat patiently while they spoke to each other in their inverted, invented language, let the soothing rhythms of their shrouded syntax seduce her, let a rare smile lull them into a false sense of security.
About the Governess
Governesses exist not only in books but also in real life. A governess is like a nanny, only better and more aristocratic. This particular governess had excellent bone structure and unusually delicate pores; she had a slight frame and a slight accent. In the right light, she could pass for twenty. In the right light, she could pass through a room unseen, fill her pockets with castoff toys and abandoned trinkets, leave nothing behind to prove her existence. A governess and a nanny are not the same thing, except in this particular case, except on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and alternate Saturdays, except when a nanny seems necessary. The governess often played nanny after lights out, when the sisters woke from feverish, fitful dreams or the father needed a soft, unyielding voice in his ear.
About the Father
A father gets frustrated, just like anyone. Just like anyone, a father has hopes and dreams and diffuse desires. The shape of desire will shift over time, but its weight remains constant. There are always new cravings to carry.
The father keeps his boyhood ambitions in a safety deposit box, hidden among birth certificates and savings bonds and deeds of ownership. He rarely visits them. He barely remembers his adolescence—his portable typewriter with its faulty carriage, his first job at the train depot, his exotic college girlfriend (from Finland, he thinks, although perhaps she was only Swedish). The sisters pull at his sleeves, demand to be held, insist on his undivided attention. The mother taunts him with her muted perfection. Despite his best efforts, the things he never wanted to happen continue to happen.
About the Cellar
Like any subterranean space, the cellar frightens and protects in equal measure. It offers warmth in winter, shade in summer, secrecy in any season. Layers of stone and soil soundproof the cellar, insulating it from eavesdroppers and peeping toms. The father has filled the cellar with wooden shelves, filled each shelf with stores from his garden. Sometimes boredom drives the sisters underground, where they hide among the piles of apples and potatoes, carve messages into the dirt walls, count the beets and snap peas carefully curated in squat glass jars. The jars circle the room. They glisten in the half-light, their muted jeweled tones pulsing softly like lighthouse beacons.
The baby prefers the cellar to all other places; the baby seems to appreciate the way it curves inward and downward, seems to crave the earthy smell. And the quiet. And the darkness, thick and heavy.
About the Garden
The father has heard that the future is a cold and sterile place. He sees the future when he tries to sleep, imagines it falling from the sky without warning, blanketing the house, smothering the sisters, covering the world with a thick silty darkness. In the future, there will be less of everything.
The father has chosen a garden as his best defense against destiny. He has researched all the hardiest crops, planted only the most prolific, the most determined. He has trained the plants to survive, to endure long winters and sterile summers. Each year the garden emerges victorious. Cucumbers and squash choking the ground. Tomatoes and peppers slung low on the trellis. Herbs and lettuces returning each season, crisp and green and fragrant.
At the mother’s request, the father also cultivates certain fruits. He has planted a pear tree, some bush cherries, a dwarf apple hedge. The mother prefers lemons. She likes to eat them with salt. She likes to float them in her tea. They remind her of the beach where she and the father first met, how they stayed in the sun until their sweat soured. The father thinks a lemon tree could live inside the house given enough light, enough heat. He knows he must hurry. The future comes when you least expect it.