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Declining Rooms

Lori ran out of her house and into the rain. She didn’t bother to lock the door or check the mailbox or feed the cats. She’d left her lipstick and earrings on the bathroom sink. Her umbrella was inside the hall closet, lost underneath a jumble of Cody’s Earth shoes. And her favorite leather jacket was flung on the back of a kitchen chair. Raindrops tapped her shoulders with cold fingers. Her clogs smacked the sidewalk and pinpricks of water stung her ankles – she had even forgotten to put on socks.

In the car’s rearview mirror, she watched her garbage can tumble onto the street. It lolled, open mouthed on the pavement. Cody had promised to bring it in last night, yet, there it was – a big round O of emptiness, flailing on the wet cement. She should have retrieved it, but the thought of going back made her teeth grind. So, she left it there, a fallen soldier in the sanitation service.

The lower end of her street had flooded; she slowed to a crawl, scraping the underbelly of her car though the rough currents. The houses rose up around her like an aluminum sided Venice. Somerville was once the most densely populated city in Massachusetts. And these formerly wooden saltboxes with dormers expanding the roofline, and rooms added above porches, and porches enclosed for extra rooms, grew together, multiplying and dividing until the entire neighborhood was ready to topple around her.   

She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and coasted through – the road a thick blanket bunching up beneath her. Tiny sharp teeth of snow jutted up from brown patches of lawn and all she could think about was open mouths. Every house resembled a gaping maw, each driveway, a heavy cement tongue reaching for her in the road.   

On these shiny streets, she soon found herself stopped at a traffic light next to the organic grocery store where Cody worked. Force of habit had brought her here. Nine years of dropping him off and picking him up, overseeing his rise from produce boy to Assistant Team Leader, the car just naturally drove itself. She thought to go in and tell him about the garbage can. She imagined finding him in his green goddess baseball cap itemizing cartons of soy milk and pictured throwing a quinoa salad in his face. The container would burst open and carrot curls and quinoa pellets would explode all over his neatly trimmed beard. His co-workers would be shocked right down to their hemp underwear: Poor Cody, his crazy girlfriend is at it again.

She turned into the parking lot, sloshing through puddles of standing water. Cody was outside writing something on the chalkboard display. She slipped in behind a white van and watched: his neat, block letters making perfect right angles. She could never leave a man with such careful penmanship.

The clock on the dash blinked 11:55 – she was going to be late for work. Lori was a pastry chef at a trendy south-end restaurant; she had a cake in the walk-in she needed to frost and deliver.

She waited until Cody closed his box of colored chalk. Watched him retreat inside, his shoulders stretching the seams of his Organic Panic t-shirt. There was a small tear on the back. She drove away thinking about sticking her finger into that hole.

The gray pavement rolled out before her. The double yellow lines coupled peacefully down the center of the road. When she thought about it rationally, she really had nothing to be angry about: garbage cans on the pavement, socks on the floor, razor stubble in the sink. These were little things that a more evolved person would overlook. But the broken legs on the stove she could not forgive. That was the straw that gave the camel scoliosis. That was what sent her out of her house this morning reeling into the rain: years and years of broken promises. Each one a pebble of disappointment that finally drove her under.        

Months ago, one of the tiny legs had come off the stove causing it to tilt. This wrecked havoc with the recipes she tested, creating misshapen muffins, deformed petit fours and lady fingers with a bad case of arthritis. Cody had been promising to fix the stove for weeks. She would have done it herself but it was too heavy to lift. And what was a boyfriend for if not the heavy lifting? Last night, she’d confronted him with a tray of lopsided cupcakes, thrusting the mangled things under his nose like Medea presenting Jason with their bloody children: “This is your fault,” she said to Cody’s impassive face.       

Lori wasn’t a woman who took disappointments lightly. All problems required a plan of action. Every setback needed to be confronted and negotiated. But whenever she was primed for confrontation, Cody bombarded her with silence. He would stare down at her from a thousand feet up launching his missiles of silence while the sound of her own voice detonated around her.

He looked reproachfully at the cupcakes and adjusted his glasses. “I’ll fix it in the morning,” he said. Then he didn’t speak for the rest of the night, making it seem like she was outrageous and demanding.

And sometimes she thought she was outrageous and demanding. Cody never raised his voice, never criticized. He remained calm and ambivalent – a bewildered owl in a tree of self-composure. The most he would do was let out a stifled sigh and withdraw to his computer screen, battling aliens or reconfiguring spreadsheets on the wholesale cost of cheese. The only way to reach him was with loud noises and big gestures. She was turning into one of those shrieking, gesticulating women with the quiet, attentive husbands whom everybody pities. 

She arrived at the restaurant, and went straight to the walk-in to make sure the photo transfer paper had hardened correctly on the cake. Allison, the owner, outsourced these papers from a specialty shop that printed photos with edible ink. Lori believed photo cakes a vulgar passing fad akin to parachute pants and flip-flops with heels. But they brought in a lot of money and Allison insisted they sell them.

The icing on the paper looked good; it depicted Sylvia Plath standing in front of a broken-down bookcase. Lori added some personal touches to give the cake dimension. Loading her piping bag, she added a butter cream border and thickened the poet’s hair with a yellow glaze. She contemplated drawing a tiny oven in the background but concluded it might dampen the celebration. In a neat cursive, she drew: Congratulations, Lucile Lou Crenshaw.

The cake had to be delivered past the Berkshires in New York State. Allison was away and insisted Lori make the two and a half hour drive herself. She placed the cake inside a large white box and put it on a pillow in the passenger seat of her car. She secured it with bungee cords and headed for the Mass Pike.

Beyond the city, rain pounded her car like God had spilled a bucket of ball-bearings. On the radio, Celene Dion was extrapolating about “The Power of Love.” Lori accelerated, kicking up streams of water. The faster she drove the better she felt. Water was whooshing past on all sides. In her rearview, two lines of spray trailed behind her like jet propulsion. She imagined racing towards a finish with ribbons and prizes and all her bad feelings about Cody washed away. 

As the car rounded a curve near Springfield, the steering wheel started to shake. The speedometer hovered at eighty miles an hour. She looked over at the white cake box; Sylvia Plath as a copilot didn’t inspire confidence. She’d been on the road over an hour and a half. The side windows had fogged and fingers of condensation held her in a watery grip. The speakers blasted Mariah Carey howling about her “Vision of Love,” squeezing out the high notes like mellifluous torture: love me, love me, don’t let me be alone. Women everywhere were shrieking from fear and calling it love. She needed to get out of the car.

She drove into a strip mall with a T.J. Maxx. A penitent idea formed in her head: she would buy Cody some socks as a gesture of forgiveness. He was always complaining that he never had enough clean socks. His feet sweated profusely and he needed to wear two pair at a time. Usually, he would leave them balled up on the floor and it was her job to decouple them and put them in the wash. Without her there, the dirty laundry would pile up and take over the room. She imagined Cody getting out of bed and pathetically wading through a lake of sticky socks. 

In the store, the fluorescent lights cast a blue tint on the merchandise, which was thrown on tables like so much chicken feed for peckish shoppers. She fingered some ladies underwear: Lycra, Spandex and Nylon – the three muses of yeast infection. She found some plain cotton panties and moved through the racks of women’s tops. The clothes here were all made by and for Filipino children. She picked up a small bottle of hand lotion, a five-pack of toothbrushes, and made her way to men’s department. What does it mean when a man in his late thirties still wears tube socks? She chose a pack of low-rise cotton socks, thinking to preserve the hair on his ankles. Not that anyone could notice, and not that he cared himself, but Cody had started to lose his ankle hair. Somehow she found this tragic – beyond tragic – embarrassing. Wrinkles she could accept, varicose veins she would tolerate, but Cody’s ankles looked enfeebled without hair. If they could make a pill for ninety-year-old men to achieve erections, Lori wanted something to preserve hairy ankles.

Cody had a very fine coating of reddish hair on his white legs, moving up to swirling dark tuffs on his back and chest. He was like a woolly asparagus fern with long pale roots under the soil. She used to imagine the swirling arcs of hair on his back were angel’s wings, and that during sex she was being visited by something divine and swanlike. Though lately, she found those arcs more apelike than swanlike. And trying to speak to Cody was akin to communicating with an ape. Not one of those pampered science lab apes with five hundred word vocabularies, but a backwards jungle ape who scratched the dirt and grunted.

Last week, she had come home after an exhausting day and a vicious fight with Allison. Cody was in the kitchen preparing tuna fillets. The cats were sitting at his feet, eyes wide with expectation, ears perked to every thwap of his knife.   

“I think I have to quit my job.” She slammed her purse on the stove. 

 Cody spooned some marinade over the tuna, and began chopping red peppers. 

“Allison took my layer cake off the menu.” 

He looked up from his vegetables. “Oh.”

Lori’s Brown Study Layer Cake was her signature desert, a tall cylinder in five shades of beige: milk chocolate cheesecake at bottom, moving up through a caramel layer, a butter pecan ice cream layer, and a yellow layer topped with white chocolate. She firmly believed in giving life layers. If Cody were a cake, he’d be angel food without the frosting.

“She thinks she can unilaterally redesign the menu without consulting me.” Lori took a piece of red pepper and chewed it angrily. 

“We wrote-up a guy in prepared foods today,” Cody offered. “For sneezing into the potato salad.”

“She wants tiramisu. Every Italian restaurant in the city has tiramisu.”

Cody broke apart a head of lettuce in the sink.

“She told me I was her ’employee.’ She said it. Just like that. Employee.”

The cats pranced around the kitchen, their tails in the air, twining around Cody’s legs.

“Do you want some tuna, meow monsters?” Cody threw down a few scraps of tuna to them. Then he exclaimed in the voice of the cats: “We love tuna. We love the tuna fishes.” In Cody’s world all cats spoke like baby space aliens.

“So. Should I just suck it up? Or. Do I give notice?”   

Cody was holding up pieces of tuna and making the cats jump into the air. “Oh, that’s a high one. You’re a circus cat, you are.” 

“Jesus Christ Cody.” She folded her arms across her chest.

Cody rinsed his hands in the sink. “I don’t know.” Then he looked down at the cats. “What do you guys think? Should she quit her job?” The cats followed his hand, waiting for more tuna to appear. “We don’t care. We don’t care, as long as we have lots of tuna fishes.”

Once passed the New York State line, the rain turned into a fine mist, making the cars ahead seem wavy around the edges. She thought of ghost cars, and pictured herself driving right through them. After almost three hours on the road, she believed she could drive through anything: her nine-year relationship, her dead-end job, the crow’s feet forming around her eyes. Though being in a different state, geographically if not emotionally, gave her some feeling of accomplishment. The meandering hills of the Berkshires had matured into these portentous tree-topped mountains, exposing their rocky insides as the highway sliced them in half.

She took the Austerlitz exit, and followed the directions Allison had written down. She was going to The Millay Colony, which Allison had mentioned was the former home of Edna St. Vincent-Millay. The road was unpaved and quite steep, heaps of snow mounded over the sides, forming a tunnel effect. Edna St. Vincent-Millay was one of about five female poets that Lori could pick out of a list. She remembered her from some women’s studies class as the first female poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, though she couldn’t recall any of her poems.

After several bumpy minutes, the narrow path opened onto a field with patches of melting snow. A white barn and an old horse stable abutted the road. On the other side stood a meandering clapboard house: the porch stairs had collapsed, and a gutter dangled from the roofline. An old shrub rose had insinuated itself between the storm windows of the house. Beneath the protective glass, fluffy carcasses of brown roses hung like giant spiders guarding their nest. 

At the edge of the field, a woman sat on a stool sketching, a blue recycling bag tented over her pad to protect it from the mist. Her large frame was bundled into a quilted parka and a wide brimmed fisherman’s hat covered her head. She scrutinized a gnarled tree whose lower trunk was encircled by a ring of ice, as if nature had performed some secret marriage ceremony. She scratched frantically at her pad. Behind the tree, one could see miles of rolling valley and the last sliver of sun jabbing a line of pink on the horizon. 

Lori felt a constriction in her throat. The woman looked forlorn in that field with her Hefty bag and collapsible stool. She was too small compared to the expansive tree, whose movements stretched out leisurely through time. That tree would live another fifty years, to have another middle-aged woman sit down in drizzly April to sketch it, not to mention other artists, painters and poets. Millay herself probably wrote about that tree. Lori visualized all the sheets of paper used to commemorate this tree: the unfinished sonnets, the blotchy watercolors, the inspirational hymns created over time and piled, side by side, taller and wider than the tree itself. Every one of those sheets of paper marked someone’s isolation, someone’s failure to connect. Someone standing alone in a field or in bed with a pencil. Someone staring at an empty white square trying to fill it up.

She stepped out of the car. Cold pinpricks of snow landed on her bare ankles as she splashed through the soggy grass. She was going to ask where she should bring the cake. Or maybe she was going to tell the woman to stop wasting her life on trees.

At the sound of her approach, the woman stood up and waved her pad. Lori saw it contained not a sketch but big scratchy writing. 

“Hello. You made it. I’m Deirdre. So nice to finally meet you after all those impersonal emails.” She held open her arms, peering at Lori with watery blue eyes. Her long gray hair was tucked into the back of her coat. She wouldn’t put down her arms, so Lori reached around the quilted parka and allowed Deirdre to enclose her in a damp nylon hug.        

“Let me give you the tour.” She wrapped her pad in the recycling bag, took Lori’s arm, and marched her through the field. Their shoes made squishy sounds in the wet earth. “‘Over the hills and far away, an old man lingers at close of day,’” she recited. 

Obviously, she thought Lori was someone else. Lori hesitated to correct her. The vacant look in Deirdre’s glassy eyes seemed to suggest she’d experienced one too many corrections and might shatter at another.   

“This is the pool. You can imagine the kind of summer parties that happened here.” Lori scanned the crumbling cement, the brown water covered with years of dead leaves and broken twigs. It looked like the hazelnut crust on her Linzer tart. Deirdre stomped some mud off of her boots. “I always think of that photo of Millay wrapped in a bedsheet surrounded by those bare-chested men. I’m sure you’ve seen it. The townsfolk used to call this place Sodom on the Hill.”   

They went into the house through a side entrance; it smelled of furnace exhaust and dead mice. Not as dilapidated as expected, Lori counted two baby grand pianos and several

Tiffany lamps. Displayed on one piano were three stacks of books by Lucille Lou Crenshaw. The last book featured the same photo of Plath as on the cake. It was titled Dear Sylvia. On a side table some raw vegetables and dip had been put out.

Deirdre removed her hat and pulled her hair from inside her coat. It fell over her shoulders like a cape. “This is the declining room, as Norma used to say.”

Lori made a face of incomprehension.

“Norma. Her sister.” She pointed to a photo on the piano. “She lived here after Millay passed. I thought you knew Norma?”

“Oh. What lovely paintings.” Lori changed the subject to the quasi-expressionist nudes on the wall.   

“Charley did those. Norma’s husband. She insisted we keep them. Said they were a daily reminder that she was still alive and that bastard was rotting in his grave.” She walked over to the staircase. “That’s where they found her. Curled like a snail at the bottom of the stairs.”

Lori searched her memory for a proper eulogy: Fallen Poet on The Bottom Stair.

“Her gin glass was still on the newel post when the groundskeeper came in.” Deirdre walked a circle around the imagined body. “She never spilled a drink. So I’m told.” She peeked up the stairs as if Millay might be listening, and then breezed back into the living room. “Norma and I had some great conversations here.” She rested her nail-bitten hand on the wingback chair. “We’d recite Plath, Sexton, Cowan, Teasdale. Then we’d mix up a batch of Gin Rickeys and she’d tell me stories about Edna.” 

Lori touched a female bronze and left streaks in the dust. A deep indentation gouged out one side of the camel back sofa. Between the folds of velvet curtains stretched spider webs holding husks of dead flies; they danced in the hot air blowing from the furnace like beaded fringe.

“She was a morphine addict, I’m sure you know. Her diaries contained detailed lists of drugs and their various dosages: one milligram Nebutal, three milligrams Benzedrine. Very experimental. If only she’d held on until the sixties, she might have made a comeback.” Deirdre fixed her gaze at a dusty corner of the ceiling. “‘Spiders and earthworms nibble / my uterine walls / How do I feed my children / underbellies of the world?’”

“Is that one of Millay’s?”

“Now don’t tease me. That’s my favorite of yours.”

“I’m sorry, but I think you have me confused.” Lori kept one eye on the door. “I’m just delivering the cake.”

“The cake?”

“The Sylvia Plath cake? I have it in the car.”

Deirdre smiled wider as if protecting herself from a great blow. “You’re Lucille Lou Crenshaw – the poet.”

“I’m Lori Ann McBride – the pastry chef. From Restaurant Alicia?”

Deirdre dropped her hat. “But you look just like the picture on the back of the book.” She thrust one of the books into Lori’s hand. She could see a resemblance. They both had closely cropped brown hair and dark little eyes. They were both in their forties, though Crenshaw wore no makeup and had deep creases around her mouth.

“I’m sorry,” Lori said. “I should have said something sooner.”   

“What time is it?”

“It’s about five.”

“Then she’s not coming.” Deirdre collapsed on the sofa, her parka swallowing her whole. She fiddled with the ends of her long hair.

“Who’s not coming?”

“Lucille. Lou. Crenshaw.” Each word came out like a gust of air deflating a balloon. 

“Maybe she’s running late.”

“She was supposed to be here at one.” Deirdre began to absently rub her hair between her fingers. “We were supposed to go over her notes on my manuscript.”

“Did you try calling?”

“She’s not answering.” Deirdre put a small strand into her mouth and began nibbling the ends.

“Where would you like me to put the cake?” Lori asked.

“Don’t bother to call Deirdre. Deirdre doesn’t matter. Deirdre didn’t spend weeks arranging this. Making the dip. Ordering the books. Sending out invitations and endless emails.” Her teeth chattered across her hair.

Lori followed the chair rail around the room looking for help, some cater waiter or psychiatric professional to rescue her, but they were alone among the cut glass decanters and silver picture frames. She returned to Deirdre on the couch. “Do you need me to call somebody?”

“I hate this place. I hate this house.” She slapped the sofa cushion. “‘We were very tired, we were very merry. We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.’ Nobody wants to hear that crap.” She took her hair in both fists and pulled it, making panicked breathing sounds. 

After a while she looked up: “This is the house. You’ve seen it. Norma died in that chair, Edna – bottom of the stairs. Those are the major attractions.” She lumbered over to the books. “Here. Take ‘em.” She started throwing the books at Lori’s feet. “Get ‘em out of here.” Books were landing with their covers split and bindings broken. Lori felt compelled to pick them off the floor. When her arms were loaded with Lucile Lou Crenshaw’s oeuvre, she stood in the middle of the room wondering what to do next. 

Deirdre leaned on the piano, out of breath from her exertions. Staticy ends of dry hair crackled around her head. “Just go,” she whispered.   

Lori did as told and walked out of the house. She ran though the field, her arms stiffly carrying the books. Mud oozed into her clogs and underneath her heels. She collapsed into her car and threw the books on the floor. Her first thought was to drive off, but she still had the cake. The big white box remained tied to the passenger seat as if Sylvia Plath was held hostage. 

She drove around to the side of the house, and freed the cake from its nest of cords. She thought about leaving it on the back steps but worried it would get wet.

She gave a preemptory knock. “I have the cake. I’m bringing it inside.” She prepared to face a woman eating her own hair or worse, but when she entered Deirdre was gone.

She set the cake on the piano. Everything was paid for by credit card; there was no reason to stay. On the table, the cut carrots were starting to dry at the ends; the dip was turning brown. She called Deirdre’s name but no one answered.

She walked to the bottom of the stairs, being careful to avoid Edna’s body, and called up the stairwell. There was no answer. She felt sorry for Deirdre, ordering this expensive cake for someone who didn’t show. Or maybe a whole crowd of people who didn’t show. However, she was not sorry enough to go up those stairs. 

A thick layer of dust coated the bookcases and cut glass candy dishes. Charley’s colorful nudes seemed to be swimming through the dust: thin androgynous people with expressionless faces, none resembled Edna, or even Norma. She looked at the photos on the baby grand piano: Norma in a muumuu, speaking at a podium, her grey hair cut in a page boy bob; a young Edna in a long skirt underneath a blooming apple tree; Edna at the pool with the bare-chested men, looking less like the Queen of Sodom and more like an uncomfortable guest who had crashed the wrong party. There was another woman in the photo, long-haired and serene, with a better fitting sheet.

The olive wingback chair had a dark stain near the top, an oil mark – from Norma’s hair? – from Deirdre’s? It was a disquieting fact that women died in houses, while men died at the office, or on a battlefield, or on top of dark rooted blondes. Women died in wingback chairs, next to cut glass candy dishes, underneath paintings painted by their dead husbands.

Upstairs, something fell to the floor – Lori jumped. She listened for another sound but was met with silence. A more evolved person would go up and check. Someone with a modicum of compassion would put aside her own fears and face whatever was waiting at the top of the stairs. The steps were dark with grey patches where a thousand footprints had worn them down: Nora’s slippered feet trudging up those stairs, Edna’s pumps slipping off of them.

She ran back to her car and collapsed in the seat. The windows were starting to fog. She caught her breath, started the engine, and let the defroster blow warm air against her cheeks.  Without giving it another thought, she hit the gas and took off. The car sped over the dips and holes, knocking her around in her seat. Lucille Lou Crenshaw’s poetry bounced on the floor. Bare limbed bushes encircled the road and formed a small tunnel of escape. She felt like a severed power line, waving and sparking until it wore itself out. 

She recalled the time when Cody had first moved-in with her and she couldn’t fall asleep. She’d had difficulties getting used to this hairy new bulk in her bed. Most nights she would lie on the edge listening to his steady breathing, getting increasingly more irritated every time he moved his arms or changed position. Then suddenly, one night, he scooped her up in his sleep. He curled his body around her and cupped a hand on her breast. She stiffened at first as if caught in a net. But then she gradually relaxed, as the heat of his stomach radiated into her kidneys; the ball of his knees pressed against the backs of hers; his breath weaved through her hair. She became aware of the width of his body: his thighs, bigger than hers, his arms, longer, his belly, fatter. The hair on his chest scraped against her shoulder and she felt like a delicate apple blossom on a long rugged branch. She had been eclipsed. And in that warm and embryonic darkness, she fell asleep.

And that’s how she had been falling asleep ever since.

Her foot came off the gas and she let momentum carry her downhill. She unfastened her hands from the wheel and coasted with the bumps and dips. She might just careen off the road and not have to make a decision. Not ever find herself nibbling her own hair. Or watching the oils collect on the wingback chairs. Or lying at the bottom of a staircase. But the car slowed and came to a gradual stop on a section of muddy ruts a few feet from the highway. 

She rested her head on the steering wheel and turned off the engine. After a few minutes, she found the T.J. Maxx bag. Inside were t-shirts, toothbrushes, hand lotion, underwear and socks. She didn’t remember buying any of these things, yet, there they were – waiting in the mouth of the bag like so many unspoken words. She opened the package and slid the socks over her grubby feet. She rubbed some lotion onto her hands, dabbing a little around her eyes and mouth. She wished she had brought her good face cream. She wished she had brought her leather jacket. She wished she were already an old woman looking back on life with bitter regrets. It was better to regret everything and have it all over with than to live through what was still to come. 

She started the car and moved slowly onto the highway. The rearview mirror held only the reflection of her red tail lights on the road. Up ahead, the sky was such a light gray it seemed like frosting: a sweet butter cream covering up a crumbling dry night. Or maybe it was dust. Either way, she continued into that grayness.

Martin Cloutier lives in Brooklyn, NY and teaches at City University of New York. He’s the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts award in fiction and a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. Find out more here.