Oh

Oh

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Alice Mattison is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Mattison’s short story “Brooklyn Sestina,” part of her collection In Case We’re Separated.

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“Crates of live chickens,” said Lillian: an example of what made her wish to die.

“Where?” asked Ruth. Ruth was a student at Brooklyn College and her sister, Lillian, was in high school.

“Blake Avenue. Kosher chickens.”

“Recently?”

“I was little.”

“What about them specifically?” asked Ruth. It was 1960. Their parents were out and the girls would cook their own supper when they got around to it. Now they lay on their beds in the impinging spring dusk, both on their backs, shoes on the tasteful beige bedspreads. Frightened by her sister’s mood, Ruth stared at a plaster excrescence on the ceiling—an old gaslight—as its knobs and petals disappeared in the thickening dimness.

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“Their squashed feathers,” said Lillian. “The feathers could be broken. What would you call that thing that would break—you know, the spine of the feather?”

“I don’t know. Is it cartilage?”

“Between hair and cartilage.”

Lying as she was, Ruth could not see Lilly, only the ceiling. She asked, “Did the chickens make you want to die when you saw them years ago, or is it only now when you think about them?” Presumably their being kosher chickens had nothing to do with it. Their family was not kosher and had belonged to the temple for only one year, when Ruth—in high school then—insisted on going to services. Now, she’d recently told her parents, she was an atheist. “Nonsense,” her father had said, though he’d been just as dismissive when she’d persuaded him, once, to come to services. Halfway through the prayers he’d whispered, “If God is so powerful, couldn’t He make this shorter?”

Now Lillian’s voice came out of the dark. “I wanted to die when I saw them.”

“So you were six or something, and you were already thinking like this?”

“I was born thinking like this. I found out why when I saw the crates of chickens. I thought Oh.”

Ruth had never wished to die, yet sometimes it seemed that she and her sister were a single organism. She understood “I thought Oh.” She tried to think when in her life she’d thought Oh. She rolled onto her side and could see part of Lillian now, across the room. Ruth’s woolen skirt was bunched uncomfortably under her thighs.

Lilly raised a long arm toward the petaled shape on the ceiling. Her hand—just visible to Ruth in the dark—made and unmade a fist as she took exuberant pleasure in the point she was about to make. “Figuring out a good way to die is like using the q on a Triple Word Score.”

Her sister had gone too far. Ruth stood up and smoothed her clothes. “I’ll make supper.”

She warmed the meat sauce her mother had left, and boiled a pot of water for spaghetti. She boiled more water and broke off a chunk of frozen green beans to put into it.

“This afternoon I planned how to kill myself,” Lillian had begun. If Ruth ought to tell their parents—who would do the wrong thing, whatever that might be—Lilly was being disloyal to her: it would be like saying, “You’re not enough for me. Let’s invite Mom and Dad into the conversation.” Ruth dipped into the spaghetti pot with a fork, trying to snag a strand. She burned her fingers, then scalded her tongue when she sucked spaghetti into her mouth. Then she drained the spaghetti, though some of it was in clumps. She drained the green beans. Some of them still looked a little icy. Ruth was an English major. She could discuss literature, or write a poem, more easily than cook a meal.

“All the old pills in the medicine chest,” Lilly had enumerated. “Or just closing my eyes when I cross the street.” As Ruth dished up the food, Lillian came to the table dangling and shaking wet hands until they blurred before Ruth’s eyes. Lillian’s breasts were high and round, and her hair was in supple curls shaped nightly by big pink rollers. She was taller and sexier than her older sister. Her movements were bold, easy—and then abruptly awkward.

They ate. Lillian said, “My spaghetti’s full of rocks.” Ruth reached across the table and exchanged her sister’s plate for her own.

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In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison
Harper Perennial, 2005
Where to buy: RJ Julia | IndieBound | Barnes & Noble | Amazon

© 2005 by Alice Mattison. Reprinted by permission of Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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