J.K. Fox divides her time between Scotland and San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest. She has had short fiction published in Prole Books, Stand Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Her first children’s book was published in July 2017.
Another October afternoon had slipped away, weary and unmarked by anything in particular. He had cut the hedge down quite a bit the previous summer, not really caring if it was pruning season or not but eager to feel he was doing something. Now, as he opened the front door to answer the bell the heavy autumnal sunshine pushed over the hedge and straight into his eyes. He had lost track of how late it was and was unprepared, blinded for a minute. He pushed his hand, visor-like, across his brow and squinted. At first he caught only a shadow as he grunted in the discomfort of the sun, and then she moved a bit and he saw it was a woman. He didn’t recognise her at first.
She wore the kind of neutral khaki slacks and pastel polo shirt that marked her out as a certain kind of female. There was a time when he would have looked for the Ralph Lauren logo above the breast, the tennis bracelet, the boat shoes. He would have extrapolated the Hampton summers and well polished children with expensive habits. He would have smirked at just how predictably readable people were, these people in particular, their bodies laid bare in the basic language of money and conformity.
Now, however, he was sluggish with tiredness, and didn’t bother to pull at the terry cloth ties of his bathrobe, though he put his hand over the knot. And then she introduced herself and his hand fell away from the robe.
It was Felicity. Jesus God, he thought, it’s Felicity. The strange pitch of surprise was like seasickness. At half past three on some meaningless afternoon, Felicity was standing at his door. And he was half naked.
And then she said her name again, this time adding her last name, which was different from before and so meant nothing to him. Only that perhaps she had married.
She blushed at the fantastic redundancy of what she had said. As if he would have forgotten.
“Of course that’s who you are, of course.”
“–I’m sorry,” she interrupted, blustering with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean to… of course you remember me, I just wasn’t sure.”
He steadied himself against the doorframe, too overcome to wish for nonchalance. She fluttered her fingers around her face, then cast her hands downwards; gesturing to the wider waist, the slacks that sat tighter than eight or nine years ago when she had first turned, smiling, to greet him at the garden party. The party he was not technically invited to but had gone anyway.
“It was so long ago.”
What he presumed she meant to imply was that time sat heavily upon her body. Its weight pulled at the skin around her features in ways that might preclude recognition. Her chin was ripening slowly to fat and all that tennis club sun had laid a filigree of wrinkles around her eyes. That is what she meant. But what he saw, and what for the first time in so long drew memory from him with painful force, was how much the gesture reminded him of Phillip; the grace of a sweeping arm, the slight theatricality of motion. Memory mingled with the acid in his middle. He had forgotten how like her brother she was.
“I think I might need to sit down.”
“Shall I come, I mean, I could come in. I have something–”
As he turned away she made a brisk gesture with her hand and he saw she was carrying something; a small boxy package wrapped in brown paper. The utility of the paper looked out of place against her pink cotton shirt. She could not have been the one who wrapped it.
He was quiet as he reentered the house. Felicity had paused to run her fingers through the rosemary bush that grew at the door. He turned, wondering if she remembered. But she only waved her plump fingers under her nose, quickly, like a naughty gesture, and offered a shy smile as an invitation to a safe topic; lamb or beef, and do you use it fresh? Dried and tucked into sock drawers? She did not remember. If she remembered she would not have smiled when she smelled her fingers. She would not think of rosemary and lamb stew eaten on a Sunday, or her striped William Sonoma apron, laundered accidentally with a full sprig of the herb still in the pocket. She would not smile. And yet even here he could say nothing sharp or punishing. He could only stand, mute and heavy against the gentle undertow of her expression. He tried not to think of how Phillip would have expressed this numbness (a flurry of fingers around the face and something like “catatonically blank”). Phillip would have laid his hand upon the situation and guided it with a sailor’s confidence, the boom crossing overhead with the fresh white sound of sails and a changing course.
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
She had spoken to him as they passed into the room, and he turned back, confused.
“I thought you said something,” she said.
“Just clearing my throat.”
The front room was coated in a light scum of untidiness. He hadn’t turned the lamps on all day and the shadows falling from the late afternoon light lent a dullness to the mess: the quantities of newspaper, the shirts peeled off and discarded like lazy guests and the dishes, complained about by no one, congregating on the coffee table, small ellipses of grey milk lining the bowls. There was an obvious loneliness to so many unchecked intimacies and he couldn’t totally cast aside some measure of awkwardness. He could see plainly what she saw; the place was disgusting. He tried, as subtly as possible, to push aside a laundry pile with his bare foot. His toes tangled with a pair of boxer shorts. As he stepped over the pile of clothes, however, and felt rather than heard Felicity pause at the door, he was relieved to find that he wasn’t mortified. Having her there, miraculously (because of course once he had cared deeply about appearance) did not provoke any kind of embarrassment about the mess. He was gloriously unconcerned, and the freedom of this steadied him.
He left her standing by the door and leant over the sofa to push aside a wad of nonsense so he could sit. He was aware of how wide his behind must look wrapped in terry cloth as he scrabbled to clear space, exhaling loudly with the effort of sitting down. But even in this he found no indignity, drawing a certain lousy comfort from his stubborn belly. Seated, he looked up at Felicity who simply stared, blinking in the dull light like some coral-coloured fish. These were the wages he had earned from this family, and it was not for him to feel shamed by it.
“You know you can sit down.”
Bolstered by the defensive pride the room inspired, his voice came out stronger and more admonishing than he had intended.
“Just push that stuff aside. Do you want the lamp on?”
“No no, please don’t worry,” she leant over the opposite sofa, her behind blooming broad and solid the lower she bent. He was relieved to find himself thinking, and I thought my ass was big.
“You must be wondering how I found you.”
She was facing him now; trying to keep her hands clasped as though sitting for an interview. He wished for the strength and vigour of years ago when he could have said something cutting and eloquent, something that would have raised a smile in Phillip.
“It was Bill, actually. I got in touch with Bill.”
He could not recall the last time he had talked with Bill.
“He said you were still teaching a few times a week. That must be rewarding. A good school, do you enjoy it?”
The sofa was as soft and formless as warm wax and she shifted her weight, trying to keep a purchase on the floor, trying to lean forward to look engaged. She unclasped her hands and crossed her legs. The khaki slacks rode up on her calf.
“Not particularly. I hope to get out of it one of these days. It’s not such a good school anymore.”
He was watching that piece of solid, blanched flesh emerge from the leg of her slacks. The calf had a sort of sheen to it. Freshly waxed.
“I hate teaching actually.”
That shut her up for a moment, and she looked down, picking at the string that bound the package. The string was brown too.
“Well anyway,” she started again. “He said you were there, and that’s I how found you. Called the college. I wouldn’t normally have but you see…”
The shock was beginning to settle within him like salt in water, and his mind was clearing. He was curious.
“And they gave you my address? You just asked for it and they gave it to you?”
“Well, yes, I said, I said it was important. Miranda, my sister in law, she married Michael you remember… oh well of course no. You wouldn’t have. Anyway she is on the–”
“The board,” he interrupted. “Yes of course I forgot. I have very little to do with them.”
Of course. Of course Felicity would have some currency with his school. After the funeral his escape had been totally halfhearted. He should have moved away properly, made a more thorough job of distance; the Deep South, or Far West. He should have moved to Wisconsin. Then he almost smiled because he knew that would have made Phillip laugh. Phillip had refused to acknowledge “the middle”, he would have said something like, “Why not San Francisco for Christ’s sake, or Seattle, I hear the food is divine.”
“But the middle would be peaceful,” he thought in reply to the Phillip in his head, the one in a pressed shirt sipping on something cool as Felicity said something he missed. He could hear the ice tinkle in the glass.
“In the middle I would eat unglamorous but wholesome foods like boiled potatoes and canned ham. And drink whole milk. It was you who liked restaurants.”
“Please yourself,” said Phillip in reply to this private conversation.
Having Felicity here, blinking at him with that white, rubbery calf catching the light, she was raising Phillip in his mind again and it made him sick.
“Why are you here?” he asked. But he spoke too quietly because she continued to babble as though talking to a girlfriend.
“I wouldn’t normally intrude or invade someone’s privacy, their weekend, like this, on such a nice day as well,” she paused to push her hair behind her ears, catching the ghost of rosemary scent on her fingers. She smelled it and gave a little smile.
“That really is a splendid rosemary bush out there.”
It was not a splendid rosemary bush. It did not grow well in the shade cast by the front of the house.
“I have always loved that particular herb,” he said. “Why are you here exactly?” He raised his voice this time and stared at her, memory threatening to push emotion over the ridge of his eyes and mouth, out of his nose.
Phillip had said to him once, years before as they stood at the front gate, examining the name charcoaled onto a sign with the warm air swimming with the scent of rosemary and the sea, “I just think, I just feel.”
“You do both so well–”
“Oh very funny, but really it’s just that ‘cottage’ is a bit camp. ‘Rosemary Cottage’. Bit faggy don’t you think?”
Phillip had fingered the little charcoaled sign, scratching thoughtfully at ‘cottage’. Someone had fastened it to the gate with twists of wire that caught the sun.
“What I think is no one has used the word ‘faggy’ since 1942.”
Phillip had ignored him, as he often did when the joke did not issue from him. He let the sign fall back against the gate and tilted his head back to examine his new acquisition; white walls and green shutters winking in the salt and summer sunshine, the front yard spilling over with the rosemary that grew so well in coastal air.
Felicity had still not answered, and he bent to pinch hard at his nose.
“Phillip, I just made a joke that was deeply hilarious and you didn’t even notice. Besides in case you hadn’t noticed the place is fucking surrounded by rosemary bushes.”
“Dahhhhhling,” drawled Phillip, not listening.
“Now that was faggy.”
“Shut up and listen, you fiend. What about ‘Rosemary House’. Much more… much more formal. A bona fide beach-side getaway, not something out of a Miss Marple book.”
“Kindly keep your lurid literary preferences out of this.”
This time Phillip had turned and smiled generously. He pushed his fingers into his lovers’ pockets and said, “This is a place for us. Just for us.”
“And, apparently, all the rosemary bushes in North America,” he replied pompously, not really looking to make a joke although Phillip smiled.
“I’ll meet you here every weekend I can from now to eternity,” he said.
“Exactly till then?”
“Exactly till then.”
That had been their first summer together. Phillip had kept the house for them until his death, a decade later.
Felicity had seemed to run out of niceties, and in explanation simply raised the package in her hands.
“I don’t mean to keep you,” she said. “After everything. Michael and the others, they never saw it. Everything was such a confusion and it just sort of, slipped through the cracks. There was no note, just your name on it. It was in the chest I got afterwards.”
She looked at him, eager to explain.
“I got the chest after the funeral. Carvings all over it. Flowers. It’s a big thing.”
She was wrong of course. The chest was not big. It was beautiful, yes, and well made with the lips of rose and hibiscus blossoms protruding between tiger paws. But it was not much larger than an old-fashioned toy box. They had used to it to store the bed linens at Rosemary House, now rechristened with a new sign on the gate. Both he and Phillip had liked brushed cotton in sea glass colors of green and brittle blue, although it had been him, not Phillip, who bought the sheets and pillowcases. Phillip had a sweet tooth for kitchen appliances and would have happily slept on flannel towels if it meant he could renew his Kitchen Aid battalion every year. He had laughed at the money spent on fresh sheets that began to mount up over the years they spent together. Then one day he produced the chest.
“A place to put my lover’s passion,” he had joked, giving a mock bow, a little curtsey flick of the foot, and he opened the chest as though revealing treasure. Phillip couldn’t understand, he couldn’t see, how beautiful his skin looked against those sheets. In the summer when they had weekends, stolen or agreed upon in whatever bargain Phillip made with his other life, he would garden shirtless and his skin would ripen to a glorious, rosy hue. In the evenings that followed, those captured hours of sunsets and lingering nightcaps taken in bed, he would turn Phillip’s naked form across the cotton and delight in the contrast between sea glass and suntan. He was golden in those months.
“I remember the chest,” he said to Felicity.
“It was originally my mother’s,” she continued, not registering, or choosing not to register, what he said and picking at nothing along the knees of her slacks. “It was rosewood or something–”
She looked up, brow creasing in what, surprise? Defense?
“Oh. Camphor.” She didn’t ask how he knew. Phillip’s family dealt in certainties and accepted knowledge, and even Phillip himself was indifferent to favorite foods or flavours of ice cream. All those years and even at the end he was surprised to find goat yoghurt in the fridge and Puccini in the stereo.
“Puccini?” he would drawl with eyebrows raised in tired, exaggerated surprise. “Who the hell listens to Puccini anymore?”
“Anyway, Phillip went off with it somehow. I’m not sure where, Charlotte said it was never at their house. It was full of these old sheets.” She was babbling again, swimming around in her frothy ignorance.
Of course the fucking chest had never been with Charlotte. It had been with him. She was still talking, looking at him with a social shrug and a “goodness what next” tilt of the chin. He could feel the air thinning around him.
“In the end it showed up at our house,” she was picking furiously now, and a new tide of blush rose up her neck. It had an ugly speckle to it, and splintered down her throat and across her chest.
He watched with mild interest as the rouge crept down the crevice between her breasts. He thought dryly that there must be some rich source of shame at work to make her redden like that. He wished he could enjoy it more.
“Sleepwalker” by Dua Abbas Rizvi. 2015. Pastels on Somerset paper. 22.5 x 15 inches.
He realised with something close to a laugh that she couldn’t say his name.
“After it all finished, after the funeral, I mean, you got pushed out, I know it. I know it was Michael that talked to you, dealt with lawyers about the will and everything. I didn’t know much about it.” She rushed on. “At all in fact, at all. I was pregnant again, and it was Michael who took the reins, Charlotte didn’t know which end was up at that point. She hadn’t any brothers of her own–”
Her body had lost its pretense of poise and pushed forward at him, her flesh squeezed up against her clothes like soft fruit. His own pulse had slowed. He was not surprised to find himself uninterested. In the space between them, the last light caught and held a slow migration of dust motes. There could be nothing in that package he would care about.
“And Michael not having a wife at that time, and knowing so much about wills, and then of course R.J. got wind of what Phillip had tried to do–”
It had been Michael who had called him to deliver the last, unmediated interaction with the family.
“There was no way to accommodate you at the funeral, however Phillip chose to live his life. Think of the distress for Charlotte. She’s devastated. And I have to think of the boys, it would be… it would be profoundly confusing for Brent and Christian.”
Brent and Christian. Michael and R.J. Phillip’s family seemed entirely composed of faceless athletic men with Wall Street and Hampton names like Marshal and Charles, Brent and Christian. Names that quietly pushed a palm down upon unwanted noise. Names that showed you the door. He was never permitted to give his final goodbye. To claim anything. The chest of sheets gathered damp in the little beach house he was never permitted to enter one last time to check for lost socks under the bed, a last sprig of Rosemary hanging in the kitchen to dry. A toothbrush lying against the sink. He could only imagine the sound of the little wooden sign knocking against the gate as it was pulled shut by someone else. He was never allowed to see his lover pass into the earth in some dark, garnished box.
Of course Phillip would have hidden something for him. He would have known what would happen. He would have known Michael would call him about Brent and Christian.
“My brother has always lusted after Charlotte,” Phillip had said once, at a garden party where he and his lover (who was not technically invited but came anyway) carried a bottle of champagne away from the crowd, to drink by themselves.
“You know he wanted to be cremated.”
He had cut Felicity off, and in her surprise the package fell from her lap with a dry scrunch of paper.
“Phillip, he wanted to be cremated.”
She blinked her coral fish confusion again.
“Well we have a family plot,” she said. “It wasn’t in the will. He never told us.”
“Phillip never told you,” he phrased it as a statement. Not a question. And he pushed his eyebrows up with all the weary irony he could manage. This time he enjoyed her blush. “I think you had better go.”
She rose, silent at last, and held out the package.
“When it comes down to it, after everything, I thought you should have it. I’m only sorry it took me so long to find you.”
She turned, and he did not watch her as he fingered the taut brown paper, wearing thin over sharp corners, his name and old address fading away in feathery smudging. It must indeed be a box. How very un-Phillip-like wrapping. He wondered where Phillip had bought it. Perhaps right at the end, when he couldn’t drive and the post office with all its brown utility paper was as far as he could get. He wondered if the wind had caught against the roll of paper as he struggled home in the overcoat that no longer fit. He wondered at what point Phillip had opened the chest for the last time, and if he smelled the sea on the sheets. They had both been weak in the end.
She turned, speaking over her shoulder, “I don’t suppose you know what it is.”
“No idea,” and he sighed, thinking that when she left, he would like to clear the sticky dishes off the coffee table. He would put the package away somewhere.
Felicity was leaving the room, apparently with no expectation that he would open it in front of her. Just before she left, she paused, one hand on the doorframe.
“I can’t pretend this has been any kind of apology. But I am sorry that things turned out as they did. When I found the package, I knew you’d have to have it somehow.”
He looked up at her, relieved to feel a deep numbness creeping back over him like sleep. He would leave the dishes for another day.
“My eldest son,” she said. “My eldest son just came back from Andover. His final year. We’re very proud.” She picked at the loose white paint of the doorframe with her thumbnail, frowning in concentration. The rhythmic sound rose in the still air, pushing aside her voice so that her final comments came to him as quiet as memory; a conversation already concluded and recalled again on other quiet days when he would sit, watching the dust’s slow gyre.
“He’s a good boy. A beautiful boy, really, when it comes down to it.”
Or he would stand at the window in another year, much like this one, and think again that perhaps he should cut the hedge back.
“He would have loved his uncle Phillip even more now that he is a young man. They would have had more in common. They are very alike. He could have been a valuable resource for him.”
And she left, trailing the end of her sentence along the dark hall. He heard the door click shut and the sound of canvas shoes on gravel. He wondered if she had paused to run her fingers through the rosemary again. Her brother’s favorite herb.
Outside, the last of the afternoon’s light smeared over the window frames and caught on the hedge like watercolour. His front room deepened in shadow and he could no longer see the dust. He would definitely leave the dishes for another day.