Flash Fiction, HIVE Diary, Words
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The Most That Could Be Managed

Words and Photo by A. A. Reinecke

Most Northeasterners remember September of ’47 as the time Dartmouth beat Princeton with an injured tight end, or when Brooks Brothers had a backorder for blue oxford pajama pants, but I remember it as the time I took the Amtrak line seventeen times to Westchester. It had been the six train that Thursday. The house was clean when I arrived: the piano bench was tucked, the sheet music was stored, Connor’s portrait smirked from the wooden stand. Of the three coffee table books one was open, this on the Kennedy’s—I had, at that point in time, rowed crew three years because it was a Kennedy thing to do.

On the couch Rory, supine, smelled of grape cough syrup, Vaseline, and Mane and Tale shampoo. “Brother,” she said, “Jake-man.”

I tucked the coverlet under her feet so I could sit. Pulled one leg onto the other.

She smoothed some of her hair down. It was that deep brown that passes for black, mussed from the couch, a blue Oriental print couch with a silvery finish to it, with over it a blue blanket. “Bring me any syrup?”

“No.”

On the coffee table, Rory pushed aside disinterestedly a box of Vicks nasal strips, a half-used Chap Stick, a box of Carr’s. Picked up a dog-eared King James Bible, turned it over. “Eller talking about me?”

“Don’t be rhetoric.”

Flipping some of the pages, “He any smarter now?”

“He’s smart.” We both turned up the corners of our mouths how people do in that mutual, tacit acknowledgement of mistruth.

“So you drove here to prod me?”

I re-knotted my right-side loafer. Said, “I took the train.”

She laughed. Smoothed her hair. “Do you remember,” she said, after a pause, an odd tint to her voice, “what Connor was saying? About tying things?”

“You mean at Christmas. When he was tight.”

“No. When Lacy Lacamer was over and—”

“Nancy who?”

“That tawny one with—”

“Lacier,” I said, “Nancy Lacier.”

“Well he wasn’t tight.” Her eyes gleamed in that particular deep green as that in the glasses at the Astoria bar. I remembered how she and Connor and I used to go there for drinks. That she’d have a gin and tonic and stare into the carpet as though she’d found God in it. “And he said that thing about tying things? About associations?”

“He was tight,” I said, flipping mindlessly through the pages of the Kennedy book. Glossy, whole page re-prints of photographs. “That whole week at Christmas he—”

“I told you Nancy Lacamer offered—”

“Lacier.”

“What?”

“Lacier. It’s Nancy Lacier.”

She picked again at the Vicks strip. “Well he said anyway that you tie things so that you understand them. Their place. Like ketchup and chicken. God and pew. Only other people could have other associations separate from yours,” she said, her voice clouded. “And that’s how we make decisions, by our associations—”

Connor’s portrait stared eerily back at me from the piano and I hated him suddenly, his reading about death in books and for his own family failing to leave college, his Maple Syrup Land, to touch it. “You should sleep. Be good for you.”

“I don’t care what’s good for me,” she said.

I looked at my feet.

There existed in her eyes the dead effect of sport, as though she were trying to win at some futile and invisible game of tug-of-war. “You never look at me anymore, Jake. Look at me. You can’t just ignore—”

“I’m not ignoring anything. I don’t know what the hell Connor’s doing or why he’s not sitting here right now—” I paused. Considered. “He’s just—”

“Running from it?” she said. “Writing stories about goldfish and hiding from the phone? Won’t call. Not a single goddam—”

“Don’t say that.”

“You don’t have a monopoly on goddam. You don’t have a goddam—”

“Rory.”

She collapsed against the couch. Breathed with her chest, her collarbone against the black of her sweater like the flank of a fractured animal, the limb of a Volvo-hit deer, under funeral tarp, thrashing to live. “Remember your fight after the Carlyle part?” she said. “You and Connor? When Brenny Maher beat—”

“Brenny Maher didn’t beat me at anything.”

“Well Connor said religion’s a lie,” she ripped the Vicks strip off her nose, violently. “He’s right.” Her cheeks were ruddy from the last coughing fit, her forehead pale. She let her head back on the pillow.

“Jake?” she said, after a while. Her voice was starkly young. Transparent. “And what he said about us? About America? That we all think we’re saved and that we’ll live forever and that we have a special deal—”

“Yeah,” I said.

She laughed then. A horrible, brutish laugh. “Like being an American would save me. Like it’d save the best of us.” Her face was like that of a soldier who in mirror had rediscovered himself a man.

Later that afternoon I read her a Hemingway story on whose second page had been a ketchup stain. Let her sleep. Watched the will of her breath, the ridge of bone against the black cotton moving in that manner of animal hit that, like flesh wearied against plastic, was the most that could be managed.

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