She was in charge of preparing the beds for the new arrivals. Her arms were full of the sheets, bright white in the sun’s glare off the water. It was May, and the windows had been thrown open, and the air whipped up the curtains, covered the grand old furniture with salt. Beyond the balconies the bay surged against the sea wall. Dr. Seckinger came up the marble stairs, breathing heavily. He stopped beside her and looked out.
“It’s like being on a ship,” he said.
He smiled. His glasses fogged up in the humid breeze. Small flies came in from outside, the mating pairs still coupled, and he swatted at them.
“Plecia nearctica,” he said. “They’ll stay that way for days.”
In the gallery, beds were already set up, one beside the other in three long rows. They were covered in an assortment of quilts and spreads—tufted silk, chenille, or crocheted with varying stripes of color. Beside the beds were the occupants’ belongings hanging in satchels from hat racks, or set up on small tables or shelves. These people had been there for a while, sleeping, residing, leaving in the mornings to wander the seaside town like tourists. During the day the beds were empty. She paused here, looking. Some of the beds’ coverings bunched up to reveal the few stragglers, sleeping or staring up at the ornate ceiling, at the way the light off the water bounced like orbs. The beds were never organized by sex, just by necessity. Men and women lay in their separate places beside each other—enduring each other’s proximity and the annoyances, the frustrations that this provoked. There were often complaints, whispered as she was passed in the great hall.
“You, chambermaid,” one might say, his breath sour beneath a waggling mustache. “I need to be moved. I can’t sleep.”
But eventually they all slept. Like children, sleep came to them. She would smile and place her hand on the man or woman’s shoulder. The smile, the touch placated them. Beside her Dr. Seckinger clapped twice, a sharp sound.
“Spit spot,” he said.
She gave him a tight smile over the pile of sheets, and he laughed at his own joke. He’d begun introducing them as Bert and Mary, from the Mary Poppins film, adopting a British accent, using lines she found familiar, but in the way of all things from the past, like a strand of hair over her eyes or caught in her mouth—nagging, troublesome. Before this they’d been Ozzie and Harriet, and before that, disconcertingly, Bonnie and Clyde. He was an older man, tall and hunched in the shoulders. Like everyone else, he had no memory of children or family, and he often talked of all the ways this absence of encumbrances might have freed him if the situation had been different. “I could take a boat down the Amazon,” he’d say. Out the window the Gulf lay flat to the horizon, the color of tumbled malachite.
They invented things to do, the urgency with which it all needed to be done. Nothing, really, needed to be done. The refugees—what Dr. Seckinger called them—came in the evenings to sleep. During the day the wind blew through the old mansion and unsettled the framed paintings on the walls, knocked over the potted palms. The house had been built in the 1920s by a circus magnate from Wisconsin. Back then, in the winter months, he arrived by caravan with his wife and children, the Cadillac and Packard coupes gliding up the long drive to the fountain, their friends arriving soon after to play croquet on the lawn, to be served elaborate meals, to sit for hours on the terrace taking in the sunset and the air. There had been a swimming pool and tennis courts, a fence to keep out local cows, an orange grove. At times, pausing on the marble stairs by the open windows, she imagined she could hear the thunk of the croquet balls, the pretty tapping of women’s heels, ice in a glass, a chair scraping across the tiled terrace. She and Dr. Seckinger didn’t talk about why they were there. Their inability to remember anything at all was enough to keep them prisoners.
This morning when the refugees left she was standing at the top of the stairs. They usually brushed past without a glance, but she was happy to be sought out and asked a question, even if she had no real answer, even if her cryptic reply lent them no real relief. “How long will it be?” they wanted to know. “When did I arrive?” Some would confide their longings: for a dirty martini, for a board game from their childhood, their memories of the game pieces, the board itself with its colored squares, vague at best. They wanted to hear a song they remembered listening to on the old clock radio in their childhood bedroom. They would hum a bit, sing a few lines about someone asking to be cradled, about starting over, their voices hoarse from neglect. In each other they seemed uninterested, as if this was yet another aspect of accommodation. She was often afraid she had fostered the distance they kept from each other by her own example. Earlier they had passed her on the stairs, and she noticed their clothes, increasingly wrinkled and slept in. This, too, worried her. “What next?” she wondered.
She had never known any of the people, their faces passing her just blurs of hair color and texture, jawlines, eyes and lips, but then he was there, moving among them, along the aisle between the beds. The recognition felt like being caught in an updraft and held aloft, dangling and waiting to be dropped. She saw him and understood he had been there all along. He wore gray trousers, a pale dress shirt. He moved almost stealthily, his eyes lowered, and she pretended she didn’t see him, wondering if he had been doing the same, slipping by her without notice, his ability to be near her without acknowledgment a strange blow. She found she couldn’t speak. All that morning, carrying the sheets to the new beds, up and down the marble stairs, she was stymied by her speechlessness. Dr. Seckinger prattled on in his British accent.
“Gov’nor,” he said, nodding and bowing to her. “Well begun is half done.”
Up and down the stairs, countless times, struggling to understand. He was there. Someone she once knew. Only a small slip of memory was allowed in, and she grasped it and spun it about, and found that she could not access any more of it. Yet the feeling lingered, urgent and pressing, a physical need. After everyone had gone, she went down the rows of empty beds seeking the man’s bed out. She sorted among the refugees’ personal items—their small parcels and bags of odd effects: golf tees, ceramic boxes, paperbacks, lockets, photographs. She found his bed by the smell of the bedclothes, and she slipped to her knees beside it and buried her face in the coverlet. The wind came in off the water, buffeting the edges, the spread lifting like a woman’s skirt. She slid her hands between the sheets, feeling the warmth of him lingering there, and she searched the only drawer in the table by the bed. Inside was a gold knot ring with a sapphire at the center, tiny, as if for a child. She knew it as intimately as she knew him—a frank, potent surge of recognition. She closed the drawer and slid the ring onto her little finger, then stood and, holding onto the bedposts, made her way down the line of beds. She paused once again by the open windows and felt the wind in her hair, on her neck, like a caress.
She spent her days in the mansion perusing scrapbooks she’d discovered piled in a closet. After the circus magnate arrived, the circus had entered the city by rail—one hundred cars chugging into the winter quarters, unloading the tents, the cramped elephants and horses, the lions and leopards pacing their cages, the monkeys laughing and frenzied. The grainy black and white photos depicted the circus’s arrival, the setting up of the big tent, the rigging for the aerialists. The circus people were not invited up to the mansion, but lived in the railroad cars, in motels and rented rooms swarming with termites and palmetto bugs. In the damp heat they donned costumes of sequins and tulle. The clowns prepared their faces. They posed for photos. The brass band practiced “Sobra Las Olas,” marches, gallops, schottisches. The winter shows opened on Christmas day to crowds from Arcadia, Venice, and Osprey. The audiences, drawn by the promise of death-defying feats, watched performers balance on a trembling line or perform the triple back somersault, their collective breaths held and released with relief or disappointment, or a mixture of both. They wandered the sideshow tents to marvel at Little Coretta, Ossified Man, the Living Skeleton, the Armless Man, the Man with Rubber Skin. Without any other life to imagine, she imagined those of the performers in the photographs—a woman with platinum hair peering out of a sleeping compartment with a tiny dog, a clown applying his putty nose before a mirror. There were images of workers tossing hay to ponies and zebras, a trainer in a cage with four lions whose eyes seemed focused on the tip of the whip. The photographs revealed days composed of work, travel, and sleep—the brief glory of the shows, and then flattened grass, mud, heat.
That evening the refugees arrived on foot, new and old, the long line of them streaming down the drive. Dr. Seckinger came to stand with her at the door.
“There you are,” she said, her voice, like the refugees’, ragged with disuse.
“In the flesh, and at your service,” he said. He tipped an imaginary hat.
The refugees entered the house where she waited, their clothing giving off a scorched scent from the day in the sun. They wandered about the downstairs living room, nodding at each other like strangers at a cocktail party. She knew that each day many failed to return. She would discover their beds unslept in and remove their things, piling them neatly in the attic. The beds were remade for the newcomers. She imagined they’d simply moved on, much as the circus people moved to a performance in another town. Without any single place to return to, they remade their lives. She suddenly longed for this sort of life. The mansion, the sameness tired her. Dr. Seckinger looked at her warily, as if he sensed that he, too, tired her. She left him and went up to the stair landing, trying to seek out the man from this morning from above, to take note of the people, their differences, their clothing, but she could not find him, the faces all becoming one face, and she felt a spark of fear that he had not returned. Dr. Seckinger joined her. Below them the refugees mingled, found seats or wandered outside to walk along the sea wall. A few shared words about their day. “A hot one, eh?” a man said, mopping his brow. Some read magazines, old paperbacks, like travelers awaiting a flight or a train.
“I say,” Dr. Seckinger called down to everyone. “What about a fine meal? Drinks on the terrace?”
He turned to her and held out his arm, like an escort. “Mary? To the kitchen.”
Sometimes, this was how it went. The refugees would call out for various dishes—veal marsala, boeuf bourguignon, sole with tangerine and marjoram. From within the pantry and the refrigerator they would take the spices and herbs, the meat and fish. The gas burners flamed and sent out heat. She became immersed in the smells of the roasts, the fish in the hot pan, the spices and butter melding. They took the recipes from an old copy of The Joy of Cooking: A Compilation of Reliable Recipes. Its pages were marked by the last cooks’ fingertips, splattered with hollandaise, béchamel, and grease. Inside on the flyleaf was the inscription, “To Josephine and Carl, May a long life of wedded bliss be yours.” She made canapés and baked raspberry tarts and lemon pound cakes. They dragged out the circus magnate’s wife’s fine silver, her Limoges china, and embroidered linen. They set the long dining table, lit the candelabra that threw wavering shadows on the ceiling frescoes. She didn’t question how all these things were available to them, she simply followed through, executed the motions required.
The refugees came in from the terrace holding their highball glasses, their wine goblets. She was never sure how many of them there were, but those who did not have a place at the table took their plates to the walnut-paneled music room, to the living room where they set their glasses on the alabaster mantelpiece. She was there to serve, to ensure their momentary happiness. She walked among them in her stained apron, her hair filled with the smoke of the kitchen. The sun took no time to fall beyond the horizon—it made a last throb of brightness, tinged with pink and violet, before it disappeared. She stood on the terrace and felt the cold tiles, and discovered she had misplaced her shoes. When the man moved past her she smelled him, her senses suddenly attuned—verbena, freshly cut grass. She turned to look at him just as he turned to look at her. She found his expression impossible to read. She noted the color of his eyes, the shape of his nose. And then he stepped into the throng heading up the marble stairs to the gallery and disappeared, and she could no longer imagine him.
As she gathered up the dirty plates abandoned on the terrace wall, on the lawn, as she carried them in from the dining room to the deep sink in the kitchen, she experienced the absence of memory like an ache—a sore tendon, a bruised limb. The darkness moved through the old mansion, hushed and benign. She stood at the sink, her face warmed by the hot water. She tried not to think, believing that the memory would return if unbidden. Upstairs in the gallery the refugees lay in their beds believing the same thing, abandoning themselves to sleep. As she climbed the marble stairs, it struck her that she and the man might once have had a covert relationship, and now they were playing the same game, pretending not to know each other in front of the others. She imagined the memory lying dark and alluring behind the memory of something else.
Beyond the open windows the bay churned and lapped at the sea wall. There were places of sand at low tide where fiddler crabs emerged from their exposed holes to scuttle along the rocks, among the empty plastic bottles, the lengths of lost rope, an occasional door with its corroded metal knob, its wood sea-washed and waterlogged. She spun the small ring on her finger, stared out at the string of lights in the distance, and stood listening to the sounds in the gallery—the clearing of throats, muffled crying, and sighs of relief for things she knew the refugees could not remember.
Once they were asleep she crept down the row to the man’s bed. He was awake, his eyes shining in the darkness. She wasn’t sure what she wanted from him—an explanation, a hint of who he’d been to her. He put his hand out and took her wrist and tugged her down toward the bed with a swift, almost cross impatience. She felt a jolt, a thrill at his touch. He drew back the coverlet and pulled her into the bed beside him. The smell of him overwhelmed her with longing. His clothing felt soft and worn under her hands, which he guided to the clasp of his pants. In the darkness his mouth wet her neck, her breasts. She knew she should not voice her desire for fear of waking the others, but she soon abandoned all her caution. Beneath the bed sheets their skin grew damp. She listened to his breathing in her ear and tried to imagine the sound of his voice by the timbre of his moans. It was over so quickly. She felt as if she’d experienced a near-accident—the kind that made her hand fly to her heart with a lurch of fear—and she lay in the heady exhilaration after. The room with its sleeping refugees came into focus. She suspected many of them were awake, silent and listening. She wanted to speak, to whisper something to him, but no words came to her. They both seemed to have suffered the same inability. Soon, he was asleep.
She left him and climbed the narrow wooden stairs to the upper floor and her own small bed. This was how it was as a mistress, she assumed. Just the sex, and then the separation after. The desire kept alive by the imposed distance. In the morning, she waited for him to leave the gallery, but he evaded her. She was only slightly disappointed. His elusiveness heightened the joy of the game.
Dr. Seckinger came up the stairs, singing, “ Chim chiminy, Chim chiminy, Chim chim Cher-ee!” He looked at her, puzzled. “Mary?”
“That’s not my name,” she told him.
“Isn’t it?” he said, his tone making it more a threat than a question.
She didn’t answer him. Instead she went down the curved marble stairs to the oak doors.
“Mary!” Dr. Seckinger called to her.
She flung the doors open and proceeded down the front steps to the walk that curved around the fountain, the sound of the water falling blocking out Dr. Seckinger’s voice. She glanced back and saw his expression, one of pity and surprise. “Don’t go,” his face said, as if her leaving would bring her only grief. She continued down the long walkway to the estate’s entrance. Here she encountered a four-lane highway, cars with heat rising from their engines, from bumpers splattered with the bodies of the coupled flies. She heard music, the engine noise as the cars accelerated. She felt disoriented. She wasn’t sure what she expected to find here. The highway curved away in both directions, the sun flashing off the cars’ bright exteriors. She moved down the sidewalk to a covered area with a bench, and here a bus pulled up, its pneumatic door hissing open. The driver glanced at her curiously when she hesitated to board. This must be what the refugees did, she thought, so she climbed up the steps into the air-conditioned interior and took a seat. She did not have the fare—one dollar and sixty cents, but a woman who would not acknowledge her thanks leaned forward and swiped her own card, and she was allowed to stay. She remembered being a child sent to school for the first time, her name safety-pinned to her blouse. The bus rode along the curving highway, and crossed a long causeway over the same brilliant water she saw from the mansion’s windows. When it stopped, the people stood up to disembark, and she followed them. Outside on the sidewalk the people bustled off. This was a shopping district, the sidewalks lined with restaurants and boutiques, with patrons browsing and idling, eating outdoors and chatting. The hum of their voices, the cars’ tires on the asphalt, the smells of the diners’ food confused her.
She walked along, peering into store windows, looking for the man. She was otherwise purposeless here. At the mansion she was used to being surrounded by people she didn’t know, but she was always busy, and it never mattered. Here their distance and silence seemed to mock her. She was not one of them, but neither was she anyone other than them. The sun was hot on the concrete. She sat in the shade on a bench and watched the people, and then, impatient, she stood and walked along the sidewalk until it entered a subdivision of cement-block ranch houses, their front yards well tended and large, dotted with palms, shaded by oaks. She stopped at the foot of a driveway to a pale stucco house. The lawn was threaded with weeds that sprouted through the concrete driveway’s cracks. One of the window screens was bent, and the awning over the front door, streaked with mildew, was torn. It was a house that had been let go, she saw. From inside through the open windows came the smell of cooking. Coq au vin. She heard children playing in the backyard, saw the tousled heads of two girls bouncing into view over the top of the privacy fence. Trampoline. She felt a strange wave of regret and sadness, as if the house gave off its own scent. She watched the children’s heads, the flyaway hair soft in the sunlight, listened to their high voices, singing, then laughing, and she felt again the awful remorse.
Through the house’s window screens she saw a shape dart in the shadows, heard a woman’s voice, and then a cry, a long, lingering wail that canceled out the birdsong, the raucous play of the children. When the cry ended, the neighborhood was silent, stilled. A car crept past. She felt unnerved, a trespasser. The sound of the woman’s cry had dulled and flattened the landscape, and she retreated then, quickly, and headed down the sidewalk, the sound of her shoes ringing on the cement. She retraced her steps to the shopping district, sat down on the bench, and swatted at the flies. She thought about the pale stucco house, its lawn fallen to weeds, the woman’s horrible keening. She imagined the rooms of the house—saw the wooden bowl on the kitchen counter filled with receipts and wine corks and loose keys, the children’s drawings tacked to the wall, the small glass perfume bottle on the bedroom bureau, the little girls’ white-painted beds—until she realized she was not imagining it, but remembering it.
Laura Nyro’s “Stoney End.” Parcheesi. She knew the answers to the refugees’ questions. She’d assumed that memory would be accompanied by buoyancy and relief. Instead, it felt cumbersome, like wearing a wet item of clothing. She looked down at the ring on her finger. Her grandmother had given it to her for Christmas when she was eight years old, and it had been the first gift of jewelry she’d ever received. When the ring no longer fit, she wore it anyway on her little finger. She looked at the ring and knew that at some point she had made a gift of it to someone else and that this particular memory sat in a queue, waiting for its turn to present itself, its eventuality making her lightheaded with panic. She wondered how various losses had trained her to expect them, how she had somehow inured herself to their effect until now. What else? she wondered.
She saw the man then, close by, standing with a group outside a restaurant. He leaned against a railing and lit a cigarette. She watched as a woman who stood beside him looped her arm in his. She saw the ridges of the woman’s spine, delicate, like a beaded necklace down her bare back. The woman slid her arms around the man’s waist and leaned her body into his until their bodies seemed as one. Like the flies, she thought, a strange fury welling up. She watched them walk off, their fingers intertwined between them, and she rose from the bench and followed them. Once or twice she thought she saw him catch sight of her in the glare of a storefront, but his expression never altered, and she interpreted this as a sign to continue following them. They walked into a quiet neighborhood of quaint cottages, along a sidewalk overhung with bougainvillea. She watched them enter a small gate and disappear within a cottage that fronted the beach, a squat house built of coral rock, its windows and door painted an aqua color. She stood outside, listening to the Gulf, waiting. She could not understand why he had led her here, to this place, to this feeling of ending.
She slipped through the gate and around the side of the cottage to the back. Here was a cement patio, and sand filled with helianthus, a set of wooden steps that led to a narrow path through sea oats to the beach. An iron table, a grill, and a cushioned chaise longue that she slid onto. She heard the back door open, the way it stuck and rubbed its frame, swollen from the damp and salt. The man came out and closed the door behind him. He stood on the patio with his drink, then went over and pulled out a chair, noisily, and sat down at the table. The noise, his presence, made her anxious. Still, he kept his eyes downcast.
“So, now you know,” he said.
The sound of his voice was something she hadn’t yet remembered—a quiet voice, low and hushed, as if they were always conspirators speaking in dark rooms, in corners where they might be unobserved.
“I told her I was still a little in love with you,” he said.
She felt as if she’d stepped into a play without her lines memorized.
“A little?” she said. She smiled. This was how they had once been with each other, she realized—teasing, slightly heartless. But she was no longer that woman. She had been emptied of her, and now his words struck her as harsh, bruising.
He looked away, at the narrow path through the sand, the strip of sea. The wind moved his hair off his forehead. She didn’t tell him his admission felt like a slap. He laughed, in his quiet way.
“She said that she could stand anything, as long as I didn’t love anyone else the way I loved her.”
He looked up then. He brought the drink to his mouth, shook the ice around in his glass. His eyes met hers. They were pale gray, she saw. The color of his slacks.
“That’s fair of her,” she said. “What a good sport.”
Then he smirked. “You were never much of a romantic.”
She remembered now. Days of service to him in the pale stucco house—ironing his beautiful slacks, his white shirt. Preparing his food. Calling him at work to ask his preferences,
his plans. Readying the house for his friends’ visits, his dinner parties. The hours of talk at night in bed, each of their histories, complicated and tender, unraveling before the other. Then the children, the early years made up of their care—her milk-stained blouses, her unwashed hair—her slackening skin, her lips losing their firmness, everything dissolving between them, and his allegiance shifted, carefully, to the other woman. When he’d left her, it was a blow, an absence she should have known to prepare for, much as you readied yourself for the death of an aged parent, the space surrounding the death still filled with your own days stretching on ahead. Something needed to fill the time, and maybe it would be hope, or dread, or despair.
She remembered it had been disbelief and sorrow. She felt it seize her now as she sat on the chaise. She felt the woman in the stucco house’s scream rise in her own throat. She had been the darting shadow, the woman left behind to care for everything—the girls growing surly with confusion, the house declining like an old woman. In the days after he’d gone, she’d charted his movements. She found the townhouse where he lived with the woman and watched them, followed them, much as she had today. Their life together revealed they’d been a couple for years. They had a group of friends, some of them the same friends that had been theirs, all of them lighthearted and laughing over wine, telling the same stories, she imagined, in which she’d been erased, or worse, new stories that never featured her.
“I tried to pretend you were dead,” she said. “But you always appear everywhere I am.”
He set his drink down on the table with a look of consternation, as if she were troublesome, a child.
“Is that how it goes in your mind?” he said.
Years ago the discarded and the hysterical were placed in asylums, forced to submit to electroshock therapy, lobotomy, treatments that dulled and warped memory. The doctors had believed that was all it took to heal, a manipulated erasure of the past. But the asylums had all been closed, and she knew the mansion wasn’t that, wasn’t even a place, as she knew places to exist. The mind had its own methods of eliminating memory, a check valve thrown to prevent its flow like water through a pipe. Even now, sitting on the chaise, listening to the Gulf, as distant and subtle as the sound in a cowrie shell, she could only recall scattered moments of their life together. He continued to watch her, lifting his drink to his mouth.
She wondered if he wanted a profession of love. But she wouldn’t give that up to him. Hadn’t she already given everything else he’d wanted? She remembered the sex the night before, a sadly sweet mortification. He stood up to return to the house, and she imagined that once she might have prostrated herself in front of him, grabbed his slacks in her hands and held him there, but she found she couldn’t rouse herself from the lounge.
“You should go home to the children,” he said.
She glanced up at him. She understood that the strange place she’d stepped into had slowly revealed itself as a grid of the familiar. The shopping district and the causeway over blue water were places she’d known once. As the refugees ventured from the mansion, perhaps they found a summer street shaded by elms, or a subway tunnel and scaffolding erected around stone buildings; people whose presence prodded them to remember who they were, what they’d done. He hadn’t yet remembered all of it. She felt a giddy sense of power knowing what he did not, the same feeling she’d had that morning in the stucco house when she’d prepared the girls’ breakfast, urged them to eat, to drink from their little cups. The youngest had complained of the bitter taste of the pills she’d ground up in the eggs.
“We’ll go to the aquarium,” she’d said, “if you eat it all.”
Her girls had loved the penguins in their winter habitat, the manatees’ large, shapeless bodies floating among translucent leaves of lettuce. When they were asleep, she put them in their newly made beds where they lay too quiet, their lips pale. The oldest wore the sapphire ring he must have, after, taken from her finger. She’d had the same food and drink as the children, that was her plan, and though she’d given herself double what she’d given them she hadn’t known it wouldn’t be enough to accomplish it, that she would awaken and the children would not. She’d lain down on her own bed to wait. He had told her he was coming over to pick up the girls for a weekend—one with the woman, though he’d kept that part from her. She had closed her eyes, listening beyond the sounds of a neighbor’s sprinklers, the sharp bird calls, for his car in the drive, his footsteps on the tile foyer, his voice seeking them out. And yet he hadn’t come. He’d forgotten, or been running late. Something had kept him.
She looked at him now, shaking the ice in his glass. Only he knew what he’d been doing while his children waited to be saved—fucking his girlfriend in their little coral rock cottage. Propped on the wall behind him were two brightly colored rafts. Two sand pails with shovels. Not even these things, useless reminders, could soften her toward him. She lay on the chaise now and closed her eyes, wondering if when she opened them she would once again awaken to that dark bedroom, the streetlight’s shine, the shock and blame, a life bereft of everyone she had loved, or this one—with its vacuum of memory, its service to the refugees, Dr. Seckinger her chipper, sexless companion.
She heard the chair pushed back, then footsteps, felt the man who was her husband move past her—a rush of scent, a rustle of clothing—and enter the place she knew she would not follow. She opened her eyes. The light had waned. She left the patio and walked down the wooden steps, took the path to the beach where the sun lay flat and bright at the horizon. All around her, others sat in the cold sand, and she moved among them. Here and there she imagined a bit of bright fabric beneath a coat, gold pumps half-buried in the sand, a torn trail of sequins, the remnants of white makeup caked at a hairline. Around her the men and women stood, one by one, brushing the sand from their clothing, avoiding each other’s gaze, shy and cowed by their horrors and misdeeds, the accompanying shame. She kept her own memory, sore and troubling like a bad tooth, tamped down. She wasn’t sure what happened next—news shows dedicated to her tragedy? Montages of her beautiful girls, arms strung together, posing on the beach? Her own image from her wedding album, from her high school yearbook, and finally, her face without makeup, her hair color faded, her mouth turned down, and her eyes vacant? She feared the bus would not allow her access, and the road back, if it even existed, would not take her to the mansion and its long drive, its fountain, its gallery of beds. She could no longer feign the bliss of not remembering.
When the circus arrived by train, there was a great commotion, and an afternoon parade downtown among the stucco buildings. Men and women stepping out of the Terrace Hotel confronted the humid air, the streets lined with tourists, the children toeing the curbs, draped by their mothers’ arms. They’d left behind their houses and their drudgery to witness this spectacle. They would clamor for seats in the sawdust under the tent and wait for someone to be fired from a cannon into a moldering net, misjudge a step on a horse’s bare back, slip, innocently, from a partner’s grip. The elephants and horses in rhinestone saddles, the exotic zebras and camels left piles of dung in the street. Clowns, their faces bright and garish in the harsh sunlight, stepped up close enough to share a trace of foul breath, to pull a flower, a scarf from a woman’s ear. The trapeze artists and tightrope walkers pirouetted in spangles and sequins and feathers. The freaks and sideshow spectacles walked lazily along, holding up skirts, stepping around the animals’ droppings. Look at us! they said with their costumes, their painted-on, comical features, their grotesque deformities. We are here to astonish you and survive. Look, and be entertained.