Paintings by Martin Wittfooth
Excerpted from THREATS: A Novel by Amelia Gray, [to be] published in March by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Copyright © 2012 by Amelia Gray. All rights reserved.
Images courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, New York
The Sacrifice, 2011, oil on canvas, 64 x 50 inches
Amelia Gray is an author from Tucson, Arizona, who lived in Austin, Texas, before moving to LA last month. We first became aware of this young woman’s talent with words via her short story collections AM/PM and Museum of the Weird and now eagerly await her first novel, THREATS, which will be published by FSG next March. Somehow, someway, we persuaded Amelia to give us a super-duper-early sneak peek for this month’s issue in the form of two excerpted chapters. The story revolves around David, a retired dentist, who struggles to accept the death of his wife while trying to suss out the mysterious particulars of her demise. Things become even more troubling when he finds a series of elaborate, cryptic notes hidden around his home, such as: CURL UP ON MY LAP. LET ME BRUSH YOUR HAIR WITH MY FINGERS. I AM SINGING YOU A LULLABY. I AM TESTING FOR STRUCTURAL WEAKNESS IN YOUR SKULL. We don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say it’s an eerie crime story that alternates between utter madness and tiny moments of clear, heartbreaking tenderness. We’ve coupled the two excerpts with three works by Brooklyn-based painter Martin Wittfooth that we feel are insane in their own right.
He knew Franny had been behind the house. She wore a scarf colored red like the berries that grew back there. Her feet were bare and her ankles were slick with fluid. “Something has happened,” Franny said.
She was standing at the bottom of the stairs. She held the rail and tipped her head back to look at her husband. They held the same rail. “You’ve been tromping berries,” he said.
“It’s blood.” She held the stair’s rail and vomited down the front of her dress. “Could you call for help?” she asked, wiping her mouth with her fingers.
“Of course,” he said. He commanded his body to find a telephone and determine its use. “What’s the problem?”
“Goddamn it,” she said.
“What did you do?” he asked. “What happened?”
“Could you call the fire department?” She sat on the stairs and leaned against the wall with her back to him. He came down and sat next to her. He touched her cold face with his hands. “You don’t need to call anyone,” she said. “Forget about it. I love you.”
“What did you get into?”
She tipped her head to the side and back, squinting at him or resting against the wall. “That’s your problem,” she said.
They were quiet for a long time. He listened to her breathing so closely that he forgot to breathe, himself. He gasped for air. He prodded at her with his elbow. “Doc,” he said. “You gotta understand.”
She laughed once.
David sat next to his wife for three days. They leaned against each other and created a powerful odor. In that way, it was like growing old together.
Detective Chico rang the front bell and waited. “There’s a grounding wire on your door,” he said pleasantly when David opened up. Chico tapped the wire with his boot. “Was this your doing?”
A woman stood next to Chico. She was bundled up. “This is Dr. Walls,” said Chico. “She is a mental-health professional.”
The woman held out her gloved hand.
“Hello,” David said, shaking it.
“Don’t worry, sir,” said Dr. Walls, squinting at him, removing her winter gloves though she was still outside. She extended her bare hand, and David shook it again. “I’m not here to commit you.”
“We came by to have another talk about how you’re doing,” said Chico.
David wondered at the condition of Chico’s teeth.
“Dr. Walls would like to know you. There’s no harm in inviting us in.”
“It’s cold out here,” Dr. Walls said, holding one bare hand with the other. She had the kind of pale skin that turned translucent in the winter.
David tracked the progression of her sluggish blood. He opened the door wider. “I could offer you some tea,” he said.
“You could offer and we could accept,” said Dr. Walls.
David led the way to the kitchen. The card with the first threat was still facedown on the kitchen counter, and he opened the silverware drawer and slid it underneath the butter knives. He removed a spoon and closed the drawer.
“Sugar?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” said Dr. Walls, who had picked up a newspaper from the kitchen table and was holding it close to her face. She unstuck a ballpoint pen that had been taped to the window frame over the table.
“You’ve got your sugar spoon all ready to go,” Chico said.
David felt he could trust Chico about as much as he could trust any police detective who had made multiple trips to his home. David put the spoon in his robe pocket, set the pot of water on the range, and took the box of tea out from the pantry along with the bag of sugar.
“How have you been feeling?” Chico asked.
Placing the sugar on the counter, David slipped the teabags into his robe pocket, opened the cabinet, and took down three cups and three saucers. He arranged each cup on a saucer and picked up the bag of sugar. “I’m fine. I went on a walk,” he said, unrolling the bag. Inside, a scrap of paper peeked above the sugar line like a prize in a cereal box. David held the bag close to his chest and dropped his free hand into his pocket.
“Very good,” said Chico. “I was worried you would be cooped up all season.”
“Laying eggs,” Dr. Walls said, rubbing her eyes.
David clutched the sugar spoon in his pocket. “My wife’s car is gone.”
“Yes,” Chico said. “The city confiscated the vehicle due to nonpayment.” He tapped his shirt pocket and reached inside. “I can give you the number of the appropriate department to contact with your grievances.”
“It doesn’t matter,” David said. “I mean, if that settled the debt, it doesn’t matter. I didn’t like that car.”
Dr. Walls made a mark on the newspaper. “The light in here,” she said.
The Baptism, 2011, oil on canvas, 56 x 56 inches
The water on the stove pimpled with the pending boil. The spoon was cutting a ridge into David’s palm, and he loosened his grip and brought it out of his pocket. “Thank you for letting me know about the car,” he said. He used the spoon to dig into the sugar mound, uncovering more of the paper. There was a word on it, a sentence. He turned his body, placing himself between Chico and the bag.
“We’ve been talking to a few coworkers of your wife,” Chico said. “Nobody said anything against you, but they all did have the same issue.”
“An issue.” David dug around the piece of paper, trying to make unnoticeable motions, careful not to rip the page.
“They all mentioned the fact that you’re never around. A few of them joked that they didn’t think you really existed. Only one of them claimed to have even met you.”
“They came over and cut my hair three weeks ago.”
Chico looked at Dr. Walls, who set aside the newspaper and produced a pad of sticky notes. She wrote something on one. The water came to a full boil while David was reaching his hand into the sugar bag to grasp the corner of the paper. He kept his back square between the bag and the detective.
“Who cut your hair?” Chico asked.
The page in the sugar was not a card or a strip, but a full piece of notebook paper. When he had unearthed enough of it, David closed the top edge of the page in his fist and pulled it out whole. The action spilled sugar on the counter, his robe, the floor, the range. The sugar blackened and burned under the pot of boiling water. In one motion, he stuffed the piece of paper into his pocket and leaned down to blow on the smoke rising from the burning sugar. “It was a whole group of them,” he said. He felt the grains of sugar coating his hand and wiped it on his chest. “They seemed like nice girls. Maybe they were students. They were all young.”
“The girls cut your hair.”
David poured water into the cups and spooned sugar into one. Steam blushed the spoon’s edge. “One cut my toenails. I told them all not to bother, but they said they were there to do it as a favor to my wife.” The threat felt warm in his pocket.
“Could I get their names?” Chico asked.
“I don’t know their names,” David said. He reasoned that if he had left the threat in the sugar, it might have dissolved and vanished. It was too important to be ruled by the normal properties of paper. Taking hold of it had been important.
Dr. Walls was beside him. “David, your hair is past your ears.”
“It was longer,” David said, handing her a cup. He touched the fuzzed nape of his neck. “You wouldn’t believe.”
“Where do you keep the tea?” she asked.
David patted the front of his robe, produced one of the bags, and dropped it into her cup. He had the sense that this woman was here to trick him. He didn’t trust the things she said or the way she watched him. He crossed his arms, covering his pockets so that she couldn’t reach in. The woman went back to sit at the table in the seat where guests sat, the one without a place mat. She was trying to be polite. David slipped the other tea packets into the other cups.
“I’m sorry we’re asking so many questions,” Chico said, accepting his tea. “I’m sure you want to get to the bottom of this as much as we do.”
“Important items have special properties,” David said.
“You have been so helpful,” said Dr. Walls.
“I believe I’ve maintained a tradition of cooperation with members of local law enforcement and public-works operatives,” he said. “I believe that civilians ought not fear the guiding hand of the state.” He lifted the mug to his lips.
“What was that page you pulled out of the bag of sugar?” Chico asked.
David effused a small amount of bile into his tea.
“Good God,” said Dr. Walls.
“What is your name?” David asked the woman. He wiped his face with his sleeve. “What is your full name?”
The woman’s teacup rattled on its saucer, though she was touching neither cup nor saucer. He saw her leg jiggling the table from underneath. “Marie Walls,” the woman said.
“Marie,” he said. “I’m sorry for all this.”
“It’s all right, David.”
“I haven’t been the same since my wife left.”
“David,” she said.
“I hate to state the obvious,” said Chico, “but you vomited into that cup after I asked you a question.”
“David,” Marie said. Her face elongated before him. Her eyebrows went first, pinching a delicate fold into her forehead. Her eyelids snapped up to follow, and she tipped her head back slightly to accommodate the movement. She observed him from behind her cheekbones.
Sebastian, 2011, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches
David was holding the paper protectively in his pocket. “It was nothing,” he said. “It was a piece of the bag that fell into the sugar. I felt ashamed to serve the sugar to guests with a piece of the bag loose inside.” He attempted a religious-convert kind of gaze with the detective, but Chico’s eye contact was stronger. It was clear that in a past life the detective had been a phone booth beside an empty highway. David felt the page wilting in his warm hand. The sugar stuck to his palm.
From the corner of his eye he could see that Marie was nodding. “Such a good host,” she said.
“A good host,” Chico said. He was making the kind of eye contact employed by officers of the law. He had once been a mechanical crane that hauled beams to the top of a skyscraper.
David tipped his ruined tea out in the sink, took the paper out of his pocket, and laid it on the table. Chico stood beside him and read it aloud.
I WILL STRIP THE BARK FROM A TREE AND MAKE YOU NEW CLOTHES. YOU WILL WEAR THESE CLOTHES AS YOU WANDER THE FOREST FOR FOURTEEN YEARS. YOUR FATHER WILL DIE WATCHING THE SKY AND YOUR MOTHER WILL FORGET YOUR NAME.
Chico stopped reading, but David could tell he was looking over it again, memorizing it. The man had no visible reaction beyond his jaw moving slightly down and to the left behind his closed mouth. It was enough for David to know that he should not have trusted either of his visitors.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” David said.
“There are more like this?”
“No,” David said. “I found it there before. I was afraid to move it.”
“I should take it with me,” Chico said, pulling on his gloves and holding one out for the threat.
“What’s happening?” Marie asked, bracing herself to stand.
“Official police business,” Chico said.
David held the threat close to his chest. “There’s no police business. I can’t let you have this.”
Chico made no initial response, but his jaw moved again within his closed mouth. He was tonguing the surface of his molars. He seemed exceptionally calm. “This could be considered evidence,” he said.
“There’s no reason why it would be. My wife was probably playing a prank on me, and she forgot about it.” David worried that he was talking too fast. Correcting the error would be simple enough but would require talking more to the man, who was probing the grooves in his teeth as if they contained an illuminating secret. “I usually don’t take sugar in my tea,” David said, slower, moderated, trying his best to sound reasonable by employing a reasonable voice, “so there was no reason for me to look here. I don’t usually take sugar.”
“This could be an important piece of evidence,” said Chico.
Marie had abandoned her teacup and stood by Chico’s side.
“Goodness,” she said, replacing her thin glasses with thicker ones and reading the page. “Classic transferred umbilical addiction. ICD-10 F20. The coupled individual fears the opposing parental unit and conspires to destroy him or her.”
“There’s no reason why you wouldn’t allow us to take this,” Chico said.
“Or it’s a ruse,” Marie said.
“You’ve been nothing but helpful so far,” Chico added.
“Your attitude has helped to ease my mind regarding your status in this case.”
David folded the paper in thirds. “Ease your mind.”
“You’re a person of interest, after all. That’s normal procedure. You’re only helping yourself by cooperating. But really, right now you’re getting your fingerprints all over what could be a key piece of evidence.”
“This could be something my wife wrote as a joke,” David said. “Probably years ago.”
“David,” Marie said. Her face was the color and shape of an oblong shell, a shaved almond, a cuttlefish bone on which a parakeet might smooth his beak.
David leaned forward and gently pressed his cheek against hers. It was satisfying, though she felt nothing like an almond.
“I understand your concern, but I’m beginning to grow worried for the physical object,” he said, cheek to cheek with Marie. “I believe it is within my legal right to keep it.”
“I think you should come talk to me sometime,” she said, whispering, into his ear.
Chico exhaled through his nose hard enough that David felt the blast on his face. He took a step back. “It is currently within your legal right,” Chico said. “I don’t enjoy the fact that you’re making that decision, though.”
David held the wilted paper aloft. “This object has sentimental value.”
“Understood,” Chico said. “We’re going to compromise.”
“Compromise is the evidence of a civil class,” Marie said.
Chico produced a pocket camera. “May I?”
David looked first at the camera and then at Marie. He held the threat in his palms, protecting it, while Chico took his picture. Chico put his camera away and handed David a sealing sandwich bag from his pocket.
“Keep it in there,” he said. “Do you have a stapler?”
David produced one from the junk drawer and Chico stapled the seal with three quick shots.
“We’ll head to the salon again. I’m sure we’ll find the ones that came by your home.”
They both shook David’s hand on the way out, and Marie stepped over the pile of frozen clothes on the porch. On their way to the car, Chico touched her arm once above the elbow. “It may not be wise for David to have a private session just yet,” he said.
“It would be a safe space for him.”
He opened her car door, stepped around the back, and got into the driver’s seat. “Maybe soon.” As they backed out of the driveway, Chico leveraged his arm against her seat while Marie watched the garage in front of her shrink back into the forest. The garage looked like a second house. She could see one pair of old wooden French doors propped slightly ajar by a substantial wasp’s nest that grew between the doors and held them in place.
Inside, David examined the threat. Specks of sugar had fallen to the bottom of the sandwich bag. He thought about the absolute fact that a great number of details had gone unnoticed. He reheated the pot of water, emptied his mug, and refilled it with sugar. The mug was full to its brim with sugar, and he had to put it in the sink when he poured the hot water in. The sugar sank under the hot liquid and clouded it, and David stirred it with a small spoon and blew across the surface before sipping the murky, sweet liquid, his lips pursed, his tongue lashing forward. He was a hummingbird. He held the mug at the center of his body, over his heart, wincing as the mug’s contents splashed over the lip and onto his fingers.
A Couple Threats
Paintings by Martin Wittfooth