I'll Get Back to You
He was forty-three. Far too young to be a widower. She was twenty-one. Far too young to be dead.
He found her out on the ice, her skin a chalky white. Her eyes open, black crush cut around them so they looked like small upside down triangles. She’d made it only fifty feet or so from the cottage before collapsing. From the look of it, she’d gone out the sliding-glass door off the kitchen, stepped past the picnic table on the screened-in porch, through the mesh door, onto the deck, and down the wooden stairs to the dock, a speckled trail dotting the snow behind her. It didn’t appear as if she’d slipped on the ice, but then again, he wouldn’t have expected her to: her physical control, on the track, in the water, it belied her inner imbalance, as if one had to pay the price for the other.
He was forty-three. Far too young to be a widower.
She was twenty-one. Far too young to be dead.
They’d been married less than a year when it happened. He’d kept himself in shape running along the water and out to the university where he worked, where she’d been a student of his when they met, though nothing untoward had happened then; he was too busy failing to find success as a poet to notice another human being, and the last place he would have looked, if he’d looked, would have been the classroom, filled as it was with all those aspirations, each student believing he or she would be the one to buck the trend. To find success as a writer. And maybe one of them would, but not all of them. And not half of them. And probably not even two. In the cohort he’d gone to school with, none of them had made it, and he was one of the few even still trying.
They’d met again in town after she graduated.
He’d had nearly four hundred students since she’d been in his class, most of whom had left the small coastal city before their tasseled caps had even touched the dirt, and it was for the best, really, as far as he was concerned. He never quite knew what to say to students outside of class, to the point that before each semester began, he measured the time it took to walk from his office to the room assigned for Poetry that term, so that when things officially got underway, when all of the seats in the room were occupied, as they always were, he’d arrive exactly on time, not a minute early or late, not a second available for small talk, only enough time to step to the front of the room, call the roll, and begin the lesson. It was a little more difficult to escape afterward—though he always made clear on the first day, whether it were true or not, that he had another class after the current one, and so he wouldn’t be able to stick around, though he was more than happy to answer e-mails, he said. If you have a question, you can send me a message, and I'll get back to you.
Whether it were true or not.
He’d been running on the towpath along the water, had just passed the black-and-white lighthouse at the far end of town, when the uneasy awkwardness overcame him, the feeling the same as when cornered by a student. He’d had a tiny, miniscule, barely visible sliver of success, if he were being completely honest, and sometimes a student would come across one of his poems in a magazine and mistake it for meaning something.
The words had come from somewhere behind him, but he knew by the way the person had pronounced his name—not like the popping of a balloon but like the Greek general—he knew whoever was behind him was an acquaintance: outside of his family, only a handful of people had ever pronounced his name the way it was intended. Sparrow Kelley, a girl he’d known back in tenth grade, had been one of them, but then that was over before it began.
He pretended he hadn’t heard. Kept running.
Had to fight the urge to pick up his pace and sprint away.
The voice, a whistle, was accompanied this time by a tap on the shoulder, and he stopped running without stopping, his feet continuing to bounce beneath him as he turned. “Yes?” he said. He didn’t recognize the girl, but he guessed immediately that she was from one of his poetry classes: her black hair stringy and unkempt, her makeup too thick, applied even though it appeared she, too, were out on a run. She wore the tight black pants so much in fashion then, cut off above the ankles, and he noticed her ankles, because he cast his eyes to the ground as he turned to face her.
“Hey,” she said. “I thought it was you.”
He continued to bounce, left foot then right, right foot then left.
“Alex,” she said.
He’d been focused on her feet, but it wasn’t until he met her eyes, a sort of sooty slate, that he realized she, too, had continued to run in place. The city had given the okay for one of those new factories to go in where the old pulp mill had been, and he figured she must be working out there now, or why else would she have stuck around after graduation? The factories had been popping up in all the old industrial cities, the Syracuses and Baltimores, and in the small coastal towns like theirs, though the new factories were nothing like the old fire-breathing monstrosities; by the time Pierce had turned ten, the top two floors of the pulp mill had gone dark, used only for storage; by the time he’d turned twenty, the front entrance had been planked and the danger signs posted. And in truth, if not for the recent removal of the signs, if they hadn’t been replaced by silver Dioscuri Corp. plaques, he’d have thought the place was still abandoned, the new factory running quiet as a whisper.
“Alexis, I guess,” the girl in front of him said.
“Alex is fine,” Pierce said.
“That’s what my friends call me.”
The sweat was rolling in thick slug trails down his back. His underarms were soaked, and he would need new shoes soon, he could tell. The soles were wearing on the inside. The guy at the running store on Market Street said Pierce over-pronated. He’d sold him a pair of red-and-black Mizunos that were supposed to help stabilize his stride, but apparently they hadn’t worked: the soles had still worn out before the rest, and anyway, Pierce must have appeared impatient because the girl in front of him said, “Do you want to keep running?”
“Oh, no, I mean, it’s fine, we—”
“I’ll run with you,” she said. “We can get reacquainted.”
The first mile together was anxiety-ridden, and he concentrated on trying to match her pace so as not to think of anything else; she may have been younger than him, but he was in better shape, and he had to slow down in order not to wind her. By the second mile they’d begun to sync, and she’d offered him a few tidbits about her life since college, the most important being, she said, that she still wrote poetry, but that it was bad poetry, and her boyfriend had made fun of her for it.
“Do I know him?” Pierce asked.
“Nah.” She turned her head to the side and spat. “He came to town when that new Googleplex or whatever it is opened.”
“Yeah,” she said.
Around mile three he finally settled in, the comfort he usually felt when running returning to him despite her presence. The only times he’d ever run next to another person were during races, when he was trying to pass them, and this, with Alex, was something wholly different, the two of them gliding along the water like hawks. Salt stinging the air. The lazy solitude of running replaced with something familiar. He’d wondered many times what life would have been like if he’d grown up in Washington or New York or Chicago, one of the State’s major cities rather than this small squiggle of nothing land out in Nowheresville. They called it that growing up, before all the kids he ran track with moved away. Would he be better published, more successful, if he’d left, too? If he hadn’t taken a job teaching at the same college he’d attended? Would he be married already? A wife and two kids and a picket fence instead of his parents’ weather-beaten cottage? Mom and Dad had passed within a few years of the pulp mill closing, as if one thing led to the other, cause and effect, but the truth was few people used paper products anymore. His students certainly didn’t, not with thought-to-text recorders and retina readers being so cheap. For his part, though, he still pressed sheets of pulp into paper from time to time, down in the washroom on the cottage’s first floor. The feel of the fibers rolled between his fingers, the side of his hand sliding atop a freshly dried sheet, the ink from his black pen bleeding into the white. There was nothing like it. Though he sometimes thought how the carya and cornus and hickory trees scattered across the campus had to be cut down for his pleasure to be kept alive, and maybe that wasn’t right, and maybe it was best that the mill had closed. The cornus trees, in particular, he liked, with their tiny four-petaled flowers clustered all in bunches, though they did smell a little like sweat. Like Sparrow Kelley had smelled that night, right before she left.
Pierce had never really thought of women as a reality, as something he might have one day, and that was okay with him now, though it hadn’t always been. In high school, when the other guys on the track team went out on dates to the one local cinema and then to the beach, he ran the stadium loop, one mile then two, two then three, on and on until he fell to the spongy sienna track, unable to keep going, the sky a deepening velvet, the floodlights above the athletic fields humming like electronic insects emerging into night. His coach held him up to the others as an example of true dedication. “Y’all kids can’t just pretend to run,” the coach had said. “You really got to do it. Like Pierce.” To their credit, the other kids didn’t hold it against him. Never mocked him or made fun. As if they already knew that in the end he’d go nowhere quick, one of those kids who peaked prematurely. On date nights, the girls the other guys went out with giggled and tittered and sometimes spun in circles, their skirts haloing their waists like tutus as they pirouetted out to the sand, where beneath the fabric of night he would have been a pincushion to their pins—though even then it was a different story in class, and sometimes one of the girls would come to his parents’ cottage with her homework, and if it were winter, she’d shed her layers right there by the entrance, jacket and sweater and scarves and leggings, and the two of them would go to his room and his mother would cook them dinner, and he’d smell the snow and ice on the girl, crisp and frigid, as if it were her, and they’d sit at his desk, a second chair brought up from the kitchen, and they were always nice to him, the girls, and seemed truly appreciative of his help, and he didn’t mind, and it kept his parents off his back about dating, and once, Sparrow Kelley—“one of the cutest girls in school,” his friend, Phillip, had said, “though she rejects every invitation”—had come over for help with a paper, which made no sense to Pierce, because she got even better grades than he did, and while debating the conjunction of a “you and I” versus a “you and me,” she leaned over and kissed him, and he was so stunned he didn’t kiss back, and she sat up very straight and said, “I’m sorry,” and, “You’re probably right about the conjunction,” and she never came over for help again, because she didn’t need it. And then she was gone—gone for good—and here he was, nearly thirty years later, in the same place he’d begun, helping the girls with their homework, except now in an official capacity, as their teacher, no longer a classmate.
“So,” Alex said, the lighthouse looming behind them.
They’d arrived, six miles later, back where they’d started, the last four miles having passed without a word, having passed without him realizing. Somewhere along the way, the sun had broken through and the morning cloud cover had dissipated, and the two of them were continuing to jog in place, despite knowing the run was over. She was trying not to breathe hard, and he could tell. Could tell by the way she tilted her chin up, her eyes liquid at the edges; she was thin as a stretched-out rope, and her voice was wheezy, and nothing she could do would keep her ribs from rowing.
“That was”—she inhaled deep, nostrils flaring—“good.”
“Or not too bad, at any rate.”
“Give me a little credit,” she said. “After all, I managed to make this”—she circled a finger in front of her face—“look natural.” She allowed her body to loosen, hands on knees, her steel façade folding into a smile. A smile so familiar that without even thinking, as if perfectly natural, he asked: “Are you from around here? I mean, your family, do they live in town?” He bent back at the waist, his hands on his hips, some joint inside of him popping. “Is that why you’re still here?”
When he found her lying on the ice outside the cottage, her unruly black hair chopped to a bob, the bracelet she always wore removed from her left wrist, a feeling he’d felt only once before welled up inside of him, and he understood from the start that she had a face for the world and a face for herself, and that wasn’t so unusual, after all, but the sadness she kept inside of her, like a ball of yarn slowly unraveled, that was something else—something desperate and eternal—and seeing her out on the ice brought a warm buzz to the tips of his fingers, to the ends of his toes, the buzz turning to a thrum, vibrating like a struck tuning fork and fizzling out between his legs, leaving not the hollow emptiness he might have expected, if he’d ever thought to expect it, but the feeling that every single atom and molecule inside of him had once been tightly covered and caressed and kissed by familiar lips familiar only in long-past imaginings.
Sparrow Kelley stopped in front of the two-tiered cottage and considered turning back. A set of snowy footprints trailed behind her, zigzagging through the waterfront neighborhood, and then sprinting out along the towpath, out past Market Street, past the lighthouse, all the way back to the single-story home she shared with her parents and brother. If their house had been built half a mile closer to the mainland, it would have been in a different school district and she wouldn’t be standing where she was now, on the cottage porch, wrapped in two scarves and a sweater and coat, gloves and double-laced boots, her cheeks colored, her nose running, her blond hair literally frozen, not having been fully dried before she left the house, after she got out of the shower, the cold walk from the north side of the town to the south so cold it seemed the ice had found a way inside her.
“You’re here,” she said to herself. “Knock already.”
His mother answered the door and ushered her into the foyer. “Let me help you with your things,” she said, unraveling the outermost scarf from Sparrow’s neck. Sparrow’s own mother, Mrs. Kelley, had knit the thing for her daughter’s sixteenth birthday, the yarn alternating black then white then black then white, “Like piano keys,” Mrs. Kelley had said, as if Sparrow didn’t realize. As if that were possible.
“Did you just turn sixteen?” Pierce’s mother asked.
“Just last month,” Sparrow said, wiping at her nose.
Sparrow kind of hated the scarf, but she didn’t want to hurt her mother, and if she wore it through the winter, she could probably lose it in the bottom of a drawer come spring, and it wasn’t so much that she disliked the thing itself, anyway, only what it stood for: her parents insistence that she become a pianist. The choices in her life, about her life, beyond her control. If ever her parents were to meet Pierce’s parents, the first thing they would say would be: “Did Sparrow tell you how she got her name?” as if in one fell swoop they could explain the unusual moniker, preempt the thought that maybe they were hippies—“No, no,” Mrs. Kelley would laugh, fingers touching her collarbone, “we’re not those kind of people”—and, at the same time, brag about their daughter’s musical genius. “It’s not the name on her birth certificate,” Mrs. Kelley would say, touching her husband’s elbow, “but when we heard her, at two years old, mind you, when we heard her calling to the sparrows nesting outside her window, mimicking their song exactly, well, we thought it must be a sign of something.” Sparrow had heard the story a hundred times, and yet she’d never heard her mother, who couldn’t carry a tune to save her life, who relied on other people to tell her what was “good” and “amazing” and “brilliant” in a given performance, she’d never heard her mother explain how exactly she knew Sparrow’s birdcall was an early sign of musical genius and how that made it okay for her to choose her daughter’s fate for her.
“Let me call Pierce down for you.”
“I can just go up, if it’s no trouble.”
She’d come over to get help with an essay on the Leucippides, though she and Pierce both knew she didn’t need any, so she imagined or hoped or prayed that when she’d approached him at the high-school track earlier, when he’d looked down at the frozen ground and said, yes, it would be no problem at all and he’d be happy to help and that she could come over, she promised herself it meant he felt the same thing she did. Wanted the same thing she did. He was the only person she’d ever known with whom she could sit on the track and stretch in silence or talk on and on about Castor and Pollux, and either way she’d feel perfectly at ease. No pressure. A respite from the rest of her life. And so on the walk to his parents’ cottage, snow-stepping through the freezing cold, the sky and earth melding, she couldn’t help but imagine the two of them, she and Pierce, escaping this dingy town together, driving quietly up Highway 12 and out onto the mainland, heading someplace where the sun ran warm for more than twelve weeks a year, an adventure of love, it would be, like Bonnie and Clyde, minus all the violence. He would help her escape. The pills, her parents.
Together the there would be no more pressure.
At the top of the stairs, in front of his bedroom door, she decided her sweater made her look bloated and that she’d rather be cold than bloated, and so she pulled it over her head, her hair standing on end, static and electric, and she worried then that maybe she’d been wrong, that maybe he thought she really did need help with the paper, that maybe he believed all blond girls were dumb, like the jokes the boys his age seemed to find so funny, and that maybe the life together she’d imagined would never be, and she’d be left alone with her mother and father and the piano, because her brother and his girlfriend would probably move out soon, and then what would she do?
Lay out on the ice and die, maybe.
She knocked on the door, and, “Come in,” he said.
Would it have been easier if she’d been born with black hair?
“Yes,” he said, louder this time. “Come in.”
Maybe there was still time to dye it. Pierce’s room was lit only by a desk lamp, and he was sitting at the desk, already waiting, a chair pulled up beside him, a stack of books and two pads of paper. Ovid’s Fasti split open atop Edith Hamilton’s Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.
“Impressive,” she said, but he didn’t smile.
She’d shed her coat and scarves and sweater, and her body was covered by only an A-shirt now, her arms completely bare except for the thrice-coiled leather bracelet.
“Is that a belt?” he asked, and she’d never thought about it like that, but yes, it did look a bit like a boy’s belt wrapped around her wrist, silver belt buckle and all, and, “No,” she said, it’s just a bracelet, her normally thin voice a whistle. “It helps me play better,” she’d told her mother, when her mother had asked. “It’s just, like, a fashion thing,” she’d told her brother, when he’d done the same. And she wanted to say something more to Pierce, not to lump him in with all the rest—she wanted to tell him what it covered, why she wore it—but the words were slow in coming and he seemed no longer interested, and she adjusted her necklace, and said, “About that homework…,” and in less than an hour she was walking back home, alone, her coat and sweater and all the rest knotted back atop her, and she felt helpless and a little drunk, her legs watery like that time she’d slept over her friend Becca’s house and they’d had too much pop and pizza, and then, for no good reason at all, decided to pile on a few shots of tequila, and though it was such a little thing, being so gassed up and full, and though she knew it would pass, for the first time in her life, Sparrow thought she might die, and thought it might be for the best, the only choice she had left: her stomach would rupture and the bacteria inside would flood her body and she would feel a small, gentle release, like a balloon slowly deflating, and long before the helium had all drained and the sac had drifted back to earth, a useless slip of rubber, it would be understood that all that was left above was sun and heat and pain.
Doctor Endor nodded toward the two seats across from his desk, his hands held in front of him, palms curled up as if containing small puddles of water. “Please, do have a seat.” A strip of white flooring ran parallel to the desk, the chairs reflecting in its surface, Mr. and Mrs. Kelley reflecting in its surface, as if beneath their feet they each contained a twin. “It’s so nice to finally meet you,” Endor said. “Was your travel to Washington comfortable?” He didn’t know how they’d arrived, whether they’d taken the Global Metro Connector or driven up from the coast in an l-car, but it didn’t really matter, and to ask would only be a distraction. Their son had recently moved to Australia, they’d said during one of the early consults, and he’d gone by Global Metro, and so Endor knew, at the very least, they weren’t luddites. Between the general services Dioscuri Corp. offered and the new jobs they created, the initial pushback had been monumentally less than expected, a few isolated protests down by the Capitol. One or two attempts at legislation. Not much more. In fact, Dioscuri was expanding, expecting to have factories even out on the coasts, like where the Kelleys came from, within the next fifteen or twenty years, depending.
“Is she…?” Mrs. Kelley tried to smile, her brow knitting instead.
“Yes.” Endor nodded. “We’ll head to neonatal in just a few minutes.”
The Kelleys were young still, Mrs. Kelly twenty-six when Sparrow was born, forty-seven when she passed. Mr. Kelley only a few years older than his wife. His shoulders rounded, his body neither hard nor soft, his work at the university, as the Vice Provost, allowing him time to relax on the beach during the summer months, when the campus was emptier and less was going on in administration, and enough material comfort to be able to do what they were doing now at Dioscuri. Mrs. Kelley had never worked much, aside from a scant few years at the university, as a secretary in the English Department, a job her husband had arranged for her to try to keep her busy after what had happened with Sparrow; being around kids their daughter’s age would help, Mr. Kelley imagined, especially kids in the English Department, Sparrow having decided to go to school for poetry, despite her mother’s wishes. But it didn’t help.
It would have been easier if Sparrow had come down with some horrible disease or been struck with cancer, but for it to happen as it did, for them to find her out on the ice like that, was unthinkable, and mostly Mrs. Kelley sat beneath the cornus tree outside of Administration, hands folded in her lap, small white petals flittering and floating around her. Had she done something wrong? Was it her fault somehow? Sparrow had been gone one year by then. Would have turned twenty-two back in December. “Do you know about Dioscuri?” a colleague of Mr. Kelley’s asked, standing at their tenth-floor window, looking out across the campus, the trees all in bloom, the smell of cherry and sandalwood suffusing the quad. Mrs. Kelley sitting beneath them. “Strictly in trials right now. Setup shop in Washington, a sort of loophole, I hear, because the District’s not actually a state, and so the normal rules don’t apply.”
A year later, timed to Sparrow’s birthday, there they were, at Dioscuri.
“Are you ready to go down to see her?” Doctor Endor asked.
Mrs. Kelley took her husband’s elbow, and he helped her from the chair, and because they lived by the water, her skin was dry and her hair was brittle, and for thirty-four years, since she’d turned fourteen, Mrs. Kelley had lathered herself with coconut oil in the morning and jojoba at night, a protective layer so she’d remain presentable, first to boys and later to piano teachers and recital-hall directors and anyone she might need to impress to advance her daughter’s career.
“Okay,” Doctor Endor said, the three of them having walked down to neonatal, the white walls a shimmering marble, a blue lap-pool stripe running along the ceiling, the tint as deep as the bottom of the ocean. “Your daughter’s in Room 101, which is right down this way, first door on the left. If you have any last questions, now’s the time to ask them.”
“Will she be, well….”
“What my wife’s asking, I guess….”
Doctor Endor waited, did not try to rush them or presuppose what they might be thinking. “Take your time,” he said, hands clasped at his waist.
“Will she be just the same as before?” Mrs. Kelley said. “Will I recognize her?”
“She will look and act and in every way be a replica of the baby you gave birth to, though environmental factors will come into play as she grows up, and, of course, we’ve made the one adjustment you requested regarding her hair color.”
The door to Room 101 slid open.
Mrs. Kelley looked toward it.
“But she’ll be our Sparrow?” Mrs. Kelley asked again.
“Actually,” he said, “you’ve reminded me of a crucial question.”
“What?” Mr. Kelley asked quickly, before his wife could worry what it might be.
“Sometimes couples elect to go with a different name the second time around, even if only on the official paperwork. There are practical reasons, as well as personal reasons, but, in the end, we leave it completely and wholly up to you to decide what’s best for your situation. The baby’s given name will be registered as you like it.”
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Kelley said, looking at her husband.
“You know,” he said. “Maybe we had it right the first time, the name we put on the birth certificate, I mean. Before we decided to change it.”
For the first time in a long time, Mrs. Kelley felt a warmth flicker inside of her, as if a flame had been prodded to life in their living room furnace and the lid of the long-silent piano had been raised, and slowly, slowly a series of notes slid out and over her, and she didn’t know—she’d never known—what made one performance “good” and another “great,” but she understood then, a forty-nine-year-old woman standing in the neonatal ward, that sometimes there were second chances, and she could learn this time, could really learn how to listen to music—could do things different—and her daughter would survive this time, and she’d go on to become a pianist, because this time Mama would be there to help her, would be able to tell when the notes were off, when there was too much rubato, and things would be different, and her daughter would be successful, and she wouldn’t have to rely on anyone else to know what was good or great in a performance, and Mrs. Kelley had given life once already and watched it be taken away, watched it be buried beneath the ground, and so, yes, without question, this time would be different.
“Well?” Mr. Kelley said. “What do you think? Should we keep the original?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Kelley said. “I’ve always loved the name Alexis.”