Betsy Wainwright’s brain was shrinking. Had shrunk. There was no certain diagnosis, only an objectively shrinking brain, measurably smaller in circumference this year than last. Come and celebrate her fifty-first, Betsy’s husband Dan had said to Marty over the phone, at once jaunty and begging. You’re more likely than anyone else to dislodge some of her memories. And bring some of your finest California snake oil.
Marty, newly single, was free to go wherever she wanted. But Dan’s call brought her up short, shamed her. There was no denying she’d been neglecting her oldest friend whom she hadn’t seen for over three years, since before the brain’s shrinking was identified. The length of her friendship with Betsy made it impossible to say no. They’d been three-year-old nursery-school rug rats together, and though they’d always had different tastes and led very different lives and often lived for long stretches on different coasts without seeing each other for several years, the hours they’d logged in each other’s company before they were twenty-two had made them almost siblings, and the relationship had hung on where others might have withered. It had the indestructibility of a gnarled tree root that eventually becomes a fossil. Despite Betsy’s difficulty, she was thrilling and larger than life, and being in her presence had always made Marty feel her own life was larger, too. You’re a good egg, they used to tell each other, out of the blue. Marty needed now, more than ever, to feel the possibility of a large life, a large life in which she could still be a good egg and not the self-absorbed person she’d become since her separation.
It was cold when she set out for New Hampshire from her mother’s house in Massachusetts, and the sky was a monochrome sheet of gray, already churning out tiny flakes. Marty drove her tinny rental car slowly, performing her special trick: rearranging the focal distance of her eyes to see foreground and background simultaneously. It was the trick of one who had made a profession of squinting into a lens, a trick of her eyes, but more important, a trick of the brain.
Betsy, Dan had reported, was no longer allowed to drive. If she drove, she lost her way. Once she’d arrived at the grocery store, and locked herself in her car, and couldn’t figure out how to get out. This kind of dysfunction was alarming on so many levels that Marty usually tried not to think of it. Research had revealed that people were more likely to die not only soon after their spouses died, but also when others in their social circles died. What if losing brain capacity was the same way?
Betsy’s brain held memories of Marty’s childhood that no one else shared. Betsy’s vanishing memory was like losing a hard drive built over decades, one to which Marty was also wired.
Marty made her way slowly north through the surface streets to the highway in dwindling light, sucked inside a loop of tests. Should she remember this pink office building? This intersection? This Trader Joe’s? It was true she hadn’t lived here for years, but looking too hard at anything made it recede further from memory. The radio was broadcasting an interview with a thirteen-year-old violinist who would be playing a concerto with the Boston Symphony, written by a composer Marty had never heard of. The violinist, an uncannily precocious girl, spoke of the contrast between the movements, a challenging scherzo followed by a mournful adagio.
Two months ago Marty and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Art, had split their possessions down the middle—yours, mine, yours, mine—until they got to a stack of things no one wanted, objects shorn of meaning: a behemoth vegetable juicer they’d only used a handful of times, a set of ugly fuchsia bed sheets they had no recollection of buying, moth-eaten winter coats they’d had since their time in New York.
The day of their move to different apartments in Venice Beach they joked and laughed, the model of cooperation. She kept looking at Art’s lanky body and his long artist’s fingers, and wondering why they hadn’t survived. They’d been such a good couple, he a painter until his recent foray into real estate, she a documentary filmmaker. They had great friends, gave lively parties, struggled together with their art.
At the end of that day Art got a call. It turned out he was going to France the following week. You never said you were going toFrance, she said. The look he gave her, a blank horizontal smile like a musical staff without notes, could have been read as pity. She understood she’d forfeited her right to indignation and stopped herself from asking who was going with him.
Twilight tipped over into night, and the snow intensified. The Ford Fiesta rattled and let in a spear of cold air through the driver’s side door. After years of living in California, she was out of practice driving in snow and should have demanded a sturdier car. The trucks on all sides of her were equipped with chains, and plows had come out, appearing in her rear-view mirror like prehistoric beasts, making a terrible racket. The black asphalt had become a path of white whose edges blurred into sky and falling snow, and occasional gusts of wind slung snow across the windshield, confusing her sense of up and down. She missed Art, the authority of his tall body. When they went on trips together, he always drove.
Betsy Wainwright was also tall—over six feet—and bossy. She was almost beautiful—pictures preserved her that way—but in movement she became unsure of herself, gawky and blustery. Her family, Boston Brahmins with money, lived on a hill with a pond and horses, surrounded by pasture and woods. Her father was a writer and editor-in-chief, known in town and well beyond, a famous man himself who hosted famous authors for dinner. Sometimes Marty sat at those dinners, cowed by the erudite conversation about books and politics, nervous someone would ask her a question, uncertain how to serve herself gracefully from the dishes offered on the left by the maid. She always hoped Betsy would find a way to get them excused early.
But being excused had its own perils. Betsy often led her down to the pasture, where they would ride the horse and pony bareback. This terrified Marty, though she never said so. If you were timid, and prone to accommodating, and small as Marty was back then, it was only natural to go along with things. Bucky, the pony with the inauspicious name, was the one Marty was always told to ride. She clung to the bristly mane and held her breath as Bucky cantered after Betsy’s horse, Simba. There was no slowing Bucky down, no convincing him he need not keep up with his longer-legged friend. There was only enduring. Marty’s rump bumped over the pony’s bony back like a pinball. She dreaded falling off, so easily could have. Betsy had stories of the horse girls around town “cracking their heads open.” She would report this as if it was funny, and Marty would envision a skull fractured like watermelon rind, a cross-sectioned brain flopping out and bleeding into the grass.
The car began to fishtail. She cast off her gloves to gain more control of the wheel and steered into the skids. Her eyes telescoped toward the road, but the traffic had thinned, and with no cars nearby there seemed to be no road at all, so she felt as if she was bombing forward on a pathless journey like those charted through space.
Her eyes pressed the white-dark for information, road signs, lights of towns, some confirmation she was on the right course. A mastodon lumbered into view, then cartwheeled into an amoeba. A donkey lay out there, heaving in pain, spindly legs twitching. The whapping of tires against snow was indistinguishable from her own rough breathing. For God’s sake, Martha, it’s not a donkey, only a thin strand of unbidden memory.
Betsy’s and Marty’s lives took radically different directions sometime after college. Betsy, after a few dalliances, married Dan and got busy taking refuge from the world, building a house resembling her parents’ house and raising their two children, Justin and Helen, on the hill in New Hampshire where Marty was now headed. Betsy had been on that hill for over twenty years. Was it possible, Marty now wondered, that Betsy had withdrawn from the world because her brain already, way back then, told her it was shrinking?
Marty, during that time, was throwing herself at the world. Ambitious (Betsy used to kid her about that), she went to graduate school, studied film, moved west, fashioned herself into a filmmaker. Movies? Eee-gads! Betsy had said when she learned of Marty’s interest in film. Betsy, like her family, had always spurned popular culture—movies, TV, rock and roll, all brainless entertainment aimed at the low-level tastes of The Great American Public. It’s not Hollywood, Marty explained of her film portraits of immigrant women. It’s documentary. But it was all the same to Betsy, and by then Marty was able to slough Betsy’s mocking. Despite her native timidity, Marty often said to herself about her own choices, especially recently, that she had gone out and faced the world, put herself into the fray. Maybe she didn’t have a lot to show for it, maybe she had lost more than she’d won, but she couldn’t be accused of shying away. She and Art had met and married in their early thirties. Neither wanted kids—who needed all that time chained to the house, all those trips to the ER to extract wasabi peas from noses. At some point Marty and Betsy, both good eggs, began to laugh companionably about their differences.
Still, Marty would always remember the times when Betsy’s view of the world had to prevail. Once, in junior high, they biked on a Saturday morning to the school science fair. By the time they arrived, Marty wasn’t feeling well. I think I’m going to be sick, she told Betsy. Oh, you’re not sick, Betsy said, turning and striding quickly inside while Marty vomited on the stairs just outside the front door, so everyone coming and going saw.
Or the trip to Yosemite. It was during or after college, she couldn’t quite remember. Betsy and Dan were together, but weren’t yet married. Marty had flown from New York to Santa Cruz, where Betsy and Dan were living at the time, and they had driven to Yosemite to cross-country ski. But it had been raining, and they had spent the better part of a day driving around in search of a place from which to embark. Finally they settled on a trail that led them through the flatlands over sticky snow, trees dripping overhead, skis scratching exposed rocks and twigs, nothing vaguely majestic about the scenery. Eventually they took off their skis and carried them, like unruly chopsticks, back to the car, arriving just before another downpour.
They were renting a one-room cabin. The wood was so wet the fire hissed and sent out rank black smoke, so they gave up on the day, and warmed some soup, and went to bed in two double beds, only a foot apart. Marty lay stiffly with all her clothes on. She wasn’t modest, exactly, but she felt strange bedding down so close to a couple who might want to have sex. She stayed as still as she could, feigning sleep. Betsy and Dan began to whisper, quietly at first, then more loudly, until it was quite clear they were both furious. Now Marty really didn’t dare move. She was quite sure the argument was her fault. She strained to hear, but only single words and phrases were decipherable: should have told me, never said that, there, here, wasn’t, couldn’t, she.
It had been her birthday, Marty now recalled, along with her recent college graduation that became the occasion for the California trip. Betsy had made her a cake and thrown a party, though none of the guests were people Marty knew. The next day Dan took them to a striptease show, saying it was an important Life Passage. Being from California, he thought of himself as more worldly than his New England upper-crust girlfriend, definitely more racy. Despite Betsy’s resistance, the three of them drove into San Francisco where, at a ‘club,’ they watched a woman in a G-string draping herself gymnastically over various parts of a grand piano. She touched herself suggestively and did splits and backbends and walkovers as her inky hair rained over breasts and buttocks. Marty and Betsy were the only women there, and the other men were all a lot older than Dan, not sleazy-looking, exactly, but people Marty preferred not to look at for too long. She tried to be game and smiled aggressively. Dan’s attention cycled from the performing woman to Betsy to Marty. He looked mischievous, enjoying the shock he was inflicting on the woman who would become his wife, and her friend, both too prudish. At some point Betsy began to laugh, a low, gravelly ooze of laughter that lasted a full minute before she got up and escaped to the lobby. Dan raised an eyebrow at Marty. Shall I go out? she asked. She’s fine, Dan assured her. She’ll get over it. But Betsy never returned, and Marty and Dan watched for the next forty-five minutes alone.
It was after midnight when she arrived at the bottom of the driveway. It was a miracle she’d arrived at all. Several inches of snow had fallen since the road’s last plowing, and the steep, quarter-mile driveway had not been plowed at all and hosted over a foot of snow. She wedged her car into a snow bank to get it off the road, tossed a few clothes and toiletries into her carry-on backpack, and plunged forward, uphill, keeping her eyes on the outdoor light Dan had left on. The snow came almost to her knees and wormed over the tops of her boots. If she hadn’t been so tired, it would have been gorgeous, the snow untouched, the moon almost full, a few light flurries pirouetting in and out of the light like fairy dust. She and Betsy had a name for glittering snow, a long multi-syllable name that was hard to recall now. Triglick—something.
The thought of bed kept her going. In the old days Betsy would have made sure there was a hot-water bottle between the sheets, cocoa on the night stand. Drink the damn cocoa, she would order Marty who, as a child, never liked hot drinks. She passed a small barn. Only a shed, really. So much about this place was an exact replica of what Betsy had grown up with. Marty’s own life bore not a shred in common with the lives of her parents.
Someone had shoveled an area by the side door. Huffing, Marty entered the mudroom, picking a path through a hodge-podge of shoes and boots, jackets and mittens fallen from their pegs. She stumbled into the foyer. Something was different, she felt it immediately. A strong smell of mustiness and old food and something acidic. It reminded her of the lobby of the first building in New York where she and Art had lived together. They speculated about that smell endlessly, trying to dissect it, deciding it emanated directly from the walls and ceiling and floor of the building itself. It wasn’t decay, but a precursor to decay.
Though the light was dim, she could already feel that things were not tidy. In the morning, when snow-reflected light would invade every room, she would see the untidiness she now only felt. Books pulled from shelves, pieces of mail here and there, pots and pans scattered around the living room, glitter winking up from the hardwood floors like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs though far less deliberate. What she gleaned now in the shadows, illuminated only by a nightlight down the hall, was a kind of shabbiness.
WELCOME, said a note on the floor. Glad you made it. First bedroom on the right upstairs. Excuse the mess. Dan the Man.
She wasn’t quite ready for sleep. Her shoulders were tense, and she felt as if she were still gripping the steering wheel. She set her backpack at the bottom of the stairs and went to the kitchen for milk. It had been hours since she’d eaten. By instinct she found the cookie canister, which in Betsy’s households had always been filled with homemade cookies. It was the same resilient green canister with the painted rose that Marty remembered from Betsy’s childhood home. Remarkable, the things that lasted. She wasn’t surprised to find the canister nearly empty, a couple of stale Oreos at the bottom. She ate them both and washed them down with milk, then stood at the sink, which offered a view of the living room and its large picture window that looked out on a hazy moon and a sloping, snow-covered field. During the day there would be a distant view of the valley. She drank in the peace, understanding why Betsy had always loved it here.
A mouse-like rustling. It was Betsy, she now saw, right in her eye-line, sitting in an easy chair in the living room, back to Marty, stroking the chair’s arm and staring out. Even the shadowed silhouette of her cheek and shoulder was immediately recognizable. Had she been there all along, since Marty came in?
Marty vacillated. She didn’t have the energy to interact with anyone right now, let alone the uncertain persona Betsy promised to be. And if she announced herself, Betsy might think she was an intruder. But could she get upstairs without being heard? Should she wake Dan and tell him Betsy was down here? Betsy thumped the chair’s arm in a regular rhythm. Was this a communication, Betsy to Marty?
Holding her breath, Marty tiptoed back into the hallway, retrieved her backpack, and headed upstairs. At the top of the stairs the thumping stopped.
The sound of a snow blower awakened Marty. It was late, almost 9:00. From the bedroom window she could see Justin, tall like his father and mother, clearing the driveway. The day was blue and white, resplendent, the entire hillside covered with a puffy duvet of snow.
Downstairs in the kitchen Dan and Helen greeted Marty with expressive hugs, as if they were squeezing away the years since they’d seen each other. The three-plus years had aged Dan; his unruly hair was longer and grayer, and he sported a small paunch. In the four or five years since Marty had seen Helen, Helen had bloomed from girl to woman. Dan was making another pot of coffee. He was his usual lighthearted, talkative self. He’d made peace with his lot here as a one-size-fits-all country attorney.
“You certainly are intrepid,” Dan said. “Was the driving awful? It somehow doesn’t seem right that you ended up on my sunny coast, and I’m stuck here in your land of polar vortexes. Your mother is well?”
“Same as always.”
Helen thumbed through cookbooks. She was robust and forthright, up for the weekend from Boston where she had just begun law school. In appearance she took after Betsy, though she was much more of the current world.
“It’s just us tonight,” Helen said. “The family and you. Too many people doesn’t work with Ma. We’re keeping it simple—chicken, rice, broccoli, cake. We have to have cake. It’s not good for her, but what’s a birthday without cake.”
Dan poured mugs of coffee, and the three sat at the nicked, farmhouse-style table, Dan and Helen regarding Marty expectantly. “Well, what’s the news from California?” Dan said.
“Same old. Still making films no one will see. Still teaching to pay the bills.”
“Sorry to hear about you and Art. Although that’s what you get for going to Hollywood.”
Marty laughed. “Me and Hollywood, we’re very tight. How’s your practice?”
“Fine, when my clients aren’t killing each other and practicing incest.”
“I guess your father’s optimism about the law is what convinced you to go to law school?”
“A means to an end,” Helen said. “I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m sure making films is a lot more fun.”
“Sometimes. Where’s Betsy?”
“She sleeps late,” Dan said. “She often gets up in the night and wanders.”
“Is that safe?”
Dan shrugged. “You’re not one of those people who believes life is risk-free, are you? She manages. Better sometimes than others.”
Helen rolled her eyes. “I keep telling Dad—”
“That I’m hopeless. That I should hire someone to look after her. Or put her somewhere. But honestly, wouldn’t you want to be free and unsupervised as long as you could be?”
“Free to kill yourself in any number of ways.”
“She’s not going to kill herself. It’s only mishaps.”
“So far.” Helen turned to Marty. “I’ve offered to quit law school. At least for a while until we can find someone else.”
“There’s no need to quit school. You’ve got your things to do. Your mother has hers.”
Helen’s chair scraped the linoleum. She stood and gulped the dregs of her coffee. “Let’s go wake her up. Come on, Marty. You know the protocol?”
“Move slowly. Get her attention before speaking.”
“Calm, but no condescension. She isn’t a child, though you wouldn’t know it sometimes.”
They headed upstairs, leaving Dan in the kitchen. Helen smoldered. “He’s impossible. He doesn’t realize how far gone she is. Oh, sure, sometimes she’s perfectly logical and coherent, but not for long. I can’t figure out if he’s naïve or just stupid.”
“I’ve never thought of him as stupid.”
“Not on paper, no, but sometimes he’s amazingly functionally impaired.”
Outside Betsy’s closed bedroom door Helen stopped and considered Marty. “I can’t believe how long you two have been friends. I honestly can’t imagine knowing anyone for so long.”
Helen opened the door on a room that was not the master bedroom. It appeared to be a playroom of sorts, with shelves of plastic horses and ponies, stuffed animals of all sizes, beanie babies, blue and purple yoga balls. One wall was decorated with cutouts of stars and moons, the opposite wall with fish.
“I know, I know,” Helen whispered as Marty took in the room. “Dad got her all these things. For a while it was his big project. Actually, she kind of likes it, especially the soft stuff.”
Marty nodded, suddenly apprehensive. In a four-poster bed loaded with quilts Betsy slept, only a few strands of her graying blonde hair visible.
“Mum—” Helen shook Betsy’s shoulder.
“Don’t wake her on my account.”
“We have to keep her on a somewhat normal schedule. Ma, wake up. Someone is here to see you.”
Betsy grunted, turned over, and rose slowly to a sitting position. She regarded her daughter, expression slack.
“Ma, it’s me, Helen.” Helen’s face was no more than a foot from Betsy’s. Betsy grinned suddenly, and reached out for a hug. “It’s your birthday, Ma. Happy birthday!”
Betsy was now all business. She threw back the covers and got out of bed.
“You go pee, and I’ll come help you get dressed.” Helen yanked off the sheets. “She peed. She often does.”
Marty didn’t need to be told, the smell permeated the room.
Seeing Marty, Betsy stopped. They latched gazes. Something swam at the back of Betsy’s cornflower eyes, translucent as streambeds, the same as ever. Helen hurried over.
“This is your old friend, Marty. She came from California for your birthday.” Helen spoke as if pressing the words past layers of something viscous.
“Hi, Betsy,” Marty said. She smiled hard, focused on the eyes, the familiar eyes, trying to ignore the rest, the blank look, the hay-dry hair, the cracked lips, the stench, the sudden awkward intimacy. Betsy’s lips quivered, as if she was about to speak.
“Happy birthday,” Marty said. She waited.
“Happy birthday,” Betsy echoed. “Happy birthday.” Her smile was jubilant. She lunged forward, throwing the full weight of her large body into Marty, nearly knocking Marty down. “Martha,” she said into Marty’s hair and neck. Her grip was fierce, her arms and back bony but strong.
Marty laughed. They pulled back and laughed together. Marty was filled with an unexpected surge of elation. “You’re the only person in the world who still calls me Martha.”
Marty went downstairs while Helen helped Betsy dress. Dan was playing the piano, a baby grand set in a book-lined alcove of the living room. He pounded out a jaunty Scott Joplin tune that matched his personality. Justin looked up from his computer. He had the cheerful unflappability of his father. Marty took a seat beside him on the couch. A white cat with long hair and green eyes leaped into her lap.
“I didn’t know you had cats.”
“We didn’t until recently. Seamus, our very old dog, died, and a neighbor brought us this cat, thinking we needed another animal. Ma fell in love with him before Dad could say no.”
“What’s his name? Or hers?”
“We call him Albert, but Ma has a million names for him. Whatever seems right at the moment.”
“Your mother was never a cat person. She always preferred dogs. And horses.”
Justin laughs. “I think she’s a lot of things now she never was before. How are they doing up there?”
“Fine, I think.”
“Helen isn’t always the most patient.”
“She seemed okay to me.”
“Just wait. It’s weird, you know—the whole thing.”
After a lot of restless movement, Albert settled, and Marty stroked his back. “She remembered me, your mother did.”
“You sound surprised.”
“I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
“It comes and goes. Dad keeps thinking something is going to jiggle everything back into place. But that’s pretty much magical thinking.”
“How does he manage when you two aren’t around?”
“Neighbors with hearts of gold. It won’t last forever. We’re trying to nudge Dad into making other arrangements. Or in Helen’s case, bulldoze him.”
The deep snow, the blinding sunlight, the family gathered, the birthday, the guest—there was a cast to the day that set it apart, removing them all from the surly march of time. Martha, who was no longer Marty, tried to stay centered in the day’s peace, its lack of pressing demands, but something thrummed on. Perhaps it was only the frayed nerves of the traveler, or the recently uncoupled. She wasn’t used to being in the midst of another family. The past spirited around them like smoke. She missed Art, kept picturing him walking on the beach with a woman, the faceless, nameless one she imagined he’d taken to France. She knew Art wasn’t thinking of her. He hadn’t called her once since the separation, and she felt gone from him, along with all those years they’d spent together. Poof.
Before she left California, she had made an effort to dig into unpacked boxes and find a few photographs, mostly small, black-and-white snapshots taken years ago with a Brownie camera. She laid them out on the coffee table. There was a tattered school photo of Betsy in sixth grade looking angelic in a white blouse, smiling expansively to expose her dimples. There was one of her astride Simba, her downturned gaze fond as he reached his neck forward to graze on something tasty. There was another of her as an early teenager leaping, suspended mid-air, mid-laugh, scarf of hair rippling behind her. Despite the photograph’s lack of focus, the joy could not have been clearer.
Everyone leaned in to look, everyone except Betsy, who sat on the carpet nuzzling her face into Albert’s fur.
“Pictures of you, Ma,” Justin said. “When you were younger. Want to see?”
Betsy ignored him, or didn’t hear. Martha got up and sat beside Betsy on the carpet. She reached out to pet the cat. Betsy’s head shot up, eyes like road flares. This cat is mine. Martha withdrew her hand.
“You were so beautiful, Ma,” Helen said.
“A heartbreaker,” Dan said. “Why else do you think I married her? Not to mention that she rescued me from my ignorance and squalor.”
Helen placed the photo of Betsy leaping into Betsy’s hand. “Look. That’s you.”
Betsy looked. She smiled but said nothing. Did she recognize herself? She handed it back.
Sunlight reflecting off the snow invaded the house, bleaching everything, exposing layers of dust almost congealed into felt. Betsy’s attention flew here and there like a gnat, erasing Martha one moment, then bringing her back to life.
Helen shooed them out of the house for a walk—Ma needs her walk—while she stayed behind to bake the cake. It was so bright out Martha could scarcely open her eyes. She had left her sunglasses in California, not imagining she would need them Back East at this time of year. She and Art always used to talk about light: how to capture it on canvas, how best to deploy it in film, what bright and low light did to the shapes of faces.
Betsy stood on the compacted snow of the driveway, staring down at her booted feet.
“Is she up to this?” Martha asked Dan quietly.
“Oh, she’s fitter than all of us, aren’t you, Bets? On a day with no snow she walks for miles.”
Martha eased up to Betsy, offered an arm. Wordlessly Betsy linked. The moment of wariness in the living room had passed. The four began to move slowly down the driveway. Betsy was still as strong as she’d always been, but she placed each foot forward as if the ground’s solidity was not to be trusted, as if gravity itself might be in flux. This mode of attack seemed right to Martha. She, too, was stepping cautiously. The driveway was slippery in places, and with sunlight popping off so many surfaces, appearing unexpectedly through branches like flashing blades, it was hard to see things clearly.
Dan and Justin ambled ahead, side by side, occasionally pausing to look back, adjusting their pace. They were speaking of Justin’s plans. He did computer consulting work, which he could access from anywhere, and next week he would be going to Italy to see his girlfriend. He could come back at a moment’s notice, he told his father, he might even bring his girlfriend. “Don’t worry,” Dan assured him. “We’re fine on this hill, just fine.”
“Gadzooks!” Betsy said out of the blue.
Martha laughed. Gadzooks—quintessential Betsy. “Gadzooks!” Martha repeated. “Everything is cattywumpus.” Another Betsy word.
Betsy stopped walking and brought her face close, so Martha could feel her moist breath.
“Cattywumpus!” Betsy said.
They both laughed, Betsy opening her mouth so wide Martha could almost see her tonsils.
“Cats,” Betsy said, clamping her free mittened hand on Martha’s arm. “Cats!”
“Cats, yes,” Martha said, nodding hard.
“They go blurp, blurp, blurp—not like we used to—we used to be—well, didn’t we?—we were—”
Martha nodded uncertainly. A braying, loud and hoarse, came from the shed. “What the hell is that?”
“Horrible, isn’t it?” Dan laughed. “It’s a donkey.”
“You have a donkey?” Martha said. “Why? You can’t ride a donkey, can you?”
“Betsy loves donkeys, right, Bets? If it were exclusively up to her, we’d have more than one.”
“Shall we tell her?” Justin said.
“Tell who what?”
“The donkey’s name is Martha.”
“Oh, for God’s sake. Should I be insulted or flattered?”
“Perhaps a bit of both,” Dan said. “All in good fun, right.”
“You know our donkey story, right? Betsy’s and mine?”
“Oh, yes,” Dan said.
“I don’t,” said Justin. “Tell me.”
Martha glanced at Betsy, whose face had settled back into default slackness. “Later,” Martha said. “Not now.”
Inside the dim shed Betsy unhooked her arm from Martha’s, straightened, so Martha saw her as a young woman, imperious, beautiful, as yet unimpaired. The donkey, lusting for company, elongated her long neck over the gate, lifted and lowered her head as if nodding, cavernous mouth opening on ugly, yellow teeth. Betsy hurled her arms around the ungainly animal, muttering and cooing. Dan caught Martha’s eye then looked away.
The house was redolent with baking cake. What now? Martha thought. How would they fill this endless day? She admired a wall hanging in the foyer, a colorful folkloric tapestry depicting Noah’s flood. “Beautiful,” she murmured.
“You gave us that,” Dan said. “Or you gave it to Betsy.”
“Years ago. Before we were married. We’ve always had it hanging somewhere.”
Martha blinked, trying to remember. She touched the cloth, fondling one of the three-dimensional elephants. Where would she have gotten such an item? “I think you’re thinking of someone else.”
“I don’t think so,” Dan said. “We have all sorts of Martha detritus around here. It’s my job to remember these things.”
“Choose a better word—relic, memento?”
Did he remember Yosemite? Did he remember the strip club? She’d have liked to ask, but was loath to resurrect anything difficult. Betsy’s bare feet slapped the hard wood as she headed to the living room. Her bottom swayed under her loose, gray sweatpants. She wasn’t fat, but everything about her had relaxed, become loose and acquiescent to gravity.
“Don’t you get lonely?” Martha asked Dan quietly.
Dan deflected the question with a grin.
“What should I do now?” She needed a task.
“Go with the flow. You’re the Californian now, you should know about that. Maybe Helen needs some help.”
But Helen refused help, the cords of her neck rippling, so Martha perched on the couch, tethered again to Betsy, though Betsy had settled on the carpet, devoting herself to Albert. Dan stood by the bookcases, sorting through mail. Helen bustled in and out of the kitchen looking for birthday candles. Justin went upstairs and came down again with paper and scissors.
“Paper dolls,” he said to Martha. “I’ve discovered I have a knack, and Ma loves them. So tell me the donkey story.” He began folding, fingers precise as he ironed each fold.
“It might be upsetting.”
“Okay, then don’t.”
A colander, resting upside down on the floor by the picture window, played with the bright light. Betsy appeared to be elsewhere, communing with Albert, extending her tongue to touch his whiskers. Martha lowered her voice.
“We were on a pack trip with Betsy’s parents. In the North Cascades. We were fourteen, Betsy and I. We rode the horses, Betsy and me and her parents and our guide Elmer. And the donkeys—well, mules really—were carrying our gear. And one day one of the mules fell while we were crossing a bridge, and he broke his leg, and Elmer had to shoot him. It shocked me. I’d never even seen a gun before. We left that poor mule lying dead by the side of the trail.”
Justin had stopped his snipping to listen. “Wow. No wonder Ma wanted a donkey.”
Betsy leaned forward, focused as a striking snake. Albert flew off her lap. “No. Elmer never shot the donkey.” She shook her head violently so her hair shot out, spoke-like, in all directions. “No. No!” She was yelling now, utterly fluent. She slapped the coffee table. “The donkey was not shot.”
Martha froze. Justin dropped his scissors, leaped to Betsy’s side, slung an arm around her back. “Everything’s fine. No one’s shot.” His voice was low and smooth, like a lullaby, a perfect anodyne. “The donkey is okay. She’s down in her shed, very happy.”
“Elmer never shot the donkey.” Betsy clamped her teeth. “Not shot.”
“Not shot,” Justin said. “Elmer did not shoot the donkey.”
Betsy snared Martha now with an implacable look, replete with all the old diminishing power she used to use to assert her world view. Martha felt like a criminal. Of course, Elmer shot the donkey. She wouldn’t have made that up. She turned away from Betsy’s savage glare.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Justin.
“It happens. I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
Betsy scrunched her face as if to fend off an onslaught of flies. Martha rose and went upstairs and shut the door to her room and lay on the bed. She had always prided herself on her memory. Art had a terrible memory. He probably did not remember how they used to lie on the bed in her New York apartment, early in their courtship, and gaze down into the apartment across from them, a floor below. That bed, too, was near the window, and once they watched the woman who lived there making love, unable to wrench their gazes away. For months after that they would see the woman in the building’s lobby and feel ashamed. But Art wouldn’t remember that now. She closed her eyes on the mote-filled light. How easily certain things were extinguished. And other things, the very ones you wanted so desperately to erase—Art’s look of readiness and relief when she suggested they separate—were the very ones that clung so tenaciously.
She had read an article not long ago about a monk with a superlative memory. Over the course of a day people would bring him things—a shoe, a flower, an equation, a question—and at the end of the day he was able to remember in perfect sequence the five hundred things he’d been shown or told. His secret, he said, was meditation.
A nap gave her the strength to go down again. Justin had made multiple strings of paper dolls, and he and Betsy were on the couch, bent over the coffee table, decorating the dolls with colored pencils. Justin was giving them faces and outfits, Betsy was applying indeterminate spidery lines. She looked focused, happy.
Martha sat at the far end of the couch. Betsy didn’t acknowledge her. It fascinated Martha, this obliviousness. She almost envied Betsy. Fixated on drawing, she was immune to her dowdy appearance, unconcerned about having yelled so recently at Martha.
Dan stationed himself at the piano again. He played more quietly now, a Chopin piece from which he segued into familiar show tunes. The musical phrases wafted over Betsy’s face. She put down her pencil, noticed Martha, and slid closer until they were shoulder to shoulder.
Dan sang now, quietly, his tenor surprisingly clear for a lawyer in his fifties. “…my honey lamb and I, sit alone and talk, and watch a hawk making lazy circles in the sky...”
“You don’t sing?” Martha asked Justin.
“God, no. Ma sings sometimes, but Helen and I are just spectators. We never got that gene.”
He handed his completed paper dolls to Betsy. She flattened them on her lap, swaying, body leashed to the music. Tentatively, Martha laid a hand on Betsy’s lap. Betsy leaned in and rested her head on Martha’s shoulder, and Martha’s entire body filled, like a cistern, with deep animal satisfaction.
“Maria,” Dan sang, “Maria, I just met a girl named Maria…” He looked over at his audience with master-of-ceremony confidence, and nodded an invitation. “You know these words, Bets. Sing with me. Martha, come on, sing along.”
Betsy’s body shifted, trembled. She sat erect, lit by something, about to sing perhaps. “She’s my friend. Not yours. Mine!” Her voice filled the living room, her gaze fixed on Dan.
Dan stopped playing.
Betsy clapped her palm on Martha’s thigh, squeezed. “You can’t do that with her. She’s mine!”
Dan stared into his lap. Had he told her? Or had she sensed it? A single foolhardy moment years ago that no one wanted to repeat, meaningless and buried by decades, mostly forgotten. Why now?
“No one is doing anything with anyone,” Dan said. “Right, Martha?”
Martha’s voice was not her own. Turning to Betsy, she seemed to ventriloquize. “No, of course not. He wouldn’t do that. Neither would I. I’m yours, Betsy, not his. Your friend.”
“What’s going on?” Justin asked.
Dan waved his hand. “Nothing. Believe me.”
Martha’s face was inches from Betsy’s. She stroked Betsy’s red cheek with her forefinger. Its nerves felt capable of receiving and transmitting everything that would ever be important. Betsy had answered a question Martha never knew she had.
“I’m yours,” Martha said. Her hand trembled and so did her breath. “We’re best friends. Right?”
Betsy’s agitation began to subside. A smile poked forth, sun behind rain. “Are you a good egg?” Betsy said.
A good egg. Plucked from her gray matter’s labyrinth of tangles and plaques. “Oh, God, yes,” Martha said. “I’m a good egg. And so are you. You’re a very good egg.”
“I’m a good egg?”
“Yes. Of course. We’re both good eggs.”
“We’re both good eggs.”
Outside the sun, thinking about setting, was turning pink. A few chickadees pecked at the snow, hunting for what might be beneath. Helen had come in from the kitchen. The silence was strange, amorphous. Could anyone hold onto a self without the regard and memories of others?
“I think it’s time for cake,” Helen said.
“Isn’t it a bit early?” Justin said. “Don’t we usually have the cake at dinner?”
“It’s time for cake now,” Helen insisted. She disappeared and reappeared moments later with a two-layer chocolate cake, a single, fat candle blazing at its center. “Play,” Helen commanded.
Dan began to play. “Happy birthday to you…”
“Speed it up,” Helen said. “That sounds funereal.”
He did as Helen commanded. Martha didn’t look at him, could not look, kept her hand on Betsy’s thigh. They sang together—Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you—every particle of history, shared and unshared, remembered and forgotten, floating by in the afternoon light, traveling to great distance and then returning.
The song ended, but Betsy kept singing, “Happy birthday, dear Betsy, Happy birthday to you. To you. To you.” Her palm slapped Martha’s leg. “You. You.”
Helen laid the cake on the coffee table, and Betsy stared at the flame, mesmerized, her face lit with disbelief and rapture. A moment of uncertainty billowed, filled the room.
Then, as if on cue, Betsy and Martha leaned forward together and blew out the flame.