Her mother’s real estate agent Tina planted four bars of Irish Spring soap under the box hedge near the curb, emerald green rectangles barely visible in the mulch. When Zora first spied them, she was sure someone’s shopping bag had toppled off a car top or out a pickup bed.
“Not hardly.” Her older sister Kat snapped open the front page of an old San Francisco Chronicle. “It was on purpose.”
“Is Tina crazy?” Zora asked, picking up a crystal butter dish and placing it in the middle of the national news (strikes, fracking, oil spills). They had started in on the china and silver in the dining room. Surrounding them, the smell of sharpie, mildewed paper, bubble wrap. Tomorrow, the POD clanged down in the driveway was being picked up, taking their mother Zelda’s things to a storage site until, Zora realized, she died.
“Maybe,” Kat said, shrugging. “But she swears by it. ‘Luck of the Irish,’ she says. Keeps the bars there all the way to the end of escrow. One time she was shamed into digging them up two hours before the close, and the deal folded like a house of cards. So there they’ll stay.”
Kat rolled up a rose glass vase in newspaper and then bubble wrap. Zora felt the weight of all their mother’s belongings in her next inhale, fifty years of things no one used anymore: butter dishes, salt cellars, rose glass pitchers, crystal glasses, candy bowls, sterling silver pie servers. Plates from places like Valley City, North Dakota and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Who went there and why? Keepsakes from Zelda’s mother and grandmother, Delft china plates, porcelain candlestick holders, German creamers and sugar bowls. Zora’s own sugar was in the kitchen in the pink and white bag, lumpy and flicked with coffee from dipped-in teaspoons. Her creamer was the milk carton in the fridge. Even when Zora entertained guests, she just thwacked it down on the table.
And it’s not just the china, but the sideboards and the hutches and buffets. The dressers and accent tables and dainty chairs, too small for anyone weighing over one hundred pounds to sit on. Doilies, crocheted tablecloths, tatting from the 17th century. Heavy, wooden frames around faded-out landscapes. Towels and sheets and draperies. Things from before the before and in the years just before right now, hand towels still in Macy’s bags, napkin rings from Target with their price stickers stuck tight. A Ziploc bag full of rubber bands.
“Why are we packing all this?” Zora asked. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Kat ignored her, taping together a circle of paper around an appetizer plate. “She doesn’t want to sell any of it.”
“How would she even know unless we tell her?” Zora asked.
Kat continued to work, picking up the first piece of the Christmas china. “She’ll know.”
“She doesn’t even know my name anymore,” Zora said. She held up a tiny porcelain girl, her eyes black, her ponytail in a permanent moment of swishing movement. These figurines had a name. Gunnels? Hummel’s? Zora shook her head and held up the girl by her hair. “How will she know where this is?”
“I don’t want to fight anymore, okay?” Kat looked up, her face determined, grim, the older-sister face Zora had been looking at for almost fifty years. “And when, you know, it’s over, we just send an estate guy over there to buy it all.”
Zora sighed, licked an index finger, flicked free a sheet of newspaper to shroud the tiny girl.
A whole life, boxed up, ready to sell when the life was over. At least, Zora thought, it will all be organized. At least they won’t have to go through it all again.
Later, Zora was in traffic, headed toward her lover, though she hated to use the term lover. No word worked, though she was partial to the term assignation. But that word was romantic and couldn’t hide the fact that she was cheating on Dave. Had been for awhile, almost two years.
The car behind her honked, Zora jerking to attention and accelerating through the Shattuck and Vine intersection, driving toward a small restaurant, Davinci’s, the place they usually met. It used to be that in the week before a date with Henry, her world was bright and clear, her focus on the minute she would see him. She found herself smiling more, trying harder at home with Dave, laughing at his puns (she hated puns and jokes and wisecracks) and going to the movies with him when he asked.
But her skin! Her breath, high up in her chest, almost as if she were panting. She could practically feel her blood moving through her veins, keeping her alive just for that second of touching Henry’s hand, kissing his lips, nose, forehead. And best, the part when he looked up at her as she approached, smiled, pushed his glasses back against the bridge of his nose. His eyes, dark brown, blinking, expectant. His eyebrows dark against his pale skin. The freckles on his nose and cheeks, Irish, but his voice is Southern. He says her name, “Zorah,” the end of her name more h than a.
And the later part, when he took her to his house and removed her clothing, made love to her just until the point she realized there was an edge and maybe she’d be willing to fall off of it. It wasn’t the gyre and heat of her body, really, though she always responded, the prickle of flesh, the rattle of breath, the clutch and moan and relax. Her toes curled, her arms outstretched. Yes, there, fly.
But the other edge, one Zora couldn’t really look at. Sometimes, her eyes closed, her face pressed against Henry’s chest, his heart and hers a drum section in her ear, she imagined the darkness, the place she could step over, her foot hovering in nothing but space and air. How would it feel, she wondered, to just fall?
An hour later, she’d be driving back home, up the hill, through traffic, Dave in the backyard watering his roses. Later, his martini, the whine of the evening news, the glow of his computer. The whispering buzz of cedar waxwings in the pyracantha bush outside the open kitchen window. The repetitive clicks and turns and taps as he locked the doors and windows before bed. His hand, always and for years, pressed on her ribs as he held her, not knowing that another man had been inside her just hours before. His breath—part snore, part exhale—filled the room around them. His heart, slower and heavier than Henry’s, a dull thump thump she could see in his throat, even in the dark.
Henry is from Virginia and speaks as though every word is a ripe fruit, something to savor and linger over, sentences full of taste and fragrance. Zora met him at a literary reading for a West Virginian author coming through town promoting her novel about mountain top removal mining. Henry sat in the in the front row, leaning back in his seat. Zora found herself paying no attention to the author that her book group had gathered to see. No, it was the man with the dark curls and intense gaze. The man who later asked questions, knew the small towns in the story, wondered about the miners, the ecology, the potential for a sequel.
When Zora was ahead of him in line to get her book signed, she worried about the skin of her neck and shoulders, her hair, her clothing (dog hair? Lint? God forbid, dandruff?). Though she was talking with her best friend Rose, she imagined her ears were flicking like a horse’s, listening for any excuse to turn around. Finally, he cleared his throat, and she glanced back, smiled.
“Great reading,” Zora said.
“Her work is remarkable.” He had freckles like the star map she was supposed to memorize in her college astronomy class, each spot separate from the other, distinct. More like planets. Mars. Venus. Both pinned to the night sky.
Zora felt an irrational, idiotic almost-jealousy flare hot at his comment, and then she remembered the author was a lesbian. In fact, her partner was assisting her in the signing, holding out the opened books. Maybe they were married. Twin silver rings glinted in the overhead light.
And it was possible—though she could pick up one dot of vibe, as she usually could with gay men—he liked men. Here he was, at a feminist bookstore, reading a feminist, environmental tract.
“My—“ Zora stepped back, indicating Rose, the other women standing in front of them, clutching their novels like hymnals. “Book group. We’re all here. We loved it.”
She was gushing, so she swallowed back the adjectives and adverbs in her throat. She forced her heart to slow, her blood to clot, her breath to stop.
The man smiled, his teeth white, his dark stubble dotting his upper lip.
“Maybe now you’ll travel east and save mountains.”
Zora laughed. “We don’t have to go farther than Nevada. Work some magic over the gold mines.
They don’t take off mountain tops, but they dig in. Pit mining.”
The man nodded, his book in one hand. Loosened tie, shirt one-button opened. Lips red.
“True enough,” he said.
“Or maybe we should just protest the Google buses and gentrification,” Zora said. “Why start with Nevada.”
He laughed, and of course, it was gorgeous. He held out his free hand. “Henry.”
“Zora,” she said, watching his eyebrows raise.
“Not even,” she said, offering, “My mother’s name is Zelda.”
“Not even close.” Zora said.
“Literary by accident,” Henry said.
“Everything by accident,” Zora said.
And like a collision, an earthquake, there were aftershocks. Omissions, white lies, total fabrications. There was collateral damage, though two years after that first meeting (he giving her a card, she emailing him), none had yet come to light. At least, not yet. Dave hadn’t found out, though he’d asked sometimes about her afternoons, the scent of lilacs (Henry’s spring yard, a sprig behind her ear), the receipt on the kitchen floor from Davinci’s: asparagus with garlic and horseradish, roasted lamb shoulder, banana cake with caramel frosting. Her new cashmere sweater, the silver bracelet, the glitter on her right cheek after Halloween.
Zora’s two children were in college and just-graduated, away, gone from the wreck of the family home, her mother had forgotten everything, and Kat just didn’t want to know. But the damage, Zora knew, was waiting.
Because Zora slept with two men, she knew the geography of both their bodies. In Henry’s bed, she let her hand follow his arm, her fingers rising up over his shoulder and then slowly on the curve of his neck. Henry slept like a child, motionless on his back, breathing lightly out his nose. He smelled like pepper and cloves and warmth. Sometimes, Zora imagined he smelled like the open pages of a new book.
In her bed at home, she only looked at Dave out of habit and necessity as he was an active sleeper, the terrain temporary, violent with quick, sudden turns and shifts. In his youth, Dave had been strong, buff, muscles pushing up from his bones, visible under clothing, even dress slacks.
But now, fifty, he was sagging in the middle like a stuffed animal loved to puffy softness. He pulled her tight, and she breathed into his smell, clean, something like his office, the air dry and tight and full of ink. Other nights, the garden wafted from the crease in his neck, off his forearms. Sage or lavender if he’d been out pruning in the twilight. Mostly, it was both, the office and dirt; sunlight and moon shadow; herbs, lilies, and printer cartridges.
“Who do you love more?” Rose had asked once, the only person who could ask, the only person who knew about Henry. Zora had never been once tempted to tell Kat, afraid of her sister’s silent scorn. At some point, Zora could have told her mother. But Zora would have missed the old angry glances her mother used to shoot like knives.
Are you quite out of your mind, that angry past mother would have said. Do you have one clue what you are doing?
So what was the answer? When Rose asked again, sipping her wine, waiting, Henry was right there on the tip of Zora’s tongue. Of course, Henry. He was the one she imagined walking down every sidewalk. His was the call she wanted to take, settling down in a cozy chair, light spilling on her as he said, “How are you, my love?”
But love was more than a sidewalk and a chair. Henry was not really in her life. He was a digression, an interlude, a fugue state, a dream, a wander through the forest or a slog through a night desert. They had nothing connecting them but their attraction and a few objects. There was only a shimmer of mist holding them together, the potential to never see him again in every aspect of every second she spent with him.
This could be the last time we have wine, she would think.
This might be our last kiss, she would believe as she held him tight in his doorway.
But no matter if she and Dave separated or divorced, he was the father of her children. He was the man she grew up and then older with. He’d seen her in all her important stages before crone started to set in. He’d watched her stretch marks grow and her breasts swell with milk and then sag. He’d followed her schooling and then career. He’d held her when her father died. She’d been with him, too, when his mother and father died. When he was struggling at work, when he was promoted. They’d fought in every place they’d ever gone to together. Made love, too. They neither of them could stop talking about what graduate school Zach should apply to or when and if Mariah should marry Justin before or after her graduation from physical therapy school. They’d both hated Zach’s girlfriend Lily, thrilled when Zach solemnly announced Lily had moved to New Jersey for school.
If love was an excavation project, an archeological dig, a museum, she had to admit, one hundred percent, she loved Dave.
Henry was almost done with his novel. He’d been in the midst of his first draft the night he and Zora had met, heading out to the bookstore for inspiration or a reality check. “I thought I should throw in the towel,” he said. “Taking a year off! Who did I think I was, anyway?”
The author with her mountain tops (and meeting Zora, he admitted much later) had made him continue onward with his story about a World War II veteran and his daughter, pages of which he had read aloud to Zora. With a pang, Zora knew the story was good, enough to take him out of the house and on the road, just like the mountain top author. Finally, he was almost, certainly, just about done, his writing group handing over the last notes just the month before. After he finished these final revisions, he was going to start searching for an agent. He was lucky; a friend of a friend, a local San Francisco agent, had already shown some interest. And now, as she walked past his desk on her way toward the front door, she saw the stack of manuscript pages, circles and x’s on the top page. A big Change written in his loopy script.
She turned back to where Henry sat at the dining room table reading the paper, her lips still feeling his forehead where she’d kissed him. He was doze-y from bed, hair mussed, glasses on the end of his nose. He looked up, winked, and she turned and left his house, walking under a bower of wisteria into the sunlight.
Zelda had only been in the nursing home three weeks when she threw a pillow at a nurse. Kat had to drive down to mollify everyone, including Zelda. But the pillow was only the first flung object. Now Zelda had been moved to the Harmony building for constant supervision. The good news was that Tina called the same day of the pillow throw to tell Zora the house had five offers.
“Like magic!” Tina said. “You and Kat need to meet me at the office to decide. But you will both be thrilled!”
The woman talked like a bird, all up notes and shrieks. Zora imagined her holding out her wings and high stepping in a semi-circle mating-dance ritual.
“What about the soap?” Zora asked.
“Don’t you dare touch it!” Tina actually shrieked and then calmly, “later. For now, leave it.”
Zora and Kat took the second to best offer (all cash, 15-day close, a cute .jpg of the happy couple), and then went back to the house with Tina to go over some final fix-its.
“Before the inspections,” Tina said. “You know, save us some sorrows.”
As Zora followed her and Kat through the rooms in which she’d spent her entire childhood, she wondered if it was possible to save yourself from sorrows. If sorrows were out there, she thought, they’d eventually find a way home.
“But there’s nothing wrong with the house,” Kat said. “They already bought it, right? They know what’s wrong, don’t they?”
“Living room carpet,” Tina said. “They don’t want it. Let’s have it ripped up. Work those French drains outside. More gravel. Rake. Mow. Picture perfect. A better looking house always gets a better inspection. So one more go over, and voila! No one will ever guess a thing.”
Later that week, after all the final cosmetic work was done, Zora came by the house before visiting her mother. Tina had called to say the first inspection was impeccable. “Just like I told you!” And there wasn’t going to be much to get in the way of the house sailing through to close.
Zora stood next to her car parked in front of the house. Someone had already come by and put up a SOLD sign. The front lawn was clipped to a sheen. Wind wafting with overwrought jasmine. Sycamore leaves the size of giant’s palms flapping vibrant green. How many times had she played on this lawn? Climbed this tree, the bark peel-y and brittle and slightly dangerous, her sneakers barely able to find traction as she clung on. Once this house was gone, there was only her and Dave’s house to count on. After that, no landmarks.
Zora sighed and turned to open the car door, noticing one of the packages of Irish Spring sprung free from the mulch, the box weathered, waterlogged, and crinkled.
She remembered this soap, the commercials from the 70’s, the lusty couple or maybe lusty man taking a shower outside, at least one of them talking in a fake Irish accent. Both dark-eyed, light-skinned, glistening.
Walking to the curb, Zora bent down and picked up the squishy box. She brought it to her nose. It smelled as it used to, sharp and green and soapy. Standing up, she clutched the box and looked at the house. Sold. The sign said so. The inspections had cleared. In a week, the house would officially belong to another family, signed and sealed, another whole world of lives going on inside. People fighting and growing up and making dinner. They would tear down walls and paint others. They would lay a new carpet. They would dig up the concrete patio and plant lavender and bunch grasses. There would be parties and celebrations and wakes. The sun would rise and set and everything would go on for so long and with such predictability that Zelda and Zora and Kat would fade from this house’s memory. Other children would one day sell it for their parents, some other now aging adult standing on this same curb under this same tree wondering what building would ever mean as much.
Zora squeezed the box in her hand.
Dave wasn’t home when Zora returned from the nursing home, and she was glad. An hour after leaving her, Zora couldn’t stop seeing her mother’s blank face.
“Do you know my name?” Zora asked.
“Do you know your name?” she tried again.
“Where are you?”
“What do you want?”
For a second when the television went on, Zelda looked up sharply, that cutting glance Zora knew so well. At that flash of presence, Zora wanted to leap in, push it wide, tell her mother everything. She would admit to her affair. She would tell Zelda how sad it was to sell the house. She would complain about Dave. And Henry. How he’d never promised her anything. Not even the next time they’d see each other. Every single meeting was a surprise, unplanned until just hours before. How she purposefully kept seeing someone who didn’t like her enough to love her. Her job, the kids, her life. All her hopes, and dreams, and fears, the things Zelda had known about since Zora was little.
In that second of What can you possibly tell me? Zora felt loved and relieved and safe. Her mother was back.
And then she wasn’t.
Now, the house empty, Zora flicked on the kitchen lights, breathing in the air that was stale from shut doors, unfettered with cut herbs or wafts of dirt from the open back door. There was no whine of computer or television, no whoosh of shower or dishwasher, no hum of dryer or oven.
Zora walked back to the counter and dug her phone out of her purse. No message. No text.
She wandered the rooms, turning on more lights as she passed them, outside slowly shimmering to twilight.
She came back into the kitchen and picked up her phone, suddenly smelling something green and fragrant, a freshly cut herb from the garden, a cutting from the local park’s botanical garden, Dave belonging to a club that met weekly there. She looked up, sure that Dave must have walked in with a basket of greens. But it wasn’t arugula or thyme or sage. It wasn’t the limb from a rare bush he would later graft. It was the soap in her purse, wet and redolent, Irish only in name and totally out of luck. She picked it up, her breath in her throat, the empty house all around her.
Jessica Barksdale is the author of twelve traditionally published novels, including Her Daughter’s Eyes and When You Believe. Her latest novel How to Bake a Man is forthcoming from Ghostwoods Books. Her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Compose, Salt Hill Journal, The Coachella Review, Carve Magazine, Mason’s Road, and So to Speak. She is a professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches online novel writing for UCLA Extension. You can read more at her website.