Louise Marburg The Querent

THOUGH WALLINGTON WAS CONSIDERED A SUBURB OF New Haven, barely a twenty-minute drive from downtown, the fixer-upper Joanne and Lewis bought there sat on eight acres of wooded land. There was a horse farm that offered riding lessons a couple of miles down the road, and a roadside stand nearby that sold local produce and pies. But I-95 was the same distance in the opposite direction, beyond which was a Walmart and a treeless development of modest homes. The village proper was further on toward the shore, a charming collection of historic houses, antique shops, a granite-faced little library; a post office, the town hall, and a triangular village green. Joanne and Lewis moved here from New York City three months before, when Lewis took a job teaching architecture at Yale. Neither were truly city people: Joanne grew up on the edge of Saint Louis and moved to New York after college; Lewis was from Maine. His plan was to buy a sloop in the spring, and sail it on Long Island Sound. Her plan was to get pregnant as soon as she could. She would be thirty-six in June.

Black-haired and fair, with rosy lips and jewel-blue eyes, her looks were the first thing people noticed about her, and too often the only thing: she had discarded a dozen fawning boyfriends by the time she finally met Lewis. He was as handsome as she was beautiful—blond and brown-eyed, her opposite match—but he seemed as insensible to her beauty, and his own, as she was conscious of it. He said he loved her, in part, because he thought she was intelligent, and she loved him for thinking so. That he was smart was obvious. She wasn’t so sure about herself anymore. She couldn’t make sense of the blueprints he drew up for the renovations on the house, and when he described how a room would eventually look, she couldn’t truly envision it. She was alone all day while he was at school, the construction workers banging away. The living room was a forest of joists, cotton candy insulation exploding from its walls, and the room she privately thought of as the nursery was filled with paint cans and planks of wood. Their foreman, Jake, a gargoyle of a man with a nose like a fingerling potato, spoke to her more casually than she liked, but she didn’t want to say anything in case he got offended and quit. Instead, she gave him the cold shoulder when he tried to chat with her about anything other than the house, pretending that something required her immediate attention: a phone call, and errand, a chore left undone.

“When will the house be finished?” she said as she and Lewis ate dinner in the half-dismantled kitchen. “I’m tired of having these guys all over the place. I’d give anything for a little privacy.”

“By summer?” he said.

She smiled. “You’re asking me?”

“No, I mean I’m guessing by summer. Hoping, anyway.”

“That seems like an eon,” she said. She twined spaghetti around her fork. A draft from a nearby window blew across her neck. She shivered and said, “I can’t wait until it’s done.”

“You’re reminding me of an Arab proverb I once heard,” he said. “‘When a house is finished, death walks in.’”

“That’s awful!” she said. “Where did you hear such a terrible thing?”

“Egypt,” he said. “Or Dubai. I can’t remember.” He had worked for an international architecture firm before joining the faculty at Yale. “It does sound morbid, but I understand its meaning. A house can never truly be finished, there is always something more to do—or redo, like that mess of a pool out there.” He cocked his head toward the window over the sink and the kidney-shaped swimming pool in the darkness beyond that hadn’t been filled in years. It was old and cracked, moldy scum plugging its drain, its cement scarred by the skateboards of the former owners’ three sons. “How they could stand looking at that ugly thing every day is a mystery to me.”

“I look at it every day,” Joanne said, then regretted it. She knew what Lewis would say next.

“How’s the job hunt been going?”

“Pretty fruitless,” she said. She had worked in public relations in New York.

“You might want to change your tack,” he said lightly. “Maybe look for something a little different than straight up PR.”

“I guess so,” she murmured as she rose from the table and took their plates to the sink. She had made a stab at finding a job in her field when they first moved here in September, but since then she’d mostly been pretending to look, which she realized Lewis very likely knew but didn’t mind enough to really press it. She’d been successful and energetic when they lived in New York, but a lassitude had crept over her the last couple of months, as if her thoughts were mired in the shoe-sucking mud that led up to the back door steps. Besides, there didn’t seem to be any point in starting a new job when her most urgent ambition was to be a mother. She liked hanging around in her yoga pants all day, cruising Facebook and shopping online, culling information from pregnancy sites. If she held her legs to her chest after intercourse, the sperm would flow freely to her cervix, and being entered from behind was more effective than any other position. She used an ovulation predictor called, hopefully, Fertile Friend, a plastic stick like a pregnancy test that read YES! in a little window on the days she was meant to have sex.

“So what’s your preference?” Lewis said. “Resurrect the pool or bury it?”

She looked out the window at the ghostly outline of the pool and imagined herself floating in it while a baby floated in her. “Let’s restore it,” she said. “I always wanted a pool.” She hadn’t, in fact, but now it felt true.

❧ ❧ ❧

Instead of going to the gargantuan Stop and Shop and wandering the over-bright aisles like a zombie, she often drove the extra mile to Mike’s Grocery in the village. Seasonal fruits nestled in tissue paper were displayed in boxes in the window, and the only cookies Mike’s sold were various “biscuits” imported from England. It reminded her of a specialty shop in New York where she used to buy a particular brand of Indian chutney. Mike himself manned the meat section, a slim, youngish man who wielded his knives with incongruously brutal hands.

“Have you seen who moved in next door?” he said as he wrapped her grass-fed ground beef in white paper. “Where The Ivy bookstore used to be?” He rolled his eyes and pointed his thumb. “A fortune teller,” he said in a disgusted tone. “That’s what it’s come to in this town, a nice business goes bust, then they rent the place to any nut-job who comes along.”

Joanne wondered who “they” were, but understood that was beside the point. She paid for her meat and fancy cookies and walked through the February slush to her car. Squinting up at the empty blue sky, she felt a fleeting presage of spring. As she put the groceries in the car’s trunk, she looked at the storefront where The Ivy used to be. In New York, fortunetellers advertised themselves with blinking neon hands, but the only sign here was a small placard in the window. Delia Mann, Tarot, it read, By Appointment Only. A lace curtain obscured the inside of the store. Joanne took her phone out of her purse and dialed the number on the placard. After a few rings, a gravely voice answered.

“May I make an appointment?” Joanne said.

“Sure,” the voice said. “When would you like to come in?”

“Now,” Joanne said. “I’m standing outside.”

“Ring the bell,” the voice said. “I’ll buzz you in.”

Joanne pushed the door open when she heard a buzz. The bookshelves and register counter had been removed, and now the shop was an open room. A tapestry of a giant eye was tacked up on the back wall, while nail holes and pale patches where pictures had hung marred the glossy eggshell paint on other walls. The sunshine that filtered through the lace curtains dappled the room with jigsaw shapes of light. There was a sagging sofa covered by a flowered slipcover, a low, round brass table and a metal folding chair. The bookstore’s warm, papery smell still lingered in the air.

“Excuse the décor,” the gravely voice said. “I just moved in last weekend.” A woman appeared at a door in the corner that must have led to a storage room. She was forced to step sideways across the threshold because she was too wide to walk straight through. When she emerged, Joanne suppressed a breath of surprise: as well as being astonishingly obese, her scalp was plainly visible beneath a sparse covering of downy red hair. She waddled over to the sofa and plopped down on it with a sigh. “And don’t pay attention to this ridiculous tapestry either, it’s covering a hole in the wall. She turned to scowl at it. “It was a gift from a grateful querent, I didn’t have the heart to throw it out.”

“What’s a querent?’ Joanne said.

“You are,” the woman said. “I’m Delia, by the way.” Joanne sat down in the metal chair. She could feel its coldness through her jeans. She’d expected Delia to be a black-eyed wraith with a scarf around her head.

Delia picked up a deck of brightly colored cards and expertly shuffled them with bloated hands. Joanne felt a shiver of disgust. It was wrong of her, she knew, but she disliked unattractive people.

“So, Joanne. What can I do for you?” Delia said.

“Oh, nothing specific,” Joanne said. “I’m just curious. I’ve never had my fortune told before.” Delia put the cards on the table and dealt three. They had pictures on them, Joanne saw now.

“You’re not from here, are you,” Delia said. Joanne shook her head. “And you’re not so happy here, either.”

“Oh, no, I am,” Joanne said in a bright voice. “I’ve been here five months already. Everything is great.”

Delia handed her the deck. “Shuffle these a few times and give them back to me.” Joanne did as she asked. Delia laid out the first ten off the top of the deck in a formation like a cross.

“I see stasis,” Delia said. “Frustration. You want something you aren’t getting.” She touched a card. “Oh my, you really are in a funk.”

“No I’m not,” Joanne said. “Lots of exciting things are happening. We’re fixing up the house, and my husband has a new job. It’s all new, really. I’ve never lived in the country before.” She craned her neck to look at the cards. Delia waved her away.

“Listen. I can’t read your cards if you’re going to deny everything I say. You’re not happy now, but you were happy in the past. There’s a problem with your man, though he looks like a nice enough guy.”

Joanne sat back and crossed her arms over her chest. “I want to get pregnant. He doesn’t know I’m trying.”

Delia frowned. “Just out curiosity, why doesn’t he know?”

“Because he doesn’t want children,” Joanne said. She felt her eyes grow hot at the memory of the bitter argument she and Lewis had about his refusal to consider becoming a father. He was adamant. They almost broke up. He’d had a miserable childhood, his parents had neglected his simplest needs; he was afraid he’d be like them, and hate himself if he was. Nothing she said made any difference, so in the end she pretended to accept his decision while planning to eventually change his mind by giving him no choice in the matter. Her placid suburban upbringing had prepared her for a conventional life. Childless women were pitiable or selfish, and she didn’t think of herself as either. The face of their child appeared in her mind’s eye: her blue eyes and unblemished skin, Lewis’s golden hair, his mischievous, dimpled smile. Delia spread the deck across the table and asked Joanne to pick three cards and give them to her. “I will tell you what I see,” she said as she looked at the cards, holding them in her hand like a fan. “You will get pregnant soon, but not by this man of yours.”

“That’s impossible,” Joanne said.

“Some things seem impossible until they happen,” Delia said. “And even then they can be hard to believe.”

“Okay, for argument’s sake, say I wanted to have an affair,” Joanne said. “Who would I have it with? I don’t know anyone in this town except the workers at my house and the grocer next door, and I’m certainly not interested in them. I love my husband; I wouldn’t consider cheating on him. I’m not that kind of woman.”

“I can see that as well,” Delia said, placing the cards face down on the table.

Joanne picked up her purse from the floor. She’d made a mistake coming in here, but she hadn’t had anything better to do. The afternoon yawned like a lazy cat. She would go home and eat her cookies. “What do I owe you for this?”

“This?” Delia chuckled. “Nothing. You haven’t been here more than ten minutes.”

Joanne zipped up her parka and turned to go. Delia called to her as she walked out the door, but she kept going as if she didn’t hear. As she stood on the sidewalk in the blinding sunshine, she forgot where she was for a moment. Then she recognized her car, a forest green Jeep Lewis bought her when they moved to Wallington. Mike came out of his store wearing a blood stained white apron.

“Did I just see you go into that fortune teller’s?” he said. “Why in the world did you do that?”

“I was curious,” she said.

“So, what did you find out?”

“Nothing,” she said. “She’s a phony.”

❧ ❧ ❧

YES! read the Fertile Friend one morning in early March. It was thirteen days past her period. Swathes of brown grass had appeared in the snow, and the pool was half-full of murky meltwater and humps of rotten leaves. She wrapped the stick in toilet paper, buried it in the trash, and got back into bed with Lewis.

“Let’s fuck,” she said to his back.

He turned over and looked at her with sleep-crusted eyes. “But you hate having sex in the morning.”

“Not always,” she said. “Not today.”

“I have to get up, I have an early class.” Even so, he rolled onto her.

“That’s what I’m taking about,” she said with a laugh. He didn’t take very long, but the weight of his body was satisfaction enough; pleasure wasn’t the point. When he was done, he got up and went to take a shower. She pulled her knees to her chest and lay still for ten minutes. She had read on the internet that it could take a year to conceive, and her doctor said it might be difficult because she wasn’t young and had never been pregnant. What the doctor didn’t know was that she’d had an abortion when she was in college. Lewis didn’t know it either. She was ashamed and regretful now that she wanted a baby so much: she could have had a teenage son or daughter. But the father had been her Ancient History professor, forty-two and married. He hadn’t even been especially good-looking, but he was crazy about her and she’d had an urge to be wild. She cringed when she thought about how promiscuous she’d been in her twenties, reveling in her power to attract men. But she only had sex with the professor once. “Once is all it takes,” the doctor at the clinic had said.

“Yeah, I wish,” she said, remembering. Bespectacled and pimply-faced and embryonically young, he’d looked more like a math club nerd than a doctor. Elliot W. Graham, M.D. had been his name. She didn’t think she’d ever forget it.

Releasing her knees, she stretched out her legs beneath the covers.

“You wish what,” Lewis said as he came out of the bathroom.

She thought a beat. She heard one of the worker’s trucks pull up outside. There was a whining creak, then a bang. “I wish we had the house to ourselves.”

Lewis looked out the window. He loved the house and the surrounding acres; he was proud of his renovations. “You’ll have your wish before the grass in that field is green. Even before then, if we’re lucky.”

“I’m lucky already,” she said. “I’ve got you, haven’t I?” She sat up in bed. “Do you love me?”

He grinned at her as he tucked in his shirt. “More than life itself.”

After he left, she got up, took a shower, and put on her yoga pants and a thick turtleneck sweater. She went to the kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee, took her time reading the newspaper at the table. She had absolutely nothing to do until Lewis came home: the directions that came in the Fertile Friend box suggested she have sex at least twice on the day the test stick read YES!

A workman was installing the backsplash behind the sink with multicolored tiles she and Lewis had carefully chosen and ordered from a factory in Italy. She watched him smear grout on the walls with a flat trowel and place the tiles side by side. His jeans drooped as if they were barely tacked on to his narrow, bony hips. He couldn’t have been older than eighteen, she thought, and probably related to Jake somehow by the look of his dishwater hair and beady dun-colored eyes.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “You’re lining up those tiles in the wrong order.” She got up and went to the sink. “Look. They’re meant to form a picture of fruit in a bowl. First that one, then that one next to it—oh my God, this is all wrong.” She clasped her forehead and sighed. “Quick, take them off before the grout sets.” As he peeled the tiles off the wall, she said, “Where is Jake?”

“Out in the garage cutting molding,” he said.

She stalked out of the house, slamming the door behind her. Though it was only a short walk to the garage and the day was relatively mild, she was surprised by how windy it was and wished she’d put on a coat. She ducked low beneath the partially raised door and shouted Jake’s name over the high whine of the table saw.

He turned off the saw and removed his goggles. He wiped his potato nose with the back of his hand. “What’s the prob?” he said in the familiar tone that drove Joanne around the bend.

“The prob?” Joanne said. “I’ll tell you what the prob is. You’ve got that kid in there setting the backsplash tiles all out of order. Why didn’t you tell him how they’re supposed to go?”

“You’re sexy when you’re all riled up,” Jake said.

Joanne blinked and stepped back. “Excuse me? What did you just say?”

“I said you’re sexy when you’re mad,” he said

“How dare you speak to me like that,” she said.

He smiled as if they had a secret between them. “Tell the truth, Joanne, I know you’ve heard it before. I bet you get a lot of compliments.”

She stared at him in disbelief. She wished she had her phone with her so she could call Lewis. “You’re fired,” she said. “Take your equipment and go.”

“Oh, come on,” Jake said. “I’m just joking around. Can’t you take a joke?” He put down the molding strip he’d been cutting on the saw. His hands were gray with grime, the half moons of his fingernails black. “I thought we were friends, you and me.”

“I can’t imagine why you thought that,” Joanne said, and turned to go. She felt his hand on her shoulder. “Get off,” she said, pulling away. Her sweater was marked by a greasy smear.

“Aw, don’t be mad,” he said. “Truce, okay? You’re a nice woman. I’ve done a great job for you, haven’t I?” He squeezed her upper arm. His touch enraged her; she wanted to slap his ugly face, which had turned from genial to stony like a cloud passing over the sun. “Aren’t you the princess,” he said in a disdainful voice. “You flounce around here in your tight pants all day as if me and my guys don’t exist. But we see you, darlin’; you’re an eyeful. A cock tease is what you are, and I bet I’m not the first man to say so. Your shit doesn’t stink, that’s what you think. Can’t take the time to even say hello.”

“This is my house!” she said confusedly. “I can wear whatever I want.”

“Say, why don’t you go to work like everybody else?” he said. “You don’t do diddly all day. I’ve seen you fooling around on the computer. I bet you’re looking at porn.”

“What?” Joanne said. “Porn? Only disgusting men like you --” She stopped herself. His face was a mask, inhuman and surreal.

“You know what?” he whispered, pulling her roughly to his chest. “I think about you when I jerk off.” There was a sickly-sweet scent on his breath that brought a gag to her throat. The startlingly yellow whites of his eyes were shot through with crimson tributaries. He was ill, she realized; something was rotting inside him. His skin was colorless, his cheeks sunken hollows.

She turned her face away from the stench of his breath, truly frightened now, and said, “Stop it, Jake, please. I’ll pay you whatever you want to make up for the lost work, okay? I’ll pay your guys, too, you don’t have to worry.”

Abruptly, he reached out and wrenched up her sweater so that its turtleneck covered her head. He grabbed her wrists and pulled them painfully behind her back, kicked her behind her knees so she would drop to the frigid concrete floor. She couldn’t see and could barely breath through the impenetrable knit of the sweater; she felt the heat of her own breath as she screamed. He pushed her head to the floor with one hand and dragged off her pants with the other. His sandpaper fingers rasped her hips. She crawled away from him; he pulled her back. Grasping at the concrete as if it were cloth, she flailed out with one leg and kicked him hard in the stomach.

“Cunt,” she heard him say through a groan. Something heavy hit the side of her head.

When she came to, he was gone. So was the saw. The floor was furred with yellow sawdust and littered with shards of wood. She touched her head and felt a pain so searing it was as if the skin beneath her hair was on fire; there was a sticky wetness between her legs that she didn’t immediately understand. With aching arms, she pulled on her pants, got to her feet, and pressed the button that lifted the garage door. Sunlight poured in; she stepped dizzily into the wind and felt an overwhelming urge to vomit. She took a moment to steady herself before staggering across the yard, a blur of gray snow and muddy grass, her ragged breathing the only sound. Her phone was on the kitchen table. With trembling fingers, she dialed 911 and recited her name and address. Now she would have to wait. Pressing her hands against her roiling stomach, she stood as still as a startled doe.


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