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Jul 1, 2013
13 Min read time
The winner of the 2013 Aura Estrada Short Contest, selected by Nathan Englander.
“There Are Two Pools You May Drink From” is a quiet, powerful story full of dark nostalgia and observed in sharp, vivid prose. It’s a remembrance of the Moon family with their “big cat-killing dog that they had trained to sit upright on a chair at the table” which “they took turns feeding . . . buttered toast smeared with jam.” Congratulations to Kerry-Lee Powell, winner of the Aura Estrada Short Story contest.
Nathan Englander, contest judge
She answered before the first ring ended.
Her name was no longer Moon; it was Weeks. She said this with a peculiar emphasis, as if she’d had her family name surgically removed. She was an administrative assistant at one of those blank, mirrored buildings along the side of the highway. She lived in a bungalow. She told me these things in a flat, matter-of-fact voice. There was a long pause before she agreed to see me. It wasn’t until I was halfway down the leaky tunnel headed out of town that I started to have my doubts. I decided not to tell her that I’d been looking for her for a long time.
One by one I’ve started hunting down those hazy figures of my past, the children hiding in the bodies of adults, tucked away in pockets of the countryside like witnesses in a protection program.
I met Lindy Moon on the first day of school. I was new in town and trying to find the bus stop when I spotted her skipping ahead of me in a diamond-patterned dress with a ribbon that splayed out from her backside like a pair of red polyester wings. She heard my footsteps behind her and turned around to look. Her hair was curled into two ram’s horns on either side of her forehead. The face was not quite a child’s face. The eyes were set close. The nose was long and foxy. She turned her back on me and went ahead. I followed her down the hill.
The bus stop was by the town marina. Broken hulls and pieces of rusting machinery were strewn around the boatyard and along the weedy riverfront. A set of green, crumbling steps led down into the water. A group of boys writhed in a far corner, and the air was filled with high-pitched cries and gurgling noises. Lindy Moon paid no attention to any of this but stood in front of the marina’s office window and stared at her reflection in the dusty glass, occasionally lifting up the corners of her stiff dress as if she was about to curtsy.
Over time I learned that the cries and gurgling noises belonged to Tully Blanchard, a small boy with the slightly oriental features that I now know are associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. He lived in an apartment across from the marina with his mother, who liked to sit on her balcony on hot days in a beige girdle and red-framed eyeglasses. When she was drunk she peered over the railings with her purple gargoyle face, slurring to the people passing beneath her. More often she sat empress-like on her folding chair while her son was given Indian burns or dunked into the water. Her face was too far away for me to see whether she approved of the goings-on.
When the water froze they made him go out onto the ice. They bullied until he walked into the blasting wind, his hair blown up off his face like the cartoon survivor of an explosion. Bent-backed like an old pilgrim toward the gash of open water while the ice cracked and shifted under his feet. He walked out so far, I was sure he didn’t mean to come back. Then the same hard, high voices were calling out to him from the shore to turn around.
But on that first day I crouched on the pavement and waited. I sat next to Lindy on the bus and admired the way her dress fanned out around her as we wound our way to a part of town where the river widened into a lake. We passed a yacht club and a large blue sign with White Lake Estates written on it in white sail cord. Rich kids poured onto the bus at each stop, filling the air with talk of music lessons and summer camps. Mothers and nannies waved from flower beds and circular driveways, from the doorways of houses with porticoes and mock-Ionian columns.
Lindy lived across the street from me in a row house backing on to the town water tower, a crumbling minaret surrounded by rusted chain-link fence. Drunks slept in the tall, parched grasses of the water tower yard on summer nights.
Lindy was the youngest in a family of five boys. Each morning her mother dressed her up in doll-like outfits she bought at Woolworth’s and Zeller’s. Lindy was an object of worship in her house and received one of every new kind of candy and flashy plastic toy that ever appeared in TV commercials. I have an image of her at Christmas, standing like a tiny priestess with a sea of sparkling presents at her feet.
I liked to visit the Moon kitchen, a grease-laden cave that stank of meat. The table had a plastic covering patterned with wagon wheels and rustic scenes. The Moons cooked foods I’d never seen before in vats studded with dumplings. At dinner the Moon men mopped up their stews with slices of white bread and guzzled cartons of milk. They had a big cat-killing dog that they had trained to sit upright on a chair at the table, and they took turns feeding it buttered toast smeared with jam. After dinner Mr. Moon sat in the kitchen when he wasn’t at the tavern, drinking beer and bluing the air with swearwords and tobacco smoke.
I loved to stand next to the brown bear-shaped jar full of store-bought cookies and frosted industrial cakes. I was a hungry child. All the Moons teased me cruelly, describing the marvelous things they’d eaten before I came, or would eat soon after I left. Mrs. Moon called out to me from the living room whenever she thought she heard me sneaking my hand into the jar. I remember one evening when a raw-boned Moon brother tossed cookie after cookie in an arcing rainbow to the dog, who caught each one in a delicate motion between its teeth before looking at me, flipping it back up into the air, and then swallowing it whole.
They say that kind of hunger never really leaves. It’s all I can do to not pull up at every corner store I see and wolf down candy until I’m sick. The floor of my car is littered with empty wrappers: they rustle like autumn leaves when I open the door or roll down the window to ask for directions.
I thought about these things as I pulled up to the bungalow’s long driveway. It was set so far back that it looked like a doll’s house with taupe shutters and beige bricks. Beside it was a sagging white gazebo, the kind you buy at a hardware store and assemble at home. The gazebo’s flapping curtains reminded me of a nomad’s tent on a high Mongolian plain.
They say that kind of hunger never leaves. It’s all I can do to not to pull up at every corner store and wolf down candy until I’m sick.
She unlocked the front door without looking at me and let me in. She wore a stone-grey skirt and blazer and was heavy-limbed like her mother. The foxy nose and close-set eyes were encased in a marbling of fat. Her pink scalp showed through her cropped bronzy hair. Her face was taut and shiny, and I saw that it was also finely and elaborately scabbed. She explained to me that she had a skin condition that prevented her from moving her face very often, as it cracked the skin and made the sores open again. She told me these things in the same privileged tone that always impressed me as a child, as if these were the glamorous markings of a secret tribe I would never belong to.
I’ve always wanted to be someone else. Not a rock star or a millionaire but almost any stranger disappearing down the street or glanced at through a window from a darkened lawn. These longings that make me restless.
I followed her into the kitchen, and she made tea while chatting about the weather. Despite being so near, she had never visited the city where I lived. I described the lights, the domed cathedral, the fields and stunted pine forests that I had driven through on my way out. I saw a jar on her marble-patterned countertop and wondered if it contained the kind of dry, crumbling tablets that adults eat. She didn’t offer me one.
We moved into her beige living room. The walls were bare apart from a luminous rectangular clock that hung above her electric fireplace. She had lived there for ten years. She wrinkled her large, slightly pitted nose at me when I mentioned the gazebo. It was a disaster, she said. She couldn’t bear to hear it flapping. It was coming down in the spring. She would pull it down with her own two hands. She frowned and stared at her lap.
We sat for a moment, not speaking. What I thought was Turkish zither music being played in another room was the twang of her electric brazier’s heating element.
She explained to me how she had moved to the bungalow after her father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. They had put him in a home down the road. Sometimes he got out and wandered through the fields like an escaped convict in his striped pajamas.
Mr. Moon had danced in the kitchen with his dog on hind legs. He had swaggered and brawled and been tossed out of taverns. He had gone on midnight raids and stolen sacks full of apples from a nearby orchard. He’d beaten his raw-knuckled sons when he thought they had shamed the Moon name and laughed when they told him about their pranks and adventures, some serious enough to involve visits from the police and the high school principal. Nobody realized how far gone he was until Mrs. Moon died. Now he remembered nothing, raging and sputtering at trees and telephone poles and birds passing overhead.
I know you can never really go back. I have lied to people myself and watched them nod in agreement and say, yes, that’s just how it was. The past is like those dreams where you open a familiar door but the objects you reach for slip from your grasp. The walls dissolve. The floor beneath your feet cracks into pieces that drift apart like ice floes.
We used to drive out with Mrs. Moon in her blue Nova to the White Lakes Estates where she dusted and scrubbed for the big houses. I loved going from house to house, out into the snow and the chilly lake wind and then back again into the long rooms full of African statues and oriental vases.
Some of the White Lakes ladies took a shine to Mrs. Moon and followed her around in their silk hostess robes so they could talk about soap operas and Mrs. Moon’s other customers. Mrs. Wallis gave her old clothes. Mrs. Lilic used to pour Mrs. Moon a thick, sweet liqueur and invite her to put her feet up in the parlor. She and her husband had escaped from an evil regime and came here as refugees. Look at us now, she would say to Mrs. Moon in her sticky accent. You never know what’s going to happen. Lady Luck may lean down from the clouds and hand you a bouquet full of blank checks. Mrs. Lilic was never satisfied, cruising the department stores and raiding the antique places. Mrs. Moon’s living room was full of her cast-offs.
When the Lilics went on vacation to Florida, they gave Mrs. Moon a house key and asked her to keep an eye on things. After work Mr. and Mrs. Moon, the Moon boys, and Lindy piled into the blue Nova and sneaked back to the Lilic house, cramming themselves into a small den off the kitchen to watch TV and drink coke out of Mrs. Lilic’s crystal glassware while Lindy and I wandered through the house touching all the vases and the figurines.
In the master bedroom we climbed onto the gothic-style bed and lay down on the satin spread. Lindy lifted up her dress and described to me what somebody did to her with their hands and then with their thing, and what always happened afterwards, and how the stuff that came out always wet the sheets or spoiled her nightie. I can still hear her voice whispering those things in my mind, and see the outline of her expressionless face against the carved headboard.
Now she sat across from me in her bland living room, fussing with the bow of her high-necked blouse. I have come all this way, I wanted to say, and across all these years for you to tell me whose face it was that loomed over yours while you cried or pretended to sleep. I wanted her to tell me so that I could then tell her about some of the things that had happened to me. I thought that we might then embrace each other, or weep like women at a funeral.
The light outside her window changed, and the brown field turned to ochre. She lifted up her head and looked out. It was hard to tell if she looked sadder now, or if it was just a trick of the light. She told me how the Lilics lost their money and their house. Mrs. Lilic’s hair had fallen out with the shock. She wore a wig and lived in a stuffy apartment crammed with the things that she’d saved from the auction house. Mr. Lilic drove a taxi. Sometimes at night he pulled up outside the darkened old house and wept for the rooms he could no longer walk through. He confessed these things to Lindy at Mrs. Moon’s funeral.
Mrs. Moon with her swollen ankles, lugging her bags of groceries from the car. Tossing buttered toast at the dog. Making the Moon beds each morning. Stripping the sheets. Turning a blind eye to the soiled things she must have seen. Driving away in her old blue Nova and then back again.
She never met the owners of the house she died in. It was her first day on a new contract with a big cleaning company. The woman who found her body saw it from the foyer and hadn’t known what it was at first. She told Lindy how Mrs. Moon, swathed in a grey pinafore and drenched in the coffee that had spilled from the pot as she fell, looked like a creature washed up from the lake.
After the funeral the Moon household broke up. The Moon boys married and got jobs and multiplied. Lindy looked after Mr. Moon until it became impossible. She wouldn’t move again, she said. She liked it where she was.
I’ve never understood how anyone could stay in the same place for long. I end up wringing my hands and pacing. Then I’m in my car driving around with the loose wrappers rustling like leaves. But I see for a moment, as if through a chink in a thick wall, how it is possible to keep steady while the hands travel across the clock’s face, how the smallestvariations in the yard might give solace as the years pass, why children beg to be told the same story again and again.
The sky clouded over once more, and the lines in her face deepened. She bowed her head. No. She didn’t remember the crumbling green steps leading down into the water. She didn’t remember the winter boats shrouded in the tattered, flapping plastic. She didn’t remember how they made Tully Blanchard walk out on the ice. What kind of people would do such a terrible thing? She smoothed her skirt across her knees and stared straight through me.
Editors' Note: This story appeared in the July/August 2013 print issue.
Photo: Jez Clauson
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July 01, 2013
13 Min read time
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