April 1, 2017 orangeq2017

Life Is a Hard Rock

Beth McHugh

 

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up here, with a ten-year-old girl to take care of, an unfinished degree, and an effeminate Russian man. Stella is Anton’s niece, but they only recently met, when Anton arrived from Russia and discovered that his brother and sister-in-law had killed themselves and left him their only bit of wealth: a scrawny, desolate daughter. I was a friend of the Alexanders, the dead Alexanders, and would sometimes take care of Stella when I wasn’t busy working on my master’s thesis, which is quite often since I periodically change my mind about my topic. Before Stella happened I was thinking something about Silkworms, and how they might be some kind of poverty solution to Chinese farmers. Lately though, I’ve become fascinated about the complexities of parental love around the world. I’m sure Stella’s weren’t the only parents who just felt they couldn’t deal with it anymore and flung their offspring out into the universe thinking that the world was one big cushion. I am twenty-eight years old, and my first lesson to Stella will be this: “Life is not a pillow. It is a very hard rock.”

There must be a blind symmetry to life though, because just about the time I was having to return a box of kitty litter so I would have enough money in my bank account to cover rent, I met Mr. and Mrs. Alexander. They were new hires at the university, hired together because one of them, Mrs. Alexander, was an expert in European History, and the other, Mr. Alexander, knew enough Russian to teach an introductory language course. He’d never taught anything before, but he liked the feeling of standing before large groups of people so teaching made sense. He hired me on as assistant since I’d studied Russian in undergraduate school, and three times a week I found myself stuffed beside him in his little attic office at the Alexander residence, grading the scratchy hand of two dozen nineteen-year olds.

The Alexanders lived in a narrow house four blocks from campus; it was not a mansion but had three floors above the basement and an attic, and its winding, narrow outer appearance gave an impression of something tottering, as if the whole thing would lose grip on the ground at one corner and come falling like a tree truck. Inside, the house was solid and warm. Mrs. Alexander had an affinity for red; red couches, red oriental rugs, red lampshades—all filled each room with a wealthy and long-established air. In his attic, Mr. Alexander was allowed decorative freedom, and we sat grading or arranging lessons on painted wooden chairs between three walls of books. Mr. Alexander also liked candles; he burned them constantly, so the room was often overwhelmed with the scents of hot cinnamon or lavender. If I hadn’t had his company or the task at hand to keep me somewhat alert, I could have fallen into some fantastic naps in that tiny, high-up hovel.

In the attic a dormer window looked down into the back yard, where a crumbling wooden swing-set stood beside a hole in the grass that was mounded with gravel—a makeshift sand box. Stella spent her afternoons there when the weather was mild, and in between bouts of study I would watch her from the attic. She was rarely a happy child. She played in the yard with a set frown on her pointed face; her movements as she went from swing to sand box almost regimented, as if she were following orders from some invisible dictator. She had one toy: a bald-headed Barbie doll named Ellen-Faye, for whom she constructed clothes out of leaves and mud. She played until five-thirty, when Mrs. Alexander would call her in to practice the piano, and when Mr. Alexander would sigh, run his veined hands through his hair, and declare the afternoon a lost cause. As we descended through each red room we could hear Stella at the piano—a monstrous, engraved upright that stood in the hallway outside the kitchen. She played very well for a ten-year old, Chopin and Beethoven and Bach, all the choices lively and pounded out feverishly on the keys. Her favorite piece to play was by Schumann, ‘Kinderszenen’; a sweet, strangely absolute tune that signified the end of each practice session. Mrs. Alexander would call that her dinner was ready—Mr. and Mrs. Alexander ate at eleven over brandy—and I would be shown to the door.

I became Stella’s nanny quite easily. One afternoon in the attic, the air stuffed to the brim with the scent of lupine, Mr. Alexander stopped in his work to find me looking out the window at Stella. “She’s a pretty girl, isn’t she,” he said.

“Yes.” I turned from the window and saw that he was studying me, the light from the candle etching his features to his face in deep rivets. He pushed himself back from the table and joined me at the window. The room was cramped, and we had to lean together to view the backyard. I could smell the skin over his collarbone; he gave off a scent of well-hidden sweat. “Does she have any friends?” I asked.

“No,” Mr. Alexander said. When I didn’t respond he looked at me. “Is that strange?” he asked.

“Oh,” I said, uncomfortable under his gaze, “maybe not.”

“That is strange,” Mr. Alexander decided. “She should have a friend. Did you have friends Leah? When you were a girl?”

“A few.”

“I didn’t have many friends when I was younger. I suppose I’ve forgotten what that was like.”

I nodded, unsure of what to say, and sat back at the table, pulling a stack of papers toward me. There was silence for a few moments; Mr. Alexander remained by the window, hands on his hips, his face drawn in deep concern. We could hear the muffled, far-off sounds of Stella playing in the backyard—the thud of her feet when she jumped from the swing, the high-pitch of her cry as she made Ellen-Faye fly through the air into the gravel pit.

“I think we’ve worked enough for today,” Mr. Alexander said.

I looked at the table, strewn with paper and open books. “It’s only three-thirty,” I said.

“You must have other things you’d like to do.”

“Yes,” I said. “Alright then.”

He nodded and left the room without another word.

I gathered my things and went slowly down through the house, listening. On the ground floor, in the living room, I heard their voices. “Ellen-Faye has a cold, Papa,” Stella said. “Ellen-Faye has influenza.”

“Poor Ellen-Faye!”

“Bury her in the gravel to be warm.”

“How will she breathe?”

“She has gills.”

 

The next afternoon, when I arrived at the Alexander house, Mrs. Alexander answered the door and told me that her husband had decided to work on campus today, but would I mind very much watching Stella while she went to teach her four o’clock lecture? I agreed and went out to the backyard, secretly relieved to spend an afternoon outside instead of up in the stuffy perfumed attic. The day was cold; it was early November, and Stella was wrapped in a knee-length down jacket, her feet in rubber boots, her head bare. When she saw me she put her hands to her hips; Ellen-Faye’s bald, smiling head poked out of one coat pocket. “What are you doing out here?” she asked.

“That’s a lovely sand box you’ve got,” I said. She seemed thrown by the change of subject. Turning, she slowly inspected the mound of cold gravel.

“It’s crap. You can’t go in or you’ll cut yourself.”

“Ellen-Faye goes in,” I said.

“Don’t you worry about Ellen-Faye,” she said warily, moving off towards the swing set. I put my bag by the back door and sat beside her on a swing. “I suppose you can stay,” she said. “My father will come play with me later though.”

“Ok,” I said, pushing myself into motion with the tips of my toes. I squinted in the slow rush of air that cut against my face.

 

From then on, whenever I arrived at the Alexander house, I was greeted by Mrs. Alexander, given Mr. Alexander’s apologies, and directed around to the backyard. I had been feeling ambivalent for weeks; I was not interested in my thesis, not interested in Russian, not interested in anything except that which could divert me from what had to be done, so I welcomed Stella’s distraction. I still saw Mr. Alexander on campus when he taught and he seemed embarrassed around me, forever trying to stop short our conversations, as if he were waiting for me to call him out on his sly maneuvering of my assistant duties. One day he came close to admitting what he’d done. We were walking towards the classroom at noon. “Stella enjoys your company, Leah,” he said. He spoke without pause so I wouldn’t have a chance to interject. “She mentioned the other day that she liked you and I’m not surprised, you’re good company for her. She was always alone before. I would be with her myself, or her mother, but we’re so busy. It seems we’re always so busy. But she’s a good little girl, isn’t she? She is a good little girl.” His voice shook as he finished. Looking at him, it occurred to me that Mr. Alexander was not a young man, that one day in his late forties he had discovered that he was a father and that still, after nearly ten years, he had yet to understand what this meant to him. I enjoyed his unease; it gave me a feeling of power. I nodded and smiled in response and followed him into the classroom, the sensation of what he had admitted drowning in the din of students savoring their final moments of freedom.

 

Stella didn’t exactly love me, but she didn’t hate me either. She began to let me sit beside her when she practiced the piano, or to hold the towel for Ellen-Faye after her daily bath in the kitchen sink. We moved inside when December came; the backyard was hard and frozen, and the sky hung heavy with waiting snow. I was spending almost every day at the Alexanders, meeting Stella at the bus stop after school and fixing her afternoon snack. “My uncle is coming to visit next week,” she said one afternoon as we were applying lotion to Ellen-Faye’s waxy legs. “This is good for her,” Stella said, smiling as a mother might do. “She has been struggling with some psoriasis lately. Don’t rub so hard, Leah.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Do you like your uncle?”

“I’ve never met him. He’s my father’s brother. He’s Russian.” She began spreading lotion over Ellen-Faye’s shoulders with the tip of her thumb. “My parents are Russian, you know. They weren’t born there, of course, but my Grandma Faye grew up there.”

“Is that how you named Ellen-Faye?”

Stella blushed. “Maybe,” she said. “Not the Ellen part though. That I came up with on my own.”

“I like it.” We were quiet for a few minutes; the wind had picked up outside and now and then somewhere in the house a window rattled against its frame. “Have you ever been to Russia?”

“No! Don’t say that kind of thing. I’ll never go.”

“Why not?”

“They’re all Commies, duh.”

“Not anymore, Stella. That was a long time ago.”

“You don’t know anything,” she said, yanking Ellen-Faye away from my reach. She coddled her, whispered in her ear.

“Is that what your parents told you, Stella?”

“Please,” she scoffed, “they love Russia. They want to have sex with Russia.”

I laughed and Stella blushed, lowering her eyes from my face.

“Ellen-Faye is tired,” she said. It was a tactic she had, switching to a younger voice, babying her talk after she had revealed something callous and shrewd about herself.

“Stella,” I said, “your parents love you very much.” I braced myself for her anger, but at the same time felt something new in our rapport, a sense of power on my part, as if Stella had exposed a weakness unintentionally and was unsure of how to cure her mistake. She looked up at me, the blue of her eyes almost fading into the white.

“Yes,” she said, her voice dull. “I know.” She wiped a blot of lotion from Ellen-Faye’s frozen face. “She should go to bed now.”

I nodded. We finished slathering the doll, wrapped her carefully in a strip of cheesecloth and put her to bed on a striped red and blue cushion beneath Stella’s nightstand.

“When my uncle comes,” Stella whispered as we tiptoed through the room, “will you come to dinner to meet him?” The unease from the kitchen had faded, and with the curtains drawn in the bedroom, Stella’s eyes had turned a hardy grey.

“If your parents say it’s alright.”

“They will if I ask them.” We walked together down the hallway, our footsteps muffled in the plush maroon carpet, and as we turned to go down to the living room to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Stella slipped a cool hand into mine. I felt my heart shift a fraction within my chest, a movement so subtle and deeply buried I couldn’t be sure it had happened at all.

 

Mrs. Alexander called one evening the week before Christmas and asked if I could come watch Stella; she and Mr. Alexander had been invited to a departmental holiday party. I left my studio apartment littered with wrapping paper and Christmas lights and walked the four blocks to the Alexander house. Stella answered the door in her Halloween costume. “Mother says I have to put it in the attic,” she explained. “I wanted to wear it one more time. It was such a good costume, don’t you think?”

I nodded. She was dressed as a turnip, her sprouts a tiny green cap on the back of her head. She had thrown a Halloween party that year, inviting everyone in her class at school. Only six people showed up, including Mr. Alexander and me. Mrs. Alexander had been out of town.

“We get to have pancakes for dinner tonight, Mother says.” Mrs. Alexander came out of the kitchen then, her lithe body swathed in a black evening gown. A thick strand of pearls caught against her neck and fell the length of her back.

“We’ll be home by eleven,” she said. She bent and gave Stella a kiss on the forehead. “Remember the moth balls when you pack that up,” she said, tweaking the edge of the turnip costume. We followed her to the front hall where she was joined by Mr. Alexander in full formal dress, a thick wool coat making his shoulders appear broader than they were. He held out Mrs. Alexander’s red cape, and together they went into the night, sending back kisses and a waft of frigid air. “You’re my little darling!” Mrs. Alexander called at the front gate. Stella stood in the light of the doorway, curtsying goodbye.

It was not an unusual night. Stella and I made pancakes, painted Ellen-Faye’s toe-tips in pink polish, and watched half of It’s a Wonderful Life on TV before Stella fell asleep on the couch, still wrapped as a turnip, her green sprouts askew. I woke her, guided her upstairs to her bedroom, and helped her out of the costume and into her pajamas. She was asleep by the time I left the room, Ellen-Faye beside her. I took the costume to the attic. In one corner was a tall stack of cardboard boxes, pushed away to make room for Mr. Alexander’s desk and filing cabinets. Mrs. Alexander had labeled each box, and each one pertained to Stella’s youth in some way: Stella’s Creations, read the top box. Stella’s Baby Clothes, Stella’s Pictures, Stella’s Toys. There were ten Stella boxes in total, a surprising number since Stella’s every day existence seemed to fit itself so subtly into the Alexanders’ lives. Here, in one dark corner of the attic, Mrs. Alexander had organized and labeled her daughter’s history, adding mothballs so it wouldn’t fall victim to time, but otherwise letting it rest quietly. I put the costume in the box labeled Stella’s Holidays alongside a pair of plastic reindeer antlers, a bag filled with carved wooden soldiers, and a broken music box. I stayed for a while in the attic, enjoying its close warmth and the way it held on to the residue of Mr. Alexander’s candles. There were several waxy stubs around the room.

There are moments now and then, when I see a well-dressed woman, or an empty swing set, or when I hear the sound of sudden laughter, and I am taken back swiftly to the winter night before Christmas when I took care of Stella. I have given up trying to find the connection between this night and the one that followed. If I stayed long enough in memory perhaps I could find an answer, but I like to imagine there isn’t one. I like to think of the way the old candles smelled, and the yellow glow that came through the attic window from the backyard, something having set off the motion light above the garage. If I go much further, if I leave the moment and possible conclusions arise, I find myself caught in an eddy of despair. It should not be the case that life can be taken with such ease, and I imagine that Mr. and Mrs. Alexander found it easy to remove themselves from the world — from Stella’s world. I have boundless hate for them.

I went to the window when I heard the garage door open. They had returned from the party. I watched them come through the backyard. Mrs. Alexander was ahead, stumbling in her high heels. She was laughing—a high, frantic laughter. Her cape blew open around her, and her thin white neck was splayed out to the cold air. Mr. Alexander came behind her; he made to grab her by the waist, and for a moment I thought they were playing, that he was trying to embrace her, kiss her hair, feel the shape of her body from behind. When he touched her though, she wrenched herself awkwardly away from him and fell to the frozen grass. The impact turned her laughter to a low wail and Mr. Alexander stood over her, not offering his help. He said something, one word, and held his hands to his face. I turned away then, filled with a sudden fear, as if someone had jumped out and startled me. I did not wait to greet them. I ran through the house, took my coat from the hall closet and left, the sound of Mrs. Alexander’s cry following me down the street.

 

It was the next evening, almost five and already dark, when Mr. Alexander telephoned and asked if I could pick his brother up at the airport. There was no reason this time, there was only the request, delivered with the slightest note of command, and I agreed. I had been thinking of Stella all day.

Anton was Mr. Alexander’s brother, and when I met him at the airport he embraced me and kissed my right cheek. His mouth was cold, even though he’d just come off the plane, and he had to set his case down and reach his head up in order to catch the side of my face. I showed him to the car. “Nice car,” he said. “My brother does well for himself.” He had a short, simple way of speaking that was pleasing, though I felt that behind his words were infinite amounts of observation and even a little judgment. I thought about what Stella had said, about them all being Communists, and on the drive home I tried to see traces of this in Anton. He maintained a half smile through every stoplight, every one red and glowing out through the still December night. Snow began to fall when we reached the strip mall, and the fat flakes gathered with ambivalence on the street.

“There was snow there I bet,” I said. “When you left.” It was a caustic remark; tossed off with the notion that I knew anything about the life he had left behind.

“Yes,” he said. “There is snow.” He continued to gaze out the passenger window, his face placid. We pulled into the driveway. The center of every window in the Alexander house was lit by a single red Christmas light; plastic bulbs shaped to imitate real candles, and Anton admired these while I searched for the garage remote. The doors opened slowly, a huge yawning mouth, and I pulled in next to the Alexanders’ other car, an ancient, cushioned Buick. Because we stayed a few minutes in the closed car, gathering our belongings, and because we had brought the fresh air in with us, we did not at first notice the heat of the space, or the liquid way the air hung, laced with a foreign substance.

Barely visible in the dim interior of the garage, I made out two round shapes resting together in the center of the front seat of the Buick. They were heads. Mr. and Mrs. Alexander’s, and they appeared to be sleeping, using the other for support so they wouldn’t fall lengthwise across the leather seat. On either face was a pleasant, dreaming expression. For one ridiculous moment I believed they were actually sleeping, and imagined that they looked the way they might if I were to have come upon them in their bedroom, spread gracefully on the thick red quilt of their king-sized bed. Behind me, Anton began speaking. “My God,” he said in a quavering, matronly tone. He said it over and over. “My God. My God.” I turned on him.

“Shut up,” I snapped. I covered my mouth and nose with the collar of my jacket. He looked at me with startled blue eyes and continued his low moan.

“My God. My God.”

I went to the Buick, the smell of the carbon monoxide releasing itself in slow waves out through the open door of the garage, and reached a hand through Mr. Alexander’s window. His face was calm and waxen, but up through the flush of his skin crept a gray light, and from this vantage I could see that his smile was fading to an expression hollow and unfamiliar, one with no relation to any expression of life. I pulled the key from the ignition and jerked back, wiping my palms on my pants. Down through my layers of winter clothing my skin was humming with heat, and I felt beads of sweat breaking out on my temple. I left Anton in the garage rocking his small body back and forth as if rocking a child to sleep, his leather case pressed to his chest with both arms. Outside, the gathering snow illuminated the night and everything was deafened in an orange glow. In the backyard, Stella’s mound of gravel was a white hill. She was perched on the very top, her black down jacket spread around her, her head bare. I stood at her feet. “Stella,” I said. She looked beyond me.

“Ellen-Faye has died, too,” she said. She extended the naked doll to me. “She’s died from the cold.”

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