Art by Nancy Evans
Crosswalks and stop signs and seatbelts and traffic lights and speed limits and building codes and smoke alarms and health inspectors—and the way her mother died, Martha told him on the phone last night, was by misstepping off the curb, losing her balance, and landing on the side of her head.
Martha’s call had woken him up. This couldn’t have been more than six hours after it happened. Her voice was level as a tennis court. It sent him so far into his own head. He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t one for faith or God, but he also wasn’t past throwing a prayer upstairs when the situation called for it. “She’s looking down on you now,” he settled on saying. “She’s up there with the angels.”
Moonlight then through his bedroom window. He was waiting for Martha to speak. The silence over the line was like lockjaw. “I hope not,” she said.
After they hung up, as he grabbed his keys and double-checked his good suit was dry-cleaned, as he did a host of tiny things whose normalness in the face of such enormity made him shiver—that was when he realized that he hadn’t told her he was sorry.
The story told at their wedding was that they met a bar. This lacked consensus. Martha said they met at a concert. But it was, he knew, at a bar; one that just happened to have live music that night. To his mind it was a square-is-a-rectangle-but-a-rectangle-isn’t-a-square situation. Meaning who cared.
Apparently Martha. She was the one who’d made the approach. She’d come up to him just as he was thinking of leaving. She asked, “What do you like?” She was fishing out the ice cubes from the bottom of her drink. “What are some of the things you like?” It felt less like a test than it did a survey. He’d said he liked playing cards with his friends. Poker. He’d never done this but it seemed a good thing to say. He said winter, the way the light falls in winter. He said music.
She nodded like an expert who’d been asked a very simple question. “What is your name?”
“Mark Randslinjski,” he said. “Like Randall-slinky.”
“How the fuck am I supposed to spell that?” she said, handing him her phone to do the typing himself.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
She said, “Martha Alberts.”
He said, “How the fuck am I supposed to spell that?” She laughed; and he catalogued this laugh in the deepest files of his memory. The first time I made her laugh.
This was twelve years ago. He remembered how beautiful she was that night, how she was the kind of beautiful that made him lonely, if that made sense, and how he loved this unanswerable quality about her, and how he still couldn’t figure out what it meant, in that moment, to realize these facts.
There was a problem, Martha told him over the phone, with the will. He said he’d be over in ten minutes. This was a month or two after the funeral. Maybe a year.
Death. It did things with time. Just when he thought he’d figured it out, there it went sliding through his fingers again—death, time. Either one, really.
Martha was sitting at her kitchen table when he got there. “She left it all to the church,” she said.
He sat down across from her. She had a slim nose that tapered toward two oval moles above her mouth. Green, green eyes. There was this sort of jaggedness to her—the scar below her right eye, a childhood accident; the shallow dimple that formed on only one side when she smiled—that still sent him to his knees, totally floored.
“I’m not kidding,” she said. “Every dime to the St. Andrew’s.”
It was a conversation, he believed, that ought to be reserved for very late at night. That should take place in a seething sort of darkness, under volatile stormclouds and flashing thunderheads; the world outside a steaming ruin they chose to face with stiff drinks in hand, the kitchen lights flickering off and flickering on in identical patterns to the dying roaches in the Dolly Parton ashtray.
But it was sunny outside. A dream of a day. There was an early evening quiet moving in and the kitchen smelled of lavender. Neither of them smoked anymore. The windows were open. He said, “We can fight it if you want.”
“Are you crazy?” she said.
“I’m just thinking out loud.”
“Well,” she said. “Don’t.” And then she sent him a look. It was a look he knew thoroughly enough not to react to, or respond to, or even to acknowledge. Because what it communicated was an impossibility, an equation he had as of yet been unable to solve. What it said was: I want you to leave and I want you to stay. And he still hadn’t figured out a way to do both.
“So,” he said. But he stopped himself short.
“I don’t care about the money. There isn’t much. It’s not about that.”
He said, “Your hair looks good like that. I like what you did with it.” It was all he could think to say. And to describe the silence that followed? He couldn’t do it. He could only explain it by the sounds Martha made when she said, “She left us the Hummels.”
“The Hummels?” He skipped over her use of the word us. “Like the figurines?”
“Her collection,” she said. “All of them.”
“You hate those things. You said they creeped you out.”
“Go look in the garage,” she said.
He stood up from the table. All he could think about was how he stood up, all the times in his life his body had synchronized in an intricacy of movement to bring him to his feet. Millions? Certainly. And he’d done those motions without ever knowing how they looked; how he appeared to someone while doing them. He walked toward the laundry room. He moved like a detective approaching the scene of a crime, a steadiness to it, slow and trained. He wanted to postpone the instant whereupon he would engage with the tragedy and become responsible for it.
“The estate sale people dropped them off today,” Martha said, suddenly behind him.
There must have been thirty boxes. He could see that Martha had opened a few. They were the strangest little things, Hummels. Small porcelain fairy tales, weirdly Bavarian, varying in size. A bonnet-headed girl feeding a chipped swan, a tuba player, a trumpeter, Christmas scenes, a chubby-faced milkmaid with doughy eyes and blushed cheeks. And they were always children. Never any moldings of adulthood, just portly children doing grown-up things, sawing at a workbench, hanging the clothes out to dry.
“It took them almost an hour to unload it all,” Martha said.
“I didn’t think she had so many.”
“She did,” Martha said. “And they’re worthless.”
“What do you want to do?”
“We can’t throw them away.”
“Sell them?” he asked.
She said, “They’re worthless.”
He remembered, then, with terrific force, how some of those Hummels had lined her mother’s mantelpiece. He’d never asked about them and couldn’t remember her mother ever mentioning them. In this way it felt he was encountering a sort of suddenly revealed set stage, a background he’d lived with but never noticed. He turned to Martha. “Can I stay here tonight?” He wasn’t sure if he’d meant to say it. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to.
“They were the strangest little things, Hummels. Small porcelain fairy tales, weirdly Bavarian, varying in size. A bonnet-headed girl feeding a chipped swan, a tuba player, a trumpeter, Christmas scenes, a chubby-faced milkmaid with doughy eyes and blushed cheeks.”
He’d zipped up her dress and clasped her necklace. This would have been the morning of the funeral. He asked if she wanted him to stand with her in the receiving line. She shook her head no. “I’m not sure I can do this,” she said.
“You can,” he said. “You’ll be surprised. The funeral is the easiest part.”
This he knew from experience. The year after they were married was what he called The Year of the Funerals. His father was first. Cancer. His mother came five months after that. He’d petitioned the county coroner to list broken heart as a secondary cause of death. He’d heard of this before, one half of true love elapsing after the loss of the other. His petition was denied. It was simply a stroke. Then came his army buddies. Two, three, four in as many months. Deaths of despair. He told himself afterward that he would volunteer for an advocacy group, raise awareness, work toward a collective betterment that did not benefit himself. But it was just another thing he never got around to.
He told Martha he would drive. He grabbed an umbrella, just in case, he told her. “I love you,” he said as they stepped out the door. He only seemed to say this when he felt sufficiently broken.
In the morning, he started researching. One of the first things he came across was an article headlined: NOBODY WANTS YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S HUMMELS.
This didn’t seem to apply to Martha. The Hummels had belonged to her mother. A street sweeper passed outside with the sound of mechanical thunder.
Martha was reading a book on her phone, coffee in the other hand. He kept researching. There was a ridiculous glut in the Hummels market. It struck him as a once-in-a-generation problem that for some reason was up to him to solve. He felt like he’d been tasked with figuring out what to do with all the horse and buggy drivers after the invention of the car.
He said to Martha, “I don’t think we’re going to be able to sell these.”
“We can’t just throw them away,” she said.
“You’ve made that clear.”
She set her cup down on the end table. “I have a date tonight.”
He closed the window on his computer. He couldn’t stand to look at another Hummel. “You’re just saying that to hurt my feelings.”
“That’s right,” she said.
“I’m just trying to help.”
“Is that what this is?”
He stood up to leave. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“I love you,” she said.
He didn’t like hearing it. He could say it but he didn’t like to have it said. It never seemed to sit right. It was one of those words that made him uncomfortable, like rapeseed or holocaust.
He thought about Hummels. It was all he thought about. The problems they presented served as further evidence supporting his outlook, his life’s guiding philosophy.
He lived under the impression that life was something to be endured. A series of checkpoints and mile-markers which offered, instead of respite, or meaning, or a chance to sit smilingly in the solemn pride of a job well done, only the opportunity to glance back at the uselessness of the distance traveled, at the difficulty of the slog.
This was not such a bad way to live. What it withheld in joy and optimism it returned, tenfold, in steely determination and immunity from disappointment. It was a way to cordon off certain sections of himself, sealing shut all those inner drawers where loneliness seemed so rapidly to accumulate.
There was the trip he and Martha had taken to California, a motorist’s getaway with the ambitious itinerary of driving the length of the Pacific Coast Highway, north to south. He was just two years out of the army.
He’d bought maps to navigate by. He didn’t want to use his phone. Don’t forget that I had been an actual soldier, he reminded Martha.
It seemed to him a crucial challenge, a trial meant to assess some invisible characteristic within himself that he could not name or describe but for the knot of its absence, its spectral non-presence, like a ghost’s. Martha laughed so hard at those maps. That laugh. Always through the nose, a rushed intake of air. He’d long stopped filing them away. “All we have to do is keep the ocean on our right,” she said. “Not even you can lose track of the Pacific.”
They got a flat tire on their first day. If the maps were a trial, then the flat was one by fire. He couldn’t figure out where the jack was supposed to go. Calling Triple A was out of the question. He hadn’t changed a tire since his dad showed him how on the night before his road test. His father had demonstrated, step by step, and then said, “Now you do it.” And he managed all right. He was sixteen, smart, capable, a tight end called up to varsity freshman year, although he didn’t play a minute. That same night it rained. His father woke him up, backed the car out of the garage, and said, “Do it again. If you can’t do it in the rain, you can’t do it at all.”
Well, it took a half hour but he managed to jack up the rental. The ocean was a taunt over his shoulder, the way the waves disappeared in the distance. This was the ocean they were supposed to be seeing at many miles per hour. But it was so fixed now, stuck in a blue pause. So unmovingly dull. He wanted to kill it.
He crawled under the chassis to see if the tire was rusted to the axle. It wouldn’t budge free. Martha said, “I don’t think you should put your head under there.” He shot up and into her face. He didn’t want to scare her, but he did want to show her he could. If he wanted. Because he was still a decent size, tall. A physical presence if he pinned his shoulders back. He had all this anger and he was carrying it at the base of his throat. Martha laughed through her nose. She had a smile like a roadside bomb. He said, “You never wanted to come on this trip.”
And no sooner had he said it than the car slipped off the jack and slammed into the pavement. Exactly where he’d just been. The noise of the crunch of the bumper was identical to the noise he’d made when he told the rental car lady he didn’t need the insurance package. He blamed Martha, as if she’d willed it to happen. There was part of him that actually believed this.
He remembered falling asleep that night to the sound of waves.
He selected three boxes of Hummels to open as a random sample. There was a particular marking he’d come across online, signifying original Hummels, handcrafted, the only kind that seemed to be worth a thing. He couldn’t find the engraving anywhere.
“I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do with these,” Martha said when she came into the garage.
“I mean, did she think they were cute?” he said. “Or quaint. Do you know why she liked them?”
“I don’t know,” Martha said. She eased herself down to the concrete floor. A spurt of dust buzzed up, caught the light, floated a moment, fell. “I never asked her why she liked them. Basically my garage is filled with all the questions I never asked her.”
“Maybe she played with them,” he said. “Whenever she had us for dinner, as soon as we left, she’d pick them up and play with them. Like a reverse Toy Story.”
“A reverse Toy Story is just someone playing with toys.” She picked up the milkmaid and started galloping it toward the tuba player, walking its base along the floor as though it were a heavy piece of furniture. “Like this,” she said. She pushed the tuba player in and made him kiss the milkmaid. She made puckering smooch sounds as she forced the two horizontal.
He said, “Let’s see who can find the weirdest one,” and started hauling out more boxes. Martha went to the kitchen and came back with a bottle of vodka. “I don’t have anything to mix it with,” she said. They passed it back and forth, taking weak little high-school pulls that made them flutter with laughter. He pried off the plastic stopper over the mouth of the bottle.
“The fun-stopper,” Martha said as he cast it aside.
“Here’s one with a toddler as a dentist,” he said, holding it up. “About to perform what I can only assume is a less than competent root canal?”
Martha said, “That kid definitely just came from murdering somebody.”
The moon sat centered in the octagonal garage window, a scooped-out crescent. Cobwebs snatched the starry light, translucent, making little Rorschach patterns as a breeze passed through the thinness of the walls. The trouble was that he could only identify love and affection in retrospect. This his therapist had a fucking field day with. He never could make sense of its essential qualities in the present. If it was a feeling of sustained comfort, a warmth in perpetual motion, then that’s what this had always been. What he theorized happened was that the two of them had reached a point where fondness no longer sufficed.
Martha put her tuba player down. She said, “When did you end up taking off your ring?”
“Never, actually,” he said. He placed his flamboyantly-dressed bandleader on the floor. “I slip it off before I come over.” He didn’t wait for her to ask why. “I guess I do it because,” he said, but he stopped to think, having never really thought about it before. “I have no idea.”
She said, “It’s as good an answer as any.”
“I was going to say because we’re still married.”
“We are, yes,” she said.
“You never really liked me that much,” he said.
She stared right at him. “I never figured out how you got so good at self-pity.”
It made him erupt with laugher. “It’s probably the thing I’m best at,” he said, and in that second he wanted to sew himself to her, so as to never be apart again.
It took them two hours but they managed to empty out all the boxes. Martha moved her car to the street. The Hummels covered every inch of the floor and it was hard to walk without stepping on the chubby children.
“Why did I call you?” Martha asked, either to him or to herself, it was unclear. “Why you?”
He wanted to say—something. And that felt right. He’d spent a good portion of his life wanting to say something, and the rest of it failing to do so.
They put their favorite Hummels on the cheap wooden shelves he’d helped her build when she first got this place. Every job and every role and every occupation had a porcelain representative in the garage. Mailmen and doctors and barbers and chefs. A youthful utopian society. The moon moved through the window, trailing along like a thought leaving until it was nothing more than a pale pulse, invisible.
Martha laughed. “We shouldn’t have done this. We’ll never get them packed up again.”
She tried to clear a patch where she could sit. The vodka bottle was in the far corner, almost empty. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with all these.”
“You can just leave them out like this,” he said. He picked up a seamstress with long braided hair and made her do some sort of jig.
She said, “Imagine if a stranger walked into the garage and saw this.”
“When you sell the house you’ll have to say these come with it. For sale, as is.”
“Who said I’d sell the house?” she said.
“I just assumed,” he said, and he bent down in search of another Hummel. It was the best part of this new setup. He had something to pick up, fiddle with, shimmy around and use as a joke. The Hummels were a getaway car he could jump into, punching the gas; they could take him away from whatever he said, or failed to say, because what was the difference in the end.
“Let’s have a fire,” Martha said. “I got that fire pit and I still haven’t used it. If I don’t use it soon I never will.”
“Okay,” he said. “That’s a great idea.”
She said, “It’s a nice night. Come on.”
“It’s a great idea.” He picked up the first Hummel his fingers could find.
“What?” she said. “Do you think I don’t know you? What is it?”
He’d never told her. He was afraid of fire, believe it or not. A phobia contracted in the army. He’d just gotten his stripes and finally made up his mind to get out once his contract ended. Eighteen months. He was showing Hernandez how to rig his rucksack for a jump. It must have been the third or fourth time. Everyone else from the unit was in a class on ambushes, but he had to make sure Hernandez understood the rig assembly so he’d be able to jump in screaming winds without his legs ripping off at twelve hundred feet. Hernandez was a good kid with a good heart but didn’t belong anywhere near the army. It was hard to see the way he always fell out of troop runs, always scoring twenty-three out of forty at the rifle range, bare-minimum. “S-roll the straps, see? Like this,” he’d said to Hernandez. He demonstrated the technique and then undid it so Hernandez could try. He remembered those were the exact words he said because that’s when the door flung open so hard it nearly closed again. “We need a fire extinguisher.” He didn’t recognize the guy in the doorway, but Hernandez pointed to the wall and like that the guy was gone. Hernandez said, “Should we go check it out, Sergeant?” “I guess we should,” he’d answered. They both stood up and looked around with a kind of interconnected precognition until they found a pair of fire extinguishers in the supply cage and shot outside. The fire was enormous across the courtyard. It wrapped around a fuel tanker truck parked outside the headquarters building, the flames getting pulled under the chassis like some horrific force was sucking them down there into an abyss. Fire the color of a legal pad. Nothing at all how it looked on TV. The guy from the doorway yelled over the blaze, “The truck’s empty! But the fumes!” Sirens ripped the air apart. There was another guy and he was on the ground. His legs were on fire, completely covered, and Hernandez whipped off his camo top and smothered his bottom half before washing him with extinguisher foam. He watched Hernandez do this as he himself blasted the engine block of the truck. The guy from the doorway said, “There’s smoke coming from inside!” The three of them rushed to it. He was hoping this guy outranked him, that this would be out of his hands, but when he got a good look he saw the guy was just a Corporal. It meant he’d have to be in charge. The base’s fire department couldn’t have been more than two minutes away. Smoke was coming from under the door as if from a machine, the anti-gravity sort of way smoke rises, a used-charcoal gray. Absolutely pouring out. Hernandez and the guy stacked up on the door as if they meant to clear the room of insurgents. They held their extinguishers very tightly. Smoke absolutely fucking oozing out from under the door. “What do we do, Sergeant?” Hernandez asked, a look in his eyes of something total, of total say-the-word, total you’re-in-charge. He pulled his T-shirt up to cover his nose and the other two did the same. He didn’t know what to say. The deepest breath he ever took. He said, “Prepare to enter the space.” The guy from the doorway took off his top and wrapped his hand as he grabbed the knob and flung the door open so hard it nearly closed again, and sitting next to Martha as the fire pit popped he ran it all back for her, everything he could remember.
She said, “Why didn’t you ever tell me about this?”
“We’d been together maybe four months,” he said. “It was just this weird thing that happened. The fire department showed up and things got taken care of. Things calmed down. Hernandez got booted out of the army a few months later. I never saw that guy again, or the guy who got burnt. There wasn’t any medal or commendation in it.”
“What,” she said, “you think it didn’t happen or something?”
“No, it’s not that,” he said. “It’s more like it could or could not have happened. And either way it didn’t matter. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
Martha ripped apart a cereal box she’d brought outside and threw the chunks in the fire. “Don’t go all nihilism on me.”
“More determinism,” he said. “I guess.”
She rolled her eyes and their whites flared in the flameglow. “That’s even worse,” she said. “Sure, everything’s determined. But not everything is unavoidable. Think about evolution? It’s avoidance. Humans are the ultimate avoiders. You should know this. You do know this.”
He said, “Is this unavoidable?” and he leaned in to kiss her and his eyes were closed and he was afraid. He heard Martha nearly fall out of her chair with what could only be described as a full-body scoff.
“Jesus,” she said. She was laughing. “Maybe if you hadn’t said that first. Jesus Christ. No, thanks. I’d have rather jumped in the fire.” She passed him the bottle of vodka and he was resolved to top off what was left but when he tried it made him gag, and he barely kept it down. Martha hadn’t stopped laughing through her nose.
“Say something funny,” he said. “Tell me a joke.” He tried to take another swig.
“Something funny is all those creepy fucking Hummels in my garage.”
It made him spit the vodka out of his mouth and into the fire; a mist flared a spray of hot red brightnesses out the other side. He didn’t know why it was so funny.
“I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do with them,” Martha said. “I can’t just throw them away.” And immediately he stood up and walked to the garage. He didn’t say a word. He grabbed the tuba player and went back to Martha, handing it to her.
He looked up but he couldn’t find the moon. The fire was tall and rising, a crackling starkness in the dark, glowing underneath.
He looked at Martha and he looked at the Hummel and he looked at the fire.
“I’m not going to do that,” she said. She balanced the tuba player on her lap.
He said, “Why not?”
“Because I said I’m not going to throw them away.”
“This isn’t throwing them away,” he said.
“A distinction without a difference. You want me to throw it in the fire?”
He said, “What else are you going to do with it? Why not throw it in?”
“Make it a ritual,” she said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Something like that.”
Martha stood up. The fire pit was made in a thin copper bowl that danced wavy with reflections. She shuffled the tuba player under the logs and into the coals. The porcelain started creaking, scratching in high-pitched squeals. The paint melted off into a glaze. Martha said, “Can porcelain even burn? Isn’t it pottery? Are we just tempering it?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He watched the tuba player contort and rumble. It made strange, heat-soaked music. All the paint was gone, but before it had gone it turned the fire twisted and rhombic with color and heat as it burned off. Down there in the coals was only a ghostly-looking figure, some sheet-white absence, a shapeless malformed nihility of emptiness that, without tuba or lab coat or milkman’s uniform to help him in his identifying, led him to question if in fact it had ever been anything at all.
Martha said, “I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to melt.”
“Yes, it is. It’s already starting to.”
He stood and listened to the scratching sounds and noises of whiteness scorching itself black. Smoke and embers and tattered red confetti sparks rose into the air, superheated. And he followed them, kept following them, tracking them with his eyes as far as his eyes would take him. And he followed them up to the moment they faded, vanished, leaving him staring at a starless sky with a moon that was nowhere to be found.
“It’s buckling,” he said. “It looks like it’s starting to buckle.” He stared into the vision of the cinders. Today was his thirty-fourth birthday. “It’s definitely getting there. Right?
Martha didn’t answer.
“Isn’t it?” he asked. “Getting there? Don’t you think so, too?”
Fall / Winter 2023
John Darcy is an army veteran from Madison, Wisconsin. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Prairie Schooner, the Georgia Review, X-R-A-Y, and The Best Stories by Emerging Writers Anthology, among others. A prose editor at Noemi Press, he lives in Los Angeles.
Nancy Evans graduated with a BA in sculpture from University of California, Berkeley in 1972. In 1981, after a decade in San Francisco, she moved to Los Angeles where continues to live and work. Evans is one of thirty-nine artists in Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living (October 1–December 31, 2023), the Hammer Museum’s sixth biennial exhibition featuring artists that work in the greater Los Angeles area.