Fiction · 03/08/2017

Public and Private

1. Spent

After they fucked for the first time, their faces still stinging from the sleet coming down outside, she said, “That was lovely.”

She said it again the next day and that night.

She would say it whenever they fucked.

When brow was lifted from brow, when knees fell slack, when toes curled or hips were released, she said, “That was lovely.”

She said it gasping, giggling, halfheartedly. Sometimes he said something in agreement but the things he came up with sounded tired, unneeded, and eventually he stopped.

Her words came to feel like part of the act itself, a gesture of undoing, a necessary expulsion.

She said it drunk, overheard by strangers, over crying babies in another room.

He wasn’t inclined to doubt her sincerity but the consistency of the repetition made him unsure.

One afternoon, now deep into marriage, he asked if she knew she always said it.

She thought for a moment and said, “No.”

The next time they finished she said nothing.

She didn’t say anything the time after that, either. She never said anything again when they were finished. She turned on the shower, or replaced her panties, or raised the blinds on the window.

The silence was even harder to comprehend.

He interrogated her seemingly incidental movements, demanded that they reveal what she thought of him. He carried inside him an untranslated catalog of her expressions. The contours of her mouth. The angling of her chin. The motion of her eyes.

He listened to her humming softly in the bathroom, a melody he had never heard before, a song he would never name.

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2. Splinter

She was in her bedroom reading when her son, whom people describe as erratic, came running in, carrying a piece of paper he was desperate for her to see. When he tried to stop he went skidding in his socks across the hardwood floor, something she and her husband had debated over many nights, specifically its refinishing or even replacement, which was what she wanted in spite of the massive cost. His skid took him over a slat which had already begun to chip and his sock caught a long, thick sliver which lodged in the bottom of his foot. She took him to the bathtub and put his foot under hot water. He squirmed and she held him, humming to soothe him, how long had it been since she had taken hold of his body, his wriggling, writhy body, once so familiar in its shapelessness, a mass that she could mistake for nothing else, God how long had it been. She plied at him with tweezers and a sewing needle but the splinter was hidden too deep. She phoned her husband, who was away on business, fetched a neighbor she barely knew to mind her daughter, who was asleep, and drove her son to the emergency room where they waited and she soothed him, easing his head into her shoulder but thinking of her bedroom floor, wanting to raze the whole goddamn thing, wanting to rip out everything load-bearing and structurally necessary, wanting to live in a carefully cleared area within a mound of rubble. After waiting well into the night they were called back into a small room and an obscenely attractive nurse took a look at the wound and wandered out. The doctor was also attractive and named Myint, and treated her son warmly, giving the splinter close attention. Myint. The name was Burmese. Myanmarese. Myanmarean. She remembered it from a documentary she and her husband had watched about the atrocities there, the killing fields. The Khmer Rouge, they had restarted time. Time began with them. Year zero. Could she have a year zero? Was a reset possible? While he was digging away at her son’s numbed foot, plucking into an incision that an evil being might emerge through never mind a bit of wood, Myint asked her son about the piece of paper he held. She had long since forgotten it. By now it was badly crumpled and the ink had worn onto his fingers. Her son said he had seen someone drop it into the mailbox and hurry away. It was a booklet, crudely made, suggesting that Pope John Paul II had been a Zyklon-B salesman during the Holocaust. He was fascinated by it, almost giddy, had memorized details which he recited as though they were genuine history as opposed to weird photocopied bigotry. He was just a regular Polish guy then not the Pope and he sold the Nazis this gas that they used to kill the Jews and the Vatican has been covering it up ever since and and and and and. But you know this is all made up don’t you buddy. She could not conceal her embarrassment in front of the doctor, who came from a place where people were once murdered for wearing glasses because they were considered too intellectual, and here was her son, a boy, going on about some bit of lunacy that found its way into their mailbox and ignited something in his head filled with unknowable accelerants. But saying sorry for her son’s behavior felt like an admission that this sort of thing was bound to happen and that it was somehow her fault, that everything about him that was erratic or unaware could be traced straight back to her and her own little strangenesses. Myint, despite his professional detachment, seemed to find her son’s enthusiasm over the pamphlet discomfiting. She waited for him to respond. She didn’t care what he said. She just wanted him to acknowledge her son, condemn him or educate him or chastise her but just don’t leave what her son had done unspoken. Because unarticulated the only place it could go was inside of her, to take root. With everything else he did that nobody knew how to reply to. They were hers alone to carry. For a second it seemed like there were words he was considering but then he looked back down at the foot. Eventually, the doctor said he could not remove the splinter without making the procedure much more complex, and Jesus Christ it wasn’t Burma with the Khmer Rouge it was Cambodia, Cambodia, she was mortified for mixing them up, how could she make such a mistake and she prayed she hadn’t made any actually said anything aloud, hadn’t humiliated herself even more than her son and the pamphlet had, but, as Dr. Myint was saying, as long as the incision was kept clean and there were no signs of infection, the splinter would either settle into his foot permanently or his system would expel the foreign body by itself. Which is precisely what happened some months later, as she walked by her son, awake and face down on the sofa watching a movie where men in gasmasks brandished clubs, and noticed a tiny brown finger pointing accusingly at her from the bottom of his foot.

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3. Trajectory

Some friends of ours returned from rural southwestern Michigan, where they had gone for the Fourth of July, with a very unusual and sad story. During the local fireworks display, it was common for people to fire guns into the air, not out of malice but as a rowdy, homespun accompaniment. After the show (which was surprisingly elaborate and fun, our friends said), a man walking with his six-year-old son saw the boy drop to the ground with terrifying suddenness. In the dark the father noticed a small but unmistakable entrance wound on the top of his son’s head. He was dead before the paramedics arrived. Even though several local police departments helped with the case, it seemed almost impossible that whoever fired the fatal shot would be caught. When our friends told the story it was clear they were using it to illustrate the cruel, unpredictable nature of the world. Death arrives on its own timetable, in any shape it wants. All we could do was agree. Months later, though, we learned that a detective, doing much of his work off the clock, had, with a rudimentary knowledge of physics and geography and a little rough guidance from the county coroner, been able to determine where the shot had been fired within a few hundred square feet. And then, through simple police work and appeals to the better nature of folks he had known for decades, had convinced three people who were known to be firing their guns in that area to turn them over for ballistic testing. One, a Ruger 9mm owned by a driver for a private sanitation company, matched the bullet that killed the little boy. The man turned himself in and pled guilty to a number of charges. The breaking of the case, and the detective’s determination in particular, seemed to counter our friends’ assertion of the world’s unknowability. We wanted this to not only rebut their claim but overturn it altogether. But when our friends went back to the town, they discovered that the detective had been fired. He had displayed obsessive, unsettling behavior, appearing at the home of a 911 dispatcher at all hours, posting videos online where he outlined a number of bizarre and implausible conspiracy theories. Furthermore, the parents of the dead boy had separated, the mother leaving town and the father falling into a profound depression. Once again, our friends seemed eager to demonstrate that whatever it was that governed or choreographed our lives was capricious and morally indifferent. They asked us what we thought and we said nothing. Given the choice of agreeing with them or ending the friendship, we decided that they were odd, sadistic people who weren’t really worth our time.

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Pete Segall is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. His work has appeared in Blunderbuss, The Collapsar, Forge Lit, among other journals. He lives in Chicago with his wife, the writer Kim Brooks, and their children.