by Heather Wells Peterson
When Cathy stood in front of the poet’s white dress, she felt like a monster. The dress was placed at the end of the hallway in a glass box, hanging on a headless mannequin whose little feet poked out from the white hem. Behind the dress was a large window that once overlooked a flowering meadow owned by the poet’s father. Now, the window overlooked a bed and breakfast. The dress was all white, with simple decorative trim along the collar and the front buttons and the ends of the sleeves. From the size of the dress, researchers had determined that the poet was 5’2” and weighed 100 pounds. Sunlight glowed from the window, haloing the dress so that it seemed to hum with a spiritual energy.
“Is it a replica?” asked a woman in the back of the group. She was typical of the younger types who came to see the poet’s house—white, tall, slender, unfashionably dressed, clearly impressed with her own intelligence.
Cathy could see from the woman’s face that she knew already that it was a replica, but she answered the question cheerfully. “Yes, it is. We couldn’t display the original in the sunlight like this.” She walked around the box, her ungainly stomps made ridiculous in the presence of this dainty garment. “If you would like to see the actual dress, you can visit her archives at Harvard University.”
It was funny, how women could gain power from their slightness. Cathy’s large, heavy frame made feel insignificant.
The tour group followed Cathy around the dress, some perfunctorily, like sheep following a shepherd, others with great and precious awe. Cathy led them into the poet’s room, first pointing to the small writing desk, where the poet truly did compose her thousands of poems and letters, then handing around laminated copies of little notes the poet had written on whatever paper was at hand—an advertisement for chocolates, a bill—and she found herself on the verge of tears.
“You see, every time I step into this room I am taken aback,” she explained. “It took us so long to get the room just as it must have been.” She told the tour about the layers of wallpaper the restorers had scraped through until they dated one particular paper to the final decade of the poet’s life. They had taken the small remaining bits of paper to a company that archived antique prints. Finally, they had found a match. “If you look below your feet,” said Cathy, “we are standing on straw matting. The restorers ripped up the carpet to find these beautiful old floors, and from the imprints in the wood, they discovered that this exact pattern of straw mat must have lain on the floors for many years.” She turned to the small sleigh bed. “We know this bed was here from dents in the wood.” She gestured toward the mirror above the dresser. “And if you lifted the mat there, you would see a wear pattern from where she stood before the mirror every day.”
Everyone in the tour group gasped. It was exactly what Catherine wanted the group to do, and yet she resented their enthusiasm. She had specifically prepared apt quotations from the poet’s letters and poems to illustrate each aspect of her life as they moved through the house, and yet Cathy chose not to read her usual passage here, in which the poet described freedom as sitting by the window at night in this very room with the door shut and locked. Instead, she moved on brusquely, leading the tour back down the stairs.
When the forty-five minutes were done, Cathy thanked the group to a smattering of applause. She watched her audience dissipate, moving away in couples or small clumps, discussing what to do with the rest of their Sundays. Many would go apple picking—a favorite fall pastime for those not from the area—or they would walk through the town center, perhaps tour the nearby college.
Cathy had no such plans for her Sunday. She felt emptied, squeezed out. She always felt this way at the end of the weekend, when her tours were done. She went back into the house to leave her nametag at the register in the gift shop. In leaving, she passed several small felt replicas of the poet, her hair brown yarn pulled back in a bun, her dress a little patch of white. They were magnetized, so that they clung to the metal pipe by the door as though for their lives. Cathy shook her head, mortified, and walked out and down the hill to her car.
It was impossible to live in the town where Cathy worked. Everyone who lived there was either a student who didn’t mind party trash in their front yard and party screams well into the night, or they had grown up here and lived in a house owned by their family for generations. Everyone else who worked in the town—even the professors at the college—lived in the surrounding towns and villages. Cathy lived fifteen minutes away, in a duplex behind which flowed an enormous river. She sat in her car, preparing for the drive, wishing that the image of her house, with its still lush green grass, the bright fireworks of orange and yellow chrysanthemums lining the front porch, the wide, burbling, brown-blue swath of river, inspired some feeling of warmth and relaxation.
Instead, as she imagined entering the silence of its dark interior, she felt only defeat. She was fifty-one years old. Her mother, who had suffered a stroke eight years ago, after which she required Cathy’s help in dressing and eating, was now dead. Cathy’s dog, too, was gone. She was haunted, now, by the ghosts of what might have been, if she had just been born a different kind of woman.
There was a small tapping at her window. Cathy gasped. For a moment, she had forgotten where she was, and the tapping had come as though from another world, a ghostly tapping, perhaps even of the poet’s own delicate finger. Instead, Cathy turned to see a man. He was about forty years old, and dressed rather oddly in a black turtleneck and loose-fitting khakis. He was likely coveting her parking space. She rolled down her window.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ll be moving in a second.” She started her car to prove it.
“No, no.” The man frowned. “I’m not asking for your spot. I don’t even have a car!” he shouted, as though it was something she should have known about him. “I was just wondering—didn’t I see you conducting a tour of the house?” He gestured toward the poet’s large, yellow house, perched on the hill.
“I’m a tour guide, yes,” Cathy admitted. “But I’m afraid the tours are done for the day. You’ll have to come back Tuesday—we’re closed tomorrow.”
“No, no,” the man said again, frowning further. “I was wondering if I might be able to pick your brain a little? You must know everything there is to know about her.”
Cathy clutched the steering wheel. She could feel the running motor vibrating in her fingers and palms. There were people like this every once in a while, who worshipped the poet, and thought of Cathy as some sort of insider. Though it was true she knew most of what there was to know about the poet, had even read whole books dedicated only to the poet’s use of punctuation, and was privy to all of the decisions made by the foundation in honor of the poet’s memory, she was, in the end, just a low-level worker, paid slightly more than minimum wage to keep the machinery of the place running, while the important people—the poet’s remaining relatives, the trustees, the restorers, the experts with PhDs—they ran the show.
Cathy sighed. “I’d be happy to answer some questions for you,” she said. “But I’m not sure I can tell you anything you wouldn’t learn from a book.”
The man smiled. “That may be true,” he said. “But isn’t it so much more pleasant to learn from a conversation with an intelligent woman than it is to read some stuffy book?”
Though Cathy knew the man was just trying to flatter her into acquiescence—men only flirted with her when they needed her to do something for them—she felt herself blush.
“Do you know the Book Mill?” the man asked. “Perhaps we could talk there, over a glass of wine?”
Cathy did know the Book Mill. It was one of those curious places that exist in the middle of nowhere, and yet are somehow always busy. It was at least a ten or fifteen-minute drive in the opposite direction of her house. Still, she didn’t have anything else to do.
“Sure,” she said. “The Book Mill would be fine.” She prepared to drive away, but the man came around to the passenger side of the car and opened the door. She remembered that he had said he didn’t have a car. What an odd thing, not to have a car in this part of the world. There were busses to the university, but it was really impossible to get anywhere else, especially in the winter, without your own transportation.
“I hope you don’t mind driving,” the man said with a laugh. He didn’t seem to sense Cathy’s surprise or discomfort. He smelled of cologne and dry leaves.
Though any interaction with a strange man naturally made Cathy nervous, she hadn’t truly realized what she was agreeing to until now. She didn’t even know this man’s name, and now they were sitting in her car together. Still, she didn’t see how she could back out without some kind of recrimination. Men were often so sensitive, and this man, especially, seemed like the type to take rebuke poorly. She put on her signal and pulled into the road. She had a letter opener in the pocket of her jacket. She would be able to reach it easily if she needed to.
“I’m Matthew Martin Bergheimer,” the man said. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. It will be an honor and a pleasure.”
Cathy tried not to roll her eyes. As they drove, Matthew Martin soliloquized. He told Cathy about discovering the poet’s work in school; he explained the immediate draw of her aloof strangeness, her contradictory obsession with and dismissal of the existence of God, her eerie mating of death and art. Cathy nodded, not because she necessarily agreed with anything the man was saying, but because she would rather he fill the silence than suffer the responsibility of filling it herself, or, even worse, sitting quietly in his company.
While Matthew Martin told Cathy about his thesis in college, which involved the deep research of some mundane aspect of the poet’s life, she tried to think of a place she would rather be, but she couldn’t. Just one year ago, she wouldn’t have been able to drive this man anywhere. She would be expected back at home to relieve the nurse, whom Cathy could only afford to pay to come while she was at work, and not a minute more. Just six months ago, she would still have to be home to walk her dog, Dickens. If he were alive, he would be waiting at the door, lonely with Cathy’s mother gone, wagging his tail. Now, though, no one expected Cathy; no one needed her. This would be her first time going to the Book Mill in eight or nine years.
The road wound through the trees whose leaves had just begun to change. This was the worst time for the leaves—they were fading from their deep summer green, and hadn’t yet acquired the vibrant orange, yellow, and red of fall. In other words, they were middle-aged. Still, tourists seemed already taken with them. Before they pulled up to the Book Mill, they passed several cars on the side of the road, with people standing near them, pointing their phones upward.
Matthew Martin hopped out of the car as soon as it was parked in order to run around to Cathy’s side and open the door for her. She didn’t like this kind of cheesy chivalry, especially from a stranger who was imposing on her—what did he want, a medal?—but she thanked him because it was expected of her. They walked down the hill to the Book Mill, where people could be found of more varying races, ages, and fashion preferences than anywhere else in the area. The main building was once a real mill, and vestiges of the structure’s original purpose remained, such as a metal wheel that stuck out of the floorboards or some complicated-looking pipes in the corner. Used books were sold in this building; next door on one side stood a café, and on the other side stood a restaurant.
“This way,” Matthew Martin said, jogging a little ahead of Cathy to the restaurant. He spoke to the host, a heavily tattooed man with some kind of condition that caused an irregular pattern of baldness on his head, like a geographical map. The host nodded and brought Matthew Martin, with Cathy behind, to a table outside, overlooking the river that had once powered the mill.
They sat, and Matthew Martin scrutinized the wine list, jiggling his knee as he did so. Cathy rarely drank anymore. Before her mother’s stroke, when she had lived alone with Dickens, she had had an arrangement with a man who lived nearby. They would get together, and he would make drinks for them—hot toddies when it was cold, mint juleps when it was warm—and they would sit and chat until it was time for them to fuck. Cathy hadn’t fucked at all before she met that man, nor had she fucked at all since she stopped seeing him. It was a kind of sex that was raw, animalistic, and with regard only to the safety and comfort of the other person, rather than to any kind of emotional entanglements that could be tested or broken. Cathy had slept with other men, of course, though not many, and none since her mother had come to live with her, but she had only fucked one. This arrangement had lasted for six years. The man would come over once a week, make her drinks, fuck her, stay a little while, and then leave. It was a pattern that she had grown used to, imprinting her much like the straw mats on the poet’s floor. She still bore the little dents and grooves of that time in her life, and she felt true loss when she ran her fingers over these wear patterns, remembering what had made them.
As Cathy mused, Matthew Martin chose a wine. She nodded her false approval; these wine types and names meant nothing to her. She became aware, all at once, that if anyone she knew saw her here, sitting across from this turtlenecked man who was most likely ten years her junior, they might think she was on a date. She felt a bubble of anger just at the hypothetical possibility of this kind of intrusion into her life.
Though Cathy was no recluse—she didn’t have the financial independence to be one, even if she wanted to; she had to work—she very much valued her privacy. People who had tried to get to know her, whether those she met at conferences or those she knew from work, often accused her of being attracted to the poet because of her own voluntary social isolation, but this wasn’t true. If anything, Cathy resented the poet’s withdrawal from public life. It seemed like a waste to her, and spoke to a self-involvement that Cathy didn’t find flattering. Really, if Cathy felt that those who wanted to get to know her were genuine in their intentions, she would receive such a gesture kindly. But she was fifty-one years old, tall and heavy-set, sporting unflattering clothing and a bad haircut. She just couldn’t imagine a single reason why someone would want to add her to their life, and she refused to be taken on as a pity project. She would rather be alone than be patronized.
“I really love the Book Mill,” Matthew Martin said. He gazed raptly at the turbulence of water running over rocks below them.
“Mmm,” Cathy said. She, too, loved the Book Mill, but she was disinclined to provide any common ground.
“I’m actually from nearby,” Matthew Martin said, as if she’d asked. “I could walk here from the house I grew up in.” He paused to give Cathy a chance to respond. Then, “Are you from the area?” he asked.
Cathy was from a large city a few hours away, and she had found that revealing that fact often occasioned many questions about how she had ended up in here. She didn’t understand why people felt that it was all right to ask for reasons for the events in one’s life; weren’t such causes and motivations often the most private information one could possibly reveal?
“No,” she said, leaving it at that.
“Oh.” Matthew Martin looked taken aback, but whether it was due to the brevity of her response or the response itself, Cathy couldn’t tell. “How long have you lived around here, then?”
As Cathy considered how to redirect the conversation, the waiter appeared with the wine. Matthew Martin, of course, inspected the label, and, after the waiter poured, he swooshed the wine around in his glass, and then sniffed it, before taking a sip.
“Perfect,” he said blissfully.
The waiter left the bottle with them, and Matthew Martin poured more wine into his own glass, and then tipped the bottle over Cathy’s.
“That’s enough,” she said, when he had poured only about half of what he had given himself.
Matthew Martin raised his eyebrows, but he didn’t say anything. “So, you were telling me about how you ended up here.”
Cathy most certainly was not telling him that. “Didn’t you want to ask me something specific?” she asked petulantly.
“Oh, yes.” Matthew Martin’s raised his eyebrows further. “I just thought we could get to know one another…”
Was this a date? Cathy was beginning to wonder. She looked at the man across from her. White. Younger. Painfully nerdy. Not attractive, though with a pleasant demeanor. Just the sort of man, she supposed, who would be willing to stoop to dating her. She tried to imagine sleeping with this man. It would probably be gentle and upsettingly boring. Just the thought of his pale little face squeezed tight in ecstasy made her queasy. She looked at Matthew Martin’s twiggy arms and imagined them around her. She realized she hadn’t been hugged since her mother’s funeral.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” she said. She took a sip of her wine, enjoyed its bite at the back of her throat. She took another sip. She hadn’t had a drink since the funeral, either. Sometimes she felt as though the inside of her was a closed-up attic—dark, dry, choked with cobwebs thick as stretched cotton, filled with memories of the dead. She took another sip of wine, and the glass was empty.
Matthew Martin lifted the bottle, and she nodded. He poured her a full glass.
“I just wanted to pick your brain a little,” he said. “I’m…thinking about writing a book. And I want to have an angle that hasn’t been explored to death, you know?”
Cathy did know. This is what everyone who wrote about the poet wanted. They wanted to penetrate the mysteries of her life for clues, finding motivations, reasons that she lived the way she lived and wrote the way she wrote. They wanted to understand her completely so they could taxonomize her life and, in doing so, feel that they had gained some kind of control over her darkness, her genius.
“Sure,” she said carefully.
“I want to explore her love life,” he said. “I feel that there must be more there than meets the eye.”
The poet never married. She lived in the same house from birth to death. At first, she shared that house with her whole family, but they died, one by one—her father, then her mother, then her brother, leaving the poet to live alone, an old maid.
“I think people impose this idea of the 19th century,” Matthew Martin continued, “where they assume that everything worked according to these strict rules. But I think we both know that wasn’t always the case.”
Cathy nodded, taking another sip of wine. It was true that a woman as wealthy and of such social standing as the poet’s would be much freer to behave as she wanted, though she was still bound to her father’s will while he was alive, especially when it came to her education, or lack thereof.
“I wondered what you thought of the idea that she was a lesbian.” Matthew Martin blushed a little at the final word. “Or whatever label you want to put on it. That she was romantically interested in women.”
Cathy bristled a little. This theory had been proffered before, at conferences, by tour goers, in books. But there was no proof. Cathy was tired of men assuming that just because a woman had better things to do than spend time with them, she must be a lesbian. With her solitary lifestyle, appearance, and gruff demeanor, more than one man had assumed this of Cathy. If she were a lesbian, it still wouldn’t be fine to tell her that she was one, but she resented it even more because they were wrong, and yet telling a man he was wrong so often had the effect of convincing him even more that he was right.
“What possible evidence do you have of this?” Cathy said.
“Not evidence, exactly—more of a feeling. But of course I would need to find proof.”
“'A feeling?’” The word stuck in Cathy’s throat.
“Well.” Matthew Martin seemed to be intuiting that Cathy did not agree with him. “From reading her letters, my guess would be Veronica Markson-Croft. Her letters to Veronica are just different. More rhapsodic, more concentrated on the sensuality of the mundane.”
“Veronica Markson-Croft.” Veronica Markson-Croft was the kind of woman who invited such speculation. She was aggressively social, a dedicated partygoer, and her name was often linked to various men, though she was married from the age of nineteen to a man twenty-three years her senior. Just as it was unfair to assume that the poet was a lesbian just because she didn’t seem interested in sex with men, it was unfair to assume Veronica Markson-Croft had slept with the poet just because she was a free spirit, a bon vivant, the kind of woman who acted outside of expectations. “I think they had a special friendship.” Cathy was trying to keep her voice level. She took another sip of wine. “They shared a rare intimacy.”
Matthew Martin smiled, as though Cathy were confirming his suspicions.
“But,” she said more vehemently. “There is absolutely no reason to assume their relationship was at all sexual.”
Matthew Martin stopped smiling, which Cathy took more pleasure in causing than she would have liked. He took a sip of his own wine. Cathy noticed that a dark red line had formed in the crack on the inside of his lips, giving him a clown-like appearance.
“I was hoping you would sympathize with my inclination to speculate about this,” he said slowly.
Cathy thought of the tourists tramping through the poet’s house, ogling her favorite dress, crowding their bodies, their breathing, their warm odors, into her bedroom. She felt guilty enough about allowing this intrusion, without adding to that the poet’s less physical secrets.
“I’m sure you know that she asked her sister-in-law to burn her letters when she died,” Cathy said quietly. “I think if she had wanted us to examine her sexual exploits, or lack thereof, she would have left more material from which to speculate. If you’re looking for a ‘new angle,’ this isn’t it.”
Matthew Martin looked both crestfallen and resentful. “What do you know?” he said spitefully. “You’re just a tour guide.” As he stood, he jostled the table a little, and the wine left in his glass licked upward, then settled again, leaving a red, tongue-shaped ghost behind. “I’m going to the restroom.”
Left alone at the table, Cathy finished her wine in two gulps. She stared at Matthew Martin’s empty chair, dreading his return to it, the sullen ride home. The last time a man had been angry with her was when she had told her arrangement that her mother was moving in and they could no longer see each other. He had acted just this way, spiteful, mean. As though she had chosen to be saddled with her mother as it took her seven years to die. Without thinking much about it, she stood, pulled a ten-dollar bill from her purse and threw it on the table, and then she left. As she pulled away from the Mill without Matthew Martin, her heart pounded. She was a little tipsy. She probably shouldn’t be driving. She felt good.
The house was as cold, quiet, and oppressive as Cathy had anticipated. The sun had set while she was driving home, leaving a twilit glow in the windows. She went upstairs to her bedroom without turning on any of the lights. She sat at the window in the corner of her room. She switched on just one lamp, just as the poet had done during her lonely nights of writing.
Cathy imagined restorers coming to this house. She pictured the wear patterns left behind. One long path worn from her bed to her dresser to the hallway to the bathroom to the stairs and down to her mother’s room on the first floor, then out the door. Her mother would leave only four points where her hospital-issued bed met the floor. Dickens’ pattern would follow behind Cathy’s, but it would also go outside, looping through the backyard, under bushes, down to the river. She thought of the grooves at the poet’s house, slowly overwritten by the tramping of tourists peeking into her physical life, and the grooves of the poet’s writing, her well worn paths of death, art, nature, creativity, religion, and beauty, how men like Matthew Martin wanted to trace their own paths where there were none.
Cathy wondered what grooves could be invented in her life beyond the floors of this house. She supposed no one would ever imagine it, the groove of the man who came on Sundays, who had fucked her in this very room until she could barely breathe. The grooves of her mother, lying voiceless in the bed downstairs; the only noise she could make her breaths, until those, too, went quiet. The grooves of Dickens’ head lifting her hand, his warm body curled at her feet.
Heather Wells Peterson has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, American Short Fiction, Bellevue Literary Review, Subtropics, Lucky Peach, and The Collagist, among others. She lives in Vermont. You can find out more about her here: heatherwellspeterson.com.