Slow the Heart

Kate Walbert

Maggie suggests they play the game the Obamas used to play in the White House at dinner. (She read it.) Roses and Thorns, she explains to Peter and Grace; the good things of the day the roses and the bad things of the day the thorns.

They’re in the kitchen, at the white Formica table, the light in the fixture overhead flickering and too blue–“But let’s cut the thorns,” Maggie says to the two of them, no longer little-little though still children, certainly, still capable of games. “I mean, seriously, why thorns? Aren’t there enough thorns now in everyday everything? I say we change the rules for our dinner table.”

“Jesus, Mom,” Grace says–she’s been arranging her lo mein into lopsided circles on her plate. “Lighten up.”

“Exactly,” Maggie says. She looks from Grace back to Peter back to Grace. “See, this is my point. Let’s lighten up. No more news. No more thorns: at this table, we will be genetically modified. Thornless: A genetically modified, thornless family.”

“Crikey!” says Peter, who since Will left has claimed to be an Australian orphan named Captain Flick.

“I’ll start,” Maggie says. “Peter’s smile is my rose. He is my rose tonight. Tonight there is nothing better than Peter’s smile.”

“I’m Flick,” Peter says.

“That’s dopey. Peter can’t be your rose,” Grace says, pushing the noodles to the edge of her plate. “A rose isn’t a smile. You said it’s a thing. It’s supposed to be a thing. A smile isn’t a thing.”

“Yes, it is,” Maggie says. “A smile can be a thing.”

“A stupid thing,” Grace mutters. She stares out the kitchen window at the westward expanse: water tanks and ladders climbing water tanks, glassy high rises, roiling sunset clouds, cirrus, Maggie thinks, so not exactly roiling, more fragile than roiling, composed entirely, she happens to know, of ice, cirrus clouds breaking across our Mary Poppins view, as Will used to say, or rather, sing, when the children were little-little–Chim chim cher-ee, chim chim cher-ee, chim chim cher-ee, A sweep is as lucky as lucky can be! Grace slowly exhales, expanding her tiny ribcage with no doubt intention and peace, directing her breath to slow the heart. This is how she explained it in Group. Important to slow the heart, she said. The Buddhist monks do, she said. Mrs. Palowski says at Harvard Medical School they have a whole course in the slowness of Buddhist monks’ hearts. (Mrs. Palowski! Always Mrs. Palowski!) Also, at Harvard Medical School, they found that marijuana cream cures cancer and epilepsy.

The monks? Maggie had said from her place just beyond the circle, although no one had laughed, not even Will, who across from her.

Now Grace looks back at Maggie and sets her eyes in that expression she sometimes gets, the dead-end look. “I’m not playing,” is what she says.

Maggie might scream. She might beat her fists against the kitchen table and scream. Not playing? Remember Yahtzee? Remember Clue? Remember Monotony? You always play, Maggie might scream. Play!

But she doesn’t scream. Instead, she smiles the mother smile that fools no one, looking out toward the Mary Poppins view and thinking gratitude and peace, exhaling her own breath, willing her own heart to slow. “It will be fun,” she says.

The Obamas thought it was fun–(she read it)–and it could be–she and Grace and Peter playing Roses and Thorns, the children regaling one another with fun stories from school, adventures in plaid and gray, thick maroon sweaters rolled past those beautiful, blue-veined wrists. Fun stories told here in their apartment kitchen with its stuttering blue light, the array of Chinese takeout on the white Formica table she and Will, then fun newlyweds, lugged up from the sidewalk, cluttered with open takeout containers and small plastic cups of mysterious, glutinous sauces. They have ordered in again, Maggie late at work. Back by 7:00, she had texted. Requests? Peter wanting his favorite: garlic string beans he feeds to the cat. Grace agreeing to lo mein, though of course she has eaten none. Maggie watched as she pushed most of her portion into the paper napkin in her lap.

“No can do,” Grace says, Peter looking from his sister to his mother to his sister as if trying to spin a web, something sticky and long lasting that will permanently bind them, something with a sprinkle of fairy dust and rainbows to forever guide their tricky crossings.

Will did not seem particularly bothered by Captain Flick. This yesterday, when he dropped off the children from the weekend and said, uncharacteristically, yes to her offer of tea. They sat in the kitchen, the day darker, clouds a mottled, heavy white. Maggie asked Will if he were bothered by their son’s new accent, the fictitious autobiography, the ridiculous Australian name. Had he noticed all this strangeness? she said, as she poured out the tea. Had he even noticed?

“Of course I noticed,” Will said.

Captain Flick was orphaned at a young age and grew up with goats on a hillside somewhere outside of Sydney, like Heidi, Peter had explained. (“No goats in Australia,” Grace said. “Only sheep.”) The goats, however, were nothing compared to the tragic deaths of Captain Flick’s parents. All very Roald Dahl: a snorkeling mishap, a white shark, blood in the water, bits of flesh and a torn life preserver. (“You let him watch too much YouTube,” Grace said.)

Will sipped his tea and listened, his eyes shadowy as if he hadn’t had the sleep he needed or maybe he had been having a lot of sex. Have you been having a lot of sex? Maggie wanted to ask, but she stuck to Captain Flick as Will listened, sifting a packet of Sweet & Low into his tea.

“You remember my mother’s famous story,” is what he said, stirring. And she did, of course. She remembered his mother’s famous story, how his mother sat in the corner at school and blinked all day, the entire day, blink, blink, blink, refusing to budge, refusing to do anything but blink. She remembered that, she could tell him. She remembered that, as she remembered a lot of things, although sex, if they’re on the subject, now only dimly. She’s on a sabbatical, she told Cate in Portland, who said a woman in her department bought an orgasm every morning before work. It’s a chain, Cate said. Like Staples. It opens at 6:00a.m. Entirely anonymous. You just walk in, she said, Maggie listening and trying to picture it, although all she could picture was her gynecologist’s examining room, his collection of Maine landscapes on the walls, the sound of his metal stool as he rolled up to the steel table where she waited, her discarded Vogue somewhere beside her, knees up, paper gown already ripped at the plastic tie.

So, yes, she remembered Will’s mother’s famous story like she remembered a lot of things: how, for instance, Will now lived with his college roommate’s sister in Baltimore, where his college roommate’s sister ran a yoga practice and Will had moved his law practice, the two of them practicing their practices all day. She remembered also how she would love to scratch his eyes out, but, then again, she remembered that she still loved him, or so she told the children, who had wanted to know if she still loved him in that nice, old wife kind of we’re-still-family way.

And yes, and yes, there are still good guys–great guys. Wonderful guys! She sees them on the city streets in the morning waiting with their children for the school bus or walking their dogs, golden retrievers and Labradors in pleasing autumnal colors. Good guys in Central Park tossing footballs and softballs and Frisbees and in restaurants on West Fourth holding wine lists in their good-guy hands. Some have shaved heads; others have gone bald; a few have a full head of hair, lion manes. Life suddenly, in this recalling, a Dr. Seuss story with good guys in all shapes and sizes and colors, great guys existing in spades across the city, across the globe, the globe practically teaming with great guys–like Obama, take Obama!–that wonderful great guy who made it his business, even as the president of the United States, not only to have dinner with his wife and children every evening at six o’clock but to play a game called Roses and Thorns–and were they still living under the same roof, were Will still the great guy she remembers, kind and attentive and curious, she would ask him about that thorn part, if he got what she meant about cutting out that thorn part, especially now, especially now. But Will is not the great guy she remembers. Will is a shit, she does not tell the children. A sonofabitch, she does not say.

“Just ignore,” Will said.

“What?” Maggie said.

“Captain Flick. You asked me what I thought. Ignore it,” he said. “That is what I do. He’s more resilient than you think.”

“All right,” she said. She sat across from him. “Okay,” she said.

Will held the lumpy cup their friend Jennifer had spun on her wheel and given them as a wedding present, a set of six, and sipped his tea.

“You think too much,” he said.

There were originally six, in six colors, but someone broke the red along the way and then the brown, although the brown was accidentally on purpose, Will one night–it was funny, actually–knocking the brown one from the narrow arm of the living room chair. Poor little cup, he said, laughing; poor little ugly cup.

“I guess I do,” she says.

“He’s a Cancer,” he says. “A crab. He’s just building his shell. Maybe this is his fantasy life.”

“Australia?” she says, and Will laughs–she knew he would–and then he puts down the bumpy cup on the white Formica table the two of them had lugged up from the sidewalk all those fun years ago and tells Maggie what else: that he and yoga Caroline have decided to make it official, the date in June or maybe July so the children can spend the week. They are thinking at a resort in Colorado known for horses and mountains and really quite spectacular. Maggie listens to Will’s description of the spectacular resort and then she does not: then she’s remembering that time in college Will jumped the chain-link fence of those famous, manicured gardens near her parents’ home, running in the twilight to the maze, an elaborate puzzle of shorn arborvitae monumental as Stonehenge.

It was cold, this near the holidays, everyone else wandering the grounds to see the festive trees, spruce and magnolia and beech lined with white and red and blue and yellow sparkling lights, the paths near the gargantuan glass conservatory jammed with dressed-up visitors and old people negotiating electric carts, knees blanket-covered.

“And Grace?” Maggie says, when Will finally quits talking. “Should we ignore her too?”

“Let’s start over,” Maggie says.

“If I hadn’t made the express at 14, I wouldn’t have gotten to 42nd when I did to switch to the local, and if I hadn’t switched to the local, I wouldn’t have run into Mimi Rocker–I know, her name. (Peter’s giggles!) Neither of you will remember but Mimi Rocker babysat a thousand years ago. She was someone’s nanny’s friend and she arrived with a parrot on her shoulder—”

“I remember,” Grace says.

Maggie has turned off the flickering blue light for Peter’s headache–“MSG,” Grace said–the only light now in the kitchen from the hallway, a pool just beyond them; outside the day is fast disappearing. Peter slips overboard into Maggie’s lap, too tired for his chair, he says, his head flopped against her shoulder as he used to do as a toddler after the park playground, feet filthy from sand. She can feel his heat as she strokes his hair, rests her chin on his big hard skull. He is too big for her lap.

“Really?” Maggie says. “Yeah?”

“I remember the parrot,” Grace says.

“You brilliant girl.”

“I don’t remember!” Peter says, twisting to accuse her.

“It was gross,” Grace says. “It was covered in fleas. It bit them and chewed them all night long.”

“I don’t remember a parrot!” Peter says.

“You were just months old, Peter,” Maggie says. “Fleas? Really?”

“Flick, Matey!”

“And she had them, too. She scratched her head and had all these little red marks on her hands, and I asked her and she said, fleas. I can remember. She said, fleas. You left us with her. She had fleas. So did her parrot. You left. I remember I was really sad.”

The radiator kicks in–the cat, emboldened by Peter’s string beans, jumps onto the table and edges toward the cashew chicken. They have ordered from the place Grace insisted delivered something rancid to Mrs. Palowski though Maggie said nonsense, they have been ordering from there since before Grace was born. I’m not hungry anymore, she said before the food arrived.

“I don’t think that parrot had fleas,” Maggie says.

“It was flea ridden,” Grace says. “A fleabag. A bag of fleas.”

“Blimey!” Peter says.

“So, how is she?” Grace says.

“Who?” Maggie says.

“Aunt Mimi,” Grace says.

“Aunt Mimi?” Maggie says.

“That’s what she said. You don’t remember? She said, ‘Call me Aunt Mimi, as in Me-Me but with an I-I.’ You laughed. You thought that was funny. I remember. You thought she was a riot, and you loved her parrot. You loved everything about her.”

“I did?” Maggie says. “I said all that?”

How did the Obamas even meet? She’s sure she’s read it, but now she can’t recall. Is it important to the story? Is it important to the game? Maybe they met through Michelle’s brother or that saintly mother. Perhaps families were involved, or mutual friends. They seem so perfect for one another–matching like two tall bookends: straight, learned, happy. She and Will met at a frat party: one of those orientation things. He sang with a band called the Urban Worms and wore glasses he called spectacles. He had a pink shirt ripped at the sleeves and a girlfriend back home he still loved or said he did. That summer they typed letters to one another that they mailed back and forth. His parents ran an antiques business upstate, and his brother smoked pot in a studio apartment in Columbus, and he had an uncle and aunt nearby he visited for Sunday dinners of spaghetti and clams, and as a kid he looked for arrowheads in the soybean fields when the fields were newly plowed. One night he showed her the collection he kept in a safe he brought to college, stones sharpened by stones into weapons. They lay in his narrow dorm bed, and she said she thought the arrowheads in the shoebox looked like shards of graphite, and he said they don’t grow soybeans anymore. I don’t know what they grow anymore, he said.

But what was she saying again?

“Aunt Mimi’s parrot,” Grace says. She spritzes the cat from the cashew chicken and the cat jumps off the table, shivering. Grace has pulled away from her plate and sits more in front of the window, the setting sun piercing her skeletal shoulders, curved spine, sharp jaw. The translucence of her daughter’s skin–ethereal, fading, the child for whom she and Will had waited so long disappearing. At Group many of the other girls appeared just this way, the hospital specializing in girls who looked this way, their arms and legs as thin as matchsticks, their heart rates fast as hummingbirds, their translucent skin–as if the organ intended to protect them had dissolved, or been scrubbed off by ED, the personified acronym.

Mrs. Palowski believed that part absurd, Grace said, the silly acronym for a deadly disease. Grace had returned to tell Mrs. Palowski all the poetic details: the weeks she spent in the room with the other girl, an heiress from Houston who had been there three times before and was back, and whose mother dated both a king and a prime minister; how the window, so high, looked out onto a dogwood with tiny pink blossoms, how one night it rained so hard and the lightning lit the room and in the morning the blossoms were entirely gone. Grounded, said the heiress.

But Maggie thought ED made perfect sense.

Is ED here? Maggie might ask her daughter now in the way she had been taught to ask her daughter this question: to name it. She might grab Grace’s crumbling shoulders and shake her. “Is ED in this fucking kitchen right now?” she might yell.

Let me tell you this, the Group leader had said. “ED is a sneaky asshole. He tells you you’re ugly, you’re fat. He’s a misogynist who wants to control you. He does. You think about him day and night.”

Maggie had listened as Will shifted in his seat to sneak a look at his phone. For this she will never forgive him.

“Fleabag,” Grace says, turning to look at her–those eyes, truly gray, huge.

“Right. Fleabag,” Maggie says. “Fleabag was still on her shoulder!”

“I don’t buy it,” Grace says.

“What do you mean?” Maggie says. “Parrots never die,” she says. “They live forever. That’s the thing. They are entirely devoted. They never go anywhere else. That parrot knew exactly everything–it knew me like yesterday.”

“Nope,” Grace says, aiming the spritz bottle at the window like a gun, taking a shot.

Someone shoves some trash down the chute; the phone rings in the upstairs apartment. Out the window the cirrus clouds have disappeared, replaced by a watery twilight. Cirrus clouds move at incredible speeds, Maggie happens to know. They might be halfway across the Atlantic or slicing through the moon.

Maggie should wipe off the dusty sill. She should change that faulty, flickering bulb. She should re-caulk the tiles around the sink and throw out the old paper lantern, filthy, purge the cork bulletin board of its menus from restaurants long closed, party invitations, business cards, appointment cards, photographs of the kids as babies, artwork, notes, toss the spices she has never used from the pantry, the boxes of stale, half-unwrapped taco shells, the expired tins of beans, tomato sauce, and chicken stock. Somewhere there, in the recesses, on the floor, she stashed last year’s Easter baskets with last year’s plastic eggs, maybe a few forgotten chocolates and plastic grass and here, on the white Formica table, she should gather the clutter of wrapped plastic utensils and chopsticks and shove them into the drawer already crammed so full it is difficult to open.

The all of it saved for, what? The day of the great picnic, they used to say when the kids were little-little. On the day of the great picnic, they said, we will need all the plastic forks and spoons, napkins, too. On the day of the great picnic, they said, we will make a huge paper napkin blanket and, just for fun, unwrap the chopsticks and build a chopstick tower to the sky where the clouds will not be cirrus but the fluffy kind, cumulus, like on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo no fool; he painted the most beautiful clouds to be seen–clouds that meant better weather, clouds to float away on, clouds that hid angels and certain spirits too holy to ground, clouds tinged with a pink pigment of dried blood and crushed statuario, the white marble of Carrara. Crack it open, Michelangelo would say to the quarrymen, prisoners in dirty aprons, dust on their black trousers. Amaze me, he would say.

And they did. They amazed him, and the clouds will amaze you, they told the children, and the picnic will amaze you, they said, laid out on the huge paper napkin blanket underneath the chopstick tower–a feast: red grapes and Brie, strawberries dipped in chocolate, slices of turkey and roast beef and ham on thick sliced baguettes, fried chicken, potato salad, chocolate chip cookies, cheesecake.

“I’ve got one,” Grace says, still turned to the window, her shoulder blades wings picked clean.

“One what?” Maggie says.

“The game–I thought of my rose,” she says.

“You did?” Maggie says. “Wow. That’s fantastic, that’s great. Wonderful. Peter, did you hear? Grace has a rose!”

“Captain Flick,” Peter says.

“Oh, for Chrissakes,” Maggie says, pushing him off her lap. “Enough already.”

“That hurt,” Peter says, though Maggie barely hears him–she’s turned to Grace, again, she’s waiting on Grace, again, she’s willing Grace, again, who may be gathering her thoughts or just counting heartbeats (please God, Maggie had said, passing all those starving girls in their rooms, some with tubes and others just staring at the ceiling, please God, she had prayed, please), her daughter’s heart recalibrated, staccato, urgent.

“Tell me,” Maggie says, taking Grace’s cold hand, its bundle of bone and nerve. “Tell me.”

Kate Walbert is an American novelist and short story writer who lives in New York City. Her novel Our Kind was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction.
Originally published:
April 1, 2018


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