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Meredith Lovelace was hoping to resolve the Dan Graves situation before lunch. It was Monday, the day she liked to meet her wife Amy at the cart for soup and sourdough rolls.
The situation concerned two newly admitted graduate students to the Department — both sculptors, both Meredith’s advisees. Elena claimed Dan Graves had showed up on the steps of her apartment the night before — blotto, talking suicide, and toting a suitcase of letters from his dead dad.
“He told me he wanted to get in his car and crash it,” Elena had said earlier that morning while whipping tissues from the dispenser in Meredith’s office. “He told me he wanted to die.”
When the door closed behind Elena, the director clapped his hands together and puffed. “Those are the magic words,” he said. He handed Dan Graves’s file across the room to Meredith. “Just knock on his door and see if he’s alive,” he said. “That’s what we did with Ronda last year. Let’s hope this goes the other way.”
Dan Graves lived in an un-hip part of the college town, a residential neighborhood near the woods, in a small, stucco house painted mint green. The driveway was short, and in order to park out of the flow of traffic, it was necessary for Meredith to nudge her Volvo station wagon all the way up nose to ass against the bumper of Dan Graves’s white pickup. The pickup wore a single bumper sticker — Say Ya to the UP, eh? — and a Michigan license plate, which was clean and perfectly flat. Meredith inspected the truck carefully for signs of an accident, but it was showroom-shiny, possibly brand new, with a clean black bed-liner. The foot wells had been vacuumed so recently that Meredith could still see the overlapping lines of the nozzle. A CD in a clear plastic sleeve bearing the inscription To Dan, love Kelsey Sue in orange sharpie sat politely in the passenger seat, and a stadium cup holding a mountain of clean quarters was wedged in the middle console. A sensible, admirable thing, that cup. Standing in front of parking meters on campus, Meredith was always rummaging in her pockets, only to turn up dimes, nickels, pennies, and the occasional earring of Amy’s.
Meredith walked up the stone path and stepped onto Dan Graves’s porch. To the right of the front door, a faded American flag hung from two nails. Meredith pushed the button on the storm door with her thumb and pulled the plexiglass toward her. The button wobbled in its socket and clicked halfway but the door did not release. She tried again, pulling harder, and when it still didn’t open, knocked lightly on the storm door with her knuckles. The sound rattled the glass, but didn’t penetrate. She waited. Dan Graves did not come. How long was sufficient? A minute? Two? His car was here, after all.
Meredith had met Dan Graves only once before, at the director’s annual lawn party to welcome the new class. He had seemed plodding and straight-laced, not a guy given to dramatics. Meredith remembered him as tall and shy; he had eaten a lot of fried chicken, drank only root beer, and left early. She had made sure to meet him. He was her advisee after all, but also she liked the work, plain and simple. The images he submitted with his application the previous spring had stuck in Meredith’s brain: a deer antler that had grown swollen and infected (in bronze), a large-as-life elk that cowered on its back feet (in bronze) and, Meredith’s favorite, a walleye that lay split open and bleeding against a rock (in bronze). It seemed that at any moment the fish’s eye might blink, and the fish’s bronze blood, even in the half-lighting and bad quality of the pictures, seemed to ooze slow and thick.
“Yawn,” said one of Meredith’s colleagues, a water colorist. “Isn’t this the kind of macho-nostalgia that belongs in a place called the Soaring Eagle lodge?”
But Meredith had spoken up, praising the work’s energy and simplicity, and the director backed her up.
It was not exactly that Meredith thought Elena was lying about the Dan Graves situation. As assistant director of the Department’s graduate arts program, it was basically Meredith’s job to answer emails. But in the two months since the new class arrived, Elena had emailed more than her fair share — asking to take a Sociology course instead of the required graduate arts survey or urging Meredith to bring a female tileworker from Nepal as the semester’s visiting artist instead of the male welder that the director had already selected via costly search committee.
“When I asked him to leave, he called me a dyke,” Elena had added, near the end of their interview. Dyke, Meredith typed into the Incident Report Form. The cursor disappeared then reappeared.
“Do you hear what I’m saying?” Elena said. She had a chain that connected a stud in the top cartilage of her left ear to a regular stud in the lobe. It hung long and shimmering as a stalactite, and shook in the air against her shaved head when she spoke.
“We absolutely hear you,” the director said.
When Meredith and Elena passed each other in the cinderblock stairwells of the Department, Elena would smile warmly, then nudge the tip of her chin quickly upward in a kind of micro-nod. It was the kind of nod that lays a claim. Meredith did not nod back.
Meredith was halfway down the stone path when she heard the storm door open.
“It sticks sometimes.”
Dan Graves stood on the porch, his thin body holding the door open. He was even thinner than Meredith remembered, and stood with his bare feet close together. His eyes were small and set back deeply into his head, which was surprisingly bare for such a young man, the pale skin covered only by a fine translucent fuzz. He wore a red-and-white-checked dress shirt that bore the faint creases of being professionally pressed and folded, and expensive-looking black corduroy pants. He retreated into the foyer of the house as Meredith advanced, but kept his hand pushing against the storm door so it stayed open.
“I’m not properly dressed,” Dan Graves said, his feet pink and huge. “But will you come in?”
To cross the threshold, Meredith had to pass very close to Dan Graves. She was tall for a woman, 5'10 on a good day, but she came up only to the top button of Dan Graves’s shirt. He smelled of a sporty masculine deodorant, the one that Meredith also wore. He was an attractive man, Meredith observed. Most women would think so.
Dan Graves let the storm door slam. The entryway was carpeted in a thick white shag. Meredith checked her watch. She had 20 minutes if she wanted to catch Amy.
“Will you take your shoes off?” he said. “If you don’t mind. It’s hard work to keep a white carpet clean.”
Meredith bent down and unlaced the men’s blue suede Oxfords that Amy had bought her for their wedding anniversary. Meredith had ogled the shoes from outside the window of the downtown store for a month. On the night Amy gave them to her, Meredith got out of bed to turn on the closet light and hold the shoes in their white tissue paper. They were ridiculous shoes, Meredith saw now, looking at them on Dan Graves’s white carpet.
The white carpet continued in every direction. To the right, there was a narrow hallway which led presumably to his bedroom, but Dan Graves led Meredith in the other direction, left into the living room.
The living room was empty of furniture, just the white carpet and a raised platform of hardwood that supported a fireplace. In front of the fireplace, a ’50s-era green plaid suitcase with gold clasps lay on its side. On the far side of the room were sliding glass doors that opened out onto a small wooden deck, and beyond that, a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A small square of sun hovered on the near wall.
Dan Graves rubbed his hands together like he was cold, and looked over at the wooden platform, where there was a bottle of Old Crow and a squat, squarish glass. He strode to the platform, gently nudged the bottle and glass to the side, then sat down on the platform with his back to the fireplace.
“We can sit on this,” Dan Graves said. He looked like a grasshopper when he sat down; all knees.
Meredith sat too, but left enough space for two of herself to sit between them. “Dan, do you know why I’m here?”
“I think so,” he said. “I got drunk and scared Elena.”
“You did,” Meredith said. “And you said some things. Things the Department is required to take very seriously.”
“Damn it.” He said it with a pronounced Midwestern accent so that the words came out through his nose, dee-yam it.
“Elena said you indicated you might be a danger to yourself,” Meredith said. “She said you told her you wanted to die.”
Dan Graves looked down at his thighs. With his eyes looking down, everything about his face changed. The lids of his eyes looked pale and veined and there were deep purple shadows around his sockets. The skin of his face was red and raw.
“I don’t deny anything,” said Dan Graves. When he looked back up at Meredith, his face was neutral again.
“I’m sorry,” Meredith said. “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
Dan Graves lifted his shoulders to his ears and dropped them. He jiggled his knee, then tapped his bare feet against the carpet. “I said what I said and I probably meant it at the time. But I’m okay now, Ms. Lovelace. You don’t have to worry about me. I’ve slept, I feel a world better.”
The wind blew around a few brown leaves that had landed on Dan Graves’s deck. The mountains were just starting to turn. It was October. She could go now, Meredith knew. But something in the room tugged at her. There was no art of any kind in this room, and no sign that art was being made in it. The walls were gray and bare. To Amy, filling a house with love was equivalent to filling a house with things. Walking around their house on Saturdays, Meredith would notice new things that had appeared during the week — a clock in the shape of a cat maybe, or a deep purple lampshade. Amy’s collection of ceramic fish, gifts from her parents and friends, took up every mantel and surface, and Alex’s closet was crammed with sneakers and skateboards.
“What was wrong with the old lampshade?” Meredith asked one night after they’d turned the lights out, her heart beat rising in her ears.
“It was faded,” replied Amy.
“What does one boy need with seven skateboards?”
“Go easy, honey,” Amy said. “Just because your family worshipped at the church of deny thyself everything you want, doesn’t mean we have to.”
Dan Graves reached for the bottle of whiskey that still sat to the side, on the platform. It was a big bottle, glass, but it fit neatly in his hand, which was pale and clean without any dirt under the fingernails. Dan Graves unscrewed the cap, and poured two fingers of whiskey into the glass. He brought the glass to his lips, slurped a few sips, then drained the rest. The bottle was more than half empty. It occurred to Meredith that Dan Graves was very drunk — still, perhaps, or again.
The director had given the Department’s faculty a presentation about when and how to refer students to the University’s psychological services. He had used a metaphor drawn from his years as a river guide on the Colorado.
“You want to throw them a lifejacket,” the director said. “You don’t want to swim out to the drowning point after them.”
“How about you don’t drink any more while I’m here?” Meredith said.
“Alright,” Dan Graves said. “That’s fair.” He leaned down to the suitcase and touched it. “Would you like to hear a letter from my dad?” Dan Graves said. “My dad is dead now.” When he said dad and dead, they came out sounding the same; dead, dead.
She could not leave now, something again was required. But also: Meredith recognized what had been bothering her about this room. It was a feeling of anticipation, of story.
“I would,” Meredith said. “Please, go ahead.”
Dan Graves seemed pleased. He slid to the carpet and crossed his legs Indian style. With a snap of his big thumb and middle finger, he released the two gold-plated fasteners so that the two halves of the suitcase jumped away from each other. Inside were white envelopes, torn open. He plucked a letter from the suitcase, then held it up for Meredith like a game show host. His name and current address were swept across the front in old-timey script.
Dan Graves read the time stamp, August 17 of the present year. “Dear Pal,” he read. “That’s what he always called me.” Dan Graves looked up at Meredith to see if she was listening. When he saw she was, he reached for the bottle and refilled his glass. He nestled the bottle in the hole his legs made, then set the glass on the platform behind him.
“See?” Dan Graves said. “I didn’t drink it.”
Meredith smiled and said nothing. She was familiar with alcoholics — her father, who else — and wasn’t about to fight with this one.
“Dear Pal,” Dan Graves read. “I read that part already.”
“Remember Briery Knob? Remember when we camped there and we tried to push the tent poles into the ground and how they wouldn’t go in more than an inch? The wind farms there are getting bigger. Now when I go on my walks, there’s geese carcasses everywhere. I can’t camp without you. Camping is nothing alone.”
“You see?” Dan Graves said. “He loved me.”
“Of course,” Meredith said. “Of course he did.”
Dan Graves looked down at the letter in his hands. “If I could cry, I would cry and I would not stop crying.”
“Go ahead,” Meredith said. “Go right ahead and cry. It’s okay.”
“I want to.” Dan Graves made a sound in his mouth like a gun cocking. “Hmm,” he said. He lifted the glass and drank from it.
Dan Graves read letter after letter aloud to Meredith, pausing sometimes after each letter, sometimes in the middle of a long one, to drink from the glass or refill it. The square of light moved slowly across the wall.
Dear Pal — You caught the walleye with nothing but your hand and then bashed its head against a stone. What a bleeder!
Dear Pal — Pop quiz: How long does it take to bleed a deer and when should you do it?
Dear Pal — At your Aunt’s place you built sculptures out of the driftwood that came down the St. Mary and I sat on the porch and forgot you were there. How could I forget? I don’t know. I think it was because of the light, how it didn’t get dark until very late, 11 maybe, because then the news would come on.
Dear Pal — What are the grocery stores like there? Can you get a hunting license? How much does one cost? Tell me how much and I’ll send you the money.
Dan Graves set down the last letter. “He wrote to me every day I was away from home until last week when he died. That’s 57 letters.” He scrunched his eyes and made breath-sucking noises. He held the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb.
“It’s okay,” Meredith said again.
The square of light was weak now, had become distorted. Now that he was crying, Meredith wished he wouldn’t. She felt unfree, put upon. But also, she wanted to give Dan Graves something, something that would say, you still have people here. There were a thousand ways to fuck a kid up it seemed, and only time would tell your unique, trademark method. Dan Graves’s dad’s it seemed, was being good and then dying.
When Dan Graves was done, he put his open palm to his eyes, gathered the fingers into a duckbill and shook the tears onto the white carpet.
“Where were you 10 years ago?” Dan Graves said.
Meredith smiled. He was a good kid and she felt sorry for him.
“No,” Dan Graves said. “Where were you, actually, 10 years ago? I want to know.”
Meredith thought. Ten years ago, Meredith was 28, and in her last semester as a student in the Department. She was still making her art then — collages of human faces from pieces of chalkboard and scotch tape. She made the collages, nearly one a week, in a desperate, hungry fashion that made her forget to eat for hours and then, starving, eat with the fridge door open, sitting on a milk crate. She and Amy lived in a small cottage near the Appalachian trail, where they’d met, and far from campus. She wore brown Carhartt overalls almost every day. They carpooled to town and then she told Amy to take the car. Meredith walked everywhere, stopping at coffee shops and parking lots and bars around the town to watch people she might want to make into art. She had a walkman. In the walkman, she listened to the soundtrack of the movie that had not been made yet about the life she had not yet lived. It was a good soundtrack: expansive, unexpected, full of grace and rage and resistance and banjos.
These people, she had begun that year to think, looking around the seminar room at the faces of the other graduate students — all men — in her cohort in the Department. When her work was critiqued, the men said her collages were too faithful to life, too descriptive, too pastoral. Alan, as she had called him before he became the director, was the only one who spoke up for her work. After critique, Meredith often went to a dive bar with him to complain about their colleagues. So pretentious! So bourgeois! So disaffected! In her former life, Meredith had grown up in the city, and it comforted her to sit and drink and play pool among people who cursed and swore and did not wear the polo shirts or cotton jersey dresses that were the university people’s uniform.
Alan brought Meredith a book about anger by a Buddhist monk. Say your house is on fire, the book said. Would you run down the street after the arsonist demanding to know why he set the blaze? Meredith thought she might. No! the book said. If you did that, all your stuff would burn. Forget the arsonist, all arsonists have their reasons. Run toward the house to save what you value most. Care for your anger, the book suggested. Treat it like a child. Where does anger live in the body? The book wanted to know. Meredith was able to locate it somewhere in the region behind her sternum. These men, her chest moaned as they gestured with their hands, are killing me.
“I was a student too,” Meredith told to Dan Graves. “It was hard at times, but also good, and I lived with my wife, but we weren’t married yet.”
“The girl you loved then, 10 years ago. You’re married to her now?”
“I am,” Meredith said.
“That’s good. You really had it together.” One of Dan Graves’s eyelids drooped, then fluttered lightly. “Unless there’s something else.”
There was something else. Like her soundtrack that year, Meredith too had been full of rage. She had not broken dishes or yelled in critique, but she had taken to committing tiny acts of cruelty against people she could not see or would never see again, people who did not matter, and who she did not believe in — the telephone operator at her bank, the woman who worked the counter at the cupcake store, a stranger who came to buy an old desk she had in storage.
Also, that was the year Alex was born. She and Amy had reached the decision mutually that Amy would carry the baby, on a walk through a park near campus where the bodies of thousands of unknown black people — domestic workers for the university — would later be discovered.
I can’t be the one who changes, Meredith thought. But she said nothing.
Then Amy spoke. She said, “I can’t be the one who watches.”
Amy cleared out a drawer in their bureau for the new, strange items she brought home in plastic bags — bright indigo jeans with black stretchy waistbands that folded over, long yellow cotton tunics with slits up the sides. Amy would take out a pair of leggings and close the drawer quick before shaking them out, like a secret. Amy’s feet spread then swelled. Meredith tended to Amy’s cravings and hurts, attended the necessary doctor’s appointments, but she had done so out of a sense of obligation. She could not get over the feeling that she had been wronged in some way. Meredith often saw women — at the bar, on the bus, in the coffee shop — who she wanted to have sex with. They were all conventionally attractive; thin with big breasts and long hair. Amy was pretty, no doubt about it, but she did not look like these women. Meredith watched the women but did not approach them. Once, after church, Meredith had opened her father’s Bible and seen that in addition to annotating parts of Genesis, he had underlined a short passage: There is the thief. There is the liar. There is the man whose wife is not enough for him, who cannot be happy until he possesses every woman who walks the earth.
Then her best collage of all had been critiqued: a 6-inch-by-6-inch portrait of a woman she found sitting cross-legged in the periodicals room. The woman wore a floppy green hat like one might wear to the beach. But she had this face.
And still, the men had critiqued “Woman In Floppy Hat” with the same tone — good, but not excellent. Real, but not true. After that critique, Meredith and Alan stopped at a liquor store on their way to the dive bar. Alan went inside, while Meredith called Amy at her office.
“Don’t worry,” Amy said. “You’re so talented.”
But in the background, Meredith heard a male coworker of Amy’s walking by Amy’s desk.
“Hey there Amy,” Meredith heard the man say, and she could see Amy raise her right shoulder to take the phone so that she could wave hello to the man — Jacob or Andy or Chance — and smile her plump-cheeked smile. Even while Amy was on the phone with her, Amy was watching a man walk away.
Alan emerged with a blue bottle of gin, and they opened it on the street over a curbside drain. They were in a silly mood, amped up. It was spring and the girls looked rumpled and damp. They walked the rest of the way to the bar joking and shoving each other and putting their whole mouths on the bottle and spitting the gin onto the street.
They drank and played three games of pool in the bar and then they left and walked circles around the small downtown area. The night was cool and the streets just above and below the busy retail thoroughfare were dark and empty.
“You know,” Alan said, when they reached the parking lot of the town’s only all-night convenience store. “I don’t get it. You’re so pretty.”
“What?” Alan said, turning toward her. “Don’t you believe me? You’re such a pretty girl.” He licked his lips, lightly, as if looking for crumbs. “You can’t be gay,” Alan said.
Meredith felt light, her mouth dry. “Why not?”
“Because I want you,” Alan said.
A car was idling, waiting to pull out of the parking lot onto the slick street and the wind was still, as if inhaling, and right then, something in Meredith sort of flowed toward Alan, and when he leaned his face into her neck, she didn't push him away. She hesitated.
It is this hesitation which Meredith remembers now, with Dan Graves’s small expectant eyes on her. How willing she was to be undermined, to believe, to sell Amy and their not yet born son down the river on the word of a man.
Nothing happened — the wind picked up again, the car pulled out of the parking lot onto the street, and Alan only ran his lips along Meredith’s neck, then apologized for being “in his cups” the next day in an email. Amy had picked Meredith up from the convenience store and driven her home and held her and said nothing. Meredith had graduated from the Department and then six months later, their son had been born. Alex was nearly nine now. He liked soccer and drawing animals at the museum. He helped Amy set the table before dinner. His job was the napkins. The years had rolled by and Meredith had stopped being so angry.
“No,” Meredith said. “There’s nothing else.”
Dan Graves drank from his glass. The square of sun was gone.
“We could go outside,” Dan Graves said. “It’s a nice evening.” When he got up and opened the glass doors, and went out to stand on the deck, Meredith followed. The chill came through her cotton sweater. She had the strange feeling that comes when two people are in a room and something significant is happening, but only one mind is recording it.
“I’d like to go camping,” Meredith said.
“You camp?” Dan Graves said. He laughed. “You don’t, not really.”
“You’re a city girl. I can tell. Pop quiz: What’s the best way to build a fire?”
Meredith turned to look at Dan Graves. He was triumphant, happy. This is what he did, this was his power. The woods, which belonged to Dan Graves and his dead dad, were dark beyond the deck.
“Elena said you called her a dyke. At her house, when she asked you to leave.”
Dan Graves blinked his blond eyelashes, which were long but perfectly straight like the bristles of a broom. “I don’t remember,” he said. “But if Elena says I did, then I did. Elena’s not a liar.”
Dan Graves hugged himself with his huge hands.
“I don’t know why I am the way I am,” he said. “I haven’t made anything since I’ve been here. I look at every person and I just think, you, and you, and you, none of you matter.”
Stop, Meredith could have said. Stop now. Stop today. Here’s the thing, she could have said. It really does get better.
But she said nothing. Dan Graves would not remember anything tomorrow. Even if he did, who would believe him now, discredited as he was — a drunk, a homophobe?
Dan Graves finished what was left in his glass. “Brrrrrr,” he said, leaning against the railing of the deck. “I’m so cold.”
Meredith felt younger, lighter. She remembered it all now — the heat rising to her ears, the urge to swallow and swallow, the tingly feeling somewhere around the knees, the way the breath refused to come, and the chest, the chest. She listened to it. It was moaning, again. These people, these people, these people.
Meredith turned and went inside the house. She gathered the letters and their empty envelopes back into the green suitcase, then lifted the suitcase up onto the wooden platform. She opened a letter so that it lay flat on the platform, then rolled it the long way into a thin tube. She stood, removed the fire screen, and balanced the rolled letter between the andirons.
Dan Graves filled the doorway, his body backlit by the sun. “Hey,” Dan Graves said. His eyes were on her, but he had the other look about him.
Letter by letter, layer by layer, the log cabin began to take shape.
“I’m so cold,” Dan Graves said again.
“I know it,” Meredith said. “Wait. Soon. I’m building you a fire.”
Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in West Philadelphia. She is the author of The Third Rainbow Girl, forthcoming from Hachette Books.