The Book of Other People by Zadie Smith


  From that moment on the boat (which was, technically, an anecdote inside a reminiscence inside a reminiscence inside a reminiscence), she recalled a time when, at nine, her mother calmly watched her fall out of an apple tree; at ten, when she ran over a baby vole with her bicycle, and her mother, who was poisoning voles by the thousands in her vegetable garden, called her a murderer; at twelve, when she meticulously sliced her own thumb open with a penknife and bled over her mother’s silk party dress, hanging on the bedroom hook. The pattern was unrepeatable, and thus more dangerously ineffable than a single memory. The sensation felt like spinning too fast on a merry-go-round. Each fraction of a second her eyes focused on a new face in a crowd. Within seconds the face was gone, whisked to a blur, replaced by another face that would just as soon be lost.

  Glad clutches her book, feeling rather sick. She finds herself recalling incidents that are technically impossible to recall, looking up from her changing table as a weeks-old infant, a miserable ball of heat and squirm observing the haggard look on her mother’s face, then gradually moving forward again, each memory chain-linked only by this: all involved her mother. This is why she doesn’t put much stock in so-called secrets, or the meaningfulness of untold recollections that become, in their airtight echo chambers, the supposed stuff of secrets. They are only a way to become retrospectively enraged at somebody else so that your own adult weaknesses can be tidily excused.

  But even more alarming is this: the woman who appears as her mother in these memories begins to morph into a woman resembling Sylvia - thinner and more likeably imperious, but Sylvia nonetheless. And she, Glad, is nowhere to be found. Yes, a corner of the red dress she was wearing the day of the explosion protrudes from behind the tree; possibly she can even see her transparent reflection in the rainy Bermuda car window. But she is not an active participant in these recalled scenarios with the unnerving mother / Sylvia composite, she is not a person at all. She is just a psychic recorder, an eye attached to a woundable spirit.

  The lights between the oaks snap on, illuminating the drive like a smuggler’s runway, startling her. She is alone, isn’t she? Who turned on the lights? Then Glad remembers the timer she’d had the caretaker install after her brother - a drunk - drove into a tree after dinner and blamed the dark rather than the umpteen glasses of wine he’d consumed. When inebriated, her brother took to confessing amped-up, profanity- and sex-laced versions of his childhood to a painting of their mother. The painting featured their mother as a gimlet-eyed sixteen-year-old girl, one finger encased by a bulky signet ring, both hands resting over a prop book splayed in her lap.

  This painting stares at Glad from the wall to her left. The prop book’s spine features a single rectangle of black; the title, though indicated by a line of white-painted switchbacks, remains maddeningly indiscernible. At just the right distance, she’d always believed, the letters would coalesce and she would be able to read the title. As a child she’d stood in front of the painting and stepped forward and backward, forward and backward, adjusting her position by fractions of inches, but no matter - the switchbacks failed to signify. What was this book her mother held for eternity? Why did it matter? Why did she need to know?

  Her old frustration disentangles itself from the painting and redirects itself full-forcedly at the absent Sylvia - Sylvia whose shadow she thinks she’s spotted skittering between the oaks. She wishes Sylvia would come back, if only to tell her that her ‘need to know’ was as pointless as Glad’s need to know the title of the book in the painting. It would reveal nothing. And, what’s worse, Glad’s memories are not only opaque and meaningless, they are ultimately more boring than Trouble Astern, in which (Glad flips skimmingly ahead) people are still failing to die. Glad is half tempted to kill someone herself.

  Why not? The sky has purpled behind the oak trees, the island indicated only by the faraway blinking of disembodied lights. The kids are still not home, and when they do return, Glad expects they will be drunk or high. It is the perfect time for a murder. She recalls the time when she’d been grounded for half the summer for dropping one of her mother’s diamond studs down a heater vent. She decided to run away with her best friend, and the two had canoed to a nearby island, pitched a tent, tried to build a campfire, and settled down to sleep before realizing that they were cut out for neither campfire-building nor tent-sleeping. At 3 am Glad’s friend deposited her on the beach across from her driveway. Glad expected to be met by her angry parents, but instead the beach was spookily quiet. She walked down the drive, growing increasingly panicked by the property’s creaking emptiness. She picked up a rock and cocked it overhead, planning to strike whatever bear / moose / murderer might try to attack her on the way to the house. Lamplight from the study spread like a white carpet over the lawn. Someone was awake. Her mother, no doubt.

  Still terrified, she cocked the rock overhead as she opened the front door, blood thudding in her ears. She couldn’t pinpoint her nervousness; was she still in danger? Or was she the source of danger? She walked through a blue room, then a hall, then to the closed door of the study. She put her hand on the knob. Once she opened the door, there was no going back. She knew this.

  She turned the knob. The door opened soundlessly. From above the high back of the armchair covered in green velvet, she could see the graying head of a woman. Glad tiptoed closer, the shadow of her arm extending across the face of her mother in the painting, then rounding the corner like a snake. The woman in the chair did not move. Glad thought she could hear the sound of snoring. How pitiful, she thought. What kind of sad old woman falls asleep at night in her reading chair? What kind of person would so willingly lose control of herself like that? Angrily, Glad raised the rock higher above her head; a sense that she is acting nobly energizes her arm, causing the muscles to tingle. She is saving this person from her own pitiful dreamy tendencies. This is not an act of murder. This is a mercy killing. Just before the rock strikes the woman’s temple, she looks into the window. The last thing Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz sees before she dies is the translucent reflection of her own sleeping face, her hands folded peacefully on top of a book whose title is inscrutable.

  Puppy

  George Saunders

  Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house - not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc., etc., and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc., etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!

  But no. When she, a third time, said, ‘Wow, guys, check that out,’ Abbie said, ‘OK, Mom, we get it, it’s corn,’ and Josh said, ‘Not now, Mom, I’m Leavening my Loaves,’ which was fine with her; she had no problem with that, Noble Baker being preferable to Bra Stuffer, the game he’d asked for.

  Well, who could say? Maybe they didn’t even have any mythical vignettes in their heads. Or maybe the mythical vignettes they had in their heads were totally different from the ones she had in her head. Which was the beauty of it, because, after all, they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.

  Still, wow, that cornfield was such a classic.

  ‘Whenever I see a field like that, guys?’ she said. ‘I somehow think of a haunted house!’

  ‘Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!’ Josh shouted. ‘You nimrod machine! I chose that!’

  Speaking of Halloween, she remembered last year, when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that! Oh, family laughter was gol
den; she’d had none of that in her childhood, Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed. If Mom and Dad’s cart had tipped, Dad would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick, distancing herself from Dad, while she, Marie, would have nervously taken that horrid plastic Army man she’d named Brady into her mouth.

  Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his Game Boy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, ‘Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?’ Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.

  Hence this Family Mission. And as far as Robert? Oh, God bless Robert! There was a man. He would have no problem whatsoever with this Family Mission. She loved the way he had of saying ‘Ho HO!’ whenever she brought home something new and unexpected.

  ‘Ho HO!’ Robert had said, coming home to find the iguana. ‘Ho HO!’ he had said, coming home to find the ferret trying to get into the iguana cage. ‘We appear to be the happy operators of a menagerie!’

  She loved him for his playfulness - you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say ‘Ho HO!’ and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger.

  In the back seat, Josh made the git-git-git sound he always made when his Baker was in Baking Mode, trying to get his Loaves into the oven while fighting off various Hungry Denizens, such as a Fox with a distended stomach; such as a fey Robin that would improbably carry the Loaf away, speared on its beak, whenever it had succeeded in dropping a Clonking Rock on your Baker - all of which Marie had learned over the summer by studying the Noble Baker manual while Josh was asleep.

  And it had helped, it really had. Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing and said, like, ‘Wow, honey, I didn’t know you could do Pumpernickel,’ or ‘Sweetie, try Serrated Blade, it cuts quicker. Try it while doing Latch the Window,’ he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately, and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses.

  So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, ‘I hardly consider you college material.’ At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.

  Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodeled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.

  This time would be different, she was sure of it. The kids would care for this pet themselves, since a puppy wasn’t scaly and didn’t bite. (‘Ho HO!’ Robert had said the first time the iguana bit him. ‘I see you have an opinion on the matter!’)

  Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good and she had at last found her place in it, ‘Ho HO, ho HO!’

  Callie pulled back the blind.

  Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.

  There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world. From the three holes in her wood fence she’d been able to see Exxon (Hole One) and Accident Corner (Hole Two), and Hole Three was actually two holes that if you lined them up right your eyes would do this weird crossing thing and you could play Oh My God I Am So High by staggering away with your eyes crossed, going, ‘Peace, man, peace.’

  When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed. Once they found him way over on Testament. And that was across I-90. How had he crossed I-90? She knew how. Darted. That’s how he crossed streets. Once a total stranger called them from Hightown Plaza. Even Dr Brile had said it: ‘Callie, this boy is going to end up dead if you don’t get this under control. Is he taking the medication?’

  Well, sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t. The meds made him grind his teeth and his fist would suddenly pound down. He’d broken plates that way, and once a glass tabletop and got four stitches in his wrist.

  Today he didn’t need the medication because he was safe in the yard, because she’d fixed it so perfect.

  He was out there practicing pitching by filling his Yankees helmet with pebbles and winging them at the tree.

  He looked up and saw her and did the thing where he blew a kiss.

  Sweet little man.

  Now all she had to worry about was the pup. She hoped the lady who’d called would actually show up. It was a nice pup. White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it. And if she took it, Jimmy was off the hook. He’d hated doing it that time with the kittens. But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs. Plus, he’d been raised on a farm, or near a farm anyways, and anybody raised on a farm knew that you had to do what you had to do in terms of sick animals or extra animals - the pup being not sick, just extra.

  That time with the kittens, Jessi and Mollie had called him a murderer, getting Bo all worked up, and Jimmy had yelled, ‘Look, you kids, I was raised on a farm and you got to do what you got to do!’ Then he’d cried in bed, saying how the kittens had mewed in the bag all the way to the pond, and how he wished he’d never been raised on a farm, and she’d almost said, ‘You mean near a farm’ (his dad had run a car wash outside Cortland), but sometimes when she got too smart-assed he would do this hard pinching thing on her arm while waltzing her around the bedroom, as if the place where he was pinching was like her handle, going, ‘I’m not sure I totally heard what you just said to me.’

  So, that time after the kittens, she’d only said, ‘Oh, honey, you did what you had to do.’

  And he’d said, ‘I guess I did, but it’s sure not easy raising kids the right way.’

  And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids ‘Hooked on Phonics’, why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d got to wrestling around and (she had no idea why she remembered this) he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh / despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.

  Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.

  So what she would love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.

  Why that laugh / snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.

  Outside, Bo hopped to his feet, suddenly curious, because (here we go) the lady who’d called had just pulled up?

  Yep, and in a nice car, too, which meant too bad she’d put ‘Cheap’ in the ad.

  Abbie squealed, ‘I love it, Mommy, I want it!’, as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.

  Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew
smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was dragging its rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, a moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was was deeply sad.

 
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