The metal bench is an eyesore, its patina not the lovely green-gray of time-weathering, but the red rust of saltwater and circumstance. Situated halfway between the ocean and the sharp, wind-carved ridge separating the reedy grass from the wide swim of a sandy beach, it leans slightly forward, anchored to a buried block of concrete not much longer or wider than the bench itself. At high tide, its thick legs disappear from view, leaving a latticework of seat and back, an iron net for wayward seaweed, a royal perch for white gulls.

Most people give the bench little more than a curious glance. Most people are visitors here, vacationers who come to trouble the beach in celebration, only to complain later about the plague of sand that won’t wash off in the shower.

A few sit on it and pose, smiling the fake smiles tourists smile when sharing frame space with a relic or a monument they care nothing about, apart from the opportunity it gives for yet another vacation photo.

Juliette sits on the bench every Tuesday when the weather allows, arriving before sunrise, leaving after.

She listens to the lapping of the waves, the familiar conversation of the gulls. She welcomes the sea spray on her face and tastes the salt and breathes in through her nose, smelling fish and fowl and life and decay.

And every morning she sees them.

* * *

Juliette drew her feet up out of the water and sat cross-legged on the bench. There was salt in her eyes. From tears, mostly. But also the sea. She had returned to the bench at the end of the day, in search of a sunset to erase the sunrise when she had seen Nick and Maureen walking hand in hand along the shore. She didn’t want to believe it was Nick, but no one else walked like he did - as if he owned the earth.

Maureen was wearing a sundress so white it blinked like a flashbulb against a yellow sky. Her skin was pale, pink around the shoulders. Nick would surely pick at the peeling sunburn in a day or two. Maureen would complain, swat his hand away, then take his hand and kiss his fingers. He would do it again moments later. Again she would complain. After the third time, she would stop complaining. Instead, she would collect his little annoyances and hold them in a queue, awaiting the right time to say something. But then they would make love and every little annoyance would be erased in sweat and sigh.

Nick wore khaki shorts and a faded navy blue t-shirt. Juliette knew the shirt. Soft, fraying along the neckline. She wore it while trying to make him breakfast just a week before. He had come up behind her then, not quietly enough to disappear into the white-noise sizzle of the frying bacon, but quietly enough for her to feign surprise. He had reached around her with his strong arms, wrapped her in a hug, pulled her close until she could feel his heartbeat. She had turned her head to the right, welcomed a half kiss that tasted of gray morning. His hands had wandered beneath the faded blue shirt, sliding up from her tensing stomach to trace curves he’d been learning in secret, stolen moments for nearly three months.

She had made her decision the moment she saw Nick with Maureen, but it wasn’t until that evening, as the sun set, that the weight of her decision caught up with her resolve. Still, she would not change her mind, no matter what the cost.

* * *

The sun is slow in rising today, she whispers to the gulls. She pulls her sweater tight.

* * *

Her father was there at the birth of her son, in the waiting room outside, pacing. Later, he handed her forms and pointed to places where she needed to sign. He touched her arm once, to wake her. She pretended it was to offer grace, or assurance, or an apology for her mother’s absence.

She named him James and told no one but her infant son in a whisper and a kiss. He was round and perfect and had Nick’s denim blue eyes. They took him away on the second day.

* * *

Every morning she sees them, Nick and Maureen, walking along the shore. Every morning except this morning.

This morning Juliette is looking at her hands, at the roadmap of veins painted under paper skin. She folds them together as if in prayer. It is a posture her heart has known for years.

It is James’ birthday. He would be sixty today. She imagines him welcoming his first grandchild, gently brushing away jests about his new title. Grandpa. She pictures his beautiful dark-haired wife, finally giving in to the gray she has colored for a decade, allowing it to define instead of worry her. She hears James say to his wife, “you’re the most beautiful grandmother on the planet.”

His voice is a lion’s purr.

Juliette feels cold metal pressing against bone through her thinning cotton dress. She blinks away the sting of the ocean. She listens to the soft recoil of every wave, the wind searching for trees to disquiet.

She remembers a tree. A towering maple in a grove of memories. She watches through blurry 17-year-old eyes as a single golden leaf falls. Glorious and graceful, it descends to land upon a turn of black soil.

He would be sixty today, she whispers to the wind.

The gulls are silent. Listening.

She has lived a good life. She has loved long and well, raised three children, sent them wise and confident into the adventure of figuring it all out. And she has been a faithful wife for half a century. She takes a deep, rasping breath. Her husband will be waking soon. She will bring him breakfast in bed. He will try to remember her name.

It is time to forgive herself.

She prays for a touch on her arm that speaks grace. When it does not come, she begins to raise her head, feeling every one of her years in aching joints. The sun mimics her movements, rising slowly. She opens her eyes just as the sun breaks the line on the horizon.


She has seen hundreds of suns rise. But this one is different.

This one sees her.


They are small steps. The shuffle steps of an old woman. But she is not old.

She is two days past five years and she is measuring.

Each shuffle step is a number. At first she calls them inches, then she makes up her own word for the increment. “Wriggles.” About the length of a worm, she says. “That’s what a wriggle is.”

Her mother is sitting at the other end of the porch, watching. She is holding a glass of sweet tea. Ice cubes rattle like dry bones when she tips the glass and sips, remembering the taste of leaves and flowers and sugar. Beads of condensation run down the glass and fall onto her floral dress.

“The glass is crying,” her daughter says, looking up from her measuring.

“I suppose it is,” says her mother.


“Tell me what you think, precious.” She holds the glass out toward her daughter. More drips fall onto the weathered gray floor. Her daughter stands on tiptoes, careful not to lose her place halfway to the flower box, just next to the stairs that point down at a cracked sidewalk.

Each drop is a black spot on the floor.

“I think…” The balls of the little girl’s feet land back on the porch, inviting a mouse-like squeak from the floorboards. She rises up on her toes again and stares at the glass, then at the spots.

“It’s sad about the spotted tiger,” she says, then resumes her measuring.

Her mother laughs a single laugh. “What spotted tiger?” She sets the glass on the wide arm of a whitewashed chair, then folds her hands in her lap.

“Eleventy,” says the young girl.


“Eleventy wriggles. That’s how many to the flower box.”

“Tell me more about the spotted tiger,” says her mother.

The little girl points to the fading spots on the porch floor. “The glass is crying because the spotted tiger is going away.”

Her mother smiles. She sees it, too.

“Where is it going?”

The girl fidgets with the bow on the front of her pink and white polka-dot dress. She tugs at the hem, studying it. She opens her mouth to share an epiphany, then closes it. She lets go of her dress, laces her fingers together just like her mother and looks over at the spotted tiger, all but gone in the afternoon heat.

“To heaven,” she says. Then she looks up at her mother’s face, thin and pale, painted by the patterned shadows of her lacy hat. “Do you have to wear that hat?” she asks.

“It helps,” she answers. “But I can take it off if you like.”

“No,” says the girl. “It helps.”

Her mother wants another sip of tea, but she does not move her hands.

“I’m going to measure something else,” says the girl. “From the flower box to mommy.” She begins her shuffle walk again, whispering numbers learned and imagined. One, two, three, four, slevin, ornty. Her mother coughs once, twice, three times, and then again. The girl looks up, but keeps on measuring, matching her steps in rhythm with the rasps from her mother’s throat.

The shuffle steps become full strides until, in one final lunge, the girl presses herself up against her mother’s knees. They feel like doorknobs against her tiny chest. She wraps her arms around them anyway, and hugs her mother’s legs, resting her head in her lap. Yellow bangs fall in front of her eyes and she looks sideways at the sweating glass as if through the hanging branches of a weeping willow.

“How many wriggles,” her mother asks between coughs. “From the flowers to mommy?”

“I stopped counting,” she says. Water continues to bead down the glass, pooling at the bottom. A tiny river forms and snakes down the chair’s bent arm. When it reaches the back edge, a single drop forms, hangs on for a moment, then drips to the floor. She waits for another. She waits a long time, counting again in her head, this time trying her hardest to use only learned numbers. When she gets to nine, a second drop falls.

“Mommy?” she asks, still holding tight to her mother’s legs.

Her mother coughs a “yes?”

“The chair is crying, too,” she says.

“Is it sad about the tiger?”

“No,” she says. “It’s sad about you.”

Her mother catches her breath and holds it. She runs her fingers through her daughter’s blonde locks, brushing them away from blue eyes like stars, always so full of questions. Except now. Now they hold an answer.

“I’m going to miss you, mommy,” she says.

“Oh precious.” Her mother bends forward to kiss the top of her only daughter’s head. The lacy ribbons from her hat brush the girls’ neck, tickling her. The girl shivers, but does not giggle.

“Will you take care of him?” she asks her mother.


“The spotted tiger.”

“Yes, I will.”

“When you go to heaven.”

“When I go to heaven.”

The world pauses. Everything listens. Even the quiet holds its tongue. Then, the girl speaks. Her voice is a song she hasn’t yet learned.



“How many wriggles is it from here to heaven?”

“I don’t know,” her mother says. “But it’s always just the right number.”

The girl lets go of her mother’s legs and straightens up. She looks down at their feet and thinks about how much growing she will have to do before she can wear her mother’s shoes.

“I think it’s nine,” the girl says. Then she smiles and her eyes go back to asking questions.

“Nine wriggles,” her mother says.

The girl turns and skips to the middle of the porch. She lines her toes up along the top of the steps, glances over at her mother, then leaps down to the sidewalk.

Her dress is a parachute. She laughs. Her mother coughs.

Another drop of water rolls down the arm of the chair and waits before it falls.

Bad Words and Angels

It would be several months before Hilary began to consider she had been in the right place at the right time, rather than the worst possible place she could imagine. But as the heat of a small girl’s life melted into the cold of certain death, all she had was one word.

“Fuck,” she said in a whisper that came out like a shout.

“What’s your name?” asked the little girl. She was curled up on the side of the road. The fetal position.

“Hilary,” she said.

“My mama says that word is bad, Miss Hilary,” said the girl.

“Well, your mama is right. But sometimes a bad word is the only kind that fits.”

“Like when you spill your slushy?”

Hilary looked at the little girl’s left hand, still grasping a tall paper cup. It was crushed like that steel beer can in the movie Jaws. Hilary measured the girl’s determination against Quint’s display of strength and decided the little girl was the stronger of the two.

“Yeah, like then,” said Hilary. Jaws. Why the hell am I thinking about Jaws? Jaws of life would make more sense. She thought of the crash described in John Irving’s A Widow for One Year. A horrific accident. A thought swept through her head like a rogue wave. Or a prayer. I’ll take a head-on collision in trade for saving this girl’s life.

She listened for the sound of an oncoming vehicle, calculated the time it would take to run across the street, get in her still idling Jeep, and accelerate to an appropriate collision speed. Then she thought of the other driver. Would he swerve? And what about his family. No, that wouldn’t be fair. I’ll hit a tree instead.

But there were no trees. And no vehicles on the two-lane country road.

Just the drone of a small airplane. She willed the airplane to become a medical helicopter. It did not.

“Thanks,” said the girl. “My name is Courtney.” Her words came out as gravel. Hilary ran her fingers through Courtney’s curly blond hair. She thought of her own daughter, Tilly, imagined her drawing elaborate scenes on the driveway with sidewalk chalk. There would be at least one unicorn. Probably two, so the first one wouldn’t get lonely.

Get off the driveway, Tilly! Go inside where it’s safe. Please Tilly. Stay inside forever.

“Courtney. That’s a beautiful name.”

“I like Veronica better. I always wanted to be Veronica.”

“Well, then, Veronica. It’s good to meet you. Do you know that Courtney girl? I think she’s really pretty.”

Courtney gurgled a laugh.

“I spilled my slushy,” said Courtney.

“I spill things all the time,” said Hilary. Was that the right thing to say?

“I think I spilled it on my dress. My mama won’t like that.”

“She’ll understand…”

“My mama gets real mad when I do something bad.”

“Honey…you didn’t do anything...”

“How come everything’s blurry?” asked Courtney. Her eyes were swollen shut.

“It’s just a blurry sorta day,” said Hilary. And it really was, so that wasn’t a lie. She reached for the girl’s right hand and held it.

“I’m cold, Miss Hilary.”

Hilary pictured the blanket in her trunk. It would still be covered with dirt and pine needles and that huge mustard stain in the shape of Gorbachev’s birthmark. She meant to wash it last week.

Shit. I left a load of laundry in the washing machine. I’ll need to run it again. Mike is going to be pissed.

She slipped off her sweater. Her favorite sweater – the moss green one that knew her curves better than her husband’s hands. She placed it gently over the girl’s body. The sweater would be ruined. She’d never find another one like it. People would call it an act of kindness. She would smile and nod, then miss the sweater more than she knew she should.

“My head hurts,” said Courtney.”

“You hit it when you fell down,” said Hilary. When that asshole in the pickup truck ran you over.

“It hurts…a…lot.” Courtney’s speech was slowing.

“I have a blanket in my car. I could make it into a nice pillow…”

“No…don’t go.”

“Okay. I won’t. Someone will find us soon, anyway. Someone who can help.”

Just then Hilary remembered where she’d left her cell phone. It was on the kitchen counter next to the grocery list she had also forgotten in her rush to get to the bank before it closed. Chicken breasts, breath mints, skim milk, some sort of cheese…what was that cheese…

“I think…I want to say a bad word,” said Courtney.

Gouda? No. Not goat’s milk. A soft cheese. Something to stuff in the chicken breasts along with…along with…pancetta. Yes. That’s on the list, too.

“Miss Hillary?” asked Courtney.

It starts with a “B.” Bulimia. No, of course not. Brie? Not brie.

“Miss Hilary?” she asked again.

Boursin! That’s it.

“Yes…Courtney?” Hilary noted that she sounded exactly like a teacher acknowledging a child’s raised hand that had been hovering in the air for so long it would have demanded steadying by another.

“Veronica…,” Courtney corrected.


“I want to say a bad word….but…is there one that’s…not so bad?”

“Yes. Damn isn’t so bad.”


“I’m so sorry it hurts, Veronica.”

“You…you won’t tell my mama…will you? About the…bad word?”

“No. I won’t.”

“Or the slushy?”


“Thanks.” The word was an exhale. Then after a long moment of eerie silence, “Miss Hilary?”


“Are you my angel?”

The sound of an oncoming car stole her answer. Then, the crunch of tires on gravel. A car door. Footsteps. Frantic voices. Dial 911. Had she said those words? Had the stranger in the yellow tie?

“She’s not breathing,” said the stranger. He pushed Hilary out of the way and dropped to his knees.

He grabbed Hilary’s hand. “Put pressure right here, on her leg,” he shouted. She felt flesh and blood and rocks and bone. The man started breathing into Courtney’s mouth, then pressing against her tiny chest. If this was a loving act, it was the most brutal loving act she could imagine.

Minutes passed. Minutes and hours and days and a lifetime.

“I’m sorry,” he finally said. His tie was no longer yellow.

Hilary began to cry. The sirens came eventually. But much too late.

For the next few months, she cried every time she heard a siren. And sometimes, merely at the sight of her daughter.

“Are you crying about that little girl again?” Tilly asked once.

“Yes,” she answered through blurry eyes.

“I don’t feel like crying right now, but if I did, I would cry with you,” Tilly said. Then she put her hand on her mother’s.

“Thank you, Tilly,” said Hilary.

“Sometimes it’s okay just to be next to someone when they’re sad, isn’t it?” Tilly asked.

“Sometimes that’s all you can do,” said Hilary. Her words came out in a whisper, hovered between them like a mist, then tickled her daughter’s lips into a kind smile.

Yes I am, Veronica. Yes I am.

What This Is