Partial People

Edith slowly pulled a faded ear off the rabbit. The toy was so worn from what she imagined to be clutching, and hugging, and tug-of-wars, that she only needed to pluck at the thread before his limbs fell into her lap. Cotton poked out through a hole where, five minutes earlier, his button nose had been. Musty stuffing filled her with warmth and contentment and a longing that could only be described with a vague childhood memory: kitchen chairs, cinnamon smells, a flash of warmth on her face, and music from another room or maybe from another memory; maybe from somewhere entirely different. When had her mother ever played music like that? Pit-pattering jazz, wicked in its playfulness. No, more likely, she was remembering a scene from afternoon TV. 

“So what if I’m not a whole person,” she said. “So what? The world must be full of partial people.” 

She was alone in the house, and her voice should have broken through the quiet of a late morning. Maybe it was the floorboards, scuffed and solid and dark; maybe it was the cloudy November light soaking into wool curtains. The room swallowed up her voice; she had less authority than the dripping faucet.

“How do you know if you’re whole? Is it how many places you’ve been? Is it how long you’ve stayed? Is it how many knick-knacks you own or how many friends you have, or what you can do or what you can’t do?”

She ripped both arms off the rabbit, and placed them beside her. Only his embroidered eyes were left. 

“Who decides what’s whole, anyway?”

The front door scraped open in the next room. She saw a tan coat and leather bag and green fleece scarf fly into the hallway before the door had closed. Edith pushed the dismantled rabbit behind her just before Maggie followed her belongings into view.

“You’ve been sitting here this whole time? Lazy.”

Maggie had lived in this house her entire life. She stamped through the rooms with a confidence reserved by those who have never moved. She had never felt bewildered by mislabeled boxes, by missing dinner plates and broken mirrors. She had never stumbled through an unfamiliar hallway at night, or struggled to remember the spelling of a new street. She doesn’t really need tenants, Edith thought, in the way someone needs water or food or warm socks. Even if there came a day when she couldn’t rent out the extra room, she would lose nothing except new shutters for the winter. She owned this house. She owned its corners and mud-splattered windows and brimming junk drawer. She couldn’t possibly understand chaos.

Edith moved the pillows to either side of her, making sure the rabbit’s gray polyester pieces were out of sight, and leaned back.

“I’ve just been thinking.”

Maggie picked up a mug from the mantel, half full with cold coffee, and sat on a small leather couch. It was a mahogany color and must have looked expensive at one time.

“I left an hour ago. You can’t think of any one thing for an hour.”

She took a sip of coffee, made a face, and leaned over to place the mug on the carpet. There were several faint stains from years of leaving cups on this carpet; overlapping circles from rushed winter mornings, running off to her students; late nights writing high school papers; lazy days during Christmas break filled with family voices and half-finished books. Maybe, Edith thought, some of those circles were made decades ago by her parents. She scanned the room and noticed, for the first time, there were only two framed photographs, both of them stiff and formal: one she assumed was Maggie’s parents, young and in their wedding wear, and a second of Maggie surrounded by a large group of children standing on the front steps of a school. She couldn’t remember seeing any other photos in the house. Maggie stretched her arms over her head, and sat up. Her eyes were wide, arms stiff and straight above her head like a doll; she was waiting for Edith to speak.

“I was just thinking… of unpacking my suitcases.”

Maggie nodded, and dropped her arms. “Seems like a practical way to get things done. Think about fixing the fridge for me, huh?” 

She swung her legs onto the couch so that her head was on one armrest, her feet on the other. She was near Edith’s age, early-thirties, and simultaneously seemed older and younger. Older because of her place in this town: the second grade teacher in the same school she’d attended. She was established, secure in who and what and where she was. Younger because she was so untroubled. Edith followed her gaze to the fireplace. The mantle was a comfortable mess of used matches, melted tea lights, paperbacks and crumpled paper; of maple leaves now dried and faded to brick colors, a cellophane bag of sugar cookies, and a crayon drawing from a student; flyers for school events already past, a framed teaching certificate, an old but still brightly colored First Place ribbon, and a tiny glass bottle filled with buttons. Edith couldn’t be sure what Maggie was looking at. Maybe she didn’t see any of it; maybe things become invisible when they’ve been sitting in front of you for too long. Edith was looking at the bottle of buttons, wondering how long it would take Maggie to notice the four that were missing: one for each day that Edith had lived here. Two were dropped between floorboards, one was flung up into the gutter, another was slipped into one of the many romance novels she had found among the craft books and teaching manuals in Maggie’s bookcase. Page 276.

“Must seem a bit pointless.”

Maggie was absently brushing her curled hair across her mouth. She glanced away from the fireplace just long enough to say,

“I mean unpacking.”

Edith repeated her usual reply, “There’d be no point in bringing suitcases if I never opened them.”

They didn’t speak for a moment. The rabbit was uncomfortable against Edith’s back, but she didn’t want to risk shifting position; his ears could fall to the floor. Maggie sat up and rested her elbows on her knees. 

“The people you audit: are they usually difficult?”

Edith didn’t have to think for long before she said, “Yes.”

“Who was the most difficult you ever had?”

“I don’t know. There was one man in Wisconsin that—”

“Hit on you?” Maggie winked.

“No. I wasn’t going to say that.” Who hits on an auditor? Edith thought, and felt a pain in the middle of her breast bone.

“Why’d you go into this? Out of all the jobs you could do.”

Maggie had asked this the day Edith moved in, as everyone eventually does. Edith had shrugged with a “Why not?” and Maggie had laughed. She didn’t have any other answer.

“You don’t look like an auditor, if you don’t mind me saying.” A single strand of hair was stuck to her bottom lip.

“I don’t mind.”

“I can imagine you doing other things. You’re very pleasant.”

Edith looked up at the ceiling. It was painted an ivy green color, but several thin, dark cracks wriggled across and down to the walls. Like snail trails, she thought, then Maggie spoke again.

“Which is what I said to Molly.”

I envy snails, Edith thought to herself, bringing their houses wherever they go. 

“That’s what I told her. You’re actually very pleasant.” 

Actually. Edith put on a clipped, mannerly voice, the one she reserved for those difficult clients.  “Is Mrs. Nelson a friend of yours?”

“I had both her kids in my class. They’re very sweet.” She waited a moment, and cleared her throat. “I told her you weren’t a flirt at all.”

Edith’s neck and face flushed red. “Mr. Nelson said I— And she told you—” She put her fingers, always cold, against her cheeks, and said, “I’ve never flirted with a client.” That was almost the truth. 

“Don’t worry, sweetie.” She had used a number of pet names since Edith had arrived –sweetie, honey, noodle—as if she was speaking to a tearful child. “Molly is sweet, but she’s also the most jealous woman I know. As if anyone would flirt with her potato bug of a husband.” 

Edith unclenched her jaw as Maggie sat cross legged on top of the coffee table.

“But be honest. Clients must make a pass at you all the time.”

Edith thought of the quiet, sun-beaten neighborhoods in Redfield, pickups parked in almost every drive; the church across the street from where she stayed, rising clean and white out of the dusty road; the sound of the freight train in the evening, carrying grain; the smell of his musty clothing and brandy sours. She was turning red again, blushing this time in embarrassment and anger and also a kind of gratefulness: gratefulness for being noticed, briefly and for whatever purpose, which made her even angrier. Maggie slid across the table toward her.

“I knew it. Tell me, tell me.”

She put one hand on Edith’s arm, and squeezed. She did it easily, confidentially, like they were teenage friends swapping secrets. Something forgotten in Edith, something vague but persistent leapt out, and she wanted nothing more than to please. 

“There was a man. He was one of my clients in South Dakota. We had—”

She started to say a kind of flirtation, but she looked at the bookcase, felt the little button pressed between the pages of romantic trash, and what came out of her mouth instead was,

“—an affair.”

Maggie’s eyes widened, clear and bright and brown, and she leaned closer to Edith until their foreheads were almost touching. 

“What was his name?”

“His name?”

Floyd. Floyd Brooks. 



“Yes, he was.”

She thought of the navy jacket he wore over jeans, always pressed and clean but wearing thin across the elbows and pulling tight across his stomach. “Pierre,” he said with a fake French accent, “makes quality suits.” And she giggled at the time, a twelve-year-old giggle, thinking he had a tailor named Pierre, only to realize later he meant Pierre, South Dakota.

“We first spoke over the phone when I was with another client. He owned —owns— a construction company. The biggest construction company in that county.” She paused a moment, remembering, and could say honestly, “He told me I had a feminine voice.”

“You do, honey. What did he sound like?”

“Sound like? He was gravelly. Like an old star in a black and white film.” He did have a gravelly voice, she thought, when he wasn’t coughing. He was so proud of the fact he had smoked since he was thirteen. Two packs a day and healthy as a horse, she had once heard him say to an employee. “He smoked, you see.”

“Never trust a man who doesn’t smoke. All the good ones smoke.”

“Oh? Well, we first met. . . right off the train. I was the only person to get off at the station, and he was leaning against the iron railings. He ran over to me—” 

“But he didn’t really run.”

“He did.” 

She was surprised with herself, pleased in fact, with how quickly, how confidently, she could create him. 

“I had mentioned what time I was getting to town, but I never thought he’d be there. He helped me over to my bed and breakfast, carried everything for me but my purse, then we walked over to his office together. There was a beautiful sunset, pinks and orange shining through the willows.”

She thought of the bus station, a cinderblock building with an empty vending machine and silver benches. A teenager, wearing a puffy down jacket too warm for the weather, was the only other person to get off at Redfield with her. She’d asked him for directions, and dragged her suitcases six streets away to the motel. She’d had just enough time to take a shower and eat a packet of raisins before she walked over to his office, getting lost along the way in a quiet cul-de-sac. But there had really been a beautiful sunset that evening, reflecting off the steel grain silos.

“He flirted with me right away, but gently, you know. He wasn’t pushy.”

“Sure, sure.”

“That first meeting he seemed distracted, kept staring into my eyes, forgetting what he was saying halfway through his sentence. Then I dropped all of my papers on the floor. I was tired, you see, from the trip. He helped me pick them up, crawling under the desk and everything, and then as I was opening the door to leave, he came over and brushed my hair from my face. He asked if he could take me to lunch the next day. And he took me to lunch every day for the next week.”

She thought of the bags that must have been under her eyes, her face scrubbed clean, her damp hair during the first meeting. He spent most of the time doodling on the edge of a blueprint for a fast food restaurant, then grinned halfway through her sentence and said, “That all sounds fine. You tell me if you need anything.” While she was still sitting, trying to gather up all of the loose papers he had handed her, he opened the door. She didn’t care, she wanted to leave as much as he wanted her to, but then her skirt caught on the edge of the desk. It ripped open at her left hip, revealing the only pair of lace underwear she owned, and the only pair of clean underwear she’d been able to find in her suitcase. She’d bought them on a whim in Omaha, when the pear trees were blooming and she wanted to feel like a new person, wearing peach-colored lace. He didn’t ask her to lunch, but he looked at her. He looked at her differently.

“Just lunch?” Maggie tapped her arm impatiently.

She’d arrived on a Monday. Over the next five days, he knocked on the door of the little beige-colored closet she had been given to work, and asked how she was liking the place. He brought her water once, and winked at her twice as he walked past. She should have felt annoyed with him: he wasn’t giving her the papers she needed. But he was full of smiles, and funny voices, and stories that weaved in compliments about her skirts, her handwriting, her green eyes, which he said were just like his fourth grade teacher’s. “And did I have the most terrible crush on my fourth grade teacher?” he asked her, walking away before she could figure out if he wanted an answer. She started wearing green shirts that matched her eyes. She had her hair styled for the first time in years. He leaned onto her desk that day, and said, “You’re liable to give the poor slobs around here a heart attack.” Then he asked her if she wanted to share his egg salad sandwich, and they sat outside on a low concrete wall. He talked about himself mostly, and pointed out all of the buildings and houses his company had built. She dropped egg salad on his sleeve, and he waved away her napkin, telling her about those quality suits made by Pierre, and through her giggling, which she couldn’t seem to stop, he said, 

“You are something.” 

She almost believed it too.

“Just lunch at first. We talked about everything: where we’d grown up, what our families were like, what we liked to do and read and watch. We even ordered the same sandwich. Then at the end of the week, I was in his office, and he took my face in both his hands and kissed me. He kissed me for so long I thought I might faint.”

Maggie sighed. That really had happened, Edith reminded herself. She didn’t have to make that up. She’d been asking for specific papers all week, and there was nothing more she could do without them. She’d closed his office door so she wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his employees, but he was frowning at her authoritative voice. “I understand you’re busy,” she’d said, “but you’ve had time to find—” And then he kissed her. She thought his hands would be rough, calloused from construction work, but they were disarmingly soft, as if he soaked them in milk. 

“And after that, we… well.”

She thought she’d need to give details, that this would be her main interest, the entire point, but Maggie waved one hand in the air for her to continue.

“We met when we could for the rest of the week, in between his work and mine, and then on the Saturday he took me to this little restaurant out of town, a quiet place. Velvet seats, piano music. And the first thing he said was he loved me.”

“What did you say?” She looked so concerned, so eager; a child listening to a storybook. “Did you love him?”

“No. Even if I did, there was nothing I could say. We couldn’t be together.”

Too dramatic, she thought, I’ve pushed it too far. But Maggie’s brow was furrowed, the edge of her lips peaking upwards just slightly, waiting to hear the rest. Edith thought of the bar she’d walked into that night, out of place in a blue A-line skirt she’d never had the chance to wear. It was busier than it looked from the outside, loud with laughter and music and cheering over the football game on TV. He was sitting next to an empty, brightly lit fish tank in the corner, wearing a jean jacket and drinking a whiskey sour. He’d ordered her a jack and coke, and then a second one. She didn’t really care about kissing him, but she wanted to kiss and he was there, with one hand on her knee and a cherry stem sticking out of the side of his mouth, like a farmer chewing on wheat. She’d held on to his open jacket, rubbed the corduroy lining with her thumb, feeling slightly woozy as he talked about work and numbers and papers. She wasn’t listening; she was more concerned with his breath against her hair. She ran her finger along his bottom lip.

“Are all auditors so friendly?” he’d asked, after an hour and three drinks. 

She’d laughed and answered, “I’m the only friendly one in the world.”

“You are something,” he’d said, and at that point she would have gone just about anywhere with him. Then he put his arm around her waist to pull her closer to him and whispered into her ear, “So we don’t need to worry about little papers, do we?”

“But why couldn’t you be together?” Maggie demanded.

Edith hesitated, thinking of the lime and smoke on his breath. “Because the second thing he said was he was married.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s awful. Isn’t that just like men, reeling you in, then telling you they’re taken? Hope you told him to go to hell.”

“I couldn’t do that. He was so sorry about the whole thing. He brought me flowers, had the restaurant set them up specially on the table.” 

She’d once seen a man at a diner in Bismarck ask his girlfriend to marry him with a big bouquet of roses. She imagined Floyd Brooks buying her a pink and yellow bouquet. 

“He hadn’t meant to fall in love. I just had to tell him it couldn’t be.”

“I guess you can’t help how you feel.”

“You really can’t.”

After she’d pulled away, spilling the last of her drink over the table and weaving through the crowd that had gathered around the TV, he’d followed her, grabbed her elbow as she was walking outside.

“You know your problem? You can’t do anything. Auditors can’t really do anything.”

She’d stared at his soft, flabby lips as his voice rose higher and higher.

“You go scrambling through everyone’s lives, making problems, but you’ve got nothing to show for it. There’s nothing to you. You’re not a whole person. You understand me? You’re not whole.”

A group of teenagers had come running around the corner at that point, knocking him off balance. She turned around and ran, waiting until she was halfway down the street and in the dark before she let herself slow down. He shouted after her the whole time she ran; all she heard through the thumping in her ears was, “You think I really wanted you?”

A bubbling laughter was flowing out of Maggie, and Edith bristled. Then Maggie said,

“I’m not laughing about Brooks, I couldn’t. I was just thinking of how funny it is that out of all the men you meet each year, Molly thought you’d flirt with her husband. That potato bug!”

Maggie threw her head back and laughed, and though Edith had never found anything too funny, she joined her. They laughed together, so loud and long her neck started to ache. I’ll keep on laughing for hours, for days, on this lumpy leather chair, Edith thought to herself, if someone’s knees can just keep touching my own. Then Maggie stood up, wiped her eyes, and said, looking down at Edith who still had one hand over her mouth, though she had stopped laughing, “Let’s go to lunch. I want to hear about the others.” 

She moved into the hallway, picking up her green scarf and draping it over the banister, then stopped on the first step to look back at Edith.

“Forget numbers, honey. You should write. Write about Brooks.”

Edith could never tell when someone was teasing her, but she had asked her to lunch, after all; they had laughed together, after all. 

“What about you?”

Maggie leaned back against the banister, smiling.

“What about me?”

“What would you do if you didn’t teach?”

Maggie looked puzzled for a second, then giggled, in the same way one of her young students might. 

“Why would I do anything different?”

When she reached the top of the stairs, she shouted, “Just give me an hour to grade,” before closing her bedroom door. There were a few muffled sounds right above Edith’s head: the closet door opening, a chair being moved, a pen being dropped and retrieved, then it was quiet. 

Outside, a car pulled into the driveway across the street. Edith turned toward the boisterous voices coming through the window, but found herself staring at a scuff on the wall from an old table, perhaps, or a desk that was moved. So many bare walls, she thought to herself, just like in Iowa, or maybe it was Minnesota. A dark scrape in a motel room, in another nondescript town. She couldn’t remember what the motel looked like, or if the bed had been comfortable, or how long she had stayed there, but she remembered it had been summer; the tree outside her window was filled with cicadas. The scrape in that room went across two walls, leading to a small gash just below the window. There was a flap of wallpaper over it, and it quivered whenever the window was left open. She’d woken up looking at that gash every day, until one morning, early but so hot you’d think it was mid-day, she’d knelt in front of it. On a strip of paper she wrote her name with more focus than she had ever given anything in her life. Then she rolled the paper up tight, placed it in the gash, and rooted through dozens of plastic bags –all taped and folded for travel– until she found a tube of white toothpaste. Carefully, she’d pasted the flap of wallpaper down.

She wondered now if someone had found her name. She wondered if it was still there.

Upstairs, Maggie was walking back and forth in her room, the same room she’d had since childhood. I could tell, Edith thought to herself, I could tell who Maggie was within minutes of meeting her: she called the mailman by his first name and waved to every neighbor. Her house smelled of oranges and chimney smoke, and all of her clocks were set to the right time. No one questioned her place in this world. No one thought of her as anything but whole.

She pulled the rabbit from behind the pillows, collecting all of his disjointed limbs. I’ll find my nice coat, she thought, packed away in one of my suitcases, and have an apple crisp at lunch. She started toward her room, stuffing one of the rabbit’s legs down into an umbrella stand where, the day before, she had dropped all of Maggie’s delicate silver teaspoons.

Image: Photo by Roungroat, via Rawpixel.