2017 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Winner
The Wasp Tax
by Regina Marler
I am the widow Marden. Floodwaters rose by night and swept away my husband. Four months of pancreatic cancer: three to agonize over treatments and one to clutch at tree roots as we flashed past, tumbling and choking. He kept looking for me at the end. I can say that. We were alive together and the hospice workers moved around us like ghosts. They had to say everything twice, three times, for us to hear them. Their death-room voices were too low. They had to touch us. Such was our sweet conspiracy. Death severed us, finally, and dumped me in a broken chair, overlooking our little farm and the bruise-brown basin of our neighbor’s winter vineyard.
From this chair, other mornings, I’ve watched flotillas of hot air balloons—always surreal, like floating apples. You hear their hot breath, that sudden rage from the burner. Sometimes laughter. I met a balloon pilot once, in line at the bank. He had one of those august, old-fashioned names that you can’t imagine hanging on a newborn. Horace. Hiram. I forget. All I can bring into consciousness is whatever’s in front of me. I am Here, Now, with a vengeance. It makes for a kind of insect movement through the world. If I could leave this chair, I could test this weird shrunken perspective, maybe creep down the drive to the mailbox. I wonder how anyone writes philosophically about grief, how any words come from this scooped shell.
* * *
The hospice workers came yesterday to collect the last of their supplies. No calls today. I’m being left alone with my loss. Also with the literary remains of my dead husband in a plastic bin.
Here is the “something to do” that surviving “loved ones” are said to require. His lanky publisher, his sexy publisher, the full head of hair and the gabardine suit, asked me to sort through these papers, to edit them. He asked over the buffet table at the funeral dinner. Someone else pushed the button, lit the pyre. My job to build the monument.
* * *
The lavender harvest. Another shared event lost. I could not manage it this year, given David’s illness. Could not even cook a meal, as I always did, for the laborers. It hurt physically to watch them from the window while he slept. Worse to have to ask them to turn off their radio.
Ache in my clipper hand. Tired back. Completion. Camaraderie. Our lunch outside at a long table with the crew. After the glare of the fields, sun-blindness as I carry bowls into the house. Laughing. Plates rattling. A hand catching my waist.
Maybe because I was the second wife, the wife of his success, he liked to think of me as indolent and pleasure loving. While he was thinking that, I formed the herbal cooperative, wrote for newspapers, raised our daughter. Finally, with inheritance from my mother, I bought a small publishing firm and began to make no money in a drawn-out, decorative way that must have suited me in his eyes, but which I gradually learned was characteristic of publishing. Friends in the business had to assure me that I was really making it. Everything I did seemed to please David, and he would cheerfully carry book boxes or play Famous Writer at my parties. His own books went to his long-time editor in New York. I would have assumed that all the remaining writing would go there. We did talk, during hospice, about his legacy, or as he enjoyed saying, his afterlife.
And now this request to edit his collected stories, to publish a small special edition, clothbound, while his New York publisher handles the trade edition. There is something so seemly about the project, so womanly, that it takes on the aspect of a final office, like washing his corpse.
At the top of the bin are photocopies. Below are originals, but I know not to touch these yet. Noli me tangere. He is not yet ascended. And then of course the Buddhist thing. The forty-nine days. Most of his earliest writings are in here, a lot of them still unpublished, the stories he wrote before his first novel. He was more than twenty years my senior, so his cheap typing paper bought in the various Rexalls of the Lower East Side has aged to ivory. The scent alone works on me like a complicated drug, a chemical key that slips into one door after another—nostalgia, ambition, desire, pain. He could have seduced me with his manuscripts alone, aphrodisiac of English majors.
My neighbor is instructing her gardener. She must be fifty feet away, behind a fence and a row of cypresses, but every word pricks my eardrum. They seem like another species, the unwounded. People who wake up to the smooth jazz station or the Old School Beats of Freddy Elwood, and shake their tails while they toss a banana in the blender. I can’t believe we even use the same language. I picture passing one of them on the road outside, responding to that big, gormless “Hi!” with a series of clicks or a low moan.
By lunch, I’ve chosen three stories and eliminated one as too early and unfinished. The cleaver swings. Farewell, “Daisy Chain.” We hardly knew ye. And now only a few graduate students, a few brave archival explorers, ever will.
David Marden: Stories.
Stories of David Marden.
I pick up “Daisy Chain” and place it back in the Possibles pile.
* * *
Yesterday I was sweeping around one of our big terracotta urns on the patio and saw at the opening a network of web strands, taut and white. They descended deep into the neck of the vessel, as far down as I could see. All the urns had them, some with tufts of dandelion seed caught on the lines like vibrating stars.
David always loved accidental beauty, natural or otherwise. We never removed those magical papery wasp hives from under the eaves. I liked the wasps, would eat outside despite them, and took to separating a morsel of meat or chicken—the wasp tax—and sliding it to the edge of my plate, where a scout from the flying squadron would discover it and carry it off.
* * *
My neighbor brings a gun. Strange gift, I think, for a grieving widow. She tells me about the mountain lion sightings. Just down by the trash and compost bins at the end of our shared drive. They don’t eat trash and compost, of course, but they do eat the eaters of trash and compost.
I close the door thinking: Good. Somewhere nearby is a satisfied animal.
* * *
I kissed him first. I had to do it all, as his student, had to acknowledge his scruples as I blatantly pushed through them. Then we were flying. Those first years, we were covered in bruises. Even later, living here, he liked to pretend he couldn’t get past me in the hall but had to push and paw me like a subway groper.
Once in a while I find a beautiful page some girl must have typed for him. The rest of the time, I’m deep in the stories. I recognize so much. Holidays and restaurants we shared. A few events that happened to me, before I met him—altered, of course, to serve his purposes, unstrung and recombined, like our mingled DNA in our daughter. I knew his kind and depressed mother, his childhood friends, at least in their middle-aged versions. One early story seems a faithful transcript of his neighbors’ argument, overheard through the light well some morning in the Bowery. I see him scratching at his steno pad, his coffee burning on the stove. I can almost smell him, the fox stink under his arms. All his friends were writing that way then, directly from life, like a second wave of Beats who never needed to rebel against their elders, never had to burn it down but only keep the fires stoked. The Up All Night School. The School of the Nicotine Stain. We used to argue like students about authenticity, about the “real,” and I would pick up an antique silver cup someone gave us at our wedding and insist that it was no less authentic than his milk glass shaving mug, chipped in the Navy barracks washroom.
* * *
“I knew you’d be awake.”
I switch off the movie. Three in the morning.
“Is he a genius?”
“That’s such a daughter’s question, Vicki. You’re almost the age I was when I met him.”
“What are the stories like?”
“Oh, you know. Brothels. Monasteries. The extremes. He was so young when he wrote them.”
I can hear her boyfriend snoring beside her.
“Stream of consciousness,” I add, keeping her on the line, or allowing myself to be kept talking. I pull on a sweater and make my way into the kitchen for scrambled eggs. I choose the old plastic mixing bowl, the bent fork. This sense of mediating between David and his readers, between David and his only child, worries me. I want to be just a pair of hands smoothing the pages, passing them on.
“Are you jealous of them? The women in the stories?”
People ask this all the time. But once David wrote about a woman he knew, she became a character. No competition at all, I felt, as if every pretty girl he wrote about had a foot on the back of her coat, some aspect of her that was caught. Fixed. I could never imagine him saying their name, the way he said mine into the nape of my neck. Celi. Celi.
“I do sometimes wonder who typed for him.”
I’d taken my plate of eggs to the window and stood surveying the garden below, my one strip of drought-yellowed lawn bordered by box hedges. A tissue of light from the kitchen lay over the grass, softening and accentuating the bumps so that it looked like a snapshot of the ocean surface.
“You mean girlfriends.”
Something shrugs against the hedge.
“Well, whoever he was close to at that moment,” I answer. “Not necessarily girlfriends. Different girls. Before I met him. Or women friends, you know. After. Men didn’t always type, back then, or they pretended not to.”
Again, at the far side of the lawn now, beyond the light’s reach. A heavy ripple in the shadow. My pulse quickens. I step back until I can flip off the light switch and put us on equal terms. I return to the window and scan the darkness.
* * *
If I could, I would sleep all day. It’s the only unspoiled pleasure. In dreams, I am an empty bowl for symbols. I sleep until Rick, our farmhand, knocks on the bedroom shutters. When I finally pull open the terrace door, it’s all I can do to stand there looking at him. Luckily, not much is expected of me now.
“Luisa made you tamales,” he says, handing me a heavy canvas bag. His wife doesn’t speak to strangers. In fact, she rarely leaves the house.
“That’s too much,” I reply. I mean, thank you.
“Freeze the extra. You okay?”
“Yes. Vicki’s coming up this weekend.” Two lies in a row. “Would you like some coffee?”
“Luisa’s in the truck.”
It takes a second for me to realize that this good, clever man is no longer considered safe here alone. He must be chaperoned. The change is in me—not the wife of his employer but a widow in my forties. Though I’d never considered Rick in a sexual light, I suddenly see him as Luisa must. His great slab of a back, like a table for six, his steady step down the graveled terraces of lavender. I don’t want him, but his excellence has registered.
“I’ll say hello.”
Here I have to confess that my legs are bare, my breasts loose under a single layer of fabric. I’ve been sleeping in David’s shirts and figured I was concealed enough to answer my terrace door. But not to meet Luisa. I tie on my robe and step outside barefoot, following Rick around the house to the driveway.
She sits in the truck with the windows rolled down. Hugely pregnant.
“Luisa. Mucho gusto. Muchas gracias por los tamales.”
Too shy to speak, she smiles and takes my hand—not a business handshake, but a handclasp, woman to woman. I hold the clasp long enough, I hope, to convey that I am no threat. She squeezes my hand in response. Eighty percent sympathy, even ninety. The rest wary. But her eyes! Too young to have grieved anything. Still gathering, gathering.
After Rick drives off, I take the kind of shower that makes the bathroom walls drip. Then I walk through the house with a vodka tonic, calling for my husband. He’s right where I left him, of course, the paper man. I climb back in bed with a clutch of his stories. I can’t read anyone else. I’m even more monogamous as his widow than as his wife.
* * *
One morning I find his morphine. It had rolled off the nightstand and under the bed, and only because my good pen fell onto the carpet and I bent to retrieve it did I spot the vial, too. Little Bo Peep, Inducing Sleep. You increase the dose. You calmly, kindly increase the dose. I didn’t, as it happened, though I was prepared to do so, and David thought we would. He slept so much anyway, at the end. I hold the vial, reading and re-reading its label.
* * *
Day sixteen of the widow’s vigil. I’ve carried my lunch and my papers outside and can hear the neighbors again, probably consulting the county wildlife officer, as they told me they would. The story I’m reading is set here, at this house. David is describing our fountain–a jet rising from a concrete shell. I doze off, but wake from vivid and humiliating dreams. Then I read with those eyes. A man is sweeping the second floor of the house, glances out the window, spots his daughter in the hot tub with her boyfriend, the wet lump of her swimsuit on the deck like something you would wipe up with newspaper. He stops to watch.
I recognize our house. Our pool. Our hot tub built into the side, near the stairs, because it was cheaper. I turn back to the beginning. The story is called “Aurelia,” for the daughter. I don’t remember it. I’m sure it wasn’t published. The father watches his daughter making love to her boyfriend. I’m looking for something, the clinching detail. I find it. The boyfriend is black.
Jerome Logan Johnson: Vicki’s boyfriend for two years at UC Santa Cruz.
Here he is called “Jeep,” which is Jerome’s actual nickname. The father stands out of view. He watches the daughter moving on her boyfriend’s lap. The lovers change position. He watches the boyfriend lean over the daughter, open her legs. He watches the boyfriend’s supple back and the daughter’s arms around him. He watches while they climax: the daughter first, her head thrown back and her wet hair lashing the pool deck, clinging to it. This is all, as they say, dispassionate and closely observed.
* * *
Where were these neighbors last month when I stepped on a scorpion? Or when I found that stricken vole throwing itself around in the undergrowth, thrashing, popping, and I couldn’t bear to hit the creature with something or step on it, afraid the ground beneath would be soft and I wouldn’t end its suffering but increase it? Now I’m helplessly listening to their bzzz..bzzz…she…bzzz. I can’t make out the words. I don’t want to hear them at all but I strain for context.
The woman had brought me a Remington shotgun and showed me how to load it. Perhaps they’d expected to see me with the gun, when I carried my kitchen garbage out to the bins, because now, on the pretext of helping the widow, she and her husband are scouting the perimeter of my land. They’re taking my protection into their own hands. They even brought me dinner. Nightfall is the most dangerous time, they told me. Nightfall and dawn. Clearly, they are not on the grief clock. I am no stranger to nightfall and dawn. They stood for a while under the valley oak, just looking around, like potential buyers, surveying the lavender clumps and the pomegranate trees, with their red balled fruit like a child’s drawing. Now they’re downhill and out of sight. They’re on safari.
* * *
At the farmer’s market, I fill my basket, then sit at the makeshift café, under an awning, and drink bitter fair-trade coffee. I am out in the world, as recommended. A small check has arrived from a film company optioning one of David’s stories. He promised to take care of me, and I suppose this is what he meant. But he left. And if he hadn’t, I would push him away. I was floating to meet him. Now I’m alone. All questions. All suspicion.
Visitors last night. My husband’s editor, in from the east coast, and his second wife: shoulders and pelvises, both of them, tall and lean, and, when he tugged up his trousers to sit, two bony, distinguished ankles in herringbone socks. When we’d finished the wine and the olives they’d brought, he rubbed his hands, bringing up David, the book to come. The money can’t be very much, as these things go. Was it the fame? Did he warm himself on that? Or was it love? Was it the chance to be close to David again?
“What a gift,” says David’s editor. He means my work with the stories. The pleasure and distraction of immersing myself in my husband’s words. A gift, I suppose, from him, the editor. And the look on my face—Medusa. I can’t speak but Bridget–Brigitte?–his wife steers us to safety. Children. Music. Travel.
Somehow the night ends, and I have not handed over my manuscript. They think I am holding on to him. In kindness, they say this to my face. My part of this work was small and ceremonial, they think, a question of choosing among rubies.
* * *
As he aged, he shrank. He downshifted from formidable to adorable, crossing campus in his wool beanie and Nehru jacket. I remember feeling grateful that he’d attracted a devoted corps of male students and younger male colleagues, of bodyguards, rather than young women. When I showed up at his office, one of these young men would always be there, glancing up possessively from the couch before he recognized me. Then jumping to his feet. Blushing, even. Choosing to worship at the same shrine as the master.
* * *
How do you solve a problem like “Aurelia?” Awake again in darkness, I study the ceiling through David’s gaze. I touch my hipbone with his hand. For hours, I contemplate the coldness of the artist’s eye, its inexorable sweep. Or I assume—I hope–that “Aurelia” is the product of that cold voyeurism. A motive one could understand, if not, let’s say, forgive.
Predawn. I’m no longer looking at the clock or ceiling but out the bedroom window at grey shapes, overlapping. The crescent moon, like a door ajar to a lit room, lets me imagine more than I can see of our yard and farm. David would ask, “Why not a bobcat?” Most of the time, it’s a bobcat, not a mountain lion. But in this case a county wildlife camera trained on a stream beside the road picked up the lion. Buff-colored blunt face, small eyes, nothing cute about it. Drought has driven them down the hillside—deer and their predators. And in the absence of deer, maybe a rodent snack. A snake. A bird. A spaniel. You don’t see them, someone told me, when you’re walking through the woods. They’re in the branches, looking down on you.
* * *
My daughter says, “I’m worried about you.”
“But I worry about you.”
She is the one crying. We’re boxing David’s clothes for charity. Her boyfriend, Simon, is pulling together dinner downstairs. One glimpse of Vicki’s red eyes as he brought up packing tape and markers sent him into retreat. As I hand her each shirt, she smells it, delivers a memory, folds it, pats it. I tell myself, “Keep nothing.”
“Should I keep everything?” I say.
I watch her battle some kind of crazy hope. A few days ago we were together in our mourning. Now there is nothing simple for me. I’m outside common feeling.
“Did you ever–” This feels like picking up a knife. “Do you remember…good things about him? Is there anything…?”
Only my faltering makes her look up at me, her eyes like Luisa’s. She has no idea where I’m going with this.
I ask about Jeep and his travel business. I ask about his wife.
“Vicki?” Something hard in Simon’s voice, calling from the kitchen.
When we get there, he is aiming a rope of blood into the sink.
The dishtowels are dirty. I rummage in a drawer for fresh ones. She calls ahead to the ER. We load him into the backseat of my car with Vicki beside him, clamping the towel to his hand, to the palm of his hand slashed by the wine glass that shattered as he washed it–he tells the story again now, and will tell the ER nurse and then the doctor–and as I swing the car around and crunch down the driveway I notice I’ve left my front door standing open.
Vicki stopped crying when she saw his blood and does not start again until Simon is sewn shut and bandaged and, oddly, limping back to the car. Then it is Simon and David and Simon for the next couple hours, and my arms around her are not her father’s. I think she and Simon will want to sleep soon, given his injury, but they stay up with me instead. We look at family photos. In the morning, Vicki brings me coffee while I work in bed. She cleans the kitchen before leaving for home.
* * *
If a vial of morphine appears in your story, you must drink it.
You must, at least, taste it.
So bitter you regret it.
So bitter you try again.
You wake up with your make-up smeared across the sofa cushion.
You never forget morphine. Rage and confusion pass. Grief softens. You never forget moving through the house that night, bestowing your sweetness on the planet, heavy, happy, the slow-motion agent of love.
* * *
I felt loved. I felt valued. I cherished him and his words. We spoiled each other. Even now, choosing one story, shredding and burning another, erasing its traces, shepherding his work to press, I’m spoiling him and cherishing him and laying up fuel for his winter.
* * *
Manuscript delivery. I press “Send.” Then I drink a little water and cut up an apple. Plain fare, after the food of the underworld.
Five months have passed since David’s death. One of his students wants to film a documentary, and foreign rights for the book I just finished editing, a book no one has seen yet, are already selling. Vicki and her boyfriend—her fiancé–came for lunch the other day and brought me a t-shirt with David’s face, sold at a New York book fair. So it begins. The two of them invited me to Scotland to meet Simon’s family. I think this was offered as transition, a step into another life. I heard, when they spoke, the hours of planning.
They never trapped the mountain lion, and sightings fell away. But I know where he sleeps. Some of the neighbors know, too. And Rick. We stay quiet. He is our secret, and I am not afraid. The others have almost given up their patrols. I still see them sometimes, poking at suspicious scat on the roadside.
For weeks after my husband’s death, nothing looked real. More accurately, nothing outside myself looked real. Only the inward glance caught anything of interest, as if the sun—David himself–had moved inside my mind, leaving the landscape, the farm, everything out there, almost unlit. And then the shock. Then the reckoning. I had to pay for love. Just a little. And so must he.
I carry out the trash at twilight.
Regina Marler is the San-Francisco-based editor of Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell (Pantheon) and Queer Beats (Cleis) and the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom (Henry Holt). Her story, “Glendale Gumshoe and the Ch*eap Vi*a*gra,” published in Cimarron Review, received a special mention in The Pushcart Prize XL (2016).
Judge: Jean Hegland is the author of a book of nonfiction (The Life Within: Celebration of a Pregnancy) and three novels (Still Time; Windfalls; and Into the Forest). Soon after CALYX Books first published Into the Forest in 1996, it was reprinted by Bantam and translated into over a dozen languages. A film adaptation (directed by Patricia Rozema and starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015. The new French translation of Into the Forest has been on the bestselling list in France since its release in January, 2017. Jean lives in northern California, where she is always at work on another book.