Begin, and somewhat loudly sweep the string.
Hence with denial vain and coy excuse! —Lycidas
Maggie’s hand clenched tighter around her phone, tendons taut under the skin.
“What do you mean—he fell?”
The line was silent. Alec was chattering to himself, arranging button-eyed stuffed animals for a picnic on the couch.
“I’m sorry you have to hear this, Mrs. Niskanen.”
She blinked again. The carpet was the same oatmeal brown as always. And then something was pushing up hard inside of her. “Hear what? What does that even mean? What do you mean, he fell?”
Alec looked up, blue eyes sensitive under thin blond hair. Maggie turned to the window; morning sunlight fell through the yard in golden swathes, soaking the grass and crumbling concrete patio.
“He—jumped, Mrs. Niskanen.”
Rick was bending down, lips warm against hers. “Love you,” he said, and then he was out the door, and Alec ran to the bay window, and she knelt next to him with Aida in her arms. Even Aida had learned to wave goodbye, as Rick pulled back out of the driveway. He lifted a hand from the steering wheel and blew a kiss, and Alec said, “Bye, Daddy.”
Maggie put a hand to her forehead. “Jumped?”
“Yes, Mrs. Niskanen. He didn’t trip or—anything. He went a ways. We think he must’ve fallen in the river. We—we can’t find the body.”
Alec was standing there, serious, his favorite sea turtle in his arms. “Sammy wants blueberries for his snack.”
“Did you buy any this week?” Maggie pointed at the toy kitchen.
“Sorry, what was that?”
“Is there—anything we can do for you, Mrs. Niskanen?”
“Give me a second, baby.”
“We’ll let you know—as soon as we know anything.”
“Again, we’re so sorry, Mrs. Niskanen.”
“We’ll be in touch soon.”
She hung up. Call ended. You’ve been disconnected. Alec was looking in the toy fridge. The carpet was still oatmeal. And that was Aida crying. Maggie looked at her phone: She’d only be asleep for twenty minutes.
She was falling fast into the river, water surging, rocks rushing up in the rapids, drowning. Rick was leaning down, lips warm against hers. But this time she caught at the back of his shirt, the cotton gingham starched under her fingers, and she pulled him back, and he smiled down, surprised and not surprised, and she didn’t let go. And they jumped together.
“Mommy, I can’t find them!”
“I’ll help you in just one minute, baby, but I need to see if Aida’ll go back down.”
She walked up the stairs, the third one creaking as always. That picture of them stared down from the wall: Rick’s arms around her, his red head leaned over her shoulder, the Soo Locks stretching back behind them.
The nursery was dark, the blinds rolled down, but Maggie moved across the room with practiced steps, instincts honed by countless interrupted nights. Aida was reaching fever-pitch. She reached down into the crib gently, shushing her baby, and Aida looked back with crinkled, offended eyes peering out from a bald head. Maggie swayed up and down, stepping sideways, lowering herself backward into the rocking chair. Aida rooted, disconsolate, and though they were trying to wean her, Maggie did not care.
Milk streamed from her body, nourishing her child in the darkness. She stared straight ahead, rocking deeply, but she didn’t see the green-and-white closet door.
It wasn’t possible. Rick wouldn’t—do that. Wasn’t he standing there in his skates and knit hat, Alec in his arms, smiling, his breath steaming with life? Wasn’t he leaning across the table at Founder’s, yelling over the din and the smell of beer, joking with Dave? Why would he do that? Why would he jump?
Aida was slowing, soporific, and Maggie remembered to ease off her feet, pushing and swinging more softly. What was happening here, now? A sigh was trembling through Aida’s close body. Alec was quiet downstairs—perhaps too quiet. And she needed to make calls: mom and dad, and Scott, and Chris, and her mom and dad, and work.
What would she say? Sorry, Mom. Your son decided to jump off the J.W. Marriott.
It wasn’t possible. Didn’t suicides leave notes? Where would’ve Rick left a note?
She stood to lay Aida back in her cradle, but she twitched awake, whining faintly. Maggie pulled her baby to her breast again and moved out into the hall, standing on the step long enough to see that Alec had returned to the couch, passing out imaginary blueberries to his stuffties. Now, suddenly, the tears came to her eyes, hot and blurring—and what of her son? What could he even do with the words, Daddy’s dead. He’s gone. He’s not coming back. He looked so much like Rick, his hair already darkening to a dirty red, his face wide-set with rounded cheeks.
She had told him once, If you ever die, it’ll never be the same of course, but at least I’ll still have you in our children, and he had raised himself up on his elbow, leaning over her to see her face: I’m not leaving, Mags.
She wiped her eyes with the back of a hand, pacing as silently as she could down the hall to their room. The bed was still unmade, the sheets kicked to the bottom; she had been going to change them today. She pressed her hand to his side of the bed: cold, vacated hours ago. Her reflection stared back at her from the vanity table, arms jiggling Aida up and down instinctively, and the whole room felt empty.
Where would’ve Rick left a note? She wiped her eyes again and walked to the dresser, her hand ranging across the surface, touching a pack of gum, reading glasses, erasers, an Eifel Tower paperweight, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her bedside table had not been disturbed either, carrying the same issues of Layers and Pottery Barn, sketchbooks, Goodnight, Gorilla. Dust collected on the TV console. She stood in the middle of the room, spinning slowly in a circle, and her eyes came to rest on the print of Una and the Lion hanging over the dresser.
Briton Rivière had painted the original with all the lovable pretention and wistfulness of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and yet there was something truly affecting about Una’s downcast face, the twining of her melancholic hands. The lion strode behind her, careful not to tread on her train, his haunches and forearms muscular and undeniably sexy, his mane curling and lustrous in a way that reminded her more of ancient Roman statuary than the real lions she’d seen on National Geographic. For all his power, though, his face was turned upward at Una’s side, calm and loyal and sympathetic. A lamb cavorted ahead of them, perhaps the most detailed character in the piece, its neck turned in careless innocence. The forest behind them ranged in carefully planted rows, suggesting an English country estate instead of Una’s “yrksome way,” but there was something true to Rivière’s domestication of the scene—an echo of Spenser’s own conflation of the present day with a heroic past.
Rick had given her the print shortly after they’d begun dating, and it really had felt like a gift—like a blessing spoken over her, or a prophecy. Five years before that, she had first fallen in love with The Faerie Queene in Dr. Beach’s intro to English literature, that fall semester of their sophomore year. She had grown up on The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon, eventually tackling Tennyson’s Arthurian poetry and parts of Le Morte D’Arthur on her own. But it had been Una and her meeting with the lion that had fascinated her so completely, inspiring her to read beyond Book One and discover the enchantments of Britomart and Artegall and Calidore. As a child, Maggie had had dreams of a lion bounding out of the forest, come to protect her and to play with her, and in one of her earliest memories she had nursed from the lion’s nipples. That had been their first class together, too, Rick sitting in the back in loose jeans and wiry glasses, his head turned down and his shaggy hair the same color as Flaming June’s.
Moving by intuition, she settled Aida between two pillows on the bed then lifted Una and the Lion off the wall. There was nothing there, hidden behind the frame. She undid the backing, but there was nothing.
Maybe she was going crazy. Maybe Rick had fallen. Maybe he had bent down and kissed her for the last time.
Aida slept, her mouth parted just so below the nub of her little nose.
Maggie had to go downstairs. Alec was trying to spread a blanket over the kitchen table and chairs, heedless of the butternut-squash-and-apple puree spread in front of Aida’s highchair. Wordlessly, she pulled the corners of the blanket into place, and then she scooped up her son, holding him close in her arms.
“I love you, baby,” she whispered. She held him back, so she could see his face. “You know that, right?”
He squiggled, giving one of those wry Rick looks. “What’s wrong, Mommy?”
Tears prickled in her eyes again. She smiled: three-year-olds saw everything.
“I have to make some calls, okay? Later today, Grandpa and Grandma, and Papa and Nana, and Uncle Scott, and Aunt Chris—they’re all coming to visit us soon, okay?”
She nodded, swallowing. “Sort of like Christmas, but they’re coming for a sad reason.”
“Because—someone in the family has died. He’s gone away, so he’ll never come back again.”
Alec’s face furrowed, and Maggie ran her hand across his cheek. “I need to make those calls, okay, love? Did you find the blueberries?”
He raised a hand, clenched as if holding a bowl by the rim. She smiled and set him down by the couch, then turned to find her phone where she’d left it, on the ledge by the door. The cursor scrolled on and on through her contacts, chiming blandly with every name: Mom (Rick). Her hand was shaking.
Sorry, Mom. Your son decided to jump off the Marriott.
She went up to the nursery and closed the door. The darkness closed around her gently, and she breathed it in, long and wavering. She sat on the footrest, elbows on knees, her eyes flitting through the toys and blankets sprawled across the rug.
Her thumb moved then, exact and sure, flying through the number by heart. She raised the phone to her ear, listening to the grainy ringtones.
“Hey, gurlfriend!” She could just see Tara, head tilted to the side, chestnut hair trailing from a loose hairclip. “Are you still taking the kiddos to the park this afternoon?”
“Hey? What’s up?”
The words were right there, but her throat caught. She had to use the true words—nothing softer or harder.
“Hello?” Tara’s voice came from so far away.
“Rick jumped off the Marriott.”
“Oh my God!”
“They can’t find his body, so—they think he must’ve fallen in the river.”
“Oh my God, Mags! Are you all right?”
“When—how did you—?”
“The head of construction called, maybe fifteen minutes ago.”
The line was silent, again. Was there anything lonelier: silence over a machine of telepathic connection? She might as well be saying, I cannot feel what you’re going through. I am searching for magic words to make you feel better, even though we both know they don’t exist.
“Do you want me to come over?”
The tears came unbidden, a third time, and she knew then that they were simply a part of who she was now. “That—would be really fantastic. Can you?”
“Of course. I’ll be over in fifteen.”
“Hang in there.”
Call ended. It blinked before her eyes, blinding in the darkness. Before she could lose her nerve again, she scrolled as fast as she could to Mom (Rick) and hit send. Her whole body seemed to tighten together, like an early contraction—like her grief was preparing to be born.
“Oh! Hello, sweetie!” Her voice came bright across the 250 miles.
“Hi. Hi, Mom. How are things?”
“Oh, fine, fine. I’m just taking Barb to the hospital. You remember Mrs. Murphy? Breast cancer, you know.”
“Are you okay, honey? You sound sniffy.”
“I’ve got some really bad news.”
“Can—you pull over?”
“Well, we’re running a little late—”
“I think you should pull over.”
“Okay, okay. Here we go. What is it?”
The words were right there. She swallowed. “Rick jumped off a hotel this morning. I’m really sorry.”
“The new J.W. Marriott they’re building. Rick went to do inspections, and he jumped off into the river.” It sounded more like the back-cover of a movie every time she said it. “They—can’t find the body.”
“Rick jumped? What do you mean? I had no idea things were like that. Did he leave a note?”
Here we go again. “No. I have no idea either.”
“Really, honey? You haven’t noticed—or have you not been—?”
“What the heck, Mom? My husband is dead—your son is dead—and that’s what we’re going to talk about?”
“Oh, honey, honey, I’m sorry. I’m just—I don’t even—”
“I know.” Maggie closed her eyes. “I know. Can—can you call Scott, and Chris? I’ll let you know as soon as I know more, or if they—find him.”
“Of course, honey. Your father and I—we’ll drive down as soon as we can.”
“I’m so sorry, Mom.”
“Are you all right?”
She was bawling.
“Are you all right, Mom?”
“I’m—I’ll be all right.”
She didn’t even try to say anything.
“Okay,” Maggie said. “Love you.”
The phone light flickered to black. Teddy Bear, pitched on his side, stared back up at her.
Dry-eyed, mechanical, she walked downstairs. Alec looked up as the third step creaked, and he came out of his cave.
“Mommy, can I have real blueberries?”
“Not right now, love.”
She picked him up again, kissing his forehead, then slumped them down on the couch together. Alec squirmed free, Maggie relinquishing, sitting there, staring at the blank TV screen. She stared, her whole body tight, clutching at nothing.