We asked Kirstin Allio to introduce us to her short story collection–one piece at a time.
The windows of the apartment were waxy, and had been painted shut in another era. If you pressed yourself against the interior-facing glass you could see, as if at the bottom of a secret well, a murky courtyard where a few scorched houseplants had been left for the wife of the doorman… I theorized that the millennium was like the Wizard of Oz—the moment before he reveals himself from behind the curtain.
Clothed, Female Figure
I came to New York at twenty-six and married the first man I met, literally and proverbially. He stuck his head around the fire escape. “Hey,” he said. “Neighbor.”
He had a loopy, charming grin and hard eyes the color of lapis. I had just brought home a pot of daisies (margaritka, in Russian), and I was setting them out on the little balcony. I wouldn’t have called it a fire escape. My English was good but not specific. He climbed over, still grinning, as if he were shy of my beauty but like a dog couldn’t help himself. He had long legs in tight jeans and white socks with holes in them. So already we were intimate. We had one son, Arturo, named after my husband’s father, the patriarch. The family business was Italian tiles. We were a mismatch from the beginning, although there were never any lighthearted fairies making fun of us.
The Other Woman
I met Phil because we attended the same teachers’ conference in my home city, and he mistook my parked car for his Rent–A–Wreck.
He’d lost the keys and was jimmying ineffectually with a coat hanger. “You’re lucky you’re not trying that outside Planned Parenthood,” I said, sounding for all the world like my mother. He jumped. He made an embarrassing little sound and I blushed for him.
His quavering defense: “Who actually owns a–a–well, a Taurus?”
“Girls from Rhode Island,” I countered, guessing correctly that he wasn’t a native.
“Phil Lebed,” he said, holding his hand out. What a round face–and was he crossed-eyed behind his glasses?
His hand was soft like a Kaiser roll from the supermarket. What was so odd about him? He talked like a white man, and he was shy like a white man, but his skin was the muted black of an old backyard tire swing.
“What’s your name?” he said finally, when I didn’t offer it, and–I knew intuitively–at great cost to his temperament.
Before I could stop myself, out came my standard, “Hey, that’s what people always ask me.” He only looked baffled again. “Swan,” I said. “I’m Swan.” I was not accustomed to speaking gently.
Between Phil’s thick eyebrows and mat of dark hair was a sweatband of tight forehead. His eyebrows kept edging the sweatband upward. “Swan!” he said, clearly delighted.
“You got it,” I said, covering my bases.
He put up his arm as if to shield himself. I would have to be even gentler!
A cunningly visored meter maid came sneaking along the sidewalk. I glanced down– yes, she had chalked my tires. I began to fumble instinctively in my pockets even as she stepped back and made to write out a ticket. The nerve. I put myself between her and the meter. Without looking up she said, “Better hurry.” I opened my mouth–I was going to lay into her– but out of the blue –
“It’s our car,” said Phil Lebed, outrageously.
To make a love story short? As of that very moment, I was no longer alone against all the meter maid of this world.
The baby is three months old… And the baby is 300 years old, and the baby could care less about arithmetic… The baby is three months old and Elena has the sense that Time itself has a three–month–old’s consciousness. Time cannot, for example, roll over, and Time’s blue eyes are still bleary, even flat, marked by a previous universe. She supposes time can hear—her baby passed to the hearing tests—but can’t or won’t pick out the words of her specific pleas, spells, sentences. It seems irrelevant to say Time is going slow, or Time is going fast. Time, like her baby, moves spastically, with a startle reflex.
Caryn and five children are snowed in. The kitchen windows are iglooed with translucent bricks of opal, aquamarine, and rose quartz. The house feels different. Bigger—because it is all there is—and smaller for the same reason.
The plow hasn’t even made one pass on their street. Caryn catches herself listening for its rumble, the clank of its metal udders as little jet sprays of salt and gravel hit the messy roadbed. There is no wind now, and the quiet snow tumbles straight down to earth. Time accumulates with no pretense. Each hour feels like an hour, each minute feels like a minute. The snow is the sand in an hourglass.
The air was watery, snow by afternoon. Taylor clubbed her hands inside her coat pockets. Her building, with a gray awning that seemed to corral the cold, marked the spot where the tree-lined street lost its trees and sidewalk and became a route-numbered highway that coursed through acres of the big-box stores and family restaurants. Taylor set off on the foot: the little townish town was in the opposite direction…
Apparently she needed glasses. It was the very evening she and her mother were driving home from the eye doctor’s appointment that Sara had decided she would travel. As they merged onto the rush-hour interstate Sara’s eyes has stung with tears. To the west, the clouds were shredded over the mountains. She had made a small scene, refusing glasses.
Her mother was trapped in the slow lane. Far to the left, male drivers were slewing northward. There was the moon, even. The sky was like white laundry. Her mother had got that look of a mother animal that Sara hated. As if she longed to feed her baby bird her own vomit.
In her mind’s eye her mother was waving goodbye, nobody waved anymore, her mother looked like she thought she was in a hat, too. In a postcard with deckled edges. The thing about eighteen was that you only knew you were doing the right thing when it felt wrong, somehow.
The hollyhocks bend over the fence in front. Living alone has its own order. Why bother returning the garden shears to a crooked nail? There, the scent from the row of potted jasmine. It transports me. And to prod behind it with the fork of my hand for the small green cucumbers like crisp caterpillars…
She gazes over the garden and catches motion. A figure in a long tunic, harem pants, and a floral pattern headscarf is passing suspiciously close along the outside of the split-rail. Heathers steps to one side of her jungle to see better. The figure drops to a crouch behind the screen of pea vines. Heather is suddenly aware that she’s breathing loudly through her mouth and she tries to calm herself. There’s a rustle in her own ears—it looks like the stranger is weaving her hand through the rabbit fence to get at someone’s bounty.
Heather hears a voice: “Please don’t pick those tomatoes.” It’s her voice. Proprietary. Also supercilious. She sees the big cherry tomato plant shiver. She drops the hose on the ground.
“No,” she says very clearly, striding across the garden.
The stranger stands up on the other side of the fence. She’s heavy, swarthy, dirty, with striking dark-lashed green eyes. She’s holding a ball of used plastic shopping bags in one hand. She looks, improbably, like a gypsy, like the hardened older sister of the Afghan refugee girl from the National Geographic cover. Heather was twelve when that photograph came out, the same age purportedly, as the refugee.
Heather finds she can’t maintain eye contact. She takes in the plastic sandals, bare toes black with dirt. “No,” she says again, before she can stop herself.
“No English,” replies the woman, staring straight at Heather. She holds up her hands and her plastic bags and backs away, but not so far that she isn’t still connected to the harvest. Is that a smile?
A chasm opens up between them. Heather’s been wronged, she tells herself, but she feels unmoored rather than indignant. She doesn’t believe the woman has no English: the look in her eyes is of roaring intelligence. She hears herself babbling shrilly now, and finally the woman shrugs and moves off, obviously unashamed and unimpressed with Heather.
Yes, driving gloves; and at twenty-two James kept martini makings in the kitchen of his off-campus apartment. His walnut hair, his cigars, his gentleman’s manners juxtaposed with an adorable, adolescent, thuggishness… His father was the president of a bank with branches that overarched the Eastern Seaboard, he told Dinah. His family’s “summer cottage” was eleven bedrooms and a mansard roof, high hedges and a whole Stonehenge of chimneys.
Dinah imagined herself grazing on seaward lawns, twirling batons of crabstick among those sloshy daughters of the Revolution (James called them drakes and tomcats) with inverted lips and dresses as thick as linen tablecloths. She loved the unctuous smell of boxwood, mothballs, and the Atlantic.
James shared his apartment. Cousin Henry had the same thick roll of hair, the same wafer-white chest with rosebud nipples. They had the same compulsion to clear their throats, which every time made Dinah start, but Henry Webb had a shallow laugh like a shale shelf, three inches of water.
Hi neck was skinnier and his hands, with nails the same rosebud pink, were smaller than James’s, as if they could pick locks, poke things into knot-holes. He had a weakling’s bag of tricks, James said, and the unpitiable nature of an asthmatic. At the beach club, Henry had been known to spit into the beverages of cousins who beat him at tennis, examining the foam of his own saliva before handing he concoction over. He declared that familial mental illness was rampant, genetic…
Get the book here.
Kirstin Allio’s novel, Garner, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. She is a recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 award, a PEN/O. Henry prize, and other honors for her short stories and essays. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband and sons.