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    Joyce Carol Oates

    39. Probate

    By Joyce Carol Oates

    “Excuse me?”

    It was the third day of her new life. This life was diminished as in the aftermath of brain surgery executed with a meat cleaver yet she meant to do all that was required of her and to do it alone, and capably, and without complaint.

    She was in Trenton, New Jersey. Whatever this terrible place was—the rear entrance of a massive granite building, a parking lot partly under construction and edged with a mean, despoiled crust of ice like Styrofoam—and the winter morning very cold, wet and windy with the smell of the oily Delaware River a half-mile away—she was struck by the fact that it appeared to be an actual place and not one of those ominous but imprecise nightmare-places of the troubled sleep of her new life.

    In a brave voice she said, a little louder: “Excuse me?—I’m sorry to trouble you but is this the rear entrance to Probate Court?”

    The girl peered at Adrienne suspiciously. She had a blunt bold fist of a face. Her eyes were tarry-black, insolent. She was about eighteen years old and she was wearing an absurd faux-fox-fur jacket. In her arms she held a raggedy bundle—a very small baby—she’d been rocking, and cooing to, with a distracted air. For a full minute or more she’d been openly observing Adrienne shakily approach the rear of the courthouse along a makeshift walk of planks and treacherous icy pavement as if fascinated by the older woman’s over-precise cautious-careful steps—Does she think that I am drunk? Drugged? Is she concerned that I will slip and fall? Is she waiting for me to slip and fall?—but now that Adrienne stood before her, in need of assistance, the girl blinked as if she hadn’t seen Adrienne until this moment, and had no idea what her question meant. . . . Read More.

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