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  • 39. Probate

    By Joyce Carol Oates

    From the corner of Poe and Kafka comes this new story from the continual astonishment that is Joyce Carol Oates. The fear and disorientation she explores are domestic and intimate, yet all the more unsettling for their everyday nature. And her language! Even as Adrienne marvels at how swiftly the meaning can leach out of a name, Oates herself reminds us of the hypnotic power of speech, words—even, in her hands, the sharp stab of punctuation. Get her new collection, Sourland, from our friends at Ecco,
    and marvel.

    “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.

    “‘Probate court’—it’s a division of the county court—I think. Do you know if I can use this entrance?—or do I have to walk all the way around to the front?” Adrienne’s numb mouth spoke calmly. In the widow’s voice one can detect not only the dazedness of the brain-injured but a profound disbelief that one is still alive, allowed to exist. Her eyes that resembled blood-specked fish eggs scooped from a fish’s gravid belly were sparkly-bright and alert fixed on the girl’s face.

    A powerful sleeping pill called Doleur, she’d taken sometime after 2:30 A.M. the previous night. In anticipation of all that she’d be required to do today, and now she was dazed, groggy; her head felt as if it were stuffed with cotton batting, in her ears was a high-pitched ringing that was easy to confuse with sirens wailing on Trenton streets. She was thinking of how in her previous life—only just visible to her now on the far side of an abyss, and retreating—that life that had been hers until three days before when her husband of thirty-two years had died unexpectedly—she’d been a diligent and responsible person. She remembered that person. She must be that person. In preparation for this journey to the Mercer County Courthouse she’d lain in bed that morning rigid and unmoving rehearsing the journey with the manic thoroughness of a deranged actress in an unfathomable and catastrophic play.

    She hadn’t anticipated getting lost, however. In a maze of one-way streets, detour signs and signs warning no turns. Much of the corroded inner city of Trenton appeared to be under construction as in the aftermath of a geological cataclysm. There were barricaded streets, deafening jackhammers. Because of excavation in the courthouse parking lot, the grinding of earthmoving machines, and more barricades, Adrienne had had to park a considerable distance from the courthouse; she’d had a terrible time finding the courthouse itself which was farther east on State Street than she would have imagined, in a run-down neighborhood of empty storefronts, bail bondsmen’s offices and pawnshops. This, the county courthouse!

    “‘Pro-brate court’ ”—the girl in the faux-fur jacket spoke in a drawling skeptical voice—“that’s like to do with ‘pro-bration’?”

    “‘Pro-bate.’” Adrienne spoke cautiously not wanting to offend the girl by seeming to correct her pronunciation. “It has to do with wills. Not probation but civil court. It’s a kind of court within the court, I think. The county court, I mean . . .”

    In her anxiety she was giving too much information. This too was a symptom of her new life—an over-eagerness to explain to strangers, to apologize. I know I have no right to be here—to exist. I know that I am of no more worth than a piece of trash. Forgive me!

    The girl continued to stare at her, skeptically. Or maybe—Adrienne wanted to think this—the girl’s expression meant only that she was interested, curious. Her nose was flattened as if someone had jammed the palm of his hand against it and her small mouth was an animated crimson wound. She was both sleazy and glamorous in her fox-colored fur jacket opened to display a fleshy turnip-shaped body in a sequined purple sweater, lime-green stretch pants and faux-leather boots with miniature tassels. Her skin resembled sandpaper, blotched and blemished despite a heavy coating of makeup. Her brass-colored hair had been corn-rowed and sprang out asymmetrically about her head like frantic thoughts. “‘Wills’—like, when somebody’s dead? Died? And you find out what they left you?” The girl gazed at Adrienne with repelled respect.

    “Well, yes. Something like that.”

    Find out what they left you. This chilling phrase flashed in the air like a knife blade.

    The girl gave the baby-bundle in her arms a fierce little shake, furrowing her forehead in thought. She was the kind of harassed young mother whose cooing is indistinguishable from chiding and whose smiles could turn savage in an instant. “Ma’am, I guess it’d be inside—what d’you callit court. If I was you I’d take this-way-in and see if they let you through. Assholes got all kinds of ‘restrictions’ and ‘penalties’ but it’s real far to the front and the damn sidewalk is all broke. I came that way.” Abruptly now there was a bond between them, of grievance. The girl was eager to complain to Adrienne about the “shitty treatment” she’d gotten at the courthouse when she’d brought her grandma to Family Services the previous month, how “nasty mean” they’d been treated and how, this morning, she had business of her own in the courthouse: “See, I’m what’s called—sup-pena’d. Y’know what that is?” Adrienne said yes, she thought she knew.

    As the girl spoke vehemently, Adrienne happened to notice something astonishing and disturbing: about twelve feet behind the girl was a stroller pushed almost out of sight between the blank granite wall of the courthouse and a parked van marked mercer co. detention and in this stroller was what appeared to be another child, no more than two years old.

    “Oh! Is that your child?”

    “Huh? Where?”

    “In that stroller, there. Isn’t that a—child?”

    “‘Child’—what’s that? Might be just some rags-like, or some bags or somethin’, stuck there.”

    But this was a joke—was it? The girl laughed a little wildly.

    “Ma’am, you are right. Sure is a ‘child.’ You want her?”

    Seeing the startled look in Adrienne’s face, the girl brayed with laughter. Her notched-looking teeth were bared in a wide smile. Adrienne tried to fall in with the joke, which didn’t seem to her funny. She said, “She’s very”—desperately trying to think of an appropriate and plausible word—“sweet-looking, pretty. . . .”

    “Ma’am, thanks! You sure you don’t want her?”

    “Well, I—”

    “Just kiddin, ma’am. That’s my sweet li’l Lilith, she’d been a preemie would you b’lieve?—now she’s real healthy. And you’re right, she’s pretty. She is.”

    Two small children! The harried young mother had brought two small children with her to the courthouse on this miserable winter morning. The wind was bitter cold and smelled of creosote, across the ravaged parking lot sporadic hissing outbursts of rain mixed with sleet raced like machine-gun fire. Adrienne had the vague impression—the vague, uneasy impression—she didn’t want to stare openly—that there was something just subtly wrong with the toddler in the stroller, something stunted, deformed. The small face that should have been pretty was in fact too narrow, or asymmetrical; the eyes were lopsided, unfocused. As Adrienne stared the little girl began to whimper faintly and to make a halfhearted effort to fret against the restraint of a blanket wrapped tightly about her torso pinning her arms inside.

    Yet the thought came to Adrienne, in rebuke No matter how miserable she is, yet she has them.

    How miserable that girl’s soul, yet she is not alone.

    Adrienne and her husband Tracy had had no children. Why this was, Adrienne hadn’t quite known. No decision had been made except elliptically, by omission.

    Or maybe one of them had made a decision, and had neglected to inform the other.

    In an aggrieved voice the girl was saying, “‘Pro-bration’—that’s just inside here. I know ‘County Pro-bation’—that’s the first floor. Half my family goes there—I ain’t, yet.” She laughed, as if this were a witticism. Adrienne didn’t quite get the joke, if it was a joke. “Ma’am, see, they got all these ‘departments’—‘county services’—in this place. Some days, there’s so many people going through security you have to stand outdoors—in the cold—nobody gives a damn how the public is inconven’ced. My poor grandma and me, when we came back in January, there was just one fuckin elevator workin—three fuckin elevators were broke!—so we stand there waitin like a hour for the elevator ’cause my grandma couldn’t walk the stairs all the way to Family Court on the sixth floor. I never saw any ‘probrate court’ but there’s ‘parole’—there’s ‘county pros’cutor’—on the third floor—I’m s’posed to check in there. ‘ Pros’cution witnesses’—they’re waiting for me, I guess. They got my name. I was served a sup-pena.

    There’s some of them—‘pros’cution lawyers’—who know me by name and by my face. So if I go inside, and if they see me—I’m fucked. Except”—the girl paused, with a look of crude cunning, leaning close to Adrienne to speak in confidence—“I got to get a crucial message to somebody, that’s on the second floor—that’s ‘criminal court’—if they brought him over from men’s detention like they were s’post to, 8 A.M. this morning. His name is Edro—Edro Hodge. You’d be seeing his picture in the papers, if you live around here—there’s been some things about him, independent of him and his family—that’s to say, me. Some things about ‘material witnesses’—what the fuck that is. These shitheads that like disappeared. So who’d they blame?—Edro. Could be when you see him, he’s cuffed and his ankles shackled. Like some crazed bull they got him, to keep him ‘secured.’ Edro has got tats on his left cheek and back of his neck and up and down his arms and his hair is tied back in a rat-tail unless the lawyer made him cut it for the judge. They treat you like shit once they get you. This ain’t Family Court! He’d be in one of those freaky orange coveralls that says Mercer County Men’s Detention. The hope is to mock and ridicule a man, to break him. But Edro ain’t gonna be broke that easy.” The girl smiled, baring tea-colored notched teeth, then her smile grew wistful, and then stricken. “Oh Jesus!—I got to get a message to Edro—it’s urgent, ma’am. Please ma’am—you look like a kind lady—say you will help us?”

    “‘Help you’—how?”

    Adrienne felt a sense of dread as the girl clutched at a sleeve of her black cashmere coat. It might have been a TV scene—a movie scene—the girl’s heavily made-up face thrust at Adrienne’s face. A sweetish-stale odor wafted from her—a smell of desperation, urgency—cigarettes, chewing gum, hair oil, soiled baby diapers. Her eyes widened: “I don’t better go anywhere near him or on any floor they’d see me—’cause I am a ‘prosecution witness’—it’s warned of me, I could be arrested like Edro. Obsuction of justis—givin a false statement to police. Interferin with—whatever shit it is, they call it. Bastards get you to say what they want you to say—you don’t hardly know what shit you are saying but it’s taped. Then you’re fucked if you try to take it back.” Adrienne stared in astonishment as the girl flung open the faux-fur jacket and tugged at the waist of her purple sweater lifting it to reveal the flaccid flesh of her midriff that was covered in bruises the hue of rotted bananas; now Adrienne saw that the girl’s forehead was bruised as well, what she’d believed to be skin eruptions were in fact welts. Obviously, “Edro” had beat the hell out of her, she was lucky to be standing. In an anguished rush of words she said, “Yes ma’am, I turned Edro in—I mean, I caused Edro to be turned in—I freaked and ran into the street near-about naked and some damn neighbor called 911—‘domestic violence’—‘aggravated assault’ is what they’d arrested Edro for the other time—that time, I wasn’t to blame—it’s just some bullshit ’cause they want Edro for the ‘material witness’ shit—what happened to them, who knows? This time, see, we’d both been drinking—I was scared—I never make a sound judgment when I am scared—the cops asked me who’d been beating on me so I told them—my nose was near-about broke and all this blood on my front—and my front-clothes torn—I told them it was Edro hurting Lilith and the baby I was scared of but he’d never hurt them—they are his own blood he knows for a fact, he has vowed he would never hurt them. In my right mind I realized this. But that wasn’t right away. Ma’am, see, I have got to get this message to Edro before they take him in to the judge. His damn fuck lawyer told him to plead ‘guilty.’ They always tell you plead ‘guilty’—makes it easy for them. They are such shitheads—‘Office of the Public Defender.’ You wear out your ass waiting for them in those chairs, nobody gives a fuck how long you wait. Also this is the ‘second offense’—‘domestic violence’—other things Edro did, the cops hold against him—they have a grudge against the Hodge family Edro says and give them a fucking hard time all they can. One thing he has got to know—Leisha is not going to swear any statement against him. If you could tell him this, ma’am—or pass him some note, I could write for you . . .”

    Through the girl’s torrent of words a crude melancholy narrative emerged like a wounded animal, limping—Adrienne saw clearly. She felt a stab of sympathy for the poor battered girl but her better judgment urged her caution. Take care! Don’t be foolish, Adrienne! Don’t get involved.

    Adrienne shivered. Her husband’s voice, close in her ear.

    Tracy was not one to get involved. Tracy was one for caution.

    “I wish that I could help you,” Adrienne said, “but I—I’m already late for—”

    “You got some paper, ma’am? Somethin to write with? All you’d need to hand him is some little thing—it could just say like Leisha has retracted—or, just L. has retracted. He’d know right-away what that meant.”

    “I—I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have time to—”

    “Ma’am, fuck that! Ma’am, sure you do.”

    So forcibly Leisha spoke, so glittery her tarry-black eyes, Adrienne found herself meekly providing the girl with a page torn from an address book, and a pen. Leisha scribbled a message onto the scrap of paper while Adrienne glanced anxiously about.

    The rear entrance to the courthouse was about twenty feet away. A steady stream of people were entering, mostly individuals. Some were uniformed law enforcement officers. No one took note of Adrienne and the girl in the faux-fur coat.

    “You can’t miss Edro Hodge, ma’am—left side of his face has this like Apache tattoo, and his hair in a rat-tail. And Edro has got these eyes, ma’am—you will know him when you see him when it’s like he sees you down to the roots of your shoes.”

    Roots of your shoes. These eyes. Adrienne wanted to laugh, this was so absurd. This was so ridiculous, reckless. Leisha pressed the folded note into Adrienne’s fingers and Adrienne was about to take it then drew back as if she’d touched a snake. No no don’t get involved. Not ever. Quickly she backed away from the staring girl saying she was sorry, very sorry, she couldn’t help her—“I’m late for Probate Court! Please understand.”

    Adrienne turned, fled. Adrienne walked quickly in her soft-leather boots, desperate not to slip on the icy pavement. At the courthouse entrance a uniformed police officer gestured to Adrienne, to step ahead of him. Maybe he was thinking she hadn’t enough strength to push the revolving door. Was she so ghastly-pale, did she carry herself so precariously? The girl was shouting after her, pleading—“Ma’am wait—ma’am damn you—ma’am!”


    “Ma’am? Step along, please.”

    Blindly Adrienne made her halting way through the security checkpoint. What a clamorous place this was, and unheated—overhead a high gray-tinctured ceiling, underfoot an aged and very dirty marble floor. Most of the others shuffling in the line were dark-skinned. Most wore work clothes, or were carelessly or poorly dressed, with sullen or expressionless faces. Adrienne stepped aside to allow a stout middle-aged black woman with an elderly mother to precede her but a security guard intervened speaking sharply: “Ma’am—put your things down here. Step along, ma’am.”

    Trying not to think Because I am white. I am the minority here.

    It was so: the only other Caucasian in view was a sheriff ’s deputy stationed in the inner lobby.

    She was not a racist. Yet her hammering heart rebuked her—Now you are helpless, they have you.

    Her husband had been an academic, a historian. His field of specialization had been twentieth-century European history, after World War I. Like a time traveler he’d moved deftly from the present into the past—from the past into the present—though he had lived with horrors, he’d seemed to Adrienne curiously untouched by his discoveries, intellectually engaged rather more than emotionally engaged. A historian is a kind of scientist, he’d believed. A historian collects and analyzes data, he must take care not to impose his personal beliefs, his theories of history, upon this data. Adrienne had once entered Tracy’s study when he was assembling a book-length manuscript to send to his editor at Harvard University Press—chapters and loose pages were scattered across his desk and table and she’d had a fleeting glimpse of photographs he’d hidden from her—scenes of Nazi death-camps? Holocaust survivors?—she’d asked what these were and Tracy had said, “You don’t want to know, Adrienne.”

    Adrienne had protested, but not strongly. Essentially he’d been right—she had not wanted to know.

    How concerned for her Tracy would be, if he could see her here, alone. For why on earth was she here.

    Never had they spoken of death-duties. The subject had never arisen—for why should it have arisen? Tracy had not expected to die, not for a long time. He’d been a “fit” man—he exercised, he ate and drank sparingly, he was steeped in the sort of health-knowledge common to people of his education and class. Knowing is a form of immortality. Ignorance is the only weakness, and that can be prevented.

    So it had seemed to them. Now Adrienne had lost faith, she’d been staggered, stunned. Her husband’s knowledge had not saved him. No more than a house of ordinary dimensions could withstand a hurricane or an earthquake.

    “Ma’am—remove your coat, please. And your boots. Step along.”

    Adrienne did as she was told. She placed her things in trays on the conveyer belt to pass through the X ray machine, as at an airport. Yet there was a harshness here, an air of suspicion on the part of the security staff, she had not experienced while traveling on either domestic or foreign flights. She was told to open her handbag for inspection, in addition to placing it in the tray; as she struggled to open her husband’s heavy leather briefcase, which contained several folders of legal documents, some of these documents fell to the floor. Awkwardly Adrienne stooped, her face warm with embarrassment, and reached for the papers. “Ma’am? You needin some help?” A male guard with skin the color of burnt cork stooped to help her retrieve the papers which had scattered on the damp, dirty floor amid the feet of strangers. How had this happened—these were precious documents! One was a notarized IRS form for the previous year, another was the death certificate issued for Tracy Emmet Myer on stiff gray-green paper resembling the paper used for U.S. currency and stamped with the New Jersey State seal. Somehow, there was Adrienne’s husband’s wallet being handed to her—and his wristwatch—which Adrienne had removed from the hospital room after his death and must have placed inside the briefcase without remembering she’d done so. The wallet was unnervingly light, flat—all the bills, credit cards and other items must have been taken from it—and the wristwatch had a broken face as if it had been stepped on. “This yours, too?”—the guard held out to Adrienne a scrap of paper upon which she saw scribbled handwriting—barely legible except for the oversized schoolgirl signature LEISHA.

    Leisha! The aggressive girl in the faux-fur jacket and corn-rowed hair had somehow succeeded in thrusting the note to her lover into Adrienne’s briefcase—how was this possible? Adrienne remembered clearly having refused it, and walking quickly away.

    Numbly she took the note from the guard, and the other items, and returned them to the briefcase. Her face throbbed with heat, she was aware of strangers staring at her. How quickly it had happened, Adrienne Myer had become that person, very often a woman, an older woman, who in public places draws the pitying or annoyed stares of others because she has dropped something, or has forgotten something, or has lost something, or has come to the wrong address and is holding up the line . . . She was fumbling now to put on her boots, and her coat. And where was her glove, had she dropped a glove . . . The deputy overseeing the checkpoint, a lieutenant, with a dim roughened skin that wasn’t nearly so Caucasian as Adrienne had imagined from a short distance, had come over to see what was wrong. Politely he said, “Ma’am? Where you headed—sur’gate?” When Adrienne stared blankly at him he said: “Office of the Sur’gate? Probate Court?” Bemusedly his eyes moved over her: the black cashmere coat that fell to midcalf, expensive but hastily misbuttoned, the expensive leather boots defaced by salt as by graffiti. “Probate is fifth floor, ma’am. Elevators through that doorway.”

    Is it so obvious, Adrienne wondered. Where I am headed, and why.

    She thanked the officer. She moved on. She was carrying her handbag and briefcase against her chest, like a refugee; trying not to think that she might have left something behind on the foyer floor—a crucial document—now scuffed and tattered underfoot—someone in the security line or one of the courthouse staff might have pilfered from her. She was not a racist, she was not a white racist yet she had to acknowledge that the color of her skin singled her out as one of the oppressors of the dark-skinned peoples of the world, that was a fact of history, and of fate; nowhere more evident than here in Trenton, the decaying and depopulated capital city of the State of New Jersey. The widow is one who comes swiftly to the knowledge Whatever harm comes to you, you deserve. For you are still alive.

    Not when he’d died—she had been too shocked, too stunned to comprehend that he had died, at that moment—but earlier—on the third or fourth day of his hospitalization—when she’d hurried to her husband’s room on the fifth floor of the hospital—“Telemetry”—and had seen an empty bed, a stripped mattress, no human figure in the bed, no surrounding machines—the thought struck her like a knife-blow He has died, they have taken him away—in that instant the floor had swung up toward her face, the floor had somehow come loose and swung up as she’d lost her footing, her balance, blood rushed out of her brain leaving her faint, helpless, utterly weak, broken and weeping—a nurse’s aide had prevented her from falling—“Mrs. Myer! Your husband has been moved just down the hall”—in an instant her life had ended, yet in the next instant her life had been restored to her; all that would happen to her from now on, she understood, would be random, wayward and capricious.

    Now it has begun, now there is nothing to stop it.

    The elevators were very slow-moving, crowded. Here too Adrienne was made to feel self-conscious, uneasy. After waiting for several minutes she decided to take the stairs. But what a surprise—these were not ordinary functional stairs but an old-fashioned staircase of carved mahogany, broad and sweeping, baronial; clearly the staircase belonged to an older part of the courthouse. Climbing the curving stairs, gripping the railing, Adrienne found herself staring into a shaft, like a deep pit; the courthouse appeared to be hollow at its core, as if receding in time. Adrienne paused to catch her breath, leaning against the railing, gazing down into the pit-like shaft. She thought This is a temptation for those who are not strong. Or for those who are strong. To end it now.

    How close she was, to losing her balance, falling . . . She’d begun to perspire with anxiety, inside her warm clothing.

    Since the first day of her husband’s hospitalization—now just nine days ago—she’d been subject to such flurries of anxiety, dread. She had brought her husband to the ER for he was suffering from an erratic heartbeat and a pronounced shortness of breath; his face was flushed, mottled; his eyes were unnaturally dilated. In the ER he’d been “stabilized”—he’d been kept overnight for cardiac tests—moved from the ER not into the general hospital population but to the seventh floor—“Telemetry”—which Adrienne had not wanted to see was adjacent to “Intensive Care”; from that point onward her life became a sequence of linked yet seemingly disjointed episodes accelerated as in a slapstick silent film in which she might have been observed with pitying eyes, like a rat in a maze, compelled to repeat the same futile actions compulsively, unvaryingly, driving her car to the hospital and parking her car, hurriedly entering the hospital and crossing the wide lobby whose floor smelled of fresh disinfectant and taking one of the elevators to Telemetry, fifth floor, exiting the elevator and hurrying along the corridor to her husband’s room—steeling herself for what she might see, or not see, as she approached the doorway—as she approached the bed, and the white-clad figure reclining, or sitting up, in the bed—

    On the curving baronial stairs Adrienne became light-headed. A woman with toffee-colored skin clutched at her arm, deftly. “Ma’am? You havin some kind of faint?” Adrienne murmured no, no she was fine, though her lips had gone numb, blood had rushed out of her face. The woman gripped her arm and helped her on the stairs. She knows where I am headed Adrienne thought.

    On the next floor, Adrienne had to make her way through a long line of individuals filing into a vast assembly room. Here were far more light-skinned men and women than she’d seen in any other part of the courthouse, most of them well dressed and all of them wearing jurors’ badges; how plausible it would appear to a neutral observer, that Adrienne Myer had been summoned to the Mercer County Courthouse this morning for jury duty; she felt a stab of envy for these individuals, a powerful wish to be one of them, that her reason for being here was so impersonal, so banal and so easily resolved.

    On the next floor—was this the third, or the fourth?—Adrienne found herself in another crowded corridor—here was the Office of the Public Defender. On a long wooden bench against a wall festooned with warnings—no smoking—no food or drink in the courtroom—do not bring contraband into the courthouse—were seated a number of mostly young men, under the eye of several Mercer County sheriff’s deputies; all but two of the young men were dark-skinned, and all were wearing lurid-orange jumpsuits marked MERCER CO. MENS DETENTION. All were shackled at the wrists and ankles, like beasts.

    Adrienne tried not to stare seeing one of the white men close by, slouching on the bench; he had a sharp hawkish face disfigured by an aggressively ugly tattoo jagged like lightning bolts; his rat-colored hair was pulled back into a tail—a rat-tail? Was this—what was the name—Ezra, Edro?—Edro Hodge?—the person whom Leisha had been desperate to contact? Hodge’s eyes were heavy-lidded, drooping; he gave an impression of being oblivious of his surroundings, if not contemptuous. Adrienne slipped past not wanting to attract his attention.

    One floor up—two floors?—at last, Probate Court: the Office of the Surrogate.


    Before Adrienne was allowed into the waiting room of the Office of the Surrogate she was required to show a photo I.D—fumbling for her wallet which contained her driver’s license, but where was her wallet?—had someone taken her wallet, in the confusion downstairs?—in a panic locating her U.S. passport in the briefcase at which a woman deputy stared suspiciously—“This you, ma’am? Don’t look much like you.”

    The photo was several years old, Adrienne said. Though having to acknowledge that the woman in the photo, lightly smiling, with a smooth, unlined forehead and hopeful eyes, bore little resemblance to the woman she was now.

    “This is my name, though—‘Adrienne Myer.’ My husband’s name is—was—Myer.”

    How unconvincing this sounded! The very syllables—Adrienne Myer—had become nonsensical, mocking.

    For if once she’d been married to a man named Myer, the man named Myer no longer existed; where did that leave Adrienne Myer?

    Nonetheless, Adrienne was allowed to take a seat. The air in the waiting room was steam-heated, stale. Here was a vast space larger even than the jurors’ assembly room on the lower floor—a high-ceilinged room in sepia tones like an old daguerreotype, with high narrow windows that seemed to look out over nothing—unless the glass had become scummy and opaque with grime. Adrienne was nervously conscious of rows—rows!—of uncomfortable vinyl chairs crowded with people—their expressions ranged from melancholy to exhausted, anxious to resigned. At the rear of the waiting room the farther wall appeared to have dissolved into sepia shadow—the waiting room stretched on forever. Blindly Adrienne was seated clutching at her things—handbag, briefcase—she’d removed her black cashmere coat in this stifling heat—a glove had fallen to the floor, she retrieved with some effort—she’d been gripping her things so tightly, the bones of her hands ached. She was thinking All these people have died! So many of us.

    But this was wrong of course. Everyone in the waiting room was alive. She was alive.

    “I am—alive.”

    Alive. It was such a curious boastful word! It was such a tentative word, simply to utter it was to invite derision.

    She was thinking how, on what was to be the very last day of her husband’s life, with no knowledge of what was imminent she and her husband had made plans for his discharge from the hospital in two days. They’d read the New York Times together. Tracy had insisted on Adrienne bringing him his laptop and so he’d worked—he was determined to examine the copyedited manuscript of a lengthy article he’d written for the Journal of 20th-Century European History—though complaining of his eyes “tearing up” and his vision being “blurred.” He’d eaten the lukewarm lunch, or part of it—until he’d begun to feel nauseated and asked Adrienne to take it away. They’d quarreled—almost—over whether Adrienne should call Tracy’s parents, to deflect their coming to visit him—an arduous trip for them, from northern Minnesota—since he was being discharged so soon, and was “recovered, or nearly”—Adrienne had thought that Tracy should see his parents, who were concerned about him; Tracy had thought otherwise, now that he was “feeling fine.” The hospital allowed visitors until 9 P.M. but Adrienne left at 7 P.M. since Tracy had become tired suddenly and wanted to sleep—Adrienne was exhausted also—maintaining her cheery hospital manner was a strain, like carrying heavy unwieldy bundles from place to place and nowhere to set them down, until at last you drop them—let them fall—she’d managed to drive home and was in bed by 9:20 P.M. and at 12:50 A.M. she’d been wakened as in a cartoon of crude nightmare cruelty by a ringing phone and in her dazed sleep she’d thought That is not for me. That is not for me even as, groping for the phone, she’d known that of course the ringing phone was for her, she’d known that the ringing phone had to be for her and she’d known, or guessed, what the call was.

    Mrs. Myer? Your husband is in critical condition, please come to the hospital immediately.

    “Mrs. Myer? Come with me, please.”

    Time had passed: an hour? Two hours? Adrienne was being led briskly along a corridor to the Office of the Surrogate. The name on the door was D. CAPGRASS. Her heart beat quickly. She’d stood so swiftly, blood had rushed from her head. Don’t let me faint. Not here, not now. Not this weakness, now. It had become confused in the widow’s mind—such fantasies are exacerbated in steam-heated waiting rooms, in hard-backed vinyl chairs—that her obligation in Surrogate Court was an obligation to her deceased husband, and not to herself; it was her husband’s estate that was to be deliberated, the estate of which she, the surviving spouse, was the executrix. If this can be completed. Then . . . Adrienne’s thoughts trailed off, she had no idea what came beyond Then.

    Crematorium is not the polite term. Funeral home is the preferred term.

    There she’d made arrangements, paid with their joint credit card.

    Tracy Emmet Myer was a co-owner of this card. Tracy Emmet Myer was paying for his own cremation.

    Ashes to ashes, dusk to dusk. The nonsense jingle ran through the widow’s brain brazen and jeering as the cries of a jaybird in the trees close outside her bedroom windows, that woke her so rudely from her sedative sleep.

    “Mrs. Myer. Please will you sign these consent forms”—a middle-aged bald-headed man with eyeglasses that fitted his face crookedly and stitch-like creases in his forehead was addressing her with somber formality. Without hesitating—eagerly—Adrienne signed several documents—“waivers”—without taking time to read them. How she hoped to placate this frowning gentleman—an officer of the Mercer County Surrogate’s court. “And now, you will please provide these required documents, which I hope you’ve remembered to bring”—frowning as the widow foolishly fumbled removing folders from a briefcase—the deceased husband’s birth certificate, and her own birth certificate; their marriage certificate . . .

    Quickly Adrienne handed over the marriage certificate. She could not bear to see what was printed on it and, long ago, gaily and giddily signed by her husband and her.

    “And your husband’s death certificate, Mrs. Myer?”

    Your husband’s death certificate. What an eccentric form of speech—Your husband’s. As if the deceased husband yet owned “his” death certificate.

    Your husband’s body. Your husband’s remains.

    Adrienne fumbled to hand over the odd-sized document. Though it had been newly issued and was scarcely twenty-four hours old yet it was creased and mud smeared as if someone had stepped on it. Adrienne murmured an apology but Capgrass silenced her with an impatient wave of his fingers.

    “This will do, Mrs. Myer. Thank you.”

    With a pencil-thin flashlight the Probate Court official examined the death certificate—was this infrared light?—and the ornamental gilt State of New Jersey seal. The document must have been satisfactory since he stamped it with the smaller gilt seal of the Surrogate’s Office which bore, for some reason, quaintly and curiously, the just-perceptibly raised figure of a horse’s head, or a chess knight in profile.

    “Oh—why is that? This seal—why does it have a horse’s head on it?” Adrienne laughed nervously.

    “It is the Court’s seal, Mrs. Myer.” Capgrass paused, as if the widow’s question was embarrassing, a violation of protocol. “May I see—? Have you brought—?”

    “Of course! Of course.”

    As the primary beneficiary and executrix of her late husband’s estate Adrienne was required to provide photo I.D.s of herself and her husband—she’d brought drivers’ licenses, passports—as well as IRS tax returns for the previous year—documents attesting to the fact that she and the deceased Tracy Emmet Myer had lived in the same residence in Summit Hill, New Jersey.

    To all these items the frowning Capgrass subjected the same assiduous examination, with the pencil-thin light.

    “Now, Mrs. Myer: may I see your husband’s Last Will and Testament.

    This was the single document that most unnerved Adrienne. She’d had difficulty locating it in her husband’s surprisingly disorganized filing cabinet and she’d been unable to force herself to read more than a small portion of the opening passage—I, Tracy E. Myer, a domiciliary of New Jersey, declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, and I revoke all my prior Wills and Codicils . . .

    Nervously she said, “I hope this is complete, Mr. Capgrass. It’s all that I could find. I’m not sure what ‘codicil’ means. I’m afraid that . . .”

    “Hand it here, please.”

    Leafing through the document of about twenty pages Capgrass paused midway.

    The expression on his face! Adrienne stared uneasily.

    “Mrs. Myer, this is—this is not—this is irregular.”

    A crude blush rose into the middle-aged official’s face. His eyeglasses glittered in alarm. Rudely he pushed the document toward Adrienne—at first she couldn’t comprehend what he wanted her to see, what she was looking at—then she realized it was a page, or several pages, of poorly developed photographs of stunted, broken, naked figures—death camp survivors?—manikins, or dolls?

    “I don’t understand. What is—”

    Numbly Adrienne took up the offensive pages, to stare at them. How could this be? What were these ugly obscene images doing in her husband’s will? She was sure she’d looked through the will, or at any rate leafed through it—if barely recognizing what she saw, for she’d been upset at the time, very tired, and the densely printed legal passages had seemed impregnable, taunting. Now she saw that she was staring not at printed passages but at photographs—blurred, not-quite-in-focus photographs as of objects seen underwater—bizarre disfigured manikins, or adult dolls, some of them missing arms, legs—bruised, blood-splattered—several of them hairless, bald—all of them naked—and all of them female.

    Adrienne felt a stab of horror, shame. How could this be! How could Tracy Myer who’d been so courteous, so kindly, such a good decent gentlemanly man who’d taken care with every aspect of his work have been, at the same time, so careless, reckless—hiding such obscenities in his study, in his legal files where they would be discovered after his death?

    Yet thinking But they are not real, at least! Not real girls, or women. Real amputees.

    “You may take these back, Mrs. Myer. Please.”

    “‘Take them back’? They don’t belong to me, or to my husband—I’m sure. I’ve never seen these before . . .”

    Capgrass removed his crooked plastic glasses and polished the lenses vigorously with a strip of chamois. His eyes, exposed, were small, rust-colored and primly disapproving; the crude hot blush had expanded to cover most of his face, and the gleaming-bald dome of his head. Clumsily Adrienne took up the offensive sheets of paper, which were in fact not photographs but Xerox photocopies of photographs, several to a page: not wanting to see she saw nonetheless that the figures were both painfully lifelike and perversely artificial; she had the idea that they were artworks of another era, perhaps “Germanic”; maybe it was possible to interpret the reproductions as a historian’s assiduous and uncensored research, and not pornography. Adrienne tried to explain that her husband Tracy Myer—Professor Tracy Myer, who’d taught at Princeton for nearly thirty years—had been a distinguished historian, his field of specialization was post–World War I twentieth-century European history and this included the notorious—decadent—Weimar era. Though deeply embarrassed Adrienne managed to sound convincing: “By accident my husband must have filed these—documents—in the wrong folder. They seem to be ‘art’ of some kind—posed manikins or dolls—maybe Surrealist. Or—Dada. Tracy was always fascinated by art—by what art ‘reveals’ of the culture that gives rise to it, as well as of the artist. They are not . . .” Adrienne couldn’t bring herself to utter the ugly word pornography.

    Capgrass interrupted Adrienne to inform her disdainfully that there appeared to be “irregularities” in her husband’s will; he’d had time only to peruse the document in a cursory fashion but had noticed that the first codicil hadn’t been properly notarized—the notary public had used a seal with what appeared to be several broken letters which undermined the validity of the transaction, should litigants want to take issue.

    Litigants! Adrienne’s heart beat in alarm.

    “Though it’s unambiguous that you’ve been designated your husband’s primary beneficiary, as well as the executrix of his estate, it would appear, from a strictly legal standpoint, that the document is of questionable authenticity. I’m sure that ‘Tracy Emmet Myer’ was indeed your husband, and that he has indeed died—but, unfortunately, if there is a pre-existing will, either in your possession or elsewhere, it might take precedent over the one we have here.”

    “But I—don’t understand . . . ‘Pre-existing’—there is none . . .”

    “How many times such a claim has been made, and a pre-existing document turns up, that is fully legal. Mrs. Myer, please understand that we can’t proceed to ‘probate’ your husband’s will in its present state. There are no legal grounds for the assumption that you are, in fact, the executrix of Tracy Myer’s estate.”

    “But—I am his wife. You’ve seen my I.D., and the marriage certificate—”

    “And if there are claims against the estate—these must be processed.”

    “‘Claims against the estate’ . . .”

    Adrienne spoke faintly. What a nightmare this was!

    She remembered how several years before—following the unexpected death of one of Tracy’s brothers—he’d made arrangements for both their wills to be drawn up. This was a task—a necessity—Tracy had postponed as Adrienne had postponed even considering it and at the signing in the attorney’s office she’d so dreaded reading through the dense legal language that she’d signed both wills without reading them assured by the attorney that everything was in order.

    It was the future Adrienne had dreaded when one or another of the wills would be consulted. Now, the widow was living in that future, and it was more terrible than she’d anticipated.

    “Letters will have to be sent by you, Mrs. Myer, by certified mail, to all of your husband’s relatives and business partners, if he had these, as well as to anyone else who might have a legitimate claim upon the estate.” Capgrass spoke in a flat perfunctory voice in which there lurked a frisson of something insolent, disruptive. “This is standard procedure in probate, and it is very important.”

    “But—why would anyone make a ‘claim’ against the estate? Why would this happen?”

    “Mrs. Myer, this is probate. The court must determine if your husband’s estate is ‘free and clear’ before allowing the estate to be divided among beneficiaries and administered by any executor or executrix.”

    “But—how would I know how to begin?” Adrienne’s voice rose in alarm. “My husband took care of all of our finances—our taxes—insurance—anything ‘legal.’ He has—had—relatives living in many parts of the country—he didn’t have business partners, but—he’d invested in his older brother’s roofing business, to help him financially . . .” Adrienne recalled hearing about this, years ago, though Tracy hadn’t discussed it with her at any length. And hadn’t the brother’s business gone bankrupt just the same? A part of Adrienne’s mind began to shut down.

    Suttee. She’d wakened that morning thinking of suttee.

    The ancient Hindu custom of burning the widow, alive, on her husband’s funeral pyre. A cruel and barbaric custom said to be practiced still in the more remote parts of India and Adrienne thought There is a cruel logic to this.

    “Your husband was married previously—?”

    “‘Married previously’? Why do you say that? He was not.”

    “Our records show—”

    Capgrass was typing into a computer, hunched forward like a broken-backed vulture peering at the screen. A small thin smile played about his lips. “It seems here—our records show—unless there are two distinct ‘Tracy Emmet Myers’ . . . Your husband was required by law to inform you of any prior marriages as he was required to inform the individual who performed the wedding ceremony and if he failed to comply with this law, Mrs. Myer, there may be some question about whether your marriage to him was fully legal. You may want to retain an attorney as soon as possible to press your claim.”

    Press your claim. Adrienne sat stunned.

    “But—I know my husband. I knew him. It is just not possible . . .”

    Capgrass continued to type into the computer. In a matter-of-fact voice reading off data to the widow who could not hear what he was saying through a roaring in her ears. This is wrong. This is not right. You don’t know him. None of you knew him.

    Yet, had Adrienne known Tracy? Had she known the man, except as her husband? In the hospital an altered personality had emerged from time to time, unexpectedly. Adrienne couldn’t forget a curious remark Tracy had made that was wholly unlike the man she knew: one evening he’d muttered in a wistful voice as a cheery Jamaican attendant left his room chattering like a tropical bird—a fleshy girl bearing away soiled linen, the remains of a meal—“If only we could be so simple! It’s as if they don’t realize they are to die.”

    Adrienne had objected: “Tracy, you can’t judge them by their outward manner. They are spiritual people just like us.”

    Adrienne’s reply had been inadequate, also. Not what she’d meant to say. Not what she meant.

    It wasn’t like her to say them, they in this way. As it wasn’t like Tracy to speak in such a way. And what had Adrienne meant by spiritual people just like us. This was condescending, crude.

    Was this how racists talked? How racists thought?

    The widow’s mistake had been, her husband had been her life. She was a tree whose roots had become entwined with the roots of an adjacent tree, a seemingly taller and stronger tree, and these roots had become entwined inextricably. To free the living tree from the dead tree would require an act of violence that would damage the living tree. It would require an act of imagination. Easier to imagine suttee. Easier to imagine swallowing handfuls of barbiturates, old painkiller medications in the medicine cabinet. I can’t do this. I can’t be expected to do this. I am not strong enough.

    What was mysterious to her was, before Tracy’s death she had not ever understood that really she might lose him. That really in every sense of the word he might depart from her, die.

    That there would be a time, a perfectly ordinary morning like this morning in the Mercer County Courthouse, Office of the Surrogate, when the man who’d been Tracy Emmet Myer no longer existed and could not be found anywhere in the world.

    The very routine of the hospital, to which she’d become almost immediately adjusted, had contributed to this delusion. How capably she’d performed the tasks required of her, bringing Tracy his mail, his work, his professional journals, his laptop—proof that nothing fundamental had changed in their shared life. And the cardiologist was optimistic, the EKGs were showing stabilization, improvement. Yet one evening Adrienne had naively approached an older nurse at a computer station in the corridor not far from her husband’s room—the woman middle-aged, kindly and intelligent—her name was Shauna O’Neill—you had to love Shauna O’Neill!—she’d seemed to like Tracy very much—you had the feeling with Shauna O’Neill that you were a special patient, of special worth—for hadn’t Shauna always remembered to call Tracy Professor Myer which had seemed to comfort him—and flattered him—but seeing Mrs. Myer about to peer over her shoulder at the computer screen Shauna O’Neill had said sharply, “Mrs. Myer, excuse me I don’t think this is a good idea”—even as Adrienne blundered near to see on the screen beneath her husband’s name the stark terrible words congestive heart failure. In that instant Adrienne panicked. She began to choke, to cry. For hadn’t they been told that her husband was improving, that he would be discharged soon? Adrienne stumbled back to her husband’s room. Tracy had been dozing watching TV news and now he wakened. “Addie? What’s wrong, why are you so upset?” Adrienne had never cried so helplessly, like a terrified child. If one of the broken mutilated dolls in the lurid photographs could have cried, the doll would have cried in this way. This was the single great sorrow of which Adrienne Myer was capable—at the time of her husband’s death, and in the hours following, she would not cry like this. She would not have the strength or the capacity to cry like this. Raw emotion swept through her leaving her stunned, hollow. At the time she’d kissed her husband desperately, his cool smooth cheek which the Jamaican attendant had recently shaved; she’d gripped his fingers which were cool also, as if blood had ceased to flow in the veins there. She stammered, “I’m c crying only because—I love you so much. Only because I love you so much, Tracy. No other reason.”

    She’d frightened Tracy, crying like this. She’d offended him, violated hospital protocol.

    She wondered if he’d forgiven her? If he could forgive her?

    She had abandoned him, finally. For that, how could he forgive her?

    And yet: she was thinking possibly there was a misunderstanding. A mistake. Possibly she’d been summoned to Probate Court by mistake. As the computer data regarding her husband was mistaken, so the “fact” of his death was mistaken, or premature. Her husband hadn’t died after all—maybe. Her husband hadn’t died yet.

    “Ma’am! You will come with me, please now.”

    The interview with Capgrass seemed to have ended with shocking abruptness. Adrienne had been trying to explain the circumstances of her husband’s hospitalization and the promises the hospital staff had made or had seemed to be making, she’d begun to speak excitably, but, she was sure, not incoherently, and out of nowhere a security guard—a dark-skinned woman with hair pressed back so tightly from her face, her head appeared to have shrunken—was tugging at her arm, to urge her from the room. Adrienne was gripping her handbag, in both arms she clutched at documents. She was distraught, disheveled. A pulse beat in her head like a giant worm, writhing. Had Capgrass pressed a secret button, to summon one of the sheriff’s deputies? Had the widow said something reckless she hadn’t meant to say? She hadn’t been threatening—had she? The dark-skinned female deputy was escorting Adrienne from the court official’s office—Adrienne was perspiring inside her expensive clothes—Oh! she’d forgotten something—she’d left something behind, with Capgrass—but what it was, she couldn’t remember.

    “Ma’am come with me. This way ma’am.” The deputy spoke forcibly, ushering Adrienne into the hall. Adrienne had had more to tell Capgrass—more to explain—trying now to explain to the deputy that she had to leave the courthouse immediately—her husband was in the Summit Hill Hospital, fifteen miles away. “I have to leave now. I have to see him. His name is Tracy. He can’t be left with strangers. He’s waiting for me . . . he will be anxious, if I’m not there.” Adrienne was thinking how, in the past day or so, for no reason, unfairly, for he’d been sleeping and waking and sleeping and waking and not always knowing where he was, Tracy had squinted at her and said in a hurt accusing voice, “Adrienne? Where the hell have you been? I don’t see much of you these days.”

    Long she would recall the hurt, and the injustice.

    Don’t see much of you these days.

    When he’d loved her, he’d called her Addie. The full, formal name Adrienne meant something else.

    Or maybe—this was another, quite distinct possibility—he’d said, after he’d died, and Adrienne arranged to have his body delivered to a local crematorium, in a voice beyond accusation or even sadness the man who’d been her husband for thirty-two years said Well! We won’t be seeing each other for a while.

    “This way, ma’am. You are not authorized to leave Probate Court just yet.”

    The deputy handed Adrienne a tissue with which to wipe her inflamed eyes, blow her nose—as she led her back into the waiting room—how vast this room was, Adrienne could only now appreciate—how many were waiting here!—as far as the eye could measure, individuals who’d died, or were waiting to die, or had managed to avoid death temporarily, yes this was Probate Court and all who were here had not died but had survived.

    This was their punishment, that they had survived, and that they were in Probate.

    “Ma’am, slip on one of these.”

    Without Adrienne’s awareness and certainly without Adrienne’s consent, the deputy had escorted her through the waiting room and into a corridor, she’d brought Adrienne into a windowless room, and shut the door firmly. What was this? Where was this? Adrienne’s tear-blinded eyes could barely make out rows of cubicles—cubicles separated from one another by plywood partitions—the air in this place was close, stale, smelling of the anguish and anxiety of strangers’ bodies.

    How the gigantic pulse in Adrienne’s head throbbed! She’d become confused. It had begun to seem probable to her that her husband was still alive—not yet dead—and that Adrienne had come to the hospital herself, to the first-floor radiation unit where women went for mammograms.

    She had postponed her yearly mammogram, out of cowardice. Yet somehow she must have made the appointment, for here she was.

    “Ma’am? You will please slip on one of these.”

    A second woman, in a bailiff’s uniform—this was made of a drab, dun-colored fabric, while the sheriff ’s deputies’ uniforms were a more attractive gray-blue—had appeared, and was handing Adrienne a paper smock—a paper smock!—which Adrienne had no choice but to accept. If she wanted to be released from this hellish place.

    The bailiff instructed Adrienne to step inside one of the cubicles and remove all her clothing—outerwear, underwear—her boots and her stockings and her jewelry—to place her possessions on the bench inside the cubicle—to put on the smock, and a pair of paper slippers—and to come back out when she was ready. Inside the cubicle, Adrienne began to undress like one in a trance. How grateful she was, there was no mirror in the cubicle—she was spared seeing the widow’s wan, frightened face.

    I love you so much. There is no other reason.

    Her husband had told her this, too. He’d loved her so much. Many times he’d told her and yet she could not now recall a single, singular time.

    Adrienne was removing her clothing, another time she would have to remove her boots, and this time her stockings. And her beige lace brassiere that fitted her loosely now and her tattered white nylon panties which in fact she’d slept in the previous night beneath a flannel nightgown in terror of being summoned to the hospital another time wakened from her deep stuporous sleep to drive hurriedly to the hospital to be ushered into her husband’s hospital room approximately five minutes after a young Asian doctor she’d never seen before had declared him dead—Mrs. Myer there was nothing to be done your husband’s blood pressure plummeted and his heartbeat raced.

    She had loved him, her husband. The man who’d been her husband. But her love had not been enough to save him. Her love had not been enough to save either of them. All that had ended.

    Trembling she removed her rings. She was wearing no other jewelry just rings. Hard to remove, these rings. The engagement ring—a beautiful diamond surrounded by a cluster of smaller diamonds—and the engraved white-gold wedding band—though her fingers seemed to have become thinner yet it was hard for her, it made her wince, it made her cry, like a small child or a small hurt bird crying, to remove these rings and to place them carefully beneath her clothing neatly folded on the wooden bench for safekeeping.

    Her black cashmere coat, her handbag, briefcase—these she placed carefully on the bench. Thinking Everything will be safe here. This is Probate Court.

    She put on the ridiculous paper smock, that barely came to her hips. How embarrassing! And the paper slippers! These looked as if they’d been used before, and were scuffed and creased.

    The bailiff tugged at the curtain—“Ma’am? Step out here, please.”

    Adrienne obeyed. No choice except to obey. She hadn’t been able to tie the smock behind and the little paper sashes hung loose and ticklish against her bare back.

    “Ma’am. You will please remove your garment.”

    “Remove it? I just put it on.”

    The bailiff was heavyset, humorless, with a coarse sooty-white skin and no eyebrows. Her dun-colored uniform included a heavy leather holster and—was it a handgun?—a pistol?—and on her left breast, a brass badge like a glaring eye.

    Awkwardly Adrienne tried to shield her breasts with her arms. The bailiff pulled her arms aside.

    “Ma’am! You will submit to the examination. You will cooperate.”


    “Did you sign a waiver in the Sur’gat office, ma’am? What’s that waiver say?”

    “I—I don’t know. I wasn’t aware—”

    “You signed a waiver, ma’am. You came to Probate of your own volition. You have entered the Courthouse—you are in the territory of the State.”

    The territory of the State! The bailiff spoke as if reciting words many times uttered, worn smooth and implacable as stones. Adrienne’s mouth was dry with apprehension.

    Was it a good sign, or not such a good sign, that there was no one else in the examination room, only just Adrienne? The air was steam-heated, humid and oppressive. A fine film of perspiration already gleamed on the sooty-skinned woman’s face. With a flourish she pulled on latex gloves saying, “Ma’am, stand very still. Very still, and you will not be hurt.”

    With her deft latex fingers the bailiff palpated Adrienne’s armpits—was she looking for lumps, swollen lymph glands? Before Adrienne could steel herself she began to palpate Adrienne’s breasts—the pressure was sudden, vise-like and unbearable.

    “Ma’am, you may breathe.”

    Adrienne had been holding her breath, in a trance of terror. Such intimacy, and such pain.

    “Ma’am. Raise your arms, please.”

    Frowning, the bailiff cupped Adrienne’s breasts in both hands—her hands were large as a man’s, and strong—and exerted pressure upward, as if shaping resistant clay. Adrienne cried aloud, tears started from her eyes.

    Her breasts were waxy-white, and had shrunken in the past week. The nipples were berry-sized, small and hard, sensitive as exposed nerve endings.

    Her stomach too seemed to have shrunk, yet the skin was flaccid, like an ill-fitting body stocking. There were thin white striations in her belly and thighs like stitches in the flesh that had worked loose.

    He’d adored her body, at one time. Her forgotten body.

    “Ma’am. You will be seated, please.”

    Adrienne was panting. Her breasts throbbed with pain and her mouth had gone dry as ashes.

    “Ma’am. I said seated.”

    In lieu of an examination table, Adrienne was made to sit on a wooden bench and spread her legs.

    “I—can’t. I can’t do this . . .”

    Ma’am! You will cooperate or you will be in contempt of court.”

    With a grunt the bailiff stooped to push Adrienne’s thighs farther apart, and to poke, and then insert her latex forefinger into the tight, dry, shrunken space between Adrienne’s legs. It was one of those moments in a lifetime when one thinks This is not possible and then, a moment later This is what is possible. Adrienne flinched with pain and bit her lip to keep from crying out.

    The bailiff was panting as if she’d run up a flight of stairs. Was the woman taking a swab, of the interior of Adrienne’s body? Or was she—a bizarre possibility—checking to see if Adrienne had smuggled anything into the courthouse, in such a lurid way? (On the walls of the courthouse corridors were signs warning against contraband.) For next the bailiff inserted her latex finger so deeply into the tight shrunken ring of flesh, of Adrienne’s anus, Adrienne was unable to keep from screaming.

    “Ma’am! You have not been hurt.”

    The bailiff spoke in exasperation, as if her professional integrity had been challenged. Yet at last, the examination seemed to be concluded. The bailiff removed her latex gloves and dropped them into a trash basket. Adrienne had a glimpse—no more than a fleeting glimpse—of something rust-colored on the latex forefinger.

    “Ma’am, you are free now to clothe yourself. And then you will wait here for the officer to assess your case.”

    “‘Assess my case’—what do you mean?”

    “I am not authorized to release you, ma’am. You will be released by the Surrogate.”

    “But—how can I be ‘released’—am I in custody? Am I arrested?”

    “Ma’am, you are in the custody of the Probate Court. You are not arrested.” The bailiff scowled as if Adrienne had tried to be amusing and had failed, lamely.

    “But when will this be? When can I go home?”

    “Ma’am, I have no way of knowing. Ma’am you will wait here.”

    Adrienne re entered the cubicle, to put back on her clothes. Her hands were trembling badly. The pain between her legs had begun to throb like fire. A trickle of liquid high on the inside of her thigh, trickling down—blood? She wiped it away quickly not daring to look.

    Her clothes—where were her clothes?—on the floor was her black cashmere coat—on the bench, her dark silk shirt and beige sweater she’d worn over it, no longer folded neatly as she’d left them but looking as if they’d been examined and flung down. There, on the floor, partway beneath the partition to an adjacent cubicle, her trousers—fine light cashmere wool, so charcoal-gray as to appear black. But her underwear was gone—no brassiere, no panties—and her rings—where were her rings?

    On the floor also, as if they’d been examined, pilfered and kicked aside, were Adrienne’s handbag and her husband’s briefcase. Papers spilled out of the briefcase, Adrienne shoved inside without taking time to sort them. She couldn’t recall if her husband’s will had been returned to her or if Capgrass had confiscated it . . .

    Hurriedly and haphazardly she dressed. She couldn’t button the shirt evenly; the zipper of her trousers caught partway, scraping the flesh of her belly; both her dark stockings were tangled beneath the bench, stiff with dirt, but her boots—the expensive black leather boots!—were

    In her desperate state Adrienne was grateful for the paper slippers.

    How strange it felt, to be naked inside her clothes. How strange her body had become to her, slick with perspiration, exhausted yet aroused like a hunted animal. She thought He is dead. He is not only dead he is gone. I am alone here.

    In that instant Adrienne felt a thrill of something like elation, triumph. Though she was distraught, and humiliated—though the lower part of her body throbbed with pain—yet she felt this thrill of triumph. She thought Already I am someone he could not have imagined.

    To escape the Probate Court, and to return home—this would be bliss to her, the most intense relief, happiness.

    Nothing more than that!—only just to escape, and to return to the empty house, that had been chill and appalling as a sepulcher to her only hours ago.

    When Adrienne stepped out of the cubicle, she saw that the examination room was empty. The sooty-skinned bailiff had left. Anxiously Adrienne tried the door—the door that led back to the corridor outside the waiting room—but it was locked.

    “Hello? Hello? Is anyone there?”

    Adrienne rapped on the door hesitantly. She didn’t want to incur the wrath of the sooty-skinned bailiff. She stood, then sat—then stood again—ten minutes, fifteen. Her skin had begun to itch, where the bailiff had touched her. And the soft flesh of her breasts, and the soft flesh between her legs, throbbing with pain.

    She happened to notice at the farther end of the room a second, smaller door. It was the kind of door that is permanently shut. Even as Adrienne went to try it, thinking Of course this is locked. I am locked in the doorknob turned, and the door opened.

    Quickly Adrienne stepped outside. She was in a corridor—a familiar-looking corridor—she’d come this way when she’d arrived at the Office of the Surrogate, it seemed like hours ago.

    In her overwarm coat and the absurd paper slippers, Adrienne made her stealthy way to the staircase.

    No looking back! No glancing to the side! Could the widow leave Probate Court so easily? Was no one going to see her, apprehend her? Her heart was beating deliriously. Her body throbbed with the strange wild exhilaration of the hunted animal.

    Descending now the broad baronial staircase. Gripping the railing, steeling herself as in the presence of danger.

    “I am exiting the Courthouse. I have been in Probate Court, and now I am released”—Adrienne rehearsed her little speech, should one of the uniformed officers stop her.

    And now again on the lower floor was the Office of the Public Defender—it seemed that there were fewer young captives in orange jumpsuits seated here at this time—but still there remained the young man with the savage tattooed face and rat-tail at the nape of his dingy neck—Edro Hodge? Adrienne hesitated only a moment before deciding to approach the man—his bleary bloodshot eyes swerved to her face, startled—Adrienne whispered hoarsely, “If you are ‘Edro’—‘Leisha’ has said she retracts her statement. She says—‘Don’t plead guilty.’ ”

    The young man with the tattooed face stared at Adrienne. Beside him was an older man, in a dark suit, a court-appointed attorney Adrienne supposed, and this man stared at Adrienne, too.

    “Don’t! Don’t ‘plead guilty.’ ”

    Before either man could speak to her, Adrienne turned and hurried back to the staircase.


    Outside, it appeared to be late afternoon. Hours had passed, the overcast sky had darkened. A chill icy rain continued to fall and the fraught air smelled of the river. Adrienne was disoriented, she hadn’t thought so much time had passed in the courthouse though she was exhausted, wrung dry. Calmly she thought They can find me, they will know where I live. But not just now.

    In her paper slippers she would have to walk in slushy ice, mud. The near-empty parking lot was the size of a city block, its outer perimeter lost in shadow. Adrienne looked around for the snub-faced girl in the faux-fox-fur jacket but of course no one was there, where the girl had been standing with the baby in her arms.

    Yet, Adrienne heard a cry. A child’s cry, faint and plaintive—and to her astonishment she saw, near-hidden between the granite wall of the old courthouse and the parked police vehicle, the toddler in the stroller.


    Adrienne hurried to the child, who was whimpering, feebly kicking her thin, wasted-looking legs. The little girl had managed to work her arms free of the tight-wrapped blanket and flailed them now in the frantic way of a bird with broken wings.

    “Oh—God! This is terrible! What has happened to you! Has your mother left you here?—abandoned you?”

    Adrienne could not believe this—yet it seemed to be so. Had the child been left for her?

    What to do! What was Adrienne to do! She could not bring herself to re enter the courthouse—which in any case seemed to be shutting down for the evening. Already the higher floors had dimmed their lights, each floor in succession was growing dimmer, like a rotted wedding cake, candles going out.

    Adrienne’s mind worked rapidly. If the girl who called herself Leisha had abandoned her two-year-old daughter in such a way, clearly she was an unfit mother; the child would be taken from her by county welfare authorities, and put into a foster home. In the city of Trenton, what a fate!

    “You poor baby! Poor dear—darling—Lilith . . .”

    Adrienne picked the child up in her arms. She wasn’t accustomed to a child’s weight, made heavier by the child’s kicking and thrashing. It did seem to comfort the distraught little girl that Adrienne knew her name, and was smiling at her.

    “Don’t cry! No need to cry, now.”

    The little girl’s eyes were cobalt-blue, very dark; her face was narrow, a sort of feral face, with a look of being hurt, wounded; there was something just discernibly deformed about her. She’d wetted herself, a strong odor of ammonia lifted from her soiled clothing. Yet Adrienne hugged her, Adrienne kissed the chilled little face, murmuring words of comfort. Adrienne thought This is our only purpose on earth: to give comfort to others.

    The thought was immensely satisfying to Adrienne. She felt her heart swell with warmth, well-being.

    In the crude paper slippers, that were already soaked through, and tattered, Adrienne carried the little girl to her car, which was on the far side of the lot. Her stocking feet were freezing but her face was feverish. Happily she whispered to the little girl—she would take care of her, she promised not to turn her over to police, or to welfare—“You can come home with me, Lilith! You will be safe with me. No one will know.”

    The panicked child bit Adrienne’s hand—fortunately her teeth were tiny milk teeth, not strong enough or sharp enough to break Adrienne’s skin. Adrienne was shocked but managed to laugh. “Lilith! I’m not your mommy. You have no reason to be frightened of me.”

    At her car, which was a new-model Acura her husband had bought less than six months before, Adrienne saw that something unfortunate had happened. A heavy ridge of earth—chunks of broken concrete, ice, and soil—had been plowed against her front wheels, no doubt by one of the earthmoving machines that had been grunting and grinding in the parking lot when she’d arrived. What bad luck, and at such a time! Adrienne had to set the fretting child inside her car, in the passenger’s seat, and for several desperate minutes kick, claw, and swipe at the dirt, to free the wheels—“God help me. Oh God—help me.” Her hands were filthy, the front of her coat, her legs—she was laughing, and she was crying—it might have been God who gave her the idea to drag a plank over to her car, and insert it behind the left front wheel, on a patch of ice, to provide traction.

    “This will do it, Lilith! Let’s try.”

    Under a New Jersey statute one was obliged to carry a small child in a child-seat in the rear of a vehicle, not in the passenger’s seat, but Adrienne had no choice except to buckle Lilith in the front seat beside her, as best she could in the oversized belt. “Please don’t cry! You’re safe with me—I promise.” By this time all floors of the courthouse had gone dark.

    By a miracle the motor flared into life. Calmly and deliberately despite her desperation to escape Adrienne maneuvered the Acura out of the lot. No police vehicles on the street! No one was following her! The nighttime city appeared to be less frantic than the daytime city and in a maze of one-way and dead-end streets Adrienne worked her way gradually back to Route 1 which would bear her north and out of accursed Trenton.

    “We’re safe, Lilith! Almost safe. Please don’t cry, darling.”

    Darling. The word was immensely soothing, familiar somehow. It was not a word available to everyone.

    On northbound Route 1 sleet rained from the sky. Tiny bits of ice hammered against the hood and roof of the white Acura. Adrienne’s headlights were on bright but she had difficulty seeing the highway. Blindly she drove, happily—she was thinking of how when they were safely home she would give the child a much-needed bath—a hot soaking sudsy bath—she would shampoo the child’s fine, fair hair, and comb it free of snarls—she would dry the child in her largest bath towel, in her arms—she would feed the starving child, and herself. She could prepare a thick delicious tomato soup—scrambled eggs—oatmeal? Oatmeal with raisins and honey. Or she would save the oatmeal with raisins for morning. She would spoon food into the child’s mouth and put the child to bed in the rarely used bed in her guest room. She would sing the child to sleep if the child continued to fret. She would sit by the child’s bedside through the night, to protect her. For there was the child’s cruel mother, and there was the child’s cruel father, from whom the child must be protected. And in the morning all that was confusing would become clear, she knew. She had faith.


    From the collection Sourland. © by the Ontario Review. Used by permission of the author.

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