Nathan Palm is frightened. Marion, he must remind himself, has done this kind of thing before. She comes back. But this time there is a difference: she’s involved the kids. She left them at a CVS. Nathan Palm has considered calling a number of people for help.
He wants to call his wife. It was strange to have a day without her voice. He has written about her voice before, because he says it was the thing that first attracted him to her. This isn’t entirely accurate, but he doesn’t remember as well as he should. When he first saw her at the café where she worked, he had a hard time not looking at her breasts. It made him focus on the objects behind her. He pictures the young Marion. He sees a foggy mirror behind the bottles, a chalkboard listing specials, a strand of white Christmas lights. He also sees Marion’s breasts.
When he looked at the things behind her, he listened to her voice. It sometimes disappointed him when she misused a word or agreed with a wrong opinion, but he eventually understood that Marion was performing for a clientele who did not want a dissenting waitress.
Then Marion would be on the phone, ordering two cases of Sancerre to be delivered by Wednesday, and she would become a different person, an older, capable person. And she would negotiate, she could negotiate! She had a head for details. She was never flustered. She had a smooth, deep, melodic voice; she enunciated her words, except when she didn’t. And when she didn’t, it was for some reason, he knew. Did she not want to be overheard? Did she want to hide her words from him?
Nathan Palm misses both his wife’s voice and her breasts. Hehas to admit that.
He can’t call his wife so he calls Denise, an old friend. He hasknown Denise (or rather Denise has known him) since he was ababy. Their mothers liked to drink white wine, smoke cigarettes,and listen to classical records together in the afternoons, and heand Denise would play. She was older by two years, and Nathanremembers that Denise always acted uninterested in him but neverleft his side. More often than not, they didn’t talk but played quietgames. The games changed according to age, and when Nathanturned fifteen, the game became sexual. At sixteen, their mothershad a falling-out(Nathan believes there was an infidelity somewhere),but he and Denise kept in touch. Denise is his oldest friend.
“I think my wife left me,” he says over the phone.
“You think? Did she take the kids?”
“No. She told them she was visiting her friend Shelley in theHudson Valley.”
“So Shelley doesn’t know anything about it. And she hasn’tshown up there. And it’s weird. It’s fucking weird. Marion took thekids out of school and left them in a CVS on Montague.”
As he tells his story, the story becomes a story and not somethingthat happened. He is aware of choosing the correct detailsand leaving certain ones out, to best illustrate his point in the shortestamount of time. He does this for everyone, and he supposes thathis honed details might be what people like about him. For Denise,however, the abandonment story might not work. Denise considersthe workings of upper-middle-classmarriages hopelessly boring,and while she appreciates details, they have never impressed her.
“Denise, I don’t know what to do.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I think Marion left me.”
Denise pauses, then: “What did you do?”
“That’s probably not true.”There is a woman in Dumbo that lately I sometimes sleep with. And Imay have told my wife.
This is what Nathan thinks. But he asks, “Doyou think Marion is unhappy?”
Denise doesn’t answer. If she answered, she would say, If I were Marion, I would be unhappy.
She’s expressed this sentiment before.
“Would you come over?” Nathan asks, aware of the tightness inhis chest and that if someone isn’t in the house with him soon, hemay lose it. He cannot ask the woman in Dumbo. He can never seeher again. Besides, she’d say no.
“I can’t. “
Denise says she will come in an hour.
When Nathan Palm hangs up the phone, he does not feel better,as he expected he would. He feels that something needs to bediscussed, and that he has done something wrong. He has madeanother misstep; he is sure of that.Up Front
The Days Inn is predictably depressing. When Marion pullsopen the glass door, a young woman exits, and Marion wondersif the young woman is a prostitute. She chastises herself: she isguiltier and more illegal than the prostitute.
She books a room for two nights and asks boldly if she can payin cash. The man behind the desk doesn’t care, just barks, “Upfront.” Marion kneels down to the knapsack and opens the zipperthree inches. It is the first time she has dared to open the knapsack,and she wishes she didn’t have to. She fishes out five $20 bills. Ittakes a long time, and the man behind the desk grows impatient.She snaps at the man, says she will be one more minute, okay?
Straightening up, she gives the man behind the desk the money,and they glare at each other. He hands her a room key and herchange, briefly explains the complimentary breakfast buffet, andgestures to the elevators.
When Marion opens the door of her hotel room and sees thebed, she cries in relief and for her children and for herself, and asshe cries, she tucks herself in. Under the comforter and sheets, shetakes off her shoes, her pants, her shirt, her bra, her underpants.She’s naked with her clothes in a bundle beside her. She holds oneof her breasts and goes quickly to sleep.Board Of Trustees
Daniel, during a mild panic attack in the third hour of hisfirst working day without Marion, sends an email to everyemployee of the school. The email includes a casual yet thoroughtranscription of Daniel’s conversation with Nathan. He explainsthat Nathan used the word missing to describe Marion, but thismust be “metaphorical” or “ironic,” because how does a womanfrom Carroll Gardens go missing in this day and age? Daniel asksthis, but then says, Of course, I may be wrong. Perhaps women do gomissing. Perhaps this is my privilege speaking, but we also need to addressthe fact that Marion has been crucial to Deb, just crucial, and that she’sleft behind a gaping hole of functionality and competence, not that Debisn’t crucial or competent, but what with her absences and numerous doctorappointments and light sensitivity, it’s really Marion who would havebeen helpful in an auditing-typesituation. Which is what we are facingnow. Today. Not that Deb isn’t helpful. Also, has anyone noticed that thepetty cash fund is curiously low?
After several reply-alls,which briefly crash the school emailserver, Daniel receives a text message from Anna Fisher, a memberof the board of trustees, inviting Daniel in the founders’ conferenceroom later that same day. Daniel is briefly thrilled at the prospectof a one-on-onewith such a powerful figure. It is well documentedby the staff that Anna Fisher has been essential to the refinementof the school’s branding. In fact, she may have been the first personto use the word branding, and the school is grateful for her infusionof contemporary forward thinking to the board. However, Anna’ssubsequent texts make it clear that Daniel will be facing the wholeboard. Also, she adds in the next bubble, if he is to send any emails in the future, they need to be approved by her first.
Even Daniel is able to surmise that this will not be a good meetingfor him, so he is early for the meeting as a gesture of his repentance,and is able to help set up the coffee and bagels with the foodservices staff.
A group of pleasant-lookingpeople enter the room, all late butwith excellent excuses. Anna is the latest. After pulling off a knit hatand dragging her fingers through her soft blond hair, she leans forwardand asks Daniel to summarize his email in a few short words.Daniel speaks until Anna leans forward even further to interrupt him.Then you don’t know where Marion is?No, not per se.And Marion has been filing the school’s quarterly tax returns for thepast five years.Well, it has been a group effort, but one that Marion primarily handled. Led.And there have been accounting discrepancies?I’m not sure if I’m qualified to call them that, but they do seem to besome . . . well, irregularities, maybe.Thank you. Have you had a bagel?
Daniel rises and begins to spread cream cheese on half of aneverything bagel, but the board is silent and so he decides he shouldleave. Before he does, he bows to the group, half-smearedbagel inhand, and when the door shuts behind him, the pleasant-lookingpeople laugh.
But seriously. Seriously. Where is Marion?
Has anyone heard from her? No?
What are we going to do without Marion?
The lawyers are concerned.The lawyers are always concerned. A risk-aversetype. I suppose we’llhave to find someone to clean up.
I wonder where Marion’s gone off to.
Have we reached out to Nathan?
I sent him an email, and texted. He didn’t get back to me.
We shouldn’t pry.
We shouldn’t? The lawyers seem to feel that it’s important we locateMarion. Something about the audit, something about accountability andtransparency and irregular deductions. I don’t know. I stopped listening.
Well, it seems slightly crass. Let’s leave Nathan Palm alone.
Of course, there’s always the children.
A conversation about their mother could be helpful. A gentle conversation.We are, after all, concerned about their well-being.Right?
Right. Let’s check in with the Palm girls. But can we take a differentapproach from Daniel’s? Keep this calm and quiet.
And I’m sure we can find someone to step into Marion’s shoes untilshe returns.
I agree. I mean, she is only part-time.
Copyright © 2017 by Emily Culliton. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.