Zadie Smith: Big Week

Big Week

Zadie Smith

He sat in the dive bar on Sherman, looking out at his house, on the other side of the street. The panels were buckled along the porch, and deep, ugly breaches scored the white clapboard, but come spring he would fix it all up for her, repaint and reseal, whatever needed doing. That went for the oil tank, too. He would keep doing whatever was necessary around the place, because he loved her, and she still loved him—in the largest sense of that word—and people would just have to wrap their heads around that fact.

“But how’s it work exactly?” asked Frank Everett, whose one-room bar it was. He came out from behind the counter and joined his only customer at the picture window. They watched the snow fall. “Not your house anymore, is it?”

“That’s correct. I’m giving it to her. She deserves it. And anything she needs doing, I’ll do it for her, she only has to ask.”

Frank lifted the customer’s half-full glass of Coke and put a cardboard coaster beneath it.

“See, that’s the part I don’t get. You still go to church with her. She makes you cookies.”

“She makes me cookies.”

The bartender folded his arms and took on a look of priestly awe, as if Marie’s cookies were truly the alpha and the omega. He was not Irish, Frank, nor even from Boston, but had once been married to the type and felt he understood his customers.

“Got to the point with my Annette,” he confessed, “and I don’t mind telling you—got to the point wherein I was gonna hire someone to kill her. No word of a lie. I was this close.”

He laughed amiably, but the man—whose name was Michael Kennedy McRae—sat unsmiling and reproachful, like a puppy thwacked on the nose with a rolled-up Herald.

“Well,” McRae said, “I’d have to say it’s not that way for us. A lot of people round here may think of me different these days … She never did.”

He was looking straight past Frank, off into some noble horizon, though when Frank followed his gaze all he saw was a rack of Twinkies sweating in the window of the gas station.

“Want another? McRae?”

Half standing on his stool, big square head craned urgently leftward. An old bull, rising up from its knees. It was possible to make out the tensed muscles from here, even through his slacks. Primed! People don’t change. They could fire McRae ten more times—he’d always be a cop.

“Sorry, Frank,” he said, over his shoulder. “You must want to get home. Should have said—I’m waiting for my boy. Thought that was his car. He’s coming from the art school.”

“Makes no difference to me. I don’t close for snow and I don’t close for empty. I don’t close.”

“I shouldn’t have said art school—it’s the Art Institute. Different place. Not painting—he does what they call ‘graphic arts.’”

“Plenty of call for graphics. Everything’s made out of graphics.”

“Every brand’s gotta have a logo. That’s what I told his mother, but she worries.”

Fifteen minutes later a tall young man in a Red Sox cap parked his mother’s car outside the family home and trudged through the snow in unsuitable shoes. He was a head and shoulders lankier than his father, skinnier, too, and his face was gentle and open. He was shaking the powder from his feet when his father rushed forward to hug him at the threshold of the bar.

“Hey, Dad…”

The son maneuvered them inside into the warm. The look of ardent love in the father’s eyes was such that even Frank, ten yards away, felt oppressed by it. Gently, the younger McRae pried the elder’s hands off his person.

“Sorry I’m late. You look well, Dad.”

“Nah, I’m ten pounds over. Fifteen. I can’t run—so. All I know is running and cycling. And the doctor’s put the nix on both. I gotta figure out what I can do now! Driving’s got me sitting down all day.” McRae reached over and played a sort of jig on his son’s knees. “Hey, you going over to your mother’s after?”

“Um … sure.”

“Good, that’s good.”

Frank came over with a Guinness and a Diet Coke, on a tray no less.

“Your old man instructed me,” he said, and set the slopping drinks down. “He was real clear: When the kid comes, bring out the black stuff, it’s his favorite.”

“Great,” said the son, but took only a sip of froth. Mike left his soda where it was.

“Look at this kid. The length of his arms! The abdominal strength!”

He poked his son several times in the gut. The young man gazed calmly down at his father’s finger, waiting for him to finish. Something about this scene put Frank in mind of Saint Thomas, up to the knuckle in stigmata. But of course that was the kid’s name: Tommy.

“They tried to get him on the team—well, naturally they would—but no interest, none whatsoever. He’s his mother’s child. She’s musical, plays the piano. He’s the same way.”

The son sighed, pointed a finger gun at his own temple, and pulled the trigger: “Arty.”

“Hey, it’s a great thing! Don’t despise it!” Mike batted at the peak of the baseball cap. “What is that, anyway? Late-life conversion?”


“His girl’s at the art school, too,” explained McRae. “Art is a wonderful thing. Education—that’s another wonderful thing. It’s a gift. But it’s not free! I’ve put three boys through college now.”

Frank whistled: “Serious money!”

“Right. But we’re in it together, me and Marie—together but apart— if you see what I mean. We’ve made it work. Only place we ever been as a family is Hawaii. Twice. Never been to Europe. Never been to Ireland. But Michael Junior went to France, all over France, for a whole summer. Joe went to Spain that time. And Tommy—you went somewhere with Father Torday— ”


“Right, Edinburgh!” McRae reached out and squeezed his son’s shoulder. “And I feel I went to these places, through my boys. And that’s what I’m talking about. If you love your children you make these sacrifices—they’re not even sacrifices, they’re just what you do. And all of that—it can’t just end because it’s over! We’re a family. Twenty-nine happy years—happiest of my life. Honestly, meeting your mother was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. I stand by that, Tom, I really do.”

“Okay, Dad,” murmured Tommy. There came a sudden stream of cold air through the door, along with two men in blue, from NSTAR. “Maybe we should let Frank go on and run his bar.”

“I am truly a blessed man. I tell that to everyone.”

Frank looked closely at the face of Mike McRae. It was green, the consequence of a pair of fluorescent shamrocks attached to the glass.

“McRae—you’re unusual,” he said, patting him on the back, though in fact he did not find him unusual in any particular. There were six McRae siblings and they were all of them talkers. Frank crossed the bar to attend to his customers. McRae shunted his stool toward his son until their knees touched.

“Wow, is your mom gonna be so pleased to see you. She saw Joe last week but she hasn’t seen MJ since Christmas. You see your kids every day for twenty years—then suddenly you don’t see them. Takes some getting used to. Well, just think of me, when you’re chowing down—I’ll be right under your feet.”

The boy pulled off his baseball cap: “You’re—you’re not eating with us?”

“No, Tommy, not tonight. We’ve got to start making this official, don’t we, at some point? I’ve been the troll under the bridge for … well, a year almost. And your mother’s still a beautiful woman; I mean, I still find her beautiful, I still find her sexy—and the fact is there’ll soon be a whole lot of billy goats, you know, wanting to come trip-trapping over— ”

“Oh, Dad…”

“Hey, I’m happy for her! Tom, I gotta tell you: right now I feel like life is just this precious … this very precious—I don’t even know what, I don’t actually have the right word ready for you right now, but—hey, come here.”

Tom McRae submitted to a benign headlock. His adult self, his city self—who only this morning had been confidently discussing Italian Futurism with the children of lawyers and doctors—now shrank and slipped away, to be replaced by an earlier incarnation: the shy, suburban, middle son, hiding his eyes behind hair.

“Just feels weird,” he said, and took hold of his drink with both hands, lifting it to his lips like a milk shake. “I mean, not that I want you guys to get all dramatic, but … it’s weirdly peaceful, that’s all.”

“Oh, it’s the peacefullest divorce in history!” cried McRae. “That’s what I was just saying to Frank! Never even hollered at each other in almost thirty years.”

“Right. That’s how I remember it. Kim says I must be missing something, but I’m like, no, I remember how it was. We don’t have to talk about any of this.”

“Oh, no, no—Tom, I don’t mind talking about it. I like talking about it. Actually, it’s good for me. I talk about it all the time. I have this rule—and I’m not trying to God-bother you, Tommy, I never have, but the fact is, this is how I’m thinking now; I say to myself, Would you say this, that, or the other if Jesus Christ himself was at your shoulder? And if I wouldn’t, then I don’t. Simple as that.”

McRae reached forward and wiped a foam mustache from his son’s frowning face.

“Me and your mother were having this very beautiful conversation a few weeks back—she’d come downstairs to give me back this Japanese bread knife I gave her and—that’s not important—the point is, we’re having this conversation, very forgiving, very honest, and she says, ‘I wanna travel, I wanna meet new people, I wanna get back to my music, to playing the piano like I used to. Thirty years ago I settled for Mike McRae, and now I’m fifty-six and I don’t want to settle anymore.’ Oof. Right in the solar plexus. Now, Tom, that was a hard thing to hear. It was. But if that’s how a person feels, that’s how they feel. We got three beautiful boys. I can honestly stand here and say I haven’t a single regret.”

“Well, that’s great, Dad,” said Tommy. He dabbed at his upper lip with a napkin. “Just as long as you’re in a good place, I guess.”

“I’m in a great place.” McRae opened his startling blue eyes about as wide as they’d go. “Let me ask you something: You ever see The Sound of Music?”


“‘When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.’”

Tommy tried valiantly to smile.

“That’s a line from that movie. That really kills me! So what I’m saying is, I got a few things on the burner. Suffice to say I think you’re going to approve, Tommy, I really do. I mean, most of it you know already. So today’s Sunday— Monday, Tuesday I’m working. Fine. Wednesday I’m going to the library, see if I can still at least be a friend of the library. No harm in asking, right?”

“No harm.”

“And Friday—Friday I move out—that’s it. That’s the day.”

“Big week.”

“Big week.”

A buzz came from Mike McRae’s waistband. Tommy watched his father retrieve some wire-framed reading glasses from the top pocket of his sports jacket and peruse the tiny screen with as much attentive care as an old man in a Rockwell painting reading the baseball scores.

“You know, Dad, you’re the only guy I know who still owns a beeper.”

McRae looked up over his half-moons with a wide-open, undimmed enthusiasm that made even his gentlest son fear for him.

“Really? A lot of the guys at work have ’em.”

The name on the card was Clark: they were to meet in the ten-minute waiting zone just outside departures. But Clark was late and the morning frigid. McRae got back in his car, drove around, parked in the lot, and walked into baggage claim. He checked his beeper, held up his card. All the other guys wore suits, and their passengers came sooner: a series of middle-aged executives glued to their devices, handing over their bags and asking fearfully about the weather. But now an elegant lady appeared at the top of an escalator, and waved at Mike McRae; tall, slender, and dark, with black silky hair and a very red mouth, who looked like she could run a 5K without pausing for breath.


“Urvashi Clark.”

“Perfect. You got any bags?”

She did, but insisted on carrying them. They made their way through a sideways snow flurry to an elevator and then up to a luxury sedan on the second floor. Everything she wore was black; black-framed glasses, black overcoat, and, around her neck, a black fur, which she placed beside her on the back seat, its fine hairs quivering like a nervous animal.

“Looks like we’re going to the university.”


She took out a thin folder, the exact shade of her lipstick, opened it, and began shuffling papers around.

“You giving a lecture?”

“Paper,” she said, without lifting her eyes.

“I get a lot of the academic people. I had a numbers guy last week— economist, works at the White House—real smart. We couldn’t agree about gold, though. I like the professors; you can have a conversation. You a … math professor? Or— ”

She looked up: “It’s a conference on architecture. I’m an architect.”

He let her be. Drove through the complex of overpasses, entered a shaded tunnel.

“Need light?”

But by the time he’d thought to ask they were emerging from the other side, into light so white, so penetrating, it seemed to erase all distinctions— not least the one dividing the front of the car from the back—and Mike McRae felt he could no longer reasonably pretend he was not in a small, shared space with a beautiful woman in the full glory of the day.

“Architecture. Must be interesting.”

“I think so.”

“Gothic architecture, modern architecture. I guess I’m a traditionalist. I like a white picket fence. I like a stained-glass window. Of course, in Boston we got a lot of beautiful old buildings.”

“Certainly have.”

“A lot,” said Mike emphatically, though at that moment they happened to be passing a 7-Eleven encased in a huge gray box. “Is your paper about traditional or modern?”

“Mine? Neither.” She withdrew an iPhone from her back pocket and held it in front of her, but this at least gave Mike the opportunity to take a glimpse at her left hand, which was an aspect of his new life that did not yet come naturally: he had to remind himself each time. Nor was he always sure of the correct interpretation. A single black stone in twisted gold, on the second finger. What might it mean?

“Not annoying you by asking, am I?”

“Not at all,” said Urvashi, meeting the expectant blue eyes in the rearview. “Well, I suppose it’s about … well, how certain spaces determine— shape—our lives.”

McRae slapped the steering wheel: “Now, that just rings so true to me. So true! Because, I’m from Charlestown—three generations. And Charlestown shaped me, and my family, absolutely. Absolutely.”

“Ah, how interesting.” She leaned forward. “In what way?”

“Oh, values, principles, beliefs. There’s just a Charlestown way of looking at things, I guess.”

“I see,” she said, sat back, and returned to her phone.

“Yeah,” said Mike, a few minutes later, as if no time had passed, “ten years ago, we moved to Cambridge, but really everything important that ever happened to me in my life happened in Charlestown. Met my wife in Charlestown—not on the street, I mean, she lived there. First thing she ever said to me was ‘make yourself at home.’ No kidding. She was on her way out skating—I’d actually come to meet her brother. I tell you, I can still see her holding a pair of ice skates, looking back over her shoulder, like it was yesterday. Thirty years we spent together. We’re actually in the process of separating right now.”

“Oh—I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! Look at me. I’m the luckiest man you’ll ever meet.”

To prove it, he lifted a little in his seat until the mirror accepted the full toothy brilliance of his smile.

“This is a transitional period for me. I’m driving a car, as you can see— part time. I got an injury running, then I had this operation. Couldn’t work for a while, couldn’t run.”

“That must be frustrating.”

Urvashi picked up one of the little bottles of water from the drinks holder, took a large swig and, then, a little risk: “I run. Not very far, but I like to do it.”

Mike slapped the steering wheel again: “I knew you did! Knew you were a runner just by looking at you!”

“Oh, I don’t know that I’d call myself a runner exactly. I never get beyond three miles.”

“Question of will,” McRae said, holding up two fingers. “Believe me, I know. I’ve run Ironmans, half marathons, whole marathons … ”

She gave a little theatrical shudder and looked out the window.

“No, I could never do that. I don’t have … whatever that is.”

“Nah, everybody has it. You wanna know the secret? You do it for that feeling you get in the last minute. That’s what you’re looking for. Look, our lives are easy, right? We switch a button, the light comes on. Press another button, food gets cooked. But you gotta dig deeper than that when you run—into some deeper part of you. That part exists in everyone. It’s just a matter of finding it.”

“I’m sure you’re right. I may be too old to start, however.”

“Hey, you’re not as old me. I’m fifty-seven! Ran my first marathon at forty-two. Ran it when I was fifty-three, fifty-four, and fifty-six—up until this injury. Then they prescribe me OxyContin, this, that, and the other. Then I start realizing I could get what I needed cheaper on the streets. Right? Well, all of that got me into a lot of situations. A lot of situations. And the scary thing is, I wasn’t even in that much pain, you know? Like maybe I should have just let myself feel the pain.”

They stopped at a traffic light. He twisted right round in his seat to further discuss the problem of pain, and in the same moment her phone buzzed, and buzzed again. Mike looked at the device.

“Take it. Could be important.”

She picked up, and with a face that suggested the intense business of work or love, commenced scrolling idly through her e-mail.

“Truth is I lost myself,” murmured Mike McRae, “lost myself completely.”

He stopped sharply to allow a mother and baby to cross the street, and Urvashi looked up from her lap and sensed water running alongside the car, racing to keep up. With her fur she wiped the condensation from the window. Boathouse. Geese. Young men in red, heaving oars, blowing clouds from their mouths.

“I can’t imagine being on the water on a day like this!”

“All a matter of will. Now, I really prided myself on my will. Had a little too much pride in it, probably. Then I lost it all.” He twisted round in his seat again. “Miss Clark, mind if I ask where you’re from?”

“Not at all. Uganda.”

When he frowned, his forehead turned into Mount Stanley.

“See now, I would have said Pakistan or India or Bangladesh or even Iraq or Iran, maybe. I would not have said Uganda.”

“Well, there used to be a big South Asian population in Uganda.”

“Oh!” He turned back to the wheel. “And … can I ask how old are you?

“I’m forty-six.”

“Wow, wouldn’t have guessed that either. Can I say you look a lot younger?”

“I don’t mind.”

“And your husband, kids—they here in Boston?”

She smiled at the simplicity of the attempt.

“My partner and I live in New York. I don’t have any children.”

His face fell and she felt suddenly very sorry. On a whim, she conjured up two nonexistent stepchildren, girls, in their teens.

“Ah, so you know the drill,” said Mike McRae, conspiratorially. “So let me tell you something that’ll blow your mind. I got three sons, right? Boston Irish as the day is long. But my oldest boy’s wife is African American, from Chicago, so his kids are kinda like your color, and my middle son’s girlfriend is Korean! Now, the youngest is not seeing anybody at the moment, but I’m thinking, what’s next? Chinese? Right? Or maybe the next’ll be an Indian—Native American. Point is, we’re all God’s children. Me and my wife—we’re separating, but we’re thrilled. When I first saw my little brown granddaughter”—his eyes teared up as he took a hand off the wheel and placed it on his breastbone— “it was like my heart got larger and there was a new room in it. A new chamber.”

To this, his beautiful passenger said nothing at all; only bit her bloodred lip and looked out the window. He could not know that her mind had drifted strangely: to her stepdaughters, whom she placed now in rooms of her own design—twin aeries either side of a chimney breast—in a shingled house that sat on a bluff, over a wild beach of dunes and sea grass, in America or in Africa—in some dream combination of the two. Mike, not knowing, believing he had caused offense, stood the silence for as long as he could, then turned on the radio, put the wipers on, and spied a meth-faced girl leaving a pharmacy with something stuffed down the back of her pants. The shadow life. He saw it everywhere—it was a kind of second sight—but what use was it? He took a left toward campus. He looked back at his passenger, her face anxious, turned away. Her window misted, a single cloud. What could she possibly see?

It had cost six million dollars and was described as a “reimagining,” but to Mike it looked like someone had taken a large box of concrete and glass, put wheels under it, and driven it into the side of the old library. On the other hand, it seemed busier than he remembered it, with somebody at every one of the new terminals, and many more waiting to use them. A lot of homeless folks, easily spotted by their winter shoes: elaborate self-creations, wound together with duct tape. A uniform had once allowed him to speak to such people; now he stood, undifferentiated and unnoticed among then, waiting in the atrium for Miss Wendy English, the senior administrator. There were so many possible entrances and exits to the new space he didn’t know from which to expect her, and in the end it was an ambush: the feel of a little finger poking him in the back.

“Miss Wendy.” He turned, drew in his gut. “Now look at you. Wowee. Did you get younger?”

“I had my seventy-fifth birthday last week and I’ve decided to stop right there. It’s good to see you, Michael.”

They held hands, which required, from McRae, a certain delicacy. She was five foot one, weighed only about eighty pounds in her skirt suit, and he could feel each vein and bone.

“Long time,” she said. They stepped back and admired each other. Evidently she had stopped dyeing her hair, the small, stately Afro white as lamb’s wool.

“Really appreciative of you seeing me today,” he said. “Means a lot.”

“It’s nothing at all,” she said, gesturing at the high, light space. “As you can see, we’re open to everybody. And I meant what I said: it’s good to see you. Let’s go to my office.”

But she walked quickly, always slightly ahead, and of the many people who stopped to salute Miss Wendy or ask her some practical question—in the atrium, through the corridors—not one of them did she introduce to Mike McRae. By the time they reached her corner office, back in the old red-brick building, he felt like a pale shadow, chasing this little dark woman through the world.

“Now, what can I do for you, Michael?”

She sat behind her gigantic walnut desk, bird arms folded on the green baize, and McRae thought of Alice McRae—mother of six, admirer of Louise Day Hicks, for whom this image of her son, cap in hand before a tiny old black lady, would have been bizarre, almost incomprehensible.

“Michael—you okay?”

“Oh, I’m great.” But for a ridiculous moment, he feared he was about to weep. He put his fingers to both eyes as a deterrent. “You know, when the whole community comes around you like people have, well, that just feels great. And after all the stuff in the papers, there was a lot of support—a lot of love.”

“You are a part of this community,” she said, looking directly into his eyes, as few people did, and separating each word like she was counting pearls on a necklace. But when she got to the end of the rope, there was nothing further.

“Right,” said McRae, into the gap, “and I feel I’ve got a lot more to give, to this library in particular. That veterans program we spoke about last year— I would love to help implement that. I feel like a lot of the skills I have— plus the skills I’ve been acquiring recently, because I should explain—look, I haven’t even told my own family this.” He straightened up, pressed his hands soberly along the length of his tie. “What I was going to say is I’m actually training to become a substance-abuse counselor. So this is a big week for me, I qualify this week—and I really feel that twenty-five years as an officer, plus my own personal experience with substance-abuse issues, and now this training—I really feel I could have a whole new role on the action committee here, a really substantial role, that would bring a lot of added value.”

Throughout this speech Miss Wendy remained perfectly still. Behind her, snow fell steadily. She looked like a tiny, frowning saint, carved into the ebony of an apse.

“I can’t put you back on the committee, Mike. I’m sorry.”

Down came the snow, so silent and thick. He leaned forward and gripped the desk.

“How much money did I raise for this library? I must have run two hundred miles for this library, Miss Wendy. Two hundred miles.”

“You were treasurer, Michael, and the board feels…”

She went on talking. He looked past her, to the snow, and saw a paltry thirty bucks folded in a wallet—property of some street kid in the cells— and saw this same thirty in his own pocket, and tried now to separate his physical memory of these images from the CCTV, unsure anymore if he had any real memory distinct from the footage. Thirty bucks. At the tribunal he had watched himself take it at least a dozen times, and it never stopped feeling like a fabrication. What did it have to do with the real life of Michael Kennedy McRae? Why should that moment—from so far back in the story, back when it was still only a matter of ten or twelve pills a day—why should that turn out to be the definitive act? You could drive yourself crazy wondering about a thing like that. And then there were other days when he was able, for a moment, to be objective, and see there was no mystery to it, no special fate or particular curse. It was only what he and his colleagues had often casually referred to as the Capone effect: when you get done, you rarely get done for the right thing.

“—all of which puts me,” Miss Wendy was saying, “in a very difficult position. The drugs we could get over. But the money…” She spread her hands across her desk. McRae rose to his feet.

“When I was a cop—and I was a fine cop for a long time—I operated with discretion. Always. That’s the most important part of the job. Knowing when to come down hard and when to go easy. Miss Wendy, I’m asking you to exercise your discretion. I’m begging you, actually.”

She sighed and stood up. Snow.

“Mike, you and me go back a long way. And I know you’re one of the good guys,” she began, “but it’s simply—” She had run out of pearls.

“Am I?” he asked.

“Mike? That you?”

He had one of the last boxes in his arms, filled with the random, unclassifiable stuff that didn’t seem to go anywhere else. He had hoped to finish before she got home.

When she saw him, she put a hand on the flat part of her chest: “You scared me.”

“SWAT-team feet,” he said, as he had said so many times before. “Silent and deadly.”

She was holding a gray-blue book of music, Bach’s something or other.

“It’s fine,” she said, “but Mrs. Akinson’ll be here any minute.”

“Mrs. Akinson!” said Mike, with a face of marvel. “She must have been sixty when she taught the boys.”

“Oh, she’s not that old. She just has an old way of dressing.”

She walked forward and looked in his box and drew out a shoehorn shaped like Homer Simpson.

“Marie, you leave the door open again?”

She denied it. But a moment later came the sound of Mrs. Akinson walking overhead, followed by a scale played in a minor key.

Mike shrugged: “SWAT-team ears.”

“You know, Mike, I’m glad you’re not doing that anymore,” she said, and put the shoehorn back in the box.

“Part of the job. Somebody’s got to do it.”

“Maybe,” she said, and turned to go back upstairs.

“I got a new thing now,” he called after her, and she sighed and stopped. “It’s been kind of a big week for me. I got this new gig, as a counselor— substance abuse.”

The smile she gave him was brief, neutral—shocking. He could find no meaning in it. She looked at the stairs. She wanted to get to her piano lesson.

“That’s great, Mike. I’m happy for you.”

“Oh, I’m really excited. It’s a whole new direction for me. It’s like a practical thing I can do with this feeling I got inside me. I’ve had it a long time—I guess I should have listened to it earlier. Would’ve saved us all a lot of pain. I think really it was when I got into my thirties, you know, that I just began to see that God is in other people, and he’s in me. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

Marie looked at McRae, the familiar welling tears in his eyes. She looked right at him. She thought of the various time signatures of her life, as they had played out with this sentimental man, and it seemed to her a piece of music in which they themselves had been the notes. A steady trot at the start, turning so slow in that first year of marriage, when she had confessed to herself the lack of physical attraction. After that, things had gotten real fast— horribly, joyfully fast, almost ungraspable—for there was no way of slowing the children, nor the years of her life they held tight in their sweaty little fists. All the irretrievable hours spent in cars with sticks and balls, ferrying them here and there, cheering them on frozen sports fields, watching them, watching your own breath, walking their dogs, burying their dogs, shoveling the snow out of the drive, and then, a moment later, watching three tall young men, far taller than she—all with their father’s eyes—shoveling snow out of the drive as a courtesy to their aging mother. Sometimes they found a dog turd in that snow, or a pack of cigarettes, or somebody’s ball—but never Marie as a girl. No. Nobody knew where that girl had gone. Fast! But slowing down again—almost stopping—the year they removed the breast. Slow like you move underwater, wondering if you’ll surface again. Then she blinked three times and there were no more jockey shorts on the stairs, no filthy cereal bowls, no used condoms poorly hidden in an empty tube of Pringles, no brushes rigid with dried paint, no rackets and no balls. She loved her grandchildren and the alien world they brought with them, but her daughter-in-law was one of these women who try to convince you that the arrival of babies is the sign the whole concerto is starting up once more, from the top. A lovely idea—but not true. They were not Marie’s babies. Hers were grown and gone. Still, an empty house had not made her sad, as she had been warned it would. Instead, time began to cautiously reshape itself round her broken body, and she found she wanted to be alone with it once more. That’s just how she felt—and she would have felt that way even if Mike had been clean as the pope and retired with full honors. In a strange way, he’d made everything easier. And now slowness beckoned again—if she stayed firm, if she managed to withstand that desperate look in the eyes of Michael Kennedy McRae. And what then? First things first. She’d lie down in the springtime grass, look down at her own body—distinct at last from every other body in the world—and ask herself, What just happened?