When we were thirteen, Beth invited me to her stepfather’s home for winter break. The house was on the Caribbean island where her grandparents were born. Her stepfather paid for half my airfare.
On our first day on the island, a storm came by, knocking down the power lines. When it was over, Beth’s family called an electrician. He arrived in a pickup with his name emblazoned on the door, along with & Son.
Beth found & Son good-looking. When & Son climbed his ladder, we stood, six feet away, watching. Then the picture gave out. It was like someone grabbed the TV-remote to turn the volume higher but flicked the screen off instead. After a quick panic, the picture resumed but I had no idea what I’d missed.
Years later, Beth explained that black blip. “I can’t believe you didn’t know that Ampersand Son died. Don’t you remember the ambulance and how they weren’t in a rush?”
I had to think hard about it. Maybe an ambulance came. Maybe there was no rush.
“Beats me,” I said.
We were standing in the condiments aisle at Safeway. After eighteen years of silence,
Beth had bumped into me with her cart. She was also visibly pregnant.
“Well, alright. I guess that’s that,” she said and rolled off with her load.
Beth and I had grown apart not long after & Son died. In high school, she went the route of prom queen-slash-cheerleader. I went the route of misanthrope, goth, reader of unassigned books. I suppose I thought of her as a lower life form. I suppose I ignored her in the halls. The longing looks she gave me, when she’d pass my locker, said, “We dress differently. You obviously care about projecting a certain impression; I care about looking good. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”
My silence corrected her presumption.
Beth surprised me by calling the evening after we bumped into each other at the Safeway. She said she got my number from my parents. She apologized, saying she probably came off as rude, the way she walked off with her shopping cart so fast. “It’s Ampersand Son,” she explained. She hated the memory of his death,was shocked to find someone else could make their mind erase it. “I think about him always. Maybe because he was so good looking? I know this sounds bad,but I was so struck by that. Hey, did you notice something peculiar about the guys I’ve dated?”
I shrugged in my dark living room. The turn in the conversation alarmed me. It was as if Beth wanted to remind me exactly why I’d lost interest in her eighteen years back.
“I’ve only been attracted to men that look like Ampersand,” she said, slowly. “I don’t know, Susan. I feel I can trust you,” she went on. “Can I tell you something I’ve never told anyone?”
“Here it goes.” Beth took a deep breath. “My husband looks exactly like him!” She exploded into a manic giggle, then sounded like she’d pressed a pillow to her face. “It’s so wrong! So wrong!”
I waited for her to be done. “Beth, how many months along are you?” I said, wanting to change the subject.
“You noticed? Five,” she said. “I also have twins, Astrix and Jaxon. They’re three. I’m obsessed with Xs. You should hear the secret list of names I’ve got. For the new baby! They’re pretty nuts.”
A silence followed. I wondered if Beth thought I’d ask to hear the X names, whether she’d gone off to look for the list.
“Susan?” she said eventually. “Want to come by? To catch up?”
I told her I couldn’t.
“Please? Want to meet at a bar? We’ll do what you like. Tell me which bar.”
“You think I’m a barfly?” I said.
Beth laughed. “I don’t know. I don’t know you that well now. I know you like wearing dark colors.”
Jesus Christ, I thought. I couldn’t believe it.“I’m a librarian, Beth,” I said. “I foster dogs. What kind of black-and-white high school-era world are you still living in? You’re judging me because I wore black to a Safeway? You think I’m a drunk depressive because I don’t have three kids and a fancy car?”
Beth said nothing.
After a half-minute, I said I had to go.
The day Beth’s husband came to the library was a quiet, cold weekday. Fall had arrived, and for two weeks, the days had been grey and thick with cloud cover.
“Susan?” He bowed toward my name tag.
“What can I help you find?” I said.
Don introduced himself and said that Beth had died in childbirth. “Her diabetes,” he explained, nodding, then tearing up, turning his back to me, turning back around, and apologizing.
“Our daughter’s healthy,” he quickly added, smiling and sucking in snot. “Six pounds. I named her Bethy.”
“Be-thy,” I repeated. “Be. Thy.” Bethy didn’t seem right.
“Here’s the funeral details.” He placed a card on my counter.
I didn’t understand.
“Beth said you’re an important friend, so…”
I looked at him closely, this alleged spitting image of & Son. He had a long nose, deep-set eyes, a v-shaped jaw. He was nothing to lose your mind about.
“Well, this is a shock,” I said.
Don nodded in earnest agreement. He started crying again and left.
The day after Don came by, I left work at my usual four-thirty. I started the car I’d left parked under a canopy of maples. I watched a co-worker I didn’t like—Pam—scramble into her turquoise Grand-Am with a neon-pink swirl decal.I waited for her to leave first, so we wouldn’t be stuck side-by-side at a stoplight.But Pam just sat there, tapping her phone.
I leaned my head back and waited. It started to rain. A gentle drizzle. Then the rain hardened. I heard a rumble. The trees scattered leaves across my windshield. The sky thundered. Then—lightning.
“Good one, Beth.” I laughed.
I got out of the car and sat on the curb, by my front wheel. The maples kept the rain off of me. I examined the power lines hemming the block.
“Go ahead, Beth. You’ve got your storm, your lightning. Go on.” I narrowed my eyes at the power lines.
I think what she wanted was for me to finally remember. Was it a flash of glory? The electricity zapping & Son into something fabulous—a star, a firework, a god? Go ahead, project your memory, Beth. Like a boring family movie no one’s been wanting to watch. Now that you’re dead, okay,fine—I’ll watch it.
I strained. I narrowed my eyes harder, but nothing. There was no projection. No movie playing in the sky. I couldn’t remember a thing about & Son’s passing.
“Jesus!” I cried.
Pam apologized for startling me, her head hanging out of the Grand-Am. “You shouldn’t be sitting under a tree when there’s lightning.”
“Okay, yeah,” I said, but I remained as I was.
“I heard you’re going to Beth’s funeral. Me, too. I’m off to buy Bethy a birthday present if you want to come.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. “Beth-Beth?”
Pam nodded. “She was my family doctor. Her clinic sent out an email. She was so nice.”
I tried to square my last memory of Beth—giggling over boyfriends—with a starched lab-coat, a stethoscope, a lot of education, a prescription pad.
“Holy shit,” I said. And because I now owed Pam for that information, I agreed to go with her to the mall.
At the mall, Pam bought a stuffed unicorn. I bought a blank card. We sat on a bench and I wrote on the card, not minding that Pam watched me.
First, I wrote every female name that could have an X in it. Axley, Pixie, Truxa, Lexanne. Then, I wrote: I speak with the dead and today Beth sent a message. Here’s her list of baby names.“Bethy” isn’t it.
I didn’t sign my name.
“Here,” I said to Pam. “Take this to the wake.”
Of course, I went, too. I went to make sure she did it. I could picture Pam pocketing the card, thinking I’d never know the difference. From a quiet corner of Beth’s mansion, I watched Pam place the card in a basket. She wiped her hands after, looking flustered and annoyed.
Don tapped my arm.
“This is Bethy!” He thrust the child into my arms and backed away slowly, like he’d just sculpted something rare that wouldn’t last for very long: Susan holding a baby. Susan the dark-clothed spinster.Susan the lonely librarian. Susan, the opposite of Beth.
I bobbed my arms and smiled. When Don looked away, I leaned into the baby’s face. “Let’s figure out your real name, what your mother actually named you, huh.”
Xula, Tuxy, Xelly.
I looked up to see Pam scowling. I kept whispering into the baby’s face. I’d thought of some new names overnight. Xwanda, Xania, Waxa. Some crazy-sounding ones. I was hoping for a reaction. Some whimper or eye-blink of acknowledgment. But before I could finish my list, a grandma pulled the child away. “Nap-time!” she announced and disappeared down a hall. That was all. It wouldn’t look right to follow her into the nursery. There was nothing left for me to do.
I said good-bye to Don. I even said good-bye to Pam and told her I’d see her at work tomorrow. Some kind of usher opened the front door for me and thanked me for coming. The day was dark, rainy, cold, but no longer flashing, no thunder. Storms are the release of pressure. Like anger,they can’t last for very long. Outside Beth’s house, a car rounded the corner, its headlights unnecessarily bright, making me wince and shield my eyes. Good enough, I thought when the car drove past. That was Beth’s thank-you, as I understood it. A flash to say we’re alright.
Marta Balcewicz’s stories, poems, and essaysappear in Tin House Online, Catapult, AGNIOnline, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Tiny Crimes (BlackBalloon, 2018) and other places. She lives in Toronto and edits fictionfor Minola Review. You can find her online at www.martabalcewicz.com and on Twitter at @MartaBalcewicz.