Masterpiece


Dale disliked dogs, he always had, but that wasn’t why Nancy went out and got one. She bought the dog because she wanted to reconstruct some part of their old world, the one they’d lived in when they were kids. The current one wasn’t working, it was a blown experiment. They hardly talked anymore, and when they did it was Dale criticizing her, berating her for nothing. It was frustrating. So she bought the puppy—the puppy would be Dale, down even to the red hair, an obedient little thing following her around without question or objection, content in believing that each word and gesture of hers was an act of god. It was a good plan. But as it turned out, Paramus was as big a letdown as Dale.

To begin with, the name. She’d thought it was something classical, a Greek god or a philosopher. She couldn’t remember where she’d heard it, maybe PBS. Of course, it was Dale who pointed out—smirking as he seemed to always be doing these days—that Paramus was a town in New Jersey. By then it was too late, the name was in the vet’s book beside the chip code and the heartworm prescription. Set in stone. If he got lost and someone found him, took him in and had him scanned, they would see the name and they’d laugh too. At her. Her ridiculous attempt at erudition. Where, she wondered sometimes, did it end?

At the moment, Paramus was digging in the garden. She thumbed the hose and sprayed him with water that was sure to be freezing. She felt a twinge of sympathy. Then she saw his muddy muzzle and the uprooted eggplant, and it passed. The garden was struggling. Her one boastable talent and it was failing her.

“You planted too late,” Dale had said.

“What do you know about it?”

“I know a screw-up when I see one.”

She lifted her foam kneeler, scooted up along the rows of eggplants. They’d be eating a lot of eggplant. She dug at the nutgrass, pulling each clump up carefully to make sure she got all the roots. She imagined each one screaming a little as she slowly extracted it, and drew the process out, smiling to herself. There was nothing disturbing about that, she assured herself. She was the garden’s guardian, it was her duty. Things were always horning their way in; she had to be vigilant.

She smushed a pill bug under her trowel and thought about the episode coming up this Sunday on PBS, a new show, a new female detective. One of those British ladies with their better-tended gardens. She loved those shows, they were the reason she still kept a TV. It had been a nuisance to change over to digital—the little box and antenna, the terminology like a foreign language—but it had been worth it for those little old ladies. The Pembrokes and Duchesses and Marples.

Paramus barked in the side yard and clawed at the gate. Nancy straightened up with difficulty and leaned out to see what the commotion was. Too early for the mailman—the lazy mailman with the lazy eye—but there was definitely someone there. She could see his shoes through the gap beneath the gate.

A rapist? Not in broad daylight, surely. That would be too much. But then again, who knew these days? Everyone was so bold and pushy. The Keller boys down the street sold pot right out in the open. They flipped her the bird once when she watched their transaction for too long. She just wanted to let them know that she knew. She didn’t care about the pot, she’d had a joint or two herself in her day—did they still call them that, joints? They must have new words by now, a fresh vocabulary to separate them from their parents with their tie-dye shirts and Grateful Dead stickers on their SUVs. Really, a time came when—

The rapist or Mormon or whatever was peering over the gate, a tall man with thick blond hair and dark eyebrows. Why weren’t the eyebrows blond too?

“I’m looking for Dale.”

She struggled to her feet—first to one haunch, then up onto a heel, wobbling like a poorly made toy. Then one last push and…up. She brushed the nutgrass and dirt from her apron and crossed the yard at a calm, even pace so as not to appear either too anxious or too apprehensive. The man had been standing on his toes, apparently. He lowered himself now so that all she could see was a little bit of a blond cowlick. How cute, she thought, wanting to lick her palm and mat it down.

The gate always hung up on the concrete cauliflowered around the base of the post. She’d asked Dale to fix it several times, she wasn’t sure why—he wouldn’t have had any idea how to go about it. It was her kind of chore, as most things were. She pulled on the gate, and at the same time the visitor pushed from his side. When the ends of the boards cleared the concrete, the gate flew open; it would have knocked her down if she wasn’t ready for it. The visitor meanwhile hurtled through and managed to just catch himself before plowing into her. He came to a stop with his chest touching lightly against hers, their knees bumping. None of it painful, not at all. Just a bit awkward.

“Sorry,” she said.

“My fault.”

His clothes were tidy and pressed-looking. He was almost certainly a new boyfriend of Dale’s, or whatever they were meant to be called. Dale had corrected her terminology a number of times, but not with enough consistency that she could be sure of herself. In any case, they came and went so quickly that she never had time to offend them.

“Dale’s not home. You’re welcome to wait.”

She cleared off the glider—brushed away the leaves, smacked the cushions a couple of times—there was nowhere else, really. She certainly didn’t want him going inside the house.

“All right. Thanks.”

Paramus sniffed at the man’s ankles, then scurried off to pee on the brown fringe of the lawn.

“Can I get you a biscuit?”

“A what?”

“Sorry, a cookie or something?”

“No thanks. I’m good.”

A number of responses presented themselves, but thankfully they all stayed inside, rattling around among the crates and steamer trunks piled in the corners of her mind. What a clutter it was up there! She shook her head. A little hair fell loose; she tucked it back into place.

“You like gardening?”

“I do.”

“You must have a green thumb.”

She paused, took a breath, pushed a mental armoire back against the wall.

“It’s sort of in-between right now.”

“It looks nice. Well-tended.”

She was proud for a moment—before a troubling image presented itself. Smiling into the camera at JC Penney, surrounded by a loving family of carrots and zucchini.

“It’s not all I do.”

“I’m sure it isn’t.”

“Really.”

“I believe you.”

He laughed, lifting a stray strand of hair from his forehead with two long fingers.

She’d never really understood laughter, the pleasure of it. If it was aimless, harmless—ok, maybe . . . But it was always leveled squarely at her. Once in a while at Dale, but he never seemed to notice, or to mind.

“Something to drink.”

Not a question, so no need to wait for an answer.

Working around the dishes and seedlings in the sink, she plopped a can of lemonade into a pitcher and buried the can deep in the garbage. Beneath a bag of onions she found a shriveled lemon, cut it open and squirted a few seeds into the pitcher. As she passed back through the house, she saw the shabby rooms through his eyes—the unremarkable home of unremarkable people. She’d definitely keep him outside.

She set the pitcher on the little table, along with the small tray and glasses she carried like a waitress in her other hand.

“Wow, lemonade? You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s no problem. It’s that time of day.”

She had no idea what that meant, but he smiled so she let it stand. What an unusual day it was turning out to be! Her visitor sipped his lemonade. She poured herself a glass and sipped it too, slurping a little around the ice cubes.

He smiled again. It was a very nice smile.

“Will your guy be here soon?”

“My . . . ?”

“I mean, if you have one.”

What in the world was he getting at, some kind of orgy? He didn’t seem the type, but who could tell.

“I’m single.”

He looked at her; then a light went on. He set the glass down awkwardly on the table, and a little lemonade sloshed over the side.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean that.”

She recognized his discomfort and felt a stirring camaraderie.

“Dale likes to do this. Put people in uncomfortable situations.”

“That’s not very nice.”

“You get used to it. He’s been doing it since we were kids—setting up little ambushes, catching me off guard. I’m sure there’s a term for it, but I don’t know what it is. Something pathological.”

He laughed, and it wasn’t so bad this time. They sipped their lemonade. The sun fell in bands through the pecan leaves onto the table, onto her hands and across his suit jacket. She could smell the fresh-turned dirt in the garden.

Then Dale was there in the doorway, one foot pushing the slider aside.

“What a pretty little scene! Cinderella and Prince Charming.”

She tried to think if it was Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty who’d married Prince Charming. She knew if she asked which it was—or, worse, corrected him—he’d find some way to mock her with it.

“You haven’t talked to her,” the visitor said.

Dale clicked his tongue and sat on the glider, patted him on the leg.

“You’ve been gossiping.”

“We’ve been having a nice time,” Nancy said.

“No one has a nice time with a lawyer.”

“Well I have.”

Dale picked up one of the lemonade glasses and ran it across his forehead. Like Vivien Leigh or someone.

“They are paid to charm. Like hookers.”

He was in full bitch mode—Nancy was tempted to call him out on it right there, but what would their guest think? Victim and tormentor would change places, just like that. So instead, she yanked the glass from his hand, clattered it onto the tray with hers.

“Don’t hurry off on my account, Cinder.”

“Dale,” the visitor said, scolding.

“Oh, don’t worry about her, Steven. She’s tougher than both of us.”

Which was true. Or used to be.

Dale was crying again. Dale was always crying. He wanted his mother, but his mother was gone. There was only Nancy. He didn’t seem to consider that she might want her mother too.

“He’s a complainer, isn’t he?” Dad said.

“I don’t know what he wants.”

“Nobody does.”

Dad drank the glass of water she’d brought to wash down his heart medicine.

“He’s a sensitive boy. That doesn’t worry me so much. But the sensitive ones, when they make it through…they can turn hard later.”

He handed the empty glass back to Nancy and turned the band saw on again to drown Dale out, cocooning himself in sawdust and noise. Well, who could blame him? He was in over his head.

She made some chocolate milk for Dale. Thirteen and still drinking chocolate milk. He took it from her without looking up.

“Those assholes,” he said between gulped sobs.

“I know.”

“Fucking Neanderthals!”

“You’re better than them. They’ll see it eventually.”

“But when? I can’t do this forever.”

“High school will be different.”

Of course she knew it wouldn’t be; or if it was, it would only be worse. Dale wasn’t looking for truth from her, she knew that. He didn’t want anything to do with it.

“I’ll take you tomorrow.”

“Could you?”

“Sure.”

He settled down eventually, went soft and rubbery in front of the TV. She made dinner and they all ate in the living room. Nobody spoke, except on the screen, sitcom families making it through their hilarious, enviable problems.

Before she went to bed, she stood in front of the mirror in just her underwear. She couldn’t see her head; the mirror was too short. She was like a grotesque beheaded statue. She swelled out along the sides too, overflowing the edges. Dale laughed sometimes, on his meaner days, at how she couldn’t fit in the mirror. If it was a door, he said, she’d get stuck.

But it wasn’t a door, despite what all those childhood books had implied. There was no way from here into some bright, enchanted world. She looked at her rounded football shoulders, the rolls drooping over her hips. Even if it was a door, what good would that do? Wherever you went, you had to take you along.

She could smell herself under the covers. Thick and moldy like the garden. She slid her hand under her panties, ran her finger roughly along the turned furrow, and fell asleep to the sound of her own blubbering.

The next day she pushed two eighth graders into the fence so hard the chain link left diamond impressions on their faces. They’d leave Dale alone for a little while, but it was only a temporary fix. She knew that, even if it never seemed to get through to Dale. He stood behind her the whole time laughing that thin, cutting laugh that struck her as something feral, the chittering of a weak animal hidden safely somewhere while the real animals went about their hard business.

The two boys bounced like Raggedy-Anns from the fence, but they didn’t cry. Even under their fear, she could see their scorn and hate, and she could hear the jokes at her expense waiting to be made at lunch.

“Who’s the faggot now?” she growled. “Who’s the faggot now?”

It was rhetorical; neither one answered. They just bounced and bounced and waited for it to be over with.


“We’re too old to be living like this,” Dale said. “The two of us in this place. We’re not kids anymore.”

Nancy had been trying for some time to put her finger on when he’d changed, when he’d turned from a puppy into a nasty, snarling dog. Standing at the edge of the garden with the sting of sweat working into her cracked hands, the possibility occurred to her that he hadn’t changed, that that was the problem—neither of them had.

“What, are you going to move in with Steven?”

Dale sniffed, his chin against his chest.

“A little too soon for that.”

Nancy watched him closely. Was he going to cry now, or turn on her again?

“I feel like I’m floating out on the ocean or something,” he said, “and the land’s getting farther and farther away.”

“I’ve never seen you go in the ocean. You hardly go in the pool.”

“It’s a metaphor, goddamit.”

“Well it’s a stupid one, it’s got nothing to do with you.”

“God!”

He flopped onto the glider and pushed it into motion. His arms were crossed now, his chin still tucked in. She tried to ignore him, the angry squeak of the glider and his breath whistling out of his nose in counterpoint. Every time they tried to get somewhere, they ended up here. Stuck. It would be up to her, of course, to get them unstuck.

“I can ask around,” she said. “I might be able to find a place. I know a couple of people.”

The glider squeaked to a stop.

“Really?”

“Sure. Probably.”

She went back to digging.

“Nancy.” Softer now.

She didn’t turn around, she didn’t want to look at him right then. Knowing, maybe, that he’d be smiling.


Dad was in the garage as usual when he died, crumpled to the floor of his shop with the table saw still running. He’d been working on what he called his Masterpiece for as long as Nancy could remember. It filled most of the garage, pushing everything else aside.

“We have to finish it,” Nancy said, Dad in his urn on the floor beside her.

“How?” Dale said. “What even is it?”

“It’s his Masterpiece.”

“Well yeah. But what’s it supposed to be?”

Nancy studied it, its underlying skeleton of 1x4s overlaid with roughly bent panels of plywood. Parallel channels disappeared into the far shadows of the garage, branching wildly and unpredictably. Arms spiraled up into the rafters and in between the legs of castoff furniture exiled here by their mother. You could see the calendar of their childhood in the wood—from the newer, pale pine closest to them, back through wasted months and years to the first gray, dimpled planks sagging by the side door. His life—and theirs—laid out.

“Jesus Christ,” Dale said. “What a joke.”

She slapped him for the first and only time in their lives, hard. The slap echoed in the shop.

“He had something in mind. It would have been amazing.”

Dale whimpered and kicked a strut out from underneath, causing a four-foot section to sink down onto its knees. Nancy let him be this time. He ran up to his room and stayed there for the last two days of vacation before heading back for his final year of college. She suspected he never really got over the slap, that it was even the gestating act of the paperwork sitting inside the house right now, waiting for her signature. His slow-cooked revenge.

After he’d left, she followed the line of ramps and troughs through the shop, studied its joints and angles. At one point, as she leaned into a chute, she saw her name lightly carved into the wood. NANCY in jagged capitals, nothing more. He’d been thinking of her at least, at some point. Was she supposed to understand something just by seeing her name here, carved by his hand? If so, he’d be disappointed.

She dug through the workbench drawers and inside the tool chest for the master plan she was sure existed. A set of blueprints, diagrams detailing the thing’s function and ultimate shape. But all she could find was a secreted pack of Marlboros and a couple of Playboys from the 1980s. A quaint collection. No key to his vision in full flower. She decided she’d never know; it was like trying to piece a dinosaur together from a pelvic bone.

It was dark when she left the shop and closed the door behind her. She didn’t go in again until now, almost ten years later. It looked even more forlorn, with the door open and sunlight playing along the new cracks and the black patches of mold on the undersides. She found her name, ran her fingers across the letters. She closed her eyes to see if she’d be able to make it out if she was blind, or if it would just be gibberish. Poor Dad, she thought. But she wished he’d helped her a little more.


She planted her hands on either side of the sink, little sparks going off along her scalp. She took down the tin cup she kept on a nail by the window and filled it with tap water. It tasted like rust, but she drank it anyway. Out on the glider, Dale and Steven leaned close together. Steven pulled a folded paper out of his pocket like a magician and set it in Dale’s hand. Dale kissed him again and set the paper between them.

She leaned across the counter and cranked the window partway open, breathed in a big lungful of air. Steven and Dale were laughing—well, Dale was. Steven was smiling a halfhearted smile she was familiar with, the kind you fight to hang on to against a creeping discomfort.

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Dale was saying. “It’s what she needs.”

The smile was struggling harder.

“There are other ways, you know. Like talking.”

“Nah, that never works.”

“It does for most people.”

“Nancy’s not most people. She’s like a St. Bernard—you have to rub her tummy and let her take the medicine on her own.”

It wasn’t out of character for Dale, or even especially hurtful compared to other things he’d said over the years. But it shattered the afternoon nonetheless. She saw fairies and unicorns falling from the shimmering sky, a pig rooting through her garden.

She blinked and swallowed. She tasted the metal of the cup on her lip, felt it on her teeth. It was all so coincidental, she and Dale being related. Like survivors from some vague catastrophe, they’d been thrown together in the same life raft and never once gave a thought to what sank the ship in the first place.

When she didn’t come back out, Steven came looking for her. Wearing the same half-assed smile, which retreated for good when the tin cup glanced off his shoulder and slammed into the wall, leaving a misshapen stain on his jacket.


All sorts of plants were poisonous in some way, could be ground or baked or mixed for a little surprise for little brother. She had a book inside the house listing all the effects, accompanied by sketches of cartoon people in various degrees of distress. She pulled a dandelion up by the roots and tossed it onto the pile.

“It was your idea,” Dale said.

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“Of course you have. As usual.”

“What?”

“You make the decisions, you call the shots. What do you think that’s like for me?”

“I have no idea.”

“No, you don’t. It’s you and dad still. The son he never had.”

She sank the trowel deeper into the soil, pressed as hard as she could until it was halfway in to the handle. Then she gave it a sharp twist. She imagined something snapping, a neck maybe.

“If you had a job—” Dale was saying behind her.

She turned and wiped her hands on her apron. Stood and set them on her hips, elbows out and sharp.

“I have a job.”

He looked past her at the garden.

“That’s not a job. That’s a hobby.”

But, of course, it wasn’t the garden she meant. Dale was the job, as he always had been.

“It’s my house too.”

“Look, it’s only reasonable that the worker gets the say.”

“You sound like a communist.”

“Please.”

“You’re the red menace.”

“God,” blowing the persimmon hair from his eyes in exaggerated exasperation. “You and your hilarious hyperbole.”

Did it bother him that he was such a cliché? Probably not. This parody was an easy role; being him was a little too difficult and fraught.

“It’s not like I’m turning you out on the street. You can get a nice apartment for what I’m giving you.”

“What you’re giving me?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not yours to give.”

He pulled the paper out of his pocket as if it pained him. As if it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.

“It’s time, Nance.”

Paramus was sniffing the cuffs of his slacks. Nancy hoped he’d lift a leg and let loose. Dale pushed him away roughly, almost kicking him.

“Don’t do that.”

“Train him then. Teach him some manners.”

She took the paper and tossed it on the ground by the cucumbers. Quit Claim in bold letters, like an advertisement for something nobody needed.

“I could do you both at the same time.”

He let out another little exhausted sigh.

“We’ll talk when you’re reasonable. I didn’t think you’d take it like this.”

“Then you don’t know me.”

“I guess not.”

“You really should by now.”

The demure horn of Steven’s Prius peeped out front.

“I suppose you’re going to dump your boyfriend when he’s done screwing me.”

“Screwing you?” Dale tittered, turning away. “Dream on.”

After he left, she sank down next to the rose bush’s twisted trunk. Dale didn’t know it, but she’d buried a handful of Dad’s ashes underneath. To have him nearby, she reasoned to herself, for advice and support. She knew it was ridiculous, that Dad had never been much use for either of those things.

The day shuffled like a vagrant toward evening. A thorn pressed into her knee, but she didn’t move. At the far end of the garden, Paramus tore an Anaheim chile loose and tossed it into the air.


Maybe it was her fault, she’d turned him into this. She should have let the mean world have him. Now she didn’t know how to defend herself, only him.

He came and went, spending all his time with Steven, waiting her out. Well, she could wait too.

“If I had your patience,” Dad had said once. “You’d still have a mother.”

Which wasn’t true, of course. He blamed himself, but their mother hadn’t left because of anything he’d done. It just wasn’t the life she wanted, being a mother out in the farthest of the suburbs. She read magazines like Harper’s and The Atlantic, and something called Barking Muse—an artist in search of an art. She never found it, as far as Nancy knew. She ended up in another suburb a little closer to the city, a little less provincial, but not so different. Nancy visited her once, and that was enough.

“She would have made us all miserable.”

Dad started to object, to defend her, but what was the point? Nancy had been there, she’d seen them all falling lower and lower in her esteem. They were strangers in the end, people she might have nodded to on the street, or might just as easily have walked right past.

“Anyway, she couldn’t cook for shit.”

“Don’t say ‘shit’.”

“She couldn’t.”

“No,” Dad said. “She was a terrible cook.”

Nancy, on the other hand, was very good. Especially with her own vegetables, the beautiful tomatoes and beets and cucumbers she coaxed from the depleted ground. She never used a cookbook; she knew what went together, what worked without anyone having to teach her. The doctor told her once that Dad had probably lived ten years longer because of her cooking. She doubted that, but it was nice to hear. What happiness could top that?

She spilled a little wine on the papers, pushed them to the side of the cutting board. She’d picked some carrots earlier in the day, and now a little water was dripping from the greens, mixing with the wine and wicking up into the sheaf of documents. Steven had dropped off a fresh copy the day before—something new had been added, she hadn’t paid attention to what it was—and told her he felt bad about the whole thing.

“It’s your job.”

“Yeah, but still.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll work out.”

The front door slammed and she heard Dale slump into the sprung armchair by the fireplace they used now as a magazine dump. They hadn’t lit a fire in it since Dad passed.

“He’s leaving me.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? He says I’m heartless.”

She washed the dirt from the carrots and started to peel them. What an invention, the peeler! So simple and perfect, the way it stripped the rough outer layer off so cleanly, curling it like a party ribbon.

“It’s just a fight. It won’t last.”

She hated to throw the peelings away, even into the compost. Something beautiful should be done with them—the carrot underneath was utilitarian and nourishing, but the beauty was in the peel.

“Do you think I’m heartless?”

She began arranging the pieces on a paper towel, finding a natural pattern in the disorder. Or, more accurately, appreciating their natural disorder’s beauty.

“You do! Jesus.”

He jumped up and started pacing behind her, back and forth across the creaky board by the pantry. It was a familiar rhythm, oddly soothing.

“You can be a little cold,” she said.

“What the hell do you know? Look at you—what a piece of work!”

“That’s right. I’m a goddamn masterpiece.”

The creaking stopped. He tried to laugh, but it was a failure. She looked at his face, red and indrawn, saw that indeed it wasn’t a child’s anymore. The frown lines slashing down on either side of his nose were like their mother’s. Nancy didn’t know why that should surprise her, but it did.

Dale started pacing again, treading each time over the loose board.

“What bullshit!”

She wondered what note it was. Maybe she could locate it on the piano, give a name to it.

“I poured my heart out! What in god’s name does everyone want from me?”

She let him go on like that, he’d get tired eventually. Tomorrow he’d pout, but that would end too. And she’d sign the papers. What was there here anymore, really, to hold on to? Habit, that’s all.

She’d find a place closer to town, or farther away. Something had to give, really, if she didn’t want to end up like Dad, with a pile of sticks tacked together that did nothing and went nowhere. In her case, of course, it would be the garden. Rows and rows of weedy, thin vegetables dribbling off into briars and piles of compost.

She looked out the kitchen window at the rose bush stunted with over-tending, at the squash vines creeping already toward the garage wall, all roots and runners.

“What was I thinking?” she said, very quietly.

Dale cursed and threw a pewter tankard to the floor. It bounced just in front of Paramus, who dribbled a little pee on the floor.

Poor little thing, all lost and helpless. Who was going to watch over him now?

The dog, of course, she’d take with her.  

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