The goat’s head shattered all over the kitchen. Clara Mae watched as his body stayed alive for a few seconds, nerves still firing impulses. In those seconds his legs bucked like pistons, up and back and out, in reverse-Rockette. Beautiful but horrific, comical but terrifying—she was embarrassed to let out a laugh as she watched from a distance. Then—as the goat kicked her husband to the floor and socked him in the face—she let out the appropriate gasp of concern. She couldn’t get close to help until the goat was drained, his movements slowing, legs splaying against linoleum and puddle of blood, bowels emptying, wide expanse of missing head still spurting red as the torso slapped to floor. Blood was everywhere—on the counters, the walls, the refrigerator, the potato bin; flecks of brain and part of an eyeball were broadcast across countertops, clumping through in a bowl of Martha White as if being battered.
It took Clara Mae a full three weeks to clean the kitchen close to what it had been—barely in enough time for Christmas. While getting the goat inside the house had seemed easy enough, getting it back out as an uncooperative corpse proved more difficult, and finally they had to take the door off its hinges to get it outside. They had fashioned some black lawn bags around it, lifted it into a trash can, and pulled it up to the curb with a piece of paper tacked to the front that said, “TAKE THE TRASH CAN TOO, PLEASE.” For weeks as Clara Mae cleaned, she found rotting guts or clumps of goat hair in oddest places—the butter dish, the coffeemaker, a box of cereal—no matter how much she scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.
Aunt Helen showed up to Christmas dinner unannounced. Gerald hadn’t told his wife that he had been emailing Aunt Helen for six months, Gerald hadn’t told his wife that Helen had found his posting on an online Korean war hero memorial, Gerald hadn’t told his wife that she’d learned of him through a combination of old gossip and Ancestry.com. After the Goat Incident, Gerald didn’t tell his wife much. But when Helen showed up for Christmas dinner—her hair piled in a tight bun, still as dark as the few of Gerald’s hairs that remained, thinned, salted, but jet black—Clara knew right away she was blood.
She should have known something was off when Gerald sat at the kitchen table instead of the recliner in front of the TV in the den: college football, Judge Judy, or a war reenactment on the History Channel. It was not like him to be in the line of fire for assisting the cooks, or—god forbid—dishes. Yet he sat against the china cupboard, looking out the window. The guests had all arrived, so the family thought he looked melancholy, pensive. Clara Mae thought as she watched him from the stove. She felt bold and handed him green beans to string, and he obliged. Snap, snap. Clara Mae and Miss Evie exchanged questioning glances and a shrug: What’s got into him? Beats me.
And Clara Mae didn’t think anything of it when the car pulled into the drive, either. Probably Debbie bringing a pie. That woman has to bake 80 pies a season, the way she totes them around town. Gerald got flushed and craned his neck to see around the curtain.
Abruptly, he stood up.
“Gerald,” Clara Mae said to her husband, “Who is it?”
“It’s my sister,” Gerald said. “I found my sister.”
Jennie had slipped into her Grandmom’s room while all of the grownups were in the other room waiting for Christmas dinner—watching TV, chatting, snacking. She knew she shouldn’t have been in her Grandmom’s closet. But she did it every year. She was peeking.
She knew it was wrong to look for her Christmas presents. “Takes away from the fun of getting a present,” people would say. “Surprises are more fun.”
The unexpected had never been that good to Jennie.
She told herself that it was better for her to look; if she knew what she was getting, she could work herself up to be excited about that very thing. No disappointment for her, no disappointment for them. She would sometimes even drop hints about something she knew someone had already gotten her, even if she hadn’t really wanted it, just to make the gift-giver feel good. The surprise for her on Christmas morning wasn’t the gift, but the joy of the giver. Jennie thought she unwrapped faces on Christmas morning—bright, big eyes adorning cheek-to-cheek grins. When giving a gift, love could even be found in the faces of the unlikely.
But as she teetered on the edge of the bed peering into the top of Grandmom’s closet, she noticed there was something on top of the home shopping boxes. It was tossed in haphazardly, but not hidden—clearly not a gift. She felt compelled look at it—no longer interested in the presents, nor was she worried about getting caught.
The Doll’s head was smaller than it should be, and too wrinkled. Its face was contorted; it looked like it was crying out in pain. Even though The Doll’s eyes were shriveled to a squint, she could see something in its eyes. Something life-like, something that
And Jennie couldn’t walk away from someone in need, no sir, not her. She knew it was dumb; it didn’t make any sense, her thinking that The Doll had feelings or something. Anthropomorphism, a voice in her head reminded her from somewhere. Giving objects human characteristics. Like Disney movies with happy candlesticks, dancing clocks, evil mirrors. But she looked at The Doll and she felt tingly in the center of her chest, her heart glowing and warm, and she was overwhelmed with a fondness that compelled her. This inanimate romance was empty, vacuous—but despite knowing that, when she looked in The Doll’s eyes she just wanted to do for him, but not knowing what to do. This time he looked back at her—like a man looks at a woman—and an electricity of acceptance passed between them.
She knew she had to have him.
She slipped The Doll inside the waistband of her pants—which were thankfully a little baggy—covered it with the hem of her shirt and scampered past the adults. Up the stairs and then up again, to the third floor—the off-limits unfinished attic bedroom. She pulled The Doll free, and as it rubbed against her belly she felt the butterflies of illicit excitement. This was her secret. She felt an entitlement; it was about time she would doing something just for her—even while the back of her mind chided her about taking something that wasn’t hers.
For a moment she just held him, touching him—caressing the course surface of the skin. And though she knew he wasn’t, she could feel from the heat in her bosom that he was holding her as well. The two were intertwined in escape, unified by the ambitions the youthful: to break free, to go into the world, to be something.
To fix things.
When it was right—when she knew he would accept it—she leaned forward and placed a kiss on his lips, with the awkward enthusiasm of a first kiss. The Doll’s lips were still contorted in their usual way, the stale smell of old permeated her nose, and she felt suddenly that it was all wrong. It was wrong because he needed freedom, needed to be washed clean from the dust, needed to feel the cold November air against his skin. She knew only that would renew him, removing the sorrow from his withered features.
She knelt by the window, showing The Doll the world outside, the descending dusk, the rolling foothills on the horizon, the roads away.
See? There is an “away.” There is more than this.
But his sorrow persisted, and her desperation tinted with anger. Kneeling by the sill, she pressed his face against the glass, needing him to look. Then they could be together. If he just sees.
When his expression didn’t change, and she felt an absence of the warmth in her gut, she pushed him even harder against the glass. Work had been started on the attic but never completed, so what remained of the loose framing of the window started to give against the pressure of Jennie and The Doll. The window was flush against the floor with nothing below it—no eaves, no overhangs—and the most of Jennie’s weight was against the glass.
See? Why won’t you see?
She pushed harder and the window popped from its seal, and suddenly the glass was falling.
Oh, no, The Doll!
The Doll was out of her reach, then falling, falling, spiraling behind the glass to the ground. Jennie was teetering on her knees, half in and half out, fighting the fall, grasping in vain to find something to regain balance, but watching The Doll as he fell—now he was smiling. Good sense had left her, and all she had was instinct, the need for relief, and all she wanted in the whole world was to just let go and dive after him, two lovers in free-fall.
But before she could, a hand reached out for her.
“Jennie! Are you okay? I knew we needed to fix that window. Grandpa said he would fix it,” she looked at Jennie in shock, “You know you’re not supposed to be up here.” Jennie nodded, and her Grandmother just held her against her chest and rocked her for minutes, until Jennie’s ear went to sleep and she felt very uncomfortable, but she felt so warm and loved she just stayed in her Grandmom’s arms, happy to be on solid ground.
But she knew that after Christmas dinner she would sneak out back, lifting the doll from the shattered glass below, and—after nicking a finger or two—hide him under her shirt so he could join her in bed.
During Christmas dinner, Gerald doted on his newfound sister like nothing the family had ever seen from the usually sour old man. Ever so politely introducing her to each member of the family, punctuating each with a slight bow. “She lives at East Ridge, but it’s just for convenience,” he would explain, lest someone thing his sister was aging enough for an old folks—“retirement”—home. He offered Helen the first carving of the turkey, would she like some tea (she took hers half and half—half sweet, half unsweet), and won’t she sit here? (as she sat in the recliner he said he would not mind taking the stool). And when they’d chatted too long, could he freshen her ice? Aunt Helen seemed genuinely nice, but genuinely fooled. Collectively the family wanted to whisper to her that this was all just a trick, keep your distance, but they didn’t, partly because they were fascinated watching it happen—great stories for the ride home—and partly because they were used to biting their tongues around Gerald, this wasn’t much different.
But part of it, too, was that they seemed so happy. They recliner-juried a case between a three-time married (and three-time divorced) couple on an episode of Judge Mathis; declaring the ex-wife trash, they proclaimed the hot tubs rightfully his and threw their toothpicks at the screen when he ruled in her favor. When it was over Gerald turned to his usual war stories, which lead to his war jokes, which lead to the inevitable display of his Reader’s Digest collection and recitation of his favorite stories in “Humor in Uniform.” But Helen was right there, hanging on every word, reading her own funny selections, holding the books gently, and—without even needing to be told—making sure not to break the spine.
Everyone watched Clara Mae, trying to read her expressions, trying to assess: Was she angry? Had she known about this? But Clara Mae hid behind boiling stockpots and six-layer cakes, ensuring everyone had napkins, full plates, the Cavenders seasoning. She hummed to herself as always, buzzing from living room to kitchen. The family balanced paper plates on their knees, tried not to the knock over the Solo cups on the floor, and through full mouths tried to assure her that they were okay, would she please sit down? But even when she sat she didn’t relax, scanning the room, did they need more Pink Party Salad? Because there’s a whole bowl in there. Here, she’ll go get you some.
After dinner Aunt Helen and Gerald moved to the sunroom out front. The front porch hadn’t been used since Johnny was a kid; rotting boxes covered a mildewed loveseat, the corner housed Gerald’s favorite naked lady oil lamp that had run dry in ’85. The rest of the family didn’t know how long they stayed out there; most headed home after dessert round two: pecan pie and coffee, relieved to have avoided the subject of Helen.
The kitchen was already spotless, but Clara Mae was still worrying over it: rewashing dishes by hand after the dishwasher had run, making sure Gerald’s leftovers were packaged like he liked them, mopping again, stacking and restacking dishes in the china cabinet. Clara Mae had really wanted that cabinet—clearly too big for the room, and she didn’t really have “fine china”—but when her neighbor passed she had the boys bring it in and proudly stacked her Tupperware bowls on its shelves. The cabinet covered all but the lip of the doorframe; they never used that door to the sunroom. Clara Mae stared at the door seal, straining to hear something—anything. Why weren’t these bowls in the right order? She nestled one into the other again loudly and hoped they knew she was still there.
Sudden laughter bellowed from behind the wall. Clara Mae felt a twisting, burning loneliness at the center of her chest; she didn’t recognize the sound of her husband’s laugh. Gerald’s misery had become her totem, carried with her while she picked over past-date pantry goods, watching over her while she rationed the money she knew he would just drink away. For twenty-six years she’d been married to the sorrow as much as the man. You never know someone well enough that you can’t one day wake up next to a stranger, she thought.
When her head could think of nothing else to do, she went to bed. She lay on top of the crocheted bedspread, still in her housecoat, eyes hot with tears. She was still awake hours later when Gerald tiptoed to bed, a touch of streetlight streaming in, illuminating his contented grin.