Money Can’t Take the Shame Out of Living

“The Inheritance” by Rachel Ephraim, recommended by Halimah Marcus for Electric Literature

Introduction by Halimah Marcus

In “The Inheritance” by Rachel Ephraim, money is a secret. Years after inheriting millions from her second husband Phil, a man fifty years her senior, Sarah’s mom dies, and it’s Sarah’s turn to be rich. “The devotion that lasted a decade,” as Sarah’s mom referred to it, long after Phil’s death—but Sarah knows there was more to their marriage than that. Her mom grew up poor, hunting squirrels to eat, and savors telling Sarah about it just like she savored the kidney, the liver, the heart. “The implication,” Ephraim writes, “was Mom had done for me what her own mother could not; she’d taken the shame out of living.”

Except that she didn’t. Sarah doesn’t know herself, and is ashamed of almost everything. And, insofar as she does know herself, she doesn’t like what she knows, or know what she likes. Despite having enough money for several lifetimes, to do or buy anything she wants, Sarah still lives in a shabby apartment in her small college town, studiously avoiding her ex and working as an obit writer for the local paper. One gets the sense that she is hiding—from her almost-fiancé and his wife, who used to be her best friend—but also from her ambitions, her money, herself. 

Sarah is in her late thirties, single, without plans to have children. When she runs into Dave and his baby on the street, she becomes obsessed with the idea that their breakup brought this child into being. Because if they had stayed together, they would have had a different child, or no child at all. She is like the inverse of a mother, a mother in relief—a hypothetical, or a ghost. 

What responsibility does Sarah have to her fortune? When does passivity turn into greed? The chain of inheritance will stop with Sarah, and even though she didn’t ask for it, eventually she must decide what to do with her wealth. Ephraim’s writing is clever and sly, but always empathetic. Her characters mess up, but they are never the butt of the joke. Ephraim holds them, and Sarah in particular, accountable. She cannot afford to be a passenger in her own life—unless she’s willing to pay the spiritual price.

– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading

Money Can’t Take the Shame Out of Living

The Inheritance by Rachel Ephraim

When I was seven, my mother asked me to steal a Baby Ruth from CVS. I told her I didn’t want to, but she said I should give it a try just to see how the whole thing felt. 

“But I don’t like chocolate,” I explained. 

“That’s not the point,” she said. The point was that I was young, and when you are young, she said, you can’t get in much trouble if you’re well-dressed and white and female. Besides, I was a good height for the candy counter. And the Nestle corporation was depriving whole nations of children from clean drinking water. Wouldn’t it be nice to stick it to them? It didn’t matter we had more money than we knew how to spend. Man had invented money to perpetuate the primal urge to watch others suffer. She promised: it wasn’t about the money.

In the end, I took the candy but only got as far as the door before giving a loud confession. My mother acted surprised and put on a show of disciplining me. In the car on the way home she said, “You’re a trust-worthy girl, Sarah,” and I got the sense that the whole event was a bigger experiment than she’d let on. It had been a test and one I’d passed, although it would take years to understand how and why.

The autumn I turned thirty-seven, I was walking to work when I saw her: a baby that could have been mine, but wasn’t. She was strapped to the chest of my ex-boyfriend Dave, who held a coffee in one hand, a bottle of milk in the other. 

“Sarah?” he said, disoriented. Even though we both still lived in the same college town where we’d met as undergrads, we hadn’t spoken in years. Keene was like that; you could avoid a person if you gave the effort some attention. While Dave had grown up in New England, I had other motives for sticking around. Moving from a Fifth Ave. penthouse to a dorm room in New Hampshire had provided a false and humble bearing I’d never managed to leave. 

“Mr. David Cooper,” I said, tipping an imaginary hat.

When Dave proposed, I’d meant to say yes but signed up for a half-marathon instead. We’d both agreed that meant something. Truth be told, it wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine a life with Dave—I’d loved Dave—but a deep and inexplicable panic had set in that could not be brushed aside. 

Up close, the baby looked to be around eighteen-months and had blonde hair that stood on end. It was October, still warm enough that her missing sock wasn’t cause for alarm. More problematic was that the bare foot made me want to run a pointer finger across her sole. I’d read somewhere that stimulating an infant’s feet impacts development, and I yearned to prune a few neural connections the way one might impulsively remove lint from a stranger’s fleece. Meaning I wanted to make a difference, even if it was small. Especially if it was small.

Dave had grown a handlebar mustache and looked like a playful villain. I asked about his life in a general way. Was he still working as an electrician? He put on a British accent. “Vera wins the bread these days.” 

Vera. Stylish and empathetic Vera. She was an impossible-to-hate public defender who I hated. He’d only met Vera because she’d once been my friend. Long ago, I’d confided in her that I wasn’t so sure I was the marrying type, and she encouraged my hesitation. Give yourself time, she’d said. No one needs to figure out everything all at once.  

“I’m just a no-pay Mary Poppins,Dave continued. Still British. Dave had been the kind of boyfriend who could make me laugh by stating uncomfortable truths in odd voices. When he ditched the accent to bring up my mother, to say he’d read about her death in the paper, I grabbed at his daughter’s foot and she startled. As the baby cried, I admitted Mom’s death wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to me, and Dave’s face twisted with familiar pity.

“Hey, you and Vera should come by the house,” I said. It wasn’t the first time I’d acted impulsively in an effort to find stable ground. A month earlier, I’d slept with the vet tech after euthanizing my cat; a month before that, cut my hair after denting the car. But as soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted the invitation. 

Bottle now in his pocket, Dave stood with pinched fingers below his nose. After spreading his thumb and forefinger in opposite directions across the slick black hairs of his mustache, he said, “Do you mean that?” 

I should have taken the opportunity to loop back and admit it wasn’t a good idea—not while I was still grieving my mother, maybe not ever—but instead I invented a small dinner party. I wanted to prove that even though I lived alone, I wasn’t lonely. “It would be great if you guys could make it,” I said and then relayed a few false details.

“We’ll be there,” Dave said. “Vera has been—well, I know for a fact she’d love to see you.”

When we said goodbye, Dave waved with his daughter’s chubby, balled-up fist. She’d settled and was looking at me the way I imagine an animal gazes upon a terminal patient. That was the word that arrived: patient.

Walking into work, I was mentally sorting through my options to retract the invitation when my phone pinged. Vera. 

“You don’t know what this means,” she wrote. “There have been so many times I’ve wanted to reach out.” 

I’d recently taken a temp job writing obits for the local paper. I didn’t need the cash but a way to distract myself from who I might become now that my mother was dead. The office was small. Five desks in eight hundred square feet and a back table for the printer. There were three street-facing windows, a kitchenette, and one peace lily plant someone had named John Lennon.

Ping! “I can make a salad. Or a dessert. Just let me know what’s best.”  

I took off my coat and hung it on the back of my chair. From across the room, my boss Trixie—a broad-shouldered woman in her fifties—pointed at the clock. Before her life as a managing editor, Trixie had been a competitive swimmer. In both roles, she cared only for the minute-hand. Because of my run-in with Dave, I was late, and Trixie did not look kindly on an employee using company time for leisure. An extravagance a small paper like ours can’t afford, she said when people took long lunches or tried to schedule an appointment during work hours. I threw my keys onto the desk’s surface, turned on my computer, and gave Trixie an apologetic smile. 

Ping! “Do you still like Sour Patch Kids smothered in peanut butter?” 

Vera followed this last note with a laugh-cry emoji, as if we texted all the time, as if she hadn’t married and then procreated with my ex. I shoved the phone in my pocket without answering. What was she saying? That she remembered my childish behaviors? That it wouldn’t surprise her if I was still full of bad taste and unconventional tricks? 

I’d show her.

It should be noted that my mother married four times. Her first marriage was to my father, who left before I could speak. Next came Phil. Phil was the one with the money. He was classically old, and Mom, twenty-five, still had her looks. “Sweet as sugar,” she’d say grabbing Phil’s wrinkled face with long red nails. Phil was seventy-five when they married, eighty-five when he died. “The devotion that lasted a decade,” Mom said at the funeral and never changed her tune. Their love was real, she claimed, and she wasn’t going to waste her breath convincing people otherwise. 

“It’s true, the spirit doesn’t care about age,” she once said when I challenged her on the subject. She’d caught me, a young teen, sneaking out the window to meet a twenty-six-year-old pizza delivery boy promising a free pie if I sat shotgun on his route. I didn’t care about the pizza as much as I’d felt charmed by the idea that my presence could warrant gifts. Phil had been dead two years, but Mom still dressed in black. She stood in my doorway, a shadow of a mother. “But the pizza boy? Really?” 

I called Mom a snake, a swindler, and a hypocrite, which she took in stride, but when I used the word I’d heard kids at school toss around—gold digger—she asked if I knew how squirrel tasted. By then, I’d memorized the story: she’d spent a childhood eating squirrel hearts, squirrel livers, and squirrel kidneys. “And I liked it!” she’d finish emphatically, as if this were the real horror. The implication was Mom had done for me what her own mother could not; she’d taken the shame out of living.

Only she hadn’t.    

Over the years, there were plenty of ways in which Mom and I stumbled into the embarrassments of our pleasures. After Phil came Andrew, a loser. Then Drake, another loser. Each took Mom for nearly two mil, which truth be told, hardly made a dent in what Phil left us. 

And me? I acted in ways only the emotionally poor behave, meaning I took attention, any attention, at whatever cost. To which you might say, Hey, Sarah, didn’t you leave a very good and pretty funny man named Dave who gave you plenty of attention? and I still wouldn’t be able to tell you why.

As I settled into my desk, Dave’s baby stayed on my mind. The fact appeared in a wave of morning nausea: Dave’s child only existed because of a choice I’d made. If I hadn’t left the relationship, Dave would be glued to my genetic material, ipso facto, he’d never have matched the other half of his daughter’s DNA with Vera’s. In this way, I felt a motherly tug to that wide-eyed one-socked baby. In my refusal of her father, I’d birthed the possibility of Dave’s baby, no? 

This got me thinking: how many other kids had my poor decisions breathed into this world? 

All morning, I sat with my computer screen angled toward the wall and perused Facebook. The idea was to get a look at the kids of the men I’d left behind. As I scrolled through their photos—this one chubby, this one in soccer gear—I felt a rush of deep love swell beneath my breastbone. Cosmically speaking, I’d played a part in their here-ness. Maybe I wasn’t just a woman nearing forty. Maybe I was a much bigger force than I could ever imagine. The whole event got my bowels moving, and I entered the office’s bathroom. 

It must be said: there are some people who have a clear and easy relationship to their body. If they are thirsty, they take a drink; if they are cold, they tend to their warming; if the urge to take a shit arrives and they are, say, at the grocery store, they pull their cart to some out-of-the-way aisle and locate the restroom. I am not one of those people. In college, I waited days until I could walk the half-mile to the campus library where I relieved myself in the very private, single occupancy, double-lock fourth-floor bathroom. Somewhere along the way, Mom had taught me how to sever what a body wants from what a body does. Even still, I used public bathrooms strictly for urination, but after looking at all those kids, my stomach was in knots. I was sitting in one stall of the two-stall bathroom, thinking vaguely of Dave’s baby but also of Mom and Mom’s money, when the bathroom door opened. 

Hearing the sounds of heels on linoleum, I panicked. At first, I tried all the standard tricks. I gave a distracting and unnecessary flush. I coughed. I made a noisy production of pulling toilet paper from the roll while shuffling my feet. Maybe, if I finished quickly, I could leave before putting a face to those heels. It felt unfathomable that in the near future I’d have to stand around the microwave while a burrito warmed and a co-worker—who had put ears to the sounds of my sphincter, a nose to the aroma of my lower intestines—asked what I was having for lunch. 

Soon enough, I was at the sink going through the quick motions of hand washing when my high-heeled companion let out a thunderous fart followed by an audible sigh. The water of the sink was still running, so my presence did not elude her. She had already trumped my bathroom production, and from the sounds of it, she was just getting started. The bravado and gall of her doings not only impressed but moved me, emotionally speaking. I decided right then and there: I wouldn’t cancel the dinner party with Dave and Vera, I would arrange one. I could be brave. There were fears, very real fears, I could overcome. 

I squatted and craned my neck to look into that small window of open space beneath the stall. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the heels, which turned out to be two-inch faux-leather pumps in bubble-gum pink. 

“Just bring yourselves,” I texted Vera. “This will be fun!”

It was my belief at the time I had ownership of very little in this world. Seeing Dave’s baby had challenged this belief, but when I got back to my desk, the browser still on a photo of Chuck Moorehead’s kids in store-bought Halloween costumes, I felt my motherly heart deflate. These children, with their curly red hair and expertly applied face paint, were so clearly not mine

And yet, hearing that gaseous woosh then plunk, plunk, plunk had made one thing obvious: we were singular creatures with closed systems of intake and output and that was OK. It could be normal, natural even, to be alone. What did I have to prove to Dave and Vera other than this? I imagined them leaving my home, bellies full, saying to one another, You know, Sarah’s got a good life. She’s got her independence, her comfort, her freedom. 

It was soon revealed that the heels belonged to Georgia, the newspaper’s one-woman ad sales team. Georgia was in her early thirties and had thick blonde hair which she wore in a high ponytail. The ponytail, alongside a mild case of rosacea, gave her the look of an alpine skier. When co-workers talked about getting together after work, it was never Georgia who spearheaded the effort. She was the sort of woman who knew you had a cat or a sick aunt and asked after them in a quick moment of care. 

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to sleep with Georgia, but I wanted to learn her ways.

I needed to hand in my edits, but I’d become distracted. As Georgia returned to her desk, I watched her the way I’d watched men in bars. I was curious to know more. I admit it crossed my mind that Georgia, a bit of an office bore, might be a phenomenal lover. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to sleep with Georgia, but I wanted to learn her ways. How to get comfortable in a body? How to put one’s needs into the foreground? She was just the kind of person who’d impress dinner guests with her soft demeanor and core of unwavering confidence. To have a friend like this, I thought, would speak well of me. 

Sitting at my desk watching Georgia make a phone call, my thoughts spiraled. Georgia had knocked loose in me a desire to greet vulnerability with abandon. When Trixie passed my desk to give me my next assignment, I stood up and saluted her like a soldier. 

“On it, Ma’am,” I said. I was full of energy and resolve. 

“Settle down,” she huffed. “A woman’s died for Christ’s sake.”  

In an effort to befriend Georgia, I began bringing small treats into the office each day. I discovered that Georgia liked sweets, like salt-water taffy and peppermint candies, and that she’d chat a little longer than usual if I brought my offerings straight to her desk. I made up excuses—an aunt who’d traveled to the Cape, a niece raising funds for a dance team—but soon my co-workers had expectations. 

“You know what I haven’t had in a while?” Trixie said one afternoon.

“What’s that?” I asked. 

“Blondies,” she said, which set me on a course of baking that Georgia especially liked. It seemed that eating was another way in which Georgia was unabashed with her wants and needs. She didn’t hesitate to open her mouth wide or give moans of pleasure as crumbs fell across her keyboard. And yet, the buttery cakes, muffins, and cornbreads upset Georgia, gastricly speaking. Nearly every day she bee-lined it to the restroom shortly after she ate, a small sweat blooming across her forehead.

I’d already set the date with Vera and Dave when I got up the courage to follow Georgia into the bathroom one afternoon. I was planning on saying how much I admired her, how I’d noticed her being absolutely herself and what a gift that was, but Georgia was already in the far stall. What began as a guttural grunting turned into a splashing, a spitting. I could see through the long sliver by the door’s hinges that Georgia was on her knees.

At first I felt terrible. Had my baking skills failed her? Had I purchased old eggs? Rancid oils? Suddenly I understood: Georgia, who hadn’t gained a pound—Georgia, who always ran to the bathroom after an indulgencehad a secret.

I wanted to meet Georgia in her pain, which is to say, I stuck around. I reapplied my lipstick while imagining Georgia’s fingers at the back of her throat, pointer and middle finger fitting naturally, if not a little snuggly, in her soft, wet mouth. How did it all work? Did she wiggle them until she felt the mound of tissue that made up her tonsils? As she heaved, I thought back on Georgia’s first bathroom performance. Maybe I’d gotten it wrong; maybe Georgia wasn’t at ease with herself in the way I’d assumed. Maybe she was loaded with laxatives, and bruised histories, and survival plans.  

When Georgia emerged from the stall we stood next to each other at the sink. As we washed our hands while facing the same wide mirror, Georgia had what looked like tears in her eyes. I felt desperate to know: how did it feel to relieve such an enormous pressure? 

“I’m sorry you had to hear that,” she said. “I think there’s a bug going around.” 

“My friend Paul just had a nasty virus,” I said. “Wonder if it’s the same thing.” There was no Paul, no virus, but it comforted me to comfort Georgia. I wanted to say other things—things that would let her know that if she wanted me as a confidant, she could have me—but instead I followed up with, “I’m having a small dinner party next week. Any chance you’d want to come?”

Georgia did not immediately answer. She dried her hands with a paper towel then tightened her ponytail. “Ok,” she finally declared. “I think I could use something like that.”

With Georgia on the roster, I needed a guest or two more to round out the evening, but who? I wanted the vibe to be casual yet intimate, playful yet mature. Over the course of the next week, I invited my Pilates instructor (busy), the cute barista at the corner cafe (engaged and wary), and my therapist, who I tried to entice with the idea of treating the party as a session of sorts—a live tableau of my confusing and disintegrated life. You could show up for just an hour! I’d said, and when she gave a dour look, I amended the offer. Fifty minutes? She declined, encouraging me to pause for a moment to ask myself what I was trying to accomplish with these shenanigans. 

Back at work, Trixie called me over to her desk, where she waved the pages I’d turned in earlier that morning. 

“Is this really it?” she asked. “This is your best effort?” Trixie had assigned me not an obituary, but a profile. Let’s see what you can do with some more space, she’d said. A plumber had won a thousand dollars in an art competition with a piece titled, “Plunge this,” a self-portrait of his mouth wide open. I’d rushed the interview, and the piece was padded with bland descriptions of shapes and color in place of character and insight. But also, we were a free paper that ended up on the tables of elementary school art rooms. 

I’d used Mom’s death to explain sloppy work and missed deadlines before and tried this tactic again. 

“You know my mother died when I was sixteen,” Trixie said, and then confided that despite what others promised, losing a mother was not a loss time heals. “But it’s a loss you’ll have to manage,” she said, meaning shape up or ship out. Meaning caring for small and banal stuff, like plumbers-turned-artists, could have an effect on the emotional landscape of a life. It was the first real piece of advice that made sense.

In a last-ditch effort, I invited Trixie to the party, and as it turned out, she was going to be in my neighborhood that evening and agreed to stop by. 

“Take another shot,” she said, handing me back the profile. “See what happens when you care.” 

That evening, I wandered the grocery store with questions on my tongue. Had Mom enjoyed offal as a girl because it was genuinely good? Or had she enjoyed it because she was starving? Maybe it was good because she was starving. Another answer: she’d forced herself to eat those tiny organs—spongey, bitter—until she believed they were a delicacy, a privilege. And weren’t they? And weren’t they not? 

I spent the morning tidying, the afternoon cooking, the order of which I only rethought as Dave and Vera arrived, the house now sticky with effort. I still lived in the same modest two-bedroom in the lackluster neighborhood I’d chosen in my twenties, the same house where Dave had asked, Will you ever be ready for something new? 

“It smells amazing in here,” Vera said as she and Dave walked through the door. Vera looked good, much softer since I saw her last. But even with a round face and full backside, Vera hardly looked satisfied. A deeper, more subtle change had taken place, and the shift acted on me with a kind of primal intensity—something felt rather than understood. Were the muscles of her face doing new things? Had the cadence of her voice altered slightly? 

“You’re the one who smells amazing,” I said after giving a quick hug. “What’s that perfume you’re wearing?” 

“It’s called une shower,” she laughed, “which is as much of a beauty routine as I can manage these days.” 

She took off her coat, revealing the yellow cotton dress she’d bought on a road trip we’d taken through Maine one summer. That weekend, I’d marveled how Vera could find something in a grungy thrift store and turn it into the kind of outfit you’d see on the streets of Paris. But now the dress, ill-fitting and wrinkled, looked like a nightgown one wore for comfort alone.    

“No baby?” I said to Dave, putting my hands to hips in a playful posture of severe interrogation. I was feeling hyper, not right, and began baby-talking. “Where’s my little munchkin? Where’s that chunky little darling of a meatball?” 

“She’s with my sister.” Dave took off his jacket, received Vera’s, and put them both in the coat closet that once housed his ski equipment. “If you can believe it, it’s our first night alone since Olive was born.”

“We’re not alone,” Vera said to Dave, and then to me, “Work is insane. Being a mother is insane.” 

A bit too loudly, Dave put on the voice of a sportscaster: “Mom and Dad’s big night out!” At this, he grabbed Vera’s hand to make a quick joke; hands raised, Dave gave a cheer of mock-celebration. Their “big night out” was so lame it was funny. I could tell Vera was worried that Dave’s behavior could be the pinprick to the balloon that was our reunion. With a false laugh, I tried to convince everyone, myself included, that their parental titles and entwined hands could not upset me. 

“The ol’ place looks good,” Dave said, now walking an odd gait around the living room like some white-gloved inspector. He ran a finger over my bookshelf, a finger over the mantle. A shiver, from the base of my neck down the length of my back, betrayed my efforts to act nonchalant. I could tell myself many things—anything really—but my body whispered the truth; I was feeling things, electric things, in Dave’s presence. 

“It’s like nothing’s changed,” Vera said, warming herself by the fire. She wasn’t wrong. I still had the same thrift-store furniture I’d made Dave strap to his car’s roof. The woman at the register had said, Your wife has a good eye, to which Dave framed his face as if he were the steal. Why thank you, he’d said, and she’d laughed. Oh, we’re not married, I stated, and on the ride home Dave wanted to know why I’d felt compelled to correct her, a stranger. And lie? I asked. For what reason?     

“The others should be arriving soon,” I said. “Although it looks like the party will be smaller than planned. Penelope’s dog swallowed some chocolate this afternoon. She and Martha are at the vet.”

“Oh that’s too bad,” Vera said. “I was hoping to see Pen and meet this hot wife of hers.”

Throughout our twenties, the three of us had done everything together, but Penelope had been my friend first. Penelope, whose father had remarried the babysitter, didn’t think twice about her allegiance when Dave and Vera began dating. In fact, sometimes she took her anger at the whole situation too far, and I had to remind Penelope that sure, Vera was dead to us now, but she wasn’t really “a conniving bitch who cared only for herself.” I hadn’t told Penelope about running into Dave or about the dinner party. She didn’t even have a dog. 

“Let’s have a drink,” I said, waving us toward the kitchen where I’d laid out a tray of charcuterie. It made no sense why a whole chicken, sitting in a baking dish on the stovetop, should embarrass me, but I quickly shoved the bird—exposed, raw—into the oven before glancing at a cheat-sheet I’d hidden in a drawer. (High heat for ten minutes, then down a hundred degrees.) Twenty minutes per pound, I chanted to myself while pulling a corkscrew from the drawer. Twenty per pound. Twenty per pound. The fact of the matter was, I’d never been a great cook. Growing up we’d had a personal chef, and after Mom died, I lost my appetite for many things, food included. When I ran into Dave, I’d been eating the same thing for months: oatmeal, PB&J, spaghetti smothered in butter.

“What a thing,” Dave said, “to be back here.”

Vera put her hand to her heart. “Feels like we’re twenty.”  

I opened a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, more specifically, a ’75 Lafite Rothschild. I’d also inherited Mom’s wine collection, over five hundred bottles worth around three million, a portion of which I kept boxed in my guest room. In the months since Mom passed, I’d drunk only one bottle by myself, a 2016 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes blend to wash down a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese, after which I promised myself to find a buyer for the collection. Only I hadn’t yet. 

With familiar ease, Dave went to the cabinet where I kept the wine glasses. Another pinprick, this one felt by me on Vera’s behalf. Dave knew every square inch of this home and hadn’t forgotten. I looked at Vera, and she looked at me. As we tried to find the familiarity in each other’s faces, I imagined a scenario in which I gifted a good portion of Mom’s money to Dave and Vera’s baby. I could be a rich auntie, a third and important piece in the child’s life. But Vera looked back with an expression I’d never seen before. Her big brown eyes—usually receptive and curious—had turned toward some private conversation that wasn’t going well.

“Being young sure is something,” I said. “We were nearly teenagers when we all met.” 

The three of us were clinking our glasses when Trixie arrived, buzzed on the heels of a holiday party just down the street. I’d never seen her in anything but work clothes, a rotating ensemble of slacks and blazers, but tonight she wore a festive silver dress with sequins the size of compact mirrors.  

“Cool outfit,” I lied, but the dress made me dizzy. I could see a hundred versions of myself, each more warped than the next. 

“Is this it?” Trixie asked out the side of her mouth. “Is this the party?” 

Before I could answer, Georgia knocked at the door. She’d come from her father’s house in Jaffrey, and he’d demanded she meet his new horse, stabled twenty minutes further north. 

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said, handing over a box of chocolates. We hugged—a first—and I could smell the barn in Georgia’s hair, the sweet and warm aroma of hay caught in the fibers of her sweater. But wrapped in my embrace, Georgia grew rigid. 

She hadn’t confided in me, and yet, I knew her secret. A new tension had emerged—between what I’d learned and what I could express—and as I released Georgia from my grip, I found myself overwhelmed by indecision. Should I encourage our blooming friendship by looping my arm through hers while giving a house tour? Or was it wise to hide my enthusiasm until we could fully trust one another? 

“Make yourself at home,” I said, pointing toward the living room where Dave and Vera had settled. “I’ll grab some more wine glasses.” 

I dashed into the kitchen. In my moment alone, I tried to take a slow, deep breath but was finding it difficult to quiet myself. What had I done? What was I doing? I had assembled this random group to prove what? That I was anchored to Keene, to my life, in some significant way? That the past could not continue its haunting? Whatever my intentions, an energy was blooming inside me, not entirely pleasant. 

When I returned to the living room, Trixie and Georgia flanked the fireplace in club chairs. Dave and Vera sat in the loveseat, which left me Mom’s rattan lounger. It was the only thing she’d kept from her own mother, claiming, while it wasn’t pretty, it could cradle a spine just so. She wasn’t wrong. Even Penelope, who suffered a bad back, came over sometimes just to get twenty minutes in the old thing. I eased into Mom’s chair taking in the warmth of the fire. 

“I’m so glad you could all make it,” I announced. Could I lean into the evening? See what small pleasures might be waiting? “Hope everyone came hungry.”

“I have to admit, I didn’t realize this was a dinner party,” Trixie said, her mouth downturned in cartoon-mistake. “I may have already eaten—” 

“I didn’t realize Sarah could cook!” Vera said with too much punch. Dave shot her a warning look, and she raced to explain. “I just mean, I saw this girl microwave more ramen than should be medically allowed.”

Georgia gave a polite laugh—not too hearty as to indicate she’d join Vera in a tear-down, if that’s where this was headed, but just enough to smooth things over for the rest of us. As Trixie sipped her wine, her dress caught and tossed the fire’s amber glow. Parts of my home, isolated and distorted, began shifting in those large sequins. 

“We were in college,” I said. “Vera was the abnormal one, eating broccoli and beans every morning.” My voice came out terser than planned. 

“I was only playing—” Vera said. Her face had reddened. “I didn’t mean to—”

The mood of the evening was proving itself as unreliable as Trixie’s dress. Georgia wasn’t touching the charcuterie, and Dave and Vera, back in my orbit, appeared worried.  

“People change,” I said, restoring good-nature to my voice while throwing my hands in the air.

“The only true thing,” Trixie agreed, and continued to make her way through the Lafite Rothschild. “I’m no wino, but this tastes important,” she said, and then gave an appreciative sigh that emptied and filled her chest. Swimmer’s lungs. As the dress collapsed and heaved, a disco show appeared on the ceiling. Maybe it was the wine, but if I squinted, it could look like we were under water.   

“The bottle was a gift,” I half-lied, and Dave and I caught each other’s eyes to have a private chat. This was something we used to do at other people’s parties when we needed to relay non-verbal messages. In this shared look Dave said, Can’t fool me. With kind eyes, I retorted, It’s nice to be remembered. 

When I first moved to Keene, I’d decided not to tell anyone I came from money. Not even Vera. Only Dave, years into our relationship, knew the financials of my upbringing after celebrating Christmas with my mother in New York. Back in New Hampshire, when he asked why I hid this part of myself, I said it was an uncomfortable fact, that the money wasn’t even really ours, that my mother had changed some very core part of herself to get it. 

At the time, Dave said I was overthinking it, that the people who loved me would embrace my full story. But money changes things, I said, to which he replied, You’re right. Knowing our kids will be rich, I’m never eating cereal again. He’d been joking, but also, it was the first time he’d mentioned our non-existent, future kids. The money, and Dave’s new knowledge of the money, had materialized a life we’d never discussed. 

The money, and Dave’s new knowledge of the money, had materialized a life we’d never discussed.

Vera’s darting glances interrupted the silent conversation I was having with her husband. Could she tell that Dave and I still had access to our shared history, a history which hadn’t included her? As I scanned Vera’s face—older, slightly unfamiliar—I wondered about our fates. Who had put their hands in which pots? And which claims had lost their value? 

We were nearly done with the Lafite Rothschild when Vera turned to Georgia and asked, “So how do you know Sarah?” 

“The simple answer is work,” Georgia started, “but when you’re around someone day after day, you begin to know them the way animals know each other.”

“How do you mean?” asked Dave. 

“Through proximity. Through habitual experience.”

It was great to hear Georgia talk this way. She was making it seem like our friendship had philosophical undertones, which when I thought about it, it probably did. I decided to take the opportunity to announce Georgia’s merits.

“You’ve never met such a hard worker,” I said. “And like such a nice person. So nice. So many people complain about their co-workers, but we’re just a little family, aren’t we gals?” I was exaggerating, sure, but it felt good to parade my new life in front of Dave and Vera. 

When Georgia politely agreed, Yes, we were very lucky to have each other, to have nice jobs, Vera’s face tightened. Vera—who’d always been easy-going—now looked like a kid who’d just been told not every child gets invited to every birthday party. Is this what I’d wanted? To witness Vera feeling the flame of jealousy? I checked my watch. We still had fifteen minutes before I could take the chicken out, then ten more for the meat to rest. To kill time, I brought out another bottle, this time an ’89 Chateau Petrus Pomerol. When Trixie tasted it, her eyes all but bulged out of her head. She grabbed the bottle and ran her hands over the label. Then she took out her phone and Googled the vineyard.

“I knew this was good,” she said, “but this is beyond.”

“Is it?” I asked, my voice light.   

Is it? This is a five-thousand-dollar bottle of wine!” she said. 

I was about to make up some elaborate excuse when Vera stepped in. “Sarah’s mother married an oil man,” she said. “Grew up as rich as a Kennedy, but you’d never guess, right?” 

The comment came out sounding like a pointed attack. It was a tone that claimed Dave (See, we tell each other everything), while simultaneously scolding me (See, I know you spent our friendship lying). And yet, as soon as she’d finished speaking, her eyes admitted regret. She wasn’t really at the helm. She’d been overtaken by marriage and motherhood and was now lost inside herself and waiting for rescue. Could someone who knew her, could I, help her back into the driver’s seat of her own life? Despite all Dave had done for her, I guess this was a job he hadn’t managed. Even though I felt compelled to support her, I resisted the urge. This—Dave, motherhood, the distance between us—was what she’d wanted. She’d chosen it.   

Dave and I locked eyes again, but this time my message wasn’t warm banter. He’d betrayed me. He’d told Vera the one thing I’d shared with him and him alone, something he promised never to reveal, not to anyone. 

“My father is an oil man too,” Georgia said. “Works at a gas station when he’s not riding horses.” Georgia hadn’t meant to be funny, but Trixie laughed. If Georgia perceived the surmounting tension, she hid it well. To collect myself, I went back into the kitchen, where I found smoke escaping from the oven’s seams. I turned off the heat, turned on the exhaust, and inspected our dinner. I’d forgotten to reduce the temperature and had cooked the bird at high-heat for too long. My mistake had charred the skin beyond repair. 

This is how Dave found me, near tears with my face at the oven’s open mouth. 

“Look,” he said. “Vera’s going through a really hard time. She hasn’t been acting like herself.” 

I looked at him with wide eyes. Like, Really dude? Like, Don’t you see we have a bit of a situation on our hands? But Dave—for all his good humor and funny voices—also possessed the ability to ignore other people’s concerns if they weren’t his own. I remembered this now. 

I raced to get the mitt, pulled the chicken from the oven, then opened all the windows. The room became cold. I felt my muscles, already tight with panic, constrict further, but also, the sounds of a winter night—of cars driving through slushy roads—reminded me that outside these walls, there was a world that had nothing to do with me. 

“Vera hasn’t admitted this to anyone,” Dave said, “But ever since the baby, she’s been struggling. I’ve been so worried, but then this dinner tonight. It’s the first thing in so long. She was excited to see you again. We were both so happy—” 

I grabbed a knife to poke beneath the chicken’s skin; I wanted to know how far the damage reached. What could be saved? What would I toss? I was about to put my hands into the carcass—to start pulling out pieces of dry chicken to rehydrate in a soup or chicken saladwhen Dave’s phone rang. It was his sister. Baby Olive had developed a fever so high and so quick that a febrile seizure had occurred. I could hear Amy’s shaky voice on the other end. “I’m at the hospital now. The fever’s under control, but they want to monitor her. It’s not the kind of thing that causes damage. They promised there’s no damage.” 

Now Dave was the one looking wide-eyed. I could tell he’d been holding a lot, too much, and that this new and heavy piece was making his spiritual muscles shake.

“We’ll be right there,” Dave said. He hung up the phone, but stood frozen. He closed his eyes tight, and when he opened them, he looked at me straight-faced. It felt like the most familiar thing to take his hands into mine.  

“I shouldn’t have left,” he said, and for a moment, I thought I was inside a different conversation. “She was sleepier than normal when we dropped her off, but we all thought it was just another growth spurt. I should have stayed home. I shouldn’t have—” 

“No one did anything wrong,” I said. “Just a little scare. No permanent harm, right?” I looked at the scorched chicken. “Not missing much here anyway.”     

When Vera told me that she and Dave had developed feelings for each other, that over the eight months since Dave and I had dated, they’d kept in touch while slowly their friendship morphed, I was standing in my bedroom half-naked. Vera had dropped by to help me get ready for a date, and I was between dresses. When she asked for my blessing, I wanted to call her a bad friend, a desperate woman, a person with no ideas of her own. 

“What if I say no?” I said instead. 

Vera looked at me with a confidence I had rarely seen in her before. “I’m not asking for permission. I’m only hoping, with time, you’ll see a way forward for us.”

I raced to cover myself with an oversized sweatshirt then made my way toward the bed where I shoved my bare legs beneath the duvet. 

“When I look at his face, I see my whole life.” Vera kneeled then at the bed’s edge, her face hopeful like a child saying prayers. “Sarah, talk to me.” 

I then said a lot of things I’ve tried to since forget, accusations and name calling and general hysterics, but here we were again, the two of us still waiting for the consequences of our decisions to reveal themselves. I had a five-pound burnt chicken; she had a fevered baby. Were we really all that different?  

Dave and Vera raced to collect their jackets while apologizing for their sudden departure. Trixie gave a quick and encouraging story about a baby she once knew who’d had a febrile seizure and now attended Tufts. When Vera gave me a hug, she held on for a moment to whisper in my ear. “Being together again was so nice,” she said, and then pulling back, “Maybe you’ll come by the house sometime?” 

Here was the Vera I remembered, the Vera always securing the next plan while the present plan was still underway. Which was something that used to make me feel really great. As if she couldn’t get enough of me. As if she had a real and desperate need for my company. 

“Maybe,” I said.   

It was hard to tell if my face was flush from the wine, the oven’s heat, or the anger that flashed through me when Vera shared my best-kept secret. At any rate, my cheeks were aflame as I watched them leave. Closing the door, I wondered what would become of us.

“Who’s up for take-out?” I asked Georgia and Trixie. The smell of smoke lingered in the air. Georgia was quick to say her stomach was acting up again. In fact, it was getting rather late, she said, and we all agreed, like it or not, we had work in the morning. 

“And I believe you’ve got some writing to do,” Trixie said. 

I smiled, knowing I wouldn’t be coming into work tomorrow, or ever. I wasn’t trying to be a journalist, and if I could have small and banal interests that fed my spirit, they remained unknown to me. As Trixie put on her coat, relief cloaked my own body. The sequins, with their playful, dirty magic, were gone, and all that energy, which had been raging inside me like some trapped animal, quieted. I was worn, and in my weariness, I missed my mother. 

“It was nice to gather,” Trixie said. “Nice to meet your friends.” 

“The country can be a lonely place,” Georgia said. “Thanks for the invite.” And then she put her cheek next to mine and kissed the air the way one kisses a distant relative. If Georgia and I were going to be friends, we weren’t friends yet. Perhaps we’d hang out again and come to rely on one another, but maybe we’d enjoy forgetting the other more than any intimacy. 

 I apologized again for the food mishap, which truth be told, I didn’t even feel bad about. It’s funny the things you can convince yourself are important until they fail miserably.  

The day before Dave met my mother, we went to the zoo. We strolled from cage to cage while Dave gave each animal a voice and a problem. I’d felt too shy to chime in and play along, although in my head I assigned the ring-tailed lemurs dead end jobs for low pay. We ate hot dogs and cotton candy and said some really kind things to each other on a bench in the shade. Even though it was a nice zoo, it was a zoo. By mid-afternoon, the metal fencing and plexiglass wore on me.

“Doesn’t seem natural,” I said to Dave.   

“Captive breeding is an important conservation effort,” Dave said while tapping a sign that argued as much. 

I wondered about this. Did animals birthed inside a zoo have any chance of returning to the wild? Could they survive the life that should have been theirs? It was thoughts like these that could tank my system for days, weeks, months. Dave noticed my deflation, which I dismissed as a brewing fever.

When we saw my mother the next day, Dave told her about a mountain lion we’d seen walking the same worn circle. I could tell Dave was starting to really love me, and the world was doing that thing it sometimes did; it was receding, and I could feel the space between myself and everything. My mother had served a squash soup, which I left untouched.

“It’s your favorite,” she said, but it wasn’t true. I had never liked it, not once, and I sat without appetite as Dave asked my mother a series of questions about what I was like as a child. And then I listened to her describe someone I’d never met.

Soon after Mom died, I thought often of that blond tread of dirt, lonely and worn. I looped back on the image so often in those early days that in an attempt to ease my mind, I actually called the zoo. I wanted to find out if the mountain lion was still walking that same circle, but the person on the other end of the line said they’d never housed a big cat, or if they had, it was gone now. 

“Gone where though?” I asked.

“Like I said,” a listless voice drawled. “Not here.”   

Override takes many forms. I would come to see that long after I’d stopped working at the paper and sat eating salted pistachios at the lake’s edge. Truth, my truth, would come upon me there in a sudden breeze one June. The blossoms of wild blackberries and sweet grass, baked in early summer sun, would release an aroma so pungent and joyful that I’d wish my mother alive again. As the lake’s surface rippled, I’d have the thought: if only I could show her what I’ve learned.

But standing in my doorway, waving goodbye to Trixie and Georgia, I thought only about my inheritance. The word still felt loose and sick, like something that should have been fully-formed was instead puddled by confusion, loneliness, and grief. The secret was out; I had more than I knew what to do with, but what could I claim as my own? What kind of difference could I make? What did I want from this life of mine?  

I could start a fund for underprivileged kids, I thought. I could buy raw land to protect through conservation easements. I could turn the cash into gold, bury it in someone’s lawn, and then draw a treasure map to be placed in a neighboring mailbox. Now that would cause some chaos. But really: no matter what I did, the money would flow through me. It didn’t have to be complicated. In fact, it could be easy. I could give myself the things I desired and allow the rest to run right through. 

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