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Mushroom Cloud

by Saramanda Swigart

Her last conversation with Charlie was on a Tuesday.

Eve knew it was a Tuesday, because on laundry days the sound of the dryer going and going could be heard even through her head­phones. She was slumped over her legs, painting, with a surgeon’s precision, a gray mushroom cloud on the black background of her penultimate toenail. The floor fan, swinging around the room, took the edge off a close and languid Manhattan summer and lifted her freshly dyed blue hair (two blond streaks framing the face, waiting to be sacrificially offered up to Black Licorice Manic Panic). Her head­phones were the size of portabellas. Much later she’d try to remem­ber what she’d been listening to. It was the Bad Seeds, or the Dreadful Shadows, or Bauhaus, one of those bands whose morose­ness she loved, at the time, to let wash over her in huge melancholic waves of sound, so that she was suspended in a high tide of delectable ennui. And oh to feel that again: that deliberate sadness that could be taken up and then, just as easily, set carefully down for later use.

Her homework was arrayed out in front of her, and when her brother came in, a soda in one hand and a miniature blue basketball in the other, he scanned its pages, clucking at her mistakes. If it weren’t for her wet nails, she would have slammed the book on him.

Charlie’s hair was as long as any male could get away with in their house, and in order to get away with it, he slicked it into a pom­padour. It was the mid-nineties. His bowling shirt had Ferdinand stitched across the pocket. He tapped the soda can against the ring his girlfriend Emily had given him as a joke, two snakes twisted together through the eyeholes of a skull, which she’d purchased at a street fair. A snake, she’d said, for each of them. Beautiful Emily, with the angel wings tattooed on her shoulders and the little green and red phoenix forever rising on her ankle.

“Wellie, wellie, well,” Charlie said when Eve didn’t greet him. And then, close to her headphone, “Wellie, wellie, well, little droo­gie.” And then he bounced the ball against her head and caught it again.

She flinched, pleased to see him, careful not to show that she was pleased. “I’m busy,” she said, waving a hand over her toes. “Go bother April.”

“I have some good news and some bad news,” he said. He let the ball fall. It bounced to a stop against Eve’s dresser. He sat on the edge of her bed. “Good or bad first?”

“Good,” Eve said.

(That ball’s still there, deflated, under her dresser. Eve has checked.)

Charlie flipped idly through her homework. “Look: You fucked up here and here,” he said.

She shrugged. “Math’s not my forte,” she said.

“I’m a girl,” he mimicked, “I’m bad at math. Take me to Hot Topic.” Then, sweeping his hand to indicate Eve’s powdered skin and heavy eye makeup: “You’re not a girl—you’re a beautiful vampire.” He flicked a nail against her toe.

“Tell me the thing,” she said. Then added, “Asshole.”

“OK, so, pursuant to my getting the fuck out of here, I just signed a lease in Murray Hill. You’ll like the place.”

“The one you wanted?”

“A bigger one. But a basement one.”

“Congrats. But also, fuck you. This house’ll be a death trap without you.”

“It’s more expensive.”

“And Mom and Dad agreed?”

“Mom and Dad don’t know yet. It’s furnished. It’s got two bed­rooms. Well, it’s kind of two bedrooms. One and a quarter bed­rooms. One and an eighth. And, you know, it would be nice for you to do your ‘art’”—he made air quotes around the word—“some­where without the bourgeoisie breathing down your neck.”

Charlie finished his soda, crushed the can, and threw it in an ele­gant arc into Eve’s trash. He played basketball for the team. He had the height, and the wiry strength. She saw that he wasn’t at all ner­vous about her answer: he knew exactly what she’d say.

She waited what she felt was the appropriate amount of time. She didn’t want to seem too eager, but God—what was going on in her right then? Hand grenades of happiness in her chest, detonating, radiating joy into her extremities. She couldn’t stop herself from grinning. She didn’t look at Charlie, but from the corner of one eye saw him flex a ropy arm in the mirror. His bicep bulged under the bowling shirt. She finally asked, “And the bad news?”

“There isn’t any,” he said. “Surprise!”

“What about Emily?” she said, suddenly suspicious. “Won’t she want to live there?”

“Evie, I was thinking it might be time for us to go our separate ways, me and Emily.”

“No!” she said, putting that terrible piece of news away for later scrutiny. On the one hand, she was the anointed, chosen by Charlie over his first love. On the other, there was the possibility of not see­ing Emily again, which was a grief she couldn’t now consider. Charlie and Eve both looked at his ring.

“It’s over, I think,” he said. “The thrill is gone. Onward and upward.”

“Mom and Dad will never let me move out,” she said.

“It’ll take some finagling,” he said. “But look who you’re dealing with.”

“‘Whom you’re dealing with, Charles,’” Eve corrected in their mother’s doctrinaire timbre.

“Whom. You are dealing with the person whom can sell those freaks on anything.”


“Who. First we’ll say you’re coming for ‘studio visits,’ stay a night here, a night there. We’ll ease them into it little by little and then, by the time NYU says Please please please come to our school, bam, you’re already downtown.” He paused, examining Eve’s toes.

She was so pleased she was almost shy. When the mushroom clouds dried, she’d splash water on her face so that the makeup would run in ghastly circles. She’d dye the two platinum streaks in her blue hair black. Then she’d go practice with her all-girl band. Unless Charlie invited her wherever he was going, in which case she’d cancel it all. She said, “Are you going out? You look like you’re going out-out.”

“I am indeed going out-out.”

She gave him enough time to invite her, and then, when he didn’t, said, “Have a groovy time, Ferdinand.”

“Nothing groovy about a breakup date. Should I change the shirt? I’ll change the shirt. ‘Ferdinand’ is a little whimsical for this somber occasion. Bye, droogie. Enjoy another night of statistics and barely restrained parental disappointment. Remember: Big Brother’s watching.”

“I always do.”

He leaned down and blew wetly across her toes. “Don’t do any­thing I wouldn’t do.” He smiled, adding, “If you can think of any­thing.”

The door shutting: a terminal sound. Its memory still sends a shaft of pain down the length of the room.




Later that night, something woke Eve from a deep sleep. Her hair, freshly dyed, had the fruity smell of Manic Panic. Her electric drum kit crouched in the corner of the room beneath the Clockwork Orange poster Charlie had given her when she was ten. The dresser, the small side table, painted a girlish white, had gauzy black fabric draped over it. Eve got up, wandered the room. She gave the floor tom a few raps with her knuckle. She didn’t know how she knew, but a sense of wrongness compelled her to creep, not walk, downstairs to the kitchen—something in the stillness of the air was like a held breath. She saw her mother cupping the phone, dressed in a blue sweater with shoulder pads over a white cotton nightgown.

Her tone was reasonable. “It can’t be true though,” she said. “Our car’s in the…” And then she flinched. “Oh,” she said. She squat­ted. Two tears escaped her eyes, which wasn’t disturbing in itself. Mute crying was a skill that Eve’s mother, sister, and she had honed to manipulative perfection. Her father didn’t like displays of emotional weakness, but silent crying was the loophole. Tears gathered in the furrows around her mother’s mouth.

It wasn’t too late. She could creep back the way she had come. Her argyle pajamas had created an itch all down her shins and ankles, but she stayed perfectly still and let the itch rage and ripple over her skin.

She watched her father, who was dressed in unbuttoned work slacks, a garish green golf shirt, and one sock. How had he come to be dressed like that? Clothes, any clothes, hastily grabbed and donned. Her father worked, garnering respect and money hand over fist, in management consulting, enough money that he had agreed to pay the rent on an apartment for his son fifteen minutes downtown. His bespoke suits were crisp and perfect. Never a hair out of place on Dad’s head. His clothes, mismatched, disturbed her more than if he had been wearing the Clockwork Orange makeup Charlie donned each Halloween. He stood at the sink, staring at the kitchen clock, which read 4:50 a.m. Idly, he flipped on the tap, flipped it off. Sound of water, silent crying, sound of water. At least one of those taps he could control. The itch throbbed on Eve’s leg.

“Where are you getting this information?” her mother said finally into the phone. “May I please speak with your…with your…” She pulled the phone from her ear and looked at it a moment. Then she held it out to Dad with both hands. Leaving the tap on, he walked to her, accepted the phone, and placed it carefully on the counter, mouthpiece up. The receiver continued to emit a tinny voice: Hello. Hello? Mrs. Thurston? Hello?

Her father looked down at her mother. He bent over and placed his hands under her arms, lifted her, like a child, to her feet, and like a recalcitrant child she resisted.

“Lily,” he said when she was standing. He turned her around and removed the tangle of her hair from the band that held it. It fell, Evie saw, prettily, like a young girl’s hair.

“We need to identify him,” she said.

He smoothed the hair, retied it. She turned around and smiled at him, tears still coming. “Charlie,” she said in a voice so distressed it almost sounded cheerful. “He needs to be identified.”

“I know,” he said.

They stood still, like they were about to dance, one of his hands holding her wrist, the other at the small of her back. One step, two, and they could launch into a waltz around the kitchen, like characters in a musical, like the power of song was all it took. The voice on the phone said Hello? a last time, and then a dial tone sounded, louder than the voice, and Eve’s mother jumped. The imaginary waltz was over. Her father took her mother’s left hand and massaged it, pulling each of her cellist’s fingers until it cracked. He slid her engagement ring off and slipped it over the tip of his index finger. Then he twisted it back into place next to the wedding ring.

“We have to go,” he said finally.

“He took the car,” she said. “We need a taxi.”

“What about the girls? Do we leave them?”

“What else can we do?”

“What about Ethan?”

Ethan was the lonely young neighbor who had moved into his parents’ house—the house four doors down from Eve’s—when they died. He was an alternate at the symphony and had taught Eve the drums. Eve had a longing to sit next to him, quietly.

“It’s 5:00 a.m.,” said her mother.

“I’ve heard him practicing this early.”

Eve was pressed flat against the wall next to the doorframe. Her parents passed close enough to touch her as they left the kitchen, but they didn’t look her way. The front door clicked shut.

Eve held herself against the wall with both palms. Water splashed in the sink, the kitchen clock chattered. It was a modern kitchen, with sleek cabinetry, stainless steel appliances, and lots of black granite. She went into the kitchen and turned off the tap. She cooled her hot palms against the stone counter. Her body was weightless. She felt that reality was a semipermeable membrane through which, at any moment, she would float. Up through each floor of the town house, up through the tar-smelling air of Manhattan in early summer, up into the sky, where the metropolis would be spread below her like a circuit board, and then higher, until she was watching the lights and dark patches of the spinning globe. Below, the world would carry on, contending with bombers in Oklahoma City, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, earthquakes in Kobe, and in New York, New York, the nuclear nonproliferation agreement, and the death of a teenage boy, worse than a nuclear disaster. Up there, though, she would be free, weightless, abstracted from the world and its problems.

But her feet, she found, were firmly grounded. She went back to her room, and as she walked, she felt a weird sense of comfort, a hope so intense and urgent it felt like lust. Charlie couldn’t possibly be dead. Charlie was so quick and so smart. Charlie, surely, could sweet-talk his way out of this one too. The car would be in the garage (no: he took the car whenever he went to meet Emily). They would go to identify him, and there he would be, heart monitor beeping into the hushed light of a hospital (no: “identify” meant a body). Eve thought she could hear the sound of her own blood churning, and she had a sweet feeling all over, an awareness of her skin and organs and grating teeth.

The cat Penelope was asleep at the top of the stairs. Penelope, so named after the wife of Odysseus because she could wait in saintly patience, not making a sound, hardly moving from her top-of-the-stairs perch, for Eve’s mother to get home. One had to step over her. Eve reached out for the cat, but as Penelope raised her body to accept the gesture, Eve recoiled as from fire. Her fingernails were black with mushroom clouds. They looked like they could do damage to anything they touched, like radiation poisoning would spray from the fingertips. She had a sudden heavy feeling. This part of her life was over, she realized with alarm, the painted mushroom cloud part. She saw herself, her current self—soon to be her past self—watching her from the other side of a river. She could see the future. She knew somehow that she’d take down her posters. Her hair would grow out in its natural shade. And what would replace this dark world that was so much more colorful than any future she could imagine? The ques­tion made her tired.

The front door opened and she heard Ethan’s soft voice and then her parents’ voices. She crouched on the stairs and watched the three of them in the front hall.

“Whatever you need,” Ethan said. “Should I…should I wake them?”

The sounds of her parents vehemently discouraging that.

“Yes, all right,” said Ethan. “I’ll wait here. Phone if you need anything else.”

Ethan seated himself in the living room. He tapped out a com­plicated drum riff against his thigh. He was a neighbor, and her drum teacher. Her parents had helped him when his parents died, clearing out the house, arranging the estate sale, bringing him food, calling her father’s contacts at the New York Symphony, where he was a Gold Circle donor. Now Ethan played percussion for the symphony. It seemed full circle, his arrival in New York in the wake of tragedy, and now, here he was, at the very beginnings of a fresh tragedy.

Eve thought of going to him. Usually, his presence comforted. She thought better of it, creeping upstairs.

She lay down on the bed, still and stiff, shoring herself against the pain she could sense but couldn’t quite feel. She would have to wait now. The plotline of her life had just been stolen, the down­town-with-Charlie part, the bohemian artist part, and she’d have to wait for a new one. The thought tortured her. She couldn’t even apprehend the loss of Charlie yet, only the loss of an identity inextri­cably linked to him. She was this, she would be this. From indicative to subjunctive in one fell swoop. (From out of a happier time, her mother looked up from her New York Times crossword. “Syntax and Shakespeare in one sentence,” she said. “Nice. Throw in some Latin and you’ll have the trifecta.”)

Eve smiled grimly. But then, from the corner of her eye she saw the basketball. Oh, there it is, the first black twinges of suffering, creeping down her hairline to her temples.