Named a Fall Pick by Boston Globe, ELLE, Library Journal and MyDomain
An eerie debut collection featuring missing parents, unrequited love, and other uncomfortable moments
A man hangs from the ceiling of an art gallery. A woman spells out messages to her sister using her own hair. Children deemed “bad” are stolen from their homes. In Hardly Children, Laura Adamczyk’s rich and eccentric debut collection, familiar worlds—bars, hotel rooms, cities that could very well be our own—hum with uncanny...
Story by Laura Adamczyk
Illustrations by Jesse Draxler
Dad wanted to show us his infinity box. It was Christmas and my sister, Carla, her husband, and my man and I were in the suburbs at my cousin’s. I had poured myself one glass of wine after another while my uncle told me where to buy the cheapest gas. I no longer drove. By the time Dad mentioned the mysterious box, I had dipped into a drunkenness that felt shut up and deeply personal.
Come over to the house, Dad said. It’ll take five minutes.
Nothing with Dad took five minutes. He was susceptible to obsession, frequently infused with urgency for a project that had taken him over. It didn’t end until he’d roped in someone else.
In the bathroom Carla and I stood before its brightly lit mirror. She was in an advanced state of pregnancy. Everything looked the same — her sleek blonde hair, rosy cheeks, pert nose — except for her belly. It appeared constructed, like one of those grassy burial mounds downstate. When we’d first arrived, my aunt, a retired accountant who cut her own hair in a blunt schoolmarm, had placed her hands on Carla’s stomach, and with eyes closed like a fortune-teller, nodded and said, A new beginning.
We should get back home, I said. You know how he gets.
I’d grown anxious and wanted to dissolve into a more familiar state.
I know, Carla said. I’m pretty tired. She rubbed her stomach, the very thing she promised she wouldn’t do. She’d paid an enterprising doula an outrageous sum for homemade anti-stress pregnancy tea, the tint and odor of rotten eggplant, and had been ostentatiously chugging it throughout dinner. I’d helped her to a glug of Chianti every time I got myself a glass, deepening the tea’s dark color. She either didn’t notice or pretended not to, but after pie, she sighed and said, I feel so much more relaxed.
I’m pretty tired too, I said, stroking my gut.
But we can’t not go, she said.
Carla and I lived in the same city a little over an hour away. Later she and her husband, Tom, would watch the latest Top Chef and go to bed, while I would suggest to Jay that the two of us find a bar full of Christmas rejects to play pool with. Dad would end the night eating chips and dozing in front of a PBS murder mystery. We knew a version of this had become his reality this past year — and to me it sounded like a kind of bliss, an isolation you could really sink your teeth into — and yet. And yet he must have had his own feelings about it.
Oh, Dad, Carla said. Oh, sigh.
You always say, Oh, sigh. Why not just sigh? She squinted at me. Your lips are all purple.
We could hear the television as we walked up — Jay, me, Carla, and Tom. A laugh track pulsed through the door. The wind slapped me into an unwelcome awareness. Hello, hello, Dad said, letting us in. Between his stick-straight hair gone gray and wire glasses forever in need of alignment, he looked like a community college physics instructor. In truth, he had been one of those baby boomers occupied with any manual labor that had kept our stomachs filled and his hands busy. He shuffled into the living room and, digging a remote out of his chair, muted the television. The resulting quiet compressed the room in a fast inhale. Each visit revealed the progression of a silent, certain spreading, as an anesthetic weighting one’s limbs. Surfaces grew new objects: cellophane bags of processed foodstuff Mom would not have bought and glossy magazines whose covers bore menacing interrogatives: Are Russians Reading Your Email Right Now? With Impending Food Crisis, Will Humans Be Forced to Eat Dirt? What Plans Does the Galaxy Have for Earth?
Dad led us to the wall in the dining room. On it there was a wooden spoon the length of a cane, a cross stitch of a brown squirrel, and, at head height, a wooden box. Its walnut frame surrounded a square of black glass that reflected back to us colorless versions of ourselves. From the bottom right corner of the box hung a white electrical cord that ran behind the chest where Dad kept his cribbage set and playing cards. He flipped a switch on the cord, and a square of lights lit up around the box’s inner perimeter. Inside the lights, what was once dull became a glossy darkness that unfolded in a series of illuminated squares, deeper and deeper, as though an unending hallway.
Cool, Tom said.
You made this? Carla asked.
I did indeed, Dad said.
That’s really neat, she said.
Jay leaned in, bending his knees into a standing squat. He had the wide stance of a veteran ballplayer. He worked as an office building’s facilities manager and was used to taking things apart and putting them together.
What do we have here? he said. Two-way mirror?
Maybe, Dad said, smiling.
Dad squinted. What’s your name again?
At dinner, the two of them had talked about fermentation for half an hour before Dad realized that Jay belonged to me and not my cousin.
Carla said, It’s Jay, Dad.
Andie tells me you like to make things, said Jay. I’ve got a whole workshop.
I’ll take you down into my basement sometime.
I would love to get into your basement.
I stared into the box and blinked. The lights fuzzed then realigned to illuminate the box’s depth, the line of them pointing farther and farther away. It was really quite pretty.
Billions and billions, Jay intoned.
Sagan? Dad asked. Jay nodded and Dad patted his shoulder. We had been watching Cosmos and were filling our silences with Carl Sagan impressions.
So what’s the point of this, Dad? Carla asked.
Well, you know. He eyed Jay. I looked at Carla and back to Dad. The lights twinkled in stars off his glasses.
Just a neat thing to look at.
It had all gone a little something like this: There was golf on the television and a bunch of us sitting around. Me, Dad, Carla, Tom, aunts, cousins. They’d moved the couch into the dining room, a wheeled bed where the couch had been, Mom in the bed. For two weeks, Dad performed a circuit. He stood touching Mom’s ankles, went into the kitchen, ate a chip, descended into the basement to work, came back upstairs, ate a chip, went into the living room, touched Mom’s ankles. I found myself in the corner by the TV, ceding the spot nearest the bed to someone more aggressively watchful. Her breathing’s changing, Carla would say. She’s having trouble breathing. A man occasionally sank a putt and a crowd clapped politely.
My phone pinged every time a website I followed posted an update. A jet plane had gone missing. Two hundred souls misplaced. Everyone suspected a plummet into the ocean, but I had other ideas: Mom was going to pass from this life to the next, and the airliner would emerge from nothing. Light would flash, magnetic ions would rearrange themselves, and then blammo — the thing would rip out of a wormhole, a wrinkle in time, what have you. I didn’t know how the science worked, but something was hanging in the balance, that was for sure.
Near the end, Mom’s schoolmarm sister sang a hymn. She pulled a chair to the foot of the bed and told about going on a walk with Jesus. There had been a time when Mom worshipped, and even I recognized the refrain, but she hadn’t stepped inside a sanctuary in years. She had preferred walking very fast, and alone, on Sunday mornings, releasing some sweat, and eating as much breakfast as she could.
As she sang, my aunt looked deep into Mom’s face. If anything registered in her eyes it was ironic misery. Who knows if she had any thoughts besides, This sucks, the last words she’d spoken to me before falling into her uncomfortable silence. My aunt’s voice rose to an ungodly high. I tried to step into an emotion that that kind of thing might have unlocked, but I couldn’t do it. She was an awful singer. I shot a look to Carla that said, If you ever sing when I’m dying it had better be Talking Heads or Nirvana or full-on ironic ABBA and not some schmaltz I don’t believe in anymore. Her face reflected all the pain – high and low – that the situation merited. I appreciated her very much in that moment. The difference between us is that just then she started crying and I stepped outside.
I wandered down the block. I thought, Isn’t life funny? A woman’s about to slip out of the world, but it really is a beautiful day. It was warm for December — sun and breeze and whatnot. Cars were driving, squirrels were squirreling, everyone was going about their business just the same. It all countered but not quite erased the emotional disturbance I was feeling, like when people hang piney discs from the rearviews of their smoke-ridden cars.
When I returned, everyone’s eyes were freshly red.
She’s gone, honey, my aunt said. She’s gone.
I missed it, I said. Like falling asleep before midnight on New Year’s. We went through the usual arrangements. My aunt sang her hymn in front of a black-clad crowd, and Dad, Carla, and I split a large jar of gray dust. A week later, aquatic experts surveyed a cloudy square of ocean floor, but all they found were a few pieces of silver wing sunk deep to its fathomless bottom.
Carla called the day after Christmas, her voice full of sighs and intention.
Dad said it reminds him of Mom.
The box. The infinity box or whatever. When we talked on the phone just now.
I walked the apartment, from front to back. Jay said he’d take me out for dinner when he got home. I hadn’t been gainfully employed for some time, and I’d been spending my days taking baths and listening to men jackhammer who-knows-what across the street. I was ready to catapult out of myself. I walked into the kitchen and moved the dishes in the sink.
You don’t think that’s weird? she said.
I found a block of cheese in the refrigerator and began ripping off chunks and stuffing them into my mouth. I said, He’s probably just thinking metaphorically.
Metaphorically? About your wife? Why not just put up some pictures?
Why don’t you suggest that?
You could. You should call him. He always says that he never hears from you. You know, in his own cheerful, nothing-ever-really-bothers-me sort of way.
I just saw him.
I picked up the cheese brick and let it fall on the counter. It made dull, loud thuds.
Hey, I should run, Carla. Gotta get dinner on the table!
My man wouldn’t like the crumbs, but I knew he wouldn’t say anything. It was just like me to make little messes. I met Jay a few months after my aunt had put on her show in the old church. I’d been doing fine with a number of fellas whom I didn’t know very well but with whom I had agreeable understandings. Every few days one would bring over something to drink, and I’d relate to him the most pleasant version of my day, skating along the slick surface of our conversation, and then we’d go into the room where I usually slept alone. I had, at that point, stopped talking to the people who knew me best. When Mom was in her living room bed, my thoughts had felt very clear. I drank pale tea and spoke with Carla in slow, careful sentences. After she gave me my share of Mom’s dust, I felt a persistent head muddling. I didn’t want anyone to poke deeper than What did you do today? Carla insistently noted my absence in voicemails, emails, text messages, and even a buzz on my apartment’s call box. I’d eventually reply in short missives confirming my existence.
Jay had caught me alone in a blood-red bar one night when I’d had more than the recommended dosage. The next morning, my chemicals all mixed up, he started asking the getting-to-know-you questions we’d skipped the night before. One of the questions was Mom, and I, as they say, lost it. It, in this case, being the ability to keep from weeping on a stranger. Yes, he looked afraid. But then there was hugging and talking and, at his suggestion, the watching of a DVD of my choosing. The following night he asked to see me again, the following night the same until it became hard to entertain other guests and even rude to do so. Too I had quit my job, and money was at a dangerous low. Not long after our falling together, I fit my life into his apartment and, for reasons I can’t quite explain, started answering my phone again.
The day after New Year’s. Or the day after that. Hot hangover sweat, mouth film, and the requisite stooped walk from bed into the living room. Jay blinked at me from the couch.
Do you want to know what happened? he asked.
I sat down, covered myself in a ragged fleece, and shoved my feet beneath his butt. There was an insistent pang in my side.
You kind of got into a fight.
I remembered a trio of dumb heels and legs like plastic. Short skirts that didn’t fit the pool hall venue. I recalled asking one of them if they were a package deal or if you had to pay each by the hour.
You made a few comments.
I put my hand up.
You don’t want to know? Jay asked.
I shook my head.
Do you want some coffee?
I shook my head.
I rested my head on the back of the couch.
I don’t think I smoke enough pot to enjoy this, I said.
You don’t smoke any pot, he said, holding a lighter to his bowl, his bowl to his face. He inhaled, exhaled, and offered it to me. I wrinkled my nose.
It’s a different way of feeling good, he said. Jay had become so adept at euphemism that he barely said anything anymore.
I’ll just get paranoid and fall asleep, I said. But you’ll have one good idea.
Last time, I had an idea for a show in which people were kidnapped, forced to ride roller coasters for twenty-four hours, and returned home without explanation. Another time it was an art installation that was a dimly lit staircase filled with fog and people crawled up and up and they had no idea when it would end and the staircase was so long that people eventually got too tired or hungry to go on, so they’d give up and walk back down.
Oh, look, Jay said, turning. His apartment was on the second floor of a two-story graystone, and the tall windows behind the couch beveled out in a half polygon. They put in a new sidewalk where they tore up the old one, he said.
What happened to the old one? I asked.
I started tearing up thinking about it. I went into the bathroom, where I kept a bottle of mouthwash filled with off-brand whiskey under the sink. I did my worst in private. I was losing memories before I had them. I took a swig and looked at myself in the mirror. I sat on the toilet and took another pull.
The floorboards in the hallway creaked, and Jay’s knock came, like I knew it would, then, Hey, Andie. He always said it the same way: concerned with not sounding overly concerned. I used to love watching him come out of the shower. Those few moments when he’d zip himself into jeans and walk the apartment damp and shirtless. It had nothing to do with his body or how it looked, but rather how he lived inside of it. Ragged, like how some men toss logs into the bed of an old truck, not worried if they beat it up. It had given me the feeling of, if not security, then sturdiness. Like it wouldn’t be easy to knock him over.
You okay in there?
Yes, I said, running the bathwater.
I heard the door creak as Jay leaned against it and slid down.
I always said I didn’t want to have a baby, he said. I was afraid I’d crush it or something. But now I know that I can take care of things. And eventually the child would take care of itself. Take the training wheels off, you know?
Can we talk about this later?
Your sister seems so happy, he said.
I thought that she was more impermeable than happy. She whisked bad news right off of her. Maybe that’s what being happy meant.
It might be a good time to think about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, he said.
He kept on as the tub filled. I took off my clothes and lay down in the water, submerging my ears so that every sound came to me muffled and from a distance.
I preferred the old ways of communicating or not communicating, so the next day after my baths, I wrote Daddy a letter.
Hello! How are things? It was nice seeing you at Christmas—and your box of light and how much you still like eating mashed potatoes. I’m sorry I didn’t get you a present. We should certainly get together more often. I miss you. I miss the way you like to tell the same jokes and stories over and over. Your eyes had a way of revealing nearly everything. Or nothing! Do you think it’s possible to ever really know a person? I like the way you made me think about that. I like how you thought jokes were more real than the truth. And how you liked going on walks. And how you never wore dresses. Because you didn’t want to! I miss you every single day.
Very best to you and yours, Andie*
Carla picked me up in her tan SUV. I thought, You were a mom before you were a mom. Her belly was nearing the steering wheel.
He hasn’t been answering his phone, she said. Haven’t you noticed?
I looked out the window. Snow wisped along the edges of the interstate. Dad hadn’t replied to my letter, which I took to mean not a whole lot.
True, she said, you’re more of a call answerer than a call maker.
And even then, she said, rubbing her stomach.
So is that like your personal genie in a bottle? Are you making a wish every time you do that?
Well, you’re still here.
When we got to Dad’s, Carla knocked, called, then used her key. The air was close and still inside. There was a half-eaten sandwich on a paper towel near Dad’s chair, mugs caramelized with coffee residue beside it, and in the dining room, the lights of the infinity box glowing dully, the wooden side warm to the touch. It was vaguely reassuring.
Dad? Carla called out.
Hey, Dad, I said, like I was calling a dog.
We peeked into the bedroom, his closet-sized office, and my old bedroom, which had become Mom’s old sewing room, which had become a collection of lopsided stacks of magazines and plastic tubs filled with fabric. The dust smell of the old calico was as memory-inducing as an LSD flashback.
We walked through the kitchen and began downstairs. A drill started up and I tensed.
Dad? Carla yelled.
Dad poked his head up the stairs. It looked like he’d just woken from a nap or was in the midst of flaming out on a cocaine binge.
Um, let me come up there.
Dad, what’s going on?
I followed Carla down.
He disappeared from view.
Go back upstairs, girls. There’s, uh, broken glass down here.
We came around the bottom of the stairs to find Dad shuffling backward into an eight-foot-tall metal cube with a polygon top; it came to a point that nearly grazed the ceiling. He hung his head and clasped his hands in front of him.
Dad, what is that? Carla asked.
It’s nothing. Just a project. He scratched the back of his head. He was wearing an old quilted housecoat, and his glasses were cloudy with dust.
The thing had a bulky crudeness — like a metal playhouse or toy spaceship a child might construct from refrigerator boxes — though, to Dad’s credit, the seams were sealed with dark caulk and it was rather shiny, which held a hypnotizing allure. He turned his back to us, hands on hips, then back around. His face wavered between sheepish and defeated.
I’m not quite finished yet.
What is it? Carla asked, circling around it and stepping over a pile of laundry to the back.
Oh, no, don’t, Dad said.
Carla stood hunched inside the thing. I ducked in beside her. The interior panels were made of the same dark, oily glass as Dad’s box upstairs, the floor and ceiling seams lined with the same dim lights. Balled in a corner were candy wrappers and a deep-blue sleeping bag. I imagined zipping myself up in its dark womb and staying there for as long as my body lasted. One year, Mom and Dad and Carla and I drove downstate for the fair. Elephant ears and lemon shakeups and farm equipment flea markets and the Gravitron. The thing spun and spun before the floor was released and our bodies stuck to the wall. But Dad hadn’t stuck. Or he had at first, then he inched down the rubber wall until his feet hit bottom and stood in the unmoving middle while the rest of us whirled around him.
Oh, Dad, said Carla.
He was standing just outside the entrance.
I didn’t think you’d understand it.
Sure we do, Dad, she said, stepping out to him, touching his shoulder. Dad, how about you come upstairs with us? Get some daylight. We’ll fix you something to eat. She was leading him away by the shoulders, as though the thing were a murder scene.
I don’t want to trouble you, he said. I can fix my own food.
I know, but sometimes it’s nice when someone else does it for you, she replied.
I watched the two of them trudge upstairs. I felt very tired.
We straightened up his magazines, ran a damp rag over the bathroom’s surfaces, and threw away anything iffy in the fridge. Carla made him a grilled cheese while I heated a can of soup. He ate it all dutifully at the kitchen table, telling us both what wonderful chefs we were.
In the car, we waved to Dad’s shape, visible behind the storm window. Carla drove slowly out of town, switching on her headlights on the highway.
We need to do something.
I’m not so sure, I said.
Look, he’s happy, he’s eating, he’s alive.
He’s not happy.
It’s not healthy. Sleeping in that metal box.
Who’s to say really?
We need to do something.
I say we leave well enough alone. Maybe he just wants to disappear a little.
Come on, Andie. I need your help here. She put her hand to her stomach, moving it back and forth.
Why are you doing that?
Rubbing your stomach like that.
It feels good. It comforts me.
She kept her gaze ahead of us. The snow fell in fat globs and disintegrated on the car windows. On the bean and corn fields, it was accumulating into something like winter.
You know, you disappeared, she said. I never saw you. You didn’t take my calls.
I didn’t take anyone’s calls.
I’m not anyone, she said.
She had a point, but it was dumb fighting in a car. Especially an SUV. H ow fast are you going? I said. You’re driving like a goddamned grandma.
Carla dropped me off without a word outside Jay’s building. I watched her vehicle disappear down the street. Or rather, I watched it until it was too far away to see, which is, I suppose, different from disappearing, but not by much. I preferred the idea of her hurting me more than I had her, but such a thing was nearly impossible to quantify. Before I’d left that afternoon, Jay had taken my hand and, sick with seriousness, said, Let’s talk when you get back. I imagined him choosing one of three acts: suggesting we bind ourselves together until one of us disappeared, banishing me into the cold like a Dickens orphan, or performing a one-man intervention. None was preferable. I walked through the park and into the neighborhood center. My subway line was half-elevated, half-underground. I liked when it emerged; I liked when it went under. I had a little bit of money left. I could live for a while and not talk to anyone. Just ride the train like people do. In the grand scheme of things — even in the minor scheme of things — it wasn’t a big deal. One speck of a person. I thought of Carl Sagan saying, Billions and billions. I thought of Carl Sagan saying, We are made of star stuff. I thought of Carl Sagan wearing a turtleneck, the most reassuring and restricting of all the necks. I wondered about the odds of the entire car dissolving from existence like certain infamous airliners in the ocean. I took the train as far north as it would go, getting off in a border neighborhood that people didn’t always feel safe in. There were alley robbings and assaults and too many men hanging out on the street with bad purpose.
The light was leaking from the day, bleeding out on the snow. It pained me how fast it went from white to dirty gray. I went inside the first bar I saw: an old one, familiar in its dark normalcy. Red and silver metallic garland in the shape of canes hung from the deep wood ceiling. Christmas lights looped down in half circles behind the bar. I found a spot in the corner, where I could see the few faces down the line. The short, bald man in glasses behind the bar walked the length of it to me.
Hello, there, stranger. Where ya been? he asked.
You’re not cheating on me with another bar, are ya? He was holding eye contact with me, as he’d done many times before with someone else.
Well, no, I wouldn’t do that.
Haven’t seen you around.
I’ve been busy.
Well, welcome back. What can I getcha?
You know what I like.
He nodded, then rapped the bar with his fist and walked down to the other end. A few stools away was a middle-aged man in a blue baseball cap. He was buttoned up in a tan canvas jacket, as though he’d just arrived, but his posture — his head to the top of the bar — said that he’d been there for hours, if not years. So convincing was his look and manner — wrinkles deep, eye drooping wetly — that he could have been a character actor for Rummy or Barfly or Hopeless Regular. Beside him was a taller, straighter-sitting man wearing a newsboy cap, his face handsome in the lithe way of a snake or ferret.
They were talking about rock climbing.
You put your line in the rock, you get it secure, but there’s no guarantee it’s gonna hold, the tall man said.
The slumped man was nodding into his beer.
I know, I know, he said. He did not look like a rock climber. He looked barely able to climb onto a stool. The tall man looked like any other city folk, his arms made to hang from subway car slings. But they kept using words I didn’t know.
The bartender returned, slid my drink before me, and retreated. It had the milky opacity of clay water.
Hey, miss. Hey, miss, the tall man said. He was holding his beer can out. Cheers to you, he said. I’m getting my buzz on.
His dark pupils were already swimming in red. Cheers, he said again. He was too far away and the corner of the bar was between us, so I lifted my glass to my chin, looking at him then the other, before taking a sip. It was as sweet and thick as a child’s safety-capped medicine. Someone who looked like me liked this, enough to where she was remembered here. I drank it to figure out what it was.
But anyway, the tall man said. I was on that rock face and it was straight up. I was basically hanging on with just my body.
Oh, man, said the other.
You wanna know what else is crazy?
My son is in a coma.
What did he get into?
Put his trust in the wrong people’s hands.
The other man nodded.
They don’t know what’s gonna happen and his mom, my ex-wife, is out of her mind with it.
Yeah, the other man nodded.
She’s a crazy bitch, and I can’t take it.
The other man shook his head.
So listen, man. How is it getting laid in this neighborhood? You know some women around here?
The hunched man raised his eyes to me. I looked away and back. They shoved their heads together, their voices dipping low. They needn’t have been so shy. The man wanted to find a woman to pour his grief into, and who could blame him for that?
When the hunched man stood, two hands on the bar to push himself up, and shuffled down to the bathroom, the other man called to the bartender.
Hey, hey. Can I get some shots? He held up his can and shook it. Can I get some shots?
The bartender walked down the line and said, Yes, my sir. Shots? How many shots?
The man said three.
One for me, — he put his hand on his chest — one for my man, — he pointed down to the empty stool — and one for my girl.
You’re with us now, girly, he said. You know too many of my secrets! His laugh was scattered, broken into pieces. Plus, he said, tipping his empty can down his throat, you strike me as a hip chick.
The other man returned and the three of us drank. The man behind the bar filled my glass with the same sweetness I couldn’t recognize, and who was I to disappoint him? Or the tall man or the hunched man? When the next round came, I laughed and tried to say, My man is gonna be so mad at me, but the hunched man said, You’re too old to be worrying about yer ma. By the time the three of us limped out of the bar, arms thrown over each other’s shoulders, it was hard to remember what had come before or what might come after. The sun was pushing itself above the horizon, lighting the new snow that had covered the alley in its gray-blue sheet. We all three together hugged. The tall man was crying, the hunched man’s face was scrunched up, and he was saying, Oh, naw, man, don’t be like that. I whispered, Oh no. Oh no, oh no. That’s no good. We released each other, our faces smeared with time and truth. The tall man and the hunched man started off down the main drag of bus depots and motels by the hour. I turned and walked east. I looked into the sun, the earth’s inevitable birthing of a new day, until its light was all that I saw. I knew you weren’t supposed to stare right into it, but with such beauty, how could it ever hurt me?