ALONE IN HIS CELL, Vito read the letter from his wife’s seventeen-year-old niece. One paragraph in particular amused him:
“I’ve always thought of you as someone who is living on the edge. I’ll never forget when you were living in Gore Bay and we were all eating dinner and you threw your plate against the wall. It was so goddamn shocking it was perfect. Keep in touch.”
He had emphasized to the prosecutor that it was his wife’s niece, that is to say, his niece-in-law, thus hoping to dispel the taint of imagined incest. (He would grant a tinge, but not a taint.)
The case involved Vito, his wife Helen and their six-year-old son Willy, when they were living in a rented house in northern Ontario. Vito was twenty-seven and beginning a career as a freelance writer. With few savings and a wife who in those days was referred to as a homemaker the pressure was already getting to him. He was into Xanax, washed down with gin and tonics.
They were to have a visitor that summer. She was coming from a troubled home in the city. The girl’s mother had phoned Helen, her sister, and asked if she could take the girl off her hands for a while.
And so she came.
ENTER THE NIECE
Vito picked her up at seven o’clock in the evening at the Greyhound bus station. He hadn’t seen her for several years. She was probably around his son’s age when he last saw her. Now, getting off the bus was a young woman, almost his height. The only real indications of a teenage girl were the halter top and cutoff blue jeans.
Her hair was the richest brown and as long as her finely grooved back, which, at the beginning of summer, was already perfectly tanned, save for a single bikini-string line of white just below her shoulder blades.
She walked toward him with a confident bearing. Her legs were long and slim, although keenly muscled in the thigh and calf—pillars of perfect youth and evenly tanned to her toes. Her feet were elegantly slender. She wore wedgies.
“So you’re the famous uncle.”
Her eyes were extraordinary—dark brown, and by some quirk of nature that no one in the family could explain since her parents were pure Caucasian, unmistakably oriental—almond shaped and beautiful beyond her age and parentage.
“Julie?” he said. “I wouldn’t have known you.”
“Not the same little girl who used to sit on your lap, huh?”
Vito picked up her suitcase the bus driver had unloaded and they walked to the parking lot. He put the suitcase in the trunk of his car and opened the passenger door for her. He went around and got in behind the wheel.
“Aren’t you glad to see me?” she said.
“Of course. Why would you say that?”
“You’re so quiet.”
He didn’t answer and they drove through tall white pines and warm evening air to a ranch style house at the end of a dirt road. Behind the house could be heard the rocky rush a rapidly flowing river.
They went inside the house.
IN THE SHOWER
She showered a lot that summer. That was the sound he heard most. The shower, with Julie inside it. He was in his study trying to write. He wrote, but not what he had intended to write. He wrote about a disturbingly Beautiful girl in his shower.
The story got away from him. The language and the imagery became alarmingly explicit and the characterization absurdly transparent, but he regarded it as a good deal above trash. It seemed to him to be a powerful novel. His wife had no knowledge of it. She thought he was writing the article he had been writing before her niece arrived.
“How’s the story coming?” his wife asked.
“Fine,” he replied.
“Good. I’ll get dinner.”
The condemned man ate a hearty meal.
Canada Day came around. Vito had planned a steak and chicken barbecue down by the river, but it rained furiously all day. Helen said she would cook everything on the stove. The four of them sat down to eat. Helen was a rotten cook. The steak and chicken were overdone and dry, the corn on the cob was mushy and the biscuits she served on the side were as hard as rocks. Vito sought solace and nourishment in red wine and after several glasses became quite jolly.
THE FAILED NUN
He was cracking jokes all over the place. Some of them (he learned later, when he was sober) were at the expense of his wife. She had spent her late teenage years as a novitiate in a convent. She wanted to be a nun. She knelt on stone floors at dawn and prayed to God. She wasn’t a strong woman. Many mornings she couldn’t get up at dawn and kneel on stone floors. She prayed to God for strength. It didn’t work. Finally, she left the convent. She left as she had entered: a virgin with dark hair and good breasts. She got a job in the library of the local university. Vito was a student at the university, in his final year.
When he met her she still had sore knees. After she finished work in the library, they would walk across campus to a bar, all the time talking about writers and poets and living in a lighthouse. He told her he felt like a seahorse trapped in a hole, which he thought was a quote from García Lorca. One Saturday, he sent a telegram to her room. Lean out of the window, Goldenhair, he wrote on the cable blank, which he thought was a quote from James Joyce. He did not want to sign the telegram, trusting she would know it was from him.
“What’s the signature on this?” the man in the telegraph office asked.
“There’s no signature,” Vito told him.
When she got the telegram, it read: LEAN OUT OF THE WINDOW, GOLDENHAIR. NOSIG. She didn’t know who Nosig was, but she leaned out of the window. He was standing below in a street of madness. He was twenty years old. She was twenty-four. They were married in a hail of hope and delusion.
Seven years later, at the Canada Day table, Vito recounted to Julie his wife’s time in the convent and her fervent desire to be a nun, referring to her at one point as Mother Inferior. (He couldn’t remember saying that, but say it he did.) Julie laughed out loud. Inspired by her laughter, Vito launched into an amusing tale (to Julie, anyway) lampooning habit-wearing nuns.
His son, capitalizing on the giddy moment, took a couple of biscuits from his plate and made like they were dancing on the table. Vito continued his drunken jesting, Julie kept laughing and his son kept the biscuits dancing on the table like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Helen, getting redder by the second, raised her hand as though to strike the boy, or, at least, (and this was undoubtedly the real reason) to still his frenetic hands.
She screamed at him: “Stop the biscuits from dancing!”
Vito grabbed his wife’s hand and said, “What the hell are you doing?”
“Trying to enjoy my meal,” she yelled back.
“That, madam,” he informed her calmly, “would be an impossibility.”
That’s when he did it. He lifted his plate and threw it against the wall. Everyone looked at the broken, dripping mess in horror, especially Vito. He turned to his wife but she jumped up from the table, ran into the bedroom and slammed the door.
Vito looked at Willy and Julie in hopeless regret. They just shrugged, got up from the table and went into the living room to watch TV. Vito knocked on the bedroom door, but he knew it was a lost cause. He cleaned up the mess of food and broken china on the wall and the floor and fell into a deep sleep on the sofa in his study.
The next day he was so hungover he didn’t care that his wife avoided him. He stayed in his study.
Normally, what he was writing would stay where it belonged, in the study, until the time came to mail it off. But this monstrous tale seeped under the door and down the hallway like a secretion of pure menace. He couldn’t remember exactly how Helen managed to read the manuscript, but read it she did, and she was appalled. Her intellect was devastated, her sensibilities betrayed and outraged. She thought she had married a romantic sensitive guy, a writer and a poet, and here was the filth of a maniac.
When she confronted him with it, he told her it was just a book. Fiction. None of it actually happened.
“The desire happened!” she cried.
She had him there.
“So?” he said. “Is that a crime?”
“When it’s my sixteen-year-old niece, you bet it’s a crime.”
The girl was sent home. Vito threw the offending manuscript in the garbage, gave up the house in the woods and they moved back to an apartment in Toronto.
Helen began staying out late at night, riding the subway, trying to figure out what was happening—to her, to him, to their marriage. He was waiting for her when she came home from one of her midnight rides.
She told him right out. “I was with this guy. Incredible, isn’t it?”
She went into the bedroom. He followed her.
“What happened?” he asked.
“The unthinkable,” she said.
She lay down on the bed.
He lay down next to her in the darkness.