Monday Dec 04

JessicaKeenerheadshotcredittoRogerGordy Jessica Keener's latest novel, Strangers In Budapest, published by Algonquin Books, was an Indie Next pick, December 2018. It was selected again as an Indie Next “Now in Paperback” for November 2018. Her debut novel, Night Swim, was a national bestseller. She also published a collection of award-winning stories, Women In Bed.  Keener's work has received critical praise from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Hadassah Magazine, Foreward, Jewish Book Council, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, and many more.  She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council, Individual Grant in fiction, as well as multiple nominations and listing in the Pushcart Prize under “outstanding writers” for work that appeared in literary magazines. Keener's shorter fiction, essays, and feature stories have appeared in  Agni, Connotation Press, The Nervous Breakdown, as well as The Boston Globe, O, the Oprah Magazine, Poets & Writers, and others. She is working on a new novel.



      She was nine when the city of Harrington sent trucks with tanks of poison to spray the trees in her neighborhood. She remembered the feeling of the hot day, the moist air gumming her nostrils, the suffocation that followed like empty gulps of space collapsing inside her.

The memory came to her as she bent over to pick up a twig on the short walkway to her rented carriage house in Woodsley, Massachusetts—the image of the trucks dislodging from her mind, her memory exfoliating to free itself of an old dream. She snapped the twig in two and tucked the halves in her jeans pocket.

      It was going on fourteen months since Ezra died, and here she was, trying to fill in whoever she was, whatever she was, in the hollowed-out remains of widowhood. Her husband, best friend and lover—all of those things, she once believed, even after she had learned of his betrayal—had been on his usual morning jog in the woods when he tripped on a tree root, cracked his head on a rock, and took his last breath without her. Until his death at 59, it hadn’t occurred to her that she was heading into that territory that others thought of as “old.” She was looking at turning 61 next year, yet she didn’t feel senior in any sense of the word. At her core, she felt closer to the nine-year old girl she once was, watching the activity of the world through her parents’ small, living room window.

      The spraying in her old neighborhood was meant to protect the trees from some kind of killing bug. The men arrived in cement-colored trucks, hopping out in white overalls with sleeves and head coverings, looking more like astronauts than protectors. They dragged long hoses made of grey cloth that unfurled from giant wheels mounted on the backs of their trucks.

“Stand back,” one astronaut said to her, waving his bulky arm through space. “You need to go inside.”

      She shrugged as if she didn’t care and went back inside their brick ranch and knelt on a chair to witness the men crisscrossing her lawn and her neighbors’ lawns, pointing and spraying at hedges and trees. After the trucks left, she opened the back door and sniffed. The putrid sweet odor flooded her nose. She held her breath until her eardrums hurt, then closed the door again.

       Later that afternoon, she ventured out. On the leaves, on the small hedges along their property line, the poisonous white speckles had dried into micro moons, like outer space measles covering everything—grass, bushes, trees, low creeping plants—turning them into objects of an alien infection. She stood in one place, willing herself not to move. But the smell repelled her back inside. In the basement, she heard the dryer making bumping noises, tossing towels and bedsheets. Her parents had gone to a party leaving her with one of the handful of babysitters, usually a college student, to watch over her and her younger brother, Daniel.

       In school the next day her teacher, Miss Cobb, placed a jar with a dead frog on the demonstration table in the front of the classroom. Miss Cobb was tall and thin with a smile that encouraged curiosity. She urged everyone to pull up their chairs and gather round and view the amphibian floating in clear liquid.

       Opening the jar, Miss Cobb used tongs to lift the dead frog onto a plate. The frog looked awful—its two marble-sized eyes bulging in horror—oily and unresponsive to the metal tool.

       “Formaldehyde is a preservative,” Miss Cobb said. “The frog will keep like this for many years.”

       Her teacher pointed to parts of the frog—forelimbs, thighs, underbelly. A bitter, invisible fume seeped into Rachel’s nostrils. She held her breath until her heart started to throttle against her ribs.

       “It smells!” someone shouted. Others chimed in. “It smells!”

       “Don’t breathe the fumes,” Miss Cobb said. “Formaldehyde is poisonous. If you feel dizzy or nauseous, let me know.”

       Rachel held her breath until her chest hurt. She raised her hand.

       “I feel dizzy.”

       “Go get a drink of water in the hall. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

       In the school corridor, Rachel leaned into the alcove in the wall and let the streaming arc of the fountain water run over her lips, chin, and cheeks. She moved her face side to side, trying to erase the terrible image of the paralyzed frog, no longer able to leap.

       “Okay?” Miss Cobb asked when she returned. Her teacher had kind, blue eyes.

       Rachel nodded but as soon as she sat down the nausea resurged in her throat. The peculiar odor of the frog sucked the air from her mouth. She tried sipping breaths, but that caused an unpleasant sensation to slither up from that dark place where the tail of her tongue disappeared. The thought of tongues having tails also upset her. She tried swallowing to make the uncomfortable feeling resolve.

       “Wasn’t that interesting?” her teacher said.

       Miss Cobb nudged the frog back into the jar of formaldehyde, screwed the cap on, and placed it on the windowsill.

       Rachel tried to concentrate on the sentences Miss Cobb wrote on the chalkboard for language arts. After cleaning paint brushes for arts and crafts, Rachel walked by the frog and lifted the jar—daring herself to inspect it. The frog turned slowly, as if dangling on an invisible string. She put the jar down and thought she felt something wet on her fingertip.

       During arithmetic, as Miss Cobb explained what an obtuse triangle was, Rachel kept wiping her mouth and tongue with her shirt collar, hoping molecules of poison hadn’t jumped onto her lips. Miss Cobb came over to her desk to ask if something was wrong.

       She shook her head.

       “You sure?”


       Over the next few days, Rachel began to notice poison everywhere. At home, she found cans of cleaning sprays under the kitchen sink plastered with red warning symbols for poison. The bottle of ammonia used for bathrooms, even the liquid for waxing the kitchen floor—poisons all of them—stored within reach.

       To protect herself, Rachel imagined an obtuse triangle of safety wherever she went. She reasoned if she maintained a distance of approximately ten feet away from any poisonous threat, she could protect herself from breathing dangerous fumes that traveled invisibly through air. The triangle would safeguard her from touching anything lethal. Instead of sidewalks, she walked on the street, alongside the curb to avoid all plants, trees, and grass mottled with poison. She had to think of every possibility to escape this scourge taking over.

       When the weekend came, her neighbor, Johnny, rang the back doorbell.

       “We’re playing kickball. Are you coming out?”

       “No. I don’t like the spots.”

       “The spray’s been dry for days. Our parents wouldn’t allow us to go out if it wasn’t okay.”

       She wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t logical that days passing could protect her from dried poison. She could still smell it—a faint sweet rotting scent, as if the sweet odor were meant to trick her into thinking all would be okay. No. She would not be fooled.

       Her parents were oblivious. During the spraying, her mom and dad had gone to the party, leaving her alone with a babysitter to fend for herself. When the week resumed with all the usual routines of school and homework, no one mentioned it. In the morning, her father drove to his office downtown to sell vacuum cleaners—big orders to department stores across the country. At night, he returned home as if nothing unusual had occurred. Her mom taught reading to first graders at an elementary school in the next town. Her younger brother was only five and a kindergartener—too young to know anything, Rachel had decided.

       At nine years old, Rachel felt compelled to keep watch. “Maybe later,” she said to Johnny.

       “You’re crazy,” he said.

       She watched him skip down the steps to the driveway. As he ran off to join the other neighborhood kids, she felt envious. Did he possess a special shield? Why wasn’t he bothered by the spots?

       In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator thinking if she ate something it might help her, except nothing looked appealing. She poured a glass of milk, but the color matched the milky spots on the leaves, causing a shiver to run up her temples.

       Now she was certain she was sick. She went to her parents’ bedroom to take her temperature. Their bedroom on the opposite end of the hall from her bedroom, felt cool, darkened by the shades pulled tight to block the sun. Her mother didn’t want the carpet to fade in the bright light.

       With the glass thermometer snug under her tongue, she sat on the edge of her parent’s king-sized bed and waited. It was the kind of mercury thermometer that, decades later, Rachel would help remove from pharmacies across the country, to protect developing brains from mercury’s neurotoxic, irreversible damage. When the thermometer stopped at a normal 98.6, Rachel leapt into the bathroom and pushed her head under a stream of cold water, almost celebratory, soaking her mop of short, thick hair. Afterwards, she pressed her face into her parents’ thick bath towels. Some people said she looked like her mother. Others said she looked like her father. Her parents joked and said she didn’t look like anyone in the family—maybe they’d brought her home by mistake. She didn’t think that was funny.

       Rachel mashed her forehead deeper into the towel, pushing away unwanted thoughts. Downstairs in the den, she tried to watch a soap opera on TV, but the adults on the show looked stiff as mannequins. They didn’t move their arms when they spoke. They sat in giant, flowered chairs not unlike the chairs in her parents’ living room, where no one ever sat. It made her want to shout at the screen: How could her house full of furniture feel so empty?

       Now, as an adult, Rachel felt the same awful, lonely sensation as she stood on the front walk of the carriage house in Woodsely, facing the rest of her life without Ezra, as spring clouds floated above her—oblivious in a blue grey sky.

       That day standing in front of the TV, she remembered hearing the babysitter in the basement pretending to do laundry, but Rachel could smell cigarette smoke. When her mother came home toting bags of groceries, her mother sent the babysitter away.

       “I thought you were out playing,” her mother said in the kitchen. “What are you doing home on a beautiful day like this? The kids are out. I’ve got another bag in the car. Can you bring it up for me? Why is your hair wet?”

       Rachel didn’t know what to say. Instead, she ran down the cement steps to the driveway and lifted the last grocery bag in her arms, closing the station wagon door with a shove of her hip. I’m fine, she told herself. I’m able to carry this heavy bag up an entire flight of stairs.

       “You can help me put these things away since you’re hanging around.”

       Her mother took a new bottle of ammonia out of the grocery bag and put it under the sink. Then she pulled two peaches from the bag. “These are delicious.” She rinsed the fruit under cold water and offered one to Rachel, cradling the peach in the same hand that had touched the bottle of ammonia.

       Rachel watched her mother eat the peach with relish and delight.

       “At school, we looked at a frog that was soaked in poison. I felt sick afterwards.”

       “You look fine to me, sweetie.” Her mother’s pink lipstick shimmered with peach juice. Everyone agreed her mother was a pretty woman. Rachel thought so, too.

       “Go on. Try it. You don’t want to miss out on something this good.” Her mother handed her the peach.

       Rachel decided to eat the fruit. If anything happened to her, her mom would be right there. She ate the whole thing, then helped her mother prepare dinner. She actually forgot about poisons until, lying in bed, she remembered again. Her head began pulsing like a heart.

       The next morning for school, she tried to leave without eating.

       “What about your breakfast?” her mother called to her.

       “Not hungry.”

       In the kitchen, her mother cupped her palm on Rachel’s forehead. Rachel smelled toothpaste and coffee on her mother’s breath.

       “You feel alright. But you’re not going anywhere until you drink your orange juice.”

       Rachel complied but as soon as she stepped outside, her nose hairs tingled, as if they could detect thousands—billions—of spots glommed onto leaves and trees. She felt bad for the leaves, and wondered if they were praying for rain to wash them clean, free them from the microscopic blight suffocating them.

       Of course they were.

       “Rachel!” her mother called from the back door. “Aren’t you going to say goodbye? We’re leaving for New York today. I’m going with dad to his convention. You forgot your snack. Mrs. Bettlemann will be staying with you. We’re going for just one night.”

       Rachel ran back and wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. Her parents had gone on many trips—either for business or vacation—. She knew she couldn’t stop them from leaving.

       “I’ll call you tonight, honey. Mrs. Bettlemann will be here when you get home. Okay? Love you.”

       Mrs. B had stayed with them many times. An older woman with grey hair, her face full of wrinkles and smiles, she was Rachel’s favorite babysitter. Rachel ran down the stairs to the driveway, then walked alongside the curb, away from the bushes, her triangle of safety intact as she made her way to school.

       At the playground, after school, Rachel stood under the big oak trees watching the other kids play. What if the white spots had dissolved into the vast net of moisture hanging in the hot air surrounding them all?

       Jolted by a crescendo of shouts, she heard Johnny’s voice calling to her.

       “Rachel, was the ball in or out?”

       “I don’t know. I wasn’t paying attention.”

       “Are you sick or something?” He was exasperated with her, his mouth and eyes contorting with confusion, anger, and hurt.

       She didn’t know how to explain herself.


       She started to walk away.

       “Where are you going now?”

       “Home. I need to get some water.” She drifted away from the schoolyard, tasting bitterness in her mouth. Her tongue was like a prisoner, circling her cheeks, trying to get out, unable to escape. How she wished her parents hadn’t gone on their trip. She opened the kitchen door and saw Mrs. Bettlemann—Mrs. B—stirring a pot of tomato sauce on the stove.

       “Careful. I just washed the floor,” she said to Rachel. “What are you doing home so early? Are you hungry? Your brother will be home soon.”

       “No. What’s that for?” Rachel pointed to the ammonia, stepping back to her ten-foot line of protection.

       “I washed the floor. You can put it away for me if you’d like.”

       “I can’t. I don’t feel well.”

       She backed out of the room.

       In the upstairs bathroom, she drank water from her plastic cup, then dragged herself down the hall, her sneakers leaving indentations in the freshly vacuumed carpet.

       “Did something disagree with you?” Mrs. B called from the bottom of the stairs.

       “My stomach hurts.”

       “Lie down, then. It’s probably the humidity.”

       “I will.”

       Rachel lay down on her twin bed. I’m going to die. She leaned over the edge and tried to heave.

       “I’d better take my temperature.” She spoke aloud as if a second version of herself had stepped out of her body.

       Obeying, she rolled off the bed and shuffled into her parents’ bedroom. The room smelled of her father’s aftershave. As she looked around at the darkened room, the shades blocking out the June sun, she studied it as if she had entered the soap opera program on TV: Nothing moved: the old-fashioned night tables with curved legs flanking the bed, the clock radio, the two small reading lamps, the brown carpeting, the gold wallpaper with repeating patterns of dots and lines—all lifeless.

       Sitting on her mother’s side of the bed, she couldn’t imagine what death would look like. Startled by this thought, she went into the bathroom and took her temperature again. The thermometer read: 99 degrees. “This is it,” her other self said, at first softly, and then with force. “Your temperature is going up. Go lie down.

       She obeyed and went back to the big bed, her hands pressed under her stomach, her face close enough to the brown carpet to inspect individual threads.

       This is it: I’m going to die.

       She looked into the darkness in her mind, but couldn’t imagine what she would do there or what she would think about. She got up again and found the bottle of pills in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, taking two aspirin with water from the sink faucet, then returning to the bed. Lying on her back this time, she saw herself floating on the ceiling looking down at herself and imagined her parents looking up at her from below, as if they were unable to reach her. She kicked her legs and watched her sneakers bounce on the bed. A sting of liquid lapped the rim of her eyes. Clenching her knees, she tried screaming: “I hate this,” but no sound came out.

       The room was silent. She wondered what the room thought of her. Downstairs, she could hear Mrs. B in the kitchen, far away. What if she died before her mother came home? Rachel pulled at the bed covering and rolled over, then rolled back again, her entire body doused in sweat. “I’m dying.” She felt her legs tighten and the room shrink as her panic spread across the air, rippling, expanding in circles, encompassing the whole room, splashing against the patterned walls and white ceiling.

       “Mrs. Bettlemann!”

       Rachel hobbled to the banister.

       Mrs. Bettlemann hurried up the stairs, her wrinkled face full of concern and love. “What is it, dear? What’s the matter? You can tell me.”

       Rachel felt the whirlpool in her stomach pulling her down into the darkness—a memory that felt as alien and terrifying to her now, as an adult, in these endless days and months without Ezra. But at nine years old—sobbing to kind Mrs. Bettlemann—she had been unable to articulate how she felt abandoned and unloved; that this was not what she had wanted or expected from life, alone and lost; a tiny spot in the universe, a pinprick of a star that had somehow fallen from the morning sky.

Author photo by Roger Gordy