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Happy Now?



Listen: Tragedy and Wit Collide in Katherine Shonk's First Novel (Duration: 10:51)
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About The Author

Katherine ShonkKatherine Shonk

KATHERINE SHONK is the author of The Red Passport, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories and Tin House. She works as an editor and writer for Harvard University and lives in Chicago with her husband.

photo: © Michael Rastall

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EXCERPT

1
When the front door of the coach house swung open, Claire saw her dead husband’s cat trotting toward her.
“Oh,” she said as she entered, chilled to the bone. “Fang is here.”
The cat passed Claire, sat on the doorframe, and looked out at the yard, tail swishing. A tightness gripped Claire’s throat. Fang was looking for Jay.
Claire’s sister, Nomie, and Harry, Nomie’s husband, brushed by her and the cat and disappeared down the long hall. Claire lingered, scanning the small yard along with Fang. It was February in Chicago, unless it was March already, and beneath the path they had made through the snow, moldering leaves were pasted to the patio brick. The young, spindly trees at the edges of the patio looked as brittle and delicate as the wrought-iron tables and chairs set askew. Across the yard, the glass doors of Nomie and Harry’s renovated farmhouse faced Claire blankly. Her father’s rusting red station wagon was parked on the other side of the picket fence. He had followed them home from their mother’s house, like a private investigator or a mourner behind a hearse. He was still sitting there, his profile in silhouette.
Look at me, Claire thought.
He did not turn to face her, but the cat did, tufts of fur stirring in the breeze, green-marble eyes beseeching.
Not you, Claire thought. Not you, you fucking cat.
Fang and the ground seemed too far away. Wobbling, Claire pressed a palm against the wall and closed her eyes. When she opened them, her father still stared straight out the car window.
The cat backed inside as Claire slowly closed the door. Together, they moved down the hall, Fang’s tail snaking around Claire’s legs. For two weeks Claire had been at her mother and stepfather’s house in Glencoe, where she was given drugs. It was as if Fang had vanished along with her owner—curled next to Jay in the closed casket, maybe, like an ancient Egyptian’s treasured pet, just as Fang used to curl against him in the bed each morning before the alarm clock rang.
In the main room, Nomie and Harry were making a tremendous display of commotion: throwing down bags, snapping on lights, pulling curtains open, and tossing their jackets and scarves onto the canvas sectional. The coach house, where it had been decided that Claire should stay for the time being, was one large, high-ceilinged room with a hayloft that had been converted into a sleeping loft. When they bought the property a few years earlier, Nomie had decorated the coach house like a beach house, in seafoam green and tangerine, but the walls were scarcely visible now. Furniture had been pushed aside to make way for the metal racks flanking one wall, loaded with bags of diapers and shopping bags from Baby Gap, Target, and Old Navy. Nomie, five months pregnant, had been in a quiet panic.
A line of enormous bouquets of flowers, many of them wilting, stood on the kitchen counter. Roses. Lilies. Chrysanthemums. Flowers Claire could not name, blurring into the same peachy, pinky hues she had chosen for their wedding almost two years earlier. After the wake, Jay’s mother had come rushing across the parking lot with funeral bouquets and pushed them through the car window at Claire. But those flowers had been in bold, masculine colors—red, yellow, and purple—and they would have rotted by now.
“People have been sending them,” Nomie said, catching Claire’s eye. “I didn’t know if you’d want them here or not.” She and Harry were hunkered on the couch, he shuffling papers, she sorting through a pile of linens.
Claire understood that she was supposed to feel grateful. She should thank her sister and her brother-in-law for bringing her here, for allowing her to be a guest in their guesthouse. She should tell them that she was touched by the flowers people had been sending to—what? Show their sympathy, show that they did not blame her, although surely they could not help but wonder what she had done or failed to do.
Instead Claire said, “I didn’t realize I’d be taking care of Fang.”
A smile bloomed and froze on Nomie’s face, reminding Claire of a paperweight she had gotten for her First Communion: a rosebud encased in glass. “She’s been staying here,” Nomie said. “We come over and feed her. I think I told you?”
“Maybe,” Claire said. She would have to go off the pills. This was what they had made her dream: that the cat was living in the coach house, and she, Claire, was trying to nurse Fang back from an illness that had made her white fur turn black.
“Would you like us to take her for now?” Nomie asked.
“The thing is,” Harry interrupted, coughing into his fist, “we’d rather Nomie wasn’t around the litter box right now.”
“Right,” Claire said. “I forgot.” The unborn trumped the dead, not to mention the spouse of the dead. The Spouse of the Dead: Coming to a theater near you. Tears welled in her eyes, threatening to spatter the hardwood.
“Oh!” Nomie cried. The stack of sheets she had been folding tumbled to the floor as she rushed toward Claire.
Her sister smelled like fabric softener. Claire tried to relax, but the belly pushed against her impertinently. Nomie had shown her an ultrasound of the baby when it was still in the amphibian stage, a ghostly sea monkey suspended in fluid, gender unknown. Since then the baby had staked a wide swath of real estate, just like her mother, who bounced over the cobbled streets of her Old Town neighborhood, decaf Starbucks sloshing in the cup holder of her Subaru Outback.
“We can take Fang for now,” Nomie said. “Harry can manage the litter box.”
Of course he could. He was a manager by trade, a senior manager in an accounting firm, to be exact.
“Or I could come over and do it,” Claire said. So new to widowhood, she had already discovered its power—unless she was just doing what eldest children always did, bulldozing over her sibling’s needs.
“I thought you would want her here,” persisted Harry, who was the oldest of three.
“We should have asked you.” Nomie backed away from Claire, who felt wobbly again. Without her sister—and admittedly, that damned baby—as ballast, she thought she might topple.
As if he’d read her mind, Harry took his wife’s place, grabbing Claire in a bear hug. “I just thought, you know,” Harry muttered into her ear, “that maybe old Fang would . . . not make you feel better, exactly, but . . .” She heard him sniffle, and when he pulled away, his eyes and nose were wet.
Claire patted his shoulder. Harry was her favorite Republican, the closest thing she had to a brother. She imagined him at her and Jay’s house, lying on their bedroom floor, slowly dragging the cat from under the bed as her claws tore the varnish off the hardwood, thinking he was doing a good deed, saving Fang from starvation and reuniting the two creatures most bewildered and disrupted by Jay’s sudden disappearance.
“Disappearance”—not the right word. There was a word Claire had been using as a placeholder until she thought of a better one, but now she couldn’t remember it. It started with an i. Some people (Jay’s mother, most notably) had been saying “accident,” but that wasn’t right. At the wake Claire had heard someone say “tragedy,” but that sounded melodramatic. Not “event,” which made her think of a boxing match. She needed a thesaurus. There were no books in the coach house and very few in the main house: John Grisham, Stephen King, and books that taught people who didn’t mind being called dummies how to throw a wedding, buy a house, and give birth.
She remembered the binder then, and sensed it lurking somewhere in the coach house, like the cat. It had been found in Jay’s office at the university. Not a suicide note, but an entire binder. The police had examined it, Jay’s family had seen it, Claire’s family had seen it, everyone had seen it but Claire, and she could see it whenever she was ready, Harry had told her, Nomie had told her, their mother had told her.
She didn’t want to see it, though she wanted to have seen it: a dilemma.
“Incident.” That was the word.
“Claire?” Nomie said.
Suddenly she wanted them out. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Fang can stay. That’s fine. Do you mind if I lie down?”
“Of course not!” Nomie cried.
Claire and Nomie followed behind as Harry trudged up the spiral staircase to the sleeping loft with a suitcase full of the clothes her mother had bought her. Claire had allowed Harry and Nomie to fetch odds and ends from her and Jay’s house—her favorite lotion, the mail, the cat—but she had forbidden anyone to touch her or Jay’s clothes and, most important, to do their laundry. She had had a terror of his scent being gone forever from the world. She needed to know that the bedsheets, the pillowcase, and the last T-shirt he had slept in would be there for her when she wanted them. So, after tucking Claire into bed in the guest room the morning after the incident, her mother had gone shopping and stocked the bureau drawers with a new wardrobe: pants, jeans, sweaters, shirts, and underwear, all of which fit well and more or less matched Claire’s taste, including the bras, which was disconcerting. Claire had found blouses and skirts hanging in the closet, as well as a black wool coat with a scarf strung around the lapels and attached with a hammered silver brooch, and two different black dresses from Ann Taylor. “Why are there two black dresses?” Claire had asked her mother, trying to sound casual, though her heart had begun knocking at the sight of the second one. Was there a second funeral she didn’t know about? “In case the wake and the funeral are on different days,” her mother said. “So you can wear a fresh one.” Nancy had been right: the funeral was the day after the wake. Claire had carefully rehung each dress in the closet after wearing it. When she went to pack for the coach house, both had mysteriously disappeared.
Harry let the suitcase land with a thud on the far side of the double bed. “If there’s anything you need . . .” He threw up his arms in a helpless gesture.
“Oh, there is,” Claire said. “I just thought of something.”
“Name it.”
“Can you tell me what day it is?”
“It’s Friday.”
“I mean, what date it is.” She wanted to know if it was still February. If the world had moved on to a new month, well, that would be a stunning development.
“Um . . . ,” he said. “It’s February twenty-ninth.”
“The twenty-ninth?” That sounded odd, though at first she wasn’t sure why.
“Yeah, it’s a leap year.”
“Leap year?” Claire grunted. “Leap month, more like it.”
Nomie immediately turned scarlet, her face as red as it used to get at the beach when they were kids, in the days before parents bothered with sunscreen.
Awkwardly, Harry approached Claire and kissed the top of her head. “Good night, Claire.”
“I’ll be right back,” Nomie said to her.
Nomie and Harry bobbed down the staircase, out of view, presumably to talk about her. She started taking off her jeans, new ones her mother had purchased, a brand Claire had never heard of, with shooting stars stitched on the back pockets. They fit better than any jeans she had ever bought for herself and probably cost twice as much.
Nomie came back up to the loft and looked out the little round window—the porthole, the two of them had called it when they were up here painting the room sky blue a few years back. “Dad’s still out there,” she said. “In his car.”
“Is he looking at you?” said Claire.
“No. He’s looking out the windshield. He looks like a statue. Or like a . . . like a dummy.”
“Don’t call Dad a dummy,” Claire said.
Nomie jerked around, her face again flushing scarlet. “I meant—”
“I know, Nomie.” Apparently new widows weren’t supposed to make jokes, even lame ones. Claire fell back on the bed. “He won’t stay there all night, will he?”
“I don’t know.”
At Sally and Bart’s Valentine’s Day party, after the police had shown up at the door and the crowd grew hushed, Sally had taken Claire into the master bedroom, away from the other party guests, Jay’s colleagues and their significant others. “You stay here,” Sally said. “Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” Claire had waited there in an armchair in the dark room for a long time, hearing murmuring voices beyond the bedroom door and sirens twenty-three stories below. The longer I stay here, she thought, the better. She had been in there a long time, a half hour or more, but in the end, it hadn’t made a difference. Her father had been the next person to burst into the bedroom, followed closely by her mother. “I have to tell you something,” her father said, crouching in front of Claire and taking her hands, holding them so tight it hurt, while her mother stood above them, her hand trembling in front of her mouth, her eyes wide with horror.
So it had been her father who told Claire, but since then he hadn’t said much. He had come to her mother and stepfather’s house twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. In the morning he brought coffee and muffins, and he and Claire did the crossword puzzle together in the breakfast nook. At night he brought dessert—bakery brownies or cupcakes. Claire’s mother had set up a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the pyramids on the table in the family room, nothing but sand and stone, enough to drive a sane person mad, but for Claire and her father the perfect diversion from the long silences between them. They had never said much to each other, she and her father, and when they tried now, their efforts felt strained and pointless. He asked her haltingly about Jay’s “troubles,” and she told him what he might have guessed, that Jay went through spells of depression and he could be impulsive, but she had not known things were so bad. Then, distracted by the drone of her own voice, Claire simply trailed off. There was not much else to talk about, as the others had divided up the tasks of running her new life: Nomie returned calls from Claire’s friends, Harry dealt with the finances and the police, and her mother shopped, cooked, and talked to Jay’s family. And so, after about a week, Claire and her father had stopped talking to each other altogether.
“Do you want me to unpack?” Nomie said.
“Nah,” Claire said.
“The cat’s coming up,” Harry called from below. “And I’m going out.”
“Okay,” Claire called out. “Thank you.”
“We can block off the stairs if you want,” Nomie said. “To keep the cat out.”
“Bye,” Harry shouted.
“It’s fine,” Claire said. “Bye!”
The cat appeared at the top of the stairs, blinked at them, and slunk under the bed. Claire tucked herself in.
“Do you want to keep taking these?” Nomie rattled a bottle of sleeping pills, or maybe sedatives, that a doctor at the hospital had given her that first night. Claire hadn’t recognized the name of the drug on the label.
It hadn’t occurred to her that she had a choice. “Maybe not. I feel so fuzzy. I’m having weird dreams.”
“Okay. Can we not tell Mom, though? That you’re not taking them?”
“Sure.”
“Claire?” Nomie perched on the periwinkle bedspread. She was a swan: plump and soft above the waterline, neck impossibly long, lips swelling like a beak, green eyes gray in the dusky light. “I was wondering, did you want me to stay here tonight?”
“You mean, in the bed?” Claire asked.
Nomie shrugged shyly. “I just thought . . .”
“Sure. If Harry doesn’t mind, I mean.”
“It’s okay with him. I checked already.” Nomie took off her jeans, got into bed, and turned off the light.
They were a strange family, Claire thought, incident or no incident. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “I forgot something.”
“Okay,” said Nomie.
Downstairs, Claire fetched her cell phone from her purse and went into the bathroom. She dialed into her voice mail and called up the message she had saved over and over again throughout the past two weeks. Leaning against the door, she closed her eyes and listened.
The sound was a high-pitched swish, rising and falling: SHWEE-ohh, SHWEE-ohh, SHWEE-ohh! On and on it went, like windshield wipers on high speed in a rainstorm. An octave lower and it might have been a woman gasping hysterically.
She had listened to it for the first time during the party, in Sally and Bart’s bathroom, where she had gone when she couldn’t find Jay and was trying to convince herself that nothing was wrong. Fifteen or twenty minutes before, she had seen him go onto the balcony. In the bathroom, she took out her phone and saw she had a message. She called her voice mail and, for several minutes, listened to the frantic, steady sound. Then there was a blur of clicks, and the message ended abruptly.
The call was from Jay’s phone, she saw when she looked at the log, but he had left the message an hour before she met up with him at the party. She hadn’t heard the phone ring, and he hadn’t mentioned anything about trying to call her.

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