Tracks [story] by Theodora Ziolkowski

You okay? He had wanted to ask her then.

His proposal to Darla, four years ago, when they were brave and foolish and on the cusps of turning in their respective theses at Middlebury:

Nic had been on his knee, his khakis slightly up his crotch, but the offering nevertheless sparkling from its presented box, a sight that for whatever sense of nerves or comedy, prompted Darla to suggest, Pyrite?

No…no, honey. A yellow diamond, very rare.

In the months that followed, Nic could feel himself physically recoil on the occasions when he caught Darla plunging her fingers into her lotion jar or kneading a piecrust as she hummed along to a Coldplay song in the kitchen.

Once, after a misunderstanding over some minor mix-up he no longer remembered, Nic discovered Darla’s ring in the bathroom, precariously set on a bar of soap.

***

The morning they agreed to separate, Nic sat in a drafty railcar, his twin daughters perched on either knee. To think that a week ago he had risen early to wait in the cold for overpriced tickets to this gimmick. To think that it was all to satisfy his girls; to board a children’s ride to nowhere and back and not think about Darla.

A pack of kids sporting jingling hats and pointy shoes came spilling into their car as the train pulled away from the station. His four-year-olds were going to be on a sugar high for the rest of the morning, Nic knew. Already an older woman—the spitting image of Bette Davis, but wearing a gingerbread costume—had pressed tall Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate into their eager, mittened hands.

Magdalene and Celeste were decked in glittery hair ribbons and coordinating sets of elf ears, their noses each painted with a perfect red circle, transforming them into some strange breed of elf and reindeer.

Magdalene and Celeste: names prescribed from a sense of obligation to the church that their maternal grandmother would probably have been the one to demand—a connection that Nic had immediately identified but which Darla found offensive to point out. Darla, who always dressed the girls up for the holidays.

One Halloween, Duchess got her claws snagged in the angel costume Darla had made for Celeste. In his daughter’s efforts to detach Darla’s fluffy Burmese from her costume, the dress became frayed: spools of gold thread unraveled from its hem.

Don’t tell her, Daddy, please don’t tell her.

Sometimes, when Celeste pouted, it was as if Darla was frowning at him from her blameless round face.

 

Last summer, Nic took the girls on his boat without telling Darla.

His decision to row them out into Lake Champlain had been impulsive enough: he could argue that the act was almost outside himself, similar to the way he recalled feeling after asking Paige Kelli out in the seventh grade, mere minutes before the dismissal bell.

But Mommy said but Mommy said but Mommy said

Later that night, when they were sitting around the table playing some crudely termed board game (PROBE), eating microwaved s’mores, Magdalene mentioned their adventure.

Without looking at Nic, Darla smiled wryly at her daughter and retired to her study.

There was something rhythmically distressing about listening to Darla type away at her Royal Nelson typewriter. To hear her banging away excitedly for a stint before a suspension of bated, angry silence enveloped their apartment. Then, the scrape of her chair as surely she stood to peer out the window, which overlooked a stretch of pine and spruce, a single weeping willow that was as baffling and uncanny as she, branching grimly from the forest’s dark heart.

Nic drew the twins into his chest—his princesses who shared so many of their mother’s features—her large, lavender eyes and milky complexion; her dirty rain of golden-brown hair—that sometimes he felt as if his wife had coopted them from the beginning. That one body wasn’t enough for Darla, and that before too long his girls would absorb all the confidence and beauty at the foreground of their mother’s spell.

Outside the window, the snow fell with a chronic steadiness.

 

Earlier that morning, Darla was curled on the couch looking sexier than ever—especially in the slinky, blue sheath she called a nightie.

Nic had heard their next-door neighbor, Herb, banging away at his new fixer-upper. If he wasn’t out on the lawn leaf blowing or beating a roof shingle back into place on a Saturday morning, Herb was working a junk car into a shiny piece of machinery.

Funny that it was Darla who had sought Nic out when as an undergraduate he was just scraping by, selling Reeboks and clearing tables. Darla who had left her number scribbled in her slanted, serpentine script at the bottom of her dinner receipt.

For the bus boy with the bowl cut. XO, D.

Darla had insisted there be nothing superficial about it—no vaguely embarrassing toasts, no teary, emasculating fathers. And so they had been married in a depressing courthouse filled with clover green floors and walls reminiscent of a 1950s B-movie.

A copy of The New York Times was splayed across the Persian carpet while Duchess lapped the cappuccino she had left half-drunk on the table beside her. A song—something by Muse?—blared from her iPad as she made dramatic swiping motions across the screen, her dark purple fingernails flicking the air.

 

As their cocoas were replenished by gingerbread Bette Davis and the girls were each given a silver bell—instruments, they were told, for summoning Santa Claus—Magdalene and Celeste seemed more glazed by the spectacle than Nic had imagined: convinced, even, by the glimmering, sugar-coated fantasy unfolding in the aisles.

Magdalene shifted in his lap, the top of her warm head grazing his chin as she did.

Nic cleared his throat.

“You having fun, girls?”

Magdalene’s cocoa sloshed down her coat as she nodded her head. She turned around and, making something between a smile and an attempt to master her embarrassment, nodded slowly.

A recording of “Jingle Bells” crackled through the intercom and everyone in the car began to sing. Celeste was starting to fidget in his lap, her hair ribbons flicking against his neck as she rocked back and forth, her chin bent down as she played with something on her coat.

“What is it, honey?”

Celeste bounced from his lap and toddled to the bench opposite him, whining.

When she turned around, Celeste cast her wide eyes at Nic, appealing with the solemnity of a grown woman for him to understand.

Something glittered on the edge of her coat collar. Something wet-looking, like a fresh tear.

And before Nic was able to respond, the train came to a chugging halt. Then there was the dutiful Magdalene, coming to her sister’s aid. What must it be like to talk to a mirror?

On either side of the car windows, a whiteout; ice clicking in the branches. Darla’s diamond shone from his daughter’s collar like a snake’s eye. From all around him, Nic heard bells and children as a large figure in red emerged in the aisle. Magdalene worked the ring with her gummy fingers, Celeste clumsy and panicked as she too tried to twist the ring loose—and all the while, Nic could not bring himself to hold his daughters close to him; would not encourage their kisses in his beard or tell them not to worry, that everything was all right with him and their Mommy.

The train was stopped and the snow was falling. There was nowhere else to go.

 

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This story refers to Sara Michas-Martin’s poem “To Know it Again.”]

Theodora Ziolkowski’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Short FICTION (England), and Gargoyle Magazine, among other journals and anthologies. A Place Made Red, a chapbook of her poems, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Image by Jeremy Mikkola