Fiction published in the Blue Penny (Moon) Review. Also anthologized in CrossConnect: Writers of the Information Age.
“In “Ilfenesh,” David McNair dramatizes how two brothers divided by the legacy of a dead father who was a dreamer results in the more earnest of the two being left
emotionally vulnerable to the charms of a mysterious woman from Africa.” – David Deifer, editor, CrossConnect: Writers of the Information Age.
Six months ago, when Jack’s brother Frank pitched the idea at their father’s funeral, Jack hadn’t considered the actual woman. Now that she was here, standing in his new apartment, surrounded by her luggage, the whole thing seemed as ridiculous as it should have when Frank suggested it. But Frank had become his own variation of their father, who had spent most of his life dreaming up ways of getting rich, including a cemetery in Rutland, Massachusetts, called Fairhaven, which Frank had nicknamed the “mulch pile”; and so it wasn’t as inappropriate to Jack as it might have been to, say, Alex Anderson, the dentist from Worcester that their mother had married shortly after the divorce. Besides, Jack was between jobs–he was a freelance technical writer–and he had just spent a fortune on a new Macintosh SE, the first computer that he, or anyone he knew, had owned. And maybe something impulsive like this was what he needed; something to distract him from the smell of wet cardboard, bad milk and cigarettes–smells that had permeated his father’s office at the grocery store where Jack had found him leaning back in the swivel chair, as if he were napping, the white absence of the eyes, like two veined eggs, rolled up out of sight during the final blood pull of a weak heart.
“Listen,” he told her. “If we’re going to get married, we’ve got to communicate.”
“Good. Now what was your last name?”
His eyes rested on a thin scar that ran from the inside of her left eye and over her cheek like the path of a tear.
“Ilfenesh,” she whispered.
“That’s it? One name?”
“Well, it’s a beautiful name. I suppose it means something in Ethiopian.”
“Really? That must be a little hard to live up to.”
She tilted her head, smiled for the first time, and Jack noticed that her skin was like oiled, tarnished copper across her forehead and under her eyes. And after studying it closely, he realized she had an earring shaped like a fish swallowing itself that went through the top of her right ear.
“Jack, Jack O’Brien,” said Jack, squinting and stroking his chin. “I guess that’s not so beautiful. And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean anything.”
She put her hand to her mouth and laughed. These were the only words she had spoken since he’d picked her up at the bus station over an hour ago.
“Would you like something to drink?” Jack asked. “We’ve still got a few hours.”
She stood up without answering and Jack smelled cinnamon when she rose. It must be in her hair, he thought; which was wiry straight, pulled back tight across her head, and tied with a small piece of rope in a way that made it look like the end of a broom.
“Listen, I know this must be awkward for you…”
She wandered around the living room and Jack stood up to follow her.
“…but I think it would be a good idea if we got to know each other a little.”
Ilfenesh went to the big picture window and Jack noticed how clearly the forsythia lining the walkway was reflected on her face. He wondered what she thought of Massachusetts. In what way was it strange to her? He’d seen pictures of Ethiopia in magazines; nothing but a fine grey line on the horizon separating the earth from the sky. Even when there were mountains in the photos, Jack had thought about how lonely it would feel to live there; of how impossible it must have been to imagine cities.
Jack’s father, who he had always called Clarence, had been able to imagine cities. Clarence could imagine cities on the moon.
Standing beside Jack’s desk, Ilfenesh tapped his computer keys and he noticed tattoos like writing on her fingers. Following her through the kitchen doorway he realized she was taller than he was.
“I haven’t really settled in yet,” Jack said.
Ilfenesh was inspecting the empty cupboards.
“You know how it is when you move. It’s like you get robbed.”
She opened the fridge to a jar of mayonnaise and a shriveled tangerine.
“I’ve been meaning to shop.” Jack leaned on the sink but his hand slipped. “Well, I guess I’ve never really been much of a shopper.”
She closed the fridge and looked inside the toaster-oven.
“So, what’s your plan after we get married? Do you have some career in mind? Some strong passion? I don’t want to sound like your father or anything. I’m just curious.”
Ilfenesh closed the fridge, smiled at Jack as if she’d known him all her life, and said, “Tea, please.”
Fortunately, Jack had a box of Earl Grey, although he had to put his tea in a wine glass because he only had one mug. He set the tray down on the lobster pot in the living room and Ilfenesh took her tea and sat on the floor. Jack sat down on the couch, but the springs were so shot he had to look between his knees to see Ilfenesh, so he moved up and sat on the hard edge of the frame. Frank told him that she had been living in New York for a year. That was about all Frank had told him. Ilfenesh held the mug in both palms and closed her eyes as she breathed in the steam. Jack’s brother had never been good with details, usually mentioning the most important ones after Jack had been coaxed irreversibly into one of his scams. But the marriage seemed straightforward. All Jack had to do was get a blood test, make an appointment at town hall, say the vows, put her back on the bus, and show up at Frank’s place in New York a month later for the interviews with immigration. Four thousand bucks. Frank said he’d handle all the paper work and get the money from her. Just be nice to her, Frank said.
At the funeral, after he had pitched the idea, Frank got them laughing. During the graveside service, while they stood beside their mother and Alex Anderson, whom Frank referred to as the “Waxed Asshole,” Frank leaned over toward Jack and said, “Remember how pissed he was when we used to run slalom courses around the graves on the riding lawn mowers?”
“Don’t start,” Jack muttered.
“He ran after us with a rake once. Remember that?”
Jack stared down at his feet, breathing steadily, but Frank wouldn’t let up.
“And you hit the McNally tomb head on, knocked the brass cross right off the thing. Even Clarence was laughing.”
Jack tried his best to feel sad and serious, staring down at the casket, imagining what lay inside, but Frank kept at it and the best he could do was try and make it look like he was crying.
After the graveside service, while they were standing over the celery dip, their mother, as if she were continuing a conversation with herself, said, “You know, you’re father’s vitality to pursue his ambitions never quite matched the intensity with which he envisioned them.”
There was a short silence; then Frank said, “Oh, that’s just beautiful.”
“Its true, Frank.” She wrapped her arm around Anderson’s elbow. “Your father was a wonderful man, but he was a dreamer and it was his inability to accept reality that always undermined his business ventures. And I think there’s something you boys can learn from that.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Pay closer attention to your wife when she starts having her teeth cleaned once a week.”
“I think that’s quite enough, Frank,” said Anderson.
Frank gave him a look so full of menace that it made Jack’s stomach ache. “Quite, ” Frank said.
“I’m just trying to be honest with you boys,” their mother said.
“Maybe that’s not what we need right now,” said Frank.
Anderson started to say something but Frank walked in front of him and kissed his mother on the forehead; then he grabbed a few goldfish, threw one up and caught it in his mouth, and walked away. Jack followed and they went back out to the grave to watch the workers fill in the hole, something both of them had done a number of times as teenagers.
“She just needs a way to make sense of the guy,” Jack said.
“I know. But something about her and the Waxed….”
“Yeah, me too.”
“He was a dreamer,” said Frank. ” A goddamn fool.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“How much do you have left over from selling the store?”
“Enough to pay off what was owed on it, maybe a little extra.”
“Jack, that place was making a fine profit when he took it over from Uncle Ted. Even the Mulch Pile was doing well, then he up and sells it to those French guys for just about nothing.”
“He was sick of it. He was tired of dealing with people who were either dead or grieving.”
“He was a nut, Jack. Our father was a certified nut.”
“Just like you.”
“Hey, I know how to…”
“You’re the one who wants me to marry an Ethiopian woman I’ve never met.”
“Yeah, but it’s a sure thing.”
“See what I mean?”
“What? You don’t think it’s a good scam?”
“You can’t say it isn’t a little Clarence-inspired.”
“Hey, my feet are on the ground.”
They both turned to watch the workers packing down the dirt with their shovels.
“That must have been tough finding him,” Frank said.
“It’s not something I’m gonna forget.”
“Hey, there aren’t any curves on this marriage thing. I know money’s tight for you now and I just…”
“You just don’t stop.”
“That’s the secret, man. Stamina.”
They walked back to the reception, pushing each other and laughing as if it were a party for the old man. Jack thought about the odd mixture of love and regret that his mother seemed to feel for Clarence, tried to understand it, but he hated the calculating efficiency of her life with Anderson, hated it as much as the gift for failure that Clarence seemed to have willed to him.
Ilfenesh sipped her tea and Jack watched the steam curl around her face. “You never told me what you wanted to do after we’re married,” he asked.
She stared at him long enough for the question to harden in his throat, then she smiled brightly and left the room.
He could hear her going through her bags in the kitchen, and while he waited for her he doodled on an envelope. Was she never going to speak? What was she doing in there?
Jack pressed down hard on the pen. Numbers had such clean lines–even their shapes suggested permanence and order. He drew the four and the two slowly, adding the proper curves, making them of equal height and proportion, allowing for a flourish on the tail of the two. Jack had noticed that a carefully drawn set of numbers from one to nine could flow together in a single line, their usefulness almost completely obscured by their grace.
Jack didn’t like what he did for a living; the technical writing was not very interesting. But he got paid well for not liking it, and over the last few years, when he had a healthy number on his bank statement, it gave him great pleasure. It was the clear sum of certain labors, nothing glorious, and it gave him the freedom to be ordinary, deliberately halfhearted, and this freed him from the wild expectation that had been his father’s near-religious faith in dreams.
But hadn’t Clarence–in some odd and personal way–preserved his dream? After he sold the cemetery to the Lafont brothers, they went on to build five more cemeteries, two funeral homes, and they even owned shares in the cemetery where Clarence ended up. In the years before his death, years spent trying to recover from the divorce, years spent in and out of AA, years spent trying to keep the store going while struggling with heart disease, the Lafont brothers has served to justify his father’s dreaming. Clarence loved to associate himself with the Lafont brothers, as if he knew he could have been a rich man if he hadn’t been obligated to take over his brother’s store. But Jack knew that Clarence never would have worked as hard as those French guys did, that the idea of it was enough, the luxury and the hope in it, like a door to another world of thinking that Clarence always kept unlocked. This was something Frank would never understand, a part of the imagination he tried to obliterate from the way he did business, but Jack couldn’t see the harm in it, especially now that he was gone; in fact, it was the part of his father that remained, that began to grow as Jack sorted through his memories. Clarence loved to tell stories about the cemetery, always beginning with that same joke, putting on his best poker face, and telling people he had once owned a business with over four hundred people beneath him.
When Ilfenesh came back, she was wearing a gold dress so bright and elegant that the room disappeared around it.
She moved close to him, took his hand, and placed it on her stomach. Jack felt the soft curve of her belly beneath the material, then she guided his hand down the length of the dress, gesturing for him to hold the material, which was thick and cool, smooth like silk. She stepped back, spun around, and Jack finally understood.
“You made this?” he said.
“This is what you want to do? Make clothes?”
She nodded and left the room again, returning in another dress. She did this several times, and each time she was bolder, turning sharply on her toes, pointing out the differences in design with her gestures, filling Jack’s eyes with sculptured flashes of ruby, burnt orange, and emerald green.
Later, they bought each other rings at Woolworth’s.
As a joke, Jack bought plastic orchids, but Ilfenesh seemed genuinely moved and held his arm as they walked up the sidewalk toward the town hall in Northampton, a building that looked like a giant toy castle.
It was April and there were people in T-shirts even though it was still too cool for T-shirts.
The only words Ilfenesh had spoken all day were her name, Infinite One, and tea, please, and yet by the time they reached the park just past town hall they were holding hands.
They still had a half-hour before they were married, and so they circled the old movie theater and stopped in front of the time capsule to be opened in the year 2076. “I should write that down in my date book,” Jack said, but Ilfenesh didn’t laugh.
While they sat on a bench in the park, a little boy walked up to stare at Ilfenesh. She held out her hand but the kid kept his distance, looking over at his mother, a nervous, intelligent looking woman–a professor at one of the colleges, Jack thought–who seemed determined to let her son handle the situation on his own. Ilfenesh kept her hand out, palm up, and although the kid began to inch forward, he was still guarding his fascination. He was not a cute kid. He had short cropped hair as orange as a carrot, and a thin, blistered upper lip that revealed a row of crooked teeth that were already yellow. He looked once more at Ilfenesh, then turned quickly toward his mother and yelled, “Mommy, it’s a chocolate lady!”
The mother ran over and took her son by the arm, but his eyes were still fixed on Ilfenesh, who was laughing quietly with her hand over her mouth.
“I’m so sorry, “ the mother said, “we don’t teach him that sort of thing, we’re not like that, I don’t know….we have a lot of black friends.”
“It is alright,” said Ilfenesh, “he doesn’t know any better. But you should.”
The mother looked puzzled. “Again, I’m very sorry,” she said.
“There is nothing to be sorry about,” said Ilfenesh.
But the mother apologized again, trying to pull her son away, but he kept slamming his foot down, and in no time he was a screaming blur of limbs wriggling in wild protest on the grass, refusing to support his own weight as his mother took him by the arm and left the park.
As Jack and Ilfenesh were about to enter town hall, Ilfenesh stopped and said,” He will loose the light in his eyes, Jack O’Brien.”
It was like a statue he’d been admiring had suddenly spoken to him.
“You mean the red-haired kid?”
“It is easy to loose, Jack O’Brien.”
“Jack,” said Jack.
“Call me Jack. When you use my whole name like that it sounds like I’ve passed away or something.”
“No. I’m glad you decided to speak. I was beginning to wonder.”
They were silent for a few moments and then Ilfenesh said, “When I was a little girl my father was shot in front of my mother and me.”
Jack did his best to take that in, looking into her eyes, which were as flat and black as two caves.
“I’m sorry,” Jack said.
“Frank told me how you found Clarence.”
Hearing his name from her startled him.
“Why have you been so quiet then?”
“You hold yourself together very tight, Jack.”
“Is it some kind of test? Some kind of custom? What?”
“I didn’t have anything to say yet.”
“And I’m marrying you?”
“Hey, it’s not your fault.”
They stood silently, looking away from each other.
“Well, I guess we should go do it,” Jack said.
“With one condition,” said Ilfenesh.
“We do not have the children with the red hair.”
As it turned out, the justice of the peace was having his kidney stones removed. The marriage would have to be postponed until the end of the week, which meant Ilfenesh would have to stay three more days.
Back at the apartment, Jack suggested they write up a list of personal habits. He wanted to be prepared for the interviews with immigration, and he wanted to momentarily forget how the situation had changed. Keep busy, he thought. Besides, it would be smart to have something to study when she finally left and they were away from each other. When Jack suggested this, Ilfenesh scowled.
“We have to do this,” he said. “How do you expect to make them believe we live together?”
Ilfenesh stared blankly at a spot between Jack’s hairline and the end of his nose.
“Okay, now cut that out. I know you can speak. In America, people speak. Maybe we talk a lot of shit, but we talk, we keep a little noise in the air to prevent insanity. Besides, I’m getting pretty damn sick of listening to myself.”
Still nothing from Ilfenesh.
“What? Is there a bug on my head?”
Ilfenesh looked him in the eye.
“This is a business deal,” said Jack. “You are going to be here three more days and there will be no ambiguities, no complications.” Jack ripped a piece of paper out of a note book and grabbed a pen off his desk. “Here. Take your time, make up stuff if you want, but give me some details about who you might be.”
She stared at the pen and paper as if she didn’t know what they were, then she said,” Are you going to be this way from now on?”
Jack hoped she’d leave the room before he started apologizing. She did. He walked over to his desk, sat down, and stared into the dark screen of his computer. Why so annoyed with her? She was quiet but she had done anything wrong. But as he imagined three more days of her silent presence, her dresses, her copper skin, her dark eyes, and the ease and warmth he’d felt holding her hand in the park, he felt uneasy.
He turned on the computer and typed in a heading:
Habit List for Marriage 1) leaves empty milk cartons in fridge 2) leaves burner on after warming up coffee 3) doesn't put toilet seat down 4) wears underwear until it is in shreds 5) leads secret, unfulfilled life in head 6) paralyzed by wonder 7) always realizes there is no toilet paper while sitting on the toilet 8) will use paper towel when the coffee filters run out 9) will resist affection by degrees until love curls into a fist and destroys itself 10) leaves cap off toothpaste
Jack saved the list and shut off the computer. These should be the vows we make, he thought; realizing how empty the vows with Ilfenesh would be. Suddenly, he was angry with Frank for setting up this false union and perpetuating their father’s disregard for reality. A marriage had consequences. It wasn’t just an easy four thousand. The vows mattered to some people. And wasn’t it a truly unethical way to make money? Now who was he mad at? Himself for getting into this? Clarence? His mother? And what about that strange list he’d just written? Where did that self-loathing come from? What about that red-haired kid? What did Ilfenesh mean about loosing the light in his eyes? What was he supposed to do now?
When Ilfenesh touched him on the shoulder, he nearly fell off his chair. “Jesus, don’t do that,” he said, adjusting himself. “Can’t you see I’m not done yet?” Jack stared into the computer. “Can’t you see I’m stuck?”
Ilfenesh moved so close behind him that he could feel her breasts against his head. She put her hands on either side of his neck and Jack stiffened, wanting to be annoyed, but realizing just how old this resistance was.
“I’m sorry,” he said. ” I just get…stuck, I guess.”
“You have strength to be weak to know things,” said Ilfenesh.
“Strength? I’d be a criminal if I wasn’t so worried about the consequences.”
She handed him the list she’d made.
“You’ve written down all your habits?”
At the top of the page she had drawn designs for clothes and had roughly sketched a few naked women. At the bottom of the page she had written: When I saw behind your eyes I knew you would change my life forever.
Jack kept looking at the paper, long past the time they both knew it would take to read, then he folded it neatly and turned to her. “I’m changing your life forever for four thousand bucks,” he said.
“You will make four thousand dollars and change my life forever,” she shot back smiling.
“No! No, no, no,” Jack stood up quickly, throwing his arms up like some giant bird trying to land on a wire. “I am not who you think I am,” he said. “I am Jack O’Brien and I’m not capable of changing anybody’s life. So, if you are any nicer to me, spout any more wisdom, I am going to have to kill you.”
Ilfenesh put her hand to her mouth.
“Don’t you dare laugh.”
She bit down on her fingers.
“I’m warning you….I can be a bad man.”
“No, you are a blind man.” Ilfenesh laughed. “And I know how to look behind the eyes of people, to see what they don’t see in themselves. That is why I trust you.”
“What are you? Some kind of medicine woman?”
“I’ve earned what I know.”
“So you’ve decided?”
“Is that a threat?”
She smiled. “Yes.”
“Frank said you were like a little old man.”
“How well do you know Frank?”
“He found me a job in a clothes store. I guessed I would like you because of how shy Frank was talking about you.”
“That sneaky shit.”
Jack stared out the window.
“What are you thinking of?” Ilfenesh asked.
“How much I don’t know.”
“What is it that you want in life, Jack?”
“Grace,” he said, barely having to think; the word came as naturally as a sigh. “Enough money in the bank and grace.”
Jack made dinner–chicken, rice, a bottle of chilled chardonnay. Ilfenesh, of course, was quiet, but Jack was getting used to that and he drank most of the wine to help himself get used to that. He had her laughing, though; telling stories about Clarence and the cemetery–he even told about how they had laughed at the funeral. Jack wasn’t always sure if she was laughing at him or with him, but he possessed something he couldn’t see, so what difference did being self-conscious make? Still, when he made up his lousy couch for her, he felt awkward, knowing it was a gesture held together almost entirely by hesitation. He really just wanted to hold her, to kiss her, to lay his head in her lap.
Jack sat on the edge of the bed and listen to her through the door, wishing he could will her into the room. Seeing her clearly, though, seemed obscured by the way he had begun to invent her, by the way she had passed unnoticed through the openings in the dark knot his heart had become. Again, he thought about that red-haired kid, afraid of what he wanted and then punished for naming it out loud. Did that mother realize what she had done? Despite how impulsive and inconsistent Clarence had been he had never undermined Jack’s curiosity by being overprotective. In fact, Clarence was happiest whenever he or Frank had been drawn recklessly toward something–it seemed to affirm something for Clarence. Jack thought about how wonderfully intact Frank’s sense of fun was. How easily they had joked at the funeral. Clarence had made that possible. In someway he seemed more real to Jack now than he had been when he was alive, as if Clarence weren’t meant to be a man but an angel.
When Ilfenesh opened the door, Jack rolled over on his side and pretended to be asleep. Why? Here she was willing to take this risk and yet holding out a hand or calling her named felt impossible.
She leaned close to the doorframe, her legs straddling the threshold, her cheek pressed against the casing, as if this were hiding. In the dim light from a streetlamp Jack could barely make out her face. She was wearing a white nightgown that almost touched her ankles and when she hurried across the room to a dark corner near the closet she looked like a ghost.
What reassurance did he need now? Why was this still so difficult? How had he become such a coward? If she ran to me, Jack thought, would I still back away? If she stayed here with me, lived here, what would it be like? Would darkness and solitude leave us alone enough to orchestrate our bliss, or would our hearts cramp and harden under the strain of their first kiss?
“Come…here,” Jack said, holding out his hand.
Ilfenesh didn’t move.
“You can’t stand there all night,” he said.
“Yes I can.”
“Is that what you want to do?”
“You scare me.”
“I thought you trusted me?”
Ilfenesh ran across the room and jumped on him before he even finished his sentence. A blur of limbs, they laughed and kissed each other recklessly under flashes of black and white, tangling the covers and knocking the pillows off the bed.
Two weeks later they were still unmarried. Scraps of material had piled up on the living room floor and there were curtains on the windows, flowers on the table, African spices in the cupboards. Sometimes there were entire days of silence, other times Ilfenesh told him fragments stories about leaving Ethiopia, but she always cut herself off, became sad and distant, so unknowable that Jack found himself wandering around in her dreams, across a desert toward the dim outline of the mountains hovering over the hot, warped air, trying to read her eyes as they fixed themselves on a point beyond the horizon, trying to figure out who she was, what she wanted.
At night she would emerge from her dark corner, lifting her nightgown over her head, falling on him, pressing herself against his chest before she pushed herself up and straddled him, guiding him inside as Jack held her hips to slow the first rush of warmth, which was both a threat and a comfort, and as he closed his eyes and began to move, still enough longing in him to risk being destroyed, he might imagine himself beside Clarence again, riding in the front seat of the Chevy Wagon, a wheelbarrow upended in back, headed down the old road to the cemetery. The windows open and the air levitating his father’s hair. Jack looking up through the windshield at the trees and then down at the road–cracked tar and ruts of sand on either side, the ancient oaks and maples facing each other like stern old men, crowding the stonewalls, their branches arching over the road in layers, filtering white light through their leaves while Jack moved beneath them into the distance, faster and faster, soothing him with direction.
And then she folded down around him, an elaborate sculpture named Ilfenesh, all angle and warmth, her arms so long and awkward they seemed like wings, whispering a few simple words, addressed to the part of him he could not see, the part that would follow her into sleep.