That was how many Bruce ordered for the guest bathroom. That was almost how many he used. There were a few left. I store them in the garage. They are bone-colored. Some are square. Some are elongated and bull-nosed. They sit in their open cardboard boxes like perfect teeth, like baby teeth, that smooth but sharp edge without a single bit of use.
Bruce died a few weeks after finishing the bathroom. When I look at the tile now, I see Bruce. I see him, and my husband, shoulder to shoulder, slapping on the gray mud, putting each tile in place according to the plan Bruce laid out. When Bruce showed me the design, sketched with precision on draftsman's paper, it looked like a river cutting through algebra. I'd asked him to use polished pebbles in the design, to soften all the hard-edged white. I don't want it to look like a hospital, I said. I want it to look like earth and cloud. The pebbles formed a wild, haphazard but contained band, weaving through the perfect order.
I never counted how many pebbles. There are hundreds.
Day after day Bruce and my husband worked to fit each tile and stone into its preordained palm of mud. They talked. They discovered they were the same age. Shared many of the same experiences, of the same places. Or they listened to the radio and slapped and stuck in silence. So many pebbles. It takes concentration as well as teamwork.
It took almost two weeks to finish the remodel.
When Bruce's wife told us Bruce had died, we refused. It wasn't possible. Bruce was too young. Only 63. We'd just gotten to know him. Bruce and my husband were fast becoming friends. They were going to play croquet. They even looked the same, the same gray, grizzled beard and wild hair, though Bruce was shorter and stockier, and more deliberate. He stared at problems until they were solved, moved slowly, made sure everything was right. Left to our own devices, we would simply have guessed how many tiles. We are haphazard, that way. Bruce aimed.
We cried, my husband especially. How can you be a man, a friend, cheeks flushed red in labor, at one moment, and then a cold ember fallen next to a pick-up truck, the next?
I went and stood in the bathroom. A kind of horror swept over me. A good man had spent some of the last weeks of his life in this small room, because I'd wanted my guests to have fresh grout. Given a choice, would anyone do this? If you could know these are my last weeks on earth? And how slow had I been to choose between three shades of white? Bone, white, cream? How many days had I wasted?
Bruce's wife invited us over to their house, three streets down from ours. A beautiful house, with snug rooms in colors of firefly matings. Bruce had started an addition, off the kitchen. He was doubling the size of the place. He had the foundation done, the walls, the roof supported by thick beams, the pounded earth floor. He had also just finished a deck for another neighbor, a tricky assignment: the Trex had had to be cut like a river to fit around trees, stones, in the undulating landscape.
He was very proud of the finished deck, she said. Bruce was a trusted problem-solver, and beloved for that. She knew something was wrong when he didn't come home from the deck-job. She found him beside the truck, eyes open and surprised. The days since then, she said, had been terrible and beautiful. On some days life was so exquisite you looked at the clouds and every pore of light registered.
She showed us pictures of Bruce going back to their college days, when they had met, in art school. He had always been a builder, a maker. He had always been prized for his work and the care with which he undertook and finished it. She showed us some of his paintings, still-lifes, beautiful. But he mostly chose houses and decks and tile and stone and pounded earth. What people live in, not with. She took us to his workshop, stuffed with tools and long, painted trim boards. Deep blue.
The other day, I carefully cleaned the tiles in the bathroom. The pebbles, in blues, grays and greens, are cut in half, so they lie flat and smooth, also easy to clean.
Can we put a niche in, I asked at the last minute, for the shampoo bottles? Framed in the bull-nose? With a pebble backing?
Bruce rubbed his beard, thought about it. I never saw him answer quickly.
The niche for the shampoo bottles took an entire day to build and complete.
It is the most beautiful part of the bathroom, like something you would find built into an Etruscan wall, or the space left when a trout vanishes.
My new novella, The Wedding of Anna F., has been published this week in Big Fiction. Here is how the story, about a woman who believes she is Anne Frank, begins:
The interviewer is coming today. So. Here is the simple part:
choosing what to wear. I’ve told my little assistant buzzing
downstairs—no, that isn’t fair of me, she isn’t little, she looms over
my life, in fact, and she’s more than an assistant, she’s almost a kind
of nurse, at times—I’ve told Maia to leave me alone for a bit, to let
me be quiet, so I can get ready for my time with him, and then for my
birthday celebration to follow; because I need a rest after having spent
the whole morning in my study, organizing my documents and letters,
the private papers that will sum me up, in my eighty-third year—work
that has been the easier part of this day, now that I think of it, at
least compared to what’s going to come later on, compared to what is
coming on now.
I hope I can manage it all. I don’t tire easily, thank goodness.
For my age I’m still fairly sound—apart, that is, from the slight
deafness in my left ear, the result of being left lying in the mud at
Belsen. Of course, no one knows I’ve ever been there. But this much is
true: I’ve never needed or wanted much rest, since then.
Such "easy" lines, as I look at them now--easy in the sense that all
work has been erased, all the sleepless nights spent worrying over a
story, a voice, that wouldn't leave me alone; all the clumsy drafts
hidden behind this one, the final, polished version; all the hours spent
staring at the keyboard struggling to understand what this stranger was
trying to whisper to me; all the moments when I leapt from my seat
because something that had eluded suddenly barked, clear; all the doubt;
all the frustration; all the hours when I could have been out in the
And yet the lines aren't "easy," even now. They are a suspension
bridge, the kind made of ropes cast over ravines in jungle places. They
led and lead into a place that is both dark and light, both myth and
reality; they go places I didn't expect at all. Even now I can feel the
swaying, the tension, the danger, though all the work is behind me.
There were many times when I thought I wouldn't finish this tale. It is
too hard, I told myself. It is too strange. There be animals in the
How do we keep faith with stories . . . not just the stories we
write, but the stories we read? Where does that faith come from? A
story is such a fragile thing. Today I met with a few students, and we
discussed how stories are powerful, how they have the ability to move us
and arrest us, stop us dead in our tracks, at the same time. How anyone
who knows how to tell a good story holds the keys to a city.
But stories are tents, too. They are tenuous, canvas and stake and
knot against earth. They can, and do, collapse if we don't put our backs
into them, and even if we do. There are no guarantees. There is no law
on earth that says a story must be finished, or when it is finished that
it must be read.
I kept faith with Anna over several years. I put her aside
for long stretches of time. I came back to her when she grew noisy and
her mystery unbearable. I set her aside again when her impossibilities
wore me out. I lived. I worked. I moved to a new state. I picked her up
again like a cold I kept catching over and over. And slowly, slowly,
something started to take shape. I felt better. She got stronger. I
picked up an ax. The bridges behind you don't matter. Cut. Chop. Burn.
The only way, for a writer, is forward. A path through the trees.
Now here I am. The story is finished, the faith is . . . what? Not "rewarded." Reward is the wrong word.
Faith is not a stolen bicycle.
Perhaps it is the chair Anna sits in as she tells her story. Is that
what faith is? Hard but steady. Adirondack you take over and over again.
Forget all the rest, the story says, forget everything up to now.
Sit with me.