It was a suburban street, one block long, the houses made of brick and built to last like the third little pig’s. Sycamore trees had been planted at regular intervals along the curb and the curbs themselves sparkled; I think the concrete was mixed with mica in it. I think when it was new the street couldn’t help but draw attention to itself, inviting envy.
Miss Vicks lived at the lower end of the street, in number 49. Most of the other houses had families living in them but she was by herself, a woman of about fifty, slim and still attractive, with a red short-haired dachshund. By the time she moved in, the sycamore trees had grown so large they had enormous holes cut through their crowns to make room for all the wires.
She was a real woman; you could tell by the way she didn’t have to move her head from side to side to take in sound. Every day she and the dachshund went for three walks, the first early in the morning, the second in the late afternoon, and the third after dinner, when the blue-green lights of the scows, those slow-moving heralds of melancholy, would begin to appear in the night sky. The little dog would sniff around the feet of the sycamores and as it did she would stand there paralyzed as all the Miss Vickses that had ever been layered themselves inside her, one atop the other and increasingly small, forming a great laminate like tree rings around heartwood.
Bedtime, the end of summer. The street was filled with children, many of them the same children she’d soon be welcoming into her classroom. School was about to start. “Heads up!” the boys yelled when a car appeared, interrupting their play; the girls sat making deals on the porch stoops, cigar boxes of trading cards and stickers in their laps. Meanwhile the darkness welled up so gradually the only way anyone could tell night had fallen was the fireflies, prickling like light on water. The parents were inside, keeping an eye on the children but also drinking highballs. Fireflies like falling stars, the tree trunks narrow as the girls’ waists.
Occasionally something different happened. One girl pasted a diadem of gold star stickers to her forehead and wandered from her stoop to get closer to where one of the boys stood bending slightly forward, his hands on his knees, nervously waiting for another boy to hit the ball. This waiting boy was Eddie, who lived at the opposite end of the street from Miss Vicks, in number 24; the girl was Mary, who lived in the house attached to hers. Sometimes Miss Vicks could hear Mary practicing the piano through the living room wall—“Für Elise” with the same mistake in the same spot, over and over. A fingering problem, simple enough to fix if only the parents would give the girl some lessons.
Headlights appeared; the boys scattered. Mary remained standing at the curb in her plaid shorts and white T-shirt, balanced like a stork on one leg. The car was expensive and silver-gray and driven by the sorcerer Body-without-Soul. Miss Vicks didn’t recognize him right away because like everyone else she was blinded by the headlights. The headlights turned the lenses of her and Mary’s spectacles to blazing disks of hammered gold so neither one of them could see the street, the trees, the houses—anything at all, really—and the next minute the car was gone. It was only after the taillights had disappeared around the corner that Miss Vicks realized she had recognized the license plate: 1511MV, a prime, followed by her initials.
Early in their romance the sorcerer told her he took this for a sign. Miss Vicks was not a superstitious person but like most people she was susceptible to flattery. She and her dog had been walking through the ruined gardens of the Woodard Estate when the sorcerer suddenly appeared on the path in front of them, a tall figure in a finely tailored suit, his shadow cast behind him, his face gold like melted sun. It was as if he’d been expecting her; when he circled her wrist with his fingers to draw her close to ask her name, she felt the life inside her leap up from everywhere, shocking, like a hatch of mayflies. He said he’d been hunting but she didn’t see a gun anywhere. “The animal kingdom,” he said, disparagingly, giving her little dog a nudge with the toe of his pointed shoe. He was a Woodard—it made sense that he would be there even after the place had fallen into desuetude.
Now her dog was raising his hackles. Miss Vicks could feel him tugging on the leash, bravely holding the soft red flags of his ears aloft and out to either side like banderillas.
“Has anyone seen Eddie?” Mary asked.
“He disappeared,” Roy Duffy told her, but he was joking.
Everyone knew how Eddie was—here one minute, gone the next. He was a small, jumpy boy; he moved so fast it was as if he got where he was headed before anyone ever noticed he’d left where he started out. Besides, they were all disappearing into their houses—it was only the beginning. The game was over; the next day school started. When the crest of one wave of light met the trough of another the result was blackness.
KATHRYN DAVIS is the author of seven novels, the most recent of which are Duplex (2013) and The Thin Place (2006). Her other books are Labrador (1988), The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (1993), Hell: A Novel (1998), The Walking Tour (1999), and Versailles (2002). She has received a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2006, she won a Lannan Foundation Literary Award. She is the senior fiction writer on the faculty of The Writing Program at Washington University.
From Duplex. Copyright © 2013 by Kathryn Davis. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.