The summer Lincoln turned ten, his greatest friend was the family computer. He fed it questions (“Biggest dog,” “Are aliens real,” “What is brest cancer”) and the computer would answer a thousand times over. “How big is the earth,” he’d ask, and the computer would spit out the answer in miles, but Lincoln wasn’t sure how to quantify a mile, so he’d get it put into feet, but so many feet were difficult to picture that he had it put into baseball diamonds instead. Which is how he went from “brest” to “breast” to “boob” to bodies flashing across the rectangle of the family computer, set off by pulsing neons and throbbing text, like the back of a cereal box where instead of puzzles there were people, nude and writhing.
He clicked the tab into nonexistence, retracing his steps every day for the next few weeks until Grandma fell asleep and he lost the motivation.
It was Grandma in a nightdress, her short hair in dark gold curls, the way she used to dye it before it all fell out and grew back powder-white. She was standing under a cliff, the only light thing under the gray overhang of slate. She had on her glasses, and her cheeks were the patchy pink of a dry wax crayon. He said, “Grandma?” and she said, “I’m okay.”
That was the version of Lincoln’s dream he told his parents, the dream he had the night that Grandma died. The A.C. had stopped working about the time she’d fallen asleep.
“She might not wake up,” Lincoln’s dad had warned.
For a ten year-old, that might was all that mattered. When his parents bought him a new Nintendo game to play while they met with blazered, loafered strangers at the kitchen table, he slipped it into his console with a sense of utmost duty. During storm season when the power went out, it was Lincoln’s job to be Keeper of the Flashlights until the lights came back on. The Grandma situation didn’t feel much different. It was the best he could do for his parents to play Mario Kart on 3DS in the living room and keep from wincing when they wet his forehead with yet another lingering kiss. Lincoln never considered that the lights didn’t have to come back on, that not every storm came and went in peace.
The house sweltered, and the funeral party baked in black. Lincoln slept in his parents’ bed even though his room was cooler. He watched television from between his dad’s knees with the volume too low for either of them to hear.
Thanksgiving dinner came together like Frankenstein’s monster.
Lincoln’s dad butchered Grandma’s baked chicken, which replaced turkey in their family’s yearly Thanksgiving spread. The knife struggled through the tough white meat, and Lincoln was reminded of something he’d learned right before break during Gobble-Gobble Trivia, that eating turkey could make you sleepy. Lincoln’s dad’s chicken must have contained more violent stuff, because after one tasting of charred-sour chicken skin, his uncle stared at the black and white mass like it might (and should) turn to dust.
Lincoln dealt patiently with his family’s twinkly stares. Sat on either side of him, his aunts pawed at his hair like he was something lucky, their painted lips cornering him with violent inquiries into his well-being. He felt he had a special permission to ignore his relatives. He felt he had special permission to do a lot of things when he was Grieving, like substituting meals with milkshakes that weren’t so hard to get down as funeral deli leftovers and sitting by the television instead of starting his summer reading. Of course, that was when everything was fresh. (His mom’s word. Lincoln’s doing alright, but it’s all still fresh, you know?) He was back to doing homework and eating the dinners his dad didn’t butcher, but on holidays Grandma died over and over again, and he’d find later in life that she never stopped dying at Christmas. This first, fresh Thanksgiving, nobody sat at Grandma’s place at the table’s head. There Lincoln pictured a salon-blonde angel dressed in loose, pale bedclothes. Grandma, in her most divine form, stared on with stern green eyes from behind rectangular glasses.
Caught in Grandma’s persisting stare, Lincoln lifted his elbows from the table. He shifted in his seat to catch her eye, but Grandma looked without seeing. He began to fear that the Visit in his dream had been a one-time thing, a private goodbye the universe had afforded him out of pity.
Lincoln’s eyes welled like he might throw up. “That bad? Jesus, Link,” said his mom’s oldest brother gravely, lifting the chicken from its place in front of Lincoln and dropping it into the trash.
In the middle of the school year Lincoln got moved into the advanced Reading class, where they wrote papers and plays, and people actually volunteered to popcorn-read. Sometimes, he read ahead to fill the stretch between homework and dinner. Always, he read after dinner, laying on his side so that the last word he thought was caught between the page and a dream. His before-bed reading was sophisticated and scholarly—The Phantom Tollbooth and Matilda. In December, when his mother could finally bring herself to take Grandma’s less glamorous leftovers—nearly-new Keds and pastel chinos—to the Salvation Army, Lincoln sandwiched his 3DS between candy-colored capris and had it charitably done away with.
In high school, Lincoln won awards for English. Graciously, he accepted certificates and ceremoniously presented slips of cash, but politely refused sweepstakes to coastal cities that aimed to pluck gifted children from the suburbs and imbue them with metropolitan ambition.
In his free time, Lincoln administered life-saving CPR to the Christian holidays (the others were lost beyond saving), and learned to make Grandma’s classics to a passable degree. He’d perfected the sides—a few had even been christened “Lincoln’s Garlic Green Beans” or “Link’s Famous Pesto Corn,” the rebranding of which seasoned Lincoln’s plate with an aftertaste of bile. He made a point to replicate the apple turnover despite a well-known allergy, which left his tongue vibrant and sizzling for several hours afterwards. The head chair was moved into the living room to be a home for coats and mail. It was Lincoln who picked the Christmas tree and Lincoln who dressed it, Lincoln who hid iridescent plastic eggs in the yard for his cousins to find at Easter, Lincoln who reminded everybody to say grace at meals, something even Grandma had lost vigilance over once her hair went suddenly and came back white. When Lincoln’s parents realized the living room television had been sitting blackened and dormant for years, they gave it to one of Lincoln’s aunts. He was glad to see it go.
Toward the end of senior year, Lincoln and his English awards were accepted into the best college within a day-trip’s radius of his hometown. There was a party to celebrate his graduation, and when Lincoln’s mother offered him a squat glass filled with blurry gold champagne, he declined with a nudge. At high school parties he’d done just the same, pushing away, with a smile of humility, beer cans, cigarettes, and bottomless red cups in favor of clear soda.
Lincoln’s aunt, the one who got the family’s old TV, was the first to say it. She admired him (all grown up) at a forty-five degree angle, like somehow he looked more accomplished, smarter, kinder at a slight tilt. They talked about college and his decision to stay close to home, and when Lincoln saw the blacks of her eyes start to shake and shimmer, he knew it was coming.
“Grandma would be so proud of you,” she said, and grabbed his shoulder.
It could have been a holy moment. If Lincoln had only reached for his aunt’s free hand, she’d have clasped his one hand in both of hers and looked at him proudly, wetly with eyes that were near enough green.
With absolution right in front of him, Lincoln choked.
“That means a lot, Auntie Grace,” he said, and let himself be diverted by his uncle, who’d brought him fresh congratulations and a fat slice of cake.
In college, Lincoln accepted his first red cup. It was more cola than rum, spiked so subtly that the carbonation burned more than the liquor, but he poured it down the sink the moment his vision began to smudge. That night he remembered to brush his tongue, double-dipping on toothpaste until his stomach boiled with mint. He wouldn’t have taken it normally, but there was a girl at Lincoln’s shoulder, a fiber science major who kept touching his button-down to inspect the weave, and he couldn’t tell afterwards whether she’d only kissed him because it was 100% cotton. When she handed him a drink, taking it felt like the natural order of things, but Lincoln hated this dumb, slurring version of himself. His words were the best thing about him, and he was mutilating them, betraying the syllables that had won him essay contests and real estate in high school poetry anthologies.
Lincoln didn’t drink again until his twenty-first birthday, and not again for a long time after that. His English major friends liked to tease him at parties— “C’mon, Link! WWHD: What Would Hemingway Do?”
“Bad example,” Lincoln would say, cradling his soda (he’d graduated to ginger ale). “I don’t like fishing, and I love long sentences.” The Hemingway reference was unpopular with Nema, who was the second girl he’d kissed in college (no red cup that time), and his girlfriend since they’d reconnected in a comparative literature course sophomore year. Nema was a Religious Studies major and Muslim; she never drank. Nema felt that, for being tall and having such nice eyes, Lincoln was uncommonly good. When fondness overcame her, she called him Adam, after his middle name. When she wanted to hate him she offered to edit his prose, and fought with blue pen against his most deplorable protagonists. They were the sludge of Lincoln, the dark goo left on the sidewalk after all that was good shot up into the sky. Rarely did Lincoln’s stories reflect his goodness.
“Why do you write these awful people?” Nema had asked when Lincoln finally agreed to let her read through his work. The prose was good, but Nema found the material tired and self-indulgent. When Lincoln had said he liked to write, she’d pictured poems. Lincoln was absolutely a poems kind of person.
Lincoln frowned. “Awful? I prefer deeply flawed.”
Nema sat back on the bed. Lincoln’s laptop was burning her knees while he lay at her chin, reading a book for class off the tiny rectangle of his phone.
“What do you know about deeply flawed?”
“As much as anybody else, I think.”
“Yeah, I don’t know… ” She reached for his hair. It was the grayest shade of red.
“What should I write about, then?” asked Lincoln, either leaning into her hands or away from his cell.
Lincoln looked stricken, rising onto his hands to sit at an angle. “Actually?”
Nema considered what it would be like to join the ranks of Lincoln’s deeply flawed. She flattered herself in assuming she was a cut above the Meek, yellowing wife of a perennially drunk sailor, and might instead be allocated the slightly more glamorous Aging sex worker just barely resisted by a businessman-in-decline.
Lincoln was cradling his phone like a palm-up hand, squeezing and drumming and tracing as though it might reciprocate. He was intimate with his technology, almost more so with his pens and pencils. Even his laptop, which was loud and prone to excessive heat, got pulled close until the pixels bloomed rainbow only a kiss away from his face. Nema was compelled by that space between, in that cracked kaleidoscope that scattered Lincoln’s spotless thoughts into oily blacktext. She slid into his lap.
“You’re warm,” she observed.
“You don’t like my stories,” he said, without hurt.
He dropped his phone in favor of her waist. “What’s expected?”
“You want me to write you an ode?”
She turned on his legs. They sat slotted together like fork tines.
“Yes. ‘Ode to A Hooker’s Leathered Breast.’”
“I’m quoting you.”
He held her hair, and his look was strange—stiff and glossed and candy-shelled. Looking deeper, Nema noticed her own refracted reflection, and a hook-like feeling impaled her stomach. In the blacks of Lincoln’s eyes was Nema herself, splintered into gleaming naked parts.
The kaleidoscope. They were waiting, but Nema had long suspected Lincoln to be the strangest kind of pervert.
He was off-balance, lacking the habitual steadiness that had seemed an unwavering aspect of Lincoln’s personality.
She was reminded of a friend who’d float around parties challenging Political Science majors to staring contests. In a moment of tactful submission, she’d flinch, and watch her opponent grow perversely pleased at the subtle exchange of power.
Nema evaluated Lincoln soberly, not sure what to make of him. He was flinching at her, baring a carnal nugget of egotism. He enjoyed having his loveless words sung back at him. With some sense of loss, it came to her that she could no longer call him Adam; she’d found in him trace amounts of original sin. The discovery was relief and devastation.
The scope of Lincoln’s perversion was still unclear. Nema wondered if he got off to his own grimy love scenes, where full-bodied white women rolled atop densely-built white men in beds of ash and soot. Initially, Nema chalked Lincoln’s diversity deficit up to the nebulous cowboy/sailor time period in which his stories took place, but now she was wondering if Lincoln had a fetish, or a phobia, or both. Sat in his defiling gaze, she waited for him to campaign for the reconciliation of her fragmented parts. Her fascination exempted her from feeling disgust.
Then, with the back of her head in his palm, Lincoln mumbled an inaugural declaration of love.
Nema stayed silent, leaving space for him to follow up with “… and that’s why we should cement our love in a primal act of—“, but the bargaining never came.
“That’s all,” he agreed, puzzled.
“I had an apple with lunch,” rushed Nema, searching his face for dismembered legs and severed breasts and finding none. She was whole again, shimmering in a jellylike pool of affection. “In case you wanted to kiss me. Your tongue might swell.”
“I don’t know that it works that way. Are we okay?”
Of course Lincoln was okay; he was goodness itself. Nema, on the other hand, was a nymphomaniac. She’d broken herself into those shining fragments—she must have. She asked herself, if Lincoln had bargained…
Nema swallowed, searching for the taste of apple.
“It’s not what I was expecting you to say.”
“I thought you knew. I don’t act like I love you?”
“You love everything. I get jealous of your pencils.”
“What?” laughed Lincoln. His teeth were slightly splayed, like a kid’s.
Had it been an apple? Nema preferred oranges when the cafeteria provided them. She’d certainly had an apple the day before, when she knew Lincoln would working on a paper, but today…
She loved him too, she declared, and never touched another apple for as long as she lived.
When Lincoln proposed during spring break of their final year of college, he delivered no sonnets, no love letter, no cheesy quotes ripped from the lips of movie stars and Jane Austen love interests, just a brand new silver ring and his knee against the University pavement.
The wedding was Nema’s second-greatest scholarly project, an intellectual pursuit in Religion to rival her senior thesis. Upon her insistence, they improvised their vows in front of two officiaries, though Lincoln had said the Imam alone would have been fine. In a cream-colored suit that Lincoln’s groomsmen deemed “very Gatsby,” he attempted to win over Nema’s more distant relatives, who had good things to say about his height, but solemner sentiments about his haircut.
In front of a phalanx of guests they fumbled through the rituals of eternal love. Lincoln’s vows devoured Nema’s. He told beautiful stories when he was deprived of ink and forethought. There were a few stuttered words—Lincoln couldn’t stop looking the priest directly in the eyes—but as they left warm churchlights for the outdoor reception, Nema’s aunts were touched enough to come to the modified conclusion that their nephew-in-law’s hair wasn’t unsalvageable, just tactlessly styled on the day.
Lincoln’s family fell swoony to red wine, closing near-permanent ranks around the bride and groom so that Lincoln could not stare life into empty chairs or impose floating skirt hems onto orange summer grass. He promised to host Thanksgiving, and help his cousins with their English homework now that he had a job lined up teaching middle school. He watched Nema watch him, and felt her hand grow meaningfully heavy in his lap.
“Not tonight,” Lincoln spoke into the air in front of him when their entourage began to thin.
“No. If that’s okay?”
Nema couldn’t think of a reason not to agree. When all was swept and packed away, Nema and Lincoln went home and slept.
It was Grandma in a nightdress, her short hair in dark gold curls, the way she used to dye it before it all fell out and grew back powder-white. She was standing under a cliff, the only light thing under the gray overhang of slate. She had on her glasses, and her cheeks were the patchy pink of a dry wax crayon. He said, “Grandma?” and she said, “I’m okay.” But it was that stilted, deflective sort of “okay” that sounded unnatural in Grandma’s honest rasp. She had a right to act strangely, though, Lincoln figured, being newly dead and all.
“Did they make you an angel?” he asked. He had a queue of questions lined up, ones that the oracle of the internet could only guess at.
“I can’t say,” said Grandma, smiling in a pleasant v-shape.
“What can you say?”
She was pretending not to hear him. He could feel Grandma leaving; her presence was stretched taut and translucent.
“Lincoln,” she said. Fear fell from her mouth and radiated through her eyes. Never in life had she worn such an expression, and seeing it now struck Lincoln’s dream body with coldness.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lincoln. He stepped closer, but Grandma unraveled further, bursting into a cloud of translucence. “Did that hurt?”
“No,” murmured Grandma. Even her voice sounded just-compiled, like it might split suddenly apart into a collage of meaningless clicks and vibrations.
Before Lincoln could cram in a goodbye, Grandma was wiped out of view. His mind gave way to pulsing neons and writhing bodies, and when he opened his eyes it was eighty degrees and the black air was tar against his skin.
It was in pursuit of goodness that Lincoln didn’t want Nema in that way, that he chose each day to turn around as she changed and knock before he entered any of the apartment’s three rooms. He coated their walls in the sterilest bluewhite, out of goodness, and, out of goodness, he only would only kiss Nema in the sobering wash of daylight.
Of course, there could not be goodness without Nema’s happiness, and so Lincoln did the right thing and pretended not to know about Gardner, the heretic thirty-year old from Nema’s graduate program who, out of goodness, slept with Lincoln’s wife so that he wouldn’t have to.
“Goodnight, Adam,” Nema would whisper chastely, day after day until she forgot his name.