The Rule Against Perpetuities
To see the house up on the hill while standing on the road below,
Beth had to tilt her head back so far it almost hurt. Her parents had
painted it yellow with blue trim. She held her hand up to the sky,
pinched finger to thumb, and peeled the blue off in her mind's eye,
like it was painter's tape, like there was still time to make a change.
Inside, ants marched in a straight line from the floor up the table leg
to the butter dish on top where some got stuck.
Mist filled the air outside the house, and Beth walked through it. She
dipped her toe into the fog until she could barely see it any more,
until it was a leap of faith just to let her body follow behind that
Dad was probably on the spectrum or maybe sitting beside it. He only
knew if your face meant happy or sad part of the time. Mom had
inattentive ADHD and drew still lifes to calm the mist's swirl.
Sometimes she made piñatas and filled them with party favors
that unfurled and hooted when you blew them hard. Max and Nick were
smart boys who loved party favors and had what doctors called a
"constellation" of issues, including ADHD, ODD, and OCD. They hated
school and spelling because of all those same letters, which were
always slipping through their fingers. Beth had brown, straight hair.
Beth made her brothers dinner if Dad and Mom were at work—or
when they weren't at work and didn't feel like doing work. She liked
fennel and cooked it over and over until Max and Nick liked it too. She
was proud of making them like it. She roasted the fennel and laid it
underneath the chicken like a lumpy bed. On hot days, she made peach
ice cream in a metal churner. She added white pepper, to make sure
everyone was paying attention. Sometimes she thought her brothers took
all her sweet for granted.
The object of the game was not to get thrown off the rusty trampoline
into the mist. If you fell, the mist monster would eat you. The
siblings wrestled, pushing each other farther and farther toward the
edge. When Beth went tumbling over and broke her wrist, Max and Nick
found shovels in the shed and began to dig. They pulled the soil out,
heap after heap, until they'd made a hole in the backyard the exact
circumference and depth of the trampoline. They lowered it into the
pit, legs-down, face-up, so that, if Beth ever fell off again, she
wouldn't fall as far. The next time Beth bounced with Max and Nick, she
knew what love felt like. The pop and spin of it. The give and take.
She smelled the earth rise beneath them.
Beth made flashcards for six weeks before her CPA exam. The hardest
topic to contain on a 3x5 card was the rule against perpetuities. "No
interest is good unless it must vest, if at all, not later than
twenty-one years after the death of some life in being at the creation
of the interest." Beth had to buy bigger flashcards, the 5x8 size, for
this principle. She had to imagine many deaths and what would happen
after and then count. She wondered if her responsibility for her
brothers would vest when Mom and Dad died.
Beth tried many times to write a good song, but she could not. She
studied piano, listened to jazz, stared into the mist. Nothing helped.
One night she dreamed she was a percussionist in a band. She played
strange instruments, like a boot against a shoe. She woke to noise
downstairs—her brothers singing karaoke. Nick was a tenor,
Max a bass. Their voices were like superheroes, jumping tall buildings
and rescuing the weak. Beth knew she shouldn't be jealous, shouldn't
deny them this one thing. Her brothers were singing so fierce, they
didn't notice her come into the room with a boot and a shoe.
For a time, Beth lived far away in a town with a river and an
accounting firm that paid her meager bills and the mortgage on the
house in the mist and the food that her brothers ate. They didn't eat
fennel when she wasn't there. Her colleagues admired the way her work
product grew into tall, neat hills of paper on her desk.
Max and Nick were mainstreamed out of special needs in middle school.
The morning before their first science test, Beth yelled at them. "The
raw materials for photosynthesis are water and carbon dioxide! I've
told you twenty times. You've fucking read it. Why don't you remember?"
Max said he'd try harder. Nick promised he'd get a job someday. "We
know photosynthesis is how plants make oxygen. We know." Sunshine
burned through the mist; Beth and her brothers sat outside, trying to
photosynthesize. Nick forgot the word chloroplast, and Max missed
stomata on the fill-in-the-blank section of the test. The sun was too
weak for photosynthesis anyway.
When Beth put on her running shoes, she imagined she was off to join
the race between the tortoise and the hare. The hare wasn't such a jerk
when you got to know him better. He came from a dark place, and no one
gave him credit for that.
When the EMTs emptied Beth's purse, they found flashcards on an array
of interesting topics like hydrothermal vents and gene mutations; a
lipstick, still in the box, unused; fifteen empty bottles of pills; and
a suicide note that had a bouncing, song-like quality to it. It was
beautiful, all the EMTs agreed. They took pictures of it with their
cellphones and sent the photos to their families, who became
misty-eyed. The doctors put Beth on a respirator, oxygen whooshing to
Maureen Langloss has stories in Necessary Fiction, (b)OINK and others. She lives in New York City.
Read her postcard.
Detail of collage on main page courtesy
of Joana Coccarelli.
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