There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked. This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making her way down West Thirteenth. Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders. The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time. She drank coffee from a paper cup. Sweat bubbled from her neck. Her scarf kept unraveling. She was rocking knee-high boots — sensuous leather, complicated buckles. Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal. But she was slowing. A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her. Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody.
This couldn’t happen. Thanksgiving plans in Vermont had been set for too long; her mother was insane to see the Blueberry. And an extended weekend at Mom’s, with pecan cobbler and free round-the-clock childcare, trumped whatever bug she’d caught this time.
She’d just have to swallow it, pretend her usual zazz hadn’t been absent for the last week, throbs weren’t emanating from her temples. This was adulthood, honeysuckle. You soldiered on. She was going to be on time, meeting Oliver at the rental car place. Alice regularly picked up winter coughs like they were sample swatches; she’d spent all afternoon batting that lozenge back and forth between her cheeks (the ground strokes lazy, the rally unending), hacking through the last of her chores (folding T-shirts into her knapsack, making sure the baby bag was loaded with Wet-Naps). Out of their apartment, down the front steps, everything had been ginger. Right until the coughing, three increasingly violent retches. The jewel of phlegm — its hue the light pink of a rose pearl — was probably nothing but saliva and coloring dye number five. Just goopy residue from the cherry cough drop.
The rental agency was on the rim of the West Village, usually a five-minute walk, ten with the baby strapped to her. It took Alice half an hour. A rust-colored Taurus was waiting out in front, its driver’s door open. Oliver stood on the side, making sure the suited agent documented every last ding. “Jesus,” he said. “Honey.” He felt her forehead. “You all right?” She answered: “Can you take Doe?”
Then they were emerging from the scrum of the city, into the bumper-to-bumper hell clogging every inch from Bridgeport to New Haven. Oliver kept blasting heat through the front compartment. No matter how many blankets Alice wrapped around herself, those weird cold sweats wouldn’t stop. If anything, she felt worse, the chill deep inside her bones. Now, nearing the western border of Massachusetts, they sped down one of those empty rural interstates, tall barren trees looming dark on either side. Alice’s voice quivered: “Could you pull over please?” Oliver veered into the first roadside rest area he saw, the lights of its parking lot distended and spooky. It’s nothing, she assured herself, again. She lowered her seat all the way down, her body following the tight collapse as if her own internal gears and stopgaps had also received permission to give way. The sensation went beyond a mental or physical recognition of her exhaustion: she fell back and lay still in the collapsed seat and shut her eyes.
For a time, inside the house that was her body, it was as if she were walking out of every room and turning off the lights behind her, one by one.
Dimly, Alice was aware of tiny limbs readjusting inside the baby seat, the Blueberry letting out a contented, somnolent breath. She was aware of her husband forcing himself to sound calm, asking: “Favorito?”
Instead of answering, Alice recalibrated, focusing on the pulse behind her eyes, the labored rise and fall of her chest, how much effort it was taking her to inhale. Her weariness so intense now it ached.
“It’s okay,” she was told, the sweetest whisper. Alice moved toward its kiss.
From the book “Alice & Oliver” by Charles Bock. Copyright © 2016 by Charles Bock. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.