Kim Magowan

    “What do you want?” she asked him once when they were lying in bed. “What do I get to keep?” Other couples, they break up, and it’s objects they dicker over: the music collection, the never-used china. But when one is sleeping with a writer, it’s the memories that get divvied: Who keeps the kisses at the airport? Who gets the seedy hotel with the fingernail clippings on the night table?
    Of course she does not explain herself.
    And they wrestle over his journal. When he is peeing, she lifts it out of his bag and tries to find the page he began to read to her before saying, “No, I can’t share this with you.” Something about them necking in the alcove at the airport. That was the word he used, necking, like a teenager, like a boy. She thinks of the supple muscles of his neck, his hot skin.
    Then he is out of the bathroom, his hand on the door frame. “Hey! What are you doing?”
    “Nothing. Go wash your hands. Go brush your teeth.”
    He uncurls her fingers from the journal, holds it over her head, out of reach; he pins her arm behind her back.
    “No, you don’t.” He laughs. “Stop kissing me, you don’t get it back.”
    “But I just want to find the part about me. Aren’t I allowed to find myself?”
    “This version doesn’t belong to you.”

They do not talk about what will happen after this year. Kate is a visiting writer, and the marks she makes at this school will leave no prints: footsteps in grass rather than snow. The tense he uses with her is present, and the direct objects he attaches to love are not herself: “I love your kneecaps; I love your carrot salad; I love the ink stains on your hands.”
    She first meets him at her job interview, not the formal part, when the search committee interrogates her, but later. He’s sitting in the back of the room when she reads her story, and she sees him again when they take her to the faculty lounge. He’s standing in a corner, looking at her, eating bright orange cheese cubes speared onto toothpicks. He has a whole handful of cheese cubes, and the first thing she notices about him is his open hand with toothpicks spiking out.
    She approaches him. (Well, she tells herself that she’s approaching the wine, and she does pour herself some in a plastic cup. White, so it won’t stain her teeth.)
    “It looks like you’re holding a hedgehog.” She believes at first that she’s merely thinking that line. But it turns out she has said it out loud, because he raises his eyebrows, laughs, and extends a toothpick-free right hand.
    “I didn’t eat lunch. I’m David,” he says.
    She takes his hand, and it gives her a shock. She drops it. “Whoa. That hasn’t happened since I was on a playground slide.”
    That shock becomes part of the story they tell to each other about their meeting: literally, there is something electric between them.
    He is part of the group that takes her out to dinner afterward, but he is sitting at the other end of the table. The only time he actually speaks to her is when she comes out of the ladies’ room, and he’s standing in the corridor. Then he says, “Are you one of those neurotic people who like to get to the airport really early?”
    She’s a little startled—she’s just come out the bathroom, he’s standing right there after not talking to her all night, and he doesn’t open with “Hi” or indeed any pleasantry at all—but she says, “Not especially neurotic, I don’t think.”
    “Well, I’ll pick you up at your hotel at nine tomorrow morning then. I’m your ride.” He smiles. “I just finagled it.”
    “Um. Thanks.”
    He looks her up and down, in a kind of obvious, exaggerated, slow-mo way. “Actually, let’s make it eight,” he says.
    And still she almost misses her plane home. As soon as she sits in his car, he grabs her hand, and the whole drive to the airport, except when he’s signaling, he holds it. He puts the car in short-term parking to walk her in. But he doesn’t touch her—it’s still just their hands—until they approach the security line, and then somehow without exchanging any dialogue, they end up kissing in an alcove, kissing and kissing until she says, “I’m going to miss my plane.”
    “I knew I should have given you a ride back to your hotel last night.” He shakes his head and laughs. “Damn. What is this?”
    “I have no freaking idea,” she says.
    “Do you make a habit of seducing prospective colleagues during fly-backs?”
    “Me seducing?” she objects. “Hardly.”
    “I don’t know if I want you to get the job or not. You could be very distracting.”
    “Well, maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe they’ll give it to the drunk.”
    “Or the lesbian.” He kisses her again. “Run along. And stay in touch, you. Send me that story you were talking about last night. The one about the spareribs.”
    “You were listening to that?” she asks, even though she knows—she could tell at the time—that he was.
    She gets the job, though by the time they offer it to her, it’s turned into another job entirely, whittled and shriveled. They lost the funding for the tenure-track line, so now it’s a one-year gig. In fact the job is no better than the one she already has, and it’s unclear to Kate herself how much of a factor the Hot Writer Guy (her designation for him) is in her acceptance of it.
    When she drives up to the house she has rented for the year (from a French professor, on sabbatical), David is waiting on the porch. He has a bulging bag of groceries with him. “Just some staples,” he tells her, when she asks what is in it. And she laughs in the kitchen when she unpacks it and finds—among the milk, coffee, eggs, apples, sliced salami, and bagels—a box of staples. He stands behind her with his arms around her. He kisses the back of her neck.
    “Let me at least shower,” she says. “I’ve been driving for two days.” But he shakes his head; he pushes her into the French professor’s bedroom.
    Later he asks her, “So how discreet are you? Because this sort of thing is frowned upon, you know.”
    “Very discreet,” she tells him.
    They are undercover, or so they think. He won’t hold hands with her anywhere near campus, or at any bar where they might run into students or colleagues.
    “Discretion, temptress,” he says. But it occurs to her that all this subterfuge might be an excuse.
    She tries to explain it, him, to her friend Ellen over the phone, to explain it to herself.
    “I’m regressing,” she tells Ellen. “He’s the type of guy I liked in high school. You remember? The two types: the tortured poet and the bad boy. He’s like a smoothie blend.”
    “And you were finally growing up,” Ellen sighs. Ellen had high hopes that Kate would fall for a doctor she introduced her to, a nice guy, divorced, responsible, cheerful, but that has all gone by the wayside in the wake of David. “Remind me what you see in him.”
    “Sex. Scrabble. The conversation. We can talk and talk.”
    “About what?”
    “Oh, stupid shit. You know, what word belongs in this sentence? What color, exactly, is that mustard? Why did Freud screw up with Dora? Things no one would care about besides us.”
    “You’re in love with him,” Ellen says. “I can tell by the way you say ‘us.’”
    They carry on. “Carry on” is his phrase, and she asks him in what sense does he intend it? Carry on meaning to continue, or to fool around, or to have wild tantrums?
    “The first two,” he says. He looks at her speculatively. “You don’t seem like the wild tantrum type.”
    She does her best to be cool, smooth, light. These are characteristics that Kate has always possessed, but because he approves of them, they become exaggerated. Sometimes Kate thinks those adjectives would better describe a product (a Scandinavian lamp, say, or a moisturizer) than a person.
    When she asks him, “What’s going on with us?” he evades her. He quotes Thom Gunn: “‘Their relationship consisted / of discussing whether it existed.’”
    “Don’t think so much,” he tells her. He bites her earlobe. “Thinking again?”
    But what is she supposed to think? For instance: She comes to his apartment a late May evening, knocks. He doesn’t answer, so she feels for the keys he hides under a dented yellow watering can. When she opens the door, she sees them right away, sprawled on his ugly plaid couch. They haven’t even made it into the bedroom. They are still wearing some clothes. She notes the girl has red hair, unshaved armpits, and is prettier and younger than she. His mouth is open, a round hole, and involuntarily Kate imitates it. “Oh,” she says, before closing the door.
    She does not answer the phone, though it rings and rings as she packs her books into orange and onion crates. She is glad she traveled so lightly. It would be easier to unplug the phone, perhaps: each time it rings she pauses in her packing.
    Two days later there is a knock on her door. She doesn’t answer. Her door opens anyway, and he stands there. They look at each other.
    “You know, in retrospect it was probably a bad idea to show each other where we keep spare keys,” she says. “Give them to me.”
    He tosses them underhand. Kate catches them. She is very pleased: she can’t think of a better occasion to make a graceful catch.
    “Going somewhere?” he asks. She registers his tone. Whatever he came to say has been diverted by the boxes.
    “Nowhere,” she says, and though they say more things, this is what she remembers, this is the clean cut she makes in the memory. He can have the rest.
    The university tells her she must leave a forwarding address. She doesn’t.

Five years pass. She publishes her second collection of stories and goes on a book tour. Ann Arbor is her sixth stop, and by then she has a rhythm and a story she likes to read. It seems to go over well: it has lines that elicit reliable laughs, it’s not too long, and the themes are easy to process in a sitting. The title is homey and sedative. But when she gets to the lectern, she sees him sitting in the second row, staring at her, and she changes her mind about what to read.
    This is not the city where she knew him. It is a shock to see him, and she has to drink most of her glass of water to recover. After she drinks the water, she coughs. Then, without her usual jokey preamble, she says the title of what she plans to read: “This one is called ‘Nowhere.’” In the front row she sees Ellen, her best friend, look up, surprised. She reads. It’s a mean story; it has pointy teeth, and it’s all there: the airport, the fingernail clippings, the journal, the yellow can. When she finishes reading, there is a pause before the audience claps, and their clapping is tempered. The professional in her takes note of this: “Black Tea” goes over better.
    She takes her time signing books, chatting with each of the buyers, and he waits until the line is gone before he approaches. When he hands her one of her books, she signs it. Just her name. He looks at that part first.
    “So,” he says. He flips to the inside back jacket. “Vermont, huh? I wouldn’t have guessed.”
    “And you live here?”
    “Nowhere,” he says, and smiles. “But now I have all sorts of information about you. You’re forty-one—”
    “You knew that.”
    “You live in Stowe, Vermont. Oh, and here’s your publisher’s address. Good to know. Nice picture of you, by the way; you haven’t changed.”
    “Ha,” she says.
    He flips now to the dedication. “Who is Molly?”     “Me,” Molly says. She has been sitting in Ellen’s lap, in the front row. Now she disentangles herself and marches forward, sticking her stomach out.
    He stares, then bends to his knees to look her in the face. “Hi, Molly. I’m David. Pleased to meet you.”
    “David?” Ellen repeats.
    Kate gives hard looks all around, to Ellen, to Molly, to him. She deals them out like cards. Ellen stares back, eyebrows raised, but David and Molly ignore her.
    “So, Molly,” David says. “Who’s your mommy?”
    Molly points.
    David turns to look at Kate, then back at the girl. “How old are you, pretty girl?”
    “Four and a half,” Molly says at the same time that Kate says, “Three and a half.” They say “half” simultaneously: it sounds like they are harmonizing. David looks at Kate, then her daughter, forward and back. There is a pause. The moment thins and contracts.
    That is the lesson of fucking a writer. Everybody looks guilty.

    Clean cut.
    Or: there are different ways to proceed from here.
    David walks out of the bookstore. He doesn’t say anything, but the look he gives Kate is certainly legible: to hell with you. He goes back to his apartment (on Plymouth Road, some twenty-two blocks away; it takes him less than twenty minutes to walk there). He shakes his head most of the way. He is actually talking to himself; he is that discombobulated. Someone watching him on the street might conclude he’s crazy, and indeed there is someone watching him, a nineteen-year-old girl with long dirty-blonde hair and a crocheted hat. She’s a philosophy major at the University of Michigan. She thinks to herself that he’s cute but seems pretty weird.
    He gets home, and the first thing he does is hide Kate’s book, stuffing it behind other ones on the shelf so he doesn’t have to contend with that spine staring at him. He pours himself a glass of Maker’s. He wonders why the fuck he went to that reading. Idle curiosity, there’s a predictable narrative.
    He takes out the book from where he shoved it, behind the Es: George Eliot, Ralph Ellison, Louise Erdrich. Kate was not the first to point out the disjunction between David’s organized bookshelf and his messy personal life.
    He reads the story, “Nowhere.” It’s rambling and ends, he thinks “objectively,” too abruptly, but there’s a line in it that makes him smile: he remembers quoting that Thom Gunn poem to her. He remembers her reply: “He insisted, she resisted; / so they persisted, misfitted.” (She has left this comeback out of the story, though, and he isn’t sure why. If it had been his line, he would have kept it.) The way she would roll her eyes. Mocking, narrow, near-sighted eyes. They were the first thing he noticed about her.
    David starts leafing through the book. He reads “Black Tea,” but it’s not his favorite. He likes one called “Convolutions” quite a bit; it’s about a young pregnant woman who has an old, decrepit, needy cat. He wonders if she wrote it when she herself was pregnant.
    He spends the rest of the evening reading the book.
    When he’s done he restarts his computer (it’s close to midnight now) and Googles her for twenty minutes. She isn’t on Facebook, either openly or surreptitiously, or on MySpace, and her old e-mail account doesn’t work (he already knows this last bit from a prior bounce back), but eventually he finds her, “visiting” at the University of Vermont.
    He writes:

well, that was very strange, and i’m having trouble figuring out exactly what to say to you. so two things for now: 1) “convolutions” is really strong, maybe my favorite story of yours, though i always liked that bizarre one about the acrobats. i love esp. the bit about the cat’s greasy fur—you can almost feel it under your fingertips. 2) how long are you in town? because i’d like to take molly out for ice cream, if you’ll let me. (and if you won’t i’m prepared to make a fuss.) needless to say, you’re invited too. xo, d.

    He hits Send without giving himself the opportunity to reread, edit, delete.

She doesn’t answer. And in the end, despite his claim, he’s not prepared to make a fuss. But he checks his e-mail often for the next few weeks, and Googles her some more, and writes a letter (handwritten this time, on heavy, porous paper), which he mails care of her publisher. He writes it late one night when he’s a little drunk and drops it in the mailbox the same night, and in the morning he doesn’t remember exactly what it said, except that it featured the word regret.

Or: she e-mails him back the next morning.
Hey mr. lowercase. Truth is I’m not sure exactly what to say either, except that reading that story was probably bad form and I’ve been a little ashamed of myself. Molly and I are staying with my friend Ellen in Detroit. We leave tomorrow for another leg on this long-ass tour. Ice cream is out (she’s lactose intolerant), but if you can make it to Detroit tomorrow morning at 10 we’ll meet you at the playground in Belle Isle Park. That’s as much as I can offer. Kate.

    He goes. He gets lost on the way, but he has given himself plenty of time to correct for that.
    He discovers that Molly is very charming, though he has never been particularly interested in kids. He attempts to teach her Twenty Questions.
    Kate is not, at first, especially friendly. She is wearing sunglasses (it’s cloudy), and she crosses her arms. He pictures her in a suit of gleaming, hermetically sealed armor. She hovers but does not facilitate conversation. She is not helpful, for instance, about explaining the rules to Twenty Questions. So he focuses on Molly.
    But after David teaches the game to Molly (who calls it, simply, Questions) and gives her some pointers for how to play, Molly asks, as instructed, “Is it alive?” and then, when he tells her it isn’t, asks, “Is it a dead bird?” David laughs, and Kate lowers her head and smiles.
    Molly keeps guessing: “Is it a dead bear?” “Is it a dead caterpillar?” The corpses pile up. At some point Kate removes her sunglasses. At some further point Kate says, “Hey. David, she’s guessed about fifty things. What is it already? This is too hard for her.”
    “Give her a chance.”
    “It’s too hard. She’s only four.”
    “Four, huh? I thought there was some debate about that.”
    They study each other. Kate shrugs. “Come on, what is it? The answer?”
    “It’s a story,” he says, finally.
    She shakes her head. “First of all, way too abstract. She’s never going to guess that. You have to play fair with kids, David, or they’ll never trust you.”
    “Crap, you’re right. Hey, Molly!” he calls after Molly’s retreating back, aimed now for the slide. “I’m sorry!” He turns back to Kate. “I wasn’t thinking.”
    She nods. “Second of all, too general. The whole point is to be specific. Not ‘a story,’ but ‘Snow White,’ you know, something particular. Third: I thought you said it wasn’t alive.”
    Now he’s the one who can’t stop himself from smiling.
    She smiles back. “Cheater,” she says.
    He tries to describe her smile to himself, discarding one by one various adjectives: broad, sharp, knowing, reluctant, superior, amalgamated.
    There are things about Kate (her eyes, for instance; her cleverness; a way she has of hugging herself, as if to keep herself intact) that he misses. It surprises him, how glad he is to encounter these things now.

Molly is hauling herself up and then slipping back down the slide, over and over again, a miniature Sisyphus. Ten feet apart, they both face her.
    “Let me check my ‘watch,’” Kate says, making scare quotes. She pulls out her cell phone.
    “That reminds me: what’s your number?”
    “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She smiles. “Oh Lord, it’s almost noon. I need to get going. We have a train to catch.” She turns to him. “What?”
    “Oh.” David shrugs. “I was just trying to remember—”
    “Why I blew it with you.”
    “Why? Or how? Because I sure remember how.”
    “Clearly.” He looks at her. “I think you’ve made that point. I’ve got a visual on how, thank you for that.”
    She laughs.
    “No, I was thinking about why.”
    There’s a pause. She waits, then shrugs. “Well, that’s for you to ponder.” Turning away from him, she calls, “Molly! Five-minute warning!”
    “Maybe I’ll write a story about it,” he says.
    Her look becomes more threatening. Now he laughs.
    “Don’t worry, Kate. It would only reflect badly on me.”
    She waits again. She is practically tapping her foot.
    David says, “I’m beginning to think messing things up with you was one of my more stupid moves.”
    “Lots to choose from.”
    There’s that smile again. Obnoxious? Challenging? “Hey, do you remember,” he says, “‘so they persisted, misfitted’?”
    Her mouth opens. She seems, for once, legitimately taken aback. “I do.” She shakes her head. “I mean, I do now. But I’d forgotten . . .”
    “Hmm, I was wondering that. If you’d forgotten saying that, or just left it out, for some reason.”
    “No, no, I would have used that, definitely,” she says. “How strange . . .”
    “You had some good lines, Kate. Me too.”
    “Are you talking about real life? Or in my story?”
    “I meant real life, more.”
    She grins. “I was waiting for the critique.”
    He hesitates. “Oh, what can I say? The ending was abrupt.”
    “In the story, or in real life?”
    “Both, I suppose. But I was talking about the story.”
    “But it was like that. As you just conceded. As you know.”
    “Oh, but come on, Kate.” David extends his hands. “You teach this stuff. What’s the first thing we tell the chickens in a workshop? It doesn’t matter if it ‘really happened that way.’” Like her, he indicates scare quotes. “Who cares? What is real anyway? We’re all trapped within our own subjectivities. The only thing that counts is whether or not it works in the story.”
    “So you think the ending sucked.” Her face falls.
    “‘Sucked’ isn’t the right word.”
    “Too harsh?”
    He laughs. “I was thinking, too juvenile! Let’s see. I’m sticking with, it was too abrupt. That’s my final and objective opinion.”
    “Ha! But maybe you’re right.” She frowns. “Molly, careful on that slide. Sit on your booty, baby.”
    “Well. It’s revisable.”
    “The ending? What do you mean?”
    He smiles at her. Her eyes narrow.
    “Come on. Ask me the question,” he says.
    “What question? I’m getting confused about all these questions.”
    He waits.
    “You and your word games,” Kate says.
    “You and your word games. Come on, ask it.”
    She stares him down.
    “Oh fine. You’re supposed to ask—come on, Katie, you’re supposed to say, ‘Is it revisable in the story or in real life?’”
    “The story is published,” Kate says, lifting her chin.
    He laughs. “Okay, okay. Though publishing isn’t the final version, necessarily. Look at Leaves of Grass. Whitman messed around with that forever.”
    Tap, tap, goes her imaginary foot.
    “Well, the truth is I was wondering about real life.”
    “Molly, on your booty I said!” Kate calls. “What are you talking about exactly, David?”
    “‘Nowhere.’ Bad place to end. I’m wondering if it could end somewhere else. Just speculating.”
    “David. You’re being maddening. Too vague.”
    She’s standing perhaps ten feet away from him. He takes a step toward her. “I think you need to add another scene. At least one more.”
    She shakes her head. “The story’s over.”
    “But didn’t you say it was alive?”
    “Seriously. Stop playing games with me.”
    “All right, all right, I’m being serious. I screwed up. Granted. I’m not trying to defend myself.” He draws a circle in the sand with his foot. “What if, for instance, I came to visit you in Vermont?”
    She is shaking her head, but somehow she doesn’t convey no. Not exactly.
    “Well, then, what if I join you and Molly on the next leg of your book tour? I have six weeks before the semester starts. I can get away for a few days. Where are you going, anyway?”
    “Nowhere,” she says.
    He rolls his eyes.
    “Come on, David, you lobbed that one to me! Softball.”
    “Whatever. Let me come.”
    “What am I supposed to tell Molly?” she asks, after a pause.
    “Whatever you want. If I start pissing you off, I can always drive home. If nothing else, you’ll get a free ride to—where are we going again?”
    She starts to laugh.
    Another step. He is almost touching her now. “But Kate—do me one favor and read some other story.”
    “’Black Tea,’” she says, decisively.
    “Really? I preferred the one about the sick cat.”
    “Not for a reading.” She is shaking her head again. “Too much of a downer.”
    “Come on. You aren’t there to entertain them. You&squo;re supposed to challenge them, to provoke them.”
    “Actually, I’m supposed to sell books.”
    In the midst of this argument (“That’s facile.” “No, that’s practical.”), they smile. Something about this discussion feels, to both of them, very familiar.

    Or: David goes back to his apartment and does not e-mail Kate, though he does, over time, read her collection. (It takes him several weeks, because he keeps hiding the book from himself, like a tempting bag of potato chips.) Naturally, she does not contact him.
    Twenty years pass.
    Molly grows up. She becomes, predictably, a writer. (Or maybe that isn’t so predictable: maybe it would make more sense if she did something completely, aggressively different—like being a marine biologist, or a mechanical engineer. Someone who builds tangible things instead of fantasies and dreams. However, in this version, she becomes a writer.)
    Nonetheless, she is a writer with very different proclivities and ambitions than her parents. One knows that there is something, after all, rebellious about this career choice by Molly’s disdain for writing fiction. (Or, as she calls it, using scare quotes, turning her pretty, painted index fingers into hooks, “fiction.”) How she puts it, in interviews, is that all writers, so-called fiction writers included, exploit real life. None of their friends are safe, especially the epigrammatic ones. Writers plunder and appropriate, but the “fiction” writers dress everything in masks, glitter, and capes to create grotesque Frankenstein hybrids. The problem with creative nonfiction is that one’s sense of reality is never, of course, reality per se, but nonetheless it’s the more honest, above-board narrative form.
    Her first book, published when she is twenty-four (by Harcourt, her mother’s publisher—Molly is quite defensive about any alleged nepotism) is a memoir. The title is Plausible Deniability, and like the memoirs of others (one example Molly points to is Barack Obama’s first book), it isn’t principally about the parent who raised her but instead the one who didn’t, the one who eluded her and whose elusiveness made him, Karl Marx would say, that much more valuable. (That analogy is Molly’s: her book in different ways compares the family to the marketplace.)
    Of course, Kate is in there too. The mother who is also a writer, who struggles and moves them and moves them again from one marginal college job to the next, from one summer writing retreat to another, publishing this and that along the way, to spare but mostly positive reviews and to not many readers, and then suddenly, with her fifth book, becomes quite famous. She’s a finalist for the National Book Award and then wins a Pulitzer and a job at a prestigious university (Brown), which she keeps for a few years before she surprises everyone, herself most of all—no, Molly most of all—by getting married at age fifty-eight and moving with her South African husband to Johannesburg. It all rattles Molly, but by then she is twenty-one, graduating from college (Oberlin), an official grown-up herself, and already beginning to write.
    Things of note about Molly: She seems older than she is. People are invariably surprised to learn her age. Her face is moon shaped. She collects small, exquisite objects, such as antique buttons cut like rosebuds, cordial glasses, dollhouse pastries and condiments. At twenty-two, she has had one meaningful relation- ship, with a man five years older named Soren. Her friends on the whole regard Soren as a negative influence: Molly becomes more serious when they are together, even somber (“glum” is a word they use). She goes out with him for a little over a year and breaks it off shortly after graduation, partly because she feels like she was always busy calculating exactly how much Soren loved her, so she could love him slightly less. She pictures his affection as a cup of sugar and herself as reducing her return of it by two or three tablespoons. Molly is not the only one to believe that this preoccupied measuring has something to do with her parents.
    The story of the title of her memoir is this:
    When Molly is twenty-two years old, she finally tracks down her father. Tracks down is perhaps the wrong term, as it isn’t as if his identity were a secret, or as if David were hiding exactly. Molly can’t actually remember a time when she didn’t know about David. (Kate, both the real Kate and the Kate depicted in Molly’s book, is a long believer in answering children’s questions honestly. This meant that Molly had a very graphic, technical, and precocious understanding of where babies came from, which is the subject of one of the funnier chapters in her book. It confuses Kate and hurts her feelings, though she would never tell Molly this, that one reviewer describes Molly’s famous mother as “having no boundaries.”) Nonetheless, Molly never approaches David until she is twenty-two. By then, she has read all four of his books (one has done pretty well) and has been following him, at a distance, for years.
    Although she is by then, or at any rate has resolved to become, a writer, Molly does not write David in advance. Nor does she call him. Instead she shows up at his door. She already has her memoir in mind by then and may be thinking, if unconsciously, about dramatic effect, staging. She would not be the first writer to plot her own life.
    David is shocked to see her, though not, in the final analysis, all that surprised. And he is polite, if not especially warm. He invites her in. He takes her coat. (Houndstooth, purchased at a thrift store. Molly has put considerable thought into what to wear.) He offers her wine (Protocolo). He pours himself a glass of Maker’s.
    “Plausible deniability” is his phrase, his response to a question Molly asks. She has of course heard Kate’s version of the bookstore reading. She has heard it and solicited it and repeated it for years. It is the closest thing (except, perhaps, “Nowhere” itself) that Molly has to an origin story. As she gets older, she asks more questions, but Kate’s story does not vary.
    “Did he say anything? After ‘How old are you, pretty girl?’”
    “No. He just looked at you and then looked at me and after a minute he got up and left.”
    “A whole minute?”
    “Forty-five seconds maybe.”
    “How did he look?”
    “Like if his eyes were guns, he would have shot me.”
    “No, how did he look at me?”
    “Well, baby, I didn’t see from your perspective. I mean, literally, I didn’t. I just saw the way he looked at me.”
    Eventually, Kate’s patience wears out. She gets exasperated. She says, “I have nothing else to contribute here! Why don’t you ask Ellen?”
    So Molly consults her godmother, whose version is more or less the same, except that it includes Ellen’s own shock: “That’s David? Really?”
    What does Ellen mean by “really?” Was he disappointing somehow?
    “No, not exactly,” Ellen finesses. “It’s just that David Constable had been so larger-than-life. Such a figure. And to encounter him in person—well. He was smaller somehow than the picture in my head. That might be a cliché to say, but there you go, and clichés after all exist for a reason. He was wiry. He had black, curly, crazy hair.”
    “Like mine?”
    “Yes, honey. And intense eyes. I remember that. But I can’t remember the way he was looking at you, exactly. I was so shocked, myself. I was staring at David more than evaluating his expression. Just trying to absorb it all.”
    (Ellen is not a writer. She’s a neurologist. This is not the first time Molly experiences her narrative powers, particularly of description, as inadequate.)
    One thing Ellen confirms, though, is Kate’s rendition of the dialogue. “She said three and a half; you said four and a half. I remember thinking, ‘Oh fuck.’ He did not say anything—anything at all—and after a minute or so he walked out.”
    “A minute or so?”
    “Maybe two minutes. Molly, it’s not like I had a stopwatch! He walked out and that was the end of it.”
    Molly feels as though she has spent her entire conscious life dissatisfied with this particular ending.
    So she shows up at his door, age twenty-two, wearing her perfect hipster lavender-and-chocolate houndstooth coat, and accepts a glass of wine, and he pours himself a bourbon, and they sit there, staring at each other (Molly on a plaid, scruffy couch, David in a rocking chair), and she asks him. What was he thinking? Why didn’t he say anything? And his answer, after a pause, is “Plausible deniability.”
    If he left then—right then, without pursuing it, without getting to the bottom of it, without receiving a final answer to his question about Molly’s age—well, the question was left open, correct? Unresolved. He could choose to believe Kate (“three and a half”). Did it logically make sense, even, to take the word of a child over an adult? And to accept Molly’s version (“four and a half”), well, that involved fucking up his entire life. There are certain people who just shouldn’t be parents. Who never intend, if they’re responsible and at all self-aware, to be parents. It was easier, for these reasons and others, to end the conversation then, though of course he could appreciate how, from Molly’s perspective, such an ending would seem premature, too abrupt.
    “But what did you believe?” Molly presses.
    “Oh. That you were my child, of course. I mean, look at you.”
    Molly reflects, then repeats his words. “So ‘plausible deniability’ for whom, then? Did you want Mom to think you believed her?”
    David shakes his head. His hair, curly as hers, is mostly gray. “For myself, of course. So I could maintain to myself that who knew? So I could walk away.”
    Later—but not a long time later, for the entire visit lasts fifty-five minutes—he asks about Kate, and Molly tells him about South Africa, the three teenage step- children, Kate’s new interests (gardening, conservation). He nods. He knows all this already (well, not about the gardening, but who cares about that, really).
    “I’ve kept up with your mother over the years,” he tells Molly. When she opens her mouth with surprise, he waves his hands. “Oh, not kept up, kept up. Not with her personally. I mean I’ve kept up with her work.” He gestures toward his bookshelf, and there she is, Molly sees, next to George Eliot. “I’ve read all of her books. She’s done very well for herself, your mother. Though I will say that I didn’t love that book that was so celebrated. You know, the one that won the prize. I like her earlier work more. There was a story about acrobats I really liked.”
    “‘The Contortionists.’”
    “Yes. A fine, fine story.”
    There’s a pause, and then Molly makes herself ask the other question on the top of her list. “So why did things end with you and Mom? Your version, I mean.”
    He is silent for a minute. “You know, I really liked Kate. She was smart, and funny, and we certainly had what I suppose you’d call chemistry. The first time we touched, she actually gave me a shock.”
    Molly nods and smiles. She knows that already.
    David nods too. “Oh yes. That was in that damn story, wasn’t it?” He shakes his head. “Well, I suppose the real issue was we didn’t define things very clearly. We never had that conversation—you know: Is this exclusive? What are we exactly?”
    “Were you seeing other women the whole time?” Molly asks.
    “God no. Is that what your mother thinks?”
    Molly shrugs. “I think she wonders.”
    “She might have asked me.” He shakes his head again, frowning. “No, that was the first time, actually. She was a girl who worked at a café I used to go to sometimes. No one significant. I don’t even remember her name.” He stops. “Well, that isn’t precisely true. Her name was Allison. But I only remember that because I have an excellent memory, not because she was at all relevant. That is, it’s emotionally truthful to say that I don’t remember her name, even if it’s not factually correct. We would chat about jazz sometimes. She liked Coltrane. Again, I remember all this because I have a first-rate memory, not because it mattered to me. So, we slept together twice. The second time Kate walked in. It never happened again. After Kate left, after that whole incident, I avoided Allison. Shame, because I did like that café.”
    “But why?” Molly says.
    David laughs, a little ruefully. “That’s what children always ask, isn’t it? ‘Why?’ I can’t give you a better answer. She—Allison—she was sexy. She flirted with me. Kate and I didn’t have set rules. I wasn’t cheating on her, not technically. I know she saw it that way.” He leans forward. “You know, if I could do it all over, I would, Molly, on several grounds. I did care about your mother, more than I even realized at the time, more certainly than she realized. But she never gave me a chance to explain. She didn’t answer the phone. When I went to talk to her, she wouldn’t listen. I tried to tell her then, but it was clear from her face that she wasn’t going to hear anything I had to say.”
    “What were you trying to tell her? That that girl didn’t matter?”
    “Well, the correlate. That Kate did. Matter, I mean. I suppose if we’re being precise . . .” he pauses.
    Molly, leaning toward him, practically slouching, now sits up straight. She thinks that this is it. This is how investigative journalists must feel, or policemen during an interrogation when they finally get the criminal to crack or fold or whichever verb applies. Overall this conversation has not been quite what she was hoping for. David has been fairly candid, but she hasn’t heard anything she didn’t suspect or know. The information that the girl was a one-off is a little noteworthy, but she isn’t convinced that it’s true. At least that’s what Kate would say: she’d roll her eyes and ask why Molly was taking his word for it. So far, this talk has been more like a fact-check than a heart-to-heart. But now, she wishes she had a pen and paper, a tape recorder, even a camera crew. (She had considered the first two but rejected them as too conspicuous, too threatening.) A camera crew most of all, because she’d like to show Kate a film of this, to say, “See, Mom? He’s not a bad guy. Look at his eyes. You can tell he’s being genuine. You can tell he’s sorry about, well, everything.” And just as quickly Molly discards the fantasy camera: no, it would be better after all if she wrote all this down. For herself, for Kate. Better if she mediates this. She can describe everything to Kate: David’s expression, his furniture, his two-day beard, his nervous hands, his reserve that is, finally, eroding.
    And it could be (Molly thinks later) that David senses all this, that he sees her sit up straighter, that he sees these ideas flash across her face like those old- fashioned flash books with the cinematic stills: the horse galloping, the daughter plotting, mentally organizing her book. Because instead of continuing (“carrying on,” Molly edits later), he stops and looks at her sharply and says, “Forget it.”
    “What?” Molly says.
    He sits up straighter too, as if imitating her. “So you’re my daughter,” he says. “I accept that. But really, this conversation—this hypothetical conversation, I should say, because it never in fact occurred—doesn’t concern you. It’s between me and Kate. I went over there that day planning on telling her some things I thought I needed to say, and she wouldn’t listen to me. Had she listened, it would be a different story. Then maybe all of this would concern you, would involve you. But as is—” He shrugs. “If she wanted to hear what I had to say, she should have listened at the time. There are no rewinds.”
    “You could explain yourself now,” Molly coaxes, but it’s the wrong thing to say. He looks at her, and she can tell he’s imagining Kate there, behind her shoulder. The image (the projected image) galls her, because Kate has nothing to do with this. Molly is not Kate’s puppet, grilling David at her instigation. On the contrary. Kate was never supportive of this whole plan. When Molly first told her about it (they were sitting at Kate’s table in South Africa, the one with the deep knife grooves; Kate was wearing a long white blouse that looked like tissue), Kate’s mouth was set, wary, downturned. But she restrained herself from much commentary, limiting herself to saying, “That man has a way with words.”
    David shakes his head. He gets up and pulls down a book from a shelf. It’s the short-story collection. He opens it to the title page and hands it to Molly, who looks at her mother’s signature.
    “When she signed the book at that reading, that’s all she wrote: her name. We were together for almost a year. More than a year, if you date it to that job interview. And that’s all she had to say. To me, I mean. Of course she had plenty to say about me. But to me, that was it.” He looks at her. “Well, Kate always believed in reciprocity.”
    And after that, their conversation, truth be told, winds down. Molly asks for more wine to prolong things, and David pours it for her. She planned this visit to be a longer one. Well, she had different scripts. She knew it was possible that he could simply close the door in her face. She had been prepared for that. Of course, the best possibility was that they would click, would connect very naturally; this would be the first step. Later, they would share work. (In fact, allowing for this trajectory, she has a story in her bag that she has brought to, possibly, show him. Like her coat, she chose the story very carefully.)
    But in the end, it is a strain to fill a whole hour. Molly catches herself watching the clock. She has so many questions—she came here with so many—and now she can’t seem to remember them, or they lead to nothing; they go nowhere. His answers are polite but as brief as if he were being deposed: “No, never married. Not suited for it.” “The first two Godfathers. Those and The Third Man.” “My favorite city? Prague, I suppose.” “At this stage of my life, Kafka.”
    “Don’t you want to know anything about me?” she thinks, but she cannot bring herself to ask.
    Molly sips, fidgets, and deflates. It will take a lot of work, after all, to convert this scene, through the alchemy of writing (shit into elixir), into the denouement Molly requires.

Kim Magowan won the 2017 Moon City Short Fiction Award with her debut collection, Undoing. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books.

Magowan lives in San Francisco with her partner and their two daughters, and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Atticus ReviewBird’s ThumbCleaver, HobartNew World WritingSixfold, and many other journals.

"Version" appears in our Winter 2011 issue.