Vacuum in the Dark

A Novel

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About The Book

From the Whiting Award–winning author of Pretend I’m Dead and one of the most exhilarating new voices in fiction, a “thoroughly delightfully, surprisingly profound” (Entertainment Weekly) one-of-a-kind novel about a cleaning lady named Mona and her struggles to move forward in life.

Soon to be an FX television show starring Lola Kirke.

Mona is twenty-six and cleans houses for a living in Taos, New Mexico. She moved there mostly because of a bad boyfriend—a junkie named Mr. Disgusting, long story—and her efforts to restart her life since haven’t exactly gone as planned. For one thing, she’s got another bad boyfriend. This one she calls Dark, and he happens to be married to one of Mona’s clients. He also might be a little unstable.

Dark and his wife aren’t the only complicated clients on Mona’s roster, either. There’s also the Hungarian artist couple who—with her addiction to painkillers and his lingering stares—reminds Mona of troubling aspects of her childhood, and some of the underlying reasons her life had to be restarted in the first place. As she tries to get over the heartache of her affair and the older pains of her youth, Mona winds up on an eccentric, moving journey of self-discovery that takes her back to her beginnings where she attempts to unlock the key to having a sense of home in the future. The only problems are Dark and her past. Neither is so easy to get rid of.

Jen Beagin’s Vacuum in the Dark is an unforgettable, astonishing read, “by turns nutty and forlorn…Brash, deadpan, and achingly troubled” (O, The Oprah Magazine). Beagin is “a wonderfully funny writer who also happens to tackle serious subjects” (NPR).

Excerpt

Vacuum in the Dark POOP
IT WAS HARD, MISSHAPEN, PROBABLY handmade. Nut brown flecked with beige. Sandalwood soap, it looked like, sitting on a porcelain plate with a peacock painted on its edge. Having just finished scrubbing the toilet, Mona grabbed the soap to wash her hands. Once wet, it fell apart and caked her fingers like clay. The stench, although vaguely sweet, brought instant tears. She blinked the tears away and peered at her hands. The beige flecks, she saw now, were undigested seeds, and something long, wet, and army green had been swirled into the middle. The green thing, whatever it was, had been binding it all together.

“Spinach,” Mona gasped. “What the fuck.”

“What’s happening?” she heard Terry whisper.

Mona leaned against the towel rack, reeling as if she’d been punched in the face. “Someone shit in the soap dish,” she said after a while.

Terry didn’t say anything. Mona’s upper lip was sweating. She made the water as hot as she could bear and rinsed her hands.

“I mistook it for fancy hippie soap, Terry,” Mona said, and swallowed. “Like some dumbass.”

“Don’t panic,” Terry said in her most gentle voice.

“My mouth feels weird,” Mona mumbled.

“You needn’t worry,” Terry said swiftly. “You’re a non-puker, right? Keep breathing through your mouth. Keep rinsing. Look for some real soap under the sink.”

“Yeah, no, okay,” Mona said.

In the recent past, Mona would’ve turned to Bob, her nickname for God, but Bob was often a flake in emergency situations. Terry would get her through this. Most days, Terry was simply a sober and inquisitive voice in her head, interviewing her about the day-to-day hassles of being a cleaning lady in Taos, but occasionally she switched roles and became something more: coach, therapist, surrogate parent. At twenty-six, Mona was a little old for imaginary friends, but Terry wasn’t just anyone. She wasn’t some stranger off the street. She was a real person who lived in Philadelphia. In fact, for well over a decade, on an almost daily basis, Mona had been listening to Terry on NPR.

“From WHYY in Philadelphia, this is Fresh Air,” Terry said, apropos of nothing.

The jazzy theme song accompanied Mona’s search for soap under the sink. Nothing liquid available, but there, in the back, a water-stained box of Yardley’s English Lavender. She tore open the box and washed her hands vigorously, surgeon style.

“The air? Not so fresh today, Terr,” Mona said.

“Is it human?” Terry asked.

Mona frowned at herself in the mirror. “I believe so.”

“Could it be the dog’s?” Terry asked.

The clients owned an overweight dachshund named Dinner. Dinner was a dream. This wasn’t Dinner’s work.

“This was human,” Mona said, “and . . . hard-won, if you know what I mean.”

“I don’t,” Terry said.

“Severe constipation,” Mona said. “That’s what this person suffers from.”

“Among other things, obviously,” Terry said gamely.

Why hadn’t she smelled it right away? Well, because it was old, that’s why. Three days old, perhaps four.

“What are you going to do?” Terry asked, sounding worried.

Mona didn’t answer. There was still a little shit in the soap dish. Now that his beautiful feathers were soiled, the painted peacock did not look so serene. He looked startled and insecure. Part of her wanted to smear the remaining shit on the mirror. She could draw a heart with it, and then add some wings, and top it with a halo. Feces graffiti. Then she would leave the house and never look back.

Instead, she upended the dish over the toilet and flushed, and then swabbed everything with diluted bleach.

“You just flushed the evidence,” Terry said, and sighed. “Nice work.”

“This isn’t TV, Terry,” Mona said patiently. “I can’t send it to the lab for testing. I can’t dust it for fingerprints.”

“Who do you think did this?” Terry asked, bewildered.

“Who knows,” Mona said.

Actually, Mona had a couple of theories, but she wasn’t ready to share them just yet.

“Someone from the party?” Terry offered.

One of the owners was a therapist and had conducted a group therapy session in the living room the previous evening. Mona hadn’t been there, of course, but they’d left pamphlets and pretzels everywhere, and a big white board with a bunch of crap written on it, like “Location/Occasion” and “Pleasant Childhood Memories” and “Open-Ended Questions.”

“Maybe you should write your own note on the whiteboard,” Terry suggested. “Such as, ‘Whoever shit in the soap dish owes me two hundred fifty dollars.’?”

Mona examined the porcelain sink. There was an exciting new rust stain near the drain. From her cleaning bucket she removed a bag of cut lemons and a jar of sea salt. She sprinkled a generous amount of salt onto half a lemon, which she then rubbed over the rust. The stain disappeared in seconds.

“Maybe you don’t give a shit,” Terry said, and chuckled at her own joke.

Mona shrugged. She didn’t want to discuss it any further, as she already knew that she wouldn’t bring it up with the owners. No one was home, anyway, and she was almost finished here—she’d saved the guest bath for last. Besides, what was she going to do—wait around? Leave a voicemail?

“I just annihilated a rust stain,” Mona said. “Again. I’m telling you, lemon juice and salt are the shit—”

“I don’t get why you’re not more freaked out,” Terry interrupted. “About the . . . actual shit.”

“I’m going through a breakup, Terry,” Mona said.

Terry was quiet for a few minutes. Mona polished the faucet with Windex and a dry rag.

“I didn’t know you were in a relationship,” Terry said finally.

“It was short-lived,” Mona said. “And disturbing.”

“Big surprise,” Terry said.

“Anyway, if I say something, they win,” Mona said. “So, I’m letting this one go. But it’s good to know you’re not squeamish about this sort of thing, Terry. You handled that like a trouper. I don’t know about you, but I feel like we’re even closer now.”

Terry made no comment, which was fine. It was after five o’clock and she probably had better things to do. Despite the late hour, Mona went to town on the outside of the toilet, polishing all of its parts with 409, including the often-overlooked bolt covers.

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, THREE SHITS, same house. The first one was in the kitchen, a small brown frown sitting on a stool.

“A stool on a stool,” Mona said out loud. “Wow.”

Upon closer inspection, not a frown—a smile. The thing had teeth, or at any rate, here and there something hard and white. She took a photograph of it, and then held her breath as she picked it up with a paper towel. It was a long walk to the toilet.

The second was on a low shelf in the living room. This one resembled a dense, muscular finger with a swollen knuckle. The finger was pointing at a braille edition of The Old Man and the Sea. Again, she photographed it, and then tried to think of the significance, if any, as she carried it out of the living room, but she could barely remember the story. An old man. A young boy? The sea. A big fish. He almost dies. The End.

The third was hiding behind a potted palm in one of the guest rooms. This one was sweating. It seemed a little shy. It was as if it had been onstage and had suffered an attack, and was now recovering in the wings. Up close, however, she saw that it was quite full of itself. It also seemed to have acne. She couldn’t bear to carry it anywhere, so she tossed it out the window. Fuck it.

“Let me ask you something,” Terry said suddenly. “Have you ever encountered this sort of thing as a cleaning lady?”

Terry was using her on-the-air voice, which happened about once a week. Mona gathered her thoughts as she shut the window and threw away the dirty paper towel. The only thing left to do now was vacuum.

“Well, Terr, I did find a small log in a bathtub once,” Mona said, and plugged in the vacuum. “But that guy—the client—was on chemo. This was two years ago, when I first moved to Taos.”

“But this is different, wouldn’t you agree?” Terry said. “This is deliberate. What’s the message here?”

The vacuum whined and then made a screeching noise. Something metal was trapped in the brush roller. She cut the power, flipped it, removed the bottom plate. A nickel and a paper clip fell out.

“This whole situation may be karmic, Terry,” Mona said, pocketing the nickel and paper clip. She reassembled the vacuum. “Growing up in Los Angeles, my best friend in grade school was this girl named Penny. She was an extrovert, a great kisser, and, as I recall, a pretty good gymnast. At recess, she would drag me to the restroom to watch her take a dump right next to the toilet. I either gagged and almost puked, or laughed so hard I pissed myself. Afterward, we hid outside and waited. Penny did this sort of thing wherever we went. She pooped on doorsteps, in driveways and gazebos. At parties, she pooped in closets. She pooped in dressing rooms at the mall. I liked to think of it as performance art, and myself as an artist’s assistant, but then Penny pooped at summer camp, in the middle of the stream where everyone bathed and drank water, and I realized that Penny was not an artist. She was a terrorist.”

“And you were an accomplice,” Terry said after a pause.

“I suppose that’s right,” Mona said.

“Do you know what became of her?”

“Yes,” Mona said. “She became Scarlett Johansson.”

Terry chuckled softly.

“No, but I wonder about her,” Mona said. “I bet she’s a Hollywood producer or a lawyer or a plastic surgeon or something.”

“Don’t be offended,” Terry said, “but any way this is all in your head?”

“The shits are real, Terry,” Mona said. “They have heft. They engage all the senses.”

“Start keeping a record of some kind,” Terry suggested, as Mona finished vacuuming. “Indicate the time of day, the location, plus a brief description, and maybe include a drawing.”

Not a bad idea. It could be a kind of art project. In a notebook, she might write something like: Possible suspect: Chloe, daughter, age seventeen, artist. Room: neat as a pin. Keeps diary, decent writer. Favorite movie: Donnie Darko.

MONA HEADED HOME. SHE LIVED in one half of a hundred-year-old adobe ranch house on the edge of a valley. An older married couple rented the other half. Nigel was a British man in his forties; his wife, Shiori, was Japanese and half his age. They made music with homemade instruments and dressed in matching pajamas. They’d moved to Taos from Indonesia where they’d spent twelve years meditating and gazing into each other’s eyes, and had maintained a willful and near-total ignorance of popular culture. They had no idea who Philip Seymour Hoffman was and didn’t care, and had never read a book published after 1950. In some ways, they reminded her of John and Yoko, but, as they were both terrible musicians, she called them Yoko and Yoko. They occupied the front of the house, which was all sunshine and flowers, and had a large yard, a paved driveway, and south-facing windows, while Mona lived in the back, in perpetual shade and darkness, and had to sleep with a hair dryer in the winter.

When she pulled into the driveway, they were standing on her porch in their traveling pajamas. They were often waiting for her when she came home, but Nigel was peering into her kitchen window, which was unusual. She cut the engine, opened the truck door, and asked if everything was okay.

“We’re on our way to a meditation retreat,” Shiori said, “but we thought we heard a dog barking in your living room.”

Six months later and they were still bringing up George.

“My dog is dead,” Mona said.

“It didn’t sound like your dog,” Nigel said patiently.

“Big,” Shiori said. “It sounded big. Like a wolf.”

Mona pulled out her house key. Yoko and Yoko put their arms around each other’s shoulders and stepped toward her door.

“Guys, I’ve had a weird day,” Mona said. “Not sure I’m in the mood tonight.” She watched them look sideways at each other. “No offense,” she added, uselessly. They were never offended by anything she said. She both loved and despised this about them. “But let me get your take on something. I keep finding little shits in this house I’m cleaning. Human shits left around on purpose. It’s obviously one of the inhabitants of the house, but what would compel someone to do that? In their own house?”

“Rage,” Shiori said, after a pause.

“It’s . . . aggressive,” Nigel agreed slowly. “I would say this person feels trapped or caged and is very angry about it.”

“But one of the shits was on a stool,” Mona said. “A stool on a stool—get it? That seems sophisticated and somewhat playful, no? Maybe this person just has a fetish for pooping in weird places.”

“Well, then it must be someone who doesn’t live in the house,” Nigel said. “Your own house is not a weird place, is it?”

Yoko and Yoko smiled smugly.

“Anyway, that’s my two cents, as it were,” Nigel said nasally.

“I’m going to take your two cents and rub them together,” Mona said, “while I watch TV.”

They took a step back. Television was kryptonite for Yoko and Yoko. They refused to enter her side of the house unless she covered the entire set with a heavy blanket.

“Would you like us to wait here while you check for the dog?” Shiori asked.

“I don’t hear any barking,” Mona said. “So, I don’t think Cujo’s inside.”

“Cujo?” Nigel asked.

“Stephen King,” Mona sighed. “Never mind.”

ALMOST THREE WEEKS LATER, MONA was sweeping the kitchen floor of the shit house. The shits had vanished. Christmas was around the corner. Dinner was a little fatter; Mona was bloated and about to bleed. Her primary happiness that day was her new broom. Among her favorite sounds in the world: stiff cornstalk bristles on a hard surface. She was in the middle of telling Terry how important it was not to sweep like a gringo. “White people are terrible sweepers,” she was saying. “They don’t know how to caress the floor with the bristles, how to coax the crumbs from under the—”

“But aren’t you a white person?” Terry interrupted.

“Yeah, but I don’t sweep like—wait, is that a rum ball?”

There’d been rum balls in the fridge the previous week. Buttery, chocolatey, not too sweet. She’d checked the fridge first thing that morning, hoping for more, but they were gone. Someone must have dropped this one. The Last Rum Ball.

“Should I eat it off the floor?” she asked Terry.

“Why not,” Terry said. “You ate all that candy corn off the carpet at the Shaws’ last month.”

Mona picked it up—slightly deflated, but otherwise perfectly intact—and squished it lightly between her fingers.

“That’s not a rum ball,” she heard Terry say.

Mona dropped it as if it had bitten her.

“I think you might need glasses,” Terry suggested.

“Fuck,” Mona said out loud.

She scanned the floor—no other turds. Just this little one at her feet and now some shit on her fingers, which she absentmindedly wiped on her favorite apron.

“?‘Turd’ is perhaps the wrong word,” Terry said calmly. “Turds are curved.”

“What would you call this?” Mona asked.

“Poop,” Terry said.

The poop was upsetting, no question. More upsetting, perhaps, than the previous poops, because, like an all-purpose idiot, she’d mistaken it for something sweet and delicious. Perhaps she should leave it on the floor for some other fool to deal with. She asked herself what a healthy, well-adjusted person would do.

“They would call the owners and complain,” Terry answered.

“Hmm,” Mona said.

“Where’s the dog?” Terry asked. “You might bring him in for questioning.”

“Dinner!” Mona shouted. “Come!”

Dinner padded into the kitchen from his nap in the living room. His ears were inside out. She rubbed his head, righted his ears, and then pointed at the poop.

“Din-Din, is this yours?” she asked. “Did you do this?”

He approached it, took a tentative sniff, and sneezed. He made steady eye contact with her and then abruptly left the kitchen.

“Wasn’t him,” Mona told Terry.

Mona scrubbed her hands at the sink. The bogus rum ball she covered with a paper towel and tossed into the trash. Someone had wanted it to resemble a rum ball and strategically placed it under the cabinets. Was this same someone watching her right now? But where was the hidden camera? In the cabinets, or maybe embedded in the ceiling. She imagined the view from above. There she stood, in her shitty apron, gazing at the trash, lost in her stupid thoughts. Then she pictured herself as a grainy, black-and-white figure on a tiny screen. But who was watching this screen?

“We can rule out the lady of the house,” Mona said finally.

“Why’s that?” Terry asked.

“She’s blind,” Mona said.

MONA HAD MET THE HOMEOWNER six months ago when things weren’t going so good. Her only friend, Jesus, had moved hours away and three of her best clients had sold their houses. In her grief, she’d contracted an existential flu. This one had been hard to shake. The blood vessels in her eyes kept bursting, an unbearable scalpy smell lingered in her nostrils, and her insides felt dirty and ravaged. For the first time in her career, she’d canceled her clients for the week, and for three days she didn’t see or speak to anyone, not even Yoko and Yoko or Terry Gross.

On the morning of the fourth day, she remembered drinking Pepto Biz from the bottle while reading the quote taped to the refrigerator: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.” Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, which she’d never read. The movie, however, was among her favorite period dramas to blubber over. But, as was her custom, only during her period. Still, she decided to take the woman’s advice. The sea was off the table, obviously, so she would try tears and sweat, possibly simultaneously.

The tears did not come easily. She gnawed on her hand and produced a few drops of salt water, but, strangely, only out of one eye. The self-pity she felt at having to chew her own flesh made the other eye water. She stuck her head in the closet and cried. It had always been easier to cry in confined spaces. Closets, shower stalls, certain compact cars. She wept silently with her head in the shirt section of her hanging clothes. You’re okay, cookie, you’re okay, she told herself. There, there, cookie, let it out.

She’d never called herself cookie before.

Later, seeking salt water from sweat, she’d forced herself to run laps at the high school track. The place was deserted and dimly lit. She ran holding her tits to her chest, as the only bra she owned was an ancient padded thing with loose straps. Someday, and soon, hopefully, she could buy a real sports bra. Cupping her chest was a little like running in handcuffs, but obviously preferable to her tits flopping around.

She wasn’t running so much as trudging. Her so-called running shorts were high-waisted, brocade, the wrong shade of pink. Thigh-chafers. She wore her hair in two long braids, one thicker than the other, which tilted her equilibrium. Still, she managed five laps in the middle lane. When her back began to bother her during lap three, she took to skipping. Forward, backward, sideways. It slowed her down but was somehow more satisfying than jogging. In her fantasy, skipping became an Olympic sport for which she’d won the bronze. Twice.

“No gold?” Terry asked.

“If I had a sports bra,” Mona said. “Maybe.”

She repeated the salt water cure the following day. When she arrived at the track, a woman around Mona’s age was running in the outside lane. Then Mona noticed a long white stick tipped with bright red. The woman ran with it held out in front of her. Mona squinted at her face. Those weren’t sunglasses, she saw now. The woman’s eyes were covered with a kind of blindfold.

“Have you ever seen a blind person run?” she asked Terry cautiously.

Terry didn’t answer.

“I’ll take your silence as a no,” Mona said. “But let me tell you, Terry, it is really something. Honestly.”

From the bleachers, Mona quietly watched the woman. She was a better runner than Mona, and in better shape overall. She didn’t falter once, and her stick barely touched the ground. The fingers of her free hand fluttered as she ran, which Mona found endearing. Her gait was steady and confident, as if she were being pulled along by a large, invisible dog. A dog she adored and trusted completely.

“Or God?” Terry offered.

“God, dog, palindrome,” Mona said.

Mona coughed loudly as the woman passed for the third time, but the woman didn’t flinch. She was also about three and a half times prettier than Mona.

“Five and a half,” Terry corrected her.

Mona was handsome and vaguely ethnic looking. The blind woman was not ethnic looking. Nordic, perhaps, and highly desirable to a certain kind of man. The tall, rugged, Mr. Man type. The Mr. Man type was rarely attracted to the likes of Mona, which was a shame because she was often attracted to Mr. Men.

She began a slow slog in the opposite direction. Her legs felt sluggish and unresponsive, as if she were running in a dream. She and the blind woman were alone on the track. Each time they passed each other, the woman turned toward her slightly and smiled, as if sensing Mona’s unease. Her smile was a tad rapturous. It seemed to say, “I am not actually blind. I can see you perfectly. I know you’re holding your tits, for example, and I think you’re wonderful.”

Mona smiled back nervously. She felt this way around some toddlers and dogs: convinced they knew her darkest, most corrupt thoughts. Like the urge to trip the woman and watch her fall on her face. To distract herself, she started skipping.

“There are certain types of people you encounter over and over in life,” Mona mused to Terry. “Recurring types. For some people, it’s drunks. For others, it’s drummers. Or doctors. You know? Or redheads, chefs, amputees. People with herpes—”

“I get it,” Terry said impatiently.

“For me, it’s the blind,” Mona said.

This was a lie. She wasn’t sure why she was lying to Terry, of all people, but the concept was intriguing. She closed her eyes and continued skipping. She counted to five and was terrified, but she kept going. Then she felt something strange lapping at her ankles. A warm, knowing tongue. The tongue was doing something incredible to the backs of her knees. Now it rested in the crack of her ass. She felt suddenly and acutely blessed.

“The tongue of God,” Mona announced to Terry, “is currently parked in my butt crack.”

“It’s euphoria,” Terry explained. “Triggered by endorphins.”

Mona opened her eyes, but only long enough to negotiate the corner. She continued skipping, eyes closed. She felt the woman pass her again. The tongue of God transferred itself to her brain and began licking her cerebral cortex. She laughed for several seconds. Then she found herself crying, which was just as pleasant.

“The cure for anything, it appears, is skipping blind,” she told Terry.

“Doesn’t sound as, uh, insightful as Isak Dinesen’s quote,” Terry said, and giggled.

It was always good to hear Terry laugh. Mona laughed, too. Then she tripped and fell hard on her right forearm and knee. Her knee was crunchy to begin with and began throbbing. Mona quickly hobbled off the track to the grassy middle. The woman slowed to a stop, ear cocked, listening for something. Coyotes? Mona listened, too. She realized the woman was listening for her. Mona.

“Hello,” Mona called out. “Are you looking for me?”

The woman waved and began walking in Mona’s direction, tapping her stick.

“I’m on the grass,” Mona said uselessly, rubbing her knee.

Now the woman was standing too close with her face pointing the wrong way, as if examining Mona with her left ear. Her earlobe was covered in tiny hairs. Mona checked the woman’s legs—same deal, only longer.

“I believe the term is ‘peach fuzz,’?” Terry said jovially.

It was not unattractive. In fact, it was titillating, the thigh hair in particular. It also made sense. If you’re blind, are you really going to bother shaving?

“I heard you stumble,” the woman said, turning to face Mona. “You okay?”

“Oh yeah, I’m fine,” Mona said. “Thank you! You didn’t have to stop—”

“I’m blind,” the woman said quietly, and looked toward the ground. “Not deaf.”

“I’m shouting!” Mona shouted.

The woman gave her an amused frown. Mona frowned back, and then kept frowning. It felt good not to have to fix her face. The woman wore the sort of blindfold one used for sleeping. An eye mask. Mona envied it for a few seconds. She wanted her own eye mask.

“It’s funny,” Mona said, clearing her throat. “You kept turning your head toward me when we passed each other, and for a second I thought you were checking me out.”

“I was,” the woman said. “I was smelling you.”

Since the woman couldn’t see her, Mona went ahead and sniffed her armpit. Smelled like deodorant.

“How’d you know I wasn’t some creepy dude?” Mona asked.

“Dudes don’t skip,” the woman said. “At least, not around here. And you don’t smell like a dude.”

“What do I smell like?” Mona asked.

The woman seemed to mull it over while holding her stick against her chest.

“Suicide,” she said at last.

Mona gulped. She’d reached a personal high of 7.8 on the Sui-Scale that very morning. The Sui-Scale was a number reflecting her desire to end her life. Like the Richter, a difference of one represented a thirtyfold difference in magnitude. She’d spent over an hour researching suicide methods on LostAllHope.com. She settled on the gas-and-bag method, which had struck her as most affordable and least messy, and which the site warned was not for gestures. Helium was the preferred gas. Mona had imagined breathing in the helium and then talking to Terry in a squeaky helium voice, the bag over her head. They called it an “exit bag,” which she’d very much liked the sound of.

“What does suicide smell like?” Mona asked nervously.

For a second she expected the woman to say helium, even though helium was odorless, as were suicidal thoughts about helium. And thoughts in general.

“Strawberries,” the woman said, deadpan, as if it were obvious.

Mona heard herself laugh, startled. The woman was fucking with her. As she hadn’t been fucked with in forever, she’d forgotten what it felt like. It was . . . arousing.

“I’m kidding,” the woman said at last. She stared absently at Mona’s tits. “You smell clean,” the woman said. “Not like bar soap, but like . . . something else.”

“I’m probably sweating Windex,” Mona said. “I’m a cleaning lady.”

The woman left her mouth open when she smiled. She had the unrestrained, slightly goofy expressions of someone who’d never studied herself in a mirror.

“When I was in high school,” the woman said, “my mother shot herself in the kitchen. We got a cleaning lady after that and the whole house reeked of Pine-Sol for years.”

Mona glanced at her watch. Five minutes hadn’t passed, yet the woman was revealing her most intimate secrets. Often, after Mona copped to cleaning toilets for a living, people took it as a cue to be candid. People probably did that with prostitutes, too. But this might have been a blind thing. Wasn’t it easier to be intimate in the dark?

Or maybe this wasn’t so intimate. Maybe the woman was simply from California.

“Are you from California?” Mona asked.

“Colorado,” the woman said.

Close enough. In any case, there would be no need to censor herself. This was clearly someone to whom you could say pretty much anything, a quality Mona valued highly, after having spent a decade in New England.

“Sorry about your mother,” Mona said. “That sounds super shitty.”

“You should immerse yourself in nature,” the woman advised. “You know? To counteract the cleaning chemicals.”

Mona nodded vaguely, even though the woman couldn’t see her. It occurred to her that there was probably a lot of talking involved with the blind. “Well, I used to take long walks in the woods. I even collected leaves at one point, but I kept . . . leaving them places.”

“What about you? Are you from California?”

“Los Angeles, originally, but I was shipped to Massachusetts when I was thirteen.”

“Yikes,” the woman said. “Why?”

“Bad behavior,” Mona said.

“What brought you here, to the high desert?” the woman asked.

“Love, sort of,” Mona said. “I called him Mr. Disgusting. We met at a needle exchange in Massachusetts. He was clean when we met, but of course he relapsed six months later. In his suicide note, he suggested I move to Taos. He said he’d always dreamed of living here, in an Airstream near the Rio Grande. Except his body was never found. So, I followed his suggestion and moved here in the hopes that he was alive and waiting for me. But, he wasn’t waiting. Because he’s dead.”

Summarizing had never been her strong suit.

“Sorry to hear that,” the woman said.

Why did she look so radiant and joyful? It was more than just her skin. Was it her chin? No—it was her mouth. The corners of her mouth turned up rather than down. Mona touched her own mouth. Her corners did not turn up.

“Is there a new Mr. Disgusting in your life?” She seemed to relish saying the word “disgusting.” “A New Mexican version?”

“I met someone a few months ago,” Mona said. “We flirted for fifteen minutes and it felt like a carnival ride, and then he vanished and I never saw him again. I didn’t catch his name, so in my mind I just refer to him as Dark.”

“Was he black?” the woman asked.

Was she joking? There were no black people in Taos.

“It was more of a personality thing,” Mona explained. “He wasn’t dark as in dreary, though. His darkness had a spark. It had a charge you could feel on your skin.”

“A dark spark,” the woman said. “I know the type.”

NOT EVEN TERRY KNEW ABOUT Dark. Their fifteen minutes had taken place at the bookstore in town. It had been more than a few months ago—closer to six or seven. She’d been standing in one of the aisles reading a few pages of Invitation to a Beheading, and he’d been sitting on the floor a few feet away. He’d put aside The Composting Toilet System Book, finally, in favor of Thoreau, which seemed about right, as he looked like a tax resister who lived alone in the woods, in a cabin he’d built with his own hands, and he had a beard. She could smell him from where she stood. Sweat and sawdust. He kept glancing up from his reading and blinking at her. She blinked back. They did this for several minutes, and then he stood and scanned the carpet as if he’d lost something. He was one long sinew with scissor legs, and his legs scissored toward her.

“Excuse me,” he’d said, “but I seem to have lost my contact, and I don’t have my glasses.” He pointed to his eye, which was the color of wet bark. “Do you mind checking—is it on my face somewhere?”

Searching his face felt somehow more intimate than kissing. She restrained herself from fingering his beard—she wasn’t a monkey—and located the contact on the collar of his flannel. She picked it off his shirt, passed it to him like a joint, and then adjusted his collar unnecessarily. He put the contact in his mouth before placing it on his iris, and she realized she wanted to lick his eyeball. She’d never wanted to lick anyone’s eyeball before. He asked her if she knew that humans used to have a third eyelid. She said no, she didn’t know that.

“That’s why we have this little fold in the corner,” he said, and rubbed his eye. “One of our vestigial organs.”

The word “LOVE,” she noticed, was tattooed on the knuckles of his left hand, a letter on each digit. His other hand was in his pocket.

“Love and what,” she said, and pointed to the hidden hand.

“Guess,” he said.

She guessed rage, pain, sick, and hoped it was none of those.

He took his hand out of his pocket and made a fist, and then held up both fists together.

“MORE LOVE,” she read, and felt herself blush.

He lowered his hands and studied her face. “You have a nice voice.”

Say more about love, she wanted to say.

“You’re reading Nabokov,” he observed, “and wearing an apron.”

Her face felt hot. She fanned herself with the Nabokov.

“Read me a sentence,” he said, and scratched his beard with his MORE hand.

She scanned the open page and selected something short: “?‘I suppose the pain of parting will be red and loud.’?”

He had a way of smiling and frowning at the same time. “We do need to part,” he said, looking at his watch. “I’m on my way to the airport.”

She asked him where he was going.

“Alaska,” he said, “but I’m going to think about you in your apron.”

Then he plucked the Nabokov out of her hands, placed it inside his jacket, and strode out of the store.

“NOT TO PUT YOU ON the spot or anything,” the blind woman said, “but I’m actually looking for a housekeeper. Are you available, by any chance?”

As usual, it took Mona several seconds to recover from her Dark thoughts.

“Depends,” she said at last. “How dirty is your house?”

“Don’t be a dick,” Terry whispered, directly into Mona’s ear.

“Well, it’s big,” the woman said. “So, I’m always cleaning. Problem is, I’ll be vacuuming in one room and then the phone will ring in the other room and so I’ll answer it and talk for a while, and then it takes me an hour to find the vacuum again.”

“So, you’re, like, totally without sight,” Mona said.

“I see patterns of light,” the woman said. “Always. Total darkness is something I long for. It’s what I pray for. I’d give one of my fingers for it, and two of my toes.”

“I thought maybe you were an actor preparing for the role of a blind person. You know, like a Method actor,” Mona said. “I don’t know if anyone’s told you this, but you’re extremely attractive.”

“Are blind people usually unattractive?” the woman asked.

As it could have passed as a rhetorical question, Mona didn’t answer. She looked down at her slightly swollen knee, which had finally stopped throbbing.

“I’m a therapist,” the woman said.

“Ah,” Mona said.

Of course, you had to watch out for therapists. She’d cleaned house for two or three. Not only were they crazier than their patients, they’d all been chronic slobs. Same went for professors. But you couldn’t be a slob if you were blind, could you? You’d never find your way out of the house.

“What do you care about?” Mona asked. “In terms of cleaning.”

“Well, my old housekeeper always left grit in the bathtub,” the woman said, “and a waxy kind of residue on the floors, and the counters never felt quite clean. She had a habit of not putting things back exactly where she found them, and so I would waste all this time searching for the toothpaste, or the cumin, or a dish towel. She was obsessed with bleach. Obsessed. So, I had to get rid of her finally.”

“Did you kill her?” Mona said.

“No,” the woman laughed. “Anyway, it’s not about the way things look for me, obviously. It’s about the way they feel.”

Mona felt an overwhelming urge to yawn, which she did, repeatedly, without bothering to cover her mouth. She almost wanted to be friends with this woman.

“What’s your name?” Mona said.

“Rose,” the woman said, and held out her hand.

“Pretty name,” Mona said, grasping the woman’s hand.

“Thank you,” the woman said. “My real name is Maria, actually.”

She didn’t look like a Maria.

“What’s your middle name?”

Because she didn’t have one, asking people their middle name was one of Mona’s favorite questions.

“Well, it’s funny you ask,” the woman said. “My middle name is also Maria.”

“So, your birth name is . . . Maria Maria?”

“My parents were drug addicts,” Rose explained. “They named me after some Spanish song they were listening to while fucking.”

The sexual reference put Mona further at ease. It was the same relief she felt when someone pulled out a cigarette.

“My name is Mona,” Mona said.

“Is Mona your real name?”

“Yes,” Mona said. “May I ask how you run without a guide? And how’d you get here?”

“I walked,” Rose said. “I have maps in my head, and I do a lot of counting. I count the steps around the track, the steps down the street, then the steps to my house.” She shrugged as if she’d been bragging.

“Would you like a ride?” Mona asked.

“I prefer to walk,” Rose said.

Boundaries, Mona thought. Nice. Maybe she isn’t totally nuts.

SHE’D NEVER SET FOOT IN a blind lady’s house, but she’d envisioned something dark and dirty. Not crazy dirty, but cobwebby, at least, and dusty. She imagined mustard stains on the couch and wine spills on the rug. And there would be mold, certainly. Mold in the bathroom, obviously, and Rose’s golden pubes all over the tub and floor. But what would the place look like?

“Fifty bucks says there’s a piano,” Mona mumbled as she drove up Rose’s driveway for the first time.

“Right, because all blind people are piano players,” Terry said. “My money is on some other instrument. The cello.”

There was neither. In fact, the house was like nothing she’d ever seen in Taos, real or imagined. From the outside, it looked like two very different houses leaning against each other, back-to-back. One big, the other small. The big one was made of brick; the small one was white, weathered wood. A plaque declared it a historic house, over two hundred years old, that was once part of a ranch called Hurt.

Rose answered the door wearing a crisp red sundress. Mona stared hard at her eyes, expecting the empty eyes of a dead person—or, at the very least, cloudy and without spirit. But not only did they seem like seeing eyes, they seemed all-seeing, the eyes of a soothsayer or prophet. They were the most curious shade of blue Mona had ever seen. Your eyes are nearly purple, she wanted to say. Are you aware of that?

“Philip isn’t here,” Rose informed Mona’s forehead. “So, I’ll have to show you around. Might take a little longer.”

“Is Philip your butler?” Mona asked.

Rose laughed. “Husband,” she said. “He’s at a conference in Nebraska.”

Husband? Mona hadn’t thought of that. She’d been looking forward to cleaning a house unseen.

“Any kids?” she asked.

“My daughter,” Rose said. “Her name is Chloe. She’s seventeen.”

Seventeen?

“I had her young,” Rose explained, reading her mind. “I was fifteen.”

A teenager. Mona didn’t despise teenagers, but she preferred that they not be around—ever—while she was cleaning.

The family lived on the brick side of the house. The wood side could stay untouched, as that’s where she saw patients. The house had a Spanish vibe. Handmade Mexican Talavera tiles in the kitchen and bathrooms, vaulted ceilings in the hallways, arched doorways. The vast, rectangular living room had an enormous fireplace, exposed and dramatic wooden beams in the ceiling, and wide-planked pine flooring. Rose collected rare Navajo blankets, neatly folded and displayed on long shelves in the hallway. Her only ornaments were three small, identical sculptures: cast-iron crows with human heads. The sculptures seemed to function as landmarks; they were the only objects Rose touched as she made her way through the house.

Hanging over a blue velvet couch was a portrait of Rose floating on her back in a brook. She was gazing skyward and wearing a floral nightgown, her eyes as violet as they were in life.

“What are you seeing?” Rose asked. “Dirt?”

“A painting of you,” Mona said.

Rose looked sheepish. “My husband painted it. He said it’s not vain to hang a portrait of yourself if you’re blind.”

“He must really love you,” Mona said. Or he might hate you, and painted your last breath before drowning.

On the pine floor lay a large flokati rug and several square pillows. On one of the pillows sat a dog named Dinner.

“He’s friendly,” Rose said. “You can pet him.”

Mona didn’t pet him, but only because she saw a loose photograph lying facedown underneath the coffee table. She picked it up. “I just found a picture on the floor,” she announced.

“Who is it—Chloe?” Rose asked.

“It’s a guy,” Mona said. “Your husband? He’s holding a hammer.”

Rose stopped smiling and cleared her throat. “Could you, uh, describe him for me?” she asked.

“Well,” Mona began slowly, “he has small hands. His skin is pockmarked. One of his front teeth is missing. Like I said, he’s holding a hammer, but he’s also wearing bronzer, along with a woman’s blouse, sweatpants, and patent leather pumps.”

Rose looked like she might vomit. Mona felt a stab of guilt, as the man in the photograph was obviously dead or important or both. He had soulful brown eyes and a prominent forehead vein that made her think of erections. Standing next to a woodworking bench, he looked both insanely happy and on the verge of tears. She asked who the man was.

“My father,” Rose said. “I’m a little freaked out because I keep this photograph tucked away, so I’m not sure how it ended up on the living room floor.”

Mona didn’t know what to say. She stared at the hair on Rose’s legs. So stirring and erotic. Your leg hair is giving me a boner, she wanted to say. She recognized in Rose that thing certain men wanted and craved. The blonde thing. The petite blonde thing. The delicate blonde hairs. You saw those hairs and you knew what else to expect: pink nipples, blonde pubes, a neat little box.

“What do you see when you think of the color red?” Mona asked.

“Oh, I remember red,” Rose said. “I wasn’t born blind.”

“Oh,” Mona said. “Were you . . . in an accident?”

“Sort of,” she said, and smiled weakly. “I was having an affair with the man you just described.”

Mona silently took a step back. She heard Dinner drink from his bowl in the kitchen.

“Do you mean your father molested you?” Mona asked.

“I thought of it as an affair,” Rose said, “which sounds ridiculous and insane, but I was convinced that we were in love. I was thirteen.”

“Mayday,” Terry whispered. “Bail out.”

“Not now,” Mona whispered back.

“We never had intercourse,” Rose volunteered. “It was more emotional than anything. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t also sexual. It was that, too.”

Mona cleared her throat. “And you went blind?”

“Well, that was partly genetic,” Rose said.

Mona looked toward the front door. Closed, but not locked. She imagined herself tiptoeing out of the room and then making a run for it.

“People tell you things,” Rose said. “Don’t they? They tell you their secrets.”

“Sometimes,” Mona lied.

People were vampires. Their stories drained the life out of her. Then, half-dead and bloodless, she carried on cleaning their toilets like nothing had ever happened.

“It’s your voice,” Rose said. “And your energy. It relaxes people so that they open up. You seem so—I don’t know—grounded. Do you do cleaning full-time?”

Here it comes, Mona thought, the inevitable “other than” question. There was no escaping it, ever. Even a blind person would ask.

“I’m often very tired,” Mona said. “Too tired to talk. So, I listen. Also, I’m a writer.”

Her new answer to the what-else-do-you-do. She’d only used it three times, so it was still in the testing phase, but so far it seemed easier to tell people you were a writer than an artist. People wanted to see your photographs and paintings. They wanted a look. But they had no interest in reading your writing. None whatsoever. Although, she supposed this wouldn’t apply to Rose.

“What do you write?” Rose asked.

“Epic novels,” Mona said. “They’re kind of plotless and . . . what’s the word? Episodic.”

Actually, clandestine photography was her primary focus. Typically, she’d complete one of her specialized tasks first—removing smudges from walls and light switch plates, crumbs from silverware drawers, wax from candlestick holders, hair from hairbrushes—before searching their closets, and then she dressed in a hurry, not bothering with hair or makeup. She photographed herself wearing ball gowns or cocktail dresses or whatever else caught her eye—a printed silk blouse, a kimono, a mink stole, a Davy Crockett hat. Lingerie and wedding dresses were off-limits. She could already see herself sitting on Rose’s blue Chesterfield sofa, wearing Rose’s red garments, holding one of the cast-iron crows in her hand. Perhaps Dinner would be on her lap. Or, better, lying on one of the Navajo blankets.

“I’ve always wanted to write a memoir,” Rose said then.

This was the only problem with the new answer. It invited people to tell her why they thought they were fascinating individuals. Though this also didn’t apply to Rose, since she was, in fact, fascinating.

“Maybe you can be my ghostwriter,” Rose said.

“Oh yeah? Let’s talk about it while I clean the kitchen,” Mona suggested, and got to her feet.

Outside, a blue truck coasted into the driveway.

“My first client,” Rose said, and stood up. “Unfortunately, I have to go. When you’re finished, just call me and I’ll come over and pay you.”

THE NAME GRACE HAD BEEN written, painted, and gouged all over the house. She found Grace on the legs of tables, along the seams of lampshades, on the walls behind hanging textiles, on the labels of Rose’s collared shirts, on the edges of pillowcases and picture frames. Grace was etched below the seat of a chair, knifed into a ceiling beam, and scratched into the mirror in the entryway. The tags varied in size, but most were small and difficult to find.

“Might this be the strangest thing you’ve ever found in a house?” Terry wondered.

“It’s definitely up there,” Mona said.

Her heart jumped with each new discovery, and the mystery deepened. In the six hours it took to finish the job, she’d found and photographed thirty-eight Graces.

“I have to tell you something,” Mona said to Rose as she was getting ready to leave.

“Someone named Grace tagged your entire house. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve been doing this a long time.”

“Oh yeah,” Rose said casually. “Those are from last year.”

“You know about it?”

“It’s kind of a long story,” Rose said, and stifled a yawn. “At first, we thought it was Grace herself, who was a patient of mine for three years. Grace was the daughter of my former cleaning lady—”

“The one obsessed with bleach?” Mona asked.

“Yes,” Rose said. “We figured it was Grace because she had her mother’s keys, but the funny part is, it turned out to be Chloe.”

“Your daughter?”

“I think she was jealous of all the attention I’d been giving Grace. I saw Grace several times a week, and we became very close. Grace and Chloe are the same age and in the same classes at school, and I think it was hard for Chloe, seeing as she’s an only child—”

“But did Chloe confess?” Mona asked.

“No,” Rose said. “She maintains she had nothing to do with it. But it resembles her handwriting. And Grace just wasn’t the type to do something like that, to write her own name all over the place. This was the work of an artist. Like Chloe.”

“Hmm,” Mona said.

Rose tilted her head. “You sound . . . dubious,” she said, and smiled. “You think it was Grace?”

“No,” Mona said, and shook her head.

“Philip?”

“I’m pretty sure it was the cleaning lady,” Mona said.

Rose laughed. “Speaking of which.” She handed Mona a wad of cash. “It smells really great in here. Thank you. Was it very dirty?”

“The dirtiest thing was the inside of the microwave,” Mona said. “Which, by the way, is best cleaned by wetting a sponge with lemon juice and water and then microwaving the sponge for two minutes. The acid and steam loosen all the food. You wait for the sponge to cool and then you wipe everything down.”

“Wow,” Rose said. “Okay.”

Mona counted the cash. Rose had overpaid her. A test, perhaps.

“There’s sixty bucks extra here, Rose,” Mona said.

“It’s compensation,” Rose said, “for the therapy you gave me earlier. The photograph of my father startled me, and you listened to my story without judgment.”

Oh, I was judging you, Mona thought. Don’t worry. Rose’s mouth hung open. She wanted something. Did she want to touch Mona’s face, like blind people did in the movies?

“Do you think we could be friends?” Rose asked instead. “I don’t know if you hang out with your clients, but I feel close to you, for some reason.”

Before she could answer, Rose asked for a hug. Mona obliged. Rose really got in there, wrapping both her arms around Mona’s torso, breathing her in deeply before letting go. Mona had always been a fan of a firm embrace. As a friend, would Rose act like a vampire? Did she want blood? Here, Mona imagined saying, offering Rose her wrist. Drink. If the blood sucking became too much, Mona could always just walk out the door, unseen, and Rose might never find her.

SHE MET ROSE’S HUSBAND, PHILIP, two weeks later. She’d just finished cleaning the house. Rose was out of town. Alone in the kitchen with her eyes closed, Mona ran her hands over all the surfaces.

“Hello,” a voice said, as she was feeling the fridge.

She opened her eyes, startled.

“Were you pretending to be blind?” he asked.

A shirtless man stood at the counter. His shoulders red from the sun, he wore dirty white trousers and gum-sole desert boots. This must be Philip, the husband.

“Yes,” she admitted.

He opened a cabinet. Out came a bag of coffee and the dreadful coffee grinder. She winced inwardly. He would probably spill grounds on the counter and possibly the floor, and he might even fuck up the stove.

“I do that, too, sometimes,” he said. “What would you rather be—blind or deaf?”

That’s when she recognized him. And his smell. His hair was shorter, his beard longer, and two bandages were taped to his mostly hairless chest. The bandages were bright white, fresh.

“The way you wear that apron,” he said, “makes me want to crush granite with my teeth.”

If Rose drained the blood out of her, he put it all back in, and then added more. She felt pregnant, even though they’d never touched. She supposed she’d have to call him Philip now, which was absurd. He was Dark.

“It’s a smock,” she said.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said.

“Where?” she asked.

“At the bookstore,” he said. “In the same aisle. On the same day of the week. At the same time.”

“Which day of the week?” Mona asked.

“Thursday,” he said.

“We met on a Monday,” Mona said.

He snorted. “We definitely did not meet on a Monday.”

“Why don’t you wear a wedding band?” she asked.

He paused to scratch his beard. “Rose and I have an open marriage.”

“Does she know that?”

“Are you married?” he asked.

“I don’t do this with clients,” she said.

They stood there, blinking at each other.

“Who do you do?” he asked finally.

“I have someone special I call now and then,” she said.

He leaned on the counter. “Will you call him tonight?”

She looked at her watch and shook her head. “It’s Tuesday.”

“So?”

“Not on a Tuesday,” she said.

He laughed. “Can you fuck him on a Friday?”

“Fridays are fine.”

“What about Wednesday?”

She pretended to think about it. “Wednesdays are pushing it,” she said.

“He wants you all to himself,” Dark said. “Is that it? Or you don’t want to be tied down.”

She didn’t answer. The guy tended bar at a tavern one town over, and his schedule varied. He wasn’t fat, but he seemed oddly boneless—she couldn’t see the bones in his hands—and he had watery eyes and his name was Doug. She could never date a Doug. She could date a Dark, though, easily. There was nothing boneless about Dark, and she suspected she’d have dropped everything for him if he wasn’t married to the most interesting vampire in town. And the most beautiful.

“Are you guys swingers or something?” Mona asked.

“No,” he said. “It’s not like that. In fact, it’s probably nothing like you think.”

“What are those bandages?” she asked.

“I’d rather tell you about it at your house,” he said. “How’s eight o’clock?”

The kettle whistled. He snatched it off the stove and doused the grounds. She watched his hands carefully. He’d punched a lot of things in his life, but he wasn’t on drugs. She could always tell by a person’s hands.

“MORE LOVE,” she said.

He raised his eyebrows at her. “Is that what you want?”

“It doesn’t match the tone of your other work,” she said, referring to the only other tattoo she could see, A Steady Diet of Nothing, underneath his collarbone.

“I used to starve myself, in a sense,” he said. “Now I’m . . . famished.”

“You’re a sex addict?” she asked.

He looked confused. “Haven’t you thought about me?”

She couldn’t answer. She scanned the tiles around her feet. There, near the sink, she’d missed a spot of food or dirt. She would have to leave it. Something else seemed out of place, though, and she realized it was Dinner. Why was he cowering behind the recycling bin?

“I’d rather be deaf than blind,” Mona said at last. “And I think about you all the time.”

“Me too,” he said.

He opened a drawer and took out a pen and a pad of paper. Old-fashioned.

“Write down your address,” he said.

BECAUSE HE’D BEEN FORTY MINUTES early, Mona had answered the door wearing a full ivory slip beneath a long kimono with a chrysanthemum motif. Her face was masked with green clay.

“I’m slightly early,” he said.

“I have clay face,” she said. The mask brought out her eyes, and if she could have gotten away with wearing it all the time, she would have. “Since you’re so early, help me pick out what to wear for my date.”

He looked startled. “You have a date?”

“You,” she said. “You’re my date.”

“Then don’t change anything,” Dark said.

He was in her living room now, sitting on her orange leather couch. He didn’t look around much. She wanted him to admire her stuff: a collection of art by developmentally disabled adults, a collection of framed airline barf bags, and the series of drawings she’d made of vintage Eureka vacuums. Instead, he looked down at his feet and began unlacing his boots.

“Could you bring me a wet washcloth?” he asked.

When she returned with the wet cloth, he was barefoot and flipping through photographs of the Grace graffiti from two weeks ago.

“Cool,” he said matter-of-factly.

Didn’t he think it was weird, her taking photographs in his house without permission?

“There’s a story behind those pictures, but I don’t know what it is yet,” she said.

She handed him the wet cloth and sat next to him, hoping he’d share his insights about this Grace thing, but he put the photographs aside and wiped his face.

“Thanks,” he said. “I really needed this.”

She laughed. Emboldened, he straddled her and then calmly and methodically removed her mask. He had a great touch—confident, a little callous—and kept his eyes open as he kissed her, alternately gnashing his teeth against hers on purpose, with just the right amount of pressure, and then sucking her lips and tongue.

“When you do that thing with your teeth,” she said, “I forget my name.”

“Let’s go break the bed,” he said.

She hesitated, but only because he would have to return to Rose. She’d never wanted anyone to stay before. She allowed herself a few soul-mate thoughts, which embarrassed her, which made her want a drink. She rolled off the couch, walked to the kitchen, and opened a bottle of red.

“Or we can break . . . bread,” he said, as she handed him a glass. “If you prefer. But I’d rather take you to bed.”

He took a couple of tentative sips and then chugged the rest. She told him her period had started.

“Bleed on me,” he said breezily, and removed his shirt.

His smell charmed her into a trance. She felt she’d do whatever he wanted, even if it was awful, disgusting, or illegal.

“Do you work with wood or something?” she asked. “You smell like a pencil.”

“I make coffins,” he said.

“I want to hump your armpits,” she said. “And maybe your hair.”

“Great,” he said.

In the bedroom, she saw that his chest was covered in scars—the familiar, self-inflicted kind—but the fresh injury looked more like a puncture wound. She decided to ask later and pulled off his pants. He wasn’t wearing underwear.

“Were you raised by animals?” she asked.

“French Canadians,” he said.

His cock was the perfect color. So were his balls, strangely. It was like gazing at her favorite vacuum. She put him in her mouth and closed her eyes. She wondered if blind women gave better blow jobs, and were better at sex in general. Like, more sensual, more in their bodies—

“Open your eyes,” Dark said suddenly.

They switched positions. He kept pinning her with his LOVE hand and doing things with his MORE hand, things that made her writhe around on the mattress, and then he’d fuck her, and then it was back to MORE LOVE. He repeated this for a long while. He made her feel beautiful and hideous, male and female, dirty and clean. He made her feel old. Not over-the-hill, but ancient and pre-human. He made her feel desperate, horny, and deranged. She betrayed her instinct to be silent.

“You make me feel . . . Spanish,” she said.

His eyes smiled at her. For once she didn’t laugh or look away. She held his gaze like it was a part of his body and he came thirty seconds later.

“I love your maybe-Spanish eyes,” he said, catching his breath, and she wondered if that was because they were seeing eyes. “And your maybe-Spanish skin.”

“What happened to your chest?”

He didn’t answer at first. He rolled away to face the wall and pulled her arm around him so that she was the outer spoon. “I just got back from Sun Dance.”

“The film festival?” she asked.

He laughed. “It’s a sacred Lakota ceremony that takes place in Nebraska every summer.”

“What sort of ceremony?”

He kissed her hand. “You dance,” he said drowsily. “You dance on the open plain for four days and nights, rain or shine, without food or water. You pray, and you have visions, and at the end, you make a sacrifice. It’s a four-year commitment.”

Like college, she thought. She tried to visualize his dancing. It was hard. “Is it like a mosh pit?”

“You march in a circle to drums,” he said. “There are no specific moves. You also spend many hours a day in a sweat lodge.”

She touched the strange sores on his chest. “What are these from?”

“On the last day, a medicine man pinches the skin above your nipple—a healthy pinch, one or two inches—and pushes a scalpel through it. The scalpel is replaced with a cherrywood peg, several inches long, the ends of which are looped with rope, and you are tied up to a tree.”

“A tree?”

“A young tree,” Dark said.

“So, you’re just hanging from a tree, twisting in the wind?”

“There’s no wind,” he said. “And your feet are touching the ground. You dance while attached to the tree, pulling against the ropes, and eventually, after many, many hours, you break free.”

“The ropes break?”

“Your skin breaks.” He took her hand and squeezed it. “Sometimes people need help breaking free, and someone will get behind them and pull.”

“Did you need help?”

“No,” he said.

She asked him why he participated and he told her another story. This one was a love story.

Other than Rose, he’d only been in love one other time, with an Inuit woman he’d met in Alaska many years ago. Her name was Lucinda. They met while working at a cannery in Ketchikan. He’d worked in the freezers. He rolled huge beds of salmon into the freezer on casters, and once they were frozen he’d drill a hole into them and take their temperature, and when the temperature was right, the fish would be shipped to Japan or wherever.

Lucinda weighed the salmon, though she rarely needed a scale, he said. Her hands were scales, and so were her eyes. In a glance, she could weigh and measure anything she looked at, including him. Only twenty-two and very cautious, she joined him for a drink after work or visited his boardinghouse. They didn’t talk much. In fact, Lucinda often communicated in gestures he either misread or missed altogether. Her touch changed him, and slowly, over a period of many months, he fell in love. Because it was slow, his love seemed more real, and more permanent. Together they rented a cabin outside of town. She read a lot and he painted pictures and they both kept working at the cannery.

“Four months later, she fell out of a tree,” he said.

“And?” she said.

“She died,” he said. “In my arms.”

She felt a sudden and familiar pain tugging her nipples from the inside. Her instinct was to cover her breasts with her hands. Instead, she lay still and imagined her chest pierced and tied to a tree. She imagined herself circling on tiptoe while pulling against the ropes, and the pain subsided a little.

“I never talk about Lucinda,” he said.

“Why was she in the tree?”

“We were on mushrooms—my idea, not hers,” he said. “She went to some dark, faraway place. I tried to get her down when I saw how high up she was. I started climbing. She fell right past me and landed on a jagged rock. There wasn’t any blood, but she kept making these gasping noises. I panicked and carried her up a hill to the main trail. I laid her out on the trail, but she was gone by then, and I couldn’t get her back.”

“Were you alone?”

“I think so,” he said. “I don’t remember getting help, or the police coming, or the ambulance. I only remember seeing her for the last time. She was lying on a table in the hospital, and I asked everyone to leave the room so that I could be alone with her.”

She waited for him to continue, but he didn’t say anything. His eyes were closed and he was very still.

“What did you do?” she asked.

“She had a tube in her throat, so I removed it and threw it on the floor,” he said. “Then I chewed off some of her hair because I didn’t have any scissors.”

There it was again, stronger, tugging hard from the inside. She felt the urge to break her skin, to give a little blood, to make her own kind of flesh offering. Ordinarily, she would have waited until he left and then she may have cut herself. But that was too easy, and too familiar, and not as satisfying as it used to be. And besides, she didn’t want him to leave. Ever.

“I try to visit the tree once a year,” he said. “That’s where I was headed when I ran into you at the bookstore.”

He kissed her and slipped his hand between her legs. She wanted MORE LOVE, but she also wanted MORE ROSE. Or maybe not MORE, but SOME.

“When did you meet Rose?” she asked.

“Three years ago,” he said.

“Is Rose’s father Chloe’s father?” Mona asked.

He frowned. “Rose’s father is in prison,” he said. “He’s been in prison forever.”

“For pedophilia?”

“Transportation of marijuana,” Dark said.

“That’s it?”

“It was a ton of marijuana,” Dark said. “Literally. Two thousand pounds.”

“Who’s Chloe’s father?”

“She doesn’t know,” he said. “She never saw him. He was a tourist. It was a one-night stand.”

“Does Rose know you’re here with me?” she asked.

He nodded. “It’s part of our agreement.”

“Why the open marriage?”

“Rose’s idea,” he said. “But I’m not opposed. We’re like siblings, really.”

“So, no sex?” she asked.

He intuitively rested his MORE hand on her stomach, which had been in knots. “I want to hear about you now,” he said. “Start at the beginning and tell me everything.”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “It would take another three hours and would feel like the longest year of your life.”

He asked for broad strokes. Perhaps he was trying to find out if she was interesting enough for him, or if she’d suffered enough.

“Well, I’ve never been to prison,” she said. “I’ve never been to Europe. I’ve never given birth. I’ve never jumped out of a plane. I’ve never done quaaludes. I’ve never read Tolstoy. But I talk to Terry Gross in my head, even while I’m talking to other people, and I’ve been around the block a couple dozen times.”

“Are you talking to Terry Gross right now?”

She shook her head. “Terry doesn’t talk when you’re around. She only makes noises occasionally.”

“Is she making noises now?”

“She just grunted.”

“Have you ever killed anyone?” he asked.

“Not yet.”

“Have you been arrested?”

“Once.”

“Have you been raped?” he asked.

“Twice.”

He winced. “Therapy?”

“Many times.”

“Have you gone under the knife?”

“Only by my own hand.”

“Threesome?”

She smiled and held up one finger.

“Fallen in love?”

Two fingers.

“Pick one,” he said. “And tell me the story.”

She didn’t want to compete with or diminish the stories he’d told, and so she opted for levity.

“Well, it’s a little close to home,” she said, and pointed at the brick wall in her bedroom. “The couple in question lives on the other side of those bricks. Nigel is a tall, malnourished British man in his forties, and Shiori is Japanese, so who knows how old she is, but they’re like twins. I call them Yoko and Yoko.”

“You fell in love with your neighbors?” he said.

“Of course not,” she said. “This is the threesome story.”

“Tell it slowly,” he said.

She took a deep breath. “This was a few months ago, when the weather turned warm. They were weeding the garden and arguing. I was observing them from my kitchen window. They have this very deliberate way of speaking that drives me insane, and they were wearing matching linen tunics that looked like cheesecloth. Nigel resembled a large, hard piece of pecorino; Shiori, something smooth and spreadable—Brie, perhaps.

“At one point I heard a single, forlorn fart escape Shiori’s square bottom, which touched my heart, and I found myself thinking about her pubic hair. In the Asian porn I sometimes watch nightly, both the men and women have huge bushes, and I wondered about Shiori. At any rate, they must have intuited something, because suddenly they were tapping on my kitchen door and asking if I wanted to join them for some ‘guided meditation.’ I suggested guided gin martinis instead. Shiori looked confused—she’s probably never had a drop of gin in her life—and Nigel inserted a pinkie into his ear and wiggled it, which meant he wasn’t in the mood for—”

“Okay,” Dark said, and laughed. “Maybe not this slowly.”

“Fine, I’ll jump ahead,” Mona said. “When I entered their side of the house, the shades were drawn and the lights were off. Their furniture had been pushed aside and they were sitting on a Turkish rug. In the center of the rug, a low table topped with a single burning candle. They sat on two pillows and invited me to sit on a third.”

“Uh-oh,” Dark said.

“Yeah,” Mona said. “I was scared. I asked if the meditation would involve a lot of talking or measured breathing or the opening of chakras, and they assured me that it would only involve staring at the open flame, which seemed doable. They instructed me to relax my eyes and to fix my gaze on the candle. Gradually, my peripheral vision fell away, and it was just me and the candle. I had become one with the flame, and it was all I could see. It was peaceful, honestly, and I felt connected in a way I’d never experienced before. I heard Shiori’s voice telling me to focus on the blue of the flame and to let the blue into my body. The blue sensation traveled up my spine and out the top of my head, and then I felt this subtle pressure on my shoulder blades and a pair of thin arms circling me. Shiori was hugging me from behind, and I could feel her breasts on my back. Then I became aware that Nigel was missing. I hadn’t heard him get up, which was strange, because his bones creak. I saw that he was off in the corner, holding a dreadful bongo between his legs. I looked over my shoulder and saw that Shiori was completely naked. For over a year, I’d been fantasizing about burying my face in her boobs, and here they suddenly were, looking better than I’d ever imagined. ‘Where are your clothes?’ I whispered loudly. ‘Are you on drugs?’ Nigel said, ‘We’d like to try some tantric meditation with you, if you’re ready and amenable.’ And I said, ‘With both of you?’ And Nigel said, in that deliberate way of his, ‘I will remain here, in this corner.’?”

“So, he just watched,” Dark said. “Like a creep.”

“I think he was trying to be respectful. He softly played his bongo while Shiori and I messed around on the rug. She did in fact have a tremendous bush. She let me put my face down there for about five minutes, and I swear she tasted like ginger and lychee.”

Dark looked away then and closed his eyes.

“Was it racist of me to say ginger and lychee?”

“It’s descriptive,” he said. “I’m not sure I want to talk about pussy with you, though. I mean, not in any depth.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to be bros with you, Mona,” he said.

HER APARTMENT BECAME A LOVE bunker on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights. He brought books, booze, and weed; she supplied food and flowers. They smoked spliffs and drank bourbon in the kitchen. They ate cheese and spilled their guts. Turned out their fathers were both dreamers, drinkers, and amputees. His father had lost his foot on a fishing rig in Alaska. Her father had lost his arm in an explosion at a gas station. His father wore a fake foot. Her father, a hook.

“Did he become a pirate?” Dark asked.

“Plumber,” she said.

“A hook is probably a good tool.”

“He wore a hat that said, ‘Plumbers Have Bigger Tools.’?”

“In public?”

“Everywhere,” she said. “He was a drunk, so it was often a bumpy ride, and by ‘bumpy’ I mean violent and vaguely pervy, but he could be good for a laugh once in a while. Before he became a plumber, he drove a truck for Frito-Lay. It didn’t have passenger seats, so I had to stand in the well and try to keep my balance while he tore around the neighborhood. Once, when I was about seven, we were stuck in traffic and a cement truck pulled up next to us. The tank was painted with swirling red and white stripes. I asked what was inside the tank. ‘Clowns,’ he said gravely. ‘That’s how clowns are made.’ Another time I pointed to the fuse box in our garage and asked him what the switches were for. He said they blew up the house, and to never touch them.”

“Did you touch them?” Dark asked.

“Twice,” she said. “And the cops came both times, and so I thought maybe that’s what the switches were actually for. They brought the cops to our house.”

“Who was calling the cops?”

“I think it may have been our Korean neighbor, Mr. Hwang. My father beat up my mother in the driveway once, because she was too drunk to get out of her car. It was her birthday. So, he pulled her out of the car with his good arm and kicked her toward the house, and I’m guessing the Hwangs watched the whole thing. I flipped one of the switches that night, and the cops showed up minutes later.

“Anyway, I ate dinner at the Hwangs’ five nights out of seven. They got me into kimchi and fish cakes, which I still crave. The first time they served me rice, I asked for butter, salt, and pepper, and they laughed for thirty minutes. I introduced them to Ding Dongs. Their son, who was a teenager, asked me to watch him bathe once and while he was shampooing his hair, he admitted that he liked sticking golf tees up his ass.”

“Your stories make my blood dance,” Dark said.

“This weed is pretty good,” she said.

“Would you stick a golf tee up my ass?”

“I would, actually,” she said. “Take off your pants.”

He unbuttoned his jeans and let them fall to the kitchen floor.

“You give my boner a boner,” he said. “You fill out all the corners and edges.”

The sex gave her a peculiar rush, as though his life—not hers—were flashing before her eyes. They liked to do it all over her apartment, but especially in the living room, while watching baking shows on PBS.

“You give me such an appetite,” she said.

“For coconut cake or my cock?”

“To live,” she said.

ON THEIR FOURTH THURSDAY TOGETHER, she indulged his apron fetish and allowed him to film her cleaning her stove in an apron and nothing else. He zoomed in on her tits as she soaked the burner grates and knobs in soapy water, and then pulled back into a wide shot when she got on her knees to wipe down the walls of the oven.

Housekeeping porn, he called it.

“If you put these videos on the Internet, it’s over,” she said.

He put the camera down. “I wonder how you’ll write our story.”

“Well,” she said slowly, “I probably won’t, honestly. Unless our story takes place in your house, which it can’t.”

His mood seemed to darken later that night. He did a little yoga, which made her uncomfortable, and then stayed in the corpse pose for over an hour, staring at the timbers in the ceiling. She tried to rouse him with fresh mango and peanut butter tacos on homemade corn tortillas, but he remained still and sullen. Not even her hands and mouth would bring him out of it. She got into the corpse pose next to him and asked if she’d done something to piss him off.

“Of course not,” he said, startled. “I’m sorry I’m distant. It’s the anniversary of Lucinda’s death.”

The beams in the ceiling—long, rough-hewn, made of fir—seemed to swell slightly.

“What kind of tree was it?” Mona asked.

“Spruce,” he said. “A very tall, very rare black spruce. She fell forty feet.”

Not the time to ask, obviously, but she wondered where he kept Lucinda’s hair. In a wooden box? Maybe she’d look for it the next time she cleaned his house. She wished she possessed a physical piece of Mr. Disgusting. His teeth, perhaps. She imagined a musical jewelry box containing his dentures, along with a tiny, twirling Mr. Disgusting figurine.

“What’re you thinking about?” Dark asked.

“Dead boyfriend,” Mona said. “Junkie, tough guy, softie.”

Crap, it was happening again. The fragments. Always a struggle to talk about Mr. Disgusting in complete sentences.

“How old was he?” Dark asked.

“My father’s age,” Mona said. “Lived in a residential hotel. Stole flowers for a living. Had a funny way of walking with his hands clasped behind his back. Loved to dance. His signature move: scratching behind his ear like a dog. His favorite food: cottage cheese, which he covered in black pepper and devoured by the quart. We were always on some wild goose chase or treasure hunt. He was a gentleman, but I could never bring him to, say, my cousin’s wedding or whatever. He didn’t mix well with others. He considered our relationship a grand romance worthy of literature.”

“Sounds like you miss him,” Dark said.

“I miss his voice,” Mona said. “He could say something like, ‘I’ll stuff your beaver for you, no charge,’ and I’d melt.”

“Did his dick work?”

“Not really,” she said. “Didn’t matter to me.”

Dark made a noise in the back of his throat. She looked at his face and saw that his cheeks were damp. She pictured him marching around a tree in the sweltering heat, pulling against the ropes, waiting for his skin to break. Perhaps it was time she went out on a limb. Perhaps it was time she offered something new and untouched, something that would work as a salve. Not for her, but for him. The man had suffered as much as she had, and she knew she wasn’t likely to meet anyone like him again.

“We haven’t known each other long, but I feel like I can be myself around you,” Dark said. “My authentic self. I think it’s because I’ve fallen for you—”

“You can put it in my ass, if you want,” she said suddenly, and immediately started sweating.

The thought of his ample cock up there terrified her.

He laughed and turned to face her. “That’s the strangest reaction I’ve ever gotten to telling someone I’m in love with them.”

Mona felt her face redden. “I wanted to make a flesh offering,” she said. “You know, to ease your suffering.”

“You don’t need to suffer for me,” he said. “And you’ve already offered your flesh.”

“I love you,” she said. “Which is ridiculous.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re married?” she said.

They did it on the floor. Afterward, they fell into a pleasant stupor that lasted the rest of the evening. He dozed off at one point and she discovered that he drooled in his sleep. She usually reserved just a tiny bit of disgust for whomever she was dating, especially when she pictured them as a baby or a geriatric, but she couldn’t find a thing about him to repulse her. He could have drooled all over her—it would not have mattered.

“Who is he?” Terry asked.

“I’ll tell you later,” Mona said.

HE STAYED AWAY WHEN SHE cleaned his house, but he left love notes for her. In the first two, he’d plagiarized Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and, strangely, Margaret Atwood. In the third, which he’d boldly taped to the mirror in the master bath, he’d written:

My favorite M,

I grow increasingly enamored of you with each passing day. Please stop taking that ridiculous course to reduce your accent—it drives me wild and is clearly the language of love.

Of course she didn’t have an accent. She smiled and placed the note in the back pocket of her jeans. Then she reached for one of his dirty T-shirts in the hamper. She huffed on the T-shirt as she sprayed the shower walls with Scrubbing Bubbles.

“I love foam cleaners,” she mumbled to Terry.

“Whose T-shirt is that?” Terry asked innocently. “And why are you sniffing it?”

“I’m working up to telling you about it,” Mona said slowly.

“There you are,” Rose said from the doorway.

Rose was wearing head-to-toe white rather than red, huge black sunglasses, and girl shoes. She looked stunning. Mona dropped the T-shirt and felt ashamed, as if she’d been caught with her hand down her pants. She hadn’t seen Rose in weeks, not since she started sleeping with her husband.

“I’ve missed you,” Rose said. “I could smell you when I walked into the bedroom and it gave me such a lift.” She laughed.

“So, I don’t smell like suicide anymore?” Mona asked.

“You smell like you,” Rose said. “And like . . . sex, actually.”

Mona stepped out of the shower. She watched Rose grope her way toward the toilet, and then lift her skirt and sit down. Mona noted the size of her ass—tiny—and felt like an ape suddenly.

“Are you exhausted?” Rose asked. “You seem subdued.”

“My arms are hanging lower to the earth,” Mona said.

“The cleaning lady used to put the lid down,” Rose said. “I’m glad you don’t do that. I hope you don’t mind that I’m peeing in front of you.”

“Your piss smells like champagne,” Mona said.

Rose laughed. “I bet you look pretty today.”

Mona glanced at herself in the mirror. Too much eyeliner, as usual, and her hair was falling out of its braid. “I’m okay.”

“You’re being modest,” Rose said. “Philip told me.”

Philip. What a ridiculous name. She would never call him Philip.

“He’s exaggerating,” Mona said. “Or trying to make you jealous.”

“I’m not prone to jealousy,” Rose said, “which is why we’re still together.”

Rose finished peeing, dabbed her probably dainty vagina with too much toilet paper, and stood up. She didn’t flush. Now she was standing too close, as well as blocking the exit. Mona wondered if this was a Rose thing, or if blind people everywhere were standing in the wrong place.

“Who picks out your clothes?” Mona asked.

“Chloe,” Rose said. “And Philip sometimes, when he’s in the mood.”

“Do you see other people, too?” Mona asked. Was it rude to use the verb “see”?

“Philip and I don’t have the same needs,” Rose said. “He craves intimacy. And intensity.”

“What do you crave?” Mona asked.

Rose removed her sunglasses. Her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been sobbing for two hours. “Solitude, I guess,” she said. “And stability.”

So, you don’t have an open marriage, Mona thought. But your husband does.

“I want him to have the best possible time,” Rose said. “We’ve both suffered a lot, and I want our marriage to last forever, and I’m self-aware enough to know that there are certain things I can’t give him.”

“You mean, like, sexually?” Mona asked hopefully.

“Oh, no. We have a fulfilling sex life,” Rose said, and put her sunglasses back on. “We always connected in that way. He’s so intuitive and generous and just, well, gifted.”

Why was the bathroom floor moving?

“The room is spinning,” Terry whispered. “Hold on.”

Mona stepped toward the open window and put her hand on the sill. There, there, cookie.

“Philip has a hole in him,” Rose said.

Mona focused on the holes in the window screen. “How big of a hole?” she managed to ask.

“The size of Lucinda,” she said. “Plus, he hates his mother and calls her a cunt. And he drinks too much.”

Outside, a clear plastic bag was blowing across the yard, and Mona thought fondly of the exit bag. Perhaps it was time to rent a helium tank for her “birthday party.” Maybe Dark would find her body and chew off some of her hair. She missed him terribly.

“I still love him,” Rose said.

“Am I the only other?”

“You’re the only one nearby,” Rose said. “He has someone he sees in Alaska, and I think he might have a girlfriend in Albuquerque—a waitress—but he may have ended that.”

A waitress? In Albuquerque? She pictured a young woman in a white apron taking his order. Had he used the same line on her? The way you wear that apron makes me want to crush granite with my teeth.

“I never got his attraction to her, though,” Rose said. “You, I get. You’re my all-time favorite. In fact, I’m a little pissed off because I feel like he stole you from me. But I guess he found you first, technically.” She smiled.

I am not a dog, Mona thought. I am not Dinner.

“You’re not Dinner,” Terry repeated.

I’m not dinner, either, Mona thought. I am a side of potatoes.

SHE WAITED FOR ROSE TO leave before systematically searching every inch of the master bedroom. Not sure what she was hunting for exactly, or what she hoped to find. Physical evidence of their lovemaking? Love notes for the waitress? Her hands shook as she went through the trash. No used condoms, but so what, and nothing interesting in the nightstand drawers. She pulled the duvet off their mattress and noted grease stains here and there on the sheets. No apparent come. She figured the grease was lube or massage oil, but then she found an empty carton of lo mein on Dark’s side of the bed, along with a pair of Rose’s underpants.

“Terry,” Mona said. “Do you think couples who eat in bed have fulfilling sex lives?”

“Depends,” Terry said. “What kind of food?”

“Chinese.”

“I’m sorry, but yes,” Terry said quietly.

Mona picked up Rose’s lacy thong and let it dangle from her pinkie for a few seconds before bringing it toward her face.

“Don’t do it,” Terry said.

Rose smelled like geraniums and a very specific spice Mona rarely used. Cardamom?

“Jamaican allspice,” Terry said.

Mona dropped the underwear and peered under the bed. She pulled out a large hatbox. Inside, half a dozen worn, spiral-bound notebooks. She plucked out a red one and opened it. Judging from the large, looped cursive, the heart doodles, and the abundance of exclamation points, it was the diary of a girl just shy of her eleventh birthday. It seemed to be written in code.

Dear Diary,

I give last night a 3 out of 10. I waited two whole hours for [crown symbol], who came in at eleven o’clock and sat in the chair and read a chapter from The Count of Monte Cristo & I felt like I was floating & that thing started happening with [rose symbol]. I wanted [heart symbol] like last week, but it didn’t happen. My chins [shins?] hurt real bad & [crown symbol] rubbed them and I got tears on my shirt. [Crown symbol] kept touching [rose symbol] but there was no [ice-cream cone symbol]. Maybe tonight if Mom goes to the movies with her friend. Anyways, when I woke up this morning there was a SPIDER IN MY BED!!!

There was no key or legend, of course, but Mona’s own [heart symbol] felt weak and heavy, because the diary clearly belonged to Rose, and [crown symbol] was clearly Rose’s father, and [ice-cream cone symbol] was clearly not ice cream. Rose clearly didn’t know—had never known—what was good for her, and probably still didn’t, which was why she let her husband bone the cleaning lady, along with a waitress in Albuquerque, and who knew how many other women in aprons.

Mona leafed through a second notebook. Rose’s handwriting appeared adult sized and she’d dropped most of the code—only the crown remained. She described her longing for crown’s body, particularly his hands and fingers, and the wetness between her legs when she fantasized about him. Her descriptions were overwrought, romantic, and, shamefully, a little arousing. In one entry, she’d been grounded for breaking curfew and was waiting for him in bed. Eventually, he came in and sat on the chair, and she begged and pleaded and bared herself, but he refused to touch her, and that was her punishment: not being molested.

On the last page of the notebook, there was only this: “Marilyn Monroe died on a Saturday night. Her, of all people, alone on a Saturday. Imagine that.”

Now Mona had tears on her own shirt. There were more on the way. She replaced the notebook, climbed into the closet, and cried into the sleeve of Dark’s jacket. She pictured Rose in her childhood bed, waiting to be crowned, as it were, and then blind, counting her way around town. The counting made Mona cry harder than the crowning.

She canceled her next two dates with Dark. She would’ve canceled the following week’s housekeeping visit, too, but she needed the money and didn’t want to disappoint Rose, whom she felt was largely innocent in all of this.

A WEEK LATER, HER FIRST impulse was to dip into the box of notebooks again. As she was lifting the bed’s dust ruffle, Dark jumped out of the closet, scaring the shit out of her.

She screamed, which only made him laugh. He opened his arms, apparently expecting an embrace. She swung at his chin and missed. He caught her by the wrists, and she fought and kicked, but when his pencil-shavings smell drifted into her nostrils, she felt her arms weaken. He wrestled her to the floor, where they did some grappling. The next thing she knew he’d ripped her favorite pants and put himself inside her.

The sex felt like an opiate nod. Random, unfamiliar images flickered behind her lids, accompanied by that feeling of forgetting something, and then falling, and falling again. Dark’s hand was gripping her apron, using it as leverage, but she was clinging to a large, swinging chandelier, looking down at a roomful of faces. His dry hand squeezed her thigh. Jeremy Irons offered her a cigarette. She looked for a light in her purse and found a barf bag from Japan Airlines. Dark’s hand covered her mouth. She fell off some scaffolding and landed on Mr. Disgusting. A man on a sidewalk spoke Spanish to her—not Henry Miller, but the guy that played him in the movie, or maybe it was Sam Elliott—and then she was sitting at a vanity. Dark’s hand was around her throat, squeezing. She didn’t recognize her face in the mirror. Dark pulled out and let loose on her bunched-up apron.

“You’re wheezing,” Dark said. “You should quit smoking, babe.”

“Go fuck yourself,” she said.

He looked startled. “Touchy subject?”

“Waitress,” she blurted. “Crown symbol.”

“Are you having a stroke?” he asked seriously. “Or an anxiety attack?”

She got to her feet and took a couple of deep breaths. Her teeth were clattering, but she wasn’t cold.

“Your poor wife thinks she seduced her own father,” she said, rubbing her wrists.

“What? She doesn’t think that,” he said irritably.

“He turned her on, and then put it all on her,” she said.

“You don’t know anything about it.”

“Doesn’t matter. You’re married,” she said. “I shouldn’t have done this with you.”

“You’re being a dumb twat,” he said. “You know that, right?”

“I can’t be your mistress and your maid,” she said quietly. “Ever heard of the women’s movement?”

What was she saying? She hated the word “maid,” had no interest in being his mistress, and had been setting the women’s movement back for years.

Dark looked confused. “I adore you,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere. I promise I’ll never hurt you.”

“You told me you and Rose were like siblings,” she said. “And I didn’t realize you did this sort of thing in other towns. With . . . waitresses.”

“There’s only you and Rose,” he said. “And it was Rose who wanted to open our marriage—”

“But Rose is fucked up,” Mona said. “And two is still too many. And you could have said no—how about that?”

When she saw his eyes well up, she looked at Dinner, who seemed unable to leave the room even though the door was wide open. He sat looking up at her and whining.

“I’d rather be dinner,” Mona said.

He blinked at her. “The dog?”

“The main course,” she said.

He nodded soberly. “If I wasn’t married you wouldn’t feel such passion for me, I promise. Passion feeds on this kind of shit.”

“Which shit?” she said.

“Obstacles,” he said. “Restrictions.”

“You’re full of it,” she said.

He took a step toward her. “I can talk to Rose about spending more time with you. Chloe’s away at school—”

“Oh God,” she said, and shook her head. “Don’t do that. Just be good. Be better to Rose. She’s your wife, not your sister. Don’t compare yourself to siblings. You guys have sex, and Rose has incest trauma, and so it’s just not accurate. Or helpful. And you know what? Don’t be here when I’m here. I don’t want to see you for a while. Or . . . ever again.”

“Which is it?” he asked.

She didn’t answer. She left the house without finishing—a first—and spent the evening shaking. The following day her head turned into a cement mixer, which seemed to give her the shits, and she got her period. Then the longing started. She kept seeing him on the edge of her bed, naked, reading aloud to her and rubbing her shins, his hands inching toward her [rose symbol], over and over. The pain of parting was red and loud, indeed.

By Sunday she was dead eyed and despondent. To distract herself, she watched a little porn. It seemed women were collecting semen in goblets these days. It was a trend. Revolted, she went back to staring at the ceiling and produced hundreds of tears, which she imagined collecting in her own goblet. When it was full, she would march over to the Hurt Ranch and force him to drink her tears. Every drop, motherfucker, she would say, slapping his face. Every drop!

Rose called that night asking to meet over coffee the following morning. Mona said she didn’t want coffee. She only wanted to be their cleaning lady for now, and nothing else.

“Philip is a mess,” Rose said.

“Whatever,” Mona said. “It’s not like I fell out of a tree and died.”

“He’s in love with you,” Rose said.

“You know, most of my clients aren’t home when I’m there?” Mona said. “They make it a point to stay out of the house?”

Why did she tack question marks to the ends of sentences when she was falling apart? Was she unraveling? Maybe? Would she tear at the seams? Would she wind up in the loony bin? Again?

“I don’t hate you, okay?” Mona said. “I’m just not cut out for this?”

“Okay,” Rose said after a pause. “I understand.”

THE NEXT WEEK NO ONE was home when she arrived. And then she’d found shit in the soap dish. She figured it was a fluke, but then found shits two, three, and four the very next week, followed by the phony rum ball.

And now, nearly a month later, the final straw: a loaf on the flokati. Bigger, softer, and more pungent than the others, it would have been a twenty-wiper. It took some effort to remove, leaving a buttery stain in the wool. She fussed over the stain for forty minutes.

“Fuck this,” she said.

“When oh when are you going to confront these people? Or, better yet, walk out of this place forever?” Terry asked. “Honestly, what will it take?”

“I have a confession, Terry,” Mona said, and cleared her throat. “Remember when I told you I was going through a breakup? It was with the blind lady’s husband. We Indian wrestled. And regular wrestled. And had sex multiple times. And said I love you—twice.”

“Oh,” Terry said sadly. “Oh dear.”

“But like I said, I ended it,” Mona said, “even though I’m pretty sure I’m in love with him. As to our mystery, the pooper is not the daughter. I think it might be Dark. He’s now our primary suspect. I suppose he’s acting out his emotions, or he might be trying to make it into the story he thinks I’m writing, or he might be trying to get me to—”

A shadow passed by the window. She heard shoes crunching gravel, which was unusual, and then the kitchen door creaked open and clicked shut. Dinner ran into the kitchen but didn’t bark. Mona heard footsteps.

“Hello?” Mona called out.

The footsteps stopped.

Mona poked her head into the dining room. A tall, skinny woman with a pretty face and splotchy skin stood next to the table. She wore a pale yellow cashmere sweater with lots of holes in it, dingy gray sweatpants, and blue surgical gloves. Was she a patient? Rose’s office is that way, Mona almost said. She stopped when she saw the pink plastic bag of poop.

“Can I help you?” Mona asked.

“This isn’t for you,” the woman said blithely, as if she were talking about a bag of homemade cookies. “It’s for her. Rose.”

Mona coughed. Judging from the bleach stains on the woman’s sweatpants, it was the former cleaning lady. Evidently, she still had keys.

“These people are assholes.” The bag swung in her hand as she spoke. “Lunatics. I worked for them for years. Years!”

“Okay,” Mona said carefully, as if the woman were holding explosives.

Mona had seen Hispanic women carrying cleaning buckets in and out of houses, but she’d never met another white cleaning lady in Taos. Or anywhere, really. Part of her wanted to talk shop.

“Did you notice Grace written all over this house?” Mona asked, by way of distraction.

The woman winced. “Rose really fucked up my kid . . . and now she’s gone.”

“Gone?”

“Overdose.” She tossed the bag onto the table and covered her eyes briefly with the heels of her hands. “I wrote her name all over the place.”

“I’m sorry,” Mona said.

“Rose once told me I was haunted. She told me I smelled like incest. Who says that?”

“An incest survivor,” Mona answered. “A blind incest survivor.”

The woman grimaced. “Here’s how I look at Rose: you made me wear your shit, and now I’m making you wear mine.”

“Mona, might this be your future?” Terry said in a loud whisper. “Might this be you in fifteen years?”

“So, it’s yours?” Mona asked, nodding at the bag.

“Yep,” the woman said.

“You know the expression ‘Don’t shit where you eat’?” Mona asked, and smiled.

The woman laughed. “Don’t give me any more ideas,” she said.

Mona thought of Dark’s tattoo, A Steady Diet of Nothing. It had not been a steady diet, sadly, and yielded nothing. Sooner or later, she would need to stop cleaning his house.

“Where were you going to put it?” Mona asked.

“I don’t know,” the woman said. “On the crow sculpture?”

“The thing is, I’m the one wearing it,” Mona said. “I’ve been cleaning up after you.”

“Oh God,” the woman said, and frowned. “Sorry about that. I’m surprised we didn’t run into each other sooner.”

“I thought it was for me,” Mona said. “I thought I was the target.”

The woman tilted her head. “Why?”

“I had a thing with Dark.” She shook her head. “I mean . . . Philip.”

The cleaning lady snorted. “That weirdo?”

Was he that bad? Mona shrugged and fidgeted with the rag hanging out of her back pocket. She felt cemented to the floor, unable to move her feet. The woman hadn’t moved, either. It occurred to her that they were locked in a kind of standoff. She knew she would not continue cleaning up the poop. One of them would have to leave.

Mona removed the rag from her back pocket and dropped it on the floor. “I surrender,” she said. “I guess I’ll go home. And regroup.”

The woman smiled. “We should get a drink sometime,” she said. “Also, feel free to take something on your way out. I won’t look.”

“Excuse me?”

“A token,” the woman said. “I always either take or leave something when I clean a house for the last time. Don’t you?”

“I take photographs,” Mona said.

The woman’s eyes lit up. “Tell me your name.”

“Mona,” Mona said. “You?”

“Maria,” the woman said.

“What’s your middle name, Maria?” Mona asked slowly.

“Funny you ask,” the woman said. “My middle name is also Maria. My parents met in Argentina and named me after some Spanish song.”

Mona laughed. Then she felt like crying. Not only had Rose stolen Maria Maria’s name, she’d stolen the punch line behind it. What else had she stolen? If she was comfortable lying about something as basic as her own name, imagine what other lies she could tell.

Mona took the portrait of Rose hanging over the sofa. She tucked it under her arm and carried it the thirty-seven steps to her truck. As she laid the canvas down in the bed of her truck, she searched for a sign of Grace. She knew it was carved in somewhere, waiting to be discovered.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Vacuum in the Dark includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Mona is twenty-six and cleans houses for a living in Taos, New Mexico. She moved there mostly because of a bad boyfriend—a junkie named Mr. Disgusting, long story—and her efforts to restart her life since haven’t exactly gone as planned. For one thing, she’s got another bad boyfriend. This one she calls Dark, and he happens to be married to one of Mona’s clients. He also might be a little unstable.

Dark and his wife aren’t the only complicated clients on Mona’s roster, either. There’s also the Hungarian artist couple who—with her addiction to painkillers and his lingering stares—reminds Mona of troubling aspects of her childhood, and some of the underlying reasons her life had to be restarted in the first place. As she tries to get over the heartache of her affair and the older pains of her youth, Mona winds up on an eccentric, moving journey of self-discovery that takes her back to her beginnings where she attempts to unlock the key to having a sense of home in the future.

The only problems are Dark and her past. Neither is so easy to get rid of.

A constantly surprising, laugh-out-loud funny novel about an utterly unique woman dealing with some of the most universal issues in America today, Vacuum in the Dark is an unforgettable, astonishing read from one of the freshest voices in fiction today.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Beagin herself worked as a cleaning lady and she draws on some of her own experiences cleaning homes. Does knowing that there is an autobiographical component affect the way you understand Mona?

2. Throughout the novel, Mona speaks to her imaginary friend, NPR host Terry Gross. Are her conversations with Terry a product of loneliness? A way to pass the time as she cleans? A form of prayer? What role do you think Terry plays in the novel and in Mona’s life?

3. Mona says repeatedly that Dark makes her feel “Spanish.” What do you think she means by that?

4. Dark has tattoos across his knuckles that read: MORE LOVE. Mona calls back to this phrase several times throughout the novel, even after she severs her relationship with Dark. Discuss how Mona’s search for more love underpins the novel.

5. Before she leaves Rose’s house for good, Mona steals the portrait Dark painted of his wife. Why do you think she selected that portrait? What does it signify?

6. When Mona tells Lena that she has “intimate relationships” with the homes she cleans, Lena responds by saying that the house is all her. Is Mona’s love for a house an extension of her love for its owner? Or vice versa? How can we understand Mona’s unusually close relationships with her clients?

7. How can we understand Mona’s flashbacks to her grandparents Woody and Ginger throughout her experience cleaning Paul and Lena’s home? What is the connection between the two? What can we make of the title of the chapter, “Barbarians”?

8. On page 70, Paul says that he wants to show Mona something, and Mona thinks: “Please don't let it be your penis.” What are other moments in which Mona fears abuse or harassment? Discuss how the threat of male violence, particularly sexual violence, weighs on Mona’s inner monologue and drives the plot.

9. Mona calls her neighbors “Yoko and Yoko.” She refers to Philip as Dark. She calls her mother Clare, even though her given name is Darlene. Why do you think Mona has a habit of renaming the people around her, even those closest to her? What is the significance of “Mommy,” both as a chapter title and as the name her mother desires?

10. Mona refers to her mother as her phantom limb. Are there times earlier in the novel where we can sense Mona’s yearning for her mother?

11. Both Mona’s father and Mr. Disgusting, her junkie ex-boyfriend, appear as a shadows throughout the novel, though those who have read Pretend I’m Dead will know more about their history. How do their presences loom over Mona’s life, even in absentia? How does she connect the two in her memory?

12. The novel’s title comes from a passage on page 195: “[Mona] loved to vacuum in the dark, with only the warm, golden beam of the Eureka’s headlight to guide her.” What do you think is the significance of this line? How can it help us understand the novel?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Listen to Terry Gross interviews and discuss how Mona’s imaginary Terry matches up against the real-life Terry on the air: https://www.npr.org/people/2100593/terry-gross.

2. Read and discuss Pretend I’m Dead, Beagin’s debut novel, which chronicles Mona’s life at age twenty-four.

About The Author

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Jen Beagin holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Irvine, and is a recipient of a 2017 Whiting Award in fiction. She is the author of Pretend I’m Dead and Vacuum in the Dark. A former cleaning lady, she lives in Hudson, New York.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 28, 2020)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501182150

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Raves and Reviews

Praise for Vacuum in the Dark

"A follow-up to the riotous Pretend I'm Dead, this is what a sequel should be: darker, sexier, funnier. By turns nutty and forlorn... Brash, deadpan, and achingly troubled, Mona emerges as that problematic friend you’re nonetheless always thrilled to see."

– O, the Oprah Magazine

“This novel is a joy: truly laugh-out-loud funny, while staying grounded and dignified, even as Mona capsizes again and again.”

– Stephanie Danler, The New York Times Book Review

"A thoroughly delightfully, surprisingly profound encore. Beagin stands out among fiction’s fresh crop of promising voices: Her prose is dry, cutting, and genuinely funny; she loves writing about strange people, an affection which translates in characterizations that stay sharp and peculiar without ever turning cruel... Vacuum proves dramatically satisfying too, as Beagin pushes its boundaries to grant us deeper, darker access into Mona’s interior life, and the pain of her troubled past. The character’s salty perspective resonates perfectly — a kind, weary, almost laconic wit that carries a sneaky depth."

– Entertainment Weekly

"A wildly exuberant novel that doesn't shy away from the weirder and more disgusting parts of life. Vacuum in the Dark is a funny and surprisingly sweet book about a young woman who grew up too fast and is trying desperately to reinvent herself... Beagin is a wonderfully funny writer who also happens to tackle serious subjects, which few authors are able to pull off successfully... the result is a comic novel that's a joy to read but never frivolous or superficial. Beagin is unafraid to take risks, and they all pay off here — Vacuum in the Dark is an excellent book by a writer with a singular voice."

– NPR

"Energetic... These adventures open up into larger questions of Mona’s own stalled artistic ambitions and a reckoning with her estranged mother—issues refracted with black humor and a sense of timing that rarely slackens... The escapades are underpinned by a strong voice that seems to have seen everyone’s worst, and to have nothing left to conceal."

– The New Yorker

"Piquantly amusing... Weird, darkly funny... sharply drawn, sexually charged, wry with Mona’s deadpan wit." 

– Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Revels in both order and transgression... Stands alone beautifully... Mona’s unforgettably wry voice remains throughout."

– Vulture

"Tremendously engaging... Funny and poignant... Beagin excels at mixing comedy and pathos in a way that dilutes neither... Beagin secures her position as a new writer to watch. 

– Kirkus, starred reviews

"Sharp and superb... Beagin pulls no punches--this novel is viciously smart and morbidly funny."

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Inventing situations and conversations that are off-the-charts in both weirdness and relatability, Beagin fashions an enchantingly intriguing main character in unfiltered, warmhearted Mona. This story of a woman embracing life's what-ifs and her own darkness is a great read."

– Booklist, starred review

"Beagin introduces readers to several recurring characters whose quirkiness infuses the book with its humor and drawing power."

– Albuquerque Journal

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