• Poppy

    Becky Shirley

    Winter 2021

    I found out Poppy Smith was sleeping with my father back in 1956, when I was thirteen, and today I learned she hanged herself on her bathroom doorknob with her own nylon stockings. It’s been nearly six years since I saw her last, but the news prickled at me, something in between shock and annoyance.

    I was still at Bryn Mawr packing to come home for Christmas when I found out. My roommates and I had saved our newspapers all week to pack breakable things, and I was using some to wrap my mother’s gift. That’s when I saw it, in smudgy ink: Poppy’s name and age and cause of death, and a quote from a policeman who said how unusual it all was, and how they only found her after a neighbor’s dog wouldn’t stop barking at the wall, disturbed by the scent of dead next door.

    I didn’t say anything to my roommates about it. There’s a difference, after all, between wanting someone to talk to and actually talking to them. Besides, they were barely speaking to me, only acknowledging me when it was unavoidable. It wasn’t worth it to break our new little routine for Poppy. The pair of them stood by their beds at the opposite end of the room, silently filling their suitcases and refusing to look at me. I shoved the section of newspaper underneath my pillow and waited until they left for dinner to rip out the column, making careful, tiny tears around the corners. I folded the paper twice and slipped it into the pocket of my coat, still hanging on the rack. Later, on the train ride to New York, I kept reaching inside to touch it. Pure compulsion, like reaching for a rosary. By the time we pulled into Grand Central, the paper had gone soft and my fingers tasted of ink. But I didn’t take it out to read again. I didn’t have to—the story repeated itself in my mind on its own: the policeman’s exact phrasing, how he and another officer had to shoulder open her bathroom door. I could imagine Poppy’s lithe but heavy body, lying limp under the doorknob, blocking the men from coming inside. But I couldn’t picture what had happened before, could not decide whether Poppy had been methodical or if she had just followed through on a moment’s whim with what she had on hand. The newspapers said nothing about that. They made it sound like something had been done to her—that even as she stretched the stockings and tied the knots, Poppy couldn’t possibly have known what she was doing.

    The story never mentioned my father. He must have been careful enough to keep everything in her name—her apartment lease and all that. Or maybe Poppy had been the one who asked to have it in her name, I wouldn’t know. I didn’t even know where she lived until the newspapers reported it. My father had tucked her away somewhere on Waverly Place, far away from my mother on the Upper West Side, but close enough to his office across from the Flatiron Building. I had to hand it to him: each world could be kept spotless and separate, and he existed in both with an ease I could never possess in one. He never had to stuff dirty underwear in his coat pocket, never had to scramble for socks in the morning. He probably kept different pairs of pajamas in both apartments. At least until Poppy had to go and die on all of us.

    I’ve only been home for a couple of hours now, but I already feel embarrassed to see my pragmatic, unfussy father like this. He leaves for the bathroom abruptly, eyes red-rimmed and unfocused; the little trash bin in there is filled with snot-soaked tissues. Poppy had already been dead for a couple of days by the time they found her, but who knows how long my father had noticed her absence before that. I could not guess if he’d seen it coming, if what he felt was grief or guilt, but I quickly decided that I didn’t care. It was a waste that, after all the effort he put into keeping his lives precise and discreet, he was going to be sloppy now. I knew when I arrived at our apartment that I couldn’t invite friends over because of him—not that I’d planned on it anyway. But I couldn’t even borrow his books, couldn’t stand to settle down with things he’s read. I chew my nails openly in front of him, hoping he will nag me. I spend my first evening home sitting in my old spot on the floor in front of his easy chair, illuminated by the TV light, working at the edge of my nails until one of them gives. Then I tug at the flap with my teeth until it rips free. I have stopped swallowing the nails the way I did when I was little, so I spit them out in my hand until I feel like getting up to find a trash bin. But my father says nothing. Dad sits in his chair in front of the TV, watching me gnaw at my fingers—still inky from this afternoon—and says nothing. Mom also stays silent. She just pulls an emery board out of the side table drawer and sets it on the coffee table for me. I try not to look at it and pinch the tips of my fingers until the bleeding stops.

    I first met Poppy not long after she started working at my father’s firm. She was dark haired and British and everything I already considered glamorous. I had guessed she was twenty-five when I met her, but she was actually nineteen, the age I am now. I was almost thirteen then and, at that age, every adult seemed older in a vague, imprecise way.

    I started going to Dad’s office once a month after school because I had braces and needed someone to take me to my orthodontist appointments. It didn’t make sense for me to come all the way back uptown after school let out just to have my mother immediately escort me back downtown, so I walked the six blocks to my father’s firm instead and waited until he could take me. I’d visited him at work before, but I’d never come on my own, never pushed through the revolving doors or rode the elevator upstairs by myself. I felt adult, like a real citizen of the city, even if my teeth felt bulbous and awkward behind my lips. But this confidence soon dissipated once I arrived on the right floor and, faced with the impenetrable busyness of the firm, did not know how to let someone know that I was there for my father. Finally, one of the older, hennish secretaries noticed me and said I should wait while my father finished up. She didn’t stand or break away from the rows of straight-backed, typing secretaries that lined the lobby. I can’t remember if she even paused her typing. I stood in front of her desk, unsure of where and how to wait.

    But my father, who must have seen me somehow, suddenly came out to greet me, his voice buoyant and loud. He was smiling and serious at the same time, happy in a way I hadn’t seen before. He seemed like he really was glad to have me there. I felt my uneasiness deflate into a shaky sense of relief. As we walked back toward his private office, he gestured toward a green leather chair a few feet away from the secretaries’ station.

    “Sit there. Stay near Poppy.” Then, like an afterthought: “Abby, this is Poppy. She works here now.” Poppy gave a small wave that barely interrupted her work. I raised my hand in return, but she had already turned away.

    I spent that afternoon studying the way Poppy moved, the way Poppy was. She typed in short, sudden bursts, barely glancing up from her notepad to look at the machine. She hit the keys harder than the other girls but faster, and used all her fingers, with perfect oval nails that were polished a deep orange I had never seen before. I looked away too late when her eyes first flicked over to me, sidelong. Initially I felt flushed, like I’d been caught doing something shifty. But by the time some of my father’s coworkers—other lawyers and pimply clerks who were closer to Poppy’s age—came by to say hello and have a quick chat, I didn’t bother to pretend I wasn’t listening. Poppy spoke from the front of her mouth, as if holding her words in glass marbles. I imagined them wet and glistening, hiding fully formed in the pockets of her cheeks. The men sounded like brass against her, harsh and too loud. I was fascinated with the way she spoke, how carefully curated each word sounded, how her speech wasn’t dotted with blemishes like uh and um. She didn’t speak often, but when she did, even the men listened.

    That first day, she never said anything to me.

    “Why are you holding your mouth like that?” my father asked on our subway ride home.

    “Like what?” I said, but then, before he blamed it on my tightened braces, said, “I’m trying to be British.” I wanted to tell the truth.

    A compulsory crackle should have split the air then, some sign running through the packed subway car that signaled something revelatory was moving toward me. But life doesn’t work that way. Instead, my father let out a few barks of laughter, shook his head, patted me on mine.

    The familiarities of home should have been comforting after living on campus, but everything disgusted me with its sameness: the same rumble under my legs on the subway ride home, the same wood-paneled entryway to our apartment, the same fading wallpaper patterned with tiny blue and yellow flowers, the same furniture starting to sag. Even the same Christmas novelties: our stockings, hung on little hooks embedded in the living room walls, hidden in the wallpaper flowers. The same silver tinsel and candy dish with holly painted around the lip. It could have been the same tree, just another tiny runt bought off the street without any need to wrap it in wire. We even avoided the same things. We had never spoken of Poppy at home before, and we wouldn’t start now. Our silence was a holy ritual, sobering and sweet. We savored it, swirled its taste around in our mouths.

    It was surprising to me how quickly we could return to old routines, how we never lost that private shorthand. Something about being back on that same set, with the same props and lines, I guess. My mother still kept my father’s dinner warm and shriveled in an ovenproof dish when he stayed late at the office. My father still stayed late at the office. In my opinion, he lost privileges to that particular freedom when Poppy offed herself, but who am I to dictate what goes on in the closed-off corridors of marriage?

    Breakfasts are worse than dinners. That’s when we all have to eat together and look at each other. We dully go about our business, promising not to make any sudden swerves in the gray morning light. Mom always smashes the eggs so hard that tiny shards of shell end up in our omelets. I needle the pieces out with a fork before each bite, but Dad shovels his in, spitting out shells as he goes, probably eating more of them than he realizes. Most mornings proceed exactly like this, simple and silent, until my father scrapes back his chair and says he must be off now. This is my cue to pick up our plates and take them to the sink while he runs out the door.

    But this morning—two days before Christmas, and three days after I heard about Poppy—my mother tries to make polite, petty conversation.

    “How are things with the other gals at school?” She keeps her eyes locked on the frying pan, as if the eggs might make a run for it. For the briefest moment, Dad stops stirring his coffee, then begins again.

    “Fine, I guess.”

    “Did they all go back home too?”

    “I don’t know.” I give up trying to dig an eggshell out with my fork and pinch it with my fingers instead. My father’s coffee spoon continues to clink against ceramic.

    “What about Greta? Or Susie? You used to talk about Susie all the time.”

    “I haven’t seen those girls in months, Mom.” This isn’t exactly true. Susie left for her parents’ house the same time I was at the train station to come home. She stood on the opposite platform with that idiotic Danny from Haverford holding her lone suitcase. She smiled at me but refused to wave, even though her stubby little hands were free. I could see all over her smug face that it hadn’t escaped her notice that I was there alone.

    My mother keeps talking as she rummages through the fridge, her voice muffled and echoey.

    “Well, you know, sometimes you have to make an effort with that kind of thing. I worry about you. Well, not just you, but all you girls, out on your own, getting bogged down and lonely with schoolwork.”

    “Oh, Judith, for God’s sake,” my father says. “That’s what they’re all there for.” He sets down his spoon and reaches for the newspaper, but tosses it back on the table still folded up. He hasn’t read the newspaper the three days I’ve been home.

    “With girls, it’s different,” my mother replies. She closes the fridge door shut with her hip, bottle of ketchup in hand. “They have to have each other. I think Abigail knows that’s just as important as anything else she’s been studying.”

    And what am I supposed to say to that? That Susie was the one who wanted nothing to do with me? That she cared more about what Danny from Haverford told her than what’s in front of her face, than “having each other”? So I say nothing.

    Mom wrings the neck of the ketchup bottle and then says softly, as if trying not to startle me, “You used to have such nice friends.”

    She stands over me, watching as I mangle my eggs. She probably imagines that I’m thinking about Susie, but I am actually thinking of the night before, the familiar jingle and clink of my father’s key in the door, the sound of his coat and shoes coming off in the hallway, hours after she and I had gone to our rooms. Lying in my twin bed, watching the shadow of my father’s steps leak underneath my bedroom door, I could have almost believed that everything was the same as before. But this morning—while my father stirred his coffee and let it go cold, while my mother burned her breakfast—that’s when the ritual begins to turn moldy, when the performances seem weak, when I start to wonder if, somehow, Poppy managed to stay alive, buried underneath the surface of stupid, everyday things, letting out little gurgles, threatening to scream.

    I spent a lot of time in that green chair watching Poppy, dreaming up and deciding things about her, but I actually knew very little about her. She once mentioned she’d briefly attended university in the States, but never explained how she ended up here behind a desk instead of finishing her degree. She didn’t give any indication of her life outside of the office. We were limited to orbiting around each other, gently touching down on innocuous topics that I realize now that she knew would be tantalizing to a thirteen-year-old. Poppy was the one who taught me about makeup, about women’s things. Even though my mother was far from drab, it never seemed to occur to her that a girl might like makeup as more than a chore. It never occurred to her that a thirteen-year-old might want to be something, and searching for someone to show her how.

    Which is where Poppy came in. She didn’t make an effort with me until it became clear that I would appear every couple of weeks, magically and without warning, to wait for my father and to stare at her with a mouth jammed full of wire. About three months into this ritual, sometime in the middle of winter, she beckoned me to her desk. One of the fashion magazines she kept in the bottom drawer was in her hands. I’d often seen her flip through magazines hidden in her lap, her head bowed and eyes lowered. When she had to get back to work, she would toss them into the drawer and slam it shut with her foot. But today, she spread the magazine flat on her desk and turned it towards me.

    Becky Shirley is a writer from Oceanside, California. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University and lives in New York City.

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