an online literary magazine for extra pungent poetry and prose

Nicholas Goudsmit

Circa 1869

It is the ugliest of the dozen houses they tour, the front porch sagging into an overgrown yard; loose shingles like briquettes of charcoal; a worn, inexact purple trim; and a sign, one hundred and twenty-nine years old, over the door: Circa 1869

“This way,” Bert the broker says, opening the front door. He takes the doorknob with him in the process and looks at it in his palm expectantly, as if it might speak. “Hm,” he says, and Wilco and Charlotte, who have spent as much time analyzing Bert the broker’s insufferable quiff as the eleven houses prior, can only laugh. Wilco places a hand on Charlotte’s stomach. Bert holds the doorknob. In each of their hands is something peculiar: neither is quite sure how it got there or, now that it’s there, what to do with it.

“We’ll take it,” Wilco and Charlotte say, almost in unison. 


The first child arrives in October: Elliot, they decide. There is a certain equality to his features. Wilco’s rounded nose, Charlotte’s thin fingers, his brown hair but her widow’s peak. The first night they spend in the old home as a family, they take turns watching Elliot sleep.

“I can’t believe he’s ours,” says Wilco, mostly to himself. Charlotte rolls over on the bed the three of them occupy, her pelvis aching, her stomach ribbed like corduroy. 

“I can.”

It isn’t Elliot’s neh or ouh that comes next, but the low, acoustic creak of the stairs. Which they’ve heard since they first moved in this spring. Which they understand almost better than the sounds of their child. The bedroom ceiling is pockmarked by a thousand miniature holes. In her fogginess, looking up, Charlotte sees a galaxy. A distinctly fall breeze meets the bay windows. The willow branches clatter against them. The oil tank clicks on. The radiators gurgle and cry, as if to say, So can we.


It is the threshold of winter, where nothing says the change of seasons more than expectation: for blankets of snow, for warm mugs and afghans. Elliot cries from the bedroom over, converted from an old utility closet. 

“It’s your turn,” whispers Charlotte, lying edgewise with the duvet pulled square to her chin.

“It’s always my turn,” says Wilco.

“Try nine months of that.”

The cries of an infant are knocks on a door frame: What’s behind them? How can the meaning of one be differentiated from the next? Even before the room lights up, Elliot’s face shows a horrible color. Milk-white. Alabaster. 

“Hey,” says Wilco, desperately, stupidly. And then to Charlotte: “I think something’s wrong.”

Sooner than Wilco can set him down, Charlotte is leaning over the crib. Elliot looks up at them, mouth open. His eyes are welled, slightly sunken. They move the mound of blankets so he lies flat, undo the diaper. Clean.

“Is he hungry?” says Wilco. 

“There’s a jar of Gerber’s in the nightstand.”

But he won’t eat it, nor will he quit crying long enough to attempt to. His wails are consistent, off-putting, but not teary. They position him in the bed between them and while Wilco tickles Elliot’s stomach and imitates Daffy Duck, Charlotte flips through Diary of a Baby, hurling loose phrases like an auctioneer. 

“RSV. Bronchitis. Sinusitis. Are his cheeks flushed? Is he rashing? Would you say that’s a ‘distressed’ cry or more ‘antsy’?”

The staircase creaks. She runs down it, to the medicine cabinet, and shuffles through helplessly. She calls her mother.

“It’s three in the morning, Charlotte.”

“It’s Elliot,” she says. “He’s pale. He won’t stop crying.”

“Have you tried the old Crawford trick? When you or your siblings used to cry, I’d put you in front of the television, flip you on your stomach, and leave. By the time I got back you were either fast asleep or so caught up in the Addams Family that you’d forgotten why you were crying in the first place.”

“Mom, it’s 1999,” she begins to say, and hangs up. 

From the downstairs bathroom Elliot’s wails are wind. These walls are horsehair plaster, these ceilings ten feet high, ornamented with medallions done from paper maché. Talking between walls is like talking across streets. The only sound is the sink, from which a single drop trickles down the nose of the faucet every second. 

She curses, fills a glass with sink water, runs upstairs, tilts the cup toward Elliot’s mouth. He won’t quite sip but does not squirm away, either, and for a second his crying stops. He sets his mouth to the edge of the glass. The water laps his upper lip. Charlotte and Wilco look at each other, half-amused, half-disbelieving. Could it have been so simple? Could they have been so stupid? She picks up Diary of a Baby from the nightstand and throws it across the room. Elliot takes a small sip, then another, then a third. He makes a slight snicker, as if suppressing a laugh, as if asking himself the same question: How could you be so stupid?  

The crying ceases. Elliot keeps his lips pressed to the edge of the water, now and again taking the faintest of sips. But sips! Sleep overcomes them, and in the morning Charlotte asks Wilco if he’ll take a look at the leak in the bathroom sink. 

“What leak?” says Wilco. “I don’t see a leak.”

“It’s an old house,” Charlotte says, shedding an oven mitt. “Every time there’s a problem, you can’t just pretend it doesn’t exist. If we do that, this place is going to collapse on us one night while we’re—”

But he’s right. The nose of the faucet is completely dry. Dripless. She watches it for a minute, five, time enough that the chicken in the oven smells of tire rubber. That night, as she maneuvers a charred mince of chicken toward Elliot, who sits happily and hungrily in his highchair, she waits to hear the drip of the faucet. 


Oliver arrives two Junes later, born out of literal frustration. The doctors suggest a cesarean, Charlotte says “Fuck no,” and it’s decided. He is a bowling ball: ten pounds, all cheek, with a wad of curly blonde hair that sprouts vertically, a face red as garnet. The obstetrician declares girl, looks again, and decides boy. His head has a rightward tilt: torticollis. Elliot, examining his brother in the crib that evening, says, “Mouse.” Charlotte celebrates with a vase of red wine.

She finds, two or three weeks into being a mother of two, an equilibrium she didn’t know existed. The unused corners of the home are suddenly full: the closet beneath the stairs with Elliot’s winter clothes, the third bedroom outfitted with a rarely used crib. Most nights, she falls asleep with Elliot curled up beside her, Oliver splayed across her chest, Wilco snoring on his side of the bed, his pillow smelling of pepper.

At the small family gathering she hosts a week after Oliver’s birth, Charlotte’s sister Anna holds her captive in the mudroom, and in her exhaustion Charlotte can only register bits and pieces: “Such character . . . alive . . . the most charming I’ve ever seen.”

Only later does Charlotte realize that her sister was not talking about Oliver. She was talking about the house.


Oliver is six when he nearly loses his left leg; Elliot, nine, huddles over his brother in fear. A block away, Wilco attempts to sell guestrooms for an inn in Plymouth with “Monet-inspired gardens and a world-class spa” from his pantry-improvised home office. On his nineteenth cold call of the morning, he hears the thwat of the screen door, which lurches with every gust of September wind. Fall is next week, which in New England means winter is the week after.

He is well into the quote stage of his pitch when he must excuse himself: he’ll only be a minute. 

The main oak door creates a tunnel of wind. The screen juts open again and flaps wildly, its rusted metal hinges shrieking. He swings the oak door open, rushes onto the porch, assesses it from this side. The bottom hinge is loose, a screw by his foot.

Another gust of wind. Another wail. Only this time the pitch is different, the sound is farther away.

He goes to it, starting in a tentative walk, amounting to a sprint. There is no one on the road but him: a suburban Massachusetts father sprinting along Cardinal Avenue. The asphalt underfoot is misshapen and random. A paving crew recently poured new pockets that resemble a rabbit, two bay leaves, a silhouette of Florida. A shirtless Peter Sullivan revs his Vespa from his garage; Jane Robbins clicks her tongue from her porch; Jason from L.L. Bean waits on the other line. 

Wilco arrives at the foot of Cardinal Hill. Fifty feet up are Elliot and Oliver. 

“Dad!” cries Elliot. 

Within ten seconds he is running back across Cardinal Avenue, his youngest son in arms, his older son running alongside them. Oliver wails. Elliot rambles. 

“There was this rock and he tripped and fell and his leg landed on this other rock and I wasn’t sure whether to come get you and leave him there or what to do I tried to pick him up but I couldn’t is he okay is he going to be okay?”

A crater has opened up in Oliver’s left leg, halfway up the shin, in the shape of a rhombus. The flesh is pink and puckered; a sliver of white peeks out from beneath it. Wilco’s orange shirt turns brown. Blood spills fountain-like.

“Call your mom,” says Wilco. “Tell her to meet us at the hospital.”

Elliot bursts through the doorway. Wilco plants Oliver in the passenger seat of the van. He can’t process the drive to the hospital now; he won’t process it six hours from now, arriving home, Oliver in arms: stitched seven times at the shin, sleepy and halfway high on propofol. “Another quarter-inch” the doctor said, “and we’d have had to take it clean off.” 

When he walks through the door he nearly walks into it. The screen is shut. Tight. The loose screw remains on the ground; the wind continues to howl. He kicks the screw across the porch until it slots in a horizontal break in the wood and falls into the abyss of the home’s foundation. 

The next morning he calls Jason from L.L Bean, who books all fifty rooms. 


Two weeks before Christmas of 2008, Charlotte sits with the boys in the dining room, playing TableTopics. Snow is splayed on the porch in odd shapes: of clouds and continents. A faint trail of water runs into the mudroom, down the hallway. Empty bowls of pasta sit before them with a stack of cards central. So far it’s been established that no, they cannot get a dog; if there is a God, why do we go to school five days a week?; and “everyone has a Venn diagram.”

“Your turn, Ma,” says Oliver, and Charlotte picks a card from atop of the deck. She eyes it sidelong, pretends not to understand, chooses another. 

“What’d that one say, Ma?” Oliver asks. He stretches across the table. Charlotte inches the card closer to her corner. “Why won’t you read it?”

“It was a silly card,” says Charlotte. “But listen to this one. What trip would you most like to take in your lifetime?”

They are lost in thought when the Honda Odyssey pulls into the driveway. The engine lurches to a halt; the headlights momentarily bleed through the kitchen windows and then go dark. Elliot and Oliver lock eyes, jolt upright, sprint to the office down the hall. 

“Hey,” says Charlotte. “You didn’t ask to be excused.”

The hallway is a racetrack. Their legs are motors. Their dad—who will walk through the door, crouch, set his briefcase at his ankles, and fling his arms out wide—is the finish line. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, give it up for Elliot Goldberg!” their dad will soon say, and Elliot will launch forward, through the office, past sleepy beige walls, across the narrow kitchen hallway, and into Wilco’s arms. Oliver will watch, repeat. Wilco will hold them and say, “Kom mijn huis binnen.” Come into my house. 

Only tonight, as they watch from the rear of their mother’s office, Wilco does not crouch when the door opens. He leaves his coat on, runs a hand over the crease of his forehead, asks for their mother, who picks herself up and walks through the mudroom. Out there, in the cold, they stand statue-esque for a moment before Wilco begins to talk. The tips of his ears are red as radishes. His breath is material.

Elliot and Oliver create versions of what their parents are saying to each other. Narratives of lives that kids envision for adults—that adults haven’t envisioned since they were kids. 

“Tomorrow,” Elliot whispers, “I’m going to take the day off from work and we can take the kids out of school and go to Plum Island and it’ll be eighty degrees and we’ll go swimming and get sunburnt.”

“And ice cream,” says Oliver.

“And ice cream.”

The argument outside continues. Elliot runs out of hypotheticals. Oliver pulls at the corner thread of the office rug like a puppy. Lies down. Counts the holes in the plasterboard ceiling. Runs a finger over the smoothed-over scar on his leg. Gets up and walks to the dining room.

The card is facedown in the corner of the table: he places a finger atop it, thumb along the crease, and tries to fold it toward himself. A stain grips the card tight to the table. Oliver pries; the card peels forward. Atoms of woodpulp tear from the face of the card, stick to the stain. Even so, he makes out a question.

With the knowledge you have now,
what would you have done differently?


The money is tied up in the mortgage. The Passat wagon is dead. The Odyssey’s engine sputters but lives on. Wilco is jobless, again. The kids are in school, one middle, one elementary. Charlotte is underpaid and undervalued, but paid. In the summer, the house is warm, and there is no way to cool it down. In the winter, the house stays warm, and that feels nice. They’ve refinanced their refinance and cannot refinance the latest. They’ve stopped having sex altogether.

Tina asks what brings them in. 

“Usually we reserve couples counseling for—you know—couples who aren’t getting along. You two,” she says, setting her clipboard down, pencil to lips, “seem to be doing just fine.”

Wilco does an imitation of the neighbors, Jane and Clint Robbins, in which Clint plays the masochist. Charlotte, already laughing, laughs harder. Tina is not wrong. Maybe they aren’t broken. 

At night, in the bedroom, Charlotte looks in the mirror and sees aging like food stuck in her teeth: unflattering, surprising. There is a wrinkle on her skin that wasn’t there in the morning. She folds laundry, tucks the kids in, thinks to call her brother tomorrow. She stands with the hamper resting atop the bedroom radiator for a minute, motionless. Wilco watches a soccer game downstairs and she faintly overhears an English commentator: “The Dutch put up a fourth. You might call it the icing on the cake.” 

It’s been eleven months; he has not found work. Unemployment was up after six. Last summer they spent a week in Orlando, where she labored through seven consecutive twelve-hour days in a conference room that let in less light than a wine cellar, discussing IBM’s “data-driven decisions.” The whole time Wilco swam with the kids in the pool, brought them down the pirate ship slide, ate meals she funded. She cannot resent him for it—for being more of a father because of how little a mother she can be—but she doesn’t have to love him for it either.

Oliver asks things like, “Ma, why can’t you play with us today?”

Elliot asks, “Mom, how come Dad never talks about work anymore?”

And she must say things like, “This weekend, honey,” or, “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

Now, with the kids tucked in, she thinks about Tina’s latest exercise.  Of trying to imagine life without the other in it—how that tastes, what color that is. She says things she imagines having to: “No one ever made me laugh like your father; People get tired; I’m not the same person I was when I met him, but he is . . . ”

She whispers to the radiator, asking it something about her patience. The heat turns on; the radiator clicks and vibrates; she understands just fine that she is having a conversation with a radiator.


Eleven months later Charlotte returns home from an unceremonious day of work. Gretta has dyed her hair a yet fiercer silver, and in that spirit has asked that the team go “balls to the metaphorical wall” this quarter; Wilco is en route to the Revolution game with the kids; and WBZ announced, as she sat in standstill on the Pike, that Boston has “beaten New York once again,” this time for America’s worst traffic. 

Autumn arrives in droves. She tracks leaves the colors of sunset into the mudroom. A pile taller than the fence collects in the yard. The willow tree is an empty coat rack. Whatever lives—or dies—in the garden is hidden beneath a veil of orange. 

She kicks her boots into a cubby, sets her bag on the counter. Pushes in a stool. Returns a tub of butter to the fridge. Rakes a pile of crumbs into her palm, then the trash. 

Her eyes rest on a stain in the oak floorboards, no smaller than a mouse, no larger than a human hand. This patch of wood is darker—slightly, not exceptionally. The stain does not itself smell of wine, though if she looks long enough, Charlotte can taste the Malbec, left from her and Wilco’s tenth anniversary, eight years ago. 

“Honestly,” he said then, after polishing off a plate of lasagna at the dining room table, dressed in the same dumb mustard shirt he wore when they met, “I don’t know how I’ve managed to stick around for so long.” The kids were with their Grandma May in Holliston. So this was quiet. “The first time I met your mom, I thought she was going to kill me. And then do you remember what Mémé said to me when you first showed her your ring? ‘I liked you from the very beginning, Wilco . . . well, maybe not the very beginning.’”

She had done a quarter of the damage to her plate as he had his. The smile on his face when she looked up was clearly food-related. He was a different man on a full stomach. A sort of Dr. Jekyll of calories. She troveled a bite from her plate and watched steam rise from its mozzarella blanket. 

“My brother thought you were a communist,” she said. “He kept asking me what kind of name Wilco is.”

“What’d you say?”

“That you prefer the term eccentric.”

“And what’d he say?”

“That that’s where it always starts.”

As Wilco refilled their glasses in the kitchen, the sound of broken glass was followed by a sharp godverdomme. She found the dustpan and brush in the closet. The spilled Malbec made a concentrated mark a foot from the oven. It was a simple, almost charming stain. A shape among shapes. This was no linoleum, no laminate, no vinyl. This was wood: old, misshapen wood, with a century’s worth of stains just like this one. And so she dusted and he mopped and they resumed their dinner and the kids returned home an hour later having learned a new word—dipshit!—from Grandma May, and Charlotte forgot about the stain altogether.

But she cannot ignore it now. Now she reaches for a bottle of vinegar and a container of baking soda from the cabinet above the oven, a washrag from the mudroom. She sinks to her knees and applies a base of baking soda, then acid. She watches it fizz, bubble, neutralize. For forty minutes—until her knees are numb from the floorboards, her wrists hot from scrubbing—she grates back and forth across the stain vigorously. The house smells earthy, rotten. The stain persists. She notices another, similarly sized stain by her ankle, thinks perhaps this is the one she remembers, and continues to scrub.


The front yard is in the shape of a claw, and around it Elliot and Oliver race in burlap potato sacks, stumbling over their own feet. It’s too hot to notice the humidity and too humid to notice the heat, so they play: for hours, until their knees are grass-coated and their shirts are soil, stopping only for a glass of lemonade or when Wilco steps onto the porch.

“Boys, we’re having a family conference.”

They filter into the living room. Where Mom normally sits, in the middle of the loveseat with space on either side for a son, is empty. She is instead in the chair adjacent, with no room beside her. Wilco stands, his back pressed against the metal grate of the radiator. Elliot wonders whether they found out he fudged his report card. 

Oliver asks, “Did Oma die?”

“No,” says Wilco, who laughs defeatedly. “No, Oma is okay. This isn’t about Oma.”

“What’s it about?” asks Elliot, and Wilco looks at Charlotte, who looks back at Wilco, shaking her head, lips pursed.

“Well, says Wilco, “it’s about your mom and dad, who, no matter what happens, are always going to love you. You know that, right?”

Oliver has heard this adult way of speaking before. It’s how Ms. Drew, his fifth-grade English teacher, addresses the class before they open discussion on their reactions to Wonder.

Did it make you uncomfortable? If so, why? How does the author draw emotion from his reader? There are, no matter what, no wrong answers. You all know that, right?

Wilco says things about division, about chapters, about space. Elliot counts: the phrase “sixteen great years” has been used five times. Charlotte says nothing. Three cry; Wilco rubs the fingernail of his thumb with the other, wondering why he can’t. “But we’re always going to love you, that doesn’t change. Not much is changing, really. Mom will have her home, I’ll have mine, and you guys will have two.”

For a moment they look around, past one another, for some unspoken clue. No one says a word. The willow branches brush the windows; the ductwork expands and contracts; the shingles absorb the summer sun, making a crackling noise; sediment bubbles in the water heater. 

As readers, Oliver hears Ms. Drew say in her let’s-debrief voice, we try our best not to judge characters, but to understand them. Try, for a minute, to understand where Auggie is coming from. Are his circumstances his fault? Are the people around him to blame? Is it possible—and remember, there are no wrong answers here—that we feel personally responsible for something that’s completely out of our control?


Wilco sets the last of his bins in the trunk of the Odyssey. He pulls a card from his wallet for the town’s mechanic and sets it on the dash of the Passat, thinking That seems right. A husband fixes a car. An ex-husband leaves it. But a good ex-husband does something in the middle. He mulls the word over in his mouth a few times—ex-husband—and decides it tastes sour.

He shuts the trunk, falls into the driver’s seat, turns the ignition. 

Cardinal Avenue is strangely unfamiliar now. He tries to pay attention to the neighbors’ houses as he passes them for the millionth time—the Wrights’, the Millers’, the Sullivans’, the Robbins’. He tilts the rearview down, hiding his home. A glint appears in the mirror—a shard of light refracts. Wilco pulls over, looks again. Sitting in the old booster seat is a brass orb the size of a tennis ball.

Nicholas Goudsmit earned his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Utah. He lives in Boston and edits alumni autobiographies at Harvard.