Excerpt from “The Sin Eater” (previously published in GW Review, and by Corvid Press, Beverly, 2004)
The next week you grill a flank steak. There are roasted potato wedges, soft inside and crisp outside. There’s fresh asparagus and hollandaise, a bottle of merlot. Grilling the steak, you remembered cooking with your wife, how she used to sit on the kitchen stool and watch you, read to you, how she loved the way you cooked. She would close her eyes over a pot on the stove and inhale, saying, I would die for your cooking.
When the Sin Eater knocks, you are as nervous as the first time. When you open the door you have to stop yourself from gasping. She looks terrible. Her eyes are bloodshot, there are purplish bags underneath them. She looks thin and her hair, very straight, has escaped the bun in several places and hangs next to her face in dim strands.
“Oh.” You can’t think of anything else to say. She waits for you to let her in. You step back and when she goes past, you can smell her, slightly sour and unwashed.
“Meat,” she says, and breathes deeply. She sets her purse on the hall table and walks into the kitchen. She sits down in the same seat as before. Her shoulders are hunched around her neck. There is a glass of wine already poured for her and she sips it, wrinkling her nose.
You say, “Look, if this is not a good time for you. . .”
She laughs sharply, that strange bony laugh. “You can’t expect me to look good on a job, now can you?”
You blink at her. She means you. She means your sins.
“Maybe you ought to explain this to me.” You put your hands on the counter that sits between you and the table. “How does this work? Am I making you sick? How long do you have to feel bad before we’re done?”
She stares at you, her eyes shiny black buttons, expressionless. “You should see me after some of my other clients, if you think this is bad.” She opens her mouth and belches. She excuses herself indifferently and says, “I’ll eat now.”
“But,” you say, “I don’t like being responsible. . .”
She cuts you off with a high snort of laughter.
You are miffed. You set about filling a plate for her. The meat is cooked just right, the hollandaise is yellow and rich over the asparagus. When you get to the table you realize she has emptied her glass. You frown, retrieve the bottle and refill her glass. You set the bottle on the table. She is after the plate like a starving dog. You can hear her breathing heavily over the food. A piece of meat, too large, slaps her chin as she tries to get it all in her mouth. You wish she would stop making your beautiful meal look like slop as she shoves it in.
Suddenly she says, “So many lies,” and her voice is distinctly sad. The hair on your arms rises up. She drinks from her glass, gulping at it until it is empty.
As if you are being boiled you can see them frothing forth, all the lies you’ve told: to your wife, to your boss, to your friends. You didn’t mean to lie about your marriage. You thought, sometimes, I’m probably not in love anymore, but then you would lie, you had to. Your own body grew tired of the waiting, it rose of its own accord. Sometimes your body would stir when your lover simply looked at you, even before you were lovers. It wasn’t you, not your mind or your heart, it was your body that took over, that took care of things. It was time for your marriage to end. Your body knew it.
The Sin Eater picks up the potato wedges, one at a time on her fork. She puts each one into her mouth, eyes closed, and chews.
Standing on a bank high above the river, your lover was wrapped in a blanket she kept in her car for picnics. The sky was dark with an oncoming storm. You could see two tiny pictures of yourself reflected in her eyes. You looked like a grown man, a kind man. She folded herself into your arms and you felt how she trusted you. How you felt trustworthy, even though every hour you spent together was stained with lies to someone else.
The Sin Eater nibbles the skin off the tip of a wedge, working it with her lips like a rodent.
Everything you had was fine. You had a serviceable life. Even as you think it, the word “serviceable” makes you dizzy.