By Buffy Shutt
No one asked outright, but somehow I knew I had to pick something fast so I said shell. Beside our bed is a dish filled with the shells Nick and I collected. I figured he wouldn’t throw them away. And this way he would see me every day. Right there. That one. The orangey-brown one, the banded tulip.
I won’t stay a shell forever. They explain I’ll move around a lot. They don’t talk to me; I just know things from one minute to the next. I would like to be a girl again and be walking down the street and run into Nick, like in a movie, but they say it doesn’t happen that way.
The other night I got it into my spiral shell head that no one saw what I saw. Shapes, colors. The Eiffel Tower I saw wasn’t the Eiffel Tower everyone else saw. Nicky and I saw the same things, didn’t we? I can’t fall asleep. My mind is too busy trying to sort this out. What blue is everyone seeing? I squeeze my eyes shut and see jumps of gold; undulating hoops of light. I try to follow them. I am figuring out that we all don’t see the same things. What about feeling the same way? Probably not. A space, not unpleasant, opens up inside and around me. It is important to learn this new language that’s seeping into me without asking permission.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. This prayer popped into my head. I am not sure I know all of it, but I repeat the lines I can remember. It’s like knitting. Nick would laugh if he knew I was saying a prayer. He doesn’t believe in any kind of authority. If they see I’m wobbly or slipping, they might change me into something else. I am praying to remain a shell.
Tonight will be the first time Nick will be alone, meaning I won’t be here in our apartment with him. He had to leave me at the hospital. Tomorrow I will be transferred to a funeral parlor. Minutes after he left, they wheeled me down to the morgue. By the time I got there, I was a shell. Thank God. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.
Nick’s sister Laura and her husband Matt are with him now. They drove up to New York from Washington, D.C., and came straight to the hospital when Nick called. Nick didn’t call. Who called them? They got to Roosevelt Hospital and found my room. There were people in the hall walking in tight circles. People from work, I think. Friends. I didn’t see my parents or my sister, but they live in California and probably don’t know yet. The time change will soften it for them. I will be dead when Nick calls them. He’s been putting off calling my mother, collecting as much information as he can from the doctors. When he does call, he won’t be giving them any of the hope he has been clinging to.
They say there is a moment, a thin line, an opening where you can flutter and whomever you choose will feel it. I have to save this for Nick and figure out the right time to use it.
Laura and Matt couldn’t believe what happened. They ask Nick to tell it again. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord is my shepherd.
My memories are spread out on a sandy beach. Like the prayers, they are hard to tell apart. Before, I could remember so many things easily, specifically. They each had a breath. But now it’s different. They say this makes it easier, but I am mixing things up.
The day I became a shell, I was a movie publicist staffing the star of our new summer movie, an effects, best-seen-in-3D, action flick. A sequel. The premiere was at the Ziegfeld. Driving down Seventh Avenue, I had been telling the actor-star, Lacy Wright, about A Home At Last.
“What’s that?” he asked me. Lacy complained everyone wants his money. He had tons of it. We had gotten friendly. This was the second movie of his I’d worked on. Sometimes you get close with the talent, sometimes you don’t. Or you are close, spending days and even the nights together, protecting them, getting them Perrier, fighting about time, helping them, close as siblings—and then the movie comes out and they’re gone. And when you see them again, they act like they’ve never met you before.
The first movie was released four years ago. That’s when I met Nick. Someone gave him a ticket to the press screening and he showed up ten minutes late. Handsome, artsy, and looking around like he didn’t know why he was there. I was an assistant then, working the door, and he wasn’t on the list. I told him the ticket was non-transferable and pointed to the bottom of it. He smiled and walked away.
“Wait!” I yelled. “The movie’s already started, but I have a seat in the back.” He nodded. Just nodded and followed me up the escalator, through the lobby, under the huge chandelier, and into the red seat I indicated. I leaned against a wall on the side of the auditorium and watched the light on his face. Can you fall in love with the light on someone’s face? And in thirty seconds, how did I see our kids, our house, our life together, when he didn’t even know my name?
In the limo, I was telling Lacy for the fiftieth time to give money to this struggling organization that takes care of kids who have aged out of foster care. He put his arm out like you do when the car is about to make a sudden stop and said, “Yes. Twenty-five thousand. Call Toni in the morning.” Twenty-five thousand. I couldn’t believe my ears.
I am wobbling. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside still waters, He restores my soul.
We were out of the limo. There were hundreds of people lining the streets near the entrance to the theatre, everyone waiting for Lacy. The cops weren’t keeping the crowd back like they usually do, but Lacy didn’t mind. He liked to mingle with his fans, let them take selfies, shake his hand.
I was nervous. People were stretched out over the stanchions, straining to touch him, throwing pens, plastic figures, and T-shirts at him to autograph. They were loud. My boss was waving his arms in an uncoordinated way, signaling me to bring Lacy up the red carpet right now. There was a text from Nick, but I couldn’t stop to answer it.
“How could this happen?”
“I don’t get it.”
Laura and Matt are talking over each other. She seems angry about something. Nick has his hand in mine.
“It happened.” Nick’s voice is very low. Laura has to bend down to hear him. She’s crying. Nick tells them the rest of the story. He has told it many times in the last day and a half. A nurse walks in and sees us all huddled together and walks out.
I stepped up on the curb to get closer to Lacy—he’s quite a bit taller than I am—and the crowd was so loud he couldn’t hear me. I was shouting Time to go! and I slipped. I fell off the curb and hit my head on the pavement. That’s when they asked me to pick something. Give us today our daily bread. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He guides me along the right paths. Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Laura is crying hard. She is digging around in her purse. She dumps everything out of it onto my hospital bed. She is frantically looking for something when she sees Nick staring at her.
“I’m sorry, Nicky.” She lurches for her prescription bottle and her Purell. “Jesus, what’s wrong with me?” I feel her wallet next to my thigh. She scoops up everything and in a fury throws it all into the trashcan.
“I don’t understand. She’s twenty-five fucking years old!” She smoothes out the wrinkles in my hospital sheet. Matt pulls the plastic liner out of the wastebasket with all of Laura’s things in it, hands her a pill, and tosses everything else on the visitor chair. Nick pours her some of my water and nods for her to take her pill. Nick and I know I am twenty-six, but I can’t correct Laura.
We have been married almost three years. It is dark outside and Laura is calmer now. I see her reflection in the window. She is tall and thin, like Nick, but she looks like a pencil sketch. His baby sister is asking him so many questions. She should stop talking—there isn’t much time. She is filling up the room with words and I am having trouble making sense of any of them. Laura looks over at Matt. He is swaying back and forth.
“Who called you? Where were you when they called you? Did you get a second opinion?” Laura asks Nick.
My hair is the color of a tulip shell. Orangey-brown. That was what made Nick pick up the shell that day. He was goofing around, holding the shell up to my head, comparing the colors and laughing. No, I was the one who was laughing. He was smiling. Nick has a beautiful smile that fits across my eyes. He is James Bond to me. His eyes pulled in a little when he looked at me. He put the shell in his pocket. I can feel myself in his pocket easier than I can feel his hand grabbing mine and walking me along Fernandina Beach. Nick took out his phone and Googled the shell.
“You are a tulip shell and l can find you in the thick grass in shallow waters,” he said, looking at the screen. He sounded like he was reading from a children’s book. We walked then. His arm over my shoulder. We didn’t say much.
Nick picked me up today. His hands are tender. I reach to feel his hands, but I can only feel my ribs, my shell-ribs. I am inside a white, muffled space. The dish. It’s been a while since the funeral. I’m not sure how long; my sense of time is different now. He had me cremated and took me back to Amelia Island to scatter me. People have vacation homes there. He and Laura grew up there. I forget how he got to New York.
I was happy he picked the beach. There was sun jumping on the waves and a pulsing filled up my shell. Nick was alone. It was low tide and he spent some time kicking the grass in the shallows. Our Father in heaven. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Yea, though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
The sea is in my ear. Some people put shells to their ears to hear the sea, but I always hear the sea. The thumping is lodged in my right ear. Nick bought me vitamins for the whooshing. “You have to take them for three months.” Every morning, he put them in the juice glass we stole from the hotel in Berlin on the last night of our honeymoon.
I slip to Berlin. They whisper to me, telling me, I can be in different places at the same time, but then I am less and less with Nicky. But it is easy here. A sweet drifting. I am lying in the waves. Without a body, the waves go in and out of me. The water is cool and drops catch on the ridges inside my shell, and then the water drains out. I feel slick. Full. I could stay here. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, my cup runneth over.
In our apartment, we always heard the water rushing through the pipes. We had a great apartment. Nick is an illustrator. Mostly book covers. He uses…what’s the word? They say not to try so hard. They tell me to let the locks open like in a canal. Watercolors! Today, before he got dressed for work, he held me in his palm. He ran his thumb up and down my whorls. I have thirteen whorls. He put his lips around my crown. He sunk down onto our bed and dumped all the shells into both of his hands. Then he squeezed them and dropped them one at a time back into the dish. I wound up at the bottom. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.
I love you. They tell me to let go. The voices are currents. Light streaks. There is a lot of activity. My memories are tiny grains of sand now. Pinkish, whitish, soft, sometimes a bit rough with seaweed caught between the grains. I can’t see all my memories at the same time so I can’t make sense of things like I used to. Like I want to. Like I am not supposed to. A silent authority wraps around me. I will scoop up my memories, put them in a pail, and sit down on the beach just above the water line and watch the tiny holes the waves leave in the sand. It looks like the sand is breathing. Go through my memories. Go through love. Not sure it is like this for everyone, probably not, but it is for me. I am a shell. There is no one else here. I feel parallel to Nick, but gauzily, being pulled away. Thy will be done. Give us today our daily bread. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Your son is taking your old shaving kit with him to college. He looks a lot like you when I first saw you in the lobby of the movie theatre. I lost my equilibrium that day. Timothy. His name reminds me of something. Nick, it’s like I am seeing you through a frosted window. My shellback is an orange-and-white checkerboard. There is a part of my shell that juts out, making a shelf. It is narrow and there is a slight crack in it. I put the things I don’t understand on it. I can imagine you, though I can’t describe your face any longer. Time here isn’t how we shared it. It’s much more open and vast. Like a deep breath under a wave I can hold forever. Or resting at the bottom of a dish.
It takes all my concentration to see him. This is your son with your second wife. I don’t know her. Sometimes she picks me up with the other shells, when putting down a glass of water for you at night or dusting the dish on your side of the bed, and I can feel her happiness and her luck. Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, our Father who art in heaven.
Timothy balances the shaving kit on the edge of the bathroom sink in his dorm room. He lines up the razor, the shaving cream. He uses the same aftershave I bought for you. We couldn’t afford it, but I bought it anyway.
I wish I had memorized that Christmas and the one after. I wish I had memorized how you bent down and pulled out my present from under the tree. You had it wrapped in plain, brown paper with a silky ribbon. You handed it to me. A soft current from the tree branches you had disturbed caused the red ribbon to dance a bit. I wish I could remember your face. And the white Christmas mugs with our names printed on each one that my mother sent us from a department store in Los Angeles. And the raspberry pastries we bought.
We think we wanted a bigger apartment. I remember you saying you needed a proper studio. And I wanted a promotion and a bigger office. Now I wish for a still small place. Bind me. I slip through long narrow rows of wooden benches. No one is here but me.
The waves break in halves, leave foam, and go back out. In. Out. Exhale. Inhale. Heart. Beat. Nick. Nick. Nick. The patterns and whooshing and how I know I belong amaze me. I belong here, Nick. Let go. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. And ever.
Timothy reaches into the kit to see what’s left and pulls me out. He holds the shell in his hand and says to himself with a little surprise, “Oh, Dad’s lucky charm.” He puts me in his pocket.
I opened my eyes under water today. Remember when I never liked to and I was sure the water would burn my eyes. But it was beautiful. I could hardly see and then I saw everything. I am floating down to you in a pocket of darkness. I am giving up being a shell. Nick, I am giving up. Here is the one flutter, the one ripple that I am allowed to send. It breaks in a watery harmony. And now I see this ripple was meant for me. It was for me all along.
Buffy lives and works in Los Angeles. She spent most of her adult life marketing movies. Now she writes full time. She has published one novel and co-authored a book of non-fiction. Her first short story was published in Red Fez last December.