In today’s featured fiction, we present a short story from Amy Hempel’s first story collection since 2006, Sing to It, out tomorrow from Scribner. The title received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, which praised the book for highlighting “Hempel’s signature style with its condensed prose, quirky narrators, and touching, disturbing, transcendent moments.”
Mrs. Greed had been married for forty years, her husband the cuckold of all time. A homely man with a notable fortune, he escorted her on errands in the neighborhood. It was a point of honor with Mrs. Greed to say she would never leave him. No matter if her affection for him was exceeded by her devotion to others. Including, for example, my husband. If she was home at night in her husband’s bed, did he care what she did with her days?
I was the one who cared.
Protected by men, money, and a lack of shame, Mrs. Greed had long been able to avoid what she had coming. She had the kind of glee that meant men did not think she slept around, they thought she had joie de vivre; they thought her a libertine, not a whore.
She had the means to indulge impetuous behavior and sleep through the mornings after nights she kept secret from her friends. She traveled the world, and turned into the person she could be in other places with people she would never see again.
She was many years older than my husband, running on the fumes of her beauty. Hers had been a conventional beauty, and I was embarrassed by my husband’s homage to it. Running through their rendezvous: a stream of regret that they had not met sooner.
He asked if she had maternal feelings for him. She said she was not sure what he wanted to hear. She told him she felt an erotic mix of passion and tenderness. If he wanted to think the tenderness maternal, let him.
When they met, he said, he had not hidden the fact that she looked like his mother, a glamorous woman who had been cruel to him and died when he was a boy. He had not said this to underscore her age, nor did she think it a fixation. She would have heard it as she felt it was intended: as a compliment, an added opportunity to bind them together. She would have been happy to be the good mother, as well as the ultimate sensate. And see how her pleasure seeking brought pleasure to those around her!
A thing between them: green apples. Never red, always green. I knew when my husband had entertained Mrs. Greed because a trio of baskets in the kitchen would be filled with polished green apples. My husband claimed to like the look of them; I never saw him eat one. As soon as they started to soften and turn brown, I would throw them out. And there would be the baskets filled so soon again.
He told me he got them from the Italian market in town. But I checked, and the Italian market does not carry green apples. What the green apples mean to them, I don’t know, don’t want to know. But she brought them each time she entered our house, and I felt that if I had not thrown the rotting ones out, he would have held on to every one of them. The way he fetishized these apples—it made him less attractive to me.
Mrs. Greed convinced her young lover, my husband, that she was “not the type” to have “work” done, but she had had work done. She must have had a high threshold for pain. She could stay out of sight for the month or more of healing after each procedure. She had less success hiding the results of other surgeries. She claimed her athleticism had made it necessary, claimed a “sports injury” to lessen the horror of simple aging. But she could not hide the stiffness that followed, a lack of elasticity that marked her an old woman who crossed the street slowly in low-heeled shoes. I watched her cross the street like this, supported by my husband.
Maybe that was why she liked to hear complaints about his other women, that they were spoiled and petty, gossips who resented his involvement with her. Because he would not keep quiet about such a thing. At first, she felt the others had “won” because they could see him at any time. Then she saw that their availability guaranteed he would tire of them. They were impermanent, and she knew it before they did. So however much he pleaded with her to leave her husband, or at least see him more often, Mrs. Greed refused. It galled me that he wanted her more than she wanted him.
I listened to them often. I hooked up the camera to the computer when I was at home alone. For two hundred dollars I’d bought a hidden surveillance camera that was fitted into a book. I did not expect it to work. I left it next to the clock on the nightstand. I did not pay the additional seventy-five dollars that would have showed them to me in color. But the ninety-degree field of view was adequate for our bedroom, and sound came in from up to seven hundred feet. Had this not worked so well, I would have stood in line for the camera that came hidden in a ceiling-mounted smoke detector.
Usually the things they said were exchanges of unforeseen delight, and riffs of gratitude. But the last time I listened to them, my husband said something clever. Mrs. Greed sounded oddly winsome, said she sometimes wished the two of them had “waited.” My husband told her they could still wait—they could wait a day, a week, a month—“It just won’t be the first time,” he said.
How she laughed.
I said to myself, “I am a better person!” I am a speech therapist who works with children. Parents say I change their lives. But men don’t care about a better person. You can’t photograph virtue.
I found the collection of photographs he had tried to hide. I liked that the photos of herself she brought to him were photos from so long ago. Decades ago. She wears old-fashioned bathing suits aboard sailboats with islands in the faded background. Let her note that the photographs of me that my husband took himself were taken in this bed.
Together, they lacked fear, I thought, to the extent that she told him to bring me to dinner at her house. With her husband. Really, this was the most startling thing I had heard on playback. Just before the invitation, she told him she would not go to bed with the two of us. My husband was the one to suggest it. As though the two of us had talked it over, as if this were something I wanted. I heard her say, “I have to be the queen bee.” Saw her say it.
She would not go to bed with us, but she would play hostess at dinner in her home.
I looked inside my closet, as though I might actually go. What does one wear for such an occasion? The corset dress? Something off the shoulder? Something to make me look older? But no dress existed for me to wear to this dinner. The dress had to do too much. It had to say: I am the sexy wife, and I will outlast you. It had to say: You are no threat to my happiness, and I will outlive you.
Down the street from our house, a car waited for Mrs. Greed. I knew, because I had taken note before, that a driver brought her to see my husband when I visited clients out of town. Was there a bar in the back of this car? I couldn’t tell—the windows had a tint. Maybe she would not normally drink, but because there was a decanter of Scotch and she was being driven some distance at dusk, maybe she poured herself a glass and toasted her good luck?
This last thought reassured me. How was it this felt normal to me, to think of her being driven home after a tumble with my husband? I guess it depends on what you are used to. I knew a man who found Army boot camp “touching,” the attention he received from the drill sergeant, the way the Army fed him daily. It was a comfort to him to know what each day would bring.
I felt there could be no compensation for being apart from my husband. Not for me, and not for her.
I knew I was supposed to be angry with him, not with her. She was not the first. She was the first he would not give up. But I could not summon the feelings pointed in the right direction. I even thought that killing her might be the form my self-destruction took. Had to take that chance. I tried to go cold for a time—when I thought of him, when I thought of her. But there was a heat and richness to what I conceived that made me think of times I was late to visit a place that my friends had already seen. When you discover something long after others have known it, there is a heady contentment that comes.
What I heard on the tapes after that: their contentment, their conversation one that we had not been having. Watching them on camera I thought: What if I’m doing just what I’m supposed to be doing? And then I thought: I am.
The boys said they would give me a sign.
It was money well spent. With what I saved not needing to film in color, and knowing I would not need the standard two-year warranty, I had enough to pay the thuggish teens a client’s son hung out with. The kid with the stutter had hinted he needed m‑m-money. I will even give them a bonus—I will let them keep the surveillance camera hidden in the book after they send me the final tape.
Mrs. Greed does not live so far away that I will miss the ambulance siren.
And what to make of this? The apples my husband “bought,” the green ones from the Italian market that does not carry green apples—I ate one on the front steps of our house and threw the core into pachysandra. The next morning the core I had thrown was on the top step where I had been sitting when I ate it. I threw it again, this time farther out, so it lodged in pine needles alongside the road in front of our house. The morning after that, today, the core was back in place on the top step.
I thought: Let’s see what happens next.
We have so many apples left.
Excerpted from Sing to It by Amy Hempel. Copyright © 2019 by Amy Hempel. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.