Angeline Carter flipped through the stack of mail on her desk. It was almost always junk, but odd and amusing things popped up regularly enough to make it worth her time. She sorted quickly, deciding what was worth opening and what was trash almost without conscious thought, sometimes judging little more than the feel on the paper on her fingertips. She spent a bit more time on the pieces she thought were worth a second look, but most of those ended up in the trash, too. The only keepers today were an invitation to a restaurant opening at the marina, and a flyer for the City Opera, reminding her that she wouldn’t be taking advantage of her subscription this season, either.
In her haste Angeline almost missed the package that had been delivered as well, a plain box not much bigger than a coffee mug. She didn’t see it until she had sat down, and when she picked it up she was surprised that it had been delivered at all. Some determined or very bored mail clerk had inexplicably decided to not just return it to sender. Perhaps the long jumble of letters on the label had caught his eye. Maybe somebody in the mail room was Polish and upon seeing the name “Grace Szczepaniak” decided that he had a sacred duty to deliver the mail. Although it wasn’t any kind of secret, very few people her outside of HR or the Legal department knew who Grace Szczepaniak was, and almost nobody who knew Grace would ever think to find her here.
Angeline used a letter opener to cut the wrapping tape and open the box. Inside it was mostly bubble wrap, which she unspooled to reveal a small figurine of a ballerina. The figure itself was cheap ceramic, perhaps even just plaster, unglazed and mostly unpainted except for the faded pink tutu. The ballerina balanced on one foot, which connected her to the wooden base and the hidden mechanics inside. There was a slot on the side for a small key which, when turned, would make it play a tinny ten-second snippet of The Nutcracker, and slowly spin the little ballerina. The key was missing, but Angeline found that if she turned the ballerina herself the gears still moved, and the song still played, albeit at the wrong speed.
She checked the box. There was no return address but the postmark showed it was mailed from Sweetwater, and Angeline felt a tremble crawl through her hands. She put the figurine down and stood. It was an odd intrusion into her day, and although the tremble went away already she didn’t want to sit down. Her office, her home-away-from-home for nearly seven years now, felt alien and unwelcoming to her, and the need to get out was impossible to ignore.
Which was madness, after all. And infuriating. She had gone through this already, and over the past few weeks settled whatever it was that needed to be settled–which wasn’t much, she found. It was both ridiculous and unfair that this little figurine should insist otherwise.
And yet there it was. The slot for the missing key was a quiet accusation, and the muted song that wouldn’t play right tried stubbornly to remind her of Crystal and, inevitably, Grace.
“I need some air, I’m going for a walk,” she said to her secretary.
“Remember the afternoon meeting was moved up to one-thirty today.”
Angeline checked the clock–not enough time for a walk then. “Okay, I’ll get a coffee at the Terrace instead. But call me if there’s anything else.”
She took the elevator down to the thirty-fourth floor and ordered an espresso. The most coveted tables at the Terrace Cafe overlooked the corner of Lincoln and Seventh, because you could see the whole panoply of downtown hustle while shaded by the building across the street, but Angeline sat on the opposite side, where the views were relatively unobstructed and she could see out over the square to the river and beyond. It wasn’t a good seat: there was no shade, and the glass building across the street reflected the sunlight brutally. But from here she could see north, across the river and City of Carroll. Could she see as far as the airport? Not likely, especially with the buildings in the way. How far was it to the Kaukonen County line? She’d never known.
She did know how far it was to Sweetwater, though. This was a fact tattooed onto her brain since childhood, when she used to cross the intersection of Fairlane Road and Route 14 to go to school. There was a green sign about ten yards from the corner:
“They measure from the city halls,” her sister told her, and it was one of the few things Crystal had told her as children that she was able to confirm independently as an adult: Carroll City Hall was almost exactly two miles from Leigh City Hall.
Sweetwater was a small collection of buildings that grew like weeds among the farms of Kaukonen County, and Grace Angeline Szczepaniak lived in or around it until she was seventeen. From the age of five until the age of eleven she lived with her mother and sister, and sometimes others, in a house on Fairlane Road that was not technically in Sweetwater but since there was no other town around it didn’t matter. The borders out here were a cartographic fiction anyway, and all services were provided by the county since none of the towns were big enough to provide their own.
The house on Fairlane wasn’t technically a house, either, but since it sat on a cement foundation and didn’t have wheels anymore, Grace and her family felt they were within their rights to call it a house and not a trailer.
For Angeline–Gracie, as she was then–the years on Fairlane were bounded by the start of school and the start of adolescence: the opening of her eyes to a wider world, and the dawning realization that her life could never go as far as the horizons her teachers and books had showed her.
The street sign was one of her first clues to that wider world. The two cities on the bay were far away, but close enough to be measured. Her walk to school, the farthest away she would get from her house during the day, was a little less than a mile, so going downtown would be like walking to school and back almost forty times. If she could measure the distance to Leigh, she could measure the distance to New York, to Paris, to Tokyo.
Like people in New York, Paris, and Tokyo, she only knew Leigh and Carroll by their reputation, and only saw them in their occasional appearances in movies and TV.
And what reputations they were. City of Carroll, crime-infested, dark, dirty, seemingly always on fire–and, to the poor white kids in Sweetwater, filled with menacing black people. And then Leigh, one of America’s most dazzling cities, still rough around the edges and still uncomfortably ethnic, but also glittering and gorgeous and rich.
Neither city carried much currency in Sweetwater, though. Parents threatened to take misbehaved children to Carroll and leave them there; kids taunted others for putting on airs like they were from Leigh. Either way it ended with someone getting hit.
The road from Sweetwater to Leigh was straight and uncomplicated, at least for Angeline, and as she looked out over the rooftops she reflected, not for the first time, on how the road ran through that little ballerina. She was amazed that she had held it in her hands again, and at the same time felt certain that she didn’t want to hold it again. She looked down at her hands–long, thin, manicured and moisturized–and tried to imagine them as the chubby little dirt-streaked things that used to hold the ballerina every day. As she looked at her hands the wrought-iron cafe table she sat at melted away, the sunlight’s glare became cheap fake wood walls, and she became immersed in the sounds and smells of childhood and ignorance.
Gracie’s mother, Jennifer, had three kids, starting with Crystal, who was sixteen years younger than her mother. Then there was Bennett, who lived with his father’s parents in Emory and seldom visited, and lastly Gracie, who was the only one of the three who used her mother’s last name, because by then Jenny’d given up on the hope that the men would stick around and raise the damn kids.
Years later, Angeline told stories about her upbringing to amuse new friends who had grown up better: she was born in the back of a car because the engine wouldn’t start and nobody had a working phone to call an ambulance; one year the oven didn’t work for four months but nobody noticed because they microwaved every meal; she once saw a half-inch-long louse crawl out from a classmate’s hair, trek across the back of her head, and disappear back into her hair. There was no bedtime; they didn’t always have power but they did usually have cable TV; the summer between third and fourth grade Gracie and Crystal both decided to take up smoking, and stopped when Jenny noticed her missing cigarettes and told them they’d have to buy their own if they wanted to keep it up.
The stories were funny because Angeline Carter was a powerful and intelligent woman, wealthy and respected, and it was amusing and disarming to think that she was eighteen years old when she first tasted pasta that hadn’t come out of a can.
But she had to be careful telling the stories, of course. Not everyone found them amusing, and some people would inevitably suspect that there was at least a small part of her that wouldn’t change, and that was intolerable to her.
And even among sympathetic audiences, there were stories she couldn’t share, because they weren’t funny at all. About beatings she suffered or witnessed, or basic care that was denied through either malice or ignorance. The time they adopted a cat and a jealous neighbor boy strangled it. The time Crystal pointed a loaded gun at Gracie and pulled the trigger, and how she could never tell if Crystal had missed on purpose or was just a bad shot. They cried and held each other for the rest of the evening either way.
She couldn’t tell these stories–not to friends, not even to her husband–because to do so would be to give them an outsize importance. Real life is immense, composed of countless minutes and seconds, most of them unremarkable; these fade into each other and form the backdrop against which the other stories played out, but there was nothing to tell, and the stories could never convey that backdrop.
The trailer, like the various other houses they lived in, was small and always dirty, but it was the only home Gracie knew, and Gracie was fundamentally a happy kid. She played outside with her toys and with her friends, and inside with her mother and sister, who were the funniest and most beautiful people she knew. There was no particular story that captured them singing into hairbrushes in the main room, or spraying each other with the hose outside.
And even if there was a story there to share, it would be infinitesimally insignificant, which these moments were, except that aggregate they amounted to some ninety percent of her life. The time Jenny’s cigarette set fire to the couch was a blip in the timeline that paled in comparison to the simple but daily pleasures of pouring herself a bowl of cereal and sitting in front of the TV after school.
The singular stories were nothing compared to the hours she spent turning the little key and watching the little ballerina twirl around to The Nutracker. Gracie with the chubby legs imagined herself twirling, a spotlight shining on her, rich and beautiful people applauding her. She knew nothing about the ballet other than that it existed; she didn’t know any moves, any terminology, and no music beyond the few seconds stored in the music box.
And yet every single day, several times a day, she would take the little figurine off the shelf in the room she shared with her sister and find a quiet spot somewhere in the house–under a table, under a bed, in whatever room was emptiest–and lie down and turn the key over and over again. In those moments her heart and spirit soared. In those years she didn’t know any words that could describe that pure and sublime feeling; by the time she learned those words, she was incapable of having those feelings again.
Because little by little Gracie Szczepaniak learned that she would never soar for real. In school she was the best student in her class, the best reader by far, and as elementary school gave way to middle school she began to wonder why it mattered. Crystal was already on the verge of becoming an adult, and all of her schooling was taking her nowhere. She graduated but couldn’t move out. She, who had taught Gracie how to read, now mocked her whenever she saw her with a book. Or just mocked her, all the time, period.
There were fights and words of unspeakable cruelty. There were wonderful moments, as well, but their frequency diminished as Gracie grew and stopped being her sister’s favorite toy; and Crystal, for her part, grew hard and bitter. Thirty-seven miles to Leigh City Hall, it may as well have been the moon. Real life was Sweetwater, and Garland Hill, Nesbitt, Emory, and other meaningless barely-existent towns. Sweetwater had the meatpacking plant; Garland Hill had the “good” strip mall; Nesbitt had the supermarket; Emory was where you took your car to be repaired if you lived in this part of the county. Everything else was the moon.
And then there was Gracie, who at age ten still, just as she had when she was five, took her ballerina to a quiet space and watched her twirl on one toe, never growing bored of looking at it and imagining herself doing the same. Gracie, who sometime that year or maybe a little later, read a passing reference in a supermarket magazine that professional ballerinas start training when they very young, practically toddlers. It took a while for that tidbit of information to worm its way into her happy and uninquisitive mind, but once it did so it burrowed deep and began releasing its poison.
That poison seized her one cold winter afternoon. Gracie was underneath the coffee table, idly twisting the ballerina in her own hands and humming the song to herself, when she realized that she was nearly eleven years old and had never taken a single lesson in ballet. By her age a real ballerina would have had at least five years of practice, maybe even more. Her heart clenched as though a hand had reached into her chest and squeezed it in a fist. She sat up so quickly she hit her head on the bottom of the table, and then lay there with the figurine in her hands, weeping.
Crystal was about to finish high school, and even though in movies kids always went to college afterwards, Crystal hadn’t even applied.
Christmas was coming, and once again Gracie wasn’t going to buy any presents for her family because she hadn’t saved up at all during the year, and probably wasn’t going to receive much from her family because they hadn’t saved, either.
For the first time she became aware that time was passing, taking with it the opportunities, closing the doors to the life she always thought she’d just kind of get, and that hurt more than she had ever thought possible.
Crystal found a job at the meatpacking plant, and Gracie decided that her dream of being a ballerina was dead and had been dead for years, but no more of her dreams would die, ever. She put the figurine on a shelf and got to work.
Crystal moved out, got pregnant, quit her job, got married, moved out again, found another job, got divorced. Gracie and her mother moved to a smaller house–this one an actual trailer, with wheels still on and everything. It was closer to the middle school, and cheaper, actually inside of Sweetwater now, on Pine Street. Gracie got her own room, and did all she could to make it a separate world: she kept it meticulously clean. It drove her family nuts. Her mother saw it as judgment, and angrily insisted that Gracie clean the rest of the house, too. Crystal saw it as proof that Gracie–who was starting to call herself Grace now–was becoming an over-read snob.
Which she was. She read, she studied. The living room TV was never off, so Grace stayed in her room reading and studying. She skipped lunch once a week so she could spend the money on bus fare to the county library in Nesbitt. She took the bus there and walked back because the library closed at five and that didn’t give her enough time to walk there after school and spend any meaningful amount of time browsing. She walked back because she still needed to eat something on the way home, and couldn’t afford to do both.
She babysat for her sister once, but the baby kept her from studying and she didn’t get paid, so the next time Crystal dropped the baby off Grace refused and locked herself in her room. Crystal threw a beer can at Grace’s single window but the window was plastic, not glass, so it didn’t break.
Jenny took Crystal’s side. Grace insisted that it wasn’t her fault that Crystal had wasted her life. Crystal grabbed Grace’s hair and slammed her face into the wall, cracking the paneling and loosening a tooth. The baby cried and Crystal and Jenny left it there with Grace, but Grace left, too, going into her room and going back to studying even though her haw hurt and the baby wouldn’t stop crying. It took about twenty minutes for Crystal to give up and come back inside and take her baby. Grace was never asked to babysit again.
And then came high school, and Grace found a job at a gas station and began saving up. She didn’t know what for, but she knew she would need money eventually. Jenny found out and started charging rent. It took up a big chunk of Grace’s pay but she pretended that it took up all of it, and kept the rest of her money in secret. Bennet, her barely-there half-brother, helped her open a bank account, and she kept her money stashed.
In the eleventh grade Crystal went to the high school to ask Grace if she could borrow some money, and discovered that nobody at the school had ever heard of a Grace Szczepaniak. Crystal left confused, but in the hallways she found Grace’s framed picture on the wall, identified as Angeline Szczepaniak, Class President.
She was only sixteen so her mother couldn’t throw her out of the house, but she and Crystal were clear: “If you’re so ashamed of us then we don’t want anything to do with you, either.” Jenny cut her off, forbade her from eating the food in the fridge, promised not to buy her any more clothes, insisted that she wouldn’t give her rides to work anymore. Like everything Jenny did, in a few days her anger subsided and she took back all she said–not actually saying so, but letting her daughter know that there was chicken in the fridge that she could help herself to, and telling her that she didn’t want her walking home from the gas station at night by herself. Grace, however, didn’t want her help anymore. Kaukoken County actually had a decent bus system, and Grace ate at school and at work anyway.
In a final rage Jenny broke into Grace’s room and took everything that Grace hadn’t bought for herself. She was horrified to find that almost everything in Grace’s spotless room had been bought by with Grace’s money. jenny was reduced to taking the lamp, the old bedspread, and a few knick-knacks, including the ballerina. She took these while Grace was at school, and when Grace came home and found these things missing she redoubled her efforts to shut her family out of her life.
A few months later she was accepted to Thurman University with a full scholarship, and bought her own bus ticket. Jenny and Crystal found out, though, and they helped her pack–even the baby, whose named was Dylan and could walk and talk and was actually a pretty sweet little guy–and even drove her into the city. The road from Sweetwater–the actual physical road–curved to hit all the towns along the way and to avoid the biggest farms. Once it crossed the river it stopped being Route 14 and became Carlisle Street, and rolled past gated communities with names like Lyon Estates and Exeter Pointe. There were no strip malls on Carlisle Street, just little brick shops with real cloth awnings, and the grocery stores all promised that their food was local-grown and organic. Grace, who grew up surrounded by farms, only ate processed food. She had never even thought about this.
Conversation in the car grew more spare and tense as the climbed up the hill that was both the highest point in Kaukonen County and the border with Alamance County. At the top Carlisle Street opened wide, and the view was so stunning it was as if they had gone to the moon. The Alamance River curved on its way to Russett Bay, and on one side sprang the turn-of-the-century towers of Carroll, and on the other the gleaming skyscrapers of Leigh, and beyond both the shimmering blue of Russett Bay. All these years it was so close and she had never been. And now it was home.
The university was fancier than any of them imagined, and Grace, the smartest and snobbiest person in Sweetwater, was now the dumbest and trashiest girl in town.
Grace let Jenny and Crystal help her to move in to her dorm. It was small and she shared it with three girls–one of whom was black, no less–but it was bigger and cleaner than the trailer on Pine Street. Grace didn’t want them to stay long, and Crystal and Jenny both wanted to get out before something could happen that would crystallize their own sense of worthlessness.
But it was too late and they all knew it. That crystallizing moment, the one that signaled that Grace was gone and had washed her hands of them for good, the single story that would overshadow all the myriad insignificant moments of background noise, came after they had left her room with her new friends. Her picture was on the wall, a small photograph she had mailed in at the school’s request. There was a bulletin board that said, “Meet the new students!” and under Grace’s smiling face it said “Angeline Stephenson.”
Stephenson, Grace would have explained, was just Szczepaniak in English, easier to spell and say. But it wouldn’t have mattered and she knew it.
Angeline studied hard, overcame the deficiencies in her upbringing. She worked even though she was on scholarship, and paid for grad school after she graduated. She first moved into a small apartment in College Hill with three roommates, then a small apartment of her own in City of Carroll, and then a better one in Morningside, and then got married and bought a house in Northwest. She worked at the school, interned at a publishing company, became an assistant at Alamance Broadcasting, rose in the ranks.
Crystal came to visit sometimes. She wouldn’t say it or even think it to herself but she wanted Dylan and his sister Bella to see their successful aunt and learn from her, but when they got too close she pulled them away, fearing they would judge her and love her less. She found steady work at a store, found Jesus, found reasons to disapprove of Angeline. She made her world smaller, and when Angeline married Terrence Carter, who was a dentist and was black, Crystal demonstrated an acidity that even stunned herself.
Jenny was only fifty-five when she died of cancer. Crystal had by then moved back in with her, to a small real house on Plains Street in Sweetwater. Crystal invited Gracie to help her clean out her mother’s room, but it was a crazy time at work and as head of programming she couldn’t really take any time off now.
Angeline didn’t really know why Crystal had mailed the package to her office instead of her home. Maybe it was symbolic, because her work was more important that her family. Maybe because she hoped that it would get lost on the way. Maybe she wanted people in the office to know that the powerful Angeline Carter was really just dirty little Gracie Szczepaniak.
Maybe it was because she knew that Angeline had moved recently to a fancy new penthouse on the Waterfront, and the office address was all she knew.
It didn’t matter. Angeline finished her coffee and went back inside. She considered asking her secretary to remove the ballerina, but changed her mind. Instead she took it and put it on a shelf, between a photograph of herself with the President, and a lacquer vase she bought in Japan. Perhaps later she would unpack the symbolism and find a better and more appropriate place for this childhood totem.
She did, though, ask her secretary to call around and find a toy repairman who could replace the missing key. The ballerina, she decided, deserved at least one more dance.