Margery took out her compact and pretended to check her lipstick. She was riding home on the city bus after having her braces removed and couldn’t get enough of looking at her naked teeth. She hadn’t ridden a bus since her last day of high school, thirty-one years ago, but her brother Frank, who was separated and living with her now, wanted her car to go to a job interview. So here she was, jammed in with all these poor people trying to get to the mall to Christmas shop. As she turned the mirror this way and that, her brother’s face appeared in the round glass, as though her compact had, for a second, become a locket holding his picture. She twisted to look at the marquee that ran round above the windows. Between advertisements for TV programs and an admonition, in English and in Spanish, to have your baby vaccinated, there was a picture of her brother, a pair of half-glasses (a prop) perched on his nose. The caption said: “Catch Frankmania! Be like Frank! READ!”

As a baby, Frank had been her own living doll, his perfection marred only by his genitalia, which looked to Margery like something their mother might have squeezed out of her pastry tube. Margery had loved his warm, baby-head smell, his minute pearly toenails, and, when they came in after many nights of crying, his teeth like tiny white candies. When he learned to talk, it tickled her to hear him try her name, garbled and mashed. She was the one who’d taught him to read; now he loved books better than he loved her.

From the bus stop, it was a blustery four-block walk down Purefoy Road to her house. Winding her scarf around her throat, she bent her head against the wind. By the time she reached her driveway, she was frozen to the middle of her bones, but the sight of the front door, with its red bow and pinecones and holly, cheered her. She and Frank had grown up here, in the 1930s bungalow that had been Margery’s reward after she’d nursed their mother through her long final illness. Frank had inherited the money, which he’d had to start living on last year after his wife kicked him out. He didn’t think to pay Margery rent or utilities, but he did hand over a credit card for groceries now and then.

He was reading at the kitchen table, wearing his hat and coat, the overhead light on. Before him were three empty cans of Mountain Dew and a fourth with a straw in it. Soda cans with straws in them made Margery think of her mother, sick.

“Frank, where’s Justin?”

He looked around for the clock.

“Oh, Frank. I suppose you didn’t go to your interview, either?”

He turned up his hands in supplication, just like their father at the same age—prematurely gray, slump-shouldered, soft around the middle.

“I was all dressed, too,” he said, pulling apart his overcoat to show her his suit and tie.

While Frank went to get Justin, Margery started supper. The phone rang.

“Is this the people that killed my cats?” It was what the old woman always said when she called.

“Wrong number.”

*

It had been Frank’s fault about the cat. Margery had been driving him to the mall to get some shoes, in the rain, and he’d pronounced that she had no inner life. Margery had very much begged to differ, enumerating the many forms of self-improvement she’d pursued in the last few years, including losing fifty-six pounds.

“That’s almost four stone in British terms.”

“I’m talking about intellectual pursuits.”

“I read! I think! I do things!” She thought but didn’t say that she was happier than she’d been in all the twenty-five years since Gilbert Parrish had left her at the altar. Their mother had always referred to this event as Margery’s disappointment. She never discussed Gilbert Parrish that she didn’t say his whole name like that, as though he were just an acquaintance they might confuse with another Gilbert. Her delicacy in not talking about the situation had irritated Margery, but what could she do? Nowadays, you could tell people any kind of sad stuff about your life, but not back then, not at 225 Purefoy Road. They never discussed at all the man Gilbert had left Margery for—except once, late in her mother’s life, when she’d lost her filter and would say anything.

“It’s a good thing that fella left you before he could give you the AIDS.”

Upset in the car with Frank that afternoon, Margery hadn’t paid attention to the road. By the time she saw the yellow blur in the gray drizzle, she couldn’t avoid it. They got out of the car and looked at the motionless cat. Margery was grateful that it had died instantly. If she’d learned anything from her mother’s final illness, it was that dead things are easier to deal with than dying ones.

The street was lined with featureless brick ranch houses, barely taller than the stunted trees in their yards. Not a soul in sight.

“What are we going to do?”

“You’re the genius, Frankie.” The freezing rain soaked through her coat and into her pink twin set and gray slacks.

“I never said I was a genius.”

” ’Don’t bother your brother, can’t you see he’s a genius? You ought to take a page from the book of Frank and learn a thing or two.’ Mama thought that was a real clever thing to say—it must have been from her that you got your incredible smarts. Good thing I got Daddy’s ability to get up and go to work every day to keep a roof over our heads. Fortunately, you don’t need an inner life for that! In fact, it helps not to have one. It helps a lot!”

After inquiring at several houses, they discovered the cat’s owner, a short crust of a woman in a threadbare housecoat. They could smell the stink even before she opened the door and croaked at them through the screen, the shadows behind her undulating with feline movement. “I believe that was Vanna you hit. Run out this morning and didn’t come back when I hollered for her. I got so many now. They just breed like anything. You can take one or two if you want—any one but Mr. Salty or Beulah. They sleep on my husband’s pillow.” She leaned close to the screen and stage whispered, “He’s dead, so he don’t mind.”

Margery restrained herself from asking if the cats had eaten him.

Frank, the rain beaded on his face like tears, looked so despairing with his collar turned up, catching more water than it kept out. Margery wished that he could have been distressed about insulting her instead of sad about a dead cat he didn’t even know.

“I don’t think we need a cat right now.” She knew who would end up taking care of it. “Don’t you want my brother to bury Vanna for you? It’s the least we could do.”

The woman shrugged. “Shoot. That dog next door would just dig her up. Why don’t you put her in the trashcan?”

It seemed to Margery that if you loved something well enough to let it live in your house, you shouldn’t just stuff it in a trashcan. But they did what she asked. That afternoon, when they got home, Margery called Channel 5 and suggested they help the woman by letting her come on the evening news and offer some cats for adoption. All the next day, Margery felt she had done a good deed. That evening, she turned on Channel 5.

“A concerned citizen reported a woman who has been keeping a hundred cats in her home in unsanitary conditions. All the cats have been rescued by the county shelter, and several with serious health conditions have been euthanized. Shelter officials say that due to overcrowding, if the remaining cats are not adopted within the next two weeks, they will be put to sleep.”

Margery turned to Frank, lounging on the couch with his current tome. “Are you listening to this? A concerned citizen! They didn’t even use my name! And besides, I didn’t tell them to take that poor woman’s cats away from her, now did I? I never said that!”

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. The news people came by here today to interview us while you were at work.”

“Did you tell them we thought they should take the lady’s cats away?”

“I don’t think so. We mostly talked about the list.”

The list. Lined paper in loose-leaf notebooks. Every book he’d ever read. Their mother had started it when he was three and read The Cat in the Hat. It had taken him only a day to rip through all of Dr. Seuss, and then there was no stopping him. At seven, he read Great Expectations. (Faking, if you asked Margery.) At twelve, The Possessed. Many times Margery had thought about destroying that list.

Frank pointed at the TV. “See? There I am.”

There he was, indeed, blinking like a mole in the winter sun, the house behind him. Ten years ago, she’d annoyed the neighbors by painting the house mauve; now it shocked Margery to see how run-down the peeling clapboard appeared on television. Matt McBride held the microphone toward Frank.

“Mr. Robechaux, I understand that you’re pursuing a lifelong dream of reading 10,000 books. How did you get started?”

“Well, Matt, I started with the alphabet and just went from there.”

Clever. As if Margery had nothing to do with it.

“When did your, um, hobby of reading turn serious?”

“How come 10,000?”

“Wow, you must be an expert on a lot of topics. What subject do you think you’ve learned the most about?”

As Frank answered, she half expected Matt McBride to jerk his thumb and roll his eyes: Get a load of this freak. Instead, he shook his head in wonder and turned to smile at the camera. “More people ought to be like Frank Robechaux. Turn off the TV and break out the books!”

“If people did that, he’d be out of a job,” scoffed Margery. “I hate his aw shucks little shtick, don’t you?”

“He was nice,” said Frank, eyes on his book. That was just like him, to get on TV and not even watch himself.

Back at the news desk, Dana, Brad, Stan the weatherman, and even Bobby the sportscaster—who you knew never read a book in his life—said they were pulling for Frank. Brad said he was an example of how people could do great things if they set their minds to it.

At lunch in the break room the next day, Joy from Sales said, “Hey, Marge, wasn’t that your brother on the news last night?”

“Margery.”

“That’s right!” Joy said appreciatively, as though Margery had answered a difficult question. “I always want to call you Marge. I’m just a nicknamer, I guess.”

Margery retrieved her insulated snack bag from the refrigerator. Carrot sticks. Hummus. Whole-wheat crackers. Thirty minutes at the worn Formica table with imbeciles. She could have gone out of the building for a whole hour but preferred leaving earlier in the afternoon.

“Your brother must be, like, a genius,” said kiss-ass Duane from Accounts Payable. “To read, like, what? A bazillion books? Wow.”

Joy and Duane tore open their take-out sacks, spread them on the table like placemats, and arranged their hamburgers and fries before bowing their heads and mouthing a quick prayer. Though the company was now smoke free, cigarette odor was so ingrained in the break room that it spoiled for Margery any temptation the smell of the fries could present. The smokers now congregated at the far end of the parking lot, huddling under umbrellas when it rained, stamping their feet to keep warm in winter. Not her. Another vice she’d conquered.

Done praying, Duane tore open a packet of ketchup and ejected a slow neat dollop. “I mean, the last book I read was for senior English in high school.”

“When was that, Duane? Like, last year?” said Joy, cocking her head to the side and dropping her jaw the way she did when she thought she’d made a joke. She often called attention to their age difference, maybe to quell the office rumor that she and Duane were having a thing.

“Ha, ha, Joy. Very funny.” He turned to Margery, holding his ketchup-tipped fry so it looked like a burning cigarette. Neither of which, fry or cigarette, she would ever want again. “You know? That book where the African-American king loves the white girl but then he chokes her?”

“My brother, Duane, is not a genius. Albert Einstein, Michelangelo, Shakespeare—who wrote that after-school special about interracial love that you were just mentioning—they were geniuses. Also, Madame Marie Curie for a female example. Those people contributed to society.”

Joy whistled. “Uh-oh. Sounds like somebody’s jealous of their brother!”

“How could I be jealous of somebody who’s got no job and no life? All he does is sponge off me. They didn’t mention that on the news.”

Panic clambered up Margery’s esophagus like a spider up a drainpipe. All she could see before her was another twenty years as inventory control manager, checking stock numbers and searching for lost items. She reminded herself to take a deep breath. Her mother always said she took things too much to heart. Margery is so sensitive, she would say and shake her head. Now Margery glanced toward the vending machine’s bright ranks of candy lined up at attention, the metal spirals momentarily suspended in their cycle of hold and release. How she wanted to pump that thing full of coins and see the spirals turn without stopping, the candy piling in the well of the machine—orange, yellow, and red packages of sweet sweet candy mingled like autumn leaves.

“You need some change?”

“No, thank you, Duane. I don’t eat that junk.”

*

The chicken was sizzling in the wok when Justin blew into the kitchen, dropkicked his book bag, and shuffled to the refrigerator. His bleached hair stood up all over in surprised spikes. Margery couldn’t get used to him being fourteen and taller than she was. He pulled out a carton of juice and took a swig.

“Other people have to drink that, germ boy.”

“Why didn’t you come get me? You know he can’t remember for shit.”

“I was taking the bus to the orthodontist to get my braces off.”

“Let me see,” Justin came closer, smelling like cigarettes, but Margery decided to ignore that and gave him a big grin.

“Nice.”

Justin had braces, and for a moment Margery was sorry she’d lost one of the few things they’d been able to commiserate about. Well, there was still Frank, who had slipped into the kitchen without speaking and was already reading at the table.

“Hey, Dad, I saw this gay poster of you at the library while I was waiting. Did they make you wear those glasses for the picture so you could look like an even bigger nerd than usual?”

“And what does a cool guy like yourself do at the library?” asked Margery.

“Look at porn and play games on the computer with people I don’t even know in Pakistan and stuff while Mom goes on dates and acts like a big slut.”

“I’ve had about enough of your potty mouth, and I know for a fact that they fix those library computers so you can’t look at porn.”

Frank chuckled. “At least he knows some geography. I bet most kids his age don’t know where Pakistan is.”

“Very funny. I bet he doesn’t know either.”

“Duh! I do, so. It’s on top of India!” Justin turned back to his father. “What I don’t understand is why the library wants you to be their poster boy now, after they fired you. What a bunch of hypocrites!”

When Frank was working at the library, he would hide in the bathroom to read, and a wino who went in there to wash his underpants had ratted him out. Only Frank could’ve lost his job on the word of a wino, Janice had complained to Margery. After seeing Frank on the news, though, the head librarian had asked him to be part of their publicity campaign, and Frank, who bore no ill will (“I wasn’t doing my job, it was only a matter of time”), had agreed. Now, Frankmania posters were everywhere—doctors’ offices, Justin’s school, the notice board at the supermarket. The local bookstore labeled a shelf “Frank’s Picks,” and a civic club had asked him to give a talk called “What Reading Has Meant to Me.”

“I bet they’re not even paying you to be in that poster.”

“He’s not getting a dime.”

“That’s pathetic, Dad. You just let people walk all over you.”

“Stop picking on your father and set the table.”

*

After supper, Margery asked Frank and Justin to put the lights on the Christmas tree. She put away the leftovers, loaded the dishwasher, and laid out her craft supplies on the kitchen table. They had some cute ideas for homemade ornaments in her December issue of Family Circle. Her mother had bought a lifetime subscription years ago, and though Margery felt a little guilty for not telling the magazine her mother was dead now, sometimes she could use the recipes. Besides, her mother had died relatively young—67—which wasn’t even the average life expectancy for a woman in the United States. Margery wasn’t sure what that age was, but whenever her Family Circle arrived in the mail and she felt that pang of guilt, she vowed she’d cancel the subscription the year her mother would have turned the age she ought to have been when she died—78 or maybe 80.

In the living room, she found Frank reading and Justin gaping at the TV. They’d strung the lights round the tree in slapdash Charlie Brown fashion, but she could fix it later in the week when Justin went back to his mother’s.

“I thought we could make some Christmas ornaments this year,” she said. “The mice got into the old ones in the attic and chewed everything to bits except the glass balls.”

In the kitchen, Justin flopped into a chair and folded his arms. “This is gay. It’s like kindergarten.”

“That’s the idea. To be creative just like you’re a little kid,” said Margery. She would be patient with him, and maybe they wouldn’t end up spending the evening mooning in different parts of the house, putting more and more distance between themselves without going anywhere.

Frank obediently set to work with some glue and a pinecone. She knew he was trying to be agreeable because she was still mad about the job interview.

Justin fiddled with the pipe cleaners. “You remember that Christmas when it snowed, and we went out on that sled?”

“Maybe it’ll snow again this year,” said Margery, frowning at the magazine directions. Three pictures showed how to construct a bell out of tissue paper and ribbon, but as many times as she folded her tissue, she couldn’t get it to look like the picture.

The phone rang, and she forgot not to answer it.

“I can’t believe I even offered you one of my precious babies—out of the kindness of my heart, just to show you no hard feelings for running over my Vanna—and this is what you go and do.”

“Look, I was only trying to help. I thought the TV people could find homes for the ones you didn’t want. I didn’t know they’d call the city,” Margery said. She crumpled the red tissue and threw it on the table.

“Do you know I’ve got to pay a fine now? My son says you’re the one ought to pay it. He says he don’t see why you can steal and kill my cats and get away with it.”

“Madam. I didn’t kill your cats. You’re exaggerating.”

“They’re dead, ain’t they? They ain’t just taking a nap! Most of them was perfectly fine until they was kidnapped away from their home and carted off just like some common criminal!”

“Did you ever stop to think that maybe if you hadn’t had a bunch of animals living in squalor with no veterinary care, maybe you wouldn’t have this problem?”

“The problem is you, you black-hearted hussy!”

Margery hung up, her finger shaking as she pushed the button. She missed the old days where you could slam down the heavy receiver and really end a phone call in style.

“You should get your number changed.” Justin was just twisting perfectly good pipe cleaners into a ball, not making anything. Frank had abandoned his pinecone and picked up his book.

“It’s not like I ran over her damn cat on purpose.”

“This is stupid.” Justin said. “I’m going to watch my show.”

*

The next morning, Margery opened her mother’s living room curtains and saw by the early light that her Frasier fir, which she had chosen for its perfect triangular shape, was covered with pictures of naked women, messily glued to cardboard and tied to the tree with pipe cleaners. There were at least two dozen, in all sorts of lewd attitudes, ballooning breasts thrust out, manicured hands spreading open their privates, tongues glistening, eyes narrowed to slits in their plastic peachy skin. At the top, where the angel should have been, was a cut-out centerfold, her body contorted so that you could see her big unnatural breasts and her bony ass, which she was smacking with a scarlet-tipped hand, her other hand held up to her mouth, pursed into a naughty little “o.”

It was as though an evil randy Santa had come in the night. Margery considered beating Justin in his bed where he lay, but instead she stepped outside, took a few deep breaths of the bracing morning air, retrieved the newspaper, and put on the coffee. His anger reminded her so much of herself. Not at his age—then she’d been deluded enough to think everything would work out in life—but later.

She’d met Gilbert Parrish in a college drama class. They’d dated a long time, then gotten engaged, without going all the way. She’d told her incredulous friends that she loved how courtly, old-fashioned, and virtuous he was. He loved her for her mind—wasn’t that the most important thing? Raised to be a good Christian boy, he was going to wait for sex until he married somebody he loved, and then his first time, and every time after that, would be magical. Privately, she’d felt chastened by her own sexual urgency and lack of religious faith; she’d convinced herself she was unworthy of him. They had already booked the church and chosen colors—amber, sage, and rust for a fall wedding—when he told her why he couldn’t marry her. In one of the few dramatic gestures of her life, she’d taken to the couch and refused to speak to him.

Her best friend at the time said, “You should be trying to help him, Margery, if you really love him. It took a lot of courage for him to come out. At least he didn’t marry you and then come out.”

“I think I’m entitled to a little anger.”

“That’s the problem with you, Margery. You’re so bitter. You’re young. You’ll find somebody else.”

But she hadn’t found anybody else. While Gilbert and his boyfriend opened a furniture store and bought a gorgeous house together, Margery worked her boring, sedentary job and gave up other dreams to care for her mother. Then, after twenty years, give or take, of sameness, she’d met a man at the Hungry Lotus Chinese restaurant and piano bar. Just passing through town, with a wife who didn’t understand him. Mean and frigid, he complained, and so skinny you could use her for a bookmark. On business trips he cruised buffets, hoping to meet big girls. Margery knew she was being used, but it had been so long since anybody had touched her. Together they’d put a hurt on the buffet, drunk too much, and did some raunchy things in his creepily clean rented Lincoln Navigator. A few weeks later, she’d read in the paper that Gilbert’s partner had died in a car crash. At the funeral, Gilbert—his good looks worn by age and grief—kindly inquired after Margery’s family and introduced her to his partner’s son from an early marriage. Shy, his face puffed from crying, the son was old enough to be in college, and Margery realized how long ago it had been—her disappointment—and how much time she’d wasted being disappointed with everything since.

The next time the man who liked big girls came to town, she refused to meet him. Determined to change, she gave up sweets, began exercising, and followed all kinds of advice from self-help books, from television, from friends, from church. But nothing she did gave her any peace. She visited her mother’s grave and told her, without really meaning it, that she forgave her for loving Frank more, and when Janice kicked him out, Margery let him move into his old room, feeling needed again in a way she hadn’t since before her mother died. It wasn’t happiness, but it was something.

When the coffee was brewed, she filled a go-cup, bundled up in her coat and scarf, and trudged down to the Mini-Mart. She idled before the candy rack until the other customers left, then quietly asked the male clerk for a Playgirl. He reached under the counter, his face a riddle of pockmarks and disdain, and named the price. She doubted he looked that way at men buying dirty magazines. Well, let him give her ugly looks. It wasn’t any of his business, and besides, she didn’t find those pictures the least bit arousing. Who wanted to look at a penis?

At home she got right to work with her scissors and glue stick. Once all her ornaments were up and she turned on the lights—well, you couldn’t deny the tree was festive.

She cooked bacon and pancakes, woke Justin and Frank. Justin kept glancing at her during breakfast, and she reveled in having the upper hand and him not knowing it yet. As soon as he finished eating, he let his fork fall with a clatter.

“Let’s put your ornaments on the tree now,” Justin said.

“All right.”

“Come on, Dad.”

Margery watched from the doorway as Justin knelt to hang one of her tissue bells on a low branch. A look of confusion passed over his face. Before him was a tanned young man sprawled across a library table, half-glasses sliding down his nose, giving himself a good wank.

Margery said to Frank, “Look at how your son and I have decided to celebrate Christmas. He started it, of course—I can’t take credit for the idea—but I hated for there to be a gender imbalance.”

Her brother shuffled over in his slippers to examine the pictures, then started back to the kitchen without a word. Years ago, Janice had dragged him to a parenting class. The only thing he’d gotten out of it was that you shouldn’t reinforce bad behavior by reacting to it.

Cursing, Justin turned and pulled down the front of his sweatpants. Margery watched the droplets trickle through the lush lower branches, wetting the sap stains on the felt tree skirt that her mother had made in happier times.

*

That afternoon, Margery attempted to cover her own regret by talking to Justin about why it was wrong to objectify people—women or men—with pornography. Justin folded his arms, refusing to speak or look at her. Piss and silence were his weapons of choice, and she had to admit they were hard to fight. Giving up, she went to put the tree skirt in the washing machine. It was probably too ancient to survive the wash; still, she could try.

She sat across the kitchen table from Frank to write her Christmas cards. After a while, he closed his book and rubbed his temples. “When I reach my goal, I’m not going to read at the dinner table anymore.”

“That’ll be nice.” Margery signed her name with a flourish on the “y.”

“And I’m going to look for a good job.”

She nodded.

“I don’t want to be a burden on you. Do you think I enjoy living off your generosity?”

“I don’t think it bothers you one bit, Frank. If it did, you’d help out around here.”

“I will, I promise. Once I make ten thousand.”

“And what is Justin going to do while you’re getting to ten thousand? Steal cars? Flash the girls who sell frozen yogurt at the mall? Micturate on police cars? Oh, did I surprise you? Yes, Frank, I know big words like micturate. How hard are you going to make that boy work to get your attention? You do know this peeing on things is not normal behavior for a fourteen-year-old?”

He lined his book up with the edge of the placemat, as though just touching its cover was comfort.

“You used to be able to do other things,” Margery said gently.

“I know. I know. Don’t you think I want to stop sometimes? When my eyes are stinging and my head is throbbing? I can’t even put a book down until my vision blurs or I fall asleep. Do you think I like the way every sign, every scrap of paper that crosses my path has to be read—completely, every word—before I go on? You know, when I lived with Janice, I used to forget to pick Justin up from school all the time. It’s not like yesterday was the first time. I’d get stuck in a bookstore or a library, and I wouldn’t leave until they closed. When I got home, Justin would already be in bed. The house would be all cold and quiet, and Janice would say, ’It was the only thing you had to do today. The only thing.’ Sometimes I just wish I could poke my eyes out and get it over with.”

Margery had heard this speech so many times that it no longer moved her. Her brother had achieved and thrown away a fine life—and for what? How could she forgive such waste? She got up to put the kettle on. After a cup of tea, she’d go to the gym, work out her stress.

“If only I was good at something else—anything else,” Frank mourned.

The doorbell rang. Grateful for the interruption, Margery headed to the front of the house. Through the storm door she saw Justin hurling a plastic porch chair toward the street, where a silver car was speeding away. She started outside and tripped over a foul-smelling plastic sack.

“Assholes,” Justin screamed, his face red, his body shaking with rage and cold under his thin tee shirt. “You assholes! It was an accident. They didn’t mean it!”

Margery tried to put her arms around him, but he jerked away and ran back to the house, past Frank, who was coming down the walk with the bag of dead cat held out in front of him like a bag full of—well, exactly what it was.

JULIA RIDLEY SMITH’s short stories have appeared in American Literary Review, Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Chelsea, storySouth, and other places. Her book and art reviews have been published in the Raleigh News and Observer, Art Papers, Southern Cultures and elsewhere. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and Sarah Lawrence College, she lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with her husband and son.