Kim Magowan

The email is from Marianne’s boarding school classmate Harrison McBee, then captain of the lacrosse team, now an investment banker living with his husband in Manhattan; the subject heading is “Sad News.” Reluctantly, Marianne opens it. This time, it’s her classmate Chip who died.  

What Marianne can visualize most clearly about Chip’s face are the slashes of black greasepaint all the football players wore under their eyes. And she remembers being at a school dance, leaning against the wall, and bracing herself because Chip appeared to be looking at her. But he was merely looking through her. At fifty-two, Marianne is familiar with that experience of invisibility, and doesn’t entirely mind it. There’s a power in watching everyone watch. But at fifteen, it had felt so humiliating.  

Chip Macomber: greasepaint under eyes that didn’t see her. 


Other classmates have detailed memories of Chip. All day, the email thread grows. Many of these reminiscences, all from the men whom Marianne still thinks of as “boys,” are violent, though they wax nostalgic about Chip’s violence: the way he gave Lachlan a wedgie with the blade of his hockey stick; that terrible game they used to play, hurling a tennis ball against the slate roof of the dining hall. The loser had to crouch on the ground, presenting his ass as a target. Apparently Chip was the most feared hurler of the ball, straight at these upturned butts. “He was terrifying,” writes Asa, accompanied by a row of smiley faces.  


Chip is the third classmate of Marianne’s to die within the past ten years. None had normal deaths. Lawrence Bland, heroin overdose at forty-three; Patrick Shaughnessy, shot himself at fifty; now Chip. Reading between the lines—“I always looked forward to hearing from Chip! So entertaining, despite his struggles”—Marianne understands, even before someone adds a link to the obituary, that his cause of death is similarly unnatural. “After a long battle, Chip succumbed to the ravages of alcohol,” is how whoever wrote the obituary puts it. If it was his wife, props to her, Marianne thinks, for not fuzzing the truth. 

Mostly boys-turned-men add to the email thread, though a few women write too, the popular girls, those who caught and returned Chip’s gaze. One of the boys, Winston Barclay, writes, “This is a hard reminder to stay in better touch, now that we are all on the back nine of our lives.”  

“The back nine”: Marianne lies awake, staring at the peeling patch on the ceiling, thinking of the growing list of dead people in her life. Some names on this list are spotlit: her mother, of course. Her estranged friend Nancy, whose aneurysm, two years after they had stopped being friends, had felt like a second death, one that was paradoxically both stronger (more conclusive) and weaker (an echo of the first: Nancy not returning her texts, blocking her on social media). 

Before any of those three high school boys had succumbed to their various poisons, there was an original death: Sylvia Pritchard, who died at thirty. Dying in childbirth in 2001: such an old-fashioned way to go! And yet it made sense for Sylvia, who even in high school had been old-school. At her debutante party, she’d worn pale gloves that had belonged to her great-grandmother, with buttons covered in ivory silk; in high school she’d aspired, not jokingly, to marry a European nobleman. Sylvia was like a character in a Wharton novel.  

Marianne had loved her and found her maddening. Nearly every night Marianne would give Sylvia back massages, which Sylvia never reciprocated. While she kneaded Sylvia’s soft back, Sylvia told her secrets. They were good friends in the dark. But Sylvia never invited Marianne to go sailing at her summer house in Maine, never took her to The Nutcracker 

“This is a hard reminder to stay in better touch,” indeed.  

Marianne hadn’t invited Sylvia to her wedding. When she heard that Sylvia had died, she regretted that reciprocal refusal to consider Sylvia a daylight friend. You rejected people, and then they died, and your feelings of longing or bitterness had nowhere to fasten onto. Regret undulated like some aquatic plant. 


Four deaths of high school classmates, all untimely: Sylvia, Lawrence, Patrick, Chip. Four times thirteen is fifty-two. Like a numerologist, Marianne tries to make sense of these unlucky numbers.  

She’s fifty-two, a meaningful number, ceremonial and time-bound: fifty-two cards in a deck, fifty-two weeks in a year. Ten years ago, Marianne had a passionate affair with a married doctor named James. This was in the wake of Marianne’s divorce. James was ten years older than her, fifty-two. “I’m your mid-life crisis,” Marianne had teased, and exacting, literal James had corrected her: “I’m way past my mid-life.” He’d been mystified by his “teenage” behavior. “I can’t believe I’m hard again for you,” James said.  

Their thing—Marianne could apply only the vaguest noun to name what to her was a relationship, to James an affair—had been short-lived. Alarmed that his wife was suspicious, James put a stop to it. “Let’s quit while we’re ahead,” he said.  

As if Marianne had anything but him to lose.  

Marianne hasn’t seen James in years, but turning fifty-two herself has activated some trip-wire in her brain. He occupies her. Mostly she feels shocked at how hot their desire had burned, especially since her own desire, at fifty-two, is on its lowest flame. The heat she feels now is menopausal, causing her to roam restlessly at night, from bed to leather couch to tiled floor. 

The only human touch Marianne experiences these days is professional, in her capacity as a phlebotomist, tapping with her fingertips some uncooperative vein. When the sad email thread makes her extrude one tear, Marianne thinks of her eyes (and heart) as similarly resistant veins. 


Her former (in every sense) friend Nancy had been a television critic, and once explained to Marianne what Nancy called “the back-pocket partner”: the on-and-off-again boyfriend or girlfriend of the main character, who will finally unite with him or her only at the series finale. Lorelai’s Luke, Ross’s Rachel, Michael Scott’s Holly. The partner that matters, but must be held in abeyance because he or she stops plot, its painful forward roll. Luke, Rachel, Holly wait offstage for the happy ending, their role as the seam that compensates viewers for loss (no more Michael Scott! But that’s okay, because Michael now lives in Colorado with Holly).  

But James never left his wife. “Let’s quit while we’re ahead.” As if the decision were mutual. 

Marianne has lived alone in her house, big enough now that it’s just her, since her divorce from Adam twelve years ago. Adam was never, she knows, her back-pocket partner. But she keeps one framed picture of them on display. It’s on a side table, positioned between the letter-opener Nancy gave her for Christmas, before the fight that killed their friendship, and an enamel cufflink of James’s that rolled under her bed a decade ago. It’s a photo of Marianne and Adam in Tahoe, the snow dazzlingly blue-white, their puffy arms around each other. It’s not a flattering photo—her eyes are squinting into the sun—but it’s evidence, proof of a thing Marianne doesn’t have the capacity to name.

Kim MagowanKim Magowan is the author of the short story collection Don’t Take This the Wrong Way, co-authored with Michelle Ross, forthcoming from EastOver Press; the short story collection How Far I’ve Come (2022), published by Gold Wake Press; the novel The Light Source (2019), published by 7.13 Books; and the short story collection Undoing (2018), which won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Colorado Review, The Gettysburg Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and many other journals. Her stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and Wigleaf‘s Top 50. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel.

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