Half of What You See – Novel Excerpt

Maggie saw the children every morning. They stood at the end of long driveways, thin bodies strapped to enormous backpacks. They scraped their sneakers on the slick asphalt or tore leaves apart, piece by piece. Some glanced up at passing cars. Maggie made eye contact with several of them as she drove by, their vacant stares the hollow look of livestock – innocence and apathy. And perhaps a precociousness, a knowledge their little minds could feel but did not understand.

One girl in particular. She’d wait at the end of her driveway wearing a glazed expression as if about to be sucked up into a UFO. An idling car breathed behind her. The headlights burned two tunnels in the fog, and she stood between them, rocking slightly, eyes fixed on the road. She couldn’t have weighed more than seventy pounds, and it seemed like the only thing keeping her feet on the ground was the weight of her swollen backpack, which she wore backwards, so the heavy pouch hung in front of her stomach. Her clothes looked brand new. Brown boots gleaming like wet chocolate. Long blond hair cinched in a tight ponytail. As the bus in front of Maggie rolled to a stop, the car behind the girl slowly backed down the driveway. The girl didn’t wave and the car didn’t flick its brights or tap its horn. She glanced up, and Maggie caught her eye before quickly looking away. The accordion bus doors wrenched open, swallowed the girl, then jolted shut behind her.

The bus turned, and Maggie continued driving down the winding back roads. The speed limit was twenty-five, but it was impossible to go any slower than thirty-five without someone right behind her. Even then, she’d look in her rear-view mirror and see the inflamed eyes of a commuter gulping coffee. Sometimes it was a teenager – or at least someone she thought was a teenager but could very well have been a man or woman in their early or mid-twenties. Maggie couldn’t tell anymore. The kids drove with their seats reclined so far back that, if it weren’t for the fender-rattling bass from their stereos (sometimes songs she recognized, usually not), she would’ve thought no one was driving the cars at all.

On some roads, she was alone and could relax and listen to her book, sip her coffee and coast at the posted limit. She loved this part of her day, after Andrew left for work and she beat the rush at the coffee shop and wandered the back roads of Southport. The slick roads shellacked with leaves like a child’s sticker book and the massive stone houses and the wooden park signs leading to trails and streams and beaches were all like distant tourist attractions. This could never be home, Maggie thought. This was a permanent vacation.

But slowly, after almost six months and more aimless drives than she could count, she was beginning to feel differently. Or maybe it was just the pregnancy hormones invading her perception. She didn’t believe all that crap, that just because she was pregnant she had to be out of her mind and eat like Elvis Presley, but she did notice that some things – movies, songs, even a commercial – could sneak up on her and before she knew it, she was choking back tears as a happy puppy ran through the kitchen to a bowl of Kibbles ‘n’ Bits.  And there was empirical evidence separate from her body and mind that was beginning to add up to something like comfort: she no longer had to check her directions to find her way – at least not to the coffee shop and back. The occasional cashier recognized her and said hello (though they didn’t know each other’s names). She still hated that she had to drive to get anywhere and her ever-expanding belly didn’t help her feel any more mobile or independent, but she knew, deep down, that their new house would be a better home for the baby than their studio apartment in the city.

The winding back roads were lined with knee-high rock walls and old barns. They could have rotted and slanted naturally or maybe they were purposely built that way because the owners living in the big stone houses across the street wanted something pastoral to gaze upon – like the rusty milk cans on wrap-around porches topped with flowerpots or the cast-iron seat of an old tractor turned into a bird bath. It was kind of sick, wasn’t it? That the rich took pieces of the past, pieces of the lives that once inhabited the town, and used them as decorations, like turning headstones into trophies. Pitted, mold-speckled anchors of all sizes were the most popular, as if boats had once moored themselves to the lawns and rotted away.

And where was everyone? Where were the people who lived in these houses? These massive, silent homes? Maggie only ever saw landscapers or contractors tidying up the grass around the stone walls or measuring the lawn and sticking little red flags in the dirt.

Maggie and Andrew lived just over the railroad tracks in East Southport. The name of the town still baffled her. 

“Isn’t east of south just southeast?” Maggie had asked him on one of their many drives back to the city after house hunting.

“Um,” Andrew said. “Yeah, it is.”

“And if we’re east of the southern port, then aren’t we no longer near the port?”

Andrew nodded slowly.

“So where the fuck are we moving to?” Maggie said through a burst of laughter.

They joked about it all through the closing and even now, from time to time, she’d ask Andrew to get something from the specialty market, telling him, “You know the one, north of west road, on the east side. Just bear south.”

They lived on the border between East Southport and Southport Village, tucked back in the quiet, shaded streets a few blocks from the train station. There was no proper downtown for East Southport, no walkable Main Street, unless you counted the two delis and grody roadhouse connected to the train station by a cracked and overgrown strip of concrete. Not like Southport Village’s Main Street, with its cute candle shops and movie theater and hand-made jewelry boutiques, and best of all, an actual port, the harbor hanging at the end of Main Street like a big, beautiful oil painting. Maybe it was inconsequential – like the dog food commercial – but it had to be bad luck living in a town whose name was a lie. There was no port in East Southport. And it wasn’t even east of Southport. It was west. 

But East Southport was the closest they could get. Maggie didn’t kid herself. Social workers and correctional officers never topped the list of lucrative professions. They didn’t even make the list. But somehow in the city they had stitched together a comfortable life. No car, no gas, no heating or water bill, they could afford a gleaming, hardwood studio apartment in a part of town they had no business living in. In the mornings, they trudged together through the snow and the rain and the occasional sunshine to the subway, to the medical district where they’d kiss and part ways: Maggie to her small office in a building shared with lawyers and dentists and chiropractors; Andrew further down, across the highway, to the House of Correction. At night, they made the trek back, away from the hospitals and metal detectors, the offices and prison cells, and merged with the suited commuters returning to their quiet, clean homes. The second Andrew found out Maggie was pregnant, he began plotting their escape.    

Chill out, Maggie. Maybe the barns were just barns and the milk cans just harmless decorations and maybe that girl waiting for the bus was just a normal, bored 12-year-old and her mother in the car behind her has a disability of some kind and can’t walk the driveway. Did you ever think of that?

She turned the corner and there was the bus, pulled over, red lights flashing through the fog. Two boys laughed and played tug-of-war with a sweatshirt across the aisle. The girl sat in front of them, on the edge of the seat, cupping the bottom of her backpack, eyes on the floor. The bus hissed, exhaling a puff of black smoke. Maggie waited for it to chug up the hill and out of sight.

She knew that glazed look, that get me the fuck out of here, but where? stare some kids practice and some don’t have to. The eyes that searched her office, darted from her degrees on the wall to her framed Monet prints to the photos of her and Andrew on her desk. The eyes set deep in wilting faces. The eyes that told stories the girls promised never to tell. Maggie listened. She listened for nearly a decade. Listened until she could no longer hear herself, or Andrew, or the faint heart beating in her belly.   

The woman’s voice on her audiobook said something about identity and looking inward but Maggie had lost track of the topic. She smiled and laughed out loud a little at the rush of relief, the wave that started deep within her stomach and cascaded up over her lungs, rose like a warm bath around her shoulders and neck.

Thank god I’m not on that bus.


Anthony D’Aries is the author of The Language of Men: A Memoir (Hudson Whitman Press, 2012), which received the PEN Discovery Prize and Foreword’s Memoir-of-the-Year Award. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Boston Magazine, Solstice, The Literary Review, Memoir Magazine, Sport Literate, Flash Fiction Magazine, and elsewhere. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and his essay, “No Man’s Land,” was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2021. He currently directs the low-residency MFA in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University.