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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

Evil Eye

BOOK: Evil Eye


Also by Joyce Carol Oates

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joyce carol oates

The Mysterious Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

New York

Copyright © 2013 by The Ontario Review, Inc.

Jacket Design by royce M. Becker;
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“So Near Any Time Always” appeared in
Ellery Queen
Mystery Magazine.

“The Flatbed” appeared in

“The Execution” appeared in

“Evil Eye” appeared in

eBook ISBN: 978-0-8021-9402-2

The Mysterious Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

154 West 14th Street

New York, NY 10011

Distributed by Publishers Group West

for Lucy and Gil Harman



It had belonged to his first wife, he'd said.

First wife
so casually uttered—she, who was the
fourth wife,
could have no basis for misinterpretation.

That is, no basis for hurt. For envy, jealousy. Even, the husband seemed to suggest, in the almost negligent way in which he spoke of the
first wife
to whom he'd been married
a lifetime ago, when we were other people

And so, she'd known not to ask about the wife.

“It's a
—a talisman to ward off the ‘evil eye.' You see them everywhere in Turkey, Greece, Iran—also in southern Spain, where Ines was born.”

She'd first noticed the strange sculpted-glass object when she'd first entered the house of the man whose
fourth wife
she became within a year of their meeting. But there were so many striking and curious objects in the sprawling stone-and-stucco house amid fragrant eucalyptus trees, so many primitive masks and sculptures, exotic wall hangings, silk screens, “shadow ­puppets” —she'd been too intimidated to inquire and had stared in silent appreciation, like one who has stepped into a museum unprepared.

She was so much younger than the man: the proper tone to take with him was deferential, acquiescent.

And she would learn from him, for he was a man with much to instruct.

did resemble an eye, though not a human eye: it was rimmed with dark blue, not white, and it was flattened and not spherical. And it was large, and lidless, blank and staring, about eight inches in diameter, conspicuously hanging beside one of the arched doorways of the dining room that led to the kitchen at the rear of the house.

When you looked more closely you saw that the
was comprised of concentric circles: the wide dark blue outer circle, a narrow white inner circle, a pale blue circle, and, at the center, a small black “pupil.” The dark-blue glass was particularly beautiful, luminous, when sunshine streamed through it in the morning.

“Educated people in those countries don't exactly believe in the
or in the ‘evil eye'—but they wouldn't tempt fate by defying it. There's a Turkish airline with the
on its planes, for good luck.”

She thought
In the matter of luck, we need all we can get.

She thought possibly she'd seen these Turkish airplanes, in European airports. But she hadn't known what the
had meant at the time. She said:

“It's very beautiful. And uncanny—an eye without an eyelid.”

“Well, it's been here forever. Since Ines moved out, in 1985. I've stopped noticing it of course. But if someone removed it, I would.”

Even the uglier objects in her husband's house exuded an unsettling sort of beauty, Mariana wanted to believe she would grow into.

Soon after this conversation, though there could have been no direct connection, Austin informed Mariana that Ines was coming to visit.

For a confused moment, Mariana had no idea whom her husband meant.

Austin Mohr knew so many people: so many people knew

In their first weeks, months, now nearly a year they'd been together he'd told her about so many people who were prominent in his life, or had once been prominent, she couldn't keep most of them straight:
Suzanna, Harry, Darren, Felix, Michael, Cynthia, Enid, Jared, Henry, Florence, Ines
. . . These were professional associates, adult children and relatives, close friends, former close friends, former wives. At these times her husband spoke with such intensity, in so riveting a way, Mariana listened with the desperation with which a lost child might listen to an elder instructing her in a kind of code all that she must know to find her way back home.

Sometimes, despite her attentiveness, Mariana blundered.

“Excuse me, Mariana—‘Henry' isn't my married son who lives in Seattle, that's ‘Harry.

Or, with a frown, “Not ‘Susan' but ‘Suzanna'—my daughter in Shanghai whom you have yet to meet.”

After the initial startled moment Mariana did recall Ines. Of course—the
first wife

“Ines rarely comes to the States and she will only want to see us—to stay with us here—one night. That has always been her custom. She'll come with her sister's daughter Hortensa—a nice girl, a gifted cellist, if not very attractive. Don't look so dismayed, ­Mariana —Ines isn't a difficult person. She may look like a
prima donna
but she isn't, really. If you don't let her intimidate you, she won't.”

Mariana tried to smile. Mariana was feeling a clutch of panic.

first wife
coming to visit—to stay with them!

In her parents' household, which was the only household Mariana had known intimately, it was inconceivable that either her father or her mother would have invited a guest to stay with them without consulting with the other.

Or was it two guests, including the niece?

Of course, they were living in her husband's house. In which he'd lived for more than thirty years.

And Mariana was grateful to be living here. Often, the thought came to her like a mild electric shock—
Grateful to be living. Here.

For her own life had collapsed, shattered like broken crockery.

“I wish you would smile, Mariana. Ines is no threat to you—or to me, at this point in my life. Our breakup was amicable. I've sent Ines money over the years only because she's careless and heedless of her life, not because it's required of me any longer. And when she comes to the States, it has been a custom of mine—of ours—for me to ask her how she's doing, financially; and if she tells me frankly that she needs money, I will give her money. But only if she asks.”

Austin spoke matter-of-factly. You could not tell—Mariana could not tell—if his tone was one of regret, or equanimity.

Hesitantly Mariana asked: “Ines didn't remarry?”

The husband laughed, as if Mariana had said something sardonic or witty.

“No! Certainly not. After me, Ines never remarried.”

The new wife, the
fourth wife,
was thirty-two years younger than the
first wife,
who was two years older than the husband.

The gap of years was like a fissure in the earth, treacherous only if one tries to leap across it.

As the
so much younger wife, Mariana felt no triumph, but rather more a guilty sense of having usurped another woman's place.

It was astonishing to Mariana how casually her husband spoke of his former wives: “When we were traveling in the Amazonian rain forest”—“When we were making a documentary on Chinese opera, in Beijing”—“When we were staging a full-cast
in Edinburgh.” The
was undefined, mysterious, like the ages of Austin's several adult children and where exactly they were living and what they were doing.

Mariana had been relieved: not one of her stepchildren had made the journey to attend their father's wedding. And the wedding had been small, private—a brief civil ceremony.

She'd been so happy at the time, her heart so suffused with wonder, her memory of the actual ceremony, in a small local courthouse, was hazy.

One of Austin's children had died, Mariana knew. An infant son, who hadn't lived a year.

Ines's infant, this had been. Long ago in 1983, two years before Mariana was born.

How strange it was, how unnatural it seemed, that a man and a woman might share such a tragedy, as well as other, so-intimate experiences as a husband and wife, and not be bound together for life, like Siamese twins. The very term
seemed so crude, cruel.

Mariana's parents had been married for more than thirty years. They'd been “older” parents—her mother had been forty-one when she'd been born.

She wondered what her parents would have thought of her marriage to Austin Mohr. She hoped they would be happy for her, that she would be protected now that they'd left her.

She tried not, in the most primitive and childlike of ways, to blame them. For they were blameless.

And so it left Mariana breathless, the way in which her husband so calmly spoke of the past as if it were utterly and irrevocably

When they'd first met, Austin had told her of his several marriages, his wives—“Each very different, and each very wonderful. For a while.” He insisted that each divorce had been “amicable” but Mariana wondered if that could be so.

Glass walls, skylights, beautiful airy rooms looking out at the city and the Bay miles away, glittering at night—who would willingly leave this house? And the social distinction of being Austin Mohr's wife, though that hadn't mattered in the slightest to Mariana—surely this would be a terrible loss for most women?

Often Mariana had to interrupt Austin to ask, with an apologetic laugh, “But wait—which wife are you talking about? When was this?” and Austin would say, “That's not the point of the story, who happened to be with me then. It isn't
that's crucial, darling.”

She was rebuked in her superficiality! She was made to feel very

She was rebuked for thinking, with a tinge of inward pain—
But if I love you so much, am I not crucial to you?

It was disorienting to think, to be instructed, that the
wasn't just ephemeral but insignificant. That, in the rich tapestry of Austin Mohr's life, no single individual could matter very much—except Austin Mohr.

Yet she was captivated by the merely personal, like one who has stumbled into quicksand. At a less vulnerable time in her life she hadn't been so focused upon the intimate, the domestic, the
as she was now; for now, nothing seemed really to matter to her except the
merely personal

Where one lived, and with whom; the fact that one was not abandoned and lonely.
was what mattered.

Of course Mariana knew: set beside the cultural, the political, the aesthetic, and the moral, the
merely personal
is trivial and vulgar. Austin was right: why did the
matter, in the Australian outback, for instance? Or in a consideration of Chinese opera? When
included young children, on a trip to India in the 1990s, why did the specific identity of the children matter?

In her parents' lives, Mariana had mattered so profoundly.

She couldn't help but feel that they'd abandoned her by dying—prematurely. Though it was ridiculous to think so, of course.

Austin had assured her, he would love her as her parents had loved her except more—“As a husband. Our bond is deeper.”

Mariana had married a distinguished man. A quasi-public man. Austin had been the director of the Institute for Independent Study in the Performing Arts, in San Francisco, for more than a quarter-century; his name was legendary, in some quarters—“Austin Mohr.” And now Mariana was
Mrs. Austin Mohr,
if she wished to be so designated.

Austin thought that “married” names for women were ridiculous. Of his wives each had retained her maiden name and had never been
Mrs. Mohr
. Each had been, he'd said, a woman with a life of her own independent of his; each had had her own work, her career.

Mariana felt a touch of jealousy at her husband's pride in his ex-wives'

Her own career, such as it was, seemed to have been derailed since her marriage. Even before her marriage, her work had been stalled for months.

“You don't pay any of your ex-wives alimony, then?”

“No longer.”

“Child support?”

“No longer, of course—my children are all grown.”

“But I meant, when they were young.”

“When they were young, often my children lived with me. They traveled with me. Sometimes their mother would come with us, on a trip. Former wives need not be former friends. Even if we rarely see one another, like Ines Zambranco and me.”

Ines Zambranco and me
. The words gave Mariana a chill.

Austin misunderstood Mariana's look of distress. He took her hand, kissed it in a way both playful and concerned.

“Don't look so stricken, Mariana—please! Ines and I are no longer emotionally engaged in the slightest. It's even an exaggera­tion to say that we're ‘friends,' I suppose—since we have virtually no contact with each other except these occasional visits of hers. She comes to the States to see other people primarily
—not me.”

Ines wasn't the mother of Austin's adult children, Mariana gathered. The second and third wives—she was always confusing their names—were the mothers of his several children, whom Mariana had yet to meet.

“I am not obliged to pay any of them anything, any longer. So—don't give it a thought, dear Mariana!”

Mariana was ashamed to have provoked this exchange, which made her appear venal, small-minded. In fact she scarcely cared about her husband's financial situation.

She cared only that he loved her. That her love for him, as outsized in her life as the double bass she'd once carried on a city bus to and from music lessons, was not unreciprocated.

Austin said: “Ines was an actress when we met, but not ambitious as you must be to succeed in that life. She'd been very beautiful when she was young, like Catherine Deneuve—whom in fact she knows. She still acts on Spanish television mostly, in minor roles. Her last film role was in a Merchant-Ivory film, I forget the title. It didn't do well, though it starred Jeanne Moreau—another woman friend of Ines's.” Austin paused, stroking Mariana's hand. It didn't discomfort her that he treated her at times like a convalescent; she took solace from his concern for her, for she knew it was genuine.

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