Walter took his Batman cup to the kitchen because maybe there was still apple juice. Ignorant of spirits, he had inaccurately deduced what Bruce Wayne sipped from crystal tumblers. In the kitchen, the juice gallon sat on the linoleum next to the mustard, the apple butter, and a half-dozen mostly empty jam jars. His mother was obscured by the open door of the fridge, but her arm emerged to set down the Worcestershire sauce and some rounded nubs of butter, clumsily wrapped. Walter poured the remains of the juice into his cup before making further inquiries. The clunk of the empty jug against the floor alerted his mother to his presence.
“There you are,” she said, as if it were him she’d been searching for among the condiments.
“What’s this?” he said, toeing a jar.
“Ugh. Horseradish. He puts it on everything.”
By “he,” she meant the grandfather. The grandfather had built this house and filled it with clocks and remote controls and antlers and things to spread on toast. But he had died, and it seemed the house might become theirs.
Next, she pulled the plastic shelving from the fridge and balanced it, diagonal, in the sink. The smell drifting from the open refrigerator started sweet and then became fuzzy in the nostrils. She ran a damp rag over the interior walls.
“OK,” she said. “Now. Do you think you could fit in here?”
Walter considered the space she’d emptied. The rag hadn’t banished the smell. The smell righted itself like an upset crab.
“Maybe,” said Walter. “I’d have to scrunch.”
“Probably a growth spurt,” she said. “You’ve been eating so much.”
“Sorry,” said Walter.
She shook her head, distracted.
In the weeks of their residence, Walter and his mother kept mostly to the room with the twin beds, living out of their open suitcases. Walter kept his Batman cup on the dresser next to his mother’s contacts case and pill bottles. The first night, before they could go to sleep, she’d taken the dusty, glass-eyed pheasant off the wall and put it in the room with the tall bed. Most of the art was in there now, piled face down on the big mattress. The family portraits, too.
When she wasn’t looking, he’d been raiding the narrow closet next to the stove. Snatched a handful of cornflakes, licked the flat crumbs off his palm. He would take a mini-pretzel and hold it in his cheek until it became a paste. He didn’t think anyone would notice, and if he had that stuff in his stomach, his mother wouldn’t have to buy so many groceries.
But then yesterday when she slept late – it seemed like hours – he’d started in on the Fig Newtons. And in his heart, he knew it wasn’t right, eating the dead man’s dessert.
“I need you to try,” said his mother.
Walter drained the Batman cup and took a step toward the fridge. The smell was stronger.
Walter and his mother had a deal that he could ask any question and get a truthful answer, even if it was something that kids his age didn’t usually get to know about, even if the answer risked ruining his belief in father figures, a just world, or the tooth fairy.
“It’s an experiment,” she said. Her eyes evasive.
“What do you want to prove?”
The refrigerator, sensing the influx of warm air, commenced a loud whirring, as if humming to shut out what it didn’t want to hear.
His mother sighed and looked at the ceiling the way she always did when the answers were complex.
“It isn’t logical,” she said.
“It’s just…I keep having a thought I don’t like. And…I need to prove to myself that the thought isn’t going to come true.”
“Like with the locks.”
She nodded grimly.
“Can you tell me what the thought is?”
She put her face in her hands to hide how red it suddenly grew. She shook her head, hands still pressed flat against her eye sockets, but Walter knew that this was only the lead-up to the answer. She didn’t want to tell him, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t.
“I need to know you will be safe,” she said.
The refrigerator hummed harder as Walter waited.
“OK,” she said, “When I was little, they always talked about ways that kids could die. They showed us filmstrips and taught us this song. A safety song. Never sniff glue. Never play on construction sites. It always scared me.”
“The song did?”
“It felt to me like we had to sing the song…like, over and over, or we would bring on the bad things. A bottle of glue was like Briar Rose’s spinning wheel. Bike pedals called out to bad drivers. Nobody was just given safety. We had to sing for it.”
“OK,” said Walter.
“I realize it isn’t true,” she said, “I do know that.”
“That’s OK,” said Walter. He climbed into the humming. He pulled up his knees so that they were under his chin. “There. I fit OK.”
Her hand was trembling as she looked at him. The light went out the moment the door was shut.
The doors of the subway opened, and her son stepped through without double-checking the train’s destination. He indicated that Vanessa should take a seat, that he would stand over her, gripping the pole. She held her bag on her lap and did not insult his confidence by looking at the route map behind her head. He’d been impatient with her that morning in the fancy coffee bar, the line buckling and grumbling behind them as she tried to decipher the menu. When she began to chat on the subway, his frown was resolute and metropolitan: One does not chat here, Vanessa.
Still, she was sure he was enjoying her visit. As soon as they surfaced into the sun of the West Village he detailed his celebrity sightings: the actor who played righteous assassins, the director whose genius was wrapped in cruelty. Celebrity proximity confirmed something Walter believed about himself.
Here on the sidewalks, Vanessa gamely played her role: impressed, a little awed. His hallmate’s family had a penthouse in that building but were usually in London. There, behind the sunglasses: the actress with those cross-racial adoptions. Look, Vanessa, but don’t look.
But when he squinted in an unexpected sunbeam, she saw the child he’d been, the one she’d shut in the refrigerator. She imagined again his struggle in the darkness, his heart quivering like cornered prey. Inches away, but whatever he’d screamed could not be heard through the door. She’d counted to 10 twice, her own heart rabbity.
Twenty seconds wasn’t enough time to use up the little box of oxygen.
Anyway, she’d been making him practice breath-holding, made a game of it so he wouldn’t know the test was coming.
She’d stopped going to the doctor by then but clung to his words: They haven’t made them that way in years. And finally, when he was frustrated that the topic of refrigerators refused to give way to more pressing matters, Look, they did a study in 1958, OK? They put kids in refrigerators and recorded how they fought to get out. And ever since, based on those findings, they’ve made the doors so that any normal kid could push them open from the inside.
Twenty seconds she’d counted on Walter to fight, and it hadn’t been enough. Their rabbit hearts, each beating without the other. If she was haunted, how much worse for him?
Walter was sweating again. He’d rubbed every possible product over his armpits, draped toilet paper in his sleeves, meditated. Even when he thought he was calm, the chill of a sudden breeze alerted him to his own moisture, and from that moment the perspiration, egged on by anxiety, really poured.
She was going to be weird about dinner, like with the almond milk at the gleaming, perfect coffee place.
How do you milk an almond, Walter?
He’d wanted to see her mostly because he wanted her to see.
But perhaps he owed her a little something. The thought nagged.
To get into college, he’d written about their quasi-homelessness. Behold, the time they’d slept in the car, and she’d called it camping. Pitiful ma-ma had lost their only chance at a house, but perhaps I could find a place of my own as a student at your fine…
Even if he’d let her read, could she deny any of it?
This was why he sweat. It was the pressure of being magnanimous.
Sure, your contribution to my rise is your own incompetence, made into a story.
But behold, Vanessa: our happy ending.
After the refrigerator incident, Vanessa shook herself awake. She’d told him daily of her love. She’d taken him camping.
At last, they sat down in a restaurant that spilled onto the sidewalk. After he’d ordered a carafe of red without consulting her, after the arrival of several pizzas with unlikely toppings, she ventured a triumph of her own: “I got you out of that house,” she said. “I’ll always be glad I did.”
“What do you mean?”
She asked if he remembered the grandfather’s place. The little bowls of pennies and hard candy that tasted like pennies. The clocks.
“The refrigerator,” he said. She was surprised by his lightness: perhaps he’d be an actor after all.
“I hoped you didn’t.”
“What actually happened with that house? Your brothers screwed you over?”
“I let them have it.”
“I suffered there,” she said. “Didn’t want that for you. I mean, we tried, right? But after…the fridge…I knew we’d never feel safe there, not really.”
Walter poured the rest of the carafe into his own glass. They stared at the trembling surface of the wine, so near the rim it could not be moved.
“Oh, I won’t tell them you’re underage,” Vanessa waved off the tension. “We always lived on our own terms, right? What adventures.”
Carefully, Vanessa held her own glass nearly horizontal to clink it against Walter’s. A few drops leapt and spread themselves into circles on the tablecloth, but there was plenty left to drink.
“What adventures,” Vanessa repeated.
Before the refrigerator door closed, Walter had never known total darkness. Now it coated him like oil. The hum and smell of the space came close, plugging his ears and pouring down his throat.
When the light was gone, the space no longer seemed small. He knew the walls were there but did not reach out to confirm their limitation. Invisible walls did not concern him.
He held up his hand and could not count the fingers. Perhaps he was not holding up his hand at all. He had no body and did not need one.
Walter’s heart reacted to the sudden confinement without speed or alarm; if anything, it slowed to resonate with the timeless and infinite expanse of which he now knew himself to be a part.
He knew she’d bring him back to the world of light and motion. The world where you had to eat your stolen cookies too quickly to enjoy them.
In this, his first moment of introspection, Walter imagined who he could be in this house if it became theirs. A boy who had birthday parties. Behold, a piñata raining candy on a dozen squealing friends: he was the boy with the bat, and he was the sweetness falling to earth; he was the jaunty burst donkey and the joyful greed of little fists closing around their bounty. In all this pleasure, he mingled and belonged. His mother there, too, in gold earrings. Shining.
And then she yanked him back into the bright kitchen, and she was gripping him and crying and apologizing. He assumed she was sorry for the times before the house, and that was fine, and he was happy to forgive, for surely their suffering could now end.
—Sarah Harris Wallman’s collection Senseless Women won the Juniper Prize for short fiction. She teaches at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, CT.
Sarah Harris Wallman on “The Refrigerator Test”
What was your inspiration for writing “The Refrigerator Test?”
I was thinking about the safety campaigns of my childhood: Just Say No, milk carton kids, the imperative to check your Halloween candy for razor blades. We really did sing these insipid songs by the “Safety Kids” at my elementary school. Winners don’t sniff glue! More than one source led me to believe that at some point a refrigerator would try to tempt me to my death – there was a whole Punky Brewster episode about this.
A lot of the public imagination is spent conjuring horrible things that might befall our children in the world, but children are far more likely to suffer quietly, in their own home, in ways they have little vocabulary to describe.
What was your writing process like for this story? How about your revision process?
Getting Walter into the fridge was easy. My own messed-up muse delivered that page. Getting him out took a lot of false starts and rewrites. I did some serious time-traveling through Walter’s life before I settled on the next scene.
I also owe a debt to my writers’ group, particularly the members who are trained psychiatrists with insight into trauma responses.
As readers, it’s fascinating to get Vanessa’s take on events we’ve previously seen through Walter’s eyes, and vice versa. Did you begin the story knowing it would alternate between Vanessa and Walter’s perspectives, or did that come in later drafts?
It was a breakthrough when I realized I had to have both takes. This might be a story about how well any of us can understand another person (much less predict or control their behavior). Being in a relationship this intimate, isolated, and emotionally charged equips you with a powerful microscope. You can make a diagnosis, but you’ve probably contaminated the slide.
I knew Vanessa wasn’t a monster, but I also knew that she’d never be able to make amends for her mistakes (which are significant) in the way that Walter needs.
What’s your best advice for fellow short fiction writers?
Don’t write an elevator pitch. Forming a short story is an eccentric, private experiment. Materials include your off-beat obsessions, your inside jokes, your petty convictions.
Flannery O’Connor probably put it best: “When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story.”