Hell in a Handbasket

Rebecca Miller is an American author and filmmaker. She won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, adapted from her book of the same name. Her recent collection of stories, Total, won praise from Jeffrey Eugenides, and Olivia Laing has described Miller as “a luminous writer”. The following story, published for the first time in Port, relishes in the tension of the overheard


Drawing by Alec Doherty

So, true story. I’m on a packed Sunday train from Boston to New York returning from seeing my girlfriend. I am aware of a couple of women in their twenties in the seats behind me; I clocked them as I searched for a seat. They were bare-legged, wearing tiny shorts with big tanned muscular legs, which I wish I had instead of my little intellectual heron gams. They look like they maybe rowed crew in college.

My jeans flap around my scarecrow frame as I thump into the aisle seat in front of them, beside a guy in a baseball cap staring out the window listening to music on his earbuds and looking like all he wants is to be left alone, which is fine by me. I hate conversation. I like to eavesdrop. Other people’s conversations are like magnets to my ears. The lady across the aisle from me is on the phone, and I listen to her for a while as the train starts moving. She keeps asking, “But will they buy a table?” And then she goes on and on about how much each table ought to cost. Ten thousand dollars or twelve thousand dollars? She’s speaking extra loud, so we will all know she has this urgent business of selling these tables, like the fate of the entire country depends on these transactions. Gradually I come to understand she is organising a charity gala. Her voice is husky and persistent and bossy but also sugar-coated and jocular. She’s in white slacks and a white sweater, and her hair is dyed blonde and carefully curled with tongs. When she finally hangs up her phone, she suddenly hunches over and starts frantically rummaging around in her purse, which is set between her feet. The search is long and urgent. Then, sighing with relief, she sits back and de-animates, her manicured hands resting palm-up on her thighs, fingers curled, like double roadkill. I start reading the paper on my phone. From behind me, I hear one of the muscular twenty-five-year-olds pipe up.

“Okay, you can’t tell anyone this.” Immediately, she has my attention. “Of course not. What?”

“Jade’s wedding is off.”

“I saw.”

“But you don’t know why.”

“I guess not… I mean, not really.”

There’s a pause. I fight the urge to turn around and stare. Instead, I look straight ahead and listen.

“I… can’t say it.” There is a laugh of embarrassment bubbling up in her voice.

“Why? What?”

“I can’t.”

“Oh for God’s sake. Now you have to.”

“She made me promise.”

“Well, why did you bring it up to me then?”

“Evil impulse.”

“Oh, come on. Okay, I’ll guess. He… cheated on her. (pause) He was mean to her parents. (pause) They didn’t have the same taste in baby names. (pause) WHAT?”

“Okay. If I tell you this, do you promise not. to tell. a living. soul?”


“You really promise? Zadie. Say it.”

“Yes. I promise!”

My whole body is tensed up. I have become one big ear.

“Okay. So. Jade started getting weird vibes when they were in the Cape in June, visiting Jeff’s parents. That’s where he’s from.”

“What kind of weird vibes?”

“Well, first of all, he suddenly started going running every day, for a long time. Like over an hour. He was never that into exercise. And when he came back, he wasn’t sweaty, and he never wanted to have sex after his runs.”

“Is that so weird?”

“No, but I mean he was kind of awkward. If she even suggested it. Like he was avoiding her.”


“So this goes on for a week. They’re planning on being there for two weeks, her whole vacation. And she knows he used to have a girlfriend on the Cape, they had a thing on and off for literally years, since high school, and he had broken it off when him and Jade got serious, but Jade was always jealous of this girl.”

“Wait. Is this the girl who was a junkie?”

“She wasn’t a junkie. But yeah. Her.”

“Oh wow. Okay.”

“So Jade is starting to suspect that Jeff is running over to this girl’s house every day.”

“Isn’t that a little paranoid?” “Just listen.”

“I am listening.”

“One day, she decides to follow him.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see that the blonde lady in white across the aisle from me is sitting very still and leaning outward slightly in her seat, ear cocked toward the girls. I can’t blame her.

“And?” says the listener.

“I really shouldn’t be telling you this.”

“If you don’t keep going now, I’ll kill you.”

The narrator laughs, enjoying her power, and I too feel a murderous rage rise in me; it’s all I can do not to turn around in my seat and hiss, “Finish the story, bitch!” But luckily, no one has to die today. My storyteller continues.

“So Jade follows him, at a distance. And Jeff does run, he runs all the way to the beach. Like a mile. And Jade is jogging along on the boardwalk trying to keep up, for a long time. And she isn’t a runner, so this is tough, and she falls behind. And he disappears over a dune pretty far ahead, and she thinks she’s lost him. She runs to where he seems to have disappeared, and he’s nowhere. She looks up the beach, down the beach. And she realizes he has to be behind that dune. So she walks up the dune. She’s like freaking out at what she’s going to see there. And she has this whole plan of when she sees him with his ex-girlfriend and how she’s going to flip out and leave him. She has the whole scene playing out in her head. She’s actually crying already she’s so mad. It’s really hard to walk up the dune in her sneakers, and it feels like it’s taking forever. And she finally gets to the top of the dune and looks down.”

She pauses then. I stop breathing, so fused am I to her words. “And she sees him… fucking. a headless. seagull.”


“He had his shorts around his ankles, and he was fucking a dead seagull that seemed to have no head.”

Silence. I stared ahead. The blonde woman in white stared ahead.

Behind me, there was a gasp, a few expletives – everything you would expect from someone with a freshly minted image of a man fucking a headless seagull lodged in her brain.

“Wh… what did Jade do?”

“She turned around and walked back to Jeff’s parent’s house.”

“And then what?”

“Eventually Jeff came home and took a shower.”

“I fucking hope he took a shower. Oh my God. That’s the most disgusting thing I ever heard. But… then what?”

“Jade is just sitting there on the bed watching him get changed. She’s in shock. And she still can’t say anything. She watches him put on his underwear, his pants, his button-down shirt. And then, like, to make conversation, as if everything’s fine, Jeff goes, ‘You know, I’ve been listening to all the candidates, and honestly the one who makes the most sense to me is Mike Pence’.”

Silence. And then, the other girl goes into hysterics behind me. She is screaming with laughter. “Oh my God, that’s so perfect,” she says.

I notice that my travel companion across the aisle is turning toward the girls with a look of naked rage on her face, craning her neck to look at them, her blue eyes bulging. The girls, unaware, are filling the train car with their mad glee. The more they enjoy the absurdity and grotesquerie of their friend’s predicament, the more furious Vanilla Lady seems to get. Finally, she bellows at them, her voice shaking.

“Is everything a joke to you?”

Now I feel I get to turn around. The girls are both red in the face from laughing, tears in their eyes. They stare at their accuser, dumbfounded, silenced.

The narrator, reassembling her powerful limbs, sits up in her seat. “What’s your problem?” she asks, a smile playing around her mouth.

“My problem is,” says the lady. “You—this—this sort of thing, is why this country is in such a dire condition! It’s—it’s the irony—it’s the—I just—I can guess you girls’ position on every single important issue facing our country today, just from listening to you, and it’s because of people like you that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket!”

The girls hang on her words like two chastised kids dangling from monkey bars. And then, simultaneously, they let go, and dissolve into laughter.