The Disappearance of Madge Threshelm
Words By Dale Trumbore, Art By Enrique Meseguer
Short story winner of the Fall 2021 F(r)iction Literary Contest.
When my editor tells me that the reigning doyenne of horror and suspense, Madge Threshelm, has specifically requested me to interview her—when I am told the interview will be exactly forty minutes long, and I am not allowed to record it with anything other than a notepad and pen—when I am asked to sign a consent form acknowledging that our interview may result in my death or dismemberment, I am surprised only by the fact that Madge Threshelm has asked to be interviewed by me. Over the course of Ms. Threshelm’s much-lauded writing career, she’s sold over 300 million copies of her books, but has granted only three interviews. One per novel, one novel per decade. Last year, the woman famously declined an interview with Oprah.
I only hesitate a moment, thinking of my six-month-old daughter, before I say yes. I’m such a huge fan of Madge Threshelm that I’ve tattooed a line of hers across my left biceps, yet I, like all of her biggest fans, know virtually nothing about her. This is my chance. I have to take it.
The tattoo is of the last line of my favorite short story, “The Dinner Plate”: My mother taught me not to lick knives, but I do. I have loved Ms. Threshelm’s books for nearly as long as I can remember, since my father gave me his tattered copy of The Twisting Thicket when I was nine years old. I stayed up all night reading the first half and was so tired the next morning that my father let me take a sick day, during which I finished the book, then spent a second sleepless night staring up at the ceiling, waiting for someone to drag me, screaming, into the dark woods behind our house. When morning arrived, I was half relieved, half disappointed to find myself safe in my bed.
My father is in an assisted living facility now, at sixty-two, with late-stage, younger-onset Alzheimer’s—a diagnosis I trip over when I say it out loud. Some days when I enter his room, he mistakes me for a nurse and tells me he’s waiting for his daughter to arrive. I tell him she’ll be here any minute. But when I tell him I’m going to interview Madge Threshelm, he is instantly lucid. He asks if I can get her autograph. I say I’ll try.
The other three interviews all featured a plot twist. Take the 1989 interview in the New York Times about The Twisting Thicket, her first novel. A reporter was blindfolded at the entrance to a hedge maze, then told he had to find Ms. Threshelm at the center if he wanted to conduct the interview. They stopped talking after sunset, and he was left to feel his way out in the dark. In her 1998 cover feature for Vanity Fair, Ms. Threshelm reportedly asked an interviewer to fill out a longform questionnaire before they met. If, at the end of your life, one infamous question asked, you had the chance to live your life over again, but first you had to kill yourself as a child to take over their body—would you do it? By what method?
The reporter was so shaken by the questionnaire that she cancelled. The one who replaced her answered this: I would poison my child-self just before bedtime, after feeding her our favorite meal. The rest of the interview itself was fairly standard, but that response became a crucial plot point in Ms. Threshelm’s second book, The Next Same Life, when it came out in 1999.
For her third book, Speak, Veil, and Disappear (2009), Ms. Threshelm never met the interviewer, instead choosing to communicate her answers through a medium. By the end of the session, the reporter was in tears. The medium had stopped projecting Ms. Threshelm’s answers and was instead channeling a message from the reporter’s fourteen-year-old daughter, who had died three months prior. I’ve always wondered whether the medium was somehow Ms. Threshelm herself, though he was described in the article as a young man, not a woman who would have then been in her late forties.
I’m desperate to read the newest novel. I’d hoped this interview would come with an advance copy; it doesn’t. In emails with Ms. Threshelm’s assistant, Loretta, I am instructed to speak of her life prior to age twenty only if Ms. Threshelm is the one to bring it up. I am not to discuss her husband or their equally reclusive daughter, who writes under the name Emily X. Elm and is herself the author of six well-received suspense novels. I am told to refer to her in the article as either “Madge Threshelm” or “Ms. Threshelm,” but never “Threshelm.” Madge Threshelm has been writing under a pseudonym for so long that neither I nor any other reporter have been able to discover her birth name.
I arrive for the interview twenty minutes early and park two blocks away from her house—another of Loretta’s instructions. Per my nondisclosure agreement, I can’t reveal the intersection where I’ve been told to park, the town where Ms. Threshelm lives, or even the airport I’ve flown into. I can only say that I’m somewhere in the continental United States, walking quickly past rows of large but unshowy houses to the address I’ve been given, wondering if the outfit I’ve chosen is too dramatic—a lacey black dress with long, draping sleeves to cover my tattoo.
When I arrive at a sprawling Tudor-style house, the front door opens before I can ring the bell.
“Ariana?” asks the assistant. “I’m Loretta. Your purse and phone, please?”
I hand them over, and she escorts me into the living room. It’s Victorian, dark, with a lush black wallpaper patterned in embossed white lilies. There’s a threadbare antique rug the color of rust layered over intricate parquet flooring, the pattern of which resembles the one in my Brooklyn prewar apartment. Twin sconces—Tiffany glass, maybe?—hang on either side of two emerald velvet chairs, and above the fireplace is a large, morose painting of the author, younger, her black hair styled in pin curls of an earlier time, her eyes seeming to follow me around the room. In the painting, her hands are folded primly on her lap, and her expression is regal and austere. All of it suits the queen of suspense. We might as well be in a Gothic novel.
Loretta tells me to take a seat in one of the two armchairs. I want desperately to ask for a tour of the rest of the house. Instead, as I wait, I study the painting. Aside from her iconic Vanity Fair cover shoot and the author photos that have graced her books, there are no photos of Ms. Threshelm to be found on the internet or anywhere else.
A figure appears in the doorway, and I stand involuntarily, fighting the urge to curtsy in her presence. In person, her hair is an elegant grey. The effect is startling, only because every photograph of her I’ve seen is at least ten years out of date, if not twenty. She must be in her late fifties, but her face is still youthful, unsmiling as the portrait.
I stammer a greeting and we sit in the green chairs. While I’ll use quotations for the conversation that follows—I took ample notes, and it is quite literally my job to recall conversations with a terrifying accuracy—what follows is a summary of our conversation, rather than an exact transcription.
“Let’s see it,” she says when we’re seated.
She points at my arm, and I pull back the lace to show her the tattoo.
“How did you know?” If she has read about my tattoos, it’s not too much of a stretch to guess she’s read the essay about how my father’s diagnosis has me questioning my own casual forgetting. As she smiles at me in silence, I ask the worst of all the questions I’ve prepared. “Why did you pick me for this interview?”
“Because you tattooed my favorite line on your skin,” she says, “and you’ve been fired from two different magazines. At worst, you’re a narcissist, and at best, you’re genuinely interesting.” She stares at me. “Or at least you used to be.”
She’s not wrong. It’s been nearly a decade now since I did drugs or slept with a celebrity I was supposed to be profiling. I’m tamer now, a wife, a mom, a caregiver.
The next book, Ms. Threshelm tells me, is not a thriller at all, but a memoir. Now the agreement I signed before our interview seems downright absurd. An iconic novelist known for her secrecy is writing a book about her life, and I am not allowed to ask her about it.
“I need to write it all down before I forget,” she says. “I’ve written it to make sense of my life. It’s as simple as that. You can end the interview there.” Her gaze is like a dagger, and I almost ask if she’s serious.
“You’ve experienced this, Ariana, have you not? A family member with a loss of memory?” She says it like she’s reading my tarot cards.
“My father has younger-onset Alzheimer’s,” I say. “His mother suffered from it before she died. It seems certain that I’ll lose my memory eventually.”
“And you just had a daughter, yes?”
“Astrid. She’s six months old.” My husband is probably feeding her lunch right now, oatmeal and avocado. I reassure myself, as I have to do so often, that it’s okay I’m away from her. I will feed her hundreds more meals exactly like the one I am missing.
“Babbling,” Ms. Threshold says. “She must be babbling. Did you know the Tower of Babel and the notion of babbling are thought to be completely unrelated? How capricious our language is.”
I nod. I want to ask about her own daughter, but we’re too early in the conversation to break the rules. “What is it exactly that you’re writing to remember?”
“That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? We don’t get to choose our memories, but we do shape our stories. You’ll see when you read it.” She leans forward. “Is there anything you’d exclude from your story, if you could?”
I pause, waiting for more, and she nudges me gently on the arm. “It’s not a rhetorical question.”
I shake my head. “Ms. Threshelm, we’re here to talk about you.”
“But isn’t that your schtick, Ariana? Inserting yourself into the story? Gonzo journalism for the post-newspaper age?”
I have to laugh. “All this time, I thought no one was reading my work.”
“Maybe no one is.” Ouch, I think as she leans back in her chair. Madge Threshelm has sold millions of books, and I have yet to finish one.
“You know,” she says, “there’s a reason I’ve let my work speak for itself without inserting myself into the story. I remember, in the interview for The Twisting…”
She hesitates, and there’s a flicker of fear in her eyes, one I know well.
“The… What was I saying?”
“You were talking about The Twisting Thicket.”
“I remember the title of my own damn book,” she snaps, and in a blink, her assistant is beside her.
“Can I get you anything, Ms. Threshelm?” Loretta asks, and Madge Threshelm shakes her head, then speaks as if the last minute never happened.
“In Speak, Veil, and Disappear—and in all of my work before that—I wanted to talk about moments when the veil has parted. Moments when we’re close enough to death to grasp it. What do you think happens after we die, Ariana?”
I look down at the rust-colored rug. “I like to say I’m an atheist who hopes she’s wrong. I wish I could be more hopeful.”
“Mm. It’s nice to have hope, isn’t it?”
“It is. Maybe we can talk about how hope and faith intersect in your writing. I’ve noticed how, in all three of your novels, the initial premise—”
“My mother is no longer with us,” she interrupts. “And I believe yours isn’t either, is she, Ariana?”
“No, she’s not. She died when I was a child.”
Ms. Threshelm nods, and for no particular reason I am reminded of the consent form. I shudder. No matter how much I want to be here, I’ve still put myself in a position where, at least theoretically, my own daughter could end up motherless. But I do that every day, I think, whenever I leave the house, get on an airplane, cross the street. I try to shrug off thoughts of my daughter, my husband wiping the remnants of lunch off her face with a dampened cloth.
“Was there a moment in your life where you felt the veil give way to… something more?” I ask. “Or where you questioned your own relationship with faith?” She has never mentioned faith in an interview, but it isn’t on the taboo list.
She looks at the ceiling, then down at me. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
Loretta is back in a blink, holding a glass of water. “Ms. Threshelm,” she says cheerfully, “we’re almost done here. Seven more minutes.”
Madge Threshelm gazes at me like I’m a stranger, and the assistant leans down to whisper something in her ear.
“When my daughter had to have brain surgery,” Ms. Threshelm says. “That’s when I felt the most confusion, the most doubt, and then, when she recovered, a rush of faith that ultimately didn’t stick. I wish it had.”
“I know the feeling,” I say. “What year was that?”
Madge Threshelm turns to her assistant. “What year was it?”
“I don’t know, Ms. Threshelm,” Loretta says.
“Emily,” Ms. Threshelm says sternly. “What year was your surgery?”
The woman looks flustered; Ms. Threshelm has confused her for her daughter.
And then I see it. This is her daughter—Loretta is Emily X. Elm, though I can forgive myself for not recognizing her when I met her at the door. She’s wearing a long, straight black wig, thick-rimmed glasses, and dark red lipstick, looking the complete opposite, in every way, from the plain photographs that accompany her books.
“I was nine,” Emily says. “When I had the surgery. We’re almost done here, so let me know if you need anything.” She leaves the room again.
“You see it, don’t you?” Ms. Threshelm says, and at first I think she’s talking about her daughter—of course I see it. “You see what’s happening to me?”
She’s answering a question I couldn’t bring myself to ask, and I nod. My father, I think; she picked me because of my father.
“I’m not sure I’ve gotten anything of much importance down in this silly book, though that won’t bother me too much when I’m gone. But I’m scared, Ariana. If I had my choice of an afterlife, I’d just live my life over and over again in this house, feeling a vague déjà vu as I circled my choices and my family like a dog finding a place to rest.”
It’s almost the plot of The Next Same Life, but I recognize the reference as a subtler one, one of her oldest stories, the miniature skeleton for what would become her second book.
“Like in ‘The Other Circle,’” I say. “You wrote that story when you were… twenty-four?”
She smiles. “Twenty-three.”
“And your feelings haven’t changed? There’s nothing in your life that you’d change or rewrite, if you could?”
“I expect that someday, I won’t be able to write at all,” she says. “But I can relive the best parts, the necessary bits. There’s a joy to remembering what shaped me, a joy in writing it, and I don’t expect that will ever disappear.”
I’m nodding. “But is the memoir also an attempt to shape the story people tell about you? A chance to leave a legacy? Or is it really just—”
A timer goes off in another room, and Emily appears beside us again.
“Well,” she says, looking at her mother, not at me, “I’m afraid we’re out of time.” She hands me my purse, and I think this is it, the part when something ominous happens. I try not to be scared, though my mind is racing. I’ll be abandoned in the basement, maybe, and left in the dark for an hour to contemplate my life. I think, but am not sure, that I hear footsteps above us, someone walking upstairs. Her husband, maybe.
I take a deep breath and thank Ms. Threshelm for her time, and she nods. There’s no handshake, certainly not a hug—I would not have guessed Ms. Threshelm to be a hugger—before Emily directs me toward the front door.
“Wait!” I call. “Ms. Threshelm?” She turns back, already halfway into the next room.
“Can I get your autograph? It’s for my father—the one who introduced me to your books.”
She takes the notebook from me and writes something in it. When she hands it back, Emily grabs my elbow gently and steers me out the door. I tell her it was nice meeting her, and I’d love to interview her sometime, too.
“We’ll look forward to proofing the final interview,” she says. Surely Emily doesn’t actually work as her mother’s assistant. Is there a real Loretta? Maybe a whole team of Lorettas.
As Emily closes the door, I see someone clothed in black move swiftly behind her. I start to say I hadn’t realized anyone else was here, but the door is already shut. The interview is over. As I walk back to my car, I’m left with a familiar, conflicted feeling—glad to have escaped safely, disappointed once again that I haven’t been dragged into any literal twisting thickets.
When I reach my car, I sit in the driver’s seat and flip through my notepad, hoping there’s enough for the story. Some good quotes, plus the revelation that Ms. Threshelm is almost certainly losing her memory. I feel strange revealing it in print, but why else would she have summoned me here? When I’ve reassured myself that I have the bones of a story—it takes a few minutes, at most—I reach for my phone to let my husband know the interview is done and I’m heading back to the airport.
But my phone is not in my purse.
I empty the contents of my bag onto the passenger seat. I search my pockets. I look in the glove compartment of the rental car, in the trunk, under the seats. No phone.
They still have it; they have my life, the phone numbers of everyone I know and love, my husband, my father, my editor. It’s all backed up in some cloud, I’m sure, but the thought of it unravels me, what she could do with that information.
“No, no, no,” I mutter as I drive the two blocks to the house. The curtains are drawn when I ring the doorbell. There’s a pause like the house itself is holding its breath.
“Hello? Emily? Ms. Threshelm?” I ring again, wait. I try the handle, and the door opens.
I am in the wrong house.
Gone are the emerald chairs and twin sconces. Gone is the rust-colored rug, the morose painting, the white-lilied wallpaper. Gone is the parquet flooring; now, the floors are made of what looks to be a cheap imitation wood. There’s a grey mid-century modern couch that looks just like the one I have at home, along with the same pale blue rug I keep under it. The walls are as white as a sanitorium.
I run my fingers along the walls of the living room, then along the floor, hoping they’ll be sticky, maybe, looking for any sign that there was wallpaper or another kind of flooring here a moment ago.
“Hello?” Anxiety takes root like a weed in my chest. I walk through the kitchen—nothing on the shelves except a lone succulent with leaves like a baby’s plump fingers—then past it, throwing open each door. There’s a bare desk in one room, an empty dresser in another.
I am in the wrong house. I leave and look up at the facade, wood paneling on a custard-colored exterior. I circle the block. There are no other Tudors, no other houses that remotely resemble this one. How many people would it take to have unraveled the house so quickly? I enter the house again. I sit on the couch, my couch, wondering if I’ve imagined the whole interview, until the front door creaks open.
“Hello?” someone calls. Then there are three people in the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight. A white woman in a blazer and jeans and heels steps inside the house. She is holding a clipboard. I feel like I am losing my mind.
“Hello!” she says. “I’m Janice.”
“Ariana. Nice to meet you.”
“My clients and I have the two-thirty showing, but we can wait outside if you need a few more minutes.” The couple behind Janice looks at me nervously.
I shake my head. “I was just going.”
I walk back to my rental car wondering if that, too, will have moved in my absence. Back in the car, I remember that I still don’t have my phone, and a new panic sparks in my chest—surely they can’t actually have taken my phone and kept it?
But no, my phone is under the passenger seat, as if it’s been there the whole time. As if I threw my purse on the seat and the phone slipped there by itself. Maybe I did. But wasn’t I meant to go back to the house and find everything altered, our interview erased? Didn’t I lock the car when I went back into the house to look for my phone? Didn’t I already check under the seats? My mind is hazy as a dream, the wallpaper nagging at me, all those white lilies. Aren’t there white lilies in one of her earlier stories? And don’t the sisters in The Twisting Thicket sit in emerald, velvet chairs?
My phone buzzes, startling me. My husband, asking how the interview went.
It was… weird, I write back. But I’m done. Call you from the airport in forty-five?
He sends back a thumbs-up and a heart. I open my email to tell my editor the interview is over, but when I search “Threshelm,” there is not a single email in my inbox about the profile, nothing from firstname.lastname@example.org, no record of Loretta’s existence.The address for the house is no longer in my GPS history. Was my phone’s password on the nondisclosure form? I’m sure I’d remember writing it down.
I sit there for probably ten minutes, my mind blank as a sheet of paper, until I do what I have always done when my own life has been rendered unrecognizable. I call my father.
When he answers, he sounds like he’s just woken up from a nap.
“Dad? It’s Ari.”
One of the bad days, then. I imagine him in his assisted living facility, sitting on his shiny beige couch and looking up at his beige walls. I picture him staring at the floor and squinting like he does so often, when he knows he should be able to remember something but doesn’t.
“It’s Ariana. Your daughter?” I say it at least once a week, and every time, it comes out a question. Do I still belong to you, I want to ask, if you can’t remember who I am?
“I thought you said Mary. You know how my hearing’s going. How are you, my dear?”
A lucid day after all. I tell him everything I can remember, leaving out only Ms. Threshelm’s memory lapses. I will tell him later how he and she are the same. But for now, he’s laughing over the phone as I tell him she called me a narcissist. When I tell him about the empty house, my confusion, he believes me.
“Man,” my father says. “She really pulled one over on you!”
I flip back through my notes, trying to describe as precisely as possible what the house looked like before, after. I stop when I see it, a tight scrawl that’s not my own. Her autograph, though she hasn’t signed her name. Only in telling the story, she’s written, do we discover the truth.