"Crown of Branches" by Patti Dietrick; https://www.flickr.com/photos/pattidietrick/
About this image: "Marisol wears the fallen flowers of a queen palm like a cloak. Photo inspired by nature's beauty and how we connect with it." —PD
Welcome to Our Fiction Section!
"The Donor" by Brittany Maloy "Test" by Vivian Zenari "Dear Virgil" by Michael Tidemann "The End of the Story" by Nels Hanson "Unfinished" by Marie McCloskey
by Brittany Maloy
He knocked even though the house still belonged to him. Shelby sat at the dining room table and waited. She wondered how long it would take before he’d finally just let himself in.
He had started the knocking habit after their son was born. Nathan had wailed with colic, and Shelby had rocked him for hours before he finally drifted off to sleep only to be startled awake by a cheerful doorbell and a chipper salesman. Shelby had complained and cried to her husband. After that, anytime they had gone to someone’s home, Denver had always knocked.
His knock came again. He apparently would not be letting himself in. Shelby let out a long breath, flopped down the stairs and opened the door.
Denver’s six-five frame owned the front porch. “Hi there, Shelb.”
“You can just come in, you know. Don’t need to knock.” She let the door swing wide open behind her as she tromped back up the stairs.
Denver cleared his throat and shut the door. He followed her up the stairs and took a place at the table across from her. She opened up her folder and pulled out the list.
“How are you?” he asked.
She clicked a pen and touched her finger to the first item. “Fine.” She gave him a tight smile and returned her eyes to the list. Her skin felt rigid, pulled taut over her cheekbones, jaw bones, stretched thin over her forehead. She wished he wouldn’t get personal.
“I noticed the sign out front. I’m glad you’re using Mark to sell it.”
“Who else would I use?”
“Well...I...anybody, I guess.”
“I don’t know any other realtors.”
Denver nodded and threaded his fingers together in a knot on the table.
“So, I made a list and we can just work our way down it if that’s okay with you.”
“Fine. Fine. Fine with me.” He punctuated his words with his nods.
“Couches: living room and family room.”
He started into a shrug and lifted both thumbs. “One for you and one for me?”
“That’s what I was thinking. I’d like the ones in the living room.”
“Fine by me.”
“Are you ok with leaving major appliances with the house?”
“My apartment already has a refrigerator and things.”
“Great.” Not that Shelby cared. “Computer desk?”
Denver leaned back in his chair and hung his head. He seemed to be staring at some point in the linoleum. “I don’t really need it.”
“Well, I figured you might need the computer to finish with school and the desk should go with it.”
“Okay, fine. So then, why don’t you take the bedroom furniture?”
The bedroom furniture was about five more down on the list, but she could improvise. They continued like this, dissecting their house in two, room by room. They had three TVs. She would get one, he the other. The third they would sell. There were two cars, one for each of them. All of the garage tools belonged to him—he restored old cars. She wanted the Monet print; he took the framed poster of Yosemite.
“Kitchen supplies.” She kept her eyes on her list and gripped her pen hard. She had been waiting to bring this one up. “Canning supplies.”
He slung one of his arms over the back of his chair and glared at her. “Seriously?”
“It’s just an inventory. I wanted to go over every piece of it. To be fair.” Shelby noticed that some of the ink had smeared on the words “china hutch.” She must have run her thumb over the wet ink. She glanced at both her thumbs to see if she could find any ink remnants or gray smudges. She was surprised to find her hands clean.
“When have I ever in our twelve years...” he closed his eyes, bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose.
He was calming himself. Shelby could tell. It was unnecessary. He could let her have it. He should let her have it. She would take it.
He raised his hand in surrender. “Goes to you. Canning’s always been your domain.”
She always had done the canning—jams in the late summer, applesauce in the fall. But she didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. It had been her canning, the massive stockpot on the stove boiling over that had distracted her and pulled her away. She’d only been gone a fraction of a moment. One inhale and one exhale. That was all. Two flicks of the wrist to turn the burners down. Nathan hadn’t even been in the bathroom when she’d left.
“Alright.” She accepted his offer to avoid argument, but she wished for more accusation. It was deserved. He had known about the livid, demanding stockpot.
“What was it?” he had asked her at the hospital. His voice had been low and growling. “What was it that was so goddamned important that you had to leave the water running?”
It had taken her a full two minutes to get her voice under control so that she could answer him. “The applesauce.”
Now she looked Denver in the eyes for the next item. “Toaster oven.”
They completed the list, every single thing except for the last group—Nathan’s room. Shelby clicked her pen and set it down.
“I think I’ll sell his things.”
Denver stood and leaned against the kitchen island bar. “Okay.”
Everything remained in perfect order in Nathan’s room since Denver left for over a month. She entered it nightly for her ritual rocking and sobbing on his bedroom floor. She would recall every moment, sound, smell, emotion—the guilt, the heavy, stifling, anchoring, meditative guilt. She welcomed the suffocation.
“Yeah, that’s okay. That makes sense,” Denver said.
She wanted to say that she was sorry but she’d never been able to say the word. It was so small, so meaningless, so empty. It did little to describe the scraping that still went on inside her like someone carved at her but couldn’t get her clean.
“Have you done anything to it yet?” he asked.
What did he even mean, done anything to it? What did he expect her to do? Burn it?
She shook her head.
“I’d like to take a look. Maybe take something...to remember. That okay by you?”
She took a long blink. She resented him for putting her in this position as if she had some kind of imaginary authority. “You don’t need to ask permission. He was your son too. It’s yours. I’m not in charge.”
He folded his arms over his chest and his face hardened into a long, cold glare. “That so? Could’ve fooled me.”
There it was. He was still angry about her decision. All of his easy politeness was just a thin veneer. She felt too tired to argue or defend herself. In a way she almost embraced his condemnation. It felt good to be beaten.
She folded her arms close to her chest and sank back into the wooden chair. He left the room and walked down the hall into Nathan’s room. Shelby could almost feel the air pressure change in the house when Denver opened that door and she found it hard to breathe. The wailing grief always lurking in a corner clutched at her throat and invaded her chest cavity. She remembered her toddler face down in the tub of shallow water, his chestnut hair, wet with sweat, curling at the base of his neck. His right arm had been twisted behind his back, his plump palm still pink with life.
Denver had met her at the hospital.
“What was it? What was it that was so goddamned important...”
It hadn’t been more important. Shelby had realized long ago that she was a multi-tasker. When she waited, she itched to be engaged in something. Every spare moment of everyday, she crammed something else in, even if it was just part of something else. Half of a hem on a dress, unloading the dishwasher but leaving the dirty dishes in the sink, folding half the laundry. Even if she completed part of the task at midnight before she dropped into bed, there would be that much less for her to do the next day. She could can applesauce and get Nathan’s bath going at the same time.
Nathan’s limp body brought her life to a standstill. The days and weeks still passed, but Shelby remained motionless. She had to force herself to eat occasionally. She lost 40 pounds. She didn’t bother to dust or vacuum or cook dinners. She just sat and let time catch up with her after all of her scurrying around.
“So goddamned important...”
At first, Shelby had been furious at Denver’s accusation. She had been a completely engaged mother, taking Nathan to Little Gym classes, to the zoo, long walks, play dates. Nathan was her sun.
“Applesauce? Applesauce? You left for applesauce?”
“How dare you! How dare you blame me for this? I was only gone a second! It was an accident!” She hadn’t bothered to control her voice then. She had blubbered and snorted her words out. Tears mixed with her snot and her shoulder-length hair falling into her face. She hadn’t cried like that since she was a child.
“Who else do I blame? You were the one that was there!”
A hospital staff member had come to quiet them, directing them out of the waiting room and into a dark unused hospital room instead.
But of course Denver had been right. She was to blame. She had murdered her son. Even if it had been inadvertent, it was still murder. And so she found herself egging Denver on, fighting back, encouraging his insults and attacks. It was not enough to feel the pain of losing her son. She deserved so much more.
Shelby stood from the table to stretch and wandered over to the living room window. She had always loved this room. It always seemed to be filled with light with its wide windows and vaulted ceiling. Now the room and the world stood awash in gray with a fall storm approaching. The clouds billowed full of promised stinging rain and the wind forced the sapling in their front yard to bend, its leaves shuddering and sometimes flitting off limbs, scuttling away in the wind. The metal For Sale sign in the yard whipped around and banged into its wood post.
Shelby turned and picked up a stray box off the floor and wandered down the hall toward Nathan’s room. She thought Denver might want to fill it with a few of Nathan’s things.
Nathan’s door was only open a crack. Shelby peered through the slit and witnessed Denver slowly rocking in the padded rocking chair. Tears squeezed out the corners of his closed eyes. Shelby backed away but left the box near the door.
So goddamned important.
Denver’s tune had changed when the nurse brought them in to see Nathan’s body. A counselor on staff also attended them. Shelby had been the first to rush over and touch his hair, his silky, fine hair. She could hardly breathe between her sobs. Nathan was still connected to the IVs, wires, monitors, and had a tube down his throat. They had already signed the papers to turn everything off. Soon the doctors would unplug, switch off and declare time of death.
To this day Shelby didn’t understand why he did it, but in that quiet moment, Denver had put his hands on Shelby’s shoulders, turned her around and pulled her into his chest. He wrapped his thick arms around her. He rested his cheek on the top of her head. She felt his arms tremble with his own sobs.
Shelby felt sickened. How could he comfort his own son’s murderer? She did not deserve the gift of his gentleness and shared misery. She pulled away and turned back to her son, pale and lifeless. A machine doing all his breathing for him. She had taught Nathan to crawl, walk, talk, speak. He knew his colors, some letters and numbers. Now he couldn’t even breathe on his own.
“Mr. and Mrs. Pasco?” A young doctor stood in the doorway of the dimly lit room. A counselor in a trim pants suit stood behind him. The doctor spoke with a hushed, reverent voice and held a clipboard with some papers on it in one hand, a pen in the other. “I know this is a very difficult time for you both, but I have to ask...have either of you thought at all about organ donation?”
“No.” Denver’s voice, loud and sharp made Shelby jump. “Just...” he lowered his voice some. “Just...no.” He placed his wide hand over Nathan’s chest. Denver’s stretched out fingers spanned the entire width of his son’s torso. “I just...I can’t. I don’t want him all cut up.”
The counselor tucked her long bangs behind one ear and stepped forward. "You both would be making a huge difference to some other parents out there. Turning this tragedy into—"
"Look, I just can’t." Denver held up his hand. "I know it’s not rational. I just—" his voice broke.
The counselor nodded and stepped back, clasping her hands together in front of her.
“We could give you a moment alone,” the doctor said. “For you and your wife to discuss it.”
“There’s nothing to discuss.”
Shelby recognized the stubborn determination in her husband’s voice. He had made up his mind on his deceased son’s body.
“Denver?” A little voice from a little woman peeking into the room said. “Dad got your text. Is everything OK, honey?”
Denver touched his fingertips to his forehead. “Oh God, I forgot I texted my parents.”
“When?” Shelby said.
"I was in the middle of a conversation with them when you called. I—"
“Denver? Is Nathan alright?” His mother persisted. She shuffled over into the middle of the doorway and stood on tiptoe. Then she covered her mouth but failed to stifle her wail.
In two strides, Denver circumnavigated the doctor and counselor, enveloped his mother in his arms and led her out into the hall.
Shelby knew what she had to do. She stepped around the bed and walked over to the doctor. She took the pen and clipboard from his hands and signed her name.
The doctor and counselor had showered her in accolades of gratitude, but she hadn’t done it for the praise. When she later informed Denver of her decision she saw the rage in his eyes. She saw it in his clenched fists, bulging veins and tendons in his arms, the shifting jaw muscle as he ground his teeth. She saw hatred etched into every one of his features. It was now as it should be.
Shelby wandered around the living room, winding her way around boxes and knick knacks on the floor. There was so much left to do. So much organizing and packing and moving and remembering and liquidating and forgetting. She gazed into the half-empty display case. The golden swans were Denver’s and the two decorative china plates belonged to his great-grandmother. She had already packed the two Dresden figurines from her grandmother.
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed movement out the front window. The mailman paused by the mailbox, thrust in her mail, shut the door and moved on. Shelby opened the front door and pulled her sweater close around her even though the wind did its best to rip it from her. A light rain sprinkled, but it came at her sideways and felt more like needles pricking her than water droplets.
She sorted through the envelopes as she wandered away from the mailbox, through the yard, heading back for the front door. Most were bills, two advertisements and one other letter that demanded her attention. It was in an envelope from the hospital. It didn’t look like a bill since it was not a window envelope. Plus, with the help of her parents and Denver’s, she thought they had paid all the hospital bills for Nathan.
Pausing in the middle of the yard, she tore open the envelope to find a letter addressed to “Dear Donor Family.” The letter was written in pen with a conscientious cursive:
I wanted to thank you for your sacrifice and for giving my little girl a heart. You are an answer to our prayers!
My daughter, Mariska, was born with only one chamber in her heart. While she made it through the first year of her life (with four operations), when she hit 18 months, her heart began to fail. I will spare you the details of the long nights at the hospital, the numerous medications, the tests and diagnosis and the doctors we dealt with. And the fear that we might end up losing our child. We lived with that fear everyday. Then one day we had to face that fear. The doctors told us that if Mariska didn’t receive a new heart in the next three months, she would die. I have never felt such darkness and despair. I was completely helpless. I’ve never prayed so hard in my life and then a miracle happened. About a month ago, we were notified that Mariska would get a second chance at her life because of your generosity. This new heart will buy her time until she needs an adult one and we will begin this process again. You have given Mariska her childhood.
I don’t know why God chose to take your child away and let mine live. I can’t even begin to imagine the pain you must feel and I know your child can never be replaced. I hope you might find some comfort in knowing that your tragedy ushered in a miracle for our Mariska.
They say that angels walk among us right here on earth. I think you must be one of them.
The letter held no signature, only unearned praise. Would this mother say the same things to her if she knew how Nathan had died? A perfectly healthy boy. Flawless. Except for the mother he was born to.
Shelby stood in the middle of the yard, reading over the words again even though the rain fell vertically now in large pregnant drops, flattening her hair, running down her face, darkening the colors of her clothes.
She hadn’t signed the donor papers for this. She hadn’t thought about the children her signature would save. It was to invoke her condemnation. Yet this letter elevated her. Would there be other letters for the other children that Nathan’s organs had saved? Her knees buckled. She sank to the ground, the grass juice seeping through the fabric of her pants. She squeezed her hand into a fist, crumpling half of the letter. The rain smattered and smeared the words. Even if the water eradicated the paper, it could not erase this mother’s thoughts, her praise, her gratitude, her esteem.
Shelby looked up into the falling water, angry. She rejected any sort of redemption or hope. She insisted on keeping house with the damned. She could accept nothing else. The water kept falling as if God had forgotten to stop watering His flowers even though the pot overflowed.
“Shelby!” Denver called to her from the front door.
She hung her head and fell to her side on the grass. She curled around the letter.
“Shelby!” Denver kneeled by her, scooped her up and tried to get her to stand. “My God, Shelby! What’s wrong with you?”
She let him pull her to her feet and lead her back into the house. He sat her on the couch in the living room and left her there, returning in a few moments with a blanket he unearthed from a box somewhere. He draped it around her shoulders.
“What were you doing out there? Are you feeling all right?”
“What’s this?” He touched the crumpled paper in her hand. She didn’t know what happened to the rest of her mail. Probably left out on the lawn, melting in the rain.
She let him take it, pull it out from its balled up shape, read what was left of the words. She cringed a little. She hoped he fostered his grudge and would not give way to any sort of forgiveness. She wasn’t sure she could take that.
An "angel," the woman had called her. She understood the mother’s tortured fear, wondering if her daughter would live or die. She could feel the mother’s long awaited relief, knowing her daughter would now live for years until she outgrew Nathan’s heart and needed an adult one. Another donor would be required to maintain Mariska’s life, another death so that she might live. And the mother would board the next anxious roller coaster of hope and despair. Shelby’s choice to inflict pain had inadvertently granted grace to another family. Could redemption accidentally come even from an act of malice?
Denver rubbed his hand across his mouth and then his forehead. He then held onto the letter with both hands and seemed to be reading it again. He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. Finally he released the letter from one hand, letting it dangle from the other. Turning toward her, he let it fall to the floor and he gathered one of her cold, wet, cleansed hands. He cradled her fist in his hands, lowered his head and kissed it.
She let him.
Bio- Brittany Maloy is a high school English teacher by day, aspiring writer by night. This is her second time publishing with The Write Place at the Write Time. She has also published with The Garbanzo Literary Journal and has a YA novel under contract with an agent.
by Vivian Zenari
The equation is a linear inequality: 5(n+10)≤20. Since Mitch began tutoring her, she has learned to see these equations in a different light. An easier light.
Across the table, Mitch flashes her an encouraging smile. “So, do you need a hint?”
Raziah pretends to change the color of Mitch’s eyes. They turn blue. She should think about the math question in front of her on the dining-room table. Stop it. His eyes turn brown, their natural color.
He encourages with smiles and by beginning his sentences with vague words such as “so” or “okay." Sometimes the encouragement signals approval for her line of reasoning. Other times the encouragement prepares her for starting over. When Mitch gives encouragement, she changes the color of his eyes or stares at his firm pink lips. Her body lightens as though she is arcing off a ski-jump. Her stomach falls, then floats up.
"Okay, I think you need a hint.” Mitch puts the tip of his pencil next to the question. Mitch uses wooden pencils instead of mechanical pencils. The leads of mechanical pencils are thin cylinders. Wooden pencils have tips like cones—"Conical," Mitch said once, "conics is something you might have to study in high school." Mitch’s conical lead touches the first parenthesis in the equation. "If a number is outside the parentheses, you can multiply what’s inside the parentheses with that number.”
A soft thud stops everything. A heavy coat swishes at the back door followed by the stamping of boots and the thump of a briefcase on the back stairs. Her father Damek is home. His feet touch the tiled steps, the hardwood in the hallway, the tiles in the kitchen, the hardwood of the dining room.
“Hi, Raz.” He looks at Mitch. “Hi, there.”
“Hi, there.” Mitch uses the same words her father used, but speaks them less quickly. Mitch is deliberate, gentle, sleek, and easy-going. Damek is tentative, edgy, solid, and old-fashioned. Mitch wants to be an ecologist; Damek is a lawyer. Mitch is pale, and her father is dark. Sometimes Raziah exchanges their eye colors. Mitch becomes blue-eyed and Damek becomes brown-eyed.
“Sorry I’m late,” Damek says.
“You aren’t slipping into your old habits, are you, Dad?”
“No. A long-winded conference call, that’s all.”
He has been so good at coming home for supper. Raziah’s mother Adile even set a place for him. Raziah’s mother went out after clearing the table but without doing the dishes—she was in too much of a rush. Raziah and Mitch bunched the tablecloth into a pile at her father's end of the table so they could work.
“What was for supper?”
“Mitch’s special,” Raziah says, “what else?”
“Circassian chicken,” Damek says. To Mitch he says, “You’re getting spoiled.”
Mitch says, “I know.”
“But he deserves it, don’t you think, Dad?” Raziah says.
“Sure.” Her father switches his attention from Mitch to Raziah. “If you pass math, that is.”
“Now I only have to pass math? You said I needed honors.”
“Honors is the equivalent of passing nowadays,” Damek says. “Anyway, I thought you had an 85 average or something.”
Raziah says, “Eighty-three.”
“And your final exam is coming up right away,” Damek says.
“In six days,” Raziah says.
“Are you ready?”
“I think so. What do you think, Mitch?”
“I think she’ll do great.” Mitch lobs Raziah his encouraging smile. “I’m giving her another practice exam tonight. I’ll mark it right away so she can look at it over the weekend.”
“This is Mitch’s last day, then,” Damek says.
“My last day as Raziah’s tutor,” Mitch says. “I’m still, you know, in existence.”
Her father’s lips twitch. “Thank you for the clarification.”
Raziah is switching Mitch’s and her father’s eye colors around, so she misses something her father says to her. “What?”
“I said, 'Where’s your mother?'”
“She took Annanne to visit Auntie Kayra.” Raziah’s Annanne lives with one of Raziah’s other aunties now, but sometimes Raziah’s mother drives Annanne on errands or for visits. Annanne used to live with Raziah and her parents. Annanne still likes having Raziah’s mother take her places, for old time’s sake.
“There are leftovers,” Mitch says.
“You didn’t eat it all, then?”
“I made sure I didn’t,” Mitch says.
“You resisted the urge,” Damek says.
“This time, anyway.”
As her father clatters in the kitchen over the leftovers, Raziah returns to the math problem. She is anxious about the math exam. She has to get back to work. She says that out loud.
“Good idea,” Mitch says.
Raziah solves the problem. Mitch's lips move silently as he reads the problem. Mitch draws a big happy face at the top of the page. “Now you’re ready for the mock exam.”
She has been writing mock exams for three weeks, but this will be the last one with him. She feels nervous. She says that out loud.
“You’ve been doing great on them. Just take each question one at a time, like you’ve been doing.”
Once Mitch told Raziah his theory about her. She rushed through math questions because she knew that after one question would be another question, then another. “The secret,” Mitch said, “is to treat each question on its own. Give each question its own space. The other questions aren’t going anywhere. They will be there waiting for you when the time comes.” She replied that she has ADD, but Mitch answered, “I have a bit of that too. But one of my learning coaches in junior high helped me. After I understood myself, I was able to adjust and handle things much better.”
Things have gotten better, yes. The friends who once seemed so fun and funny now belong to a stupider life. Raziah’s mother seems calmer now. She had been in a permanent state of freak-out when Raziah used to come home late all the time, but now Raziah keeps curfew. Raziah gets along better with her father. They used to fight like cats and dogs. The lowest point was the day he took her computer away and moved her bedroom from the basement to Annanne’s old room across from her parents’ room so he could watch her. Now she never fights with Damek. Damek is nicer to her mother—fewer arguments, no arguments, really. Maybe Raziah can move back downstairs. With no more fighting, Annanne might want to live with them again. Raziah misses seeing Annanne sitting in the chair by the piano while Raziah practiced. Maybe Raziah will take piano lessons again.
“Ready for your mock exam?”
“Oh." He has asked that question twice, but she has just noticed it. "Yes.”
“You need a break first, I think.”
“Break” is Mitch and Raziah’s code word for hot chocolate and Adile’s baking. At break, Raziah puts the hot chocolate and baking on the table and Mitch sets up the next stage of the evening’s lesson.
In the kitchen, Raziah puts cocoa, milk, and sugar on the counter next to the oven. She has to work around her father, who scrapes microwaved food onto his plate.
“Don’t forget the cornstarch.” Raziah’s dad taught her the right way to make hot chocolate: not from a mix but with cocoa powder, sugar, and milk cooked on the stovetop with a bit of cornstarch to thicken it. Since he is home, Raziah takes out three mugs. Raziah measures the ingredients into a pot and turns on the burner. As for sweets, Raziah knows her mother baked late last night. Raziah finds the shortbread in a Tupperware container. Last night Raziah went into the kitchen to drink a glass of water before bed and her mother was in the pantry, kneeling to reach the baking things on the lower shelf. Raziah told her mother that it was crazy to be baking at that time of night. Her mother tucked a bit of hair behind her ear and said that she knew she was crazy. Raziah fell asleep to the smell of hot shortbread.
Raziah places three mugs of hot chocolate on the table with a dinner plate of shortbread. Her father has disappeared.
“Why don’t you get started on the exam? I’ll go look for your dad and bring him his snack. We’re running a bit late now.”
She is nervous now. It's because the mock exam is about to start. “He's probably in the computer room.”
“No doubt.” Mitch positions the exam in front of her. “Sit. And start....”—he looks down at his cell phone—“now.”
Raziah watches as Mitch, a mug and a cookie in each hand, glides down the hallway to the computer room. Raziah looks down at the mock exam and picks up her wooden pencil. Raziah feels shaky. Maybe it's because she had too much sugar. She ate three cookies while getting the hot chocolate ready. That must be it.
The exam ends up being not half-bad. The questions aren’t grouped in the same order as they have been in the other mock exams, but that doesn’t bother her much. Mitch warned her that it was dangerous to feel too comfortable about an exam, so he often changed the order of sections around. The switching is something she has learned to handle.
She finishes the exam with time left over to look things over, and she starts to, but she can’t concentrate. The answers she checks seem correct. She has heard that with multiple choice people sometimes change right answers to wrong answers. Ten minutes are left before time is up. She has to go pee. She promised herself not to go pee during a mock exam. But the exam is over now. She’s done. She can wait, or she can go do something. Make a choice.
She walks from the dining room to the kitchen to the hallway. When she was little, she used to pretend to ski everywhere. She got this idea from watching skiing on TV for the Winter Olympics. She feels the urge to ski down the hallway to the computer room. Instead of picking up her feet to walk, she slides them forward on the hardwood floor. She is wearing tube socks, which are the perfect kind of socks for this. The floor is not very slippery today, so she has to stretch her arms out and push herself forward with her hands against the wall. She sock-skis around the right-angle turn in the hallway. The glass door of the computer room is past the broom closet door. Raziah’s father replaced the computer room door with a French door the day after he found out that she was bullying some kids online. Maybe he will stop monitoring her. She doesn’t mind the French door, though. She can get used to things.
She slides herself to the computer room and looks through the glass. The computer desk stands directly across from the door. The computer monitor is on, but the lights are off, and no one is sitting in the chair. Two mugs rest by the keyboard on the computer desk.
There. It is happening.
Raziah walks to the end of the hallway. She stops at the wall. Her room is to her right, the door open, but she doesn’t go in. She stays where she is. She can stay here in front of this wall for as long as she wants. She can still write her math final, and get honors, and go to university, and that will be that. They have all had their turns, her mother, her father, Annanne, her teachers, her friends, Mitch. It’s her turn to decide.
The computer room used to be Raziah’s baby room, before Raziah moved downstairs and Annanne moved upstairs. Damek fixed the room up himself. She remembers the old wallpaper. It had pink and blue teddy-bears. As Damek worked, long thick ribbons of wallpaper spilled in loops on the floor. The loops of paper on the floor looked like the spirals of her hair on the hairstylist’s floor two weeks ago. Raziah’s dark curls had dropped around her on the salon’s white tiles. Her head feels lighter without the burden.
Raziah used to daydream about Mitch. Usually her fantasy involved being in a skiing tournament in the Rocky Mountains, and she and Mitch were competing in a match race. Even though she was a girl, their skill levels were equal, so nobody could predict who would win. The night before the race, she and Mitch danced together in the hotel nightclub, red and orange lights strobing across the lines and angles of their bodies, before going to their hotels rooms for an early night. When she reached the door of her room she decided to wish him luck, and she went to his room. His door was open, and she walked in, and he came out of the shower, and the room filled with steam. Mitch emerged from a white cloud, and he was naked.
Someone says, “Raziah.” Mitch and her father stand in the hallway outside her parents' bedroom. Raziah doesn’t know who spoke. It doesn’t matter who. It’s all the same to her.
Bio- Vivian Zenari has published most recently in The Tomato, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, and The Richest. She lives, works, and writes in Edmonton, Alberta.
by Michael Tidemann
“So how much wood does he need split?” Virgil Earp and his father Nicholas were sitting at the kitchen table sharing a cup of morning coffee, the sun just breaking over the rolling Iowa prairie to the east.
“Looks to be a couple cords—maybe three.” Nicholas stroked his beard and sharpened his keen Irish eye at his son, now nearly his height at just sixteen. “I figures it’ll maybe take you the rest of the day.”
Virgil nodded and folded his hands on the table as he considered his father’s proposition. “How much is Mr. Rysdam paying me?”
Nicholas leaned back in his chair and cast an appraising eye at his son. “Nothing. I just offered you to help. It’s only the neighborly thing to do.”
“Yes, sir.” Nicholas nodded. Though he was sixteen and already a strapping lad, he well-remembered his father’s razor strop from a few years before. “Can Wyatt help?”
“Him I got diggin’ garden. ‘Sides, he’s a might small to be splittin’ all that much wood.”
“Well, all right.”
“It’ll not be that bad. I understand Mrs. Rysdam is quite the baker. She’ll make sure to feed you right. ‘Sides that, they got a daughter nearly your age.”
“Oh?” Virgil’s eyebrows curlicued his sudden interest.
“Ellen, I think her name is. Sixteen and pretty as those tulips poppin’ up in the Rysdams’ front yard.”
“I’ll hurry right over there then.”
“You do that, Son,” said Nicholas, clapping his son on the shoulder. “And be sure to eat an extra helpin’ of that good Dutch cookin’ for me.”
Virgil saw no daughter—only a huge pile of stumps in the Rysdam’s back yard where Mr. Rysdam had led him. The house had the fanciful raised front of an Amsterdam row house, only it was here in the middle of the Iowa prairie. Tulips—yellow, red, orange—poked from the rich, black soil, a testament to the Rysdam’s neatness and hard work.
“Earp,” said Mr. Rysdam, hand on his hips. “That don’t sound Dutch to me.”
“No, sir. We’re Irish.”
“Irish!” roared Rysdam, as though Virgil had uttered a curse. Then he broke into a disparaging chuckle. “So how did an Irishman such as your father manage to find himself in a colony of Hollanders?”
“He bought a farm outside of town,” Virgil explained, then nodding back at their imposing three-chimnied, two-story brick home, added, “and then the house here.”
“I see.” Rysdam nodded thoughtfully, not to be daunted by another man’s wealth. “Well, I guess the world needs Irishmen too.”
“Still. If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
Virgil chuckled but when Mr. Rysdam didn’t, he sobered. ”I’ll get right to this here wood, sir.”
“Yes, you do that. Give it your Irish best. My wife she’ll serve you dinner ‘bout noon.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As Mr. Rysdam left, Virgil hefted the eight-pound maul, thinking of how he would rather drive it through Rysdam’s skull. But no, there was no time for thinking that way, so he rolled the biggest chunk he could find from the pile for a splitting stump then grabbed a mid-sized chunk to set atop it. Fingering the maul edge to test its sharpness, he eyed a slight crack in the oak stump, raised the maul, and brought it down soundly, cleaving the chunk in two. He picked up the split chunk from the ground and raised his maul and split it again.
By a little before noon, he had quarter split and stacked a full cord along the Rysdam’s back fence, maybe a third of the wood in the pile. Most was oak, along with a little walnut and cottonwood and hickory. He was just working up a good sweat when a sweet female voice called out, “Oh, Virgil?”
He turned in mid-swing and there she was—eyes the same blue as Delft china, blond pigtails trailing over her back. Her haltered dress, intended to hide her figure, didn’t do a very good job of it as she stood there, fresh, rosy-cheeked and perky-bosomed, already a woman despite her tender sixteen years.
“Ellen?” Virgil answered, slowly setting down his maul.
“Yes.” She clasped her hands in front of her and laughed. “How did you know my name?”
“My father told me,” Virgil confessed. “Nicholas Earp.”
“Oh, Mr. Earp.” Ellen laughed, cheeks reddened the same hue as the tulips behind her. “Well, Virgil...would you like some dinner?”
“I’d love some dinner,” he answered, then followed her eagerly inside.
The Rysdam kitchen was the picture of tidiness and neatness—yellows and blues and white cascading together in a kaleidoscope of bright and gaudy colors only the Dutch would dare mix together. Mrs. Rysdam turned from the kitchen stove, just as rosy-cheeked as her daughter and far plumper. “You like the Dutch pastries, yes?” Mrs. Rysdam set a plate of the most delicious-looking pastries Virgil had ever seen—so delicious that for a brief moment he had forgotten Ellen. “We have a roast beef and potatoes with carrots and turnips too.”
Mr. Rysdam sat in a chair at the end of the trestle table while Virgil sat on a bench across from Ellen as Mrs. Rysdam set heaping, steaming bowls on the table then seated herself at the other end of the table. Virgil reached for a pastry but his hand hadn’t even reached the plate before Mr. Rysdam grunted. “First, we pray.”
“Oh,” said Virgil, shame-faced that he hadn’t minded his manners.
Mr. Rysdam picked up a well-worn Bible from the table and read. “'And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.'” Mr. Rysdam read on and on and on. He read so long that steam no longer rose from the food and Virgil wondered if it would be cold before Mr. Rysdam finished. The answer came when Mr. Rysdam stopped reading and closed his Bible and cast an imperious eye at Virgil. “So what faith are you?”
As far as Virgil knew, they didn’t have any faith. The only times he had seen the inside of a church were when he had been baptized then later confirmed. Other than that, he figured the only times would be when he married or died. “Christian,” he said, figuring that was pretty safe.
“I know you’re Christian. Everybody’s Christian, but for the Jews of course. But there are Godly Christians and those who are not Godly. So which are you?”
“Godly?” Virgil said, making it sound like a question.
Mr. Rysdam gripped the arms of his chair, losing patience. “And which sect does your family belong to?”
Virgil knew that the Dutch were all members of the Reformed Church while the Earps, like many of their Scotch-Irish brethren, were Catholic. As he glanced across the table at Ellen, the lie crept from his lips before he could pull it back. “Reformed.”
“Oh? And which church.”
“I, uh, guess we haven’t had a chance to find a church just yet.”
“I see. Well if you’re a member of the Reformed Church, then you’ll have to come to ours.”
“Yes, sir,” Virgil muttered.
The food was better than it looked—far better. Virgil ate as many pastries as his stomach could hold, and when they were done he had all he could do to walk to the woodpile and start swinging the maul again.
“At least he works,” Mr. Rysdam said to Ellen whom he called back inside the house, no doubt to make her safe from an errant, drunken, Catholic Irishman.
Virgil finally finished splitting and stacking three full cords by nightfall, then looking forlornly at the Rysdam’s house, picked up his maul and headed home, starlight and a full moon guiding him to his house.
“So how was the woodcutting?” Nicholas asked, just sitting down to supper. Virgil’s older brothers were there too—Newton and James—along with his younger brother Wyatt and sister Martha and mother Virginia.
“Oh, all right.” Virgil rubbed the calluses just starting to form on his palms from a full day of wood splitting.
“And how was the Rysdam’s daughter?” Newton asked, a wicked smile curling clear to his eyes.
“Oh, all right,” said Virgil.
“Well I’m glad everything’s 'all right,'” said Nicholas, passing the platter of corned beef and cabbage without bothering with a prayer first as opposed to the Rysdams.
“Are we still Catholic, Father?” Virgil asked.
Nicholas looked off thoughtfully. “I suppose we are.”
“Would it be okay if I joined the Reformed Church?”
Nicholas looked as his son as though he had gone a little crazy. “I don’t see that it would hurt anything—as long as you keeping working hard.” He bit into his corned beef. “What brought on this idea of joining the Reformed Church?”
“I’ll bet it has something to do with that Dutch girl,” said James.
Nicholas switched his gaze from James to Virgil. “Well, did it?”
Virgil looked off in the general direction of the Rysdams’ home. “Maybe.”
That night, after tossing and turning for several hours, thinking only of Ellen, Virgil heard a light tapping. He cracked open his eyes and looked out at Ellen Rysdam pressing her face against his window. He pulled himself out of bed and opened the door to the balcony where she stood—quiet, anxious, furtive. “Ellen,” he whispered, not wanting to wake the rest of the family. “What are you doing here?”
Even in the pale moonlight, her eyes were blue. Bluer than blue, they were part of the night sky itself. She wore only a filmy nightgown and bedroom slippers as though she had just crept out of bed herself. “I had to see you, Virgil.” Her breath was humid, her eyes twinkling wondrously up into his. “I had to knock on all your brothers’ windows until I found yours.”
“We’d both be in trouble if my parents knew you were here.” That didn’t stop him, however, from taking her shoulders in his hands, feeling their soft warmth in the moonlight, then the warmth of her body as he edged closer.
“I don’t care,” she said wondrously. She didn’t care either as he leaned over to kiss her, his lips drawing her life from her then returning it, back and forth, until it seemed they could kiss no more. “Oh Virgil,” she said, resting her head on his chest. “I want you so much. What will we do?”
They met upstairs on the porch every night after that, and when he realized his brothers’ silence was due to prying eyes, he and Ellen met under a bur oak on a hilltop meadow. As words turned to kisses then more one night, her blue eyes worried with fear. “We can’t go any further, Virgil.”
His hand drew reluctantly away from her breast. “Why not?”
“We’re not married,” she said, her eyes reflecting a million stars.
“But we can’t get married. We’re only sixteen.”
“Maybe we could go to the courthouse in Knoxville where no one knows us.”
The next morning, Virgil Earp and Ellen Rysdam, both sixteen, told their parents they were going to visit friends. That afternoon, Walter Earp and Ellen Donahoo, both conveniently eighteen, were married in the Marion County Courthouse in Knoxville.
If that bur oak had had eyes, oh what a tale it could have told—of a young couple holding and clasping each other from dusk to dawn, of whispered I-love-you's drifting out into the eternal night to the stars and beyond. They still lived with their parents by day, but every night, beneath the bur oak, they were Mr. and Mrs. Earp—in every way.
“I think I’m pregnant,” Ellen told Virgil an early October night. It was still warm, the moon haloing their figures beneath the bur oak.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Her eyes brimmed, happy and afraid. “Oh Virgil, what will we do now?”
Virgil had no answer for her, and when Nellie Jane came into the world the summer of 1862 and Ellen finally revealed the father, Mr. Rysdam began a slow but steady walk, shotgun loaded with double-ought buck, toward the Earp house. Figuring he had a better chance against the rebs than Mr. Rysdam, Virgil fled that night to Monmouth, Illinois where he joined the 83rd Regiment of Illinois Volunteers.
“I’m sorry, Ellen,” Mr. Rysdam told his sobbing daughter. “You should be proud though that he died for the Union cause.”
“My baby no longer has a father.”
“We’ll move west, to Kansas. We can start a new life there. You and Nellie Jane too.”
And so, as Virgil Earp fought in major engagements, including one against Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest near Fort Donelson in 1863, the Rysdams moved to Kansas then later Oregon then Washington Territory. When Virgil finally mustered out at Nashville June 24, 1865, he returned to Pella to learn Ellen and Nellie Jean had left with the Rysdams, leaving no word of where they had gone. Unknown to Virgil, Mr. Rysdam had declared an end to their marriage with the lie about his death.
Many years later, Nellie Jane was reading a dime novel about the Gunfight at OK Corrall between Morgan, Wyatt, and United States Deputy Marshal Virgil Earp and Doc Holiday and the Clanton gang. Virgil had come away with a leg wound, only to later be drygulched by five shotgun blasts in an arm and above the groin. The next brother to fall was Morgan, murdered as he stood beside his brother Wyatt at Hatch’s billiard parlor. Wyatt took revenge for his brothers.
Ellen opened her front door to see her daughter standing there with a peculiar look on her face, a dime store novel in hand.
“What is it, Nellie Jane?”
"You told me father's last name was Earp, yes?"
"Yes. What's all this about, dear girl?"
"An Earp like the men in these stories?"
Nellie Jane handed her mother the novel. Ellen flipped through, her hands starting to tremble a bit when she recognized Wyatt's name first.
"Well, I'll be... Yes...that was his family."
Nellie Jane's eyes glistened in hopeful confirmation. "Wasn't father's first name 'Virgil'?"
Ellen locked onto her daughter's fixed gaze as if to steady herself. When she could do so, she managed a slight nod.
“Then, Mother—he’s still alive.”
The book fell from Ellen's hands. Nellie Jane rushed forward to both embrace and support her mother as they made their way inside. When her mind stopped spinning, Ellen's face radiated the rosy glow of her youth, and she smiled into the palm of her hand that she'd raised to her cover her mouth in shock and relief. With her daughter by her side, she sat down to write the first letter to her husband after thirty-seven years. Dear Virgil...
It was Virgil’s third wife Allie who urged him to go to Portland to visit the wife and child he hadn’t seen since they were seventeen. When Virgil later passed during a pneumonia epidemic in Goldfield, Nevada, October 19, 1905, Allie agreed with Nellie Jane’s request to have his remains shipped to her family’s burial plot at Riverview Cemetery in Portland where he now rests beside his first wife and daughter. Allie, who died many years later in Los Angeles, November 11, 1947, was buried with her sister-in-law Adelia Earp Edwards.
Bio- Michael Tidemann lives in Estherville, IA where he is struggling to keep the cantaloupes in his garden alive. His nonfiction has appeared in Overdrive, Western Business, Writer's Journal, Snowmobile, Truckers' News, Truckers USA, The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Des Moines Register. His fiction has appeared in Black Hills Monthly Magazine, The Longneck, Struggle, and The Write Place at the Write Time. His short story collection, The Elk, was recently reviewed in The Bismarck Tribune. His author page is available at amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann.
The End of the Story
by Nels Hanson
In 196_ in V____ , my cousin and I arrived at his house in town one October Friday after high school and my cousin’s mother sat at the breakfast table grading composition papers, looking up with alarm as she heard the two 17 year olds enter the dark silent kitchen. Immediately she asked if either of us knew a girl I’ll call Maureen Erby, who had graduated the year before and was now one of my aunt’s students in an English class at the nearby junior college in T____.
“Maureen Erby?” my cousin asked. “What about her?”
My aunt had never mentioned the girl before, to either of us, and we were surprised that her name had come up. She wasn’t among the mildly notorious girls we’d been warned to avoid, a category that seemed to include everyone who was heterosexual and had lost or was likely to lose her virginity in the next 10 years.
Maureen was an apparently nice, intelligent but very quiet girl, who wore glasses and avoided loudly colored mini skirts for solid-navy dresses with a band of red and white stripes around the neck. She didn’t appear to date or have any boyfriend and her steady companions were three or four female classmates who were as retiring as herself.
“I remember her.” My cousin reached for the handle of the refrigerator. “What about it?”
He poured himself a glass of milk and tore at the wrapper of his candy bar. I opened a cylinder of Rollos and pulled one out.
“Did you know her well?” my aunt asked my cousin. “Who were her friends?”
“I don’t know.” He took a long drink. “I didn’t know any of them.”
“I think she played the clarinet,” I said. “She was sort of studious.”
My aunt took off her glasses and glanced out the kitchen window at the breezeway and the neighbor’s large navel orange tree.
“That’s what I imagined.”
“So why do you want to know about her?” my cousin asked.
After several minutes my aunt stared back at us, as if she’d been away and just finished counting the oranges, those in full color and the others half and a quarter green.
She appeared surprised that we were still there, or earlier had entered the house.
“I had a disturbing encounter today.”
“Who now?” my cousin asked.
My aunt was sympathetic and attracted young people in need. She couldn’t resist listening to their problems and offering understanding and encouragement, although at home she complained how time-consuming her meetings with students had become and how she couldn’t get much prep-work done between classes.
“I’m going to tell both of you. But first you must promise to never repeat a word of what I’m about to say. I really shouldn’t tell it—”
“How come?” I asked.
Again my aunt shook her head, closing her eyes.
“All right.” My cousin lifted his glass. “We won’t tell anyone.”
“Promise?” She asked seriously, staring at her son.
“We promise! Okay?”
“Maureen Erby came to my office,” my aunt said. “Today after lunch. She stayed for over three hours and was very upset.”
“What about?” My aunt was a gifted teacher but hard grader. I imagined that Maureen would be concerned to get an A or B.
“This isn’t a transcript or something?” my cousin asked.
“No,” said my aunt. “I wish to God it was.”
My aunt never swore and my cousin and I pricked up our ears. Now she began to touch on the main subject of the meeting and my cousin and I stood still, watching her, not looking at one another or saying a word, until she finished 40 minutes later.
The kitchen seem darker than before but I didn’t want to turn on the overhead light, maybe half afraid Maureen would step from the shadows to tell her story again.
We had never heard my aunt speak openly about a subject that had always been taboo and I’d felt embarrassment and shock at her detailed descriptions of events she had learned two hours before and told as if she, and not Maureen, were the distraught victim.
After a long silence my cousin said, “I can’t believe it.” I said nothing. The story was impossible.
“I believe every word the girl said,” my aunt insisted. “She was sobbing. This had been going on for some time, until just last week—”
“Wow,” my cousin said and took a breath. “That’s too weird. Maureen Erby?”
“It is weird,” I said. I realized I hadn’t eaten any more Rollos and now quickly gobbled several, as if to change things to the way they were before and wouldn’t be again.
Over the course of the hours, in complete tears and at times unable to catch her breath—several times my aunt had to take the girl tightly in her arms—Maureen Erby confessed what had happened to her and afterward urgently asked my aunt for advice.
Maureen’s concern was a Professor X, who taught health sciences and physical education and was the assistant football and track coach. His office was two doors from my aunt’s and at least twice she had seen Maureen knock at X’s door and enter.
Six weeks before, the second week of school, after his Monday mid-morning hygiene class, X had asked Maureen to stop by at his office that afternoon. He ran laps around the track during the lunch hour and after his late class he had to hurry to the practice field for football.
Maureen was transferring to his health science course, to get one of her requirements out of the way and avoid the embarrassment of speaking to an audience. She’d realized signing up for the class in public address had been a bad mistake and would weaken rather than strengthen her confidence and only worsen her chronic shyness.
“Where’s all this going?” my cousin asked. “You said it wasn’t about grades.”
“No,” my aunt said, “something else,” and slowly continued.
The heart of it was that X needed to sign several papers for Maureen’s late entry into his course. If she would come by between 1 and 2, he would take care of her forms.
Maureen had arrived at 1:15, knocked at X’s door, and when he called “Come in!” he was standing in a t-shirt with a white towel around his neck, rubbing down his thick hair still wet from his shower in the gym. He was barefoot, in rubber thongs.
“Sit down,” he said. “I had to rush back to make our appointment. I’ll just get my shirt from the closet.”
Professor X moved behind Maureen’s chair, letting one hand touch her shoulder and then slowly draw itself to the back of her bare neck, where it lingered, before he curled his fingers to grasp lightly the sides of her throat, so at first Maureen imagined he was about to choke her.
He leaned down and slowly, deeply and firmly, kissed her on the lips, gradually urging her to part her mouth to his.
The next moment she was on the bare floor, on her back, with her dress pulled above her waist and below her breasts and he was moving above her so she turned her head back and forth, trying to avoid his staring eyes and faint tense smile. She placed two fingers in her mouth and bit them to keep from screaming.
After a while he rose and began to lift his shorts and slacks and she was lying in a small pool of blood.
“Here,” he told her. “Use this.”
He dropped his towel onto her naked stomach. Maureen placed the towel between her legs, then lifted her hips and spread it across the linoleum. She lay there for several minutes, staring at the ceiling’s acoustical panels, thinking how all of the days in her life had somehow led her to this moment.
X held out a white plastic bag.
“You can put it in here.”
Maureen let go the soaked towel past his muscular hand and not knowing what to do continued to lie where she was, before he took her wrists. He was leaning down and saying softly, “Come on, let me help you up. We’ve both got class.”
She was still wearing her brown loafers as she began to refasten her bra and pull up and drop down the two halves of her disheveled dress. She was reaching to draw up her underpants when he took her in his arms, holding her very close and gently whispering in her ear.
X admitted that he loved her, he’d loved her the first second he’d seen her walking across campus, and wanted to marry her, as soon as possible. Until then they had to keep their plan secret, between only them and no one else in the world, and make sure they didn’t start the family that they would have before long.
By the hand he led her to the door and made her promise she would come again on Wednesday before he turned to finish dressing.
Every third afternoon during the school week in a walking daze she quietly went to his office at the same hour as he introduced her to things that she had never imagined, that terrified, then strangely interested her, because she felt they brought X closer to her, increasing his care and attention, his interest, his passion for her.
For the first time in her life she felt that she existed as someone of special interest to someone else. She still lived with her withdrawn, conservative parents, and secretly she traveled to a public clinic in Fresno and received a prescription for birth control pills, which she had filled at a chain drugstore across the street.
Maureen and X met three times a week for nearly a month and a half. After making love in a different manner on each occasion, they talked briefly about the time when they would be together on an open, permanent basis and wouldn’t have to hide their passionate and destined relationship.
On Monday of this week she had knocked at the usual time and there wasn’t any answer, X’s door was locked, and yet Maureen was sure she’d seen X’s new blue car in the parking lot. She was disappointed, but not overly alarmed. She had learned from another girl in X’s class that X was married and had two small children in elementary school, and Maureen assumed that some unexpected but necessary duty had come up.
Also, she was tired, she hadn’t slept well the night before, and wasn’t sorry to miss an extended session of arduous, sometimes uncomfortable lovemaking that she would later dream about. Sometimes she’d wake in a frightened sweat, wondering if what she had done with “Robert” was a normal part of relations between man and wife.
At first the fact that X was married bothered Maureen, but he had told her when he had taken her virginity that he would be her husband. There were lots of people younger than her parents, more all the time, who got divorced and found another, more suitable spouse.
How could anyone ever be sure he had married the right person, especially nowadays?
Probably X had to take one of his children to the doctor or orthodontist. A sudden problem had arisen and his present wife had some earlier commitment that prevented her from handling the emergency appointment herself.
At Wednesday’s morning class, from the third row Maureen admired his handsome face and figure and easy learning and skill. He pointed to a colored chart of the reproductive tract and occasionally some of her classmates whispered and stifled giggles. Maureen tried to catch X’s eye as class ended, with a wink or smile signal to him that his lover would be with him soon, that the two of them knew with greatest intimacy things he had only alluded to from an appropriate distance.
But he was in a rush, something pressing on his mind, and quickly stuffed his briefcase full, snapped it shut and left the room.
That afternoon was the same as Monday. When she knocked at their appointed time, there was no answer. For a long while she waited on the sidewalk for him to arrive for his office hours. Finally she hurried to her car, and on the way home from the campus drove slowly along the side road by the practice field.
Maureen could see him across the chalked grass in an orange polo shirt and khaki shorts, raising his arms above his head as he blew the whistle he held between his lips and a crowd of boys in white uniforms and helmets stood around him in a circle.
She remembered the silver whistle on its woven plastic string, lying on its flat side on his office desk, like a metal bulb sprouting a wide spouting stem.
Then, that Friday, at the next class, she had sat in the front row, looking straight at him for 45 minutes without him returning an answering glance.
She jumped from her seat when the bell rang and rushed to the podium as he turned to the low table and put away his notebooks and papers in the leather case.
“I came by your office,” she said. “For two days. I guess both times I just missed you.”
“I’ve changed my hours,” he said.
Only for a second did his dark eyes meet hers as he dropped his spiral grade book into the briefcase.
“I’m afraid our schedules will conflict from now on. If you have a question, you can ask it at the next class meeting.”
He left the room and with her head down and her eyes burning she held her breath and pretended to rearrange her book satchel. When the other students were gone she broke into rising sobs, until she heard the heavy door swinging open. Hiding her face, she ran out past the stream of new students entering the vacant classroom.
She was trying to keep herself from running down the busy sidewalk, when she saw X walking a side pathway with a tall, blonde woman about 30. She was the new women’s swim and diving coach. Maureen had seen her picture in the student newspaper.
X and Miss Y were chatting warmly, at one point their heads almost touching as they laughed and X slipped his hand around Y’s waist. He left it there, without her disapproval, until up the sidewalk he saw the college president and his assistant approaching and he ended his embrace.
Maureen had trouble finding and removing her key from her purse and then inserting it into the ignition. When she turned the key, her shaking foot on the pedal flooded the engine.
She took many deep breaths, and after three attempts got the car started. She drove carefully across town to the B____ River, where she parked above the sandy bank down from the bridge and wept for several hours.
She was tempted to write a short note and lock the car, run down to the water and throw herself into the fast icy current, before she remembered her parents, her strong Methodist upbringing, her stern minister, and didn’t think again of ending her life as she watched with a kind of envy the quick blue water pass.
Maureen felt she would die or go crazy if she didn’t tell someone what had happened, someone who wouldn’t condemn her or tell the school authorities or her mother and father or people from her church.
She had driven fast back across the bridge and into town to the college to see my aunt in her office, who told her to immediately transfer to the junior college in G____ .
That was the last that my cousin and I ever heard of Maureen Erby.
We never saw her again and my aunt never mentioned her. We never told anyone what we’d promised to keep a secret and I think both of us felt sad that we had ever heard the story—that it was Maureen’s or anyone’s—or that my aunt had felt the need to break a confidence and relate events involving such intimacies, if that’s what they were.
I think my cousin and I realized we’d just heard the account of a violent assault that my aunt felt compelled to tell her teenage son and nephew, to register Maureen’s pain and horror and her own shared outrage at X’s crime that must remain a secret and go unpunished.
Maybe three or four times Maureen Erby’s name crossed my mind, when I glimpsed someone from high school whose face called up those of other classmates rushing past in a current of merging, hardly separate faces, before they disappeared down the same swift and unreturning river.
Only then did I remember X, whose unimaginable face I’d thankfully never seen.
On an August day in 199_, a few months before my wife and I decided to sell our small farm and start again on California’s Central Coast, I was the passenger in a pickup driven by a man I’ll call Russ Harrington, a friend of mine, a neighbor and fellow farmer.
We were passing through T____ , to look at a used pick-up disc at the Ford tractor dealership. We’d stopped on the main street, for a delivery van double-parked in front of a stationary story, when Russ nodded to my right, at a middle-aged man leaning against a tavern’s pink wall in the afternoon sun.
“You know who that is?” Russ asked.
“I have no idea,” I said.
“His name is Randy Kay and 35 years ago as a freshman he was the star quarterback at the college. He had a great high school career before he played for the Tigers. He was a hell of an athlete and his girlfriend was named Jill Grimes. She was homecoming princess.”
“Is that right?”
“Swear to God.”
That first autumn under Randy’s leadership, the Tigers had a winning team after several dismal seasons. The next season was going to be even better. They were sure to take the league title that they’d narrowly lost in November, in the closing seconds of a thrilling game against their hated archrivals from D____. The previously downcast town of disappointed fans had become electrified and eagerly awaited the start of the next very promising football campaign.
Over that summer Randy and Jill got engaged and were about to emerge in full splendor as the golden couple on campus when school started again in September. They were both 19.
“Oh yeah?” I said.
I tried to get a better look at the motionless man. His chin lay against his chest and he appeared to be dozing on his feet. His hair was unkempt and long but I could see that his skin had a swollen, purplish color and I assumed he had become homeless and was probably alcoholic.
“What happened to him?”
“Late that summer a new kid from L.A. arrives in town. He starts showing up at the lit city field at night, throwing the football around. He could throw, far and accurate, with a zip to his ball, a perfect spiral. He let it be known he was going to the college, and turning out for Tiger football. So August practice starts and the guy shows up and it’s obvious he’s a phenom, with a cannon for an arm. He beats out Randy, who was a hell of a quarterback and the team captain the year before.
“We ended up undefeated, winning the league championship and going on to a special playoff and took the state championship in our division. Randy held the ball for extra points but never played quarterback another down. He didn’t get any scholarship offers to go to the next level. The year before he’d got several recruiting letters, from USC and San Diego State and maybe Arizona.”
The idea that a lost position on a junior college football team 35 years ago had caused his complete collapse seemed as awful as his present condition appeared desperate. I thought he probably should be in a hospital.
“At the awards banquet where the new hero got a trophy for MVP, Jill presented it to him, wearing her sequin dress and sash and princess crown. Their picture was in the paper. After that, about a week later, Jill drops Randy cold and starts going with the new guy, who was a bit of a stud. Within a year they were married and the star QB was still something to watch, although the Tigers had a weaker line that season and he got sacked quite a bit. Then he graduated and went to State. For two years he played backup quarter to a guy that later got drafted by the Oakland Raiders.
“The former golden boy graduated and he got the college here in town to hire him on as a coach. He still had a lot of local fans, even though he’d ridden the bench when he left the Tigers for the big time.”
“And Randy Kay?”
“By that time, Randy had been a stone drunk for three years or so, maybe to keep from killing himself. A couple of guys and I tried to talk to him a couple of times but he couldn’t pull out of it. That’s been years ago and there he is, the ex-starting quarterback who was going to marry the homecoming queen. He could never get past it.”
“That’s incredible,” I said.
Again I looked at the man, as if saw a ruined king, from his run-over brown shoes to the uncertain outline of his puffy face and the wiry grey hair falling unevenly over his ears.
“Did you know him well?”
“Sure. I played on both those teams. With Randy and then the guy who took his place.”
“What ever happened to the guy from L.A.?”
“He lives here in T____.”
I wondered if they ever ran into one another, and then I knew they had, maybe hundreds of times. The town had hardly 6,000 residents, at least half of them rabid football fans and beer drinkers. Randy probably often stood on display outside the tavern or the town’s several other bars.
“The other guy’s still married to the princess. More or less.”
“What his name again?”
“No,” I said.
I watched Kay lift a shaking hand and with his fingers rub at his eyes, as if he were still weeping decades after his terrible loss. The sudden pair of defeats, after such a promising start, had been too much for the teenager to take.
“The guy who beat him out and stole his girl?” I asked.
I turned to Russ.
“The one that used to be at the college?”
“Still is. Been there for years.”
I looked back and Maureen’s thin ghost stood next to Randy. She wore dirty clothes, one of her old navy dresses with the red and white stripes at the round neck, with a face swollen with liquor and old pain, then disappeared.
My stomach rose with the sour taste of chocolate and for seconds it felt hard to catch my breath at the crime that was still unwinding and had never gone away. I was in the kitchen where my cousin and I were 17 and my aunt had just lifted a dark veil on a world we knew nothing about and would never forget.
It was X who forced himself on and rejected Maureen Erby for the swim coach, again betraying his wife, who betrayed Randy Kay, which led to Randy's career as a hopeless drunk standing in plain sight 20 feet away.
X must have done the same to dozens of women—I saw them in a long blurred line—and remembered my aunt, who had died years before of cancer. I’d never heard her speak before or after with such sudden anger and disgust, as if the scenes she’d set before my cousin and me had happened to herself. Maybe that’s why her students had come with their troubles and Maureen with her tragedy.
In broad daylight on the street beside the pink-walled bar I saw time stand up like a snake, with flicking tongue and ready fangs, from poison weeds that should have died and blown to dust a century. Now they bloomed again with black spiked flowers whose stench bent the air in ugly waves. I could have reached through the clear smoke like burning cellophane and touched the awful petals.
My aunt continued to teach at the college after her meeting with Maureen, until her sudden illness a few years later. Maybe she’d nodded at X’s greeting as he passed her on the sidewalk, with the swim coach or another female colleague or young coed—or had to sit with him at staff meetings and pretend that he was a human being and not a psychopath.
“What’s wrong?” Russ said. “That’s what we call life. Great, isn’t?”
The delivery driver lifted his hand truck through the double doors in back and now climbed through the open driver’s door and the big van was moving forward into a different town. Everything had turned false, the street and pickup and tavern and other buildings about to dissolve as I woke to an old nightmare that wasn’t a dream.
“Let’s go take a look at the disc,” I said, then, “Christ, aren’t you glad you’re a farmer, away from it all?”
“Now and then,” Russ nodded. “Now and then.”
It wasn’t long after that afternoon that my wife and I moved from the San Joaquin Valley. I have to confess that my final knowledge about X and the dual betrayed lovers may have had its influence at some level of my mind on our choice to start over again somewhere fresh.
It’s true that tree fruit prices had taken a dip for a solid decade. I already knew that if I was going to change professions it was past time to make the transition—before land prices dived any more and I fell deeper into debt, before I got any older and more tired.
I had a college degree and surely there was something else I could do to earn a modest living, away from the Valley that had ceased to hold me anymore.
I don’t know if X is alive or not and I haven’t been back to T____ since the day in the pickup with Russ, and don’t plan to go back, though I have visited relatives in V____ a few times for a day or two. About 10 years ago, my cousin visited my wife and me at the coast in S____ and he began reminiscing about his mother’s sympathetic but unofficial counseling career, which had included a number of bizarre encounters.
My cousin thought that maybe one of the strangest had involved a failing beefy student on the football team, who claimed he was dying of an inoperable brain tumor as he begged to receive a C, a parting gift to his distraught parents, whom he had always disappointed by his poor academic work.
My aunt had mentioned the sad case quietly to the superintendent of our local schools. On his evening walk he often stopped in for a few minutes to discuss classic works from American literature. He was an avid reader and had grown up in the South and lived for a while in the Mississippi town with Harper Lee and Truman Capote, which Lee had depicted in her famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird.
The school administrator had laughed and remarked that the sick despondent boy lived down the street from him and remained in perfect health, strong as an ox, and still retained his great gift as the compulsive liar he had been since childhood, so my aunt felt relieved and justified in having refused the doomed boy’s last request.
We laughed fondly but my cousin didn’t go on to mention Maureen Erby, and out of avoidance or forgetfulness I didn’t either. It’s possible that my cousin and I linked his mother’s early death to her knowledge of what had happened to Maureen.
They say Houdini the great magician and contortionist died because the visiting college jocks hit him by surprise, before he could tense and prepare for the punch to demonstrate the steel-like plate that was his stomach. He had an inflamed appendix and even with the force of the blow he wouldn’t have been fatally injured if he’d had time to flex his abdominal muscles.
I’m not any magician or athlete, except maybe a juggler of sore thoughts, but it’s a fact that the doings of Professor X rang a bell deep inside me, hit something tender and unprotected really hard at a vulnerable moment, so that a kind of despair echoed like waves from some deafening, vibrating gong, backward and forward across the length of my life.
It wasn’t X that pushed me to give up on the place and the people and the old way of life where I was born, though X had become a symbol of about everything I thought was wrong with the Valley. They say now that boys shouldn’t play football, because of the chance of concussion and long-term brain injury and early dementia. My farming life is fading, an infrequent dim recollection becoming an overexposed negative turning white instead of black, like a bleached sky with no sun. In the great San Joaquin the family farm is pretty much extinct and agriculture has become an investment venture for corporations.
The rich alluvial soil and diminishing groundwater are contaminated by pesticides and kids are getting asthma from the air pollution. I can remember when you could see the Sierras every day—people came from all over for the clean dry air to help their respiratory problems.
And it’s not just Central California. After the long threat of the Cold War’s mushroom cloud finally lifted, things around the world didn’t improve much at all. After 9/11 we’d be on the road to more than 10 years of constant war with no end in sight, like Vietnam again. Maybe global warming and overpopulation will do us in before we annihilate ourselves in some high-tech war like an updated Crusades.
Maybe I’m just selfish but I don’t like to get very far, say five or six miles, from the Pacific Ocean. I love to watch the hardy seabirds flying surely and strongly like old sailors rowing their boats, and the waves coming in and going out in a regular fashion, even with our occasional winter storms, they soon return to their usual endless pattern I imagine has been the same for several hundred million years. I don’t watch much TV and most days from my vantage point the world is a pretty decent place, probably as good or better a planet than most, although scientists are pretty sure millions of Earth-like worlds exist in our universe.
I don’t know or particularly care about other worlds and their possible inhabitants or whether they are similar or different from us. What possible difference could it make, in terms of who we are and what we’ve done on our own, to one another and the Earth, as far back as Adam and Eve left the garden and began to destroy the world?
Is it good enough to do less bad? If not, tell me. My name is in the book.
Bio- Nels Hanson grew up on a small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California and has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and Pushcart nominations in 2010, 2012, and 2014. Poems appeared in Word Riot, Oklahoma Review, Pacific Review and other magazines and have received a 2014 Pushcart nomination, Sharkpack Review’s 2014 Prospero Prize, and 2015 and 2016 Best of the Net nominations.
by Marie McCloskey
Graham sat up and rubbed his hands over the indents on his face. Squinting in the haze that began to swirl around him, he jolted out of his seat. Sweat beaded on his skin as flames leapt from the drapes to the scattered papers in front of him.
He eyed the typewriter as if it would answer. Go on. It seemed to say. Will it be a tragedy, or a happy ending?
Reality never much cared. It had left him alone with his insomnia, a mild case that sometimes made him wish for the end of days. He often grew so fatigued that he would shut down no matter what he was doing.
He frantically turned to the safe in the back corner of his office. His pulse drummed against his temples, rang in his ears. He coughed as the air thickened. Crouching down, he pulled his shirt over his nose and crawled to the safe. As he spun the lock, he regretted not going for a modern model, but he had always been attracted to classic mechanisms. They held more charm, more history, like his typewriter.
For years he had worked to hone his writing skills. He was sure that his current work would be “the one,” the breakout story that every writer dreams of: Pulitzer material, the next great American novel, but he swore by his typewriter, never copied his drafts on a computer until they were finished. “Damn it!” His hands shook, making the combination near impossible to register. The pain in his lungs seemed to branch all the way out to his fingers, but he couldn’t leave without the one meaningful thing in his life.
His wife was probably out gambling away what money they had left. His son had moved as far as he could without leaving the country and rarely visited. People always seemed to abandon Graham, but his writing had always been there for him, nurtured him.
A click sounded just as the sirens echoed up the street. He flung the heavy door open and reached into the massive metallic box. The classic iron safe was like a hot oven. He stared at the stack of pages inside. “You never let me down, I won’t leave you.”
In one motion, he shot both his hands in, grasped the manuscript, and pulled it from the depths. A bang sounded from below. The burst of his downstairs door being forced open didn’t lend Graham enough oxygen. He fell to the hard wood floor in time with the rhythmic thumping of heavy boots running up the stairs.
Pulling the pages of his unfinished novel against his body, he wrapped himself around it, cradled his masterpiece.
He had grown too tired to cry, too weak to call out as the footsteps died away to the empty bedroom down the hall. All he could do was cling to his work, unfinished.
Bio- When not adventuring and chasing after mini versions of herself, Marie also has time to...feed the bunny. Somewhere in there she gets a few moments to write. Lucky enough to have a day job as a tech writer in her hometown of St. Louis, she is always grappling with words. Her stories have been featured by Flash Fiction Magazine, Literally Stories, The Flash Fiction Press, and more.