Writing, Antiques, Perpetual Ambivalence

Excerpt from Art on Fire, by Hilary Sloin, Available from Bywater Books


Isabella wore a swimsuit under her clothes. It was her latest innovation, to emphasize her shrinking form, the slow dissipation being the result of a diet Vivian had insisted upon after Isabella gained 26 pounds in the mental hospital. She sat in the living room now, on the day after Evelyn Horowitz’s death, awaiting the arrival of her long-disappeared sister. She tried to think of her grandmother, to feel anything at all about poor, dead Evelyn. But ever since she’d received word of her sister’s imminent return, she’d been distracted.

“I know,” she said, surprised when the words escaped the barrier of her lips, “I’ll make a cup of tea.” A cup of tea, thought Isabella, was a good, slimming thing, with the added benefit of calming her nerves or at least helping her appear to be someone who possessed calm nerves. She walked into the kitchen and put a pot of water on the stove. Ceremoniously, she removed the flat red box of teabags from the cabinet, pulled one out by its string, and placed it in a mug. Each movement she performed self-consciously, as though her sister was already home. Watching.

In the hospital, with no vodka to slow down her thinking, Isabella had learned to soothe herself by enumerating metaphors: the crack of ice cubes under heat (mania) versus the slow bleeding of brown tea into hot water (depression). The patter of boiling water on the pillow of tea (mania) versus the immeasurable slowness of heat (depression). Less coherent analogies followed: the hyper-productive, prodigious fertility of tropical fauna versus the cold, still bottom of the sea. Cities were mania; farmlands, depression. Paris was mania; New Hampshire, depression. The jungle, mania; the tight claustrophobic woods of New England, depression. Cars, food, music. All of it could be mania, all of it depression. Occasionally, one could be trapped inside both moods at the same time. This was the worst of all feelings. A fast slowing down. A slow speeding up. A car accident in slow motion; a coma full of busy, sexy adventure dreams while people stood over you, talking, weeping, holding flowers, invading your pleasure.

She was, she decided, looking forward to seeing her sister. She’d never really disliked Francesca. It was more of an overcrowding problem: There were only two bedrooms, after all, and they were a physically substantial family—every one of them but Vivian clearing five-seven, sporting broad shoulders and wide hips. In fact, Isabella thought, she was glad to have a sister. Someone with whom she imagined playing charades and eating pizza, running about the neighborhood in the wee hours and setting the dogs on edge. Though she wished Francesca had grown up as expected, into a simple, ugly girl with scant personality, employed by a factory or a bar, flipping burgers or pumping gas, and living in New Hampshire in a trailer. Perhaps coming home to visit occasionally, very occasionally, accompanied by a mangy mutt whose presence drove Vivian so crazy, she couldn’t wait for Francesca to leave.

 

Lobster Hugger


Sandy was raised kosher and harbored a largely kosher palate except for her weekly forays into the feral decimation and consumption of lobsters. She frequented the fish market on Abalone Street as opposed to the one owned by Greeks closer to her house, mainly because she lusted after the proprietor, a virile Arab with serpentine hands. She was a conspicuous Jew, had the Jew-fro, the schnozz, an ample, curvy body and milk chocolate eyes. And he had an accent from wherever he originated—Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, one of those countries where they hated Jews.

Then, one Friday night, while channel surfing and petting the cat, she settled on a critically acclaimed movie about Cindy, a civilized and intelligent lobster. The movie made the case that Cindy typified her species–which Sandy decided was evidenced in the tranquil atmosphere of the tanks, not that there was much the lobsters could do at that point: claws clamped tight in rubber bands, forced to mince about the crowded quarters on the tips of their toes. Still, she felt, lobster tanks emitted an aura of peace. In the movie, a marine biologist played by Johnny Depp, who loved Cindy in a vaguely subversive way, deemed lobsters the “philosophers of the ocean floor.” He bemoaned their cruel fate–tangled, en masse, in nets, and crammed into dry buckets to await execution. Sandy had never considered that such brainpower and sensitivity lived at the bottom of the ocean. She suddenly hated herself for the multitudes she had eviscerated—thoughtlessly mining the white flesh into small dishes of melted butter and slipping them in between her greasy lips.

Despite the movie, or perhaps because of it, the next day Sandy was craving lobster. She went to the fish market. It had been about a week since her last visit. Because she had a lame foot she parked in the designated spot a few feet from the shop and hung her handicap placard from the rearview mirror. She ambled unevenly along the sidewalk. The owner held the door open for her. “Thank you,” she said brusquely. She was cynical about men, believing that her foot inspired them to treat her badly. Her mother always said, when you’re lame there are not too many fish in the sea.

He picked one out and placed it gently into a roomy plastic bag. It wriggled fretfully the whole way home on the passenger’s seat. She arrived at her apartment and pulled her lobster pot down from its hook in the ceiling, filled it from the tap, and read the day’s headlines while she waited for the water to boil, trying not to pay attention to the occasional tapping of the lobster trying to escape the confines of the bag. When she saw the steam fluffing out, she reached for the bag and stared eye-to-eye at the black-spotted animal. She lifted it by its slatted corset and held it over the pot, steam making its shell glisten. But then Cindy popped into her thoughts. What if lobsters really were highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive? What if they did figure out how to open the traps and usher out their brothers and sisters imprisoned inside? She lifted the lobster and hurried next door to Bobo, a musician with whom she occasionally shared beer, a movie, and a passable lay. “Here,” she handed him the lobster. She turned and went back into her apartment, trying to push from her mind the unlucky fate of that sensitive sea creature. She ate a frozen burrito and was aware of a great absence, as if her libido had failed her at the exact wrong moment. Because lobsters—like sex—had always been a favorite meat of hers, something to be ravaged impolitely. Sometimes, in private, she would chew every tentacle, sucking out the bodily fluids and meats and ocean water, eating too the green guts. Once, she had eaten an eye accidentally because she could not get herself to stop.

 

She was never exactly friendly to the Arab; she didn’t want to appear interested. Plus there was the Arab-Jew tension she felt with all Arabs. They frightened her. She stepped close to the tank and bent her knees, aligning her brown eyes with their hard peepers. They propelled themselves slowly, as if through gelatin, they who once ambled handily along the ocean floor.

“Back for another?” the owner stalked her from behind.

“Actually, I never ate it.”

“Why not? Wasn’t it good? If it wasn’t good, I’ll give you another. It happens… some of them are sweeter than others.” He wore a striped rugby shirt, yellow and blue, underneath his rubber apron. The apron was soiled with something bloody and fishy, maybe guts, but what did she expect?

“I gave it to a friend,” she said.

“What, as some kind of gift?”

She shrugged.

“A boyfriend?” he wiggled his eyebrows.

“No.”

“Well, have one on the house. Do you see one you want? I can cook it for you.”

Perhaps if he dropped it into the boiling pot her dilemma would be solved.

“That’s awfully generous of you. What does it take, about ten minutes?” She figured she could sit in the car, have a smoke, listen to the radio.

“I steam it so it takes a little longer.”

“No. That’s alright,” she said, hating to wait. “How about catfish? Got any catfish?” Bottom feeders. She had no sympathy.

“Wild-caught,” he boasted, as if he’d herded them himself.

“I’ll take a piece just under a half-pound.” She watched his long fingers lift the large fish and lay it out on the cutting board, then wield the scythe-like blade and flay a small piece off from the whole. He knew just her size. He seemed to know her so well he could select her bras and underwear. She felt a twinge low in her body.

She drove home lobster-less and sautéed the catfish in butter and thyme, squeezed ample lemon juice over it, and sat on her porch as the sun was yawning, drinking a beer. It was not lobster, but it was tasty. She thought about the man in the fish store and his long fingers, squared off nails. It would be one thing, she thought, looking over her porch at the daffodils and tulips, if he dropped the lobsters into boiling water. Boiling was horrible enough. But instead he inflicted a slow, drawn out, searing death. She imagined poor Cindy being steamed to death: like being beached, semi-conscious, inches from the sun while it rains boiling water on you.

 

As usual, on Thursday, Sandy stopped at the fish market. He always had lobsters on Thursdays. She was surprised and disappointed to see another customer there; usually she had the owner’s full attention. A woman with shoulder-length gray hair, wearing tortoiseshell glasses that dipped nearly down to her mouth, with a thick Queens accent, was pointing at a huge salmon. Sandy recognized the accent; she, too, had originated from Queens. She’d taken elocution classes to eradicate her own accent back when she hoped to be a television newscaster. But then, one day, as she was leaning in the window of her car to show her mother how to operate the clutch, her mother inadvertently shifted into reverse and ran over Sandy’s foot. “You should have gotten in the car with me,” her mother scolded as they drove to the ER, Sandy’s foot throbbing like a herd of cattle was still running over it. And it turned out that no one would hire a lame woman to broadcast the news, even one with a degree from a broadcasting school. At first she didn’t make the connection; after all, what’s a lame foot have to do with reporting the news when you’re only filmed from the waist up? But a lame foot has everything to do with everything, she learned as life went on.

.           “Now you’re sure it’s fresh and not frozen,” said the old woman, admonishing him like he was her nephew.

“Caught this morning,” he said. “Picked it up at the market myself.”

“Because I pass this way often. So you’re going to hear from me if it’s frozen. The texture gives it away.”

“You’re right. Absolutely. You come back and let me know what you thought.” He wrapped the fish in paper, slid the package into a clean plastic bag, and held out the plastic bag, spinning it around and around before wrapping the coiled end with a twisty. He handed it to her and winked. Sandy admired his showmanship; it reminded her of a carnival.

“I know what you need,” he said in a suggestive voice. At least she thought it was suggestive.

“Excuse me?”

“You need a lobster.”

She laughed, which pleased him greatly. “Perhaps.”

“The lobsters, as you know, are never frozen.”

“They’d be better off if they were,” she said.

“Huh?”

“At least they wouldn’t suffer.”

“Who?”

“The lobsters. Why not just boil them? At least that’s an instantaneous death, so they suffer less.”

“Steaming is better for flavour.”

“But what about cruelty?”

“Cruelty? You’re kidding me, right? You’re having fun with me.”

“No. I’m perfectly serious.” His hair was so black, black as shale. Shiny, too, and thick, even though he had to be at least forty-five. What a head of hair. She wondered if it smelled like fish and decided it didn’t, that he took a long, hot shower at the end of each day and used one of those men’s shampoos that smell citrusy. The mirror would be covered in steam and the whole bathroom would smell of soap and the aftershave he wore that she always detected mixed in with the fish. Probably he had women over. Women who weren’t lame.

“Fish don’t have feelings,” he said.

“You don’t really believe that.”

“If I believed fish had feelings, do you think I’d own a fish market?”

She shrugged, unsure whether to be comforted or appalled. He obviously didn’t intend to be cruel. And yet he clearly had no sensitivity to the plight of fish. Wasn’t there something sort of NRA about that, sort of Republican? Did he believe cocks liked to fight? And what about fetuses? Were fetuses, by contrast, imbued with complex, human feelings?

“They’re sentient beings,” she said. “So they have feelings.”

“Oh yeah, who says?”

The less she liked him the sexier he seemed. She noticed the ropy veins in his forearms and neck. His hard jaw with a trace of a beard. His flat, square teeth. Heavy eyelids.

“How about you come to my place for lobsters on the grill?” he said.

“Ah, another method of torture.” She smiled coyly, looking down, making a rare stab at humor.

 

It was only sex she was after, but she drove nearly a half hour to get to his small ranch house on a quiet street in the next town over. She parked in the driveway behind his burnt orange Jeep, and peered in the open sides at the black interior. It was clean, but not obsessively so, with a good stereo system, speakers that probably didn’t come standard.

She rang the doorbell and he yelled for her to come around back. She limped along the perimeter until she saw him standing in front of one of those souped-up gas grills she’d seen in Wal-Mart circulars–three sections, three stories. The lobsters, still black, were skittering on the bottom grate; he had to keep putting them back over the flames with the tongs, trying to block the scene from her view.

She held out a bottle of Pinot Grigio she’d had chilling all afternoon. “Should I open this?” she asked.

“Corkscrew is over there.” He indicated a table nearby. On it were baked potatoes wrapped in foil and some wineglasses.

“It was nice of you to bring wine. I figured you would, for some reason, so I put the glasses out. I usually prefer beer,” he said. “But this is a special occasion.”

“Oh yeah? What’s so special about it?”

“I am having dinner with my favorite customer.”

“Am I your favorite customer? What about that woman from Queens the other day?”

“Who?” He looked up, puzzled. “None of the Jews come to me. They go to the Greeks. You know, the truth is, we Arab men love Jewish women. We think you’re gutsy. And smart. And sexy.”

“Are you speaking about the whole demographic?”

He shrugged. “I am speaking about you.”

She pulled the cork out of the wine, poured him a glass and walked over to where he was standing. He was busy moving the lobsters around so she held onto it.

“By the way, I did a little research,” he said. “They don’t know whether lobsters feel pain. But they don’t think so.”

“Who’s they?”

“Marine biologists. I want you to know I would never knowingly inflict pain on an animal. All the fish I buy are already dead—except the lobsters. And that’s part of the whole thing with lobsters—people like to see them swimming around in there.”

“You can hardly call it swimming, what they do.”

“Well, you know what I mean. It just never occurred to me they might have feelings.” He turned to face her and she handed him the glass of wine. He took a sip. “Basically, you’ve ruined my life,” he said.

“What!”

“I’m kidding.” He slapped her shoulder. “I can live with being a lobster killer.”

Sandy took a step closer, crossed her legs at the ankles and leaned forward, showing him cleavage. “You looked it up?” she said, her voice low and seductive.

“I didn’t want you to think I was cruel.”

The lobsters were reddening. “Isn’t it ironic how they get more colorful?” she asked, growing giddy.

He reached over with his dark hands and combed his fingers through her tight curls. Instantly, she weakened. She wondered what it was about him. He was good-looking, it was true, and he had that mellifluous accent—was it Lebanese? But it was the crazy tumult of feelings he stirred in her—love, hate, fear, protection–that left her helpless and weak and hungry.

They sat on a deck off the kitchen. He brought the lobsters over along with a vibrant arugula salad; a crunchy baguette with soft butter; and baked potatoes.

“I’m not a big eater,” she said.

“Just keep the wineglasses full. I’ll take care of everything else.” She found herself obeying assiduously, monitoring the level of liquid in each glass, as if she might fail some examination by neglecting her charge. He placed a lobster on the plate before her. She looked down at it. It was almost orange. Its eyes were intact, its antennae shifted slightly in the breeze.

“Bon appetit,” he said, lifting his glass.

“Bon appetit.” They bumped hers against it.

She cracked the back and pulled the long chewy tail out from the tunnel of shell, went at it with her fork and a sharp knife. She placed a small chunk in her mouth. It demanded the perfect amount of mastication, and the flavor of the white meat was milky and buttery with a fishy base. She closed her eyes while she chewed, overwhelmed by the sexy feelings of his nearness, the breeze, and the sweet meat against her tongue and the roof of her mouth. When she opened her eyes, he was watching her.

“Can I kiss you?” he asked.

“Yes.” She tried not to sound desperate.

He leaned over. The kiss was insistent. They stood up. He pulled her body into his. But then suddenly he released her. It took several moments for her to return to the porch, to her heavy foot on the wooden floor, the dead lobster on her plate. She knew there would be sex later. Lobster first, sex later. That had only happened twice before, with Bobo, and sex with Bobo—especially in proximity to lobster–was like fish sticks when you were hankering for sushi.

“Lobster and sex,” she said. “I’m glad I made the trip.”

“No sex. I never have sex on the first date.” He began to go at his lobster, working expertly, as if he were a repair man disassembling an appliance.

“Ha ha,” she said.

“It’s true. I have to know who I’m dealing with. Some women get so crazy after you have sex with them; they want to get married. Will you be like that?”

“Crazy?”

“Marriage-crazy. Baby-crazy.”

She was speechless. She didn’t know which question to address first so she said nothing. She felt humiliated, as if he had seen through her. She looked at his plate. He’d gone for the claws first, while she had immediately cracked the back and unloosed the tail. Suddenly she felt this spoke to some deep incompatibility.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that movie. I just can’t enjoy lobster now.” She took a sip of wine and looked down at the mess she’d made of Cindy’s kinfolk. Those dead eyes. Deconstructed carcass. “I can’t eat anymore.”

“Eat,” he said. “You were enjoying it so much.”

“I can’t.”

“Is it because of what I said?”

“Or the way you said it.” She turned off her desire because she had to. She knew how to do that, had done it lots of times with men who flirted with her, then turned her out. She was the sort that could go frigid if necessary, and seem as though she’d never cared to begin with. She didn’t want him to know how badly he’d disappointed her. But oh, how she wanted to lie on sheets and press her body to his dark skin. She wanted to suck on his lips; they were so plump and slightly salty. He used his tongue sparingly, had technique, which so many men lacked.

He reached over and pulled the eyes off her lobster and threw them over the balcony. “Better?”

“Not really.”

“Oh, come on. They’re already dead. Do you feel guilty when you eat a hamburger? Cows don’t have it so good in the end either. And how about chickens?” He pantomimed an axe falling.

“I’m sorry,” she said, laying down her nutcracker. “I’ll eat the salad and the baked potato and the delicious bread.”

“Here.” He picked up the lobster and, using his nutcracker, destroyed all defining characteristics, retrieved the garbage can, and threw the shells into it. All that remained was a pile of pink and white meat. Then he did the same thing to what remained of his, knowing the sight of his lobster would be just as unsettling. He took the garbage can, filled with shells, back into the kitchen. He seemed more amused than angry. Perhaps he thought this was feminine and cute in a crazy, weaker-sex kind of way. Perhaps he liked quirky little feminine fears and pet causes—except marriage and babies, of course. She refilled their glasses and decided she would have to keep his callous treatment of lobsters foremost in her brain so she wouldn’t fall in love with him.

“I’m really not this sentimental about most things,” she called out while he was in the kitchen.

“You’re a lobster hugger,” he smiled at her upon returning to the table. She thought again of his hands, what they’d feel like on her breasts and thighs. They’d make her unable to stand. The first time he put them on her bare skin she’d have to be near a couch or bed so she could collapse. Now it was all ruined. She’d have to frequent the competition for lobsters, the fish market across town run by the boisterous Greeks. Perhaps they still boiled their lobsters. No! she admonished herself. No more lobsters for you.

            He brought out dessert—strawberry shortcake with crème fraise. From now on, she thought, it would be swordfish steaks and salmon fillets. Though she knew nothing could replicate the ecstasy of plundering a lobster in her living room, shells everywhere, a dish of melted butter and a bottle of stout on the nesting table, an old movie on the TV, and the cat purring for its share beside her on the couch. But those days, sad to say, were over.

Leaking


 

I fell asleep and dreamt that snow was falling in tiny shards. In the dream, which was one of those icy clear dreams that feel three-dimensional and resolutely real, it was early morning. I could see the snow through the skylight in my house, with bright sun behind it. Then suddenly I could feel snow on my neck—dainty specks of it, wet and cold against my hot skin. I panicked, certain the roof was leaking as I had always feared it would. Now I would need a new roof. I’d have to borrow money and I already owed so much money to so many people. This was my thinking in the dream.

I awoke then and saw that it was a brilliant spring morning, that I was dry and safe in my bed. I lay on my back and thought of my ex-lover, of a time when I was happy, when I had someone to look at in bed, in the same bed I was lying in now. She had a face I was really excited about. A face I believed rivaled all faces. And then I thought of how it had all gone sour. How we would ignore each other, how I held in my words because I knew my lover had gone cold. She was coldness personified. She became stiff and depressed. Then I became depressed, too, and we lived our depressing life in our depressing house on our tidy street in our suffocating one-horse town. And we ate badly prepared meals, carelessly seasoned, and watched TV on separate sofas and didn’t even talk during the commercials, just sat there, waiting for the stupid show to come back on.

Then I thought of the sex, the crazy beginning sex and the time when I cared about sex, when I could actually feel sex in my body, when I ached for sex, salivated and lubricated and pounded with desire. The house of desire, it was back then. Fucking in every room, sitting close on the sofa with our arms around each other, our legs intertwined, kissing hello and goodbye each time we came and went, kissing goodnight without fail, all body parts tuned in and ready.

And then after the desire and the depression came the anger. The brick silence. The pounding silence. The rattle of silence like something knocking about in the pipes. The stone cold jaw. The cold, twittering eyes. The clammy hands. The sore back. Everything held in. Constipation.

I fell back asleep and dreamt my ex-lover was leaving me to go work for Hillary Clinton. In the dream I was devastated. There was still desire. And tenderness. My ex-lover had a wide, soft mouth with neat, thin lips. And tiny hands. And little, upturned breasts.

I awoke from the dream crying. I was crying in the dream and out of the dream. I was crying because I was losing my ex-lover and because I had lost my ex-lover. I was crying for both of us, for all that we’d lost. I was an open vat of sadness. But when I looked up, there was bright sunshine and I was grateful there was no snow coming through the roof.

Short Story by the Fantastic Author, Sally Bellerose


Do What You Gotta Do

Three year old Kennedy is dancing, interpreting Nina Simone’s “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.”  She sways from side to side and bends from the waist, letting her dirty blonde hair and fingertips sweep the floor. 

“Nina sounds like a boy,” she says.  Kennedy has been on a first name basis with the artist since she could talk.   She is upright now.  Her feet are planted twenty inches apart on the carpet, arms swaying over her head, keeping slow time.  Her hips sway left as her arms arc right.  She claims to be Ariel, The Little Mermaid and calls me Flounder.  She does look like a sea anemone.  “I need a little Swedish down in my bowl,” she sings in her high thin voice.  Story hour in daycare has been featuring children from around the world. 

It occurs to me, not for the first time, her mom might not approve of her daughter memorizing the words to this song.  I decide it’s time to retire Nina before she gets me in trouble.  The CD ends.  I eject it and put it in its jewel case at the bottom of the pile.  “How about some Sergeant Pepper?” 

She used to like the Beatles, but now she holds her nose.  She says, “Isn’t Nina lovely?”  Her use of the word lovely slays me.  I am rapt.  I am undone.  She is three years old and uttered the words, “Isn’t Nina lovely?”  There has never been a more articulate, talented, cuter kid.  I am willing to risk our daughter-in-law’s disapproval to nurture this child’s genius.  “You want more Nina?”

But I am too slow in asking.  She’s got a life-sized plastic blowfish in her hand and is racing around the room with it.  “I’m Tinkerbell.  You be Cheese.”  I believe I know this Cheese character.  Cheese is a mousy little mouse who does whatever Tinkerbell tells him to do.  I don’t want to be Cheese.  I want to be Nina or at least I want to dance to Nina.  I take Nina out of the jewel case and turn the volume low.   “Why do you have a fish, Tinkerbell?” 

“It’s a flying fish.  We’re flying.” 

Nina sings, “Do what you gotta do.” 

“Nina can be Peter Pan,” Kennedy says.  She and the blow fish stop racing around the room.  She drags her step stool in front of the couch, stands on it, and waves the fish over her head.

“I’m the only one who can’t fly,” I complain. 

“You can be Peter Pan and Nina can be a boy mouse,” Kennedy says.  “With big wings like a dragon.”  She spreads her arms, roars, and trips off the step stool.  “I’m alright,” she says, landing on her knees.  She stays on her knees, squeaks, and crawls under the dining room table.  I peek under the table cloth.  “Come on, Nina.  Hide from the dragon with me,” she says.  And just like that I am Nina Simone, taking a breather for a moment under my dining room table before I slay the next dragon. 

To order Sally’s book, go to: http://www.bywaterbooks.com/shop/the-girls-club

or The Girls Club  http://amzn.to/apVqj1

To check out Sally’s blog, go to: http://sallybellerose.wordpress.com

Radiohead (a short story)


For a time, Veronica was my husband’s secretary. She had a nicotine-stained voice, pumpkin lips, and two different colored eyes—one ocean blue and the other primordial-ooze green. Her nose was like an apex with a bump at the top for jumping into the water. She typed ninety-five words per minute and never needed the spellcheck; everyone in the office came to her for proofreading. They bought her lattes in the afternoon, and someone was always appointed to bake cupcakes on her birthday even though that wasn’t the custom around the office. At first, we met for lunch every few months, just as a formality, then once a month, and soon we were meeting twice a week and drinking gin and tonics, sharing tuna tartare in parchment or grilled salmon with capers over angel hair pasta, trashing the firm’s architects and staff without restraint, except for my husband, who was never a topic.

Veronica had started out with every advantage: Her divorced parents sent her to a private all-girls’ school, then on to Columbia University where she got a degree in journalism. She landed a job with The New York Times in the copy editing department, and while she was there met and married a sports writer who didn’t want children either. “It was so perfect,” she told me, while we were lying in her bed.

“And then my life blew a gasket. My boss kept leaning over me, breathing his onion breath down my neck, trying to get a closer look at my tits. My husband took up with a music writer at the Voice. I became suicidal. Not the kind where you try it and fail, just the kind where it’s the only thing you can think about. I quit my job and went on disability. I was terrified of other people. Fast forward three years: He divorced me and I moved out of our apartment in the Village into this one, getting by on disability and alimony. I tried every anti-depressant on the market—well, at least 15 of them. I ate all day. I couldn’t eat. I slept all day. I couldn’t sleep. I itched. I ached. I drooled. Then my ex, who felt appropriately guilty, told me about this psychiatrist. A genius, he said. A miracle worker! So I went. This guy, in his dumpy office, wearing those Timberland boots that were popular in the eighties and worn out corduroys, charging $750 a half hour, told me about this drug for people who hear radios in their heads—there are actually people who transmit radio signals. He said that many people who get no relief from anti-depressants found solace in this drug for radioheads.”

She rolled over onto her side. She’d been lying on her back, facing the ceiling. Now she was facing me. I looked from the blue eye to the green eye and back again. She thumped the mattress with her hand. “And it fucking worked. Within days I went grocery shopping. I paid my bills. It was only the beginning, but eventually I was able to get a job.”

“I can’t believe there are people who hear radios in their heads,” I said, not knowing which part of the story to comment on.

“Can you imagine? And most of them probably don’t even know this drug exists.”

“That’s tragic. That’s like having huge boobs and not knowing about bras.” We laughed. “Do you still take it?” I asked.

“Oh yeah. Hell yeah. Because I don’t want to take any chances. I mean, I’ll come off it someday, but not while I’m working as a fucking secretary for Peters & Sons. No offense, Trudy. Not that there’s anything wrong with Peters & Sons or Michael.”

I made a blasé face, letting her know I hadn’t taken it personally.

She’d called in sick so we could be together. I took the 1 to the 7 out to Queens from the Upper West Side where I lived. She had a sweet little flat in Sunnyside, right next to a Lebanese market. We picked up tabouli, humus, kalamata olives, and huge floppy pitas, had an early lunch. Best Middle Eastern food I’d ever eaten. But food was as compelling as a green lawn in the suburbs. We knew what we wanted. We were awkward at first, gentle and ginger, until her hand was inside me, I was bent over the bed, and all our inhibitions were destroyed.

“How did you meet Michael?” she asked afterward, reaching for her pack of Camels.

“Oh, who cares?” I said. “We were set up. We hit it off. We were both ready to get married. It was time.”

She nodded. “He has a particular smell.”

I looked at her. “Oh?”

“It’s kind of spicy. Like incense or curry.”

“Really? I never noticed. Has he always had it or is it new?”

“I’m not sure. But when I walk into his office it hits me hard, you know, like when someone is wearing patchouli or Chanel number five. I think it’s new. I think I remember the first time I smelled it.”

“Huh.”

“Does he wear cologne?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe it’s shampoo.”

“You know, that could be it. Because I think he recently switched shampoos.”

“Some people retain the smell of their shampoo for days, even if they don’t wash their hair that often.”

“I don’t know if he washes his hair daily or not.” There was a steep drop from her armpit to her waist and I skied it with my hand.

That night in bed, Michael was reading a book on the architect Frank Gehry. Half his life he spends reading about Frank Gehry. He didn’t look up. I tried to sniff the air around him. I sniffed harder.

“Do you have a cold?” he asked.

“Yes. I think so.”

“There’s a lot going around. We had three secretaries out today. It’s murder on the budget because I have to hire temps. I hate temps,” he said. “They’re like leeches.”

“I used to be a temp.”

“Well, I’m sure you were a very conscientious temp. There are a few of those.” He patted my knee.

On my way to the bathroom, I loitered at his bureau and saw that, sure enough, there was a bottle of Armani cologne. How had I missed this? I suppose it was because Rosa cleaned the house once a week, so I never had any reason to interact with Michael’s bureau. Then, while I sat on the toilet, I couldn’t remember whether he had shaved his goatee. He shaved it and grew it so often. I could remember every detail of Veronica’s body, down to the flat pink polish on her toenails and the small elephant-on-a-pedestal tattoo on her ankle, but I could not remember details about my husband that I would need to give the police if anything happened to him.

I cracked the bathroom door. “Do you find Veronica attractive?” I asked. I just felt like talking about her.

“Veronica? You’re not going to get jealous of my secretary, are you?”

I flushed the toilet and stepped out of the bathroom. He had the goatee still.

“Who wouldn’t find Veronica attractive?” he turned the page.

“I suppose that’s true.” I climbed under the covers.

“Unfortunately, she has an attitude problem. I may have to let her go.”

“What kind of attitude problem?”

“Well, it could be exacerbated by the fact that she works for the head partner whereas all the other girls work for my underlings, so she feels superior.”

“What has she done to indicate that?”

He folded the corner of the page and closed the book. He considered. “Well, she proofreads the other secretaries’ work for one thing, marks it up in red pen.”

“Don’t they ask her to?”

“Of course not. Why would they?”

“Well, because she worked for the Times.

“For like five minutes,” he said.

“Still.” I slathered body lotion on my legs and arms and thought of wetness and her hands and how they’d been on my skin that very afternoon.

“She takes long lunches, too. And sometimes in the afternoon she smells like gin.”

“Does it affect her work? Does she get her work done?” I tried not to sound agitated.

“I’d rather not talk about it. I like to keep work at work and when I’m home,” he looked at me, “I just want to be home. Okay then?” He opened his book, letting me know that was the end of it.

The next day was Saturday. Michael and I had coffee and set out for our weekly trek through Central Park. We walked to the East Side. There was a little boulangerie where we liked to pick up croissants or brioche or both. We always commented on how we could taste the butter, as if we’d never noticed before, and how we really should have skipped the pastry and opted for egg whites and dry whole wheat toast, but we never veered from our ritual unless one of us was sick or called away due to crisis.

Then, at two, I met Veronica at the Angelic Theatre to see the new Mike Leigh film. I was so excited I could feel a pulse down there. I couldn’t understand what they were saying until about halfway through the film when I finally grew used to the accents, and by then, I’d missed so much of the story there was no catching up. We held hands and I thought about things I wanted to do to her, things I’d never done before, things I wasn’t even sure were the province of people. I felt out of control for the first time in many years, and I loved it.

The train was arctic from the constant onslaught of air condition. “Either they make us sweat bullets or all our pores stand up,” I commented to her as we took our seats. The train was pretty empty. She draped her arm across the back of my neck and I tucked my hand under her thigh. My nipples were hard; I could see them poking out from behind my tee-shirt every time I looked down. A man sat across from us, watching, so I folded my arms over my chest. I wondered if we looked like two lesbians, and for the first time it occurred to me that what we were doing was the same thing two lesbians would do. Neither of us, from what I understood, was a lesbian. The man looked involved and it frightened and disgusted me.

“Do you consider yourself a lesbian?” I asked as we walked from the subway to her apartment.

“What? No. Do you?”

“Me? I’m married,” I said, as if that was all there was to say on the subject. I knew it was the word that frightened me. The deed—without the word—held me sway. I had never felt such desire in all my years of men. “We are acting like lesbians. You realize that,” I said.

“Do you want to go home?”

“Are you kidding?”

“Fine. Then who cares? Why talk about it?” She was wearing Capri pants with crazy paisley tights under them and a black button down shirt. Her pulpy lips were painted thick with a plum shade. “

“Do you ever think about getting a different job?” I asked.

“Yeah. Pretty much every day.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Doing what?”

“Copy editing. Isn’t that what you did at the Times?”

“My degree is in journalism. That was just an entry-level position.”

As soon as we got inside her apartment, we were on the floor in the foyer, fumbling with our clothes. And then, when we’d finished there, we had a glass of water and got naked on her bed. That was equally, differently exciting. Then we passed a joint back and forth.

“I’m in love with you,” she said matter-of-factly, as though she was stating the correct time. She was lying on her back, facing the ceiling. “I think about you the minute I open my eyes in the morning, and some piece of your person is the last image I see before I fall asleep. I don’t think I’ve ever been in love—more like intense simpatico aggravated by sexual starvation.” She lit a cigarette. “Do you think we’ll ever be together?” she turned to face me.

“I don’t know. I mean, I’m married.”

“I realize that,” she replied. But is your marriage fulfilling?”

I thought about this for a quick moment even though I knew it was the sort of question that demanded at least a week of close consideration. “Well,” I lifted my head like I had the answer and was about to utter it, then I dropped my head back down. “I don’t know. I don’t think about whether I’m fulfilled. I can get out of bed in the morning. I don’t find Michael offensive or repulsive for the most part. He doesn’t abuse me.  I love him, you know, the way you love someone you’ve lived with for years. I love our apartment. It’s quite beautiful.”

“You love your apartment?” she was outraged.

“I wish you could see it. You’d understand what I mean…”

“You know, Michael’s kind of a prick. I mean, I haven’t said anything until now because I didn’t want to be divisive, but everyone at the firm hates him.”

“That’s what he said about you.”

“About me? Are you kidding? That’s a boatload of manure. Do you know how often those women take me out to lunch? And I’m not talking Applebee’s or the Olive Garden. I’m talking three-star restaurants. Sushi places where they give you a hot wash cloth. Italian cafes where they put homemade bread and dark green extra virgin olive oil on the table. Do you know how many Valentine’s Day cards I get at the office? Practically every secretary gives me a Valentine’s Day card. And only me. And one of the architects sends me red roses and a white teddy bear every year. Just because I fucked him once.”

“Which one did you fuck?” I asked, trying not to sound jealous.

She continued, sitting up now. “Michael’s a tyrant. He won’t make anyone partner. There’s only one female architect out of sixteen and all the secretaries are women even though plenty of men have applied. This year he’s going to hold the Christmas party in the office with a CASH BAR. Who ever heard of such a thing? Making the employees pay for their own drinks??? Peters Sr. always hired a boat with an open bar and live band or took everyone to Keen’s, that swank Ivy League place on 33rd where the steaks are this thick and cost thirty-five bucks a piece.” She got up and crossed the room to where her shirt lay in a pile on the floor. She put it on. I went to her and put my arms around her from behind. My head reached her shoulder blades. “So contrary to what your deluded husband says, I’m extremely popular at the office,” she proclaimed in a shaky voice.

“I know, honey. I’ve seen it myself. I think he probably wants to justify hiring someone cheaper.”

“What?” she turned. “He’s going to fire me? Fuck!”

“Not necessarily.”

“That motherfucker. He told you he was going to fire me?”

I wished so badly you could pluck escaped words from the air and push them back into your mouth, swallow them whole.

“No. But he isn’t completely satisfied.”

“Well, whatever. I guess it’ll be back to unemployment and looking for another job, just like every other secretary whose boss is a misogynist, insecure, egomaniac with low self-esteem.”

She had him figured.

We sat on the edge of the bed. I was still naked, which no longer seemed appropriate, so I gathered up my clothes and put them on, even my shoes. Veronica wore her black top. It ended midway down her thighs and her long legs were crossed, with the toes of her left foot spread out on the hardwood floor. Heaviness settled over the room. The sun was low—pink with an orange eye in the middle—sinking onto the Empire State Building. It was beautiful, but I didn’t bother pointing it out. A vise was tightening. I could feel it, and she felt it too.

“For what it’s worth, I’m in love with you too,” I said.

“You are?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“So are we lesbians?”

“I don’t think so. I think this is aberrant.”

“Good. Because that’s the last thing I need. But I think if you leave Michael and you live with me and we keep fucking, then we will at some point, be lesbians. Though from what I understand, lesbians always stop fucking eventually at which point we’d become something more like…”

“Companions?”

“Yes, exactly. Companions.”

She didn’t realize I’d already abandoned her. She’d stated what I’d considered and dismissed—the possibility of a life spent as an outcast, a pariah, doing the dead man’s float in the margins of society. I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a lesbian. Who would bring home the bacon? Who would provide the health insurance? Could either of us learn to change a flat tire? Or, more accurately, would we want to? I stayed a while. We had a couple of drinks. The conversation lulled to long spaces between humorless paragraphs. She smoked a cigarette. We had quiet, almost married sex. It grew dark. I stumbled out of her apartment, ruined for men, guilty and ashamed because I knew I’d never go back.

Christmas Day 2012


What a year. Opened the antiques store. Mom died. Relationship nightmares. Finally bonded with my incredibly cute Jack Russell Terrier. Learned so much about antiques–totally fascinated. Published my book after all these years! Wrote lots of new stuff (much of which is on this blog). Bought a camper so I can go on writing jaunts in the warm months, park the camper, buy antiques, write at night. Sounds like heaven to me. I’m an odd girl. Sometimes I want to live off the grid. Just sell my little cottage and hitch my truck to the camper with Pluto, take off. What more do I need really? There’s a stereo in there, a bed, a couch. I can live at campgrounds. Just travel from one place to the next. Of course I still have to learn how to manage the thing–I have lots of trouble backing up and I still need my friend Barb to help me hitch it up. But these are not insurmountable problems. I just turned 49 last week. Think I am stinging from this. I don’t want to be middle-aged. I want to be 30 and unfortunately I still treat myself as though I were 30. Actually, when I was 30 I was much more fit and fitness-minded than I am now. Now I have my face in toxic furniture stripping chemicals, canuba wax, stain, shellac, etc. Not to mention all the centuries old dirt. But I am someone who needs change all the time. So here I am today, taking stock, trying to figure out what I want to accomplish in the next year.

We work hard, humans, whether we actually do work hard or not. If we don’t work hard, we tend to berate ourselves, and if we do work hard we still berate ourselves for not being able to give enough attention to the things that get left by the wayside: family, health, nutrition, exercise, art. It is so hard to accomplish everything we feel we are supposed to accomplish, and as we get older the list gets longer and the physical demands seem more challenging. Just for today, I am going to try and relax. I will probably go into the store at some point and work on the web site which, by the way, is http://www.straydogantiquesetc.com. But mainly I’m going to focus on taking Pluto for a nice long walk and getting my house all tidy and clean. Christmas doesn’t mean anything to me since I’m a Jew, but I do have this feeling like I’m supposed to revere life a little more than usual. So that’s what I’m going to do. Wishing you and yours an excellent 2013. I’m going to post another short story.

 

Appealing (a short story)


He would have preferred a job without the requisite chit chat, but after a year of shoveling snow, digging ditches, replacing rotted siding, and watching “Sanford & Son” reruns, Joe was relieved to finally get any job—even if it was working for the lesbians. The official name of the store was the Colton Hardware Store, but people called it “the lesbian hardware store” when they were in sympathetic company. From his first unpacking wrenches and cute little hammers, he could feel the atmosphere pecking away at his manhood, all the handy lesbians looking right past him.

All day long the small shop buzzed with friendly parley and awkward laughter. The customers always seemed to have time to linger; they wove monologues about anything G-rated: their dogs, roofs, the stress of their jobs, shoveling feats, the neighbors’ theatre debuts at the congregational church. Sometimes there was tragedy and this was discussed in low voices: people with cancer or mental illness, divorces, foreclosures. The owners, Blaze and Amy, gave each customer their full attention, though Joe noticed Amy often spared a weary smile and a distracted look. He watched her one day, leaning on the counter as she listened hard to a customer recount the winter solstice celebration, her smile tense and rusty, barely disguising a dry cast of impatience.

The conversation happened in bed, where  Blaze and Amy had most of their important conversations, usually lasting just long enough for them to slide their legs under cool sheets and recline, puff up the pillows. For Amy to take her anti-depressants. Blaze told Amy, “Law and Order SVU” on the television, that she thought they should hire a man at the store. “For your days and on Saturdays,” she said.

“A man?” Amy shot back.

“Someone appealing.”

Blaze had ideas sometimes, and as far as Amy was concerned, they were usually misguided.

“An appealing man. You mean good-looking?”

“Good-looking. Strong. Affable. You know… a man.”

“Actually, I don’t know. I thought we were run by women. I thought that was, you know, the point.”

Blaze shrugged, stared ahead.

“Hmmm. OK, then. A man. I’ll hire a man. You’re the boss.”

This was true. It was Blaze’s baby, the store. Amy went along because she was in love, still, after all these years. It was a tired, disappointed love; still it would not go away.

Amy sat straight, awake now. “Why not give him my days? I wouldn’t mind time to do other things. Like work in the garden. And I’ve been wanting to volunteer at the women’s jail.”

“I need you at the store. But since you’re always complaining how overwhelmed you are, I thought this might help.”

Was this true? Amy wondered. Was she a complainer? She knew she felt tired all the time, uninspired. And at the end of the workday she would remain silent for the entire evening if possible, reading or watching TV or even cleaning the bathroom—anything to avoid uttering a sentence. But she always thought she’d kept her unhappiness hidden behind her willingness to please.

The next day Amy put a sign in the window: Help Wanted. Apply Within.” By the end of the first week, 23 lesbians had turned in applications, plus a handful of men. Amy struggled with her conscience, having to overlook qualified women in the search for an appealing male. She kept thinking of what Blaze had said so many times in the company of lesbians: that whenever women do what falls under the province of men, they do it skillfully, meticulously, and with less bellyaching. Hypocrite, she thought, dusting off the blue mason jars.

On Friday, temps below zero, Amy was making keys for the Town Hall staff. Joe wore his Carhartt suit and a Russian style hat with furry flaps. He waited at the front of the store until the others had gone, then turned and took a few steps in. Like a cautious animal.

“May I help you?” Amy asked, smiling and shutting the register drawer.

“I was wondering if you’ve filled the position.”

He reminded her of a steer: broad shoulders and lean hips, his upper body V-shaped. His hair was tawny and long and his nose was a straight slope. He cited his painting experience and said he’d been a handyman, when really he’d just helped his brother-in-law put a shop over the garage. And even then he mostly held the two by fours and sheetrock in place, handed over the right size screws and tools.

But Amy was not interested in details.

That night, when Blaze returned from her weekly poker game, Amy told her she’d hired a man. Blaze, who’d had a few bourbons and had lost $30, crawled into bed and clicked on the TV. Amy had been on the phone for nearly two hours with her twin sister in San Francisco. She’d been well-loved and listened to, and it left her sensitive to the echo at the core of her relationship.

“What’s his name?” asked Blaze, after a few minutes had passed.

“Joe.”

“Joe?” Blaze laughed. “Well, at least it isn’t Dick.”

Amy stood facing the inside of the closet, undoing her bra. “He’s appealing. Just like you wanted.”

“Did you check his references?

Amy realized she hadn’t even asked him to fill out an application. “They were excellent.” If Blazed asked to see the application, she’d claim to have shredded it. Blaze would chalk it up to her incompetence, and that would be the end of it.

Joe lived on the other side of the mountain where there were mostly pastures and pine forests and slim, winding rivers. The temperatures were undeniably frosty, but they didn’t sink so low that the cold sucked the wind from your gut. His license had been revoked a while back—too many speeding tickets—so he found  a way to walk to the store through the crunchy white woods, his huge boots settling into the icy layer that formed a floor over the tender snow. Birch trees were falling every day. They were bent or completely ripped apart, their thick, creamy limbs the first to succumb to any onslaught of weather. He could feel the temperature dip he ascended the mountain, walked along Main Street, past the post office, convenience store, and the tiny stone library, until he reached the building shared by the pizza place and the hardware store. He stomped his boots on the stiff wicker mat, then hung his coat on a square nail in the back of the store.

In the mornings the store always smelled of fresh coffee; the lesbians made it strong. It was the best part of the job. He put out the racks of used Hawaiian shirts Blaze collected from various Goodwill and Salvation Army shops, as well as the scarves and gloves knit by local people. The rock salt, sand, and metal buckets stayed out all the time, so he would just do a quick rearranging to make the display enticing to customers. And then he helped himself to some coffee and sat up front by the pellet stove.

He was not at all what Blaze had wanted. Obviously she and Amy had different definitions of appealing. Blaze had left it to Amy, figuring she would know more about men, but she’d been so wrong! Joe looked carnal, rugged, the kind of man who eats beans out of a can. Blaze had envisioned someone unimposing, with a pleasing smile and laughing eyes, someone of average size, who was garrulous and good with people—not some kind of behemoth! Joe’s mountain man looks made her uncomfortable, and she often banished him to the back of the store so she could forget he was there until she needed him to carry something heavy or sweep off the porch. Too often he and Amy stood close together collaborating on some task that it seemed either could have handled alone.

One Saturday, Blaze sat up front by the stove doing paperwork. Jose was arranging the mops, which had needed reorganization for an eternity. Amy stood behind the counter, helping a woman select a pocket knife from the display, which rotated slowly, glowing like the moon. Amy stopped it and removed a small purple knife. She handed it to the woman, who held it like it was a treasure found at the bottom of the sea.

“Perfect. I’ll take it.” Joe leaned behind Amy to toss something into the garbage can. The customer looked at Amy and raised her eyebrows.

“Who’s he?” she whispered after he’d gone.

“Oh, that’s Joe. Our new colleague.”

“Good for you.” So, Amy thought, someone else found him appealing.

The woman handed over her credit card, fooling with her new acquisition—extracting the tweezers, the toothpick, the knife and the scissors—while Amy ran the card through the antiquated machine.

“You could have sold her a bigger one,” Blaze approached once the customer had gone.

“She wanted the little one.”

“Right there.” Blaze stopped the spinning display. “More knife for the money.”

Amy said nothing. Joe was sweeping the floor, listening.

“That’s $75 as opposed to $35.” Blaze started the display. “And she gets three knives and a real screwdriver instead of that little flat head on top of the nail file. Joe,” she tapped on the counter, “could you clean up back here? It looks a wreck.”

“There’s nowhere to put anything,” Amy practically whined.

“What about this?” Blaze tossed a pen into a cup. “Voila.” She bared her teeth. “Come help me pick out watering cans and gardening supplies. You’re so good at that,” she switched to cheerful and breezy. She pressed her hand to the small of Amy’s back and moved her out from behind the counter. Joe watched. He had never seen them touch before and it looked weird. He stepped behind the counter, piled all the scratch pads, stacked the catalogues, muttering how it was Blaze’s compulsion to save every bit of junk mail that was to blame for the mess. He organized the receipts, then brought the gardening catalogues to where Amy and Blaze were sitting and placed them on the small table.

“Why, thank you Joe,” said Blaze.

Obviously Amy was accustomed, even inured, to humiliation. Joe wanted to tell her she shouldn’t allow it, that he had watched the whole interaction with the customer and that she had done things exactly right. But he wasn’t about to risk his job. He sat in a plastic Adirondack chair at the back of the store and stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossed them at the ankles. When it was slow, he went out for frequent smokes, walking around the side of the building where he would be out of sight because Blaze didn’t want him smoking on the porch. She told him his habit meant he was angry about something that had happened when he was young and that it was time he got over it as she’d managed to do. She said he was too appealing for such a dirty habit. Amy rolled her eyes. She confided to him on one of their days alone in the store that although Blaze had strong-armed her into quitting, she would forever envy smokers their delicious, nasty habit. Every time she saw him light up, she said, she wanted to run out and ask for a drag.

He held one up in the window at the next opportunity, but Amy smiled and waved him away. Probably, he thought, it was just one of those things a person says to be cool. He was outside in the piercing cold, wearing no jacket, facing the street to try and stop himself from thinking about her. He was imagining her in his bed—her flat, small body and short, sandy hair. It had been a long time since he’d slept with a woman he cared about, except his ex-wife with whom he sometimes fell into bed after a night of drinking tequila at the local dive—the two of them acting like a couple around all the people they’d gone to high school with, people who would drive all the way to the hardware store in Orange rather than give the lesbians their business.

He never let himself thinking of fucking Amy. As if she was a nun or his cousin. He wanted to make her eggplant Parmigianino and garlic bread—his specialty. And then he wanted to ask her how she met Blaze and why the hell she stayed with her. And had there always been only women? That was what he really wanted to know? Would he be her first? He knew it was a crazy, dangerous line of thinking, of daydreaming: she was his boss, she was gay. And he desperately needed this job. Still, he could not stop the fantasies from growing more and more grandiloquent. He thought about her back and whether it was as long as it looked, whether her feet were beautiful like some women’s feet or ugly like others’. He imagined they had high arches and long, sharply defined toes. They were in his bathtub when he examined them and Amy wouldn’t be ticklish. They would be silent and serious. So unlike his ex-wife who couldn’t keep her mouth shut long enough for a shooting star to fall.

Amy told Joe that on the days when it was just the two of them, he didn’t have to smoke around the side of the building where it was windy and not shoveled. She was ashamed of how despotic Blaze could be with her rules and instructions. Joe deserved to be treated with respect, Amy felt, not like some high school kid who showed up for work high and couldn’t work the cash register.

When he came back in from smoking one Saturday, he put his hands in his pockets and kicked the dusty wide plank floor. “I was wondering if you want to see my band play at Marie’s tonight. There’ll be the usual yokels in the audience, but they’re harmless.”

“I know how to handle yokels,” she said. “I live with one.” She smiled, conspiring.

“We sort of suck but the crowd has a good time.”

“That’s just how I remember Marie’s.”

“I just don’t want you to have high expectations. It’s classic rock. Credence. Springsteen. Joe Cocker. My ex-wife does most of the singing.”

She was still not there after the second set. The band decided two sets was enough. It was snowing hard outside, and the crowd was thin. Joe ordered a third whisky. He knew he shouldn’t. He could barely feel his fingers sliding into his back pocket to draw his wallet. But he wanted to be drunk. Stupidly, he had hoped that even lesbians gave it up for guys with guitars. He noticed a woman several stools over trying to catch his eye. She was his usual type: décolletage, a tumble of dyed hair, carefully maintained figure. He went over and sat down. She smelled of airy perfume like girls wore in high school. She told him her name: Rita, and he started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“That is a legitimate question. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer.”

“I just seem funny? Something about me seems funny?”

“Your name. It’s just your name. It reminds me of the Beatles song.”

“Maybe you should go sit somewhere else.” Rita crossed her legs, shifting her body away from him.

“I’m sorry.” He touched her shoulder. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m in a strange mood. And this bar makes me act like an asshole. I grew up with everyone in here. Except you.”

“I liked your band,” she said. “You’re a good musician.”

“I suck actually. But thanks.”

“I’m here visiting my cousin.”

“Yeah? Who’s that?”

“Angie.”

“Angie Taylor?” Joe was displeased. He’d slept with Angie only a couple of months before. His world, he knew, was too small and getting smaller all the time. “So Rita, I need a friend. Do you want to be my friend?”

“That depends on what’s involved.”

“Just one night,” he said and cocked his head, trying to look puppyish. “I have a secret I need to tell someone.”

“I love a good secret.”

“But you can’t tell your cousin. Or anyone else around here.”

“No problem. That’s the whole fun of a secret.” She put her hand on his thigh and squeezed, then moved it up a little bit. “You can trust Rita the meter maid.”

“Lovely meter maid,” he said. “I’m in love with a lesbian.”

Rita laughed. “Oh, wow. Big bummer. Like a full-on carpet-muncher, or a bisexual? Or a divorcee who’s experimenting? Because a lot of ladies experiment. Those lesbians are just hanging around, waiting for us to fall off the wagon.”

“No, she’s a dyke.”

That was all it took. Rita went back to his place where they drank more whisky and had sex with most of their clothes on.

“Sometimes in winter, I don’t feel like being naked,” Rita had said when Joe tried to take off her shirt. Turned out she was a nurse. Something about that made Joe feel bad; he wished he were going to know her since nurses are quality people and here he was using her to lick his wounds, a selfish horny bastard. Just like his old man had been. He hated how much like his old man he was: directionless, overly libidinous, and perpetually poor. He pulled Rita onto his lap and held her there with the radio playing the Rolling Stones and the silent TV emitting shifting light.

“This is nice,” he said. “Are you hungry? I’ll make pancakes.”

She gave him a flurry of a kiss. “Thanks, hon. But I need to get back to Angie’s.”

She hopped off his lap and put on her shoes. “I had a great time though. You’re a real tiger. Honestly.”

He’d just assumed she’d want to spend the night; they always did. He burped and tasted cheap whisky, like soap, and the bacon cheeseburger he’d had for dinner.

Amy woke early in the morning. She made coffee while the darkness was thinning out and sat at the long walnut table in the kitchen eating Cheerios and watching the slope alongside the house begin to lighten; it was always the first spot to reveal the nascent grass and the hay laid down over the garden in late fall. Wouldn’t be long until she was outside in the dirt in her bare feet. She couldn’t wait. Working in the garden kept the despair at bay, but as she looked at it now, it seemed to contain all her sadness, the lack of love that covered her like wet, cold clothes. She hoped that in the summer months Joe could manage the store on his own one day a week so she could have another day off. She knew Blaze would balk, but she told herself she would insist. When they’d first bought the store it was Blaze’s province; Amy was only supposed to work three days a week. She sang in a chorus in those days, threw pots that even sold sometimes, planted and tended her huge garden, and though she enjoyed the friendliness of the shop and admired Blaze’s tenacity in putting the whole thing together (she also delighted in how subversive it was—two lesbians running a small-town hardware store), she had never intended to work there six days a week. But Blaze pushed and Amy, as always, succumbed. Now the house had gone to hell because they were both too tired to keep it up; the store everything.

“Morning,” Blaze stumbled sleepily into the kitchen.

“Morning.” Amy noticed how cute she looked first thing in the morning in her oversized teeshirt and flannel pajama bottoms, her white hair a mess, shuffling in socks. Still, after all these years, Amy had never found anyone more attractive.

“You’re up early,” Amy said.

“I thought we could eat together.” She poured herself a huge bowl of cheerios, grabbed the carton of orange juice and poured a tall glass. “I’ve been thinking it’s time to fire Joe,” she said. “And hire a woman. I think it was a mistake.”

“Too late,” Amy snapped.

“It’s not too late. It’s my decision. A woman would be better. You said so yourself.”

“I said so and you ignored me. We can’t fuck with him like that. He needs the job.” She put her cereal bowl in the sink and walked past Blaze without looking at her, ran up the stairs with new vigor, the anger more energizing than her usual sadness and resignation.

Joe stood examining his face in the bathroom mirror. He could see himself getting old. He did 100 pushups and 200 crunches and watched a morning news program, mainly for the sports coverage. He knew he should shower. Instead he sat on his bed in his sweatpants and teeshirt. He stared out the back window at the apple orchard, replaying the sex with Rita, trying to push away the gaping hole he felt inside him, something like anger and hunger and incipient flu. The creaky branches glowed in the lacy dawn light. He began to cry. He hated to cry, but sometimes it overtook him and there was no holding it in. Best thing was to get somewhere private and push it out as fast as possible. Love, he knew, was finished for him. And here he was anyhow, obsessed with a woman who clearly had no feeling for him and never would. He had no house. No kids. He reminded himself that he ought not to drink; it always left him sad and pathetic and feeling sorry for himself.

Given the chance, he felt he could be kind to Amy. But maybe she wasn’t given to kindness. Not everyone was. And historically he was not, in fact, kind; he was more often aloof and truculent. He wondered if maybe there was something very wrong with him. For example, the way too much conversation made him feel nauseated. And why had he never had a pet? Not even a cat or a turtle. His ex-wife had told him he was like a coconut—hard on the outside, hard on the inside. Not worth the trouble. What if he stayed at the hardware store for years, pining over Amy? He could waste his life pining for Amy. Maybe this was all he needed: someone to desire. The collar of his teeshirt was wet and he needed to blow his nose. He ran the shower and stripped off his clothes, glad Blaze would be there today so he wouldn’t be tempted to ask Amy why she hadn’t come.

He stood in the shower, facing the needling stream, and decided he would become a new and improved version of himself. Starting right then. No more longing for Amy. No more loathing conversation. No more resenting Blaze. He would still play in the band, but he would not bring strangers home—except maybe once a year, because after all men had needs. But getting laid by strangers was overrated. He would exercise every day, and in spring he would plant a garden. He would visit his mother every Sunday. Sometimes he would cook for her. Maybe if he worked at the hardware store for another year they’d give him a raise; he could save up some money and buy a house. He’d had a house when he was married. He was always complaining about it until he had to relinquish it to his ex-wife and it had become, in his memory, his Shan-gri-la. He wanted a dog. A big, meaty mixed bread who would accompany him through the woods. Maybe they’d let him bring his dog to work. The thought of having a dog made him cry harder. Because dogs wait at home all alone while their masters go out into the world. And there’s so much work involved in having a dog. He’d have to train it and walk it. Still. It would force him to grow up.  “Grow up, you prick,” that’s what his ex-wife always said. It was her favorite refrain when they fought. He’d get one of those really good dogs—maybe a lab shepherd mix—that didn’t need to be on a leash. Name it Mountain. Blaze wouldn’t want it in the store, bitch that she was, but Amy wouldn’t mind. Maybe she’d love the dog and it would almost be like she loved him. She’d pet the dog and it would almost be like she was touching him. He stepped out of the shower onto the bathmat in the frigid bathroom, wrapped his hair tightly in a towel, then used a second towel for his body—moving very quickly because of the chill.

And with Mountain, Amy would see how decent and worthy he was, not to mention abstemious (because that would be part of the transformation as well), and she would fall in love with him. Then they would buy the hardware store from Blaze and they’d no longer sell all that penny candy and smelly soap. They’d get a real line of paint—Benjamin Moore—and stock more power tools. And people would talk—they always do—about how Amy used to be one of two lesbians who owned the store, but Joe had come along and set things right. And so, energized and convinced of the imminent improvement in his circumstances, Joe pulled on his clothes and left his wet hair to freeze up into icicles in the hard luck cold.

The Cure for Unhappiness (a short story)


Kathleen told Randall that the trailer was too small for both of them: they were big personalities who needed room to move. Mr. Souza, the rental manager, listened in. He knew you could learn most of what you needed to know by paying close attention while you showed the property and that how things were said was as important as the words.

“We’ll take it,” Randall announced.

“I’ll need proof of employment and contact info. for your last landlord,” Souza said. He talked tough, but he wasn’t exactly a stickler. It’s not like the neighbors were doctors and lawyers.

The East Dunder Trailer Park had caught Kathleen’s eye, mainly because of the great stone lions at the gate, which reminded her of the NY Public Library where she’d once gone on a high school field trip. She thought it was majestic looking; the pea stone paths leading up to the door of each unit reminded her of smashed up shells, which made her think of Miami where she’d once gone to visit her grandparents. All in all it didn’t look like upstate New York. It looked sunny and beachy, like a place you had to be happy. She did think the trailer was small, but if Randall liked it, she figured she was  worrying for nothing.

They went to Balding Joe’s Café to strategize and drink pints of stout. Randall had gotten into it all the time with his last boss at Fix-It-4-U. He’d been fired, but he figured he could list his Uncle Ned as his employer. Ned had a different last name so it wouldn’t raise any red flags.

Kathleen had a job at Hair It Is, shampooing and sweeping up. Hannah, the owner, had promised to train her as a stylist, but so far, she had nothing but chapped fingers and hair stuck to the soles of her shoes.

“He’ll never check our references anyhow,” said Randall, wiping a foamy mustache off his top lip. “It’s a fucking trailer park.”

“He’s lucky to have us,” Kathleen said, feeling drunk and a little belligerent.

They toasted and went outside to bum cigarettes. They weren’t big smokers, just when they’d had a few.

“We’ll have to use Allison as a reference,” said Kathleen.

Randall rolled his eyes and snorted. They’d lived Kathleen’s sister for awhile, helping her get back on her feet after a suicide attempt that Randall called “a grab at attention” even though Kathleen had never seen him look so pale and terrified as when they were at the hospital, waiting for updates. The night after her girlfriend, Beth, broke up with her, one of the neighbors, who just happened to knock on her door to invite her to a block party on the second floor, smelled gas and called the police. Allison was found with her head in the oven, unconscious, drunk, and less than gracious about having been rescued. “Fucking Unitarian,” she spit at the neighbor as they led her past on a gurney. But a brief stay in the psych ward had sent her home with decoupage boxes, collages, and the realization that even though Beth had dumped her, she’d taken along her ubiquitous allergies, which meant Allison could finally eat pancakes for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner and, most important, get a dog. She focused all her attention on procuring a rescue dog, and this seemed to be the thing that rescued her from acute misery.

Allison had relished having her sister live with her, but she despised Randall—the way he never helped with the dishes or the cooking and how he always left his wet towel in a pile in the corner of the bathroom floor. Never mind how he yelled out “VOLUME!” if Allison and Kathleen were talking anywhere in the apartment while he was trying to watch TV, which was practically all the time. On the mornings when Kathleen drove Randall to a job, he would go on and on about Allison’s dark moods and over-dependence, how Kathleen indulged her sister with too much coddling and praise, which, he felt, was exactly the opposite of what she needed.

“She needs love,” Kathleen stared ahead.

“She needs a kick in the ass,” Randall replied. “Your parents babied her and you’re just perpetuating it.”

Kathleen sped up and under a yellow light, then pulled up in front of the new restaurant where Randall was helping lay a tile floor. She leaned in for a kiss, but he hopped out. He hated public gestures of affection. “Love ya,” he said, popping his head in the window for a quick second. She watched him walk away and wondered what he was thinking about in that exact moment and whether it had anything to do with her.

“I’ll give you a glowing recommendation,” Allison said. “I just wish you were getting a place by yourself. Or moving in with me.” They were sitting at Allison’s kitchen table drinking strong, oily coffee. Randall was off with the truck, who knows where.

“I know he’s a wanker. But I love him.”

“You were never choosy, you know. That’s your problem.” Allison thumped her index finger on the table. “Don’t… marry… him,” she commanded.

Kathleen laughed as if nothing could be more absurd. “Oh please. That’ll be the day.” She hoped that would be the day. That day or the next or the one after that. She knew Randall was the man she would love for her rest of  her life. It was the sort of love that makes people go out and get a tattoo. Sure, he was lazy and impatient with her; he loved her less than she’d ever been loved in a relationship; and he couldn’t get along with her sister, who was her best friend. Still, there was no denying he made her feel desperate inside.

Within a week, they were living in the Rose Garden section of the trailer park in unit 33. Kathleen asked at the salon when she’d be trained as a stylist. Hannah said things were too busy for her to lose her best shampooist. Kathleen offered to write the ad, promised to find someone even better than herself, but Hannah, who was college-educated, said she would write the ad herself when the time came.

Souza hired Randall to help with some jobs around the trailer park. He liked him; it was obvious. Randall and Kathleen thought it was a gay thing. Randall was pretty, especially since he’d cut off his pony tail. He had inky hair and glowing green eyes, a lanky body and big hands and feet. A deep dimple in the center of his chin.

“I have stamina,” he told Souza, petitioning for a job as super, and he boasted about it to Kathleen later, after he was hired, like he’d pulled off a sting. So he was combing pea stone and weeding garden beds, painting tiny kitchens and installing faucets and showerheads, doorknobs, fuses, stopping every five minutes to yank up his tool belt so it wouldn’t slide down his narrow hips. Even the last hole was not tight enough.

Kathleen was content living in the trailer. But she often complained about the salon while she prepared dinner, Randall would spend evenings prone on the couch drinking beer and staring at the TV, trying not to listen and to listen at the same time. “I’ll probably be sweeping up hair when I’m in my 50s,” she sighed. She was thrilled Randall had steady work—finally!—and she loved how the trailer was like a tiny separate house in a clean neighborhood and how she could find her almost-husband any time during the day just by searching the grounds, not that she’d ever go looking. Still, it was nice to know. She hoped that by keeping the trailer tidy and always making sure Randall had enough beer that Randall would want to marry her. She didn’t think of marriage all the time, it wasn’t like she was obsessed, just in the morning while she showered for work, and then again while she ate her lunch with all the married women who complained about their husbands as if they were competing for who had it worst.

She flipped the buttery grilled cheese one last time and slid it onto a plate, then held it out to Randall. “We need some furniture,” she said cheerfully.

“No we don’t. We have a couch, a bed, a table with chairs. There’s no room for anyone else.”

“What if we want to have company?”

“No company. Just you and me sweetheart. That’s how I like it.”

She knew this was a little twisted, but she liked it nonetheless: that he didn’t want anyone else in their trailer. Just her. She kissed him. She figured she needed to want less, that she could make it so that being with her was no effort for him. She was working on talking less and not expecting him to answer her, going to Target by herself instead of pleading with him to come along. When Allison had been with Beth, she seemed to always want more: more attention, more conversation, more love. It had turned to poison, the wanting and not having, and instead of sucking out the poison and spitting it on the ground the way Kathleen would have forced herself to do, Allison just let it fester in her blood. Kathleen hated to think about her sister’s dead relationship; she had loved visiting Allison and Beth, the way they decorated their apartment, with lots of ecru and things from Pier One. The way they always made good coffee for her and made her something to eat—she was too skinny, they said. And she had loved the kind way they seemed to treat each other. She was stunned and grief-stricken when Allison confided the relationship had been dead for years, and she decided right then that even though things with Randall weren’t perfect, she would make it work all on her own.

Randall cut back to three days a week working for Souza. He claimed there just wasn’t that much to do and that Kathleen made enough at the salon to cover most of their expenses anyhow.  When she’d come home, he was always on the couch with the remote in his hand, a bottle of beer growing warm on the floor directly below his chin.

“What do you do all day?” she tried not to sound accusing.

“I,” he sat up and held his beer out for emphasis, “am going to write a book. What do you think about that?”

“A book. Wow.”

“Yup. A coming of age tale. Along the lines of Catcher in the Rye. About my sonofabitch father and my pathetic mother. You probably don’t know this about me, but I’m a fucking good writer.”

“I didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. Still, you’ll need a job.”

“This book will make us a fortune. Did I ever tell you how my old man used to throw lit cigarettes at me? He’d light them just to throw them at me? Just for sport. And then I’d have to run around and pick them up before they burned holes in the carpet.”

“God,” she made a face—sincere, appalled.

“People love to read that shit,” he said.

“OK, Randall. But can’t you write and work for Souza? At least part time?”

He sighed. “I am working part time. I’m still working three mornings a week.”

“But that’s like twelve hours. That’s not enough.”

“Don’t nag me, baby. I finally figured out what I want to do with my life.”

“But you know what they say… work is good for your self-esteem.”

“But that’s exactly it: I have no self-esteem. That’s why I have to write the book. And anyhow, you girls love guys with no self-esteem. And it’s not like there’s a lot of self-esteem to be gained repairing leaky faucets and killing cockroaches.”

On Sunday, when Randall arrived home from playing Ultimate Frisbee at the high school, Kathleen was standing in the driveway with another woman. She didn’t even notice him pulling into the parking space. He had to tap the horn to get the two of them to move over so he could park the car. Randall looked over the top of his sunglasses and saw that the woman was tall and straight. She had hair the same length as Kathleen, only blond and graying, wide hips, and big, high breasts. She wore white cut-off shorts and a faded Grateful Dead teeshirt. But there was something ineffably similar about the two women, and it was just the sort of puzzle that grabbed hold of Randall’s attention and held him rapt.

He fussed with his part in the rearview mirror, then stepped out of the car.

“Hi Baby,” Kathleen kissed him. “This is Brenda. She lives on Remainder Way. Brenda this is Randall.”

“Hey. Your wife was just telling me how you’re the super. I was hoping you could fix my faucet,” she slid a pack of Camel filters from her back pocket.

“She’s not my wife,” said Randall quickly.

“Oh, I just figured,” Brenda said to Kathleen. She had large narrow feet and wore boat shoes with no socks.

Randall looked around. “Which one’s yours?”

“406.” In his mind he repeated the number over and over so there was no danger of forgetting. He would go first thing tomorrow. Brenda and Kathleen made a plan to have coffee at Brenda’s trailer on Monday afternoon after work. Brenda explained how she worked as a PCA for a rich lady who called her “my girl.” She shivered with disgust. “I’m going to become a vet tech though, just as soon as I’ve saved enough to go back to school.” She chucked her cigarette on the ground when it had burned down to the filter. “See ya.” They watched her walk off like she was a famous person or some kind of god.

Kathleen worked the late shift that day. Whenever a woman came into the salon, she would compare her to Brenda: she was shorter or stouter or less angular. She colored her hair or had her eyebrows waxed—neither of which would Brenda ever do. Kathleen had never noticed how many customers had that yoga posture she hated, while Brenda slouched like she couldn’t give a shit, probably because she was nearly six feet tall. Usually Kathleen saw women the way she saw blackbirds—every one the same. Women littered the planet like blackbirds. She was a woman who noticed men—though not even since she’d taken up with Randall.

When she got home, Randall had eaten the better part of a large pepperoni pizza. He was drinking a beer and sitting at the small, round table. The TV wasn’t even on.

“Did you get fired?” she panicked.

“No. Jesus. I was just thinking about my book.”

She put her purse down on the table and kissed his head, so relieved. Then she took a piece of pizza. “I’m starving,” she attacked it.

He watched her for a moment. “I know you don’t believe I’m gonna write that book. You don’t think I’m smart enough to write a book.”

“Are you kidding? You’re the smartest person I know. Why do you think I put up with you?” she winked.

“What about Allison?”

Kathleen hesitated. “Except maybe Allison.  She’s crazy smart.”

“Allison couldn’t write a book.”

“If Allison wanted to, she could win the Pulitzer,” Kathleen replied. “She went to Vassar on a four-year scholarship.”

“I know. I know,” he whined. “And she was Valedictorian. You’ve told me 500 times. But that was like 20 years ago. It’s time for her to update her resume.”

“It wasn’t 20 years ago. And Allison will do something amazing some day. Maybe she’ll write something on a tiny piece of paper and tuck it into a bottle and set it afloat in the ocean to be found on another continent years after she dies and it will be the cure for unhappiness.”

“Yeah, right. That’s not exactly her forte,” Randall grabbed for another slice. “And another thing, why didn’t you tell that tall chick that I wasn’t your husband?”

“I didn’t need to! You spit it out before I could open my mouth.”

“I think you wanted her to think we were married.”

Kathleen tossed her crust into the pizza box. “Maybe. Maybe I wanted her to know you were off the market.”

“Sweetheart, if a woman’s interested, she doesn’t care whether you’re married or not,” said Randall, feeling very in demand. He finished off most of his beer in one long swallow and put the bottle on the table for Kathleen to dispose of. He took his place on the couch, but instead of lying down and turning on the television, he sat up and looked out the window. Brenda was walking by, bringing her trash to the dumpster near their trailer, which was a long way from her own. She turned and looked over, trying to see inside the windows. Kathleen grabbed a six of empties and hurried out the door.

“Oh, hey!” she acted surprised to find her there.

“Is that today’s ration?” Brenda teased.

Kathleen held the six up. “These are Randall’s. I hate beer.”

“I prefer whiskey.”

“Me, too,” said Kathleen, exaggerating.

“I’ll remember that.” Brenda lifted the lid on the recycling bin so Kathleen could throw her bottles in. Like a gentleman holding the door open. Then she hauled her own garbage into the trash bin and took a long drag of her cigarette.

“Well, see you tomorrow. Mini golf, right. Is your sister coming?”

“You’re gonna love her. She’s a riot,” said Kathleen, tripping a little on a stone sticking up by the dumpster.

She closed the door behind her and flopped down into a chair. “She’s so great,” Kathleen said, replaying the conversation with Brenda.

“Her trailer’s a dump,” Randall replied. He had the TV on, but he had only turned it on when he saw Kathleen returning. Before that, he’d been watching Brenda. The fact was he’d never seen a better looking woman. Kathleen’s beauty was quirky and anomalous, like a sprightly forest animal with her adolescent body and long, straight nose. But Brenda was constructed like perfect architecture. Sure, he loved Kathleen and he knew he would marry her eventually, but he was hankering bad for Brenda’s weight all over him. He knew she was giving him the signals, too—coming all the way to their dumpster, and the way she stood close while he fixed the faucet, her bare legs dusted in a fine spray of blond hair. She said hardly anything, and she couldn’t be called friendly, but she gave off a strong scent when he was around. He wanted to put his hands on her ass and pull her right up against him, and he would too. Maybe tomorrow.

The next day there was note on Brenda’s door: Let yourself in. He looked around and sat on her bed for a few minutes. She had very few sentimental objects, just one picture of each of her two kids and a painting of a dog that looked like maybe she’d done it herself or someone had done it for her. He looked in her refrigerator: cheese, yogurt, tortillas, a half–eaten tomato, and a jar of dill pickles. He opened the pickles and ate one. On top of the fridge was a well-consulted bottle of Jim Beam. He took a swig, walked around the trailer swinging it, then put the cap on and returned it to its spot. Her sneakers were by the door, the laces all in a tangle. They looked big enough for him to slide his feet into. He held his foot up next to one. Yup. They were huge.

That evening, Allison pulled up behind Kathleen’s car, her newly-adopted retired service dog, Jiminy, beside her on the passenger’s seat, radio blaring Psycho Killer. She accidentally tapped Kathleen’s bumper, then dragged up on the emergency brake, the sound so loud it traveled into the trailer. Brenda, who was inside having a beer, looked out the window. “Your sister’s here,” she said, squatting a little to get a better look. Kathleen gathered her purse and bottled water. They piled into Allison’s beaten up Volvo. Kathleen sat in the backseat with Randall and Jiminy.

“Isn’t this a great car?” Kathleen said to no one in particular, but mostly to Brenda, all excited, wanting the evening to be a success.

Allison got a hole in one on every shot. Jiminy wait calmly on the green like he was used to this, following to the next hole, as if he’d been a service dog for a blind miniature golf player. Brenda shook her head every time Allison made a shot. She told Allison about her dog, Fred, who had looked a lot like Jiminy. When he died, she said, she was so devastated, she swore she’d never get another dog and so far she hadn’t.

“Would he sit next to me and be my good luck charm? Just once?” she asked.

“Sorry. He’s a monotheist,” Allison replied. She cracked a dry smile. Then she got a hole in one on the sixth tee, one of those tricky ones where the ball goes down a chute and comes out somewhere far away. Brenda told Kathleen and Randall, “From now on we’re calling her Tiger.”

Kathleen forced a weak smile. “OK.” Brenda and Allison walked away. Kathleen whispered to Randall, “Why Tiger?”

“She means Tiger Woods, stupid,” he said, humorless.

Allison and Brenda seemed suddenly to be on a date. They shared a cigarette over by a thick oak tree while Kathleen and Randall waited in silence. Suddenly they couldn’t think of a thing to say to each other. Kathleen couldn’t stop turning to watch the two women, the truth of it all coming to light slowly, as if emerging from behind a thick wall of smoke.

“Quit staring,” said Randall.

“I just want to get their scores.”

“Who cares about their scores? It’s a fucking retarded game.” He tapped his club against the inside of his boot and thought how he wished he was home working on his book. Whenever he was out he wished he was writing, but when he was home he never did.

“Where’d you learn to play golf like that?” asked Brenda, exhaling a long stream of smoke away from Kathleen.

“Well, it isn’t golf, is it? It’s golf for idiots.”

“It’s mini golf. Where’d you learn to play mini golf like that? You’re like the mini golf champion of the world.” She leaned back against the tree and crossed her legs at the ankles. She was in no hurry to bother with Randall and Kathleen now that she’d met Allison, whose dark looks and intelligent eyes had taken hold of her. She kept wanting to touch her—playfully punch her shoulder, guide her with a hand on the back, pick an ash out of her hair—but she held back, not wanting to scare her off.

“I have a special gift for sports that require no athletic ability,” said Allison. Brenda laughed.

They caught up to Randall and Kathleen. “You’re up, Tiger,” Brenda said. Kathleen thought it had started out innocent enough, this Tiger big, but that it was beginning to sound private and obscene.

Later, when they pulled into the trailer park, they all sat in the car while Brenda gave a blow-by-blow of Allison’s miniature golf achievements. Randall and Kathleen were silent. Then Kathleen saw Brenda put her hand over Allison’s on the emergency brake. She slapped Randall’s leg. “Come on.”

The moon was full, throwing a blue tint over everything in the trailer. They had sex, eyes closed tight, Randall propped up on his fists. Afterward, Kathleen thought about her vibrator.

“Did you figure her for a dyke?” Randall asked.

“Duh.”

“She doesn’t look like a dyke. All that hair.”

“Randall, you’re an idiot. A lot of lesbians have long hair. Allison’s hair is long.”

“Yeah, but Allison is fat.”

“She is not fat.”

“That bitch was flirting with me,” he said.

“I never saw her flirt with you.”

“Well, she’s not going to do it in front of you. My wife!”

“I thought she was flirting with me.”

“Well, she probably was. Now that we know she’s a lesbian. I mean, you’re a great looking woman. Why wouldn’t she flirt with you?”

“Not everything is who’s good looking and who isn’t. There are other components to attraction, Randall.”

“Yeah, like what?”

“Don’t you value my kindness? My sense of humor? My intelligence? My cooking?” She felt like she was talking to a toddler.

“Of course. But I love you for your great little tits.”

She ignored him, staring off at nothing. “Well, obviously I wasn’t her type either.” Kathleen swallowed the rejection like a fat pill.

Randall fell asleep quickly like he always did after sex. Kathleen got out of bed and for the first time felt cramped in the small trailer. She wished she could step through the wall into a world where Brenda chose her. She poured a glass of orange juice and sat at the table, studying her hands, her ragged nails. Allison had gotten the better hand, their mother’s hands. Kathleen was happy for her sister—though she was surprised at how instantly Brenda chose her. But why should she be? Allison was amazing, not to mention gay. Kathleen would learn to love Brenda as a sister. She glanced over at the long lump Randall’s body formed under the molded blanket, then had to look away.

Skinny Bitches (a short story)


They were all surprised to see Betsy when she turned up at Marie’s Pub a few months after her husband died, dressed in suede pants and a vest trimmed with rhinestones, wearing blue eye shadow and raisin lipstick. Her white hair was feathered back and stiff; she might have been an extra on some seventies TV show. She high-fived all the youngsters and slapped big hugs on the regulars. There were no seats at the bar so she leaned against the wall, singing along to “Me and Mrs. Jones” and sashaying her arms in the air, trying to get the others to join in. She was drunk already, John could tell, which surprised him: he’d never known her to drink much when Mike was alive.

He stepped out from behind the bar to say hello. He looked older than his 40 years because of the deep lines on his face, particularly around the eyes, but the women all agreed those wrinkles gave him character and his stooped posture made him seem thoughtful and preoccupied with important things. He wore a long ponytail pulled through the opening in back of his baseball cap and hiking boots with thick wool socks—even in summer.

“Oh, what a relief to be among the living!” Betsy slapped his shoulder. She had made sureto leave one light on inside for her Chihuahua, Jocko, and one outside so she’d be able to navigate the steps that led from her driveway to the front porch. If only Mike had lived long enough to build that garage he’d always promised her, she wouldn’t have to worry about slipping on the ice on her way into the house.

“I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner,” she grinned like an escaped convict.

“Well, it’s good to see you, Betsy.” John had a slow, deep way of talking, like he was reading instructions.

“How about a big glass of Chardonnay for a thirsty widow?” she asked, a tease in her voice.

He ignored the drunken patrons slapping down their beer money while he poured Betsy a glass of wine. “On the house,” he handed it to her. After that, she was at Marie’s nearly every night of the week.

Mike and Betsy had been townies. Met in high school, married just after graduation. Tried to have children but couldn’t. Betsy was secretly relieved. She knew she couldn’t manage a floppy bundle that cried all the time. Plus she was afraid any baby of hers would inherit her lazy eye, which had been a source of grief and shame her whole life. When she miscarried the second time, she told Mike she wanted to start an upholstery business, so he built her a shop in the basement, got her all the equipment she needed on eBay, even an industrial sewing machine that cost a couple thousand. And then one night he died of a heart attack while she was hammering tacks into a couch.

At first people dropped over all the time, and then the visits waned and Betsy found herself worried about money and safety and whether she’d be alone for the rest of her life. They gave her Mike’s route at the post office, which meant she had to get up at 4:00 a.m. six days a week and deliver mail all over the county for $12 an hour. She was 55, had a backache each day until noon; but that didn’t stop her from occasionally pulling over while she was delivering the mail to collect felled branches, cutting them with a chain saw right there in the back of her Subaru.

Most nights she’d wake suddenly, sit straight up in bed, and cover her mouth with her hand, suppressing a scream. She had nightmares, often about intruders or Jocko freezing to death or, strangest of all, the night she dreamt she was fighting someone invisible but terribly strong; no matter what she did she could not fend off this person, and then it became apparent she was actually fighting herself. She’d sit up in bed, hoping the familiar sights would quell the panic. But always she’d have to go somewhere else—usually the living room—and it would be hours before she could face her bed again. She’d pull Jocko in with her, squeezing him against his will (he preferred to sleep by her feet).

Winter had only just started. She’d dragged the metal can of salt up onto the porch from underneath where they’d always stowed it. Soon it would be deadly cold. There was propane to pay for and wood to haul from the pile, and by February her driveway would be so iced over, she’d have to park at the bottom and walk up the hill.

She was still in her bathrobe on Sunday morning when she saw John’s truck pull up her driveway.  He hopped down and moved slowly, but Betsy thought he had a grace about him, long legs that took big steps, as if under water. She stepped out onto her porch, her hand around a mug of coffee, her fluffy white robe pulled tight around her settled waist.

“Well, good morning, Mr. Cooper,” she said.

“Hiya Betsy. How are you feeling this morning?”

“Well, it’s a bit nippy out here, don’t you think?”

“Oh, it’s not so bad. Just a preview of what’s to come. Anyhow, I brought you a present.” He held up her wallet.

“Oh, sweet Mary. What the hell is wrong with me? Thanks a million. You could have just called. I would have come and gotten it.”

“It was right on my way,” he said.

“Want to come in for a cuppa Joe?” She motioned toward the house. “I’m freezing my tootsies off.”

“Sure.” He stepped onto the porch and opened the sliding door, followed Betsy inside and sat at the table.

Betsy was thrilled to have company so early in the day. She filled a mug with coffee and cream (she assumed everyone took cream) and set it on the table in front of him, then sat down opposite him on an oak pressback chair.

“Man, there were a lot of drunks carrying on last night,” said John.

“Oh, that isn’t fun.”

“It sure ain’t. I’ll tell you, sometimes I just want to let them drink ‘til their eyeballs are floating.” They both chuckled. Everyone knew that John was clean and sober in AA and had been for about a year. Thankfully, he kept quiet about it. But it wasn’t so long ago he was weaving his way through town with a bottle in a bag, tripping over fire hydrants. So people were glad for him that he’d taken care of his problem.

“Well, I confess I like a glass of wine or two in the evening. It makes the stars brighter.”

“Best that you remember your wallet though. Lucky for you it was Davy who found it.”

“It’s old age. You lose your looks, your libido, and your memory. And not necessarily in that order.” She grinned.

“Well, I don’t want to stick my nose where it don’t belong, but if you ever want to go to a meeting with me, I’d be more than happy to take you. If you hate it, you could just say the word and we’ll leave.”

“You mean one of those alcoholic anonymous meetings?” She laughed as if nothing could be more ridiculous. “I have a girlfriend who goes to those meetings. Practically every night of every week. Talks about her higher power. One day at a time. Turning it over. All her friends now are from those meetings. I swear I hardly ever see her.”

John knew what that was about. Probably an old drinking buddy who needed to change her circle to keep clean. He put his coffee cup down on the table. Well, he’d done it. Someone had complained about Betsy’s driving at night, a few of them had discussed it, and John was appointed to reach out to her. He worried there would be a night when no one would catch her stumbling out the door and she’d wrap her car around a tree on the short drive home—there were plenty of trees and signs and buildings, not to mention deer and bears and all those animals that dart into the road, forcing you to swerve. And no one wanted anything bad to happen to Betsy.

He settled in while she told him a long story about her mother running over her own foot. She laughed like it was the funniest thing that had ever happened to anyone. She stood up to reenact it, miming one hand on the steering wheel, one foot on the gas pedal, the other on the pavement. She waved her hands up and down. “You see what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense.” John forced a chuckle, thinking her mother was probably too old to be driving.

She got a bill on Monday from the tree guy. She’d dipped into the savings from Mike’s pension to have some trees cut down, deadwood and leaning birches that looked as though they were aiming for her roof. Now sunlight poured into her kitchen and every time she saw it, she felt disquieted, thinking that soon she would be old and poor and without a husband. She put her mail on the kitchen table, took her $7.99 bottle of wine, and went down into the basement where she was working on a couch for a wealthy young couple from New York who had bought a summer home nearby. It was a gorgeous Queen Anne sofa, and they wanted it reupholstered in pink velvet. Furniture tacks all around—not consistent with the Queen Anne style, even she knew that. They had agreed on a price of $2,000, which would help get her through the winter. Still, she knew she could not afford to live alone. She’d considered advertising for a roommate, but she was so set in her ways, just beginning to adjust to life alone—and not really minding it. And it depressed her, the idea of a roommate at 55 after having lived with Mike for 34 years, which had not exactly been a walk on the beach.

She gently removed the gold fabric that covered the sofa, folding it neatly and placing it in a box where she kept all the recycled fabric she was saving for a patchwork quilt she still hadn’t started. She worked and drank until she couldn’t see well enough to sew. There was nothing for her to do but go to bed in her sweats without brushing her teeth, pulling Jocko close even though he tried to squirm away. “Too bad, mister,” she said, “Mama needs you.”

Tuesday night she was back at Marie’s on the last bar stool, staring at John. He wore a blue baseball cap and a hooded sweatshirt, and she noticed that he never handled his tips until the customer wasn’t looking. She hadn’t realized she was looking at him, but when he waved she looked down, embarrassed, and waved back, a coy one-finger-at-a-time gesture. He took a sip of his club soda and got Judy, the other bartend, to relieve him so he could go outside for a smoke. He stepped out from behind the bar and asked Betsy if she wanted to keep him company while he indulged his habit. Suddenly a cigarette sounded divine. She hadn’t had one since Mike was alive. She followed John outside, pulling her denim jacket tight around her. There was a bitter prick in the air.

“Could you roll me one of those?” she asked.

“One of these? You don’t want one of these, do you? They don’t even have filters.”

“Mike smoked the same thing.”

The moon was high and the leaves were shimmering. She remembered her twenties, when everyone would come outside in winter time, strip down, and jump in the lake. She never did. She was not the type to get naked in front of people. Instead, she stood at the shore and laughed, as if it didn’t bother her, all her shyness and shame at not being pretty.

Some young girls came outside. They giggled. Three of them were skinny with long hair and tight pants, short little jackets, and shoes with heels so high and unsteady, Betsy expected they would didn’t topple over. She had to laugh.

“Hi John,” each one called out.

“Hi girls,” he said. He flicked his ashes, embarrassed at the attention. Suddenly, it occurred to Betsy that he would be the perfect roommate. He was handy, he had a job, and she knew he needed a better place to live. Plus, she’d been in his apartment once and it was neat and clean.

“How are the Long River Apartments?” she asked him.

“Well, besides the cockroaches in the kitchen and the rats in the laundry room, it’s not so bad. The rent’s cheap.”

She leaned in for a light. The first drag made her cough. Then she took a deep drag and thought how smoking comes right back to you. Like riding a bike. She looked at John, considered telling him this, but he was gazing far off, thinking about something important. She thought how she was an old lady with white hair, but she didn’t feel old, she felt drunk, and that made her feel worldly and ripe.

“How’d you like to be my housemate?” she asked, taking a drag. “I have a beautiful, sunny room on the first floor, toward the back of the house; well, what am I talking about? You’ve seen the room. It’s just sitting there: vacant. You could have it in exchange for help around the house and, oh, say, $300 a month.”

“$300? That’s awfully cheap.”

“If you could bring in the wood and carry my upholstery projects sometimes, that would be a huge help. Not all the time. I wouldn’t be after you all the time to do things. Just occasionally.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Betsy. I’m a pretty odd duck.”

“Oh, please. You don’t know about odd ducks. I sing songs to my dog. And I eat the same thing for dinner every night.”

“Oh yeah? What’s that?”

“Pork chop and peas. And I listen to the same CD while I eat.”

“What CD is that?” John smiled.

“Celine Dion.”

“That might be a deal breaker,” he teased.

“Okay, you can choose the music. I need a change. Not that we’d have to eat dinner together every night. We can be as independent as you’d like.”

He chucked his cigarette. He had a soft spot for Betsy. And he liked her house, all that knotty pine: the walls, the floors, the ceilings. The kitchen was small and always spotless, with one of those windows that juts out to accommodate plants. She had an old TV, not one of those huge ones where everyone is pulled wide in both directions. And covering every surface were ceramic knickknacks: Chihuahuas, Polish pottery, little bluebirds, gingerbread houses. Doilies hung in the windows and covered the seats. John’s room—if he took it—would be on the first floor in the back, right next to the bathroom. And Betsy’s room was upstairs next to her office and a second bathroom. So privacy wouldn’t be an issue. He told her he was definitely interested. And he asked if he could drive her home, but she insisted she was fine to drive.

Later his ex-wife came into the bar hanging all over her latest hobby. She wouldn’t even look at him. He watched her climb up onto the pool table to make a shot. She had trouble getting up there because she had short legs, and he laughed, turning away in case she looked over. He wanted to hate her. Or to feel nothing. But he still thought of her hands and feet and the way she looked just after a shower when her hair clung to her neck. Plus he felt sorry for her. She was desperate for something she couldn’t even name. He couldn’t name it either.

He moved in on a Sunday. One truckload and he was out of that dump. Betsy waited at the house, dressed in a sweatshirt and dungarees, and she waved frantically as he pulled up the driveway. She climbed into the back of the truck and handed stuff down to him; he piled boxes on the porch. Jocko was barking inside, his wet nose filming up the sliding glass doors.

“The sun is just pouring into your room today,” said Betsy.

“Fantastic.”

“I’ll tell you, I thought about firing up the stove, but I always wait as long as possible—usually until Christmas—that way the wood pile lasts through ‘til May.”

“That’s smart, Betsy,” he said. This was the first piece of bad news. He hated to be cold.

In an hour, they’d cleared out the truck bed and moved everything inside. Betsy made tuna sandwiches with pickle slices and potato chips, glasses of lemonade. They sat at the dining room table.

“Boy, they’ll be gossiping,” she said after a long silence.

“Yes, they will.”

“What do you think they’ll say?” she asked.

“Oh, they’re always saying something. As if a man and a woman can’t be friends. As if we’re in the dark ages.”

“It’s asinine,” said Betsy, disgusted. “I should have moved to Florida. That was my original plan when Mike died. This town is too small. People’s minds are the size of warts.”

“Well, who cares? If it entertains them, then maybe it’s keeping them out of trouble.”

“That’s a very positive attitude, mister.”

“I have lots of experience looking on the bright side.” But this he said sadly, as if it wore on him, all this optimism and the effort to cultivate it.

That night the bar was closed so John decided to go to a meeting. He invited Betsy to come along and she considered it, but declined. He was glad to go alone. He already felt the need for solitude. When he got home, he stopped on the porch and knocked. She hopped up, startled, then mock-chastised him for not letting himself inside. “I left the door unlocked,” she said. “You live here!” And she promised to have a key made for him in the morning. “Did you eat dinner?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, I’ve got an extra pork chop and some peas. How’s that grab ya?”

“It grabs me very well,” he said.

She’d left her glass of wine on an end table in the dark living room. “American Idol” was playing on the television. John stood in the threshold watching TV while Betsy nuked the food. “That kid is going to be the next Barbra Streisand,” she called from the kitchen. “For my money, she’s better than Barbra Streisand.” She gave him a plate, then plopped down onto her spot on the couch, snatched up her wine, and stared at her TV show, marveling at all those kids making a vainglorious grab for the American Dream.

When John had finished eating, he sat in the brushed cotton recliner.

“You can smoke in the house,” said Betsy.

“No…”

“Yes, mister, you certainly can. Let me find you an ashtray.” She was too drunk to be ashamed about how drunk she was. She heaved herself out of the sunken sofa and went rummaging about in the kitchen for something resembling an ashtray. “It’s funny,” she said. “I really ought to reupholster this couch. But that’s how it always is. You never do for yourself what you do for everyone else.” There was a bitter edge to her voice.

“Oh,” she exclaimed, thrilled to find a tiny cast iron frying pan with two little indents carved into the top for resting a cigarette.

“Look at that,” he said.

“Isn’t that cute? Finally someone can use it again.”

John’s parents owned the only convenience store in town. They had bought the bankrupt property, then added gas and propane and DVDs. They were wealthy now, but John never asked for anything, though occasionally his mother would slip him fifty dollars when his father wasn’t looking.

“You what?” his father said.

“I moved in with Betsy Lyst.”

“Why on God’s earth would you do that?” He pretended he hadn’t already heard from Nancy, John’s ex, who had delivered the news with aplomb followed by derogatory comments and predictions of disaster.

“Because I don’t want to live in a dump anymore,” John shot back, chucking his cigarette away from the gas pump.

“She’s a real fruitcake,” said his father. “But I suppose that fits: two fruitcakes sitting in a tree.”

“That’s very funny, Pop. I knew I could count on your support.”

His father was changing the prices on the petrol tanks. Gas was going up. “Support? You’re too old for support. When you quit college you wanted support. When you divorced your wife, you wanted support. You work in that dive. And now you’re living with a lazy-eyed widow. You should make things right with Nancy. Then I’d support you. And come to church once in a while. I don’t care about myself, but you’re killing your mother.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t go to church if I don’t believe in God,” John replied, and began rolling another cigarette.

“You are troubled, boy. You need some of that Prozac or Ability. I’ll give you money to go see a shrink. And stop smoking that wacky tobacky by the gas tank.”

“It’s a cigarette. And you know it.”

“Well, things have a way of working out somehow. Looks like Nancy found a man to pony up and give her what she wanted,” John’s father looked at him sideways and up, a mean, caught-ya kind of glare. “You don’t even know what that is—“ he spat on the ground for emphasis.

“I have no fuckin’ idea,” said John.

“Well, don’t look at me. If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”

“Of course you are. You’re dying to tell me.”

“She’s pregnant is what it is. You must have been out smoking margy-wanna when they taught the class in school about how every woman wants a baby. Must have been too stoned to pay attention.”

“You’re ridiculous,” was the best he could muster. He felt disoriented. Hateful. Deceived. Had that always been what she wanted but could not name? He chucked his cigarette too close to the gas tanks and stormed off toward the truck, climbed in, gunned the engine, let the seatbelt warning chime over and over as he did a large semi-circle through the convenience store lot. His father was still muttering, hoping John could hear his derision. John wanted a drink so bad he could taste the tequila hitting the back of his tongue, feel it making a hot quick path down the middle of his body. Sobriety and changing his stripes and cleaning up his act and trying to better himself—none of it fucking mattered. His life was and always would be shit. But he couldn’t face the local liquor store, the resultant spread of news of his fall from grace all over town.

With him Nancy had had an abortion. Said children ought not to have children and that, anyway, she didn’t want to give up her freedom. And John hadn’t protested. Had never thought to protest. He only knew that he wanted her to be happy. Kids, no kids, it really didn’t matter. He ripped up Betsy’s driveway now, jerked the emergency brake up and hopped out, feeling half drunk and in the mood for more. He pounded on the sliders even though he had the new key to the main entrance.

Betsy hopped up from the table where she was enjoying her pork chop and peas, a just-opened bottle of wine. “Mister! Where’s that key?”

“Got anything stronger?” he nodded at the wine.

“For who?” she asked, puzzled.

“Tequila would be my first choice.”

“I have scotch,” she shrugged.

“That’ll do.”

She filled a short glass a quarter of the way, then held it away and cocked her head. “Is this really a good idea?”

He held out his hand.

By six, the sun was low in the sky, and Betsy had turned a few lights on. She was less inclined to sit in the dark now that she had someone else to consider.

“Want to watch some TV?” she asked.

“Brilliant. How about one of those gruesome reality crime shows?”

“Really?” she clapped her hands together, excited. She flicked on the TV. John had finished the bottle of scotch and started on Betsy’s wine. He stood in a dark corner of the room, trying not to replay the scene with his father.

“Can I just say, I hate my ex-wife.”

“She’s unpleasant,” Betsy agreed.

“Don’t you think so? I mean, really. Isn’t she just a nasty individual?”

“I think you’re too nice for her.”

“Thank you, Betsy.” She sat on the couch, in her spot, and he sat down on the other end of the couch, where he’d never before sat.

“How about we have a cigarette?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and rubbing her hands together like a little animal.

“I hate to be a bad influence,” he said. He removed his pouch of tobacco from his pocket and rolled a cigarette while Betsy went to get the ashtray from the dish drain.

On television a woman had been found in a dumpster behind an aerobics studio. She was the instructor. Everyone hated her because she was mean.

“She was a skinny bitch,” said Betsy.

John laughed. “Like my ex-wife.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked cautiously.

“I hate her.”

“She is awful.”

“Does everyone hate her?” he asked, beginning to feel better.

“I don’t know anyone who likes her.”

“Men like her,” he said quickly.

“Oh, men like skinny bitches,” she waved her hand dismissively.

“I don’t.” He shook his head. “Not anymore.”

On the program, the suspect, the instructor’s boyfriend, was exonerated. His other girlfriend was charged. They agreed that she was also a skinny bitch. She was indignant, claimed she was being framed. But everyone interviewed on the program said she was guilty. They all hated her. Betsy and John did too.

Betsy got the bottle of wine from the kitchen and poured some more into John’s glass. He grabbed her wrist and held it in his hand. He pulled her onto his lap, put his arms around her thighs, and locked his hands together. Something inside her fell like a dead bird from the sky.  She held the bottle of wine on her lap. She knew she needed to get up. So much depended on her getting up. On television a commercial advertised pads for women with incontinence. That made it worse.

“How about those cigarettes?” she said.

“Oh, I rolled one for you.” He handed it to her. She took it and gingerly unfurled herself until she was standing again. She felt like she’d stopped an explosion. John rolled a second cigarette and they watched another crime show, in silence, as though they’d had an argument. She hoped he’d forget what had happened, and that she would not regret walking away from one night that might have offered her a few hours of pleasure.

On Morning Writing Practice–”Skinny Bitches”


So, I have this story, “Skinny Bitches,” about a woman, Betsy, who is widowed and lives in a rural town and drinks too much, and a man, John, who is newly sober in AA and works as a bartender and eventually becomes her roommate. The story is really about sexual politics and the difficulties of rural life, as well as the struggles inherent for both genders in relating to the opposite sex in any kind of unadulterated way. Betsy and John are friends but alcohol comes back into the picture and one night he changes the whole tenor of their relationship. It is subtle, the change, but unmistakable and probably irreparable.

But the thing I want to write about is what happened this morning. Last night I gave a reading to a very small crowd. You can’t even call it a crowd. It was more like reading to a dinner party without dinner. It was actually quite relaxing as readings go–they were great–but still a bit disheartening. And then I was up half the night going over and over things in my head, I awoke exhausted this morning. The last thing I expected was that I would suddenly know the missing ingredient in this story, “Skinny Bitches,” which has alluded me for many months.

So I sat down, suspecting I might know how to fill in this one section that wasn’t quite working, wasn’t quite up to snuff. And I started writing. And suddenly, not only had I fixed the problem spot, but I had tied up all the themes of the story in one three-paragraph block. It doesn’t matter what it was, though when the story is truly finished, I will put it on the blog. I entered the edits onto the computer, rewriting it as I went. I am convinced it was one of those creative miracles I live for, where you suddenly know the answer to the story’s missing link. And I love this about the creative process…. how it’s all in there, and sometimes it just has to gel for a long time and then it just slides out as firm and formed as a jello mold. What a fantastic beginning to a winter day.

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