2020 Fiction Judge
Jane Hamilton, Fiction
Best-selling author Jane Hamilton lives, works and writes in an orchard farmhouse in Wisconsin. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s magazine. Her first novel, The Book of Ruth, earned the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel and was a selection of the Oprah Book Club. Her second novel, A Map of the World, was an international bestseller.
The Atlantic Monthly called Hamilton “among the most graceful and thoughtful writers to work the fertile ground that is the Midwestern family.”
Hamilton grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, as the youngest of five children. She earned prizes for poetry and short stories throughout high school and college, but she was always told that being a writer would not be a viable career. And because she wasn’t a good speller, she didn’t believe she could be a copy editor or editor.
Hamilton graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, in 1979 as an English major. She became an intern with Dell Publishing for Children after college and set out for New York to become an editor. She stopped to visit a friend’s apple orchard in Rochester, Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, who was a partner in the orchard operation. Soon after, she moved to the orchard farmhouse, which allowed her the freedom to write during the off-season.
Hamilton’s third novel, The Short History of a Prince, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 1998 and was shortlisted for the 1999 Orange Prize. In 2000, the Wisconsin Library Association named Hamilton a Notable Wisconsin Author.
All of her books are set, at least in part, in Wisconsin. Of her writing, novelist Laura Moriarty says, “I like Jane Hamilton for her compassionate portrayals of characters most people would ridicule, and the way her books show the beauty of rural life without romanticizing it.”
Yes, No, I Don’t Know
by Kathryn Gahl
Rumors about Gabe and Sally began even before their rush job at the courthouse and reception at Hika Bay Tavern where Gabe did the toasting and Sal – nickname for Sally – did the eating, the menu being a quarter-barrel, broasted chicken, fries, and anemic beans. Afterward, they drove to their Southland Runabout, a rusting trailer slightly bigger than a dog kennel, parked at the old campground.
A month later, night had not made it to dawn when Gabe rolled out of the stiff mattress, shuffled to the kitchen, and opened a frayed curtain. He heard the Schnell Implement sign across the road, metal clanking against a pole in the wind. He peered out. A half-moon lit up tall grasses in the ditch. The sky was a burnt lilac. One ferocious cloud resembled a lion. In a few hours, he’d be hobbling among Schnell’s rows of new and used John Deere tractors, tillers, and field mowers bigger than Kansas. When he wasn’t selling, he would weld, hammer, or order mowers for next season, including parts to repair them.
He closed the curtain and poured a glass of milk. He was going to be a father. How would he do? What if it were twins? What if it had Downs syndrome? He wrinkled his brow and took a gulp, then sat down at the table bolted to the floor. Sal had covered the table with contact paper, a checkerboard pattern in black and white. Every time he looked at it, his eyes jiggled. He lifted the curtain again and considered the implement yard. A pile of used tractor tires loomed in the dim enclosure. For a buck or two, a side-lying tire could become a flowerbed or sandbox. A sandbox. Little Matchbox cars. A train set. He emptied the glass. From the trailer’s other end, he heard Sal. She was nearly three months, already signed up for prenatal class, eager to flex her muscles, push the kid out. Kids having kids, some would say, to which Gabe would reply, Heck yah and Sal, who played basketball, softball, and volleyball, would say with confidence, no pain, no gain, unaware as any nineteen-year-old would be that there are neither laps nor drills for giving birth.
He heard her pad toward the bathroom, open the plywood door, and flick on the light.
She screamed, a high-pitched shriek.
He turned, thinking mouse, spider, plunger. She wailed again, louder, and he was there in five hops, arms against the doorjamb, eyes squinting against a naked desolate bulb. He saw her curled lips, her cheekbones mottled and splotched. What the hell, he thought. She was tilted on her axis, holding up the walls of the small cubicle. Soda crackers, he thought. And then he saw her thighs, a river of red running down them. “Jesus,” he said.
She yowled like a puppy with its tail in a door. She found the toilet seat and sat down in a spread-eagled fashion. Blood trickled steadily, the bright red kind when a wound was new, not the monthly burgundy smear. Her chin quivered and panic packed the corners of her mouth.
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
“No. Yes. I don’t know!” She writhed back and forth.
Gabe momentarily retreated to his interior, flummoxed. The only time he had seen this much blood was when Skeeter’s Dad tied a rope around hooves sticking out of a laboring cow and pulled and pulled until a newborn calf and blood and more blood gushed into the box stall. Sal began to hyperventilate. In the gloom, the distance between them expanded and contracted. The air in the small space stifled, recycled. “This isn’t good,” he said, moving toward her. She was panting and he touched her arm, his contact nervous yet empathic.
“Don’t,” she said.
It was a flash point and with great restraint, he said, “Like this is my fault.”
She daubed at the blood and caught a gelatinous glob, the shape of a clenched fist yielding, slipping away. Across the road, the implement sign sounded like a gong calling Buddhists to worship. “No-o,” she said, quieting now, the careful diffusion of emotion, piecemeal and slow. She ran every game strategy in her mind – lead a spade to his jack, time to bunt, go to a zone – and came up short, defeated. He, meanwhile, had a glimpse of the night he journeyed with his own plans, the detour he took, and how some simple thread kept him alive after he crashed the Harley, severing a leg, but still, alive.
And now this, their tiny babe, had neither strategy nor a thread to call on. Before their eyes, this little one dripped into the toilet like sewage. He watched his bride. Her lips tremored and her eyes had gone gray, flat washers with holes in the middle. Sorrow as the deepest thing had come to him when his mother collapsed and died before him. It had come again as he lay in the ditch, holding his detached leg. This sorrow was her first.
He watched her open her hand and spread her fingers wide. Slowly, she rubbed them to her soupy thigh. And then, her palm coated with blood, she pressed the fire-red-wet to her tummy. She marked the little belly with a handprint, then elevated both hands like a pagan in a ritual for the dead. “He didn’t want to be here,” she said, barely audible.
“Weren’t we right for him?” Gabe asked, gazing at the blood print on her belly. He kissed the tips of his fingers, then released them, his breath and outspread fingers sending the kiss into the trailer redolent of dried hair spray and snuffed cigarettes. He moved closer. Their eyes met, two people in search of connection. Then he looked down. So did she, watching, as he lined up his thumb and fingers with her handprint on the smeary belly. She held very still, her cheeks laced with tears, snot blocking one nostril. He began to make a figure eight on the belly until there were no handprints, just a coating of crimson. “Maybe he didn’t want us,” he said, choking up, “but we wanted him.” She collapsed into Gabe and he braced her.
In the half-light, there seemed no future, only the present, the sound of that implement sign clanging in the October wind.
Judge’s Comments: In three and a half pages the writer sets the stage – the teenagers living in a trailer are going to have a baby – the father-to-be anticipating the great event, when the miscarriage occurs. The story is a distilled exploration of the tragedy, of sorrow, asking the important questions, coming up with answers that may or may not comfort. It’s more poem than story, beautiful, compelling and sad. – Jane Hamilton
by Victoria Smith
“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold said. He dipped his bread—toasted and buttered by Alice—into his sunny-side-up eggs and broke the membranes, which Alice had taken the utmost care to preserve. Yolk oozed across the plate. He moved his bacon to the side.
“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.” She sprinkled sugar on strawberries she’d picked yesterday while kneeling in the sandy garden soil. She wanted to see their daughter without Harold. Their son-in-law was stationed in Italy with the Air Force. He was halfway through an eighteen-month training before shipping out to Vietnam.
Alice was thirteen years younger than Harold. She’d once thought it romantic to marry an older man. Other women had gushed about his dancing skills, good looks, and charm. Alice pictured his wavy hair, sparkling eyes, and dazzling smile as if she were looking at the photograph taken of him on the night they met in 1932.
He asked her to dance four times, including the last dance. Alice was flattered. Just twenty-two, she taught at a one-room schoolhouse. With a plump figure and looks some called pleasant, but most called ordinary, Alice had resigned herself to the fate of a spinster teacher. But Harold asked to see her again.
The courtship of the thirty-five-year-old bachelor, who owned a business, and the young, plain, buxom school teacher caused tongues to wag among the women who’d expressed interest in Harold. Over the years, Alice had wished one of those women would’ve prevailed with him.
“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold repeated, donning his fedora. “I’ll be back for lunch.”
“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.”
She wanted to stroll along the beaches of the Adriatic Sea without Harold. A dozen years ago an accident made walking difficult for him.
Alice spent the morning ticking through a list of chores before starting lunch. At noon Harold returned and took his seat at the head of the table.
“You’re not going to Italy,” Harold said. His pale, foggy-blue eyes crept above his black-rimmed glasses, which hung low on his nose.
Alice dished up the noon-day meal. Fried potatoes spooned into a bowl decorated with red poppies. Pan-fried chicken placed on an oval platter, its porcelain finish cracked with fine, lop-sided lines. Garden-fresh asparagus laid on a cream-colored, rectangular dish. Alice set the food in front of Harold. He’d told her many years ago he liked to fill his own plate first.
In 1933, after becoming engaged, they took a train to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Alice’s Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley chaperoned. Harold raved about the exhibits from all over the world, and Alice anticipated a life of adventure with a vacation every year or two. She felt lucky. In their small town, a handsome man with social connections and a thriving business guaranteed her status.
Six months after their trip to Chicago, they married. Harold, now thirty-six, told her he wanted children as soon as possible. Their trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago would be the only part of the world he ever took her to see.
Alice watched her previously fun-loving husband work long hours and put his money in the bank. She suffered two miscarriages before giving birth to a boy who grew up wild and headstrong. More miscarriages and another son who ran wild. Another miscarriage, then a daughter, obedient and calm, who grew up to be both a gifted scholar and musician. A daughter who wrote and tempted Alice with rapturous descriptions of the Adriatic Sea along the Italian coast.
“I’m going to Italy,” Alice said, “to see our daughter.” I’m going to see the Adriatic. They ate in silence.
After finishing his meal, Harold gripped his fedora. “I’ll be home for supper. You’re not going to Italy.”
“I’m meeting the travel agent this afternoon.”
At two o’clock, Harold glanced out of his office window and saw Alice in her blue station wagon heading toward the city.
At five-fifteen Harold arrived home. Alice was cooking supper.
“I’m going to Italy with you,” Harold said.
Alice almost screamed, No.
But Harold didn’t like hysterics. She tightened her grip on a pair silver tongs, willing her disappointment down the utensil and into the browning pork chop she’d lifted from the cast iron frying pan in order to flip it.
Alice knew Harold wanted a response. She flipped the sizzling pork chops and replaced the lid with a clang. He’s dull. Her hands whirred as she lifted lids and attended to each pot of gurgling food with clattering spoons. He’s tight-fisted. A symphony of percussion above the stove, she played at her domestic chores. He’s exacting about how his house is kept.
Harold’s scuffling feet shifted her thoughts. She glimpsed his crooked backside and sloping shoulders as he wobbled out of the kitchen to wash up for supper. He won’t be able to walk along the Adriatic coast.
Alice dished pork chops onto a platter trimmed in roses, which had belonged to a mother-in-law she’d never met. When Harold was eleven, his mother died, a scant month after his father’s death. Other than a picture, the platter was all he had left of her. He liked it to be used.
Harold sold his family home to build Alice a big house after they’d married. She ladled hot homemade applesauce into a pink depression glass bowl. She never went without a new dress or a reliable car. She scooped green beans slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper into the cut glass bowl Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley gave her as a wedding present. He never strayed. A strawberry-rhubarb pie nested in a daisy-festooned pie caddy the Ladies’ Society gifted her on her fortieth wedding anniversary. Marriage to Harold had made her small-town royalty.
“Ahem.” Harold cleared his throat to announce his return. She knew he wasn’t going to say it again, about going to Italy with her, but he still expected a response.
“I’ll get another ticket tomorrow,” Alice said.
Harold teetered as he took his seat at the head of the table.
Judge’s Comments: The marriage in its entirety, or so it feels, is in these four pages. The refrain, I’m not going to Italy like a lyric in music, holding the story together. The pair of silver tongs, the platter trimmed in roses, the cut glass bowl, each item placed just so in the flow of the story, work to illuminate the wife’s sense of her marriage, the privilege of being small town royalty, the burdens of that role, and the fact that she is tethered to her husband. The poetic compression is impressive. – Jane Hamilton
by Michelle Kicherer
The next-door neighbors often set up bounce houses in their front yard. The multicolored castles would gyrate to the rhythm of screaming, jumping children inside. There was always a part were one kid was crying. Their dads would sit on the porch mildly supervising while they sipped Tecates and talked and laughed. One of those guys must have worked for a party company, or had a cousin who did or something because those things aren’t that cheap to rent and I knew my neighbors didn’t have money. None of us did.
Their yard was like a lot of yards around: thin brown grass halfway covered in flattened cardboard boxes; a couple pieces of old furniture on the sidewalk out front; a pile of garbage stacked on one side of the house next to a rusting wheelbarrow, its tire deflated. Their recycling bins overflowed with beer cans that the neighborhood Vietnamese couple would come collect every morning. They were both old and looked dehydrated; the man would wear a wide-brimmed nón lá hat, the woman would wear blue surgical gloves and they both carried a stick across their shoulders, a black plastic garbage bag bursting with flattened cans tied to each end. Seeing them reminded me I had it easy and I took no offense that they never returned my hello when I greeted them.
I worked from home a lot of the time. I did nutrition consulting for a company based in Minneapolis. On the phone interview I’d told them quite confidently about the meal planning and consultations I used to do when I still worked at the school. It was wonderful, I exaggerated. I have a passion for helping people live their best lives, I lied. By the end of the call they offered me the job, which I accepted without negotiation. I knew that the company wasn’t paying me enough compared to how much they were raking in but I didn’t care, it was paying my bills and such. This was the type of person I’d become. I’d often roll mindlessly through my menu planning then take long pauses to stare out the window of my attic room, which I rented from a man with whom I’d started having a kissing affair. No sex, on his insistence. He just wanted kisses. His wife, Kim, was dying of colon cancer and he needed a sweet young release, I liked to joke.
Our kissing affair started about four months after I moved in and I would have felt more terrible about the whole deal had it not been for Kim’s history. For years, apparently, she had been “getting” with at least four of her students, that we knew of. One day she brought home an undergrad named Jonah who was taking her ethnic studies course at the community college. I heard them discussing natives one afternoon when Tomás working late. One time I asked Tomás if it ever bothered him that his wife was white and teaching ethnic studies.
“I just feel like she’s not that ethnic,” I told him, assuming he knew what I meant.
He just shook his head and leaned both hands on the kitchen sink, looking out the window with a lost-eyed expression. I wanted to ask if I’d offended him but I didn’t know if that’d make the moment more awkward so I said nothing. He said nothing. We watched a pregnant chihuahua hobble by on the sidewalk. Her engorged, drooping nipples made me feel sad.
When I first moved in Tomás told me that he was a coal miner, and although there weren’t any coal mines around as far as I knew, I believed him because his hands were always stained dark black, his fingerprints swirled with soot. The first night we kissed we were at the taqueria down the street. We were supposed to bring tacos home for Kim. When he asked if I wanted to eat ours at the counter, get a beer before we walked back, I said sure.
I asked him if he could make fingerprints with those dirty hands. “Let us see,” he said, taking my napkin. He pressed his fingers down and when he lifted there was a vague representation of his prints.
“Those are like, when they only get half the prints off a crime scene,” I said. “Have you ever seen Unsolved Mysteries?”
“No,” he said blankly. Tomás was from Columbia and though he’d lived in the states for many years by then, he missed a lot of my cultural references. I was also almost fifteen years younger than him. A millennial, he always called me, which I resented. Well, I was born early-eighties though, I’d argue. One time he asked me where I worked before I moved, where I lived, and I used my youth as an evador. You know us millennials can’t sit still, I said, which made him roll his eyes. But like most things, Tomás didn’t press for more information. I liked that about our situation. No one talked about anything.
“Here, you do it like this,” I said, taking his thumb first. I pressed firmly from left to right. “I used to do fingerprints for the school,” I said, holding his thumb as if it were a lighter. We looked down at a light gray print. “Wow, your hands are dirty.”
“They are,” he said. He leaned in, then, cool Tecate on his breath.
A few weeks after that night we were at the same taqueria. Kim was in the hospital again. They had to keep her for treatment, testing. Tomás was lost in all the details and that evening he said, “Is it terrible that I feel–”
I set my taco down because it felt strange to eat when he might say something important. I knew that Kim was not doing well. I also knew that several weeks before her hospitalization, Kim had been put on leave because she was accused of giving preferred treatment to some of her students. She’d been caught behind closed doors with a student named Tatiana and another student, Ray, who accused Kim of coercion. Soon after her suspension Kim told the dean she had cancer and that it was advanced but hopeful. You can function without part of your intestine, I’d offered Tomás as some sort of comfort, I hoped. I was curious what he felt terrible about but was also relieved when he didn’t keep talking.
I waited long enough that I knew he wasn’t going to say anything and pulled his hand from his lap. It was dead-weight heavy but he allowed me to take it. I turned it over and proceeded to trace the lines on his palm. Head, heart. He leaned closer like, forget the comment, forget the wife. “What,” Tomás said low and close. His spicy breath warmed my face. “Do you see?” I wanted to look up and kiss him then, taste the tangy onion and cilantro in his mouth but it didn’t seem like the right moment.
“Hmmm,” I hummed. I looked up at the donkey piñata hanging just behind his head, at the pin the tail on the donkey tacked to the wall. A lot of burros in here, I considered and said, “Give me a moment,” as I traced my finger over Tomás’ rough, sooty palm.
I once read fortunes at a school carnival. The woman who was supposed to do it called in sick that day and the principal knocked on my door and said, do you mind? All you have to do is put this scarf on your head and sit in that tent. He went on as if I had no choice. Here’s a key for how to do the reading, he said, handing me a sheet of paper with a big red palm, arrows pointing to its different creases. He also gave me a stack of tarot cards, which I put in my back pocket. I looked at the hand key. Life line, heart line, health line. It seemed easy enough. The principal said, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but try to make these encouraging.
The school I worked at was a nonprofit for emotionally disturbed kids. It was a K-12 grade school, which meant you’d see lanky teenagers slapping palms with their little first grade homies when they passed each other in the halls. I was one of the many white people who worked there with an almost entirely black population. We had a few Latino kids, too, and one Vietnamese student who rarely spoke to anyone but whom everyone bullied. They called him Ching-Chong. One day he was teased so bad that he let loose, screaming and flailing and saying, I’m not Chinese! I’m not Chinese! and a bunch of other things that were terrible. The teacher and his aids tried to hold him back but he still managed to bite Mr. Keffler on the cheek. Poor Keffler had to get shots and antibiotics to treat what became a terrible, scarring infection. After his sick leave ran out we never saw Keffler again.
Each student that went to that school had had some sort of terrible abuse history: kids locked in dog crates for hours at a time; devastating sexual abuse; assault of all kinds. One kid had half her right hand blown off from her dad lighting a firecracker while she was still holding it. I went into the fortune tent that day not knowing a thing about tarot cards or fortunes or life lines or what to say to those kids but after the ninth grade teacher came in and drew thick black liner around my eyes and tied a red floral scarf to my head I felt legit. You look like a real gypsy woman, she said. I went into my little tent and sat on a short stool at a small round table. I smoothed the dark red tablecloth then called out in a soothing, almost witchy voice that I was ready.
The first student to come in was a teenager who I knew had just become pregnant. I was mad at her at first, because she’d attended my Health Club sessions for weeks. It was an all-girls club taught by myself and Tracy. I was the nutritionist, Tracy was the nurse. Together we thought that maybe we could connect with the girls in a way their teachers and therapists couldn’t. Apparently not, I thought to myself, rather bitterly, when I heard the pregnancy news. In several Health Club sessions we’d gone into extensive detail about contraception and STIs. Afterward I considered that maybe all of her questions were because she wanted to get pregnant. Your body your choice, I’d tell the girls.
Okay, I said, taking her hand. She sat on the short stool across from me, her small round belly already apparent. Her hand was warm and soft and several shades darker than mine. Wow, your life line is very close to your fate line, I said. She nodded very seriously, saying nothing. I went on: this means that your life is more in your hands than you think.
It is? She said. She frowned very seriously at the lines on her hand and nodded for me to go on. I wasn’t sure what else I could offer and felt surprised at my reading’s immediate effect. I moved aside my battery-operated candles and leaned forward. I also see, that your heart line here is deep and forked and gives plenty of room for a strong head line. You know what that means? I paused here, peering through my dark-lined eyes in a way I hoped looked serious and mystical.
What? she whispered.
It means that you have a huge heart, and so much love to give. And that even though you may have been hurt in the past – I paused, lowered her hand, leaned back and hovered my palm over a fake candle – your head is strong and will give you the power to forge a brand new future. I folded my hands on my lap to show that I was done.
She wiped her eyes, which made me feel both guilty and empowered. I pulled a single stem of lavender from the small basket I had sitting next to me and said, here take this. It will give you calm energy. You smell it. Try it now, take a long, deep breath.
She did. I told her to try doing it with her eyes closed and she did. When she opened them she wiped at the corners and said very quietly, thank you. Holding her lavender with both hands she stood up from her stool and left my little tent. The teacher outside was ready to usher in a new student but I said, hold on, I need a moment to clear the aura. Whatever that meant. I was a little flustered, like maybe I’d gone too far. I’d worked there for six years by that point and had never felt I’d done anything terribly useful for those kids. They weren’t really eating an apple a day, they were making two-pointers to the garbage bin with those apples then pulling Spicy Cheetos out of their backpacks. But who was I to take away such joy?
Back in my tent I collected myself. Glanced at my cheat sheet. Life line, heart line, head line, sun line. Okay, I’m ready! I called.
The next student to enter my tent was a tall boy who had to crouch low to not hit his head in the entrance. Before sitting he stood in the most peaked point of my tent, his short afro brushing against the striped canvas. Plastic, whatever it was. I raised a slow, pointing hand toward the stool across from me like, sit there. He sat and rubbed his knees. I waited until he was still. Dramatic effect. I recognized him from one of the high school classes but forgot his name. On another day I would have told him to pull his pants up. I can see your drawers! I’d tell the kids, to which they’d often say snarky back, why you lookin?
He was a very handsome boy, maybe thirteen or fourteen. I remembered a therapist once saying that it’s always the most beautiful ones who have the most trauma. Okay, I started, sure to speak in a low, mysterious voice. I tried not to sound like I had an accent, reminding myself that most of the students probably recognized me from around campus. Put your hand out like this, palm up, I told him.
He reached his hand out palm down, flat as if he were balancing a bead of water between his knuckles. Slowly, he turned his hand over to reveal the pinkish warm skin of his palm.
Ah yes, wow. I see, I said. I let him rest in my left hand while I used my right index finger to trace his lines. Life, heart, head, life, heart, head, I was repeating in my mind. I kept forgetting the other ones. I pressed gently into his life line and he twitched so I stopped. Palm reading was the only time I’d ever made physical contact with a student outside of restraining them. It was a place like that; we were all trained in how to safely hold back a child if they were being unsafe to themselves or others. It was a terrifying place to work, at times.
What do you see? He asked. He seemed nervous, maybe.
I couldn’t remember anything about this kid but couldn’t get it out of my head that he was beautiful. I thought of what that therapist said, then I remembered a day when another lovely boy managed to climb on top of a classroom roof to tell anyone within earshot about how many times he’d been given meth and raped. He raised his hands in the air while he cried out and everyone kept thinking he’d jump. We all watched for a long time, unsure what to say or do. Even the old pros were speechless. His therapist was crying. We had to have a campus-wide staff meeting about it the next day to process what had happened and how to better respond next time. But what are you supposed to say to that?
I see that you have a thin fate line.
What the hell is that supposed to mean? He pulled his hand away.
No no, I said. Here, give it here. I felt sweaty and my jaw felt tight and clenched and for a minute I forgot how to make words. I remembered this kid, or it might have been a different one, slamming a teacher’s aid against a wall and pressing her throat with his thumb then later that day, crying when his uncle came to pick him up. I’d watched from my little nutritionist office as that kid cowered, as the uncle yelled in his face and punched his shoulders until the kid fell over sobbing and staff had to protect him until the police arrived. Who was I to work at that school, to tell those kids to eat their apples, to tell them to toss the Cheetos?
I glanced at my palm reading cheat sheet on the floor next to my stool. Ah, I said. I took his hand again and ran my finger from fate to sun to head to heart. I had no idea what I was doing and started spitballin. I nodded to myself and said, Hm yes, I’ve never seen this. When your fate line is so thin like this, it means that it’s incredibly valuable, I started, and in case that sounded odd, I added, valuable as in, powerful. It means that you get to control your fate, from here on out. There’s still a higher power involved, the Fates and such, but you – I pointed, going for witchy again – you have so much power in your choices.
He leaned back and took his hand away from me. What about the other lines? He asked.
With a heart line like that? You have calm powers of love within you, but you must remember to never lose site of your life line. You know what that can mean for you?
He shook his head. I’d really lured him in. I thought of the other beautiful students. The roof boy.
It means that no matter what fate might give you, you have a special power to overcome. And to love and trust only the people you love and want to trust.
He smiled at first, a big dimply smile that gave me a flush of admiration. Then a troubled look washed over him, something like guilt mixed with recognition. He teared up and pinched at the place between his eyes.
I’m sorry, I said instinctively. I wasn’t sure what for. Maybe I went too far.
He looked down at both his hands and held them out like he wanted me to give them one last read. I took both his hands in mine and rather than read his lines I just held them and squeezed. It was meant to be motherly, nurturing, but maybe I was too young to come off like that. He pulled his thumb out from my hold and gently rubbed the top of my hand. A quick flash of feeling rushed from hand to limbs to core and I felt ashamed and hot and sick. I wondered if he saw it, that flash of something briefly overcome me.
I pulled my hands away and cursed my white skin for flushing and instead of handing him a lavender flower I reached for a tarot card, which I’d forgotten were still in my back pocket. Before you go, I said, hoping to change the subject, the moment, whatever it was. I will show you your cards.
I laid out one card, face down. I didn’t know how many tarot cards people usually do. I didn’t have a key for that. I set down two more then flipped them all in a slow, deliberate way. One card depicted a jester-looking guy holding a cup, one was a prince with a sword, another was a naked woman crouching at a pond. Whose cards were these? I picked up the jester one and handed it to him. I said, this is the one you get to take with you. What do you think it means?
He held the card sideways then upside down and smiled that beautiful, dimpled smile. It means I’m funny, don’t it?
Yes! I said, feeling like I might cry. Yes that’s what it means.
Back at the taqueria I pressed my hand flush with Tomás’ and rubbed our palms together until they were hot. I tried to look serious as I peeled our hands apart and flipped his palm facing up. I felt like a physician conducting an exam so I slowed, ran my finger along his various lines. Wrinkles. “Hm,” I started. “I see that your head line and your heart line do not intersect.”
“What about my love line? Is that somewhere?” Tomás asked, which I thought was lame.
“Your fate line almost reaches your head line,” I said, feeling serious then. As I ran my finger slowly across his palm and down, pressing lightly into the meaty part by his thumb, I thought of another thing I’d heard about Kim. An affair, if that’s what you’d call it, with a beautiful boy.
“You have a hard time making decisions, but your heart line is warm and thick.”
I didn’t look up because it sounded like he was amused. Smirking, perhaps. I said, “Your heart has the power to overcome your head.” I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean, exactly, but I thought of Kim in the hospital, then. Of the nights I’d heard them fighting downstairs. I’d try to replace the noise of angry shouts in the room below by opening my window and letting in the sounds of the street: kids laughing and bouncing; men speaking in low Spanish; a woman calling Baby! Bay-bee! for her dog as it wandered down the street. Sometimes Kim would comment on all the garbage outside. Why can’t they just take that shit to the dump?
I wanted to talk back to that, to tell her that maybe they couldn’t afford it. To tell her to go read an ethnic studies book. But who was I? I didn’t feel I belonged in that home, that neighborhood, nor the school I left months ago where the dimpled boy never said anything as far as I knew, but he’d look at me when he passed my office, when I came into his classroom to teach a health lesson. It was a look of recognition, of testing. I quit at the end of that school year saying that my time had come to move on in my career. I never wanted to work with kids again.
I considered telling Tomás that he should go visit his wife. What if she died alone in the hospital? Or what if she didn’t die, if she came home with half an intestine and found Tomás and their young tennant with hot sauce and husband on her breath. I wanted to ask Tomás what he so felt terrible about but instead I asked, “Are you actually a coal miner?”
He looked down at his hands, where I’d just read his fortune, where I told him how his fate almost reached his head. The skin around his nails was stained black and I imagined that it would never come off, like the tiny piece of lead that was still embedded in my thumb from third grade, when I pushed my cuticles back with the tip of my pencil. “Wait,” I said, closing his sooty palm. “Don’t tell me,” I said, because I didn’t want to know.
Judge’s Comments: The narrator moves through a world that seems strange and dark, she is isolated, everyone she encounters is wounded. When she has the task of reading her students’ palms, telling them their fortunes, the story becomes charged, her wish for happiness and goodness at odds with what she knows to be true. The story moves toward that revelation with a disquieting calm, the writer in full control. – Jane Hamilton
*listed in no particular order
Guilt by Association
by Margaret Hermes
In the confessional, after the Bless Me Father and the aside about how long it had been since my last confession (one month), I asked Fr. Killean if there was any provision in the sacrament for confessing someone else’s sins. “Sounds dubious to me, Rose,” he sighed. “Like fat-free brownies. Sin-free gossip.” So I told him I’d say an extra Hail Mary just for contemplating it.
Mostly I was making small talk. Hitting the confessional every month for the last sixty-seven years – First Fridays for the eventual repose of my soul – there isn’t a whole lot to report. But I have often thought, especially lately, in a small town where everyone knows everybody else’s business, confession by proxy might be just the ticket.
We may be close enough to drive into Chicago for excursions – the occasional White Sox game or a visit to Brookfield Zoo when the kids were little – but we’re far enough removed from city life to think of a Democratic machine as an automated polling booth. There are no Democrats in Edgefield. I’m the only one. Well, nearly. Fr. Killean is a Democrat. His parishioners are always complaining about him to the Archbishop, the militant pro-lifers especially, like they’re hoping he’ll get detention – his name written on some ecclesiastical blackboard with a whole series of sinister check marks after it – and the Archbishop will have to keep him after church and make him vote one hundred times the right way before letting him go back to the rectory.
Anyway, you can drive up and down the whole town during the weeks preceding an election and never see a yard sign for any Democrat except on my corner. I’m not intimidated. I was taught by the nuns to speak my piece. My late husband Harry used to say he wished I’d been taught something more useful, but Harry was proud of the way I held my ground in this town though he didn’t often say it. Harry was a Democrat too.
My best friend Peg and her husband Dick are Republicans. I try to overlook it. Peg Trotter is the closest thing Edgefield has to high society. She buys all her clothes in Chicago and won’t let anybody but some guy on Michigan Avenue named Pietro cut her hair. She and I golf together at the country club. Both our husbands were part of the start-up group that got the country club going. We moved here right after Harry got out of the service after the war in Korea. It was a nice, quiet little town then and, except for the country club, I’d say we haven’t made much progress in the last fifty years.
I know about New England towns where the Republicans are a lot smarter than here in Edgefield. In Vermont or Connecticut – one of those Christmas card states – when they let Wal-Mart come in, the company has to fit itself into the community. Physically fit into an existing, probably abandoned, store in the downtown. In the Midwest we let them build their gigantic superstores on our outskirts, at the edge of the Edgefields, and pretty soon our obsolete little downtowns with their empty storefronts fall in upon themselves, collapse like old mouths without dentures.
Some businesses have managed to stay more or less open. The furniture store is where it has always been since before we moved here, but I don’t believe the furniture in their windows ever changes. I suspect they’re marking time until loyal or lethargic customers buy out their remaining stock so they can finally close their doors.
I never see anyone go in or out of Beverly’s Fine Apparel except for Beverly’s daughter-in-law who’s been in charge for two decades now. The jewelry store must get by on the occasional engagement ring and the regular replacement of wrist watch batteries. The only downtown business that seems to thrive is the optician’s. As the town ages – now even the baby boomers who didn’t move away are graying – I guess the trifocal trade is booming too.
So many of the downtown buildings are owned by widows – the widows of the dentists, lawyers, tax accountant, haberdasher, home insurance agent, carpet salesman, appliance store owner – all of whom came into their property, or the use of it, when their husband or their husband’s business died. Which accounts for the fact that Main Street currently has one ceramics, two yarn and three craft supply stores. The widows of Edgefield like to keep busy.
Several of us have formed a group that meets regularly. Once a month we have a book discussion, a “birthday club” luncheon (which still meets in February and August even though we have no birthdays in those months), and a bridge party. (Elsie, a very nice nonagenarian who votes a split ticket, keeps trying to get us to agree to call ourselves The Merry Widows club. I have promised to withdraw if she ever succeeds.)
Peg has been hinting that she’d like to join us, as if it’s up to me to invite her. I meant no offense when I told her she isn’t qualified. The group is for widows only. That may seem like a harsh requirement since it’s not a woman’s fault if her husband is still alive, but this group sprang up to meet a need. If the wives with husbands still above ground, or the husbands themselves, were a little more open-hearted (I used to think that word was the best way to say generous but now even I hear the suggestion of cardiac surgery), then widows wouldn’t have to band together like Very Senior Girl Scouts to have fun.
Peg and Dick and Harry and I used to go to dinner together at the club every Tuesday night, rain or shine, golf or no, but since Harry’s death, Peg and Dick go on their own. I never expected them to pay for my meal, so that wasn’t it. And I didn’t suddenly get dull or stupid, or more dull or stupid than I’d been before. I had to face it: I have widow cooties. So, I can’t feel too sorry for Peg when she hints at feeling left out from the widows’ get-togethers.
I suppose I’m not as charitable as I might be. Fr. Killean is always preaching charity. But apart from Fr. Killean’s sermons, this is not an easy town to be charitable in. I look around Edgefield and see the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans think they deserve everything they’ve got – if it’s good. When they look at a homeless person, they think the bum should get a job. Democrats look at the same guy and think there but for the grace of God go I. Which is how I came to realize God is a Democrat. It burns me up to hear those Christian Coalition people invoking the name of Jesus. What do they have to do with Jesus? They’re not just Republicans – they’re Old Testament Republicans.
I think back to when Lionel, a high school exchange student from Pakistan, came to stay with us. Very handsome and proper and strangely British like his name. Even the kids were impressed by his manners. Years later we sponsored him for citizenship. He became a doctor finally, an internist, and probably makes more money than all of my three kids put together. But he’s needed it. First he went home and brought back a wife, Sunita, and then pretty soon he sent for his mother. Followed by brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, and then Sunita’s relatives. And most of them settled in Edgefield, making up for the steady stream of third and fourth generation locals moving away. That’s how we came to have two big fancy motels here (serving those third and fourth generations when they come back for family reunions) and two thriving restaurants, one Pakistani, the other Indian, if you can tell the difference, in a town that couldn’t keep a Dairy Queen afloat.
But practically everybody in town has given me the needle about our taking in Lionel all those years ago. They say we began a wave of foreign immigration, a veritable tsunami. They say Edgefield is just crawling with Indians. I don’t mind correcting them. The town is crawling with Pakistanis, I say. (Sunita’s brother is married to an Indian girl – they run the Indian restaurant – but that’s hardly a blip in the population totals.)
Peg’s no better than the rest of them on that score. She says Dick is right when he says that so far the Pakistanis have pretty much kept to themselves, importing their spouses, but what if they start marrying our children? They’ll pollute the gene pool. Peg sometimes actually wrings her hands when she’s looking into the future like that. So I tell her to tell Dick that if they start marrying our children, maybe our grandchildren’s IQs will go up, maybe our grandkids won’t have acne, maybe they’ll know how to run a business. And then I hit her with the nine iron: maybe they’ll respect their elders.
They just made another movie in our town. About respecting one’s elders. The book won a Pulitzer Prize: A Thousand Acres. When we heard about the film we decided to read the book in our widows’ discussion group. I saw an interview with the author who said the book is supposed to be based on the Shakespeare play King Lear, so I decided to read the play too. Well, I just don’t get it. In the play this Lear was a vain old so-and-so who ran roughshod over the one daughter who was the “good girl.” So, fine. I could see a variation in which the good daughter lets him know from the gitgo she’s not going to allow him to stomp all over her self-esteem and then tells him flat out that her sisters are just plain wicked. That would be the modern version. So why did the author have to turn King Larry into an unspeakable monster? I mean, why didn’t she just leave him a jerk? I’m not going to go into the exact disgusting change in case you’re planning to read it, but I don’t think the questions in the play and the book were the same at all. Still, I can’t wait to see the movie. Peg’s son got cast as an extra. And one of our widows has a speaking part of six words.
Edgefield is doing a thriving movie location business. All the movies set in Iowa, or other godforsaken places, are filmed here. Our town is called Edgefield because it’s built on the edge of the world’s biggest cornfield. Actually, the town used to be called West Hamburg but local patriots voted to neutralize the name during World War I. Anyway, we have cornstalks as far as the eye can see. We also have two big, fancy motels for the movie crews to stay at and we have two good, if largely indistinguishable, restaurants right in town. I like to remind Peg and the others that if it weren’t for Lionel and his relatives we wouldn’t have had Jason Robards and Jessica Lange in Edgefield at all. We owe it all to the Pakistanis, I say, not feeling as charitable as I should, Where would Edgefield be without the Pakistanis?
Actually, a number of today’s Edgefielders would probably be underground. Even the Republicans give Lionel credit for the town’s more venerable citizens remaining topside. Why, he had Dick’s cholesterol down below 230 without any drugs at all, but then Peg went back to cooking the old way.
She puts butter on everything: on both slices of bread for sandwiches, on top of every vegetable, even in her spaghetti sauce. She puts cream in her soups and eggs in her casseroles. Last week I stopped by their house to annoy them with some congressional campaign literature and I caught them sitting down to an early supper. I took one look at that table groaning with buttery carrots, creamed onions, beef Stroganoff and a mountain of mashed potato with yellow rivers coursing down its slopes and burst out with, “My God, Peg, are you trying to kill this man?”
Dick laughed a little uncomfortably while Peg shot me a look that caught me square between the eyes. “I’m not the one whose husband died on her,” she said, cutting me down to size and Dick off in mid-titter. She turned back toward Dick with pursed lips. “Now let’s eat before it gets cold, honey.”
“Before it all congeals,” I said uncharitably. “You two enjoy. I’ll show myself out.”
The next day Peg apologized a half-dozen times. “I can’t believe I said that. I don’t know what got into me.”
But I knew. As sure as corn kernels stick between the teeth. Murder is what’s got into her.
If we lived in Chicago, Peg would use a handgun that she’d say Dick had insisted she keep for protection and claim she thought he was an intruder. Or she’d hire some contract killer from a neighboring parish to come in and make Dick’s death look like a robbery. But, here in Edgefield, she has to go about it slow and quiet.
Just last night I ran into Lionel at the Indian restaurant and he said I should give Dick “a talking-to. He has, for pity’s sake, started to smoke again,” Lionel said in his funny stilted way of speaking, “and he is complaining of bronchitis. I told your friend Mr. Trotter that cigarettes are called coughing nails for a very good reason,” he added, smiling sadly and smoothing his tie between his thumb and forefinger.
“Coffin nails,” I corrected automatically, still the foster mother.
His eyebrows arced in mild surprise. “Even better,” he nodded with grim satisfaction.
I had to wonder what Peg has done to get Dick back on cigarettes.
This morning I took myself over to St. Francis of Assisi Church. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned against charity. It has been one week since my last confession.”
“This is a second Friday, Rose,” Fr. Killean said. “You’re not due for three weeks. You must have a whopper to unload.”
“Just the sin against charity is all,” I said. “Uncharitable thoughts.”
“I should have thought that would keep nicely till next month.”
“Well, Father, I’m also back about the other matter. What I brought up last time.”
“Jog my feeble brain, if you would. Your confessions are hardly memorable.”
“I wonder if you might not reconsider the notion of confession by proxy?”
“Daughter,” he said and I shifted uncomfortably from one arthritic knee to the other – he only pretends to be older than I am when he’s particularly annoyed – “what you propose is un-Christian in practice and in concept.”
“But what if you know someone who is committing a grave sin, a mortal sin?” I shuddered. “Can’t you intercede on their behalf?”
“You can pray for them, of course. Or you can try to counsel them.”
“I think it would be better if you prayed for them and you counseled them. You’re so much more experienced at both.”
“I will certainly include your intention in my prayers,” he said with the air of someone closing the confessional door firmly. “That’ll be three Hail Marys and four Our Fathers and an extra Act of Contrition,” he pronounced as though collecting a toll, a bit steep considering the little I’d had to confess. “I don’t expect to meet you here for another three weeks,” he whispered sternly, “unless you have a mortal sin of your own to report. In the meantime, if the sins of your neighbors still plague you, say a rosary and ask the Blessed Virgin to grant you serenity.”
When I came back out into daylight, I was glad Fr. Killean had cut me off. I realized I’d have a hard time convincing anyone, let alone the good Father, that the president of the Altar and Rosary Society was trying to commit murder with creamed onions. I decided the only thing to do was have a word with Peg, counsel her as Fr. Killean had suggested.
On the way home I formulated my plan. I would take a batch of freshly baked, low-fat, high-fiber bran muffins over to Peg’s house and gently introduce the subject of a heart-healthy diet and the evils of smoking. If Peg didn’t respond properly, then I’d try a more direct approach.
Armed with a half-dozen of my popular little nutrition bombs (I use sugar-free applesauce as the sweetener), I marched down the street. Peg was still apologizing for last week’s remark. While she was at it, she apologized for the state her kitchen was in. “We had a late lunch,” she said.
That was my cue. “A late lunch today, an early dinner last week – where will it all end? People our age need regularity, Peg. Which is why I brought these bran muffins over. Fresh from the oven,” I encouraged her to sniff.
“You’re a saint, Rose.”
“Tell it to Fr. Killean,” I sighed. “You won’t get an argument from me.”
I glanced at the aftermath of their lunch, on the lookout for traces of cream sauce or brown gravy. The plates and serving pieces were empty but even so the table was a feast of color. Peg still uses her old Fiestaware dishes for everyday. Before the manufacturer reissued the line, we would hunt for replacements at flea markets and yard sales. Peg’s not so crazy about the newer colors and I can’t say I blame her. They’re cooler somehow. The old sizzle is gone.
Peg sat down, her elbows on the table between bright circles of Fiestaware, her head in her hands.
“What’s the matter, Peg?”
“Dick clips his toenails in front of the TV,” she said.
“Is that the kind of thing you should be telling a neighbor?” I asked her.
“He didn’t use to clip his toenails in front of the TV.” Peg was definitely teary now.
“Really, Peg. Get hold of yourself.”
“And remember how clean he always was? Everyone always said how clean he was. Well, nobody would say that now.”
“I don’t think you’re going to be real happy about this conversation tomorrow,” I interrupted.
“If I can’t tell my best friend, then who can I confide in?”
I was pretty sure this was a rhetorical question, but I made a stab at it anyway. “How about Fr. Killean,” I offered.
“I wouldn’t want to bother him,” she shook her head.
“If there’s a fire, you call a fireman,” I said. “A robbery, you call the police. You don’t not call because you’re afraid of bothering them. It’s their job. You pay taxes so you can call them. It’s the same with a priest.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I can’t tell Fr. Killean that Dick says I’ve let myself go so he might as well too.”
“But that’s crazy,” I said, genuinely shocked. “You are the best groomed, best dressed woman in Edgefield, with maybe the exception of Lionel’s mother who wears those beautiful saris. If Dick wanted to criticize your cooking that would be one thing, but your appearance? That’s downright contrary.”
“He doesn’t mean my make-up or my clothes,” she said.
I stopped looking at Peg. I was too uncomfortable to meet her eyes, so I was looking at the dishes on the table again, sweeping from a deep blue plate to a yellow coffee cup with its perfect ring-shaped handle when I realized something was out of whack. The whole idea of Fiestaware is to mix the colors, but all the dishes in front of Dick’s place were the same vibrant reddish orange.
“Peg,” I sputtered, “you got out the old orange Fiestaware.”
“Yes,” she smiled up at me, cheered for the moment, “it was always my favorite. I decided the table needed brightening again,” she said, all innocence, “something to perk things up around here.”
I remembered way back to 1960 when Peg’s oldest son came home from the high school with a Geiger counter. The science lesson had been on radioactivity and how it was our friend. The science teacher demonstrated that lots of household objects were radioactive. One of the household objects he tested was an orange Fiestaware bowl. Ricky Trotter was so impressed he made some kind of deal with the teacher to get the loan of the Geiger counter so he could repeat the demonstration for his parents. That’s how we all found out about the radioactivity in the orange dye.
Peg about fainted when that needle started jumping and the machine gave off that evil rat-a-tat-tat sound, growing louder and more rapid the nearer it got to the orange Fiestaware. Dick just pooh-poohed the whole thing, saying he was sure the science teacher and our government knew what was safe, but Peg packed up all her orange cups and plates and bowls and the pitcher and the pepper shaker and put them in a box in the cold cellar under the front porch with a warning label: DO NOT TOUCH: RADIOACTIVE DISHES INSIDE.
“Dick’s not talking about my hair,” Peg resumed. “He says I sag and . . . and . . .” She was starting to hiccup now.
“Well, who doesn’t? That’s what bodies do when the factory warranty runs out. At least these days we can get replacement parts for most of the moving pieces,” I chirped. As much for my sake as hers, I didn’t want to dwell on folds and wrinkles. “Have you noticed how Elsie’s new hip has put a swivel back into her step? At her age? I’m so impressed I’m thinking of having both my knees replaced.”
“Dick says I disgust him.”
“Well, to hell with him. That’s what I say.” And then I realized that was what she was saying too, but quite literally. And saying it softly, as she had always spoken. In fact, not even loud enough for Peg herself to overhear. She honestly didn’t realize she had set out to systematically murder her husband in a half-dozen different ways. She was just helping him along, gently but persistently, in a wifely fashion.
Suddenly it didn’t seem like such a terrible thing after all. Wasn’t it worse for Dick to murder her spirit? After all, she wasn’t even aware of what she was doing. It hit me then that Peg wasn’t committing any sin at all. For her to be committing a mortal sin, she’d have to be knowingly killing her husband. So I could stop worrying about her immortal soul. What a relief that was.
Peg had one more thing to confess. “Dick and I had a terrible fight when he decided you couldn’t come with us to dinner at the club any more after Harry died. I said you were still my best friend. He said you were another old hen and he wasn’t going to spend his Tuesday nights listening to the two of us cackle.”
Well, I thought, nobody’s making him eat the beef Stroganoff. Nobody else’s hand is holding the cigarettes to his mouth. And nobody is forcing him to sit surrounded by radioactive dinnerware. It’s his life. I could see Dick as a small town, small-minded reincarnation of King Lear in a more authentic corn-fed version that promises a correspondingly more satisfying ending.
But then I’ve had to face the fact that, while Peg may be blameless of the murder she’s unconsciously committing, I am only too aware of precisely what is going on. This, I’m afraid, is the mortal sin of my own Fr. Killean was talking about. I know I’ll have to confess it eventually but, as the good Father would say, in the meantime it should keep nicely.
by Elise Gregory
Inside the barn seized-up tractors waited years on Uncle Hank’s gnarled fingers. The meat grinders, cider presses, apple sorter with cracked leather belts, galvanized pails, grime-covered bottles, and whatever else heaped in assorted piles awaited his attention just as Quincy paused beyond the lamplight. She weaved around a pile of boat motors. The smell of gasoline burned her nose. He sat at a desk in an opening, fingers fiddling with a black box.
“Uncle Hank,” she said.
His fingers kept moving.
“Uncle Hank,” she yelled, so he dropped the box with a plunk on the desk, spare but for light from the bare-bulbed lamp.
“Sorry,” she said. She hadn’t yet found the right volume for his failing ears. It seemed to embarrass them both she’d thought him deaf.
“Aunt Lil says supper’s ready,” she said, softer.
“Be a minute,” he said and picked up the box, which, now that Quincy was closer, she realized was a camera. His fingers peeked inside, assessing any damage.
It was hard for Quincy to believe this was her mother’s oldest brother, though it was hard to believe much of anything these days. Uncle Hank’s blonde, gray hair the only bit that resembled her mother. Certainly not the wrinkles round his eyes that shone white against his skin.
He looked up at her inspecting him. “She usually starts without me.”
“Aunt Lil said I was to tell you she wants you at the head of her table when she picks up her fork.”
“And you’re here to enforce it,” he grumbled.
He opened and shut the camera’s back. He switched off the lamp. She followed him through the open doorway, toward the sun.
“What’re you doing with that old camera?” she asked him.
“Dunno. Maybe sell it,” he said even though they both knew he never sold anything.
The farmhouse was just as packed as the barn. Mary and Jesus figurines, glass animals, china plates with painted cities lined kitchen ledges, a foot below the ceiling. Every possible thing handed down or found, treasured. Given an afterlife.
Hank stopped beyond the doorway, between kitchen and dining rooms.
“Where’d my newspapers go?”
“Thought we could start recycling. Now stop staring and carve me and Quincy some ham.”
Hank stood in his boots, looking at the table. Not one paper. Not even a magazine-covered chair. There was a long silence as Hank stared at Lil then the table. Lil lifted the knife, waved Quincy to a chair.
“And,” Lil grunted as she pressed the knife down, “think it’s time we take shoes off at the door. Girl needs a bit of normalcy in her life,” she said under her breath, but Quincy still heard and turned her head away like she’d been slapped. She’d heard them talking at night about her mother—“what kind of mother ran away from her child,” Lil had said, though behind closed doors Quincy couldn’t be sure if it was her own mind saying it.
Quincy was off the school bus and on the path between boxes upstairs to her room before Lil could intercept her—fresh peanut bars wafting after—as though sugar could pull Quincy back. She was afraid Lil would riffle through folders like a mother (not that her mother had ever taken the time).
Quincy threw backpack and then herself on the bed. She imagined her mother: they used to run together. Her mother’s breasts nearly pushed up and out of that tiny sports top: gold and freckled. She knew her mother had her eyes on another guy that last run; she’d pushed herself so hard and worn her shortest shorts. At the time, Quincy had hoped her mother really quit booze.
Her phone pinged, but she refused to look at the message. The first couple weeks here she’d kept it in her hand, ready for her mother’s messages. But it’d always been her best friend asking too many questions until the only thing for both of them to write was WTF?! (about her mother). She could only take so much of that.
Lifting her head, she noticed among the pens on the desk sat Hank’s squarish camera. When she lifted it, the weight was heavier than expected. He’d added a braided neck strap and film. It was advanced to three. She wondered what he had shot on one and two. She flipped off the cap and looked through the square eye hole. She spun the lens ‘til things looked fuzzy. Then she spun it back ‘til things looked clear.
Through the eye hole, the quilt beneath her was blue rectangles stitched into waves. Green and yellow bits were sun reflected back. It made her think of boats, lakes. She felt dizzy to be so far out.
She focused on her toenails then the woven rug against polished floor. Regained control. She crawled across the bed on her knees. One hand on the camera. One hand nosed the camera through the curtains. She looked through the eye-hole, searching. Below Lil’s vegetable garden. The bean trellis hung with vines and heart-shaped leaves just yellow. Fall snap peas hugged the fence with white blooms.
Past the garden, a tree with thick branches she could climb if she wanted. A small open knot. If she could just zoom in closer. What lived in that hole, she wondered. She walked downstairs, the camera at her eye, for once not even considering her mother.
By the time Quincy called her uncle for dinner, she’d taken ten pictures. The small window now flipped to thirteen. She wasn’t sure how many were left, but she knew she couldn’t squander them—snapping at anything like her iPhone. She’d placed the camera back on her desk where she’d first found it. She wasn’t ready yet for her uncle to know she loved it. Unknown to her, he’d watched Quincy climb the tree looking so much like her mother his heart tightened. He’d watched with one hip balancing him just inside the shadows of the barn. For once his objects silent. She’d straddled a branch—leaned in. Positioned the camera and shot a picture of the knothole.
Probably another red squirrel inside he thought, glad he’d not cemented the hole. And he couldn’t help wondering how his little sister could leave her only child. What had happened to her that made her so selfish. He couldn’t remember her as anything other than a small girl he was that much older. Quincy more like a granddaughter than a niece. And in some ways he was grateful to his sister for leaving Quincy for them. Lil had never seemed so happy.
Over dinner, Quincy couldn’t stop from asking how many pictures were on the film.
“Twenty four,” he said and nothing more.
He focused on the steamed snap peas and his mashed potatoes. Quincy watched as a gold river ran down his potatoes.
“What did you take pictures of,” she asked.
“How ‘bout I teach you to process film, so you can find out,” he said after another bite
“You don’t know how to process film,” Lil said.
“I did in college, long before I met you, my dear.”
“I guess we all have our secrets,” said Lil and filled her mouth with pork chop.
“Not secret, just a different life,” said Hank, “thought I was going to be a photographer then before Dad died.”
Quincy thought her life could be broken like that too. It consisted of two parts already. She cut into her chop and forked it into her mouth, and Lil smiled.
The camera was pushed to the bottom of Quincy’s backpack. She felt the extra weight of it as she walked the quarter mile of gravel road to meet the bus. It gave her purpose.
Most days she looked for an open seat. Squeezed in beside the window to watch farmland spool by. Normally a seat was open. Not this morning. She spotted a girl with her sweatshirt hood threaded tight, forehead at the window.
“Hey,” Quincy said as she slid in beside her.
She said nothing. Quincy recognized her from English class. The only black girl in school. They were silent the half hour they rode together. The girl with her face pressed to the window and Quincy watching her superimposed over the farmland. She couldn’t help but think in pictures—how she should catch the girl with all the ambient morning light.
Quincy brought the camera outside after lunch. She liked the look of the metal equipment against the corn fields behind. The sky broken by equipment and changing corn. Through the eye-hole it wasn’t quite right. She scanned the pavement skirting the school and caught that girl again. She was with a group. Funny, Quincy thought she’d be outside groups. Alone like Quincy perhaps.
Quincy adjusted the lens, zoomed closer. She wondered if she could slow the shutter speed like Hank had explained, if she could make all the other kids on the school grounds look blurry, spokes on a wheel. When the girl turned, Quincy could just make out her eyes before she quickly turned the camera away.
When the bus stopped at the end of the drive, Hank was weeding the patch of zinnias, his hands covered in dirt. He stood up as the bus doors opened, making Quincy think he’d been waiting for her.
Normally she walked the gravel drive herself and was briefly annoyed he appeared ready to walk with her. Rather than ask her about school though, he launched into photography. How he’d been remembering some of his lessons from college. He stopped.
“Would you like me to explain some more photography techniques?” he asked.
She looked at him. How tentative his face, waiting for her. “Sure,” she said.
“Excellent,” he smiled, so it hurt her. Sometimes she couldn’t stop for wanting to shut him up just as she felt her mother had done to her.
“Well,” he said, “better wash up. Meet you in the barn,” he strode ahead, allowing her to walk alone.
Once at the barn, Hank thrust several photos into her hands, “Take a look at these. Tell me where your eye goes.”
She eyed the black and white photos a girl in a white dress in a chair, a black dog at her feet. She followed Hank to his desk, which was covered in photographs. She glanced at the objects in her path to avoid tripping, her eyes evaluating the girl, the dog, the chair, and was that a little silver chain encircling her neck.
“So?” he asked.
“I want to keep looking at the girl’s face, but the dog keeps pulling my eyes down.”
“Yes,” he said, “that’s it. The visual weight of that picture is off. See the girl’s face should carry more weight than the dog, but the darkness of him and his position carries more importance. The composition is off.”
But what if that was the point of the photographer, Quincy thought as she admired the blurred face of the girl. What if she’s supposed to disappear in this picture? The silver chain more pronounced and real than the girl’s eyes. And the dog too, more of a black shape than a dog. The girl more of the absence of a girl.
In English, Quincy had been wondering again how many kids out there had mothers that left them with relatives. Probably no one in this country town. Students moved into their groups. The scraping desks brought her back to the classroom where they were to design a book cover, synopsis, and review for To Kill a Mockingbird. The teacher moved her into a group with the girl on the bus among other kids. And it wasn’t clear why Quincy felt drawn to her again. The girl held some magnetism just because she seemed different and Quincy felt different.
“Maybe I could take a picture,” Quincy offered, realizing it was the first time she’d spoken to anyone in class.
“Of what,” the girl, Dani, asked.
“Maybe our hands? Yours and mine?”
“Huh,” the other girl’s face in the group pinched.
“That might work…Bring your camera tomorrow and we can try taking some pictures,” said Dani.
“Actually, I have my uncle’s old camera.”
“Okay, meet us on the grass then.”
After lunch, Quincy snapped shots of their hands together. One of their hands around the metal fencing. She knew from what Hank had said already that with negatives her hands would look dark and Dani’s white. She chose not to tell Dani about the negatives, the flipped colors. But she told her about all the treasures inside Uncle Hank’s barn. How she wondered if some pickers show would be interested. How she guessed he had thousands of dollars just moldering.
“My mom would never go for that. All that old stuff just sitting and rusting, I mean,” Dani said then she asked Quincy to come over Friday.
It had been over a month since Quincy had gone to a friend’s or had a friend. When she’d lived in the new house with her mother, she’d cross the street to the house that was a mirror image of her own. As she entered her best friend’s house (or her own), she had to decide to go up or down. The kitchens had the same cabinets and countertops. Sometimes Quincy forgot which kitchen she was in and pulled the wrong drawer expecting silverware where there were assorted plastic baggies. Knives where there should have been measuring cups. They watched Quincy’s house from the big bay window, making a game of what kind of man would walk down the steps next. They laughed about her mother’s “type” because there were muscle bound men with crew cuts, balding husband-types, black, white, Latino, her mother never had a type. How they laughed. Quincy throwing her head back and howling, though more than laughter it was shame. It was her best friend who thought they should try to catch pictures. The bay window a great eye that looked back at her mother’s life.
Really that wasn’t much of a friend now that she thought about it, and she was glad to have stopped replying to her texts or Facebook posts. She’d let her phone battery die. She wondered if her mother might contact her and feel sorry she’d left. Quincy didn’t want her mother to contact her anymore.
When they walked inside Dani’s, everything was neat and orderly as outside. Where Aunt Lil had spoons and china plates there were bookshelves.
“Mom teaches at the college,” Dani said waving her hand at all the books.
Quincy assumed Dani was talking about the state university some twenty minutes south.
Dani’s mother called her dear heart and sweetie. She was a tiny woman with hair clipped close to her scalp. Quincy’s mother had never called her anything.
Urged by Dani’s mother, the girls walked out to the orchard to pick blueberries, but “really we’re supposed to be keeping an eye on Abel,” Dani whispered to Quincy.
They carried plastic containers past Abel swinging on a long rope knotted around a branch. His neck arched back so he looked up at the rest of the tree and sky. He didn’t seem interested in them or blueberry picking, thought Quincy. Light caught his face then released it. Overexposed if Quincy had shot it. She fingered the camera strap around her neck.
He swung up and back, up and back before jumping off. Then he sprinted after Dani hollering, “Dani, Dani push me. Would ya? Would ya push me?”
“Ma said we have to pick blueberries,” Dani yelled without looking over her shoulder. “She wants you to pick too.”
Abel ran ahead of them, scampering up low slung branches of an apple tree.
“Look at me. Look at me, Dani and Quick. Take my picture. Take my picture, Quick.”
It pleased Quincy to have already gained a nickname from Abel like he’d already decided she was someone to be trusted.
“You better come down from there, Abel, or I’ll tell Ma you’re breaking branches on her apple trees.”
He kept right on shouting. When it seemed the girls were walking away, he hollered, “Is she the one whose mama ran off with some guy?”
Dani whirled around to look up at him, “You better shut your mouth, Abel!”
“But you…” he sputtered.
“You better shut up if you know what’s good for you,” screamed Dani.
The girls had just reached the blueberries. Small leaves blushed and Quincy sat beneath them for a minute.
“Ignore him, he’s only five and my dumb brother.”
“You told him my mom ran away from me?” Quincy murmured, realizing that Dani’s life didn’t really resemble her own. She’d gone again making assumptions.
“No, I really didn’t. I’m sorry. Maybe he heard me talking to Elle. But everyone knows it anyway.”
“They do?” Quincy put her head between her knees, thinking about ‘everyone knew it.’
Abel leapt from the branch where he was perched, “Gimme a container. Gimme one, I wanna pick too, Dani.”
“Shut it, Abel. Can’t you see you made her sad.”
“Oh,” he said and plopped himself half on top of Quincy. He patted her braid.
“I’m sorry you’re sad,” he said.
He picked up her braid and let it drop on her back. He lifted and dropped. Lifted and dropped, till she raised her face and looked at him. He smiled at her and pushed his face close
“Can I have your container?” he asked.
“Actually I have an extra for you,” she said and handed him one.
He jumped up, attacking the berries. He plopped one in the plastic bowl—stuffed the next five into his mouth. Quincy uncurled herself and began picking berries too. She guessed she couldn’t just sit under the blueberry leaves forever. Thankfully Dani had let her alone and was several bushes down. Quincy took the plastic cap from her camera, snapping pictures of Abel beneath the blueberries. Then poked in a tiny berry and chewed. Warm from the sun it was tart and sweet and fresher than any she’d ever tried.
Uncle Hank and Quincy set up a folding table in the spare room. They lined it with plastic garbage bags, taping them together. Hank set out scissors, the film canister, labeled gallon jugs, thermometer, chemical packets, and development tank, which he showed her had three parts—a cup, a top, and a reel. They strung clothesline across the space and taped towels over the windows. Their footfalls crinkled the tarps beneath their feet, but no other noise interrupted their work.
She tingled like she’d eaten a bramble. It pricked her insides with the hope her pictures turned out well. She’d faithfully kept the little camera door shut until it wound past 24. She’d asked her uncle if she could open it to be sure she wouldn’t expose any of the delicate images. The pictures of her and Dani’s hands were due Monday. But she was even more excited to see the images she couldn’t quite remember. And then there were the shots she’d not taken.
Uncle Hank and Quincy knotted aprons and fitted on gloves. Uncle Hank even had her strap on goggles. She felt like more of physician assisting a birth than a girl processing film. He explained as he diluted one chemical packet into water that the first two chemicals had to be at the correct temperature. He measured water and took temperatures, mixing the chemicals one by one. Using a funnel he poured them into the jugs.
He talked her through loading the film before he had her turn out the light. She could hear the little scissors, the film being spooled on the reel, and the click of the tank as it was loaded. He asked her to turn on the lights. The brightness had her blinking.
“Now developing,” he said and spoke about each chemical as he soaked containers and the development tank in warm water and measured temperatures again. Quincy remembered some of the pictures at Dani’s farm. She’d caught Dani and her mother sitting on the front steps as they looked away from the camera, watching Abel fly. His father flinging the rope away from him. Abel clutched it as he soared and fell back toward him. Then a picture of Abel under the blueberry bushes. Bits of sky caught between the branches and his smeared mouth.
Uncle Hank described the process as he poured in chemicals, agitated them, checked his watch and flipped the tank until finally it was time to take film off the reels.
After they sponged off excess water, they clipped film to the clothesline to dry.
“Well,” he said, “time for my coffee break. Why don’t you decide which images you’d like to enlarge.”
“Yep,” he said struggling out of his gear looking younger, maybe more like her mother’s brother in the low light.
“What was my mother like? As a girl I mean?”
“Ah, honey,” he said, swiping a hand over his face, “C’mere.”
It was the first time he’d ever hugged her that she could remember even when she and her mom came out to the farm for a “getaway” when she was a little girl. It felt so good to be held by a much bigger, stronger person like someone else would take on the day for her. He smelled of coffee, chemicals, and musty barn.
“I remember your mama as a wee thing climbing that old oak you were climbing,” he spoke into her hair, “in those days that tree still was big and hadn’t lost its crown, your momma got up so high she was shrieking like a cat to come down, or maybe that was my mama yelling at me to go get her down, I guess I can’t quite remember. I know I was back for the summer to help my father with the fieldwork. Came back every summer till he died. Your mama had the strongest will of anyone I ever knew. Her spirit is fierce, which is good and bad.”
“Sometimes I hate her,” Quincy cried.
“I know honey. I know and it’s okay to feel that way right now.”
She broke from him and looked at his face, “Do you hate her?”
He rubbed his eyes and then his jaw, “Sometimes, but I also love her because she’s family. But I know she’s made the worst mistake ever leaving you. Still Lil and I want you to always feel like this is your home too.”
He placed his hand on her shoulder, he had said more to her than he ever had in his life. Then he folded his gear and left her alone in the room with the drying film, saying he’d give her some time alone.
At first it was hard for her to make out the images: everything flipped. She searched through for the first photos her uncle had taken. She saw one that she’d taken inside Uncle Hank’s barn: the old straps of the apple sorter. She could make out a metal sausage grinder, numerous thick glass canning jars, their domed lids sealed. The shapes and lines of other objects hard to define amid all the piles of other things. Then a picture he’d taken of Aunt Lil in her garden. She sat on her stool. Her bulk forward, hands hidden beneath plants. Her face like a memory of her face. Quincy’s nose was running and her cheeks wet. She swiped them with her sleeve, trying to avoid getting any of the pictures wet.
From the corner of her eye she caught the final image her uncle had taken. Was that her mother, braid dancing down her shoulder? Her face was angled down, focused on the steps ahead. No, it was Quincy. Quincy walking down the gravel drive after school, unaware of her uncle taking her picture. Quincy walking into the light of her aunt and uncle’s orchards.
by Gary Jones
“Davy Crockett,” he said. “I feel like Davy Crockett. Davy,” he sang, “Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier. That’s me.”
“I never had a coonskin cap when I was a kid,” I said. “But my brother-in-law did.”
He laughed. “If I’d had a coonskin cap, T. O. would would have chewed it into a little pile of ragged fur. It’d look like something that had been drug behind a car.”
T. O. was my cousin’s family dog. When I was little, I had thought the dog’s name was Teo. Not until I was older did I learn the bowser had been given the initials of an air force buddy of Austin’s dad’s who had been lost in the war.
“Davy killed a bear when he was only three,” I laughed. “How young do you suppose he was when he killed his first squirrel?”
He assumed a mock look of concentration on his face, and then, raising his eyebrows, ventured, “Eighteen months?”
We were squirrel hunting, my cousin Austin and I, technically violating the governor’s safer at home directive, not sheltering in place, he in Chicago and I in Door County, but meeting on my family farm in southwestern Wisconsin, at least the part of it that remained in my possession. When my dad had been ready to sell the farm, I bought 100 acres of woodland and cropland, an investment both financial and emotional, as farmland was relatively cheap at the time and I knew my parents would be pleased to keep some of the land in the family, even though I had no intention of making a career of “pulling tits and shoveling shit,” as dairy farmers characterized their occupation.
Austin had been raised on a nearby valley farm and as teenagers, we had carried our dad’s twenty-twos into the woodlot on my family’s ridge farm, hunting squirrels. We were both piss-poor shots with rifles, but the point of our hunting expeditions was not to put food on the table, but rather to enjoy masculine camaraderie, scuffling through fallen oak leaves in the otherwise quiet of the woods, each ostensibly keeping one eye pointed skyward looking for tree-top squirrels. Whoever saw one would shoot in that direction, and then laugh when he missed. Rifle bullets were cheap, and the pop of rifle fire in the woods was music to our ears.
From time to time we’d years later recall those hunting adventures, and invariably I’d retell the story of one time when I went by myself, and actually drew a studied bead on a squirrel, shot, and missed, while the squirrel continued to stare at me, incredulous at my poor aim, and then to teach him a lesson, I took a second shot, and to my amazement and his demise, actually hit him. I carried him home by his tail, and getting a butcher knife from the kitchen, field-dressed him beside the garage, feeding the innards to our cats. When I presented the trophy to my mother, she wrinkled her nose, handed me a plastic bread wrapper, and suggested that I put him in the freezer as she already had plans for supper.
During one of our late in life recollections of adolescent hunting adventures, I proposed that for old time’s sake, we hit the woods again, as we each had inherited our father’s twenty-twos. Austin laughed and shook his head. I don’t think I could stand up to it, he said. While I was still the wiry guy I had been as a teenager, albeit a bit stoop-shouldered, he was not as light on his feet as he had once been, and I had let the proposal drop.
But COVID-19 changed our perspective. When a high school English teacher I had assigned readings from A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame.
I had also assigned William Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality ode. Taken together, rather than a hunch about everlasting life, they served as a resounding reminder of the delicate nature of man’s mortality.
This time when I asked if he would like to go hunting, Austin responded, “Would I? Would I? Is a bear Catholic? Does the pope shit in the woods?” And the trip was on.
My land is north of Richland Center in a part of the state now made famous by the celebrated Driftless Area. Initially we had thought that we might camp in my woods, but Wisconsin springs can be cold, and we both admitted that while we didn’t sleep as well as we used to even on a quality mattress, we’d probably need an EMT with a log jack to get us up off an air mattress after sleeping on a forest floor in a tent. The Super-8 in town still rented rooms, and the fast-food joints that surrounded it on Highway 14 continued to offer drive-up service.
We had a brief discussion about the fact that squirrel hunting is traditionally a fall sport, the bushy-tailed critters fattened up with an acorn diet. In spring they are scrawny, having survived a long and snowy winter, but we weren’t going to be eating the little suckers anyway, and with any luck, we’d avoid actually hitting one.
The woods were not at their best. As a part of a forest management program that not only helps preserve the long-term health of my trees but reduces my property taxes, every twenty years I am allowed to harvest timber for a substantial financial return. Two winters ago a lumber company took out logs and left a scattering of treetops that made my woods look like a set for the 1919 movie, the dead bodies carted out, but the foxholes and bomb craters remaining, along with shell-splintered trees.
The post-apocalyptic setting seemed appropriate for the corona-virus pandemic, evidence of the pathetic fallacy that nature mourned the plague that had befallen mankind. Despite the emergence of woodland plants, swollen tree buds, and the optimistic chirping of song birds, the devastation contrasted sharply with my memory of adolescent squirrel hunts more decades ago than I chose to count. We strode briskly through the woods back then, our confident footsteps churning leaves, our rifles featherweight on our young shoulders, our laughter echoing off the stone-cropped hillsides.
Now we sorted our footfalls carefully to avoid tripping on exposed roots, or slipping on mossy half-buried rocks, or stumbling in leaf-meal covered pockets in the earth. We carried our twenty-twos at our sides, like briefcases, and reserved the air in our lungs for breathing, rather than conversation.
When we arrived at a relatively flat space adjacent to the gully that coursed down the valley, we paused for a breather, scanning the tops of trees for squirrels.
“Is that one?” I asked, pointing to the top branches of a slender oak that grew halfway up the slope on the other side of the ravine.
“I don’t think so,” Austin said, shading his eyes with one hand, “unless he’s hiding on the other side of the trunk. It’s hard to see.”
Slowly I raised my rifle and sited along the barrel, just in case the little critter was playing peekaboo with me, but no sign of him, and as my arms grew tired, I lowered the gun.
“This is my rifle,” I said, holding it aloft, “and this is my gun,” I continued, palming my groin with my other hand. “This is for fighting,” I added, elevating my rifle higher still, “and this is for fun,” I concluded, adjusting my business. “They wouldn’t let us call our rifles guns in basic training.”
He nodded. “Heavy artillery.”
“Yeah,” I said, “guns.”
My cousin had borderline high blood pressure as a young man, and was awarded a deferment; he found that he could elevate the number simply by focusing on his anxiety at the thought of being drafted. My only disability was red-green colorblindness, and that did not affect my eligibility, even though during testing on the rifle range I could not see the olive-drab soldier silhouettes backed by red Kentucky clay, and could do little more than fire my weapon in the general direction of the target. My scorer cheated for me, or I might still be plugging away, like the infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters with an infinite amount of time, eventually typing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Officially I scored marksman, the lowest qualification, bestowed at the mercy of my sympathetic scorer.
Ultimately, Uncle Sam had the wisdom to hand me a typewriter (infinite monkey that I was) and assign me to a personnel office, rather than to give me a rifle, (and sending me into an infinite jungle swamp.) Fort Bliss, the military base that became my home away from home, apparently was named by someone in the Army with an ironic sense of humor. In that same spirit I typed orders awarding myself minimal qualifications on both a 38 pistol, and a 45, although at the time I had never seen either, much less actually fired one of them. But be prepared, I had thought, usurping the Scout motto, although I had been a 4-H member.
As a boy Austin had also belonged to the Buck Creek Buccaneers, part of a troop of rural 4-Hers who theoretically regarded themselves as pirates on the bank of a wading-depth creek.
His father had survived World War II as pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, and throughout much of his life had attended Air Force unit reunions. After Austin’s retirement, he took flying lessons in memory of his father, and became a member of the Civil Air Patrol.
After our rest, Austin and I continued down the valley, ostensibly keeping a wary watch for squirrels. We walked as if we were two old men strolling in a park, lacking an important destination. Both of us had retired from sedentary occupations, he as a research chemist, seated on a stool in a laboratory; I as a high school teacher, seated on a stool in a classroom.
Like his late father, he had lost most of his hair, his forehead knowing no bounds; and I, like mine, had wild white locks that looked as if they had been washed with hand soap and dried in the wind.
“We could turn around any time now,” Austin said, breathing heavily, even though we were walking down hill. “We’ve got a steep climb to negotiate on our way back,” he added.
And then, at the same time, we both heard a chattering and turned in that direction, farther down the valley but off to our left, high in a tree, a squirrel scolding us as if we were trespassers.
“He’s yours,” I conceded my cousin, a guest in my woods.
Slowly he raised and sited his twenty-two, drawing a bead on his victim, and carefully he squeezed the trigger – the resultant discharge a sound similar to that of a giant balloon pricked by a straight pin.
He missed, and the still chattering squirrel took cover on the other side of the tree.
We stood silent for a few moments, waiting to see if the varmint would reappear, providing Austin with a second shot opportunity.
“If the pandemic results in food shortages, as some experts predict,” Austin said peering over the top of his glasses, a shit-eating grin on his face, “we had both better do some target practice.”
I nodded in agreement. “Especially if I’m shooting at red squirrels in a green woods.”
“That’s right,” he laughed. “You have red-green color blindness.”
“How’s your blood pressure?” I asked, laughing.
“Not too bad,” he shrugged. “I took my pill this morning. And squirrel hunting is not particularly anxiety inducing. If I had actually hit the little fucker, ethically I’d be required to clean, cook, and eat it. I know squirrels are vegetarians, but they’re rodents. First cousins to rats.”
“We could always survive the pandemic by becoming vegetarians.”
“Fighting squirrels for their acorns?”
“Sounds like science fiction!”
“We are living science fiction.”
My cousin Austin and I surveyed my ravaged woods without comment, letting our eyes range over the rugged terrain as if we were military scouts sent on a reconnaissance mission to report on enemy progress, assess their numbers, calculate their strategy.
“This has been fun,” I said.
“It has,” Austin agreed.
“We’ll have to do it again,” I suggested.
“If we make it to the top of the hill,” he wheezed.
“We will,” I assured him.
But we both knew that we had book-ended our squirrel-hunting days, forever closing a chapter of our lives where the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.