Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
2256 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010


Abby Frucht

Only when Sandra is passing through security this morning—sliding the leathery blue passport into its slot beside the boarding passes, removing the zip-lock baggie of mouthwash and hand lotion from its pouch in her carry-on, stepping out of her well-travelled, lopsided clogs and securing her wristwatch between the insteps of the clogs in the gray plastic baggy that is already lurching into the scanner—does she discover he has finally stolen her wallet. They’ve been waiting, complicit, for him to do this. First he stole quarters, then dollars, then twenties, and each time, from their distance in the apartment, she sensed him sensing her finding him out: her riffling her bills, double-checking the inner breast pocket of her interview blazer, then hiding a ten in her underwear drawer but saying nothing about it when they met later on, over lamb chops and cauliflower, the twinned chops on the platter inclined like their brows at the small dinner table. So closely had he followed the recipe in his cookbook, that the salads exactly matched the cottage cheese-pear-rabbit photo. He nibbled first at the ears, she at the feet, him sensing her sensing him sensing her not accusing him of theft. It makes her smug to feel this close to her son. She likes to fight against the smugness and feel herself lose. He must know she tends to carry her passport with her even on these briefest of interview jogs, for if he didn’t, he would never have stolen the wallet.

Missing even her defunct Triple A card, she takes her place at the gate across from CNN and arranges herself in her interview trousers and arrestingly slender interview sweater, aware of what generous hips she’s got and how slender the rest of her perching above, as if she might slip through them, birthing herself, her eyes gluey with wonderment at having her own self for a mother, her self for a daughter, her son for a thief as well as a brother. The DOW’s red arrow pleases her, because she has no investments, being out of a job. But the man on yesterday’s news, who fell off that pick-up being driven away by his wretched fiancée, has died.

Remarking on the lightness of her carry-on while pulling it down the ramp for boarding, Sandra lurches to a halt, realizing he’s stolen her laptop as well, the little Intel she’d bought with her post-divorce assets. The Intel contains all her interview seminar notes as well as, separately, inside the foamy, zippered sleeve, the book of poems which, to his credit, he would have had no idea was packed in there. If he knew it, he wouldn’t have stolen it. Purportedly, it’s her second book. She had written those poems before she was married, months before she was even pregnant with him. The manuscript had won a competition and been published by a fine university press, to acclaim just modest enough that, when she published the identical manuscript under a new title (the first was Eventide, the second was High Tide Fanciful) at a different press two years after the first press closed, nobody noticed that it was a copy. Although she now regrets not having sent out the duplicate ironically—like Doris Lessing mailing her pen name, Jane Somers’, manuscripts out as a stunt, meaning to mock an increasingly commercial publishing industry only to have both of Somers’ quietly literary novels snapped right up—technically, Sandra hadn’t sent her own book out the second time at all. She had only forgotten, after Eventide was published, that it was still being looked at by the other press. And when the other press awarded the manuscript its prize twenty-two months later, offering a self-congratulatory apology for having taken so long to consider it, she decided that the second press had earned this accidental right to fulfill her need for a second publication, on which her teaching job depended. But then the job dried up anyway. As for her third book, she hasn’t yet decided what kind of approach to take to it. The problem, she worries, rolling her boarding pass into a secretive sort of breathing straw between her thumb and index finger as she pauses on the ramp, aware of other passengers maneuvering their luggage around her hips, is that she is required to read from that third, unwritten book at tonight’s event.

For a moment she considers not boarding the plane. The old poems— book one and book two—are nowhere online, and there’ll be no time to stop at a library. Does she even remember a line or two? Maybe a stanza. In a burst of maternal, preemptive forgiveness, she tilts the carry-on onto its back, like a baby needing changing right there on the ramp, checking all the zippered pouches in case he’d thought to zip the book up somewhere else, but the only thing she finds is that he’s stolen her eyeglasses, too. She imagines them sightless in one of the drawers of the dresser his dad keeps for him in the dad’s big house, filled with clothes he doesn’t wear. He’s not a bad man, the dad; he simply doesn’t have a clue what clothes to buy.

On the plane, she hefts the carry-on into the overhead, but when she phones, he doesn’t answer. Nor does his dad, either at his fancy office or in the house on Bowen Street, three miles from her apartment and four times bigger, where the boy will be staying while she’s gone. After breakfast that morning, before she drove him to his dad’s to drop off his bag and then take him to school on her way to the airport, she reminded him, as she reminds him for every interview, that she has left him some kisses, “one for morning, one for night, and one for morning again.” Then she showed him the vase with the kisses inside, the fist-sized vase with the wine cork stopper. Sensing his worry, and him sensing her sensing him sensing her worry, she planted in some extra kisses for after school.

“They do like to try to escape,” she warned, pressing back in the stopper as quick as could be, “but they’re not very fast.” Together, they loaded their suitcases into the back seat of the car. It must have been while they drove to his dad’s that he smuggled her wallet and laptop out of her luggage into his own, and then the eyeglasses trapped in their too-snug case. From the window after take-off, the lake looks like an iced-over cup of milk. The pelicans have flown south, but the geese, which are late this year in departing, veer in a panicky V past the flats. Her son likes his milk frozen. It’s the only way he’ll drink it. The dad often forgets, although he isn’t rash, careless, or in the least bit untrustworthy. Although she’d never meant to hurt him, he cries way too much, oozing tears, wiping his eyes on tablecloth hems.

The flight is too brief for tea to be served. She lifts her clogs off the floor just high enough that they slide off her feet, then cradles her feet on the domed tops. What will she “present,” without her book of poems? And what will she teach, without the laptop notes for her Sample Seminar? Absently she squints at this far-off question, wondering how worrisome other mothers might find it to have a son who steals from her even her chances at finding a job, a wage, a pension, even her wallet with her Free Dozen Bagels card ready for swapping, as if to prepare her for the usual hunger she feels on planes, the feeling, from being in transit, of being groundless, without gravity, without even mass. Once, when she was married but before her son was born, she left her husband in a bar where there was in progress a noisy, cold party, and crossed the street in new rain to a coffee shop. She sat for an hour as the storm lashed the window in which the closed sign faced her, as if it were the sidewalk beyond the window that was forbidden her. The neighborhood, closed. The bar across the street with the over-air-conditioned party, closed. The highway overpass, closed. She remembers she’d shut her eyes in relief, sipping her coffee, the whole rest of the world forbidden her. Flying feels like that. Even the limo driver who comes to meet her outside Baggage at her destination seems to be in on it, crossing her name off a list on his clipboard, and so does the girl with the keys at the counter in the foyer of dormitory, behind whom rises a wall of student mailboxes. Sandra phones her son and the dad from the limo, then from the stairway, then from the hallway, the kind of journey into which a rat might be dropped for intelligence testing. With the ungainly key, which is attached by a small length of chain to a block of wood, she unlocks her door. There’s a desk built out of the same piece of wood. A glacier wouldn’t budge it, nor the bunk bed attached to the cinderblock wall. A dented metal wardrobe holds a clutch of distended metal clothes hangers, hangers that appear to have been used for unorthodox purposes, like for jimmying car doors or to open a window blind, which she refrains from doing, since in other dormitories, during other interview overnights, she has broken several window blinds similar to it. There’s a mental illness somewhere in Southeast Asia, called shook yang, signifying men who fear that their gonads will retract into their bodies; Sandra’s window blind anxieties aren’t dissimilar. But in the wardrobe lies a book by an up-and-coming poet, so she practices reading aloud from it, haltingly, since she has no glasses, and with an air of startled vagueness, since she doesn’t really understand the work. In this way, reading a stranger’s inscrutable poetry, she gets through the night’s event, squinting at the podium as if with the ur-memory of having written such lines, thankfully unable to meet the eyes of her audience, since she can’t see their faces without her glasses. She had promised to look for boys her son’s age in the audience, and finds one such creature in one of the rows, who, when it’s time for applause, jumps out of his seat. Her son will never be poet, despite the applause being shockingly loud, and despite there being tears amid the audience members, although she really doesn’t like to make people cry with her poetry; she would rather make them take off their clothes, or forget to eat, or neglect their duties. He’ll be a chef, her son. She’ll eat every night at his salad bar, in exchange for which he promises she won’t have to pay.

At every reasonable juncture for the rest of her visit, Sandra calls her son on the phone—during breakfast with the quartet of faculty members who, because breakfast is part of the interview process, aren’t allowed, persuant to campus policy, to ask personal questions of her, and during the interview seminar at which she urges them all to compose erasures using random texts they happen to have in their backpacks, erasing fragments of text so as to leave chosen phrases and words behind, and ducking into the frosty ladies room, and during the brisk walk back to the dormitory in the company of one of the faculty members, who confides that the job is Sandra’s, for sure—but he still doesn’t answer. Nor does his dad, he of Bob Dylan’s Christmas of the Heart CD, which was rasping in the living room four times as big as her living room, if her little apartment can even be said to include a living room, even though there were nine days left til Christmas, he of lox and bagels on Christmas morning, he who still pays for her and the boy’s health insurance.

As if feeling ungrateful not to have gotten sick at least some of the time and to have made use of his generosity in providing her health insurance, Sandra sniffles and coughs all the way to the airport, then snoozes away with her face at the window, missing the dusky white view of the ice. Erasures are really just literary parlor games, she has always supposed, although they do have a way of posing sly alternatives to the pages in question, like the time she was stuck in that coffee shop and like when, when she arrives at the darkened house on Bowen Street and reaches for her copy of the front door key, she finds that she’s taken the dorm key with her, the wooden block clumsy in her hand. Probably he and the dad are at Shakey’s Pizzeria, earning points by playing dart games for gumball prizes. But the dad’s whole house is empty when she steps inside. There’s not a stick of furniture, not even the refrigerator. The only thing she finds is her Intel in the kitchen, aglow with a message typed by the dad.

I DO MEAN TO HURT YOU, the message reads.

She stands still a long while as if critiquing a poem, one she can hardly be expected to be able to make sense of without her eyeglasses. Even half blind she can tell it’s not such a good poem. The other poems are better. So, she deletes it.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury