Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3,332 words
SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Leonard & Marj

by Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger

A six-year-old Leonard stares at his father’s back from the doorway. The brooding man sits on a stool, carving away at the submissive gray mass standing in the middle of the garage. It was a solid stone a month ago; featureless and flat, an obelisk of potential imprisoned beneath its surface. Leonard can see the hairline, eyes, and nose of the figure being set free by this father’s hammer and chisel. The eyes are empty still; it’s hard to know what he’s thinking.

Leonard’s father taps away at the stone in silence. Bits of flaky gray sprinkle to the floor. Dust coats the top of the rough leather shoes and Leonard understands, for the first time, why his father didn’t wear them in the house. Their old deep burgundy footwear is creased and cracked now, paint-splattered and frayed at the edges, exposing the white skin of his father’s feet. Tap-tap, dust. Tap-tap, dust.

“Hey, buddy,” his father says without turning. “You should be in bed.”

“Can’t sleep,” Leonard mumbles.

His father’s shoulders slump as he relaxes on the stool, resting the tools on his thigh. He stares at his progress. “Want me to warm you some milk?”

“Who is he?” Leonard asks as he enters the garage. The padded toes of his pajamas fnit-fnit across the floor and come to a halt next to his father. The old man looks down and smiles.

“Just a man with something to prove. A man whose passion can’t be left to sit idle inside this stone.”

“What's passion?”

“It’s the thing you sacrifice parts of yourself for. This block, this possibility of something greater than myself, this is my passion. I sacrifice my time in order to make it real. I’m trying to bring out the best qualities of him in the only way I know how. I want him to be great and I want others to like him. Do you understand?”

Leonard did not, but nodded anyway because that was what children were supposed to do. His father’s dusty hand falls upon his head and caresses his hair down to his neck. The fingers are rough and dry and feel like scales across his skin.

“You must have a passion, son.”

He wonders if he will ever have a passion.


The day Leonard turns fourteen is the day his first junior high report card arrives in the mail. Two C’s—one in Biology, the other in Algebra—are enough to warrant the cancellation of cake and presents after dinner. Instead, the sound of his father fnap-fnapping his leather belt fills the hallway. It happens often enough that Leonard learns to expect and almost block the pain the belt exacts. That Leonard had also earned four A’s apparently makes no difference; the report card is unacceptable. He will do better next time.

He sleeps on his stomach and wonders if his mother would react in kind if she were still alive.


Leonard brings home his final project. It is the culmination of his freshman art class in high school and he nearly breaks it running home to show his father. It is supposed to be a cookie jar, but shrank and became misshaped in the kiln. The bottom, a dark grassy green, gives way to a lid that Leonard had fashioned into the sprawling branches of a leafless tree, four of which broke off while baking. The three remaining limbs jut up and out like the foot of a chicken. They are dark brown with black accents and Leonard smiles. Even with pieces missing, it looks pretty good.

His father is already in the garage, working, chipping away at some new project about clocks. Leonard puts his piece on the counter where it can’t be missed. He sits on the stool and waits for his father to stop, waits for him to take a break. And waits. And waits.

Leonard finally relents and fixes his own dinner before he goes to bed.

When he wakes in the morning, he finds a note from his father resting against the project:

1.) The base is too wide for the top. It is a good attempt, but you need to spend more time on perfect edges. This will help during the baking time too. The pieces will fit better.
2.) It seems you have a surrealist bent to you; the traditional colors are off by enough that one wonders if these were the only colors available or if you are trying to make a particular statement vis-à-vis the chosen shades.
3.) The broken limbs are an interesting choice. Seven limbs, but only three remain with the others nowhere in sight. I’m struggling to find the metaphor in their amputation.
4.) Though this isn’t a carving or a sculpture, there is not much truth to the materials. By this I mean you did not adapt the flaws of the medium in such a way as to make them one with the whole. They stand out.
5.) Don’t forget to take out the trash.

“Jesus,” Leonard mutters to himself. “It’s just a cookie jar.” The note goes in the wastebasket before Leonard removes the full bag to the curb. The project is hammered to fragments on the garage floor and swept into his father’s growing trash-pile of chiseled waste.

Leonard recalls this moment forever, but when asked, his father never remembers the cookie jar.


The young couple in the back seat kiss as if they are trying to eat each other, their seventeen-year-old hormones cocooning into one blissful, hedonistic moment. Leonard still can’t believe he convinced Caroline to come up here with him. He doesn’t expect to be able to smell her perfume up close, to inhale every part of her, or cup his hand against the side of her face, a thing of beauty he doesn’t want to let go. He doesn’t expect to feel the silkiness of her hair or the soft curvature of her hips, but he does all these things and she lets him. The windows fog up as if they’ve caught spirits within.

He stops when she balks at the hands that slide too far and adapts (sorry, he whispers), finds the acceptable zone and stays inside it. He is hyper-aware, every ounce of essence awake and buzzing as if for the first time. They are a mass of fingernails and bitten lips, spent saliva and grinding hips. A seat-buckle digs into his side, but he neither cares nor moves. She tells him that her left leg has fallen asleep and his hand strokes her slumbering thigh. Their separate breaths become one. When the song on the radio is heard again ten years later, this is the moment Leonard will remember in all its hot, sticky, messy glory and he will ache for its memory.

How quickly an hour becomes a minute, he muses later on the drive home, his entire body shaking from the excitement of being tangled up with her. He drops her off at her place bare minutes before her curfew, so as to please her parents; he could do with more dates like this one. She says if he is patient, she may show him how to remove her bra with one hand, a feat he believes to be a myth.

So he is patient. He wants to be liked.


After his first date with Marjorie, Leonard comes home to find his father drunk. The house is dark, save for a test pattern on the television. Leonard cannot recall a time when his father drank before; there was never any booze in the house growing up, but here the old man sits in the flickering glow of a sleeping broadcast with a beer in hand. Five cans lay crumpled on the TV tray next to him. The drinking must have started when he left for college.

“S’oneoclock. Whereyoubeen?” his father slurs.

“Out. On a date. I told you this.”

“Hm. Sheworthit? Disrespectfulshit...”

Leonard stares at his father through the dark. He wants to burn the moment down to ash, to watch the still-frame be swallowed up by licking flame until the sides blacken and crumple in on themselves. “She died when I was five, Dad. At some point, you have to move on. It’s not disrespectful.”


“No, I didn’t. And I’ve made my peace with it,” Leonard says, heading to his room.

“Gonnagonexyear. Yeshyouare.”

Leonard does not go the next year, or the year after that. When his father finally dies of heart failure three years later, Leonard visits both graves for the last time.


A couple stands in front of the Rothko on display as other onlookers sip from goblets of wine and congregate around other pieces on the walls. The man fidgets with the key ring in his pocket, careful not to make too much noise. The woman shifts her weight from her left leg to her right.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asks.

She leans her head to the side, wondering what she’s not seeing. He sees her scrunch up her face, puzzled.

“I’m Leonard,” he says, looking her up and down before offering his hand to her.

“Marjorie,” she replies, leaving his hand hanging in the space between them as she stares at the painting.

Leonard called her three days later from a pay phone near the university campus. He still couldn’t believe that she’d actually given him her real number. His hands shook as he picked up the receiver and punched in each number. The tiny slip of paper had gotten wrinkled and ink-smudged, but he could read the digits well enough. He misdialed twice before finally hearing the click on the other end.


“Um, hi, yes. Marjorie? It’s Leonard.”

“I’m sorry, who?”

“Leonard. We met at the art gallery opening a few days ago.”


“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t recall who you are. I met a lot of people at the opening.”


Marjorie was already bored with the idea of a first date with a man she hardly knew before she got to the restaurant. What was his name again? Lenny? Ben? It wasn’t even a nice restaurant, only some second-rate “Italian” place with cheap wine and paper “tablecloths” that children could color on, or so she had heard.

The place was completely empty and her forced smile faltered. He sat at the table in the middle of the restaurant, fidgeting with his dark brown hair as if a lock of it wouldn’t stay in place. A bouquet of multi-colored lilies sat on her placemat. He stood when he saw her, smoothed out his sport coat and smiled. He nearly tripped over himself as he went to pull her chair out, but stayed upright as she focused on the lily.

“Are we the only ones here?” she asked as she sat. He had a nice face. Boring, but nice. A little more round than she would’ve liked, but she liked his smile. His cheeks rose up as he did so, lifting his glasses a little.

“We are,” he said, nodding and taking his place across from her.

She fingered the petals of the lilies, admiring the waves of color surrounding each stamen. “These are beautiful. I wonder how they got these colors?”

“Water and food coloring. Obviously different kinds of food coloring, of course. It’s deceptively simple, really. You just stick the stem into a glass with food coloring in it. I had several different colors, so...I just picked a dozen, mixed a few colors, and let them sit until I felt they were close to being as beautiful as the woman they were meant for.”

She lifted it to her nose and inhaled.

“I can’t cook,” he said finally. She looked up at him and shook her head, confused.

He motioned towards the empty dining room. “I wanted tonight to be special, so I tried to learn how to cook. It didn’t go well. So instead I rented out the restaurant so we could just talk and have someone else do the cooking for us. No distractions.”

The bouquet went limp in her hand. “You...rented out the entire restaurant?”

“Yeah. I can’t cook.”


“Oh, come on. Tell me,” Leonard begs half-heartedly.

Marjorie loves to tease Leonard, this young man-cub of hers. After seven months of courting her, he’s still a good sport when she takes his glasses and doesn’t complain. He knows now that she’ll be careful with them, but it took him awhile to trust her with them. They aren’t cheap, he reminds her. And just to sweeten the deal, he’ll say that he can’t see her without them and how could she possibly deprive him of seeing such beauty? She’s never able to turn that one down without a wry smile and he knows it.

She holds his glasses in her hands behind her back. She knows he will guess the right hand (he always does). Sometimes she’ll give them up easily, but she prefers to toy with him, forcing him to guess over and over, even if he guesses correctly the first time. “It can only be one of two choices,” she says with a grin.

He leans forward and stares at her, scrunching his face up in mock concentration before letting it all go slack. “Screw the glasses; I choose you,” he says. Her lips part in surprise and he moves in to kiss her. She drops the glasses and holds his face in her hands as she gives her lips to his lips.


Granted, it’s not one of the big ones, not a ten or a twenty, but it’s still an anniversary. Marj had taken the day off work to decorate the house in subtle ways; extra flowers scattered throughout, a quick dusting of the furniture and a polishing of the good silverware. She wonders why Leonard must always talk about work as he tries to explain to her that the promotion is a good one. More responsibility, yes. More money, yes. But it also allows him to really get involved with everything in the museum, to really dig in and get his hands dirty with everyone, not just one department. In his excitement, he hasn’t touched his food. The silverware sparkles in the light of the dining room chandelier as his hands mimic his enthusiasm.

She dabs her mouth with a napkin and clears her throat. She takes another bite, says nothing, and smiles at him while swallowing the overcooked meat. He didn’t seem to remember what day it was. He hadn’t even brought a gift home, much less noticed the work she had done all day long to make tonight special.

“More wine, dear?” she asks as she takes her empty plate to the kitchen.


“Come on, Marj. Be reasonable. I know you want one, too.”

He loved the feel of her skin against his. He rested his face against her back as she held his draped arm across her chest. She was warm and smelled sweet like spent lotion. They had done nothing with their weekends but tangle themselves up in the sheets and each other.

“You’re going to be much busier this year,” she said quietly. “And the next, and the next. Let’s give it some more time before we dive right in. This isn’t a decision we can make hastily. Life gets complicated when you decide to do something like this. We have to be sure it’s right.”

She wasn’t wrong, but he didn’t want her to be right on this. At some point they were going to have to find some way to compromise. “But what about work?” he asked.

“Well, I’ll figure it out. You’ll be making more money and I can stay here at the house and take care of the things that need to be taken care of. The way it’s supposed to work, I suppose.”

“But if we had two cars...” he started.

Marj shifted beneath his arm. “Wait...a second car?” she asked, incredulous.

“Well, yeah. It makes sense.”

Why wasn’t she seeing his side of this?


Marj hated that everything now seemed to revolve around the museum. “Exhibit this” and “endowment that”; it was all Leonard ever talked about anymore and she had tired considerably of all the chatter. She didn’t want to buy any more dresses for the openings. She didn’t want to talk to pretentious people all night, people who would forget her by the time the party ended. They were the same people whose every fake word made her want to vomit, but she forced herself to hold steady, yes she did. It wouldn’t do for Leonard’s reputation for his wife to cause a scene.


Her fingers, like leafy vines, wrap around the steering wheel. She fights the tears and feels her nails dig into the palms of her hands before letting her chest expand, sucking in the tide of...what? Regret? Disappointment? Anger? It is a conglomeration of emotions she is unable to put a name to or put out of her head.

They all rush in as the tears flood out, a give and take that feels uneven and unfair. She cries for an hour in the parking lot of the clinic before turning the engine over and leaving. Her stomach is empty, but she has no appetite. She rummages around the glove box and finds Leonard’s cigarettes. She takes one, lights it, smokes it to the butt, and sends the remnant out the open window as she pulls into traffic.

She wants to pound her chest until it’s bruised, wants to scream at someone, anyone, just to get it out. Most of all she wants to scream at Leonard, who doesn’t even know she’s here. Leonard, who couldn’t even know why she’s here in the first place, so she keeps it all from him, cocoons it and swaddles it and keeps it as her own. She already knew what he’d say, so she never even bothered to tell him she had been pregnant in the first place.


Marjorie met the man while having dinner at a hotel bar in the city. The stranger had come looking for her, not the reverse. It was the first time she had ever engaged in such behavior, the first time she had ever thought about this kind of behavior, and she almost felt bad. But the man was charming in his awkwardness and made her feel...what? Young? Beautiful? Wanted? He complimented her perfume and reached for her hand. She pulled away, barely smiling. He tried again, complimenting the smile she tried to hide and she let his fingers close around hers. Her phone vibrated on the tabletop as she decided he was nice enough.

“Is it important?” he asked as she looked at the caller ID: Leonard.

She silenced the phone. “No.”


After his second heart attack, Marj emptied what, she believed, had to have been the entire kitchen into several shiny, black garbage bags. Shakers of salt, sweets, and half-full bottles of gin (which he rarely drank from anyway), red meats, a half-full carton of cigarettes—all rattled around in a bag that took her twenty minutes to drag out to the curb. She couldn’t remember the last time she had worked up such a sweat on his account.

Past mistakes be damned, there was still a large part of her that loved him dearly. If there was a way to help keep him intact and alive, she’d have to find it.


Her hair has started to gray and his has gone missing. They eat in silence most nights when he is home early enough to join her. The dining room is adorned in modest paintings and tiny sculptures (the kind they can afford). Everything is mausoleum-quiet, save for the scrape of silverware on plates and teeth. The doorbell rings less often than it used to. The carpet, while almost two decades old, still seems brand new. There is no blemish or dirt to be seen. The home feels sterile.


SHJ Issue 13
Fall 2015

Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger

is a 35-year-old writer from Kansas City, whose work has been published in Alors, Et Tois?, Agua Magazine, Offbeatpulp, Up The Staircase, The Gloom Cupboard, BrainBox Magazine, Cause & Effect Magazine, Crack the Spine, Penduline Press, Lunch Box, Eunoia Review, Serving House Journal, Aphelion, Glint Literary Journal, Slice Magazine, Sheepshead Review, Meat For Tea: The Valley Review, Bluestem Magazine, L’allures des Mots, Phoebe, and the Santa Clara Review; as well as in the anthology, Girl at the End of the World: Book 1 (Fox Spirit Books, 2014). His short story, “Equity Lamp,” was shortlisted for the Almond Press “Broken Worlds” fiction contest in 2014.

Rodenberger blogs at:

“...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