Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
1606 words
SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014


by Tom Andes

Another date. Sylvie sipped her water and studied the dark, half-moon shape the bottom of the glass left on the tablecloth, crunching the ice between her molars until they ached. She didn’t want to go into it, didn’t want to labor over the same details, so rote by now it felt like a story someone had told her, like a poem she’d been forced to memorize or the lyrics to a song she’d unwittingly committed to memory in seventh grade, the year she’d been compelled to recite Poe’s The Raven before her fourth-period English class. They always looked at her, even then, one looking at her, one turned away, so she wondered if that constituted some kind of fundamental pattern in a person’s life or if it were only her own. Bryce Miller, who cornered her by her locker every lunch period, who lived with his grandmother and smelled of the tuna and onion sandwiches the old woman packed into a brown paper sack for his lunch, and Casey Johnson, who didn’t know she was alive, sat like the twin poles of her existence on either end of the front row while Sylvie blushed to the roots of her hair and stared at a crumpled yellow wrapper someone had left on the floor under the corner of Mr. Greene’s desk, her voice hardly more audible than a whisper.

She didn’t know he lived with his grandmother, and she never would have treated him so wretchedly if she had. She never would have slammed the locker door in his face, would have spoken to him, said something pleasant. Except she understood that would have given him the wrong idea, so it was impossible not to be a little cruel, and she understood now that was why she’d been so angry with him, because he’d put her in a position where it was impossible not to be cruel.

If he lived with his grandmother, something horrible had happened. Whether his parents had died in a car crash or divorced, whether they’d orphaned or abandoned him or were serving concurrent life sentences, one sensed the tragic dimensions behind a story like that. He couldn’t help himself. He broke out in a sweat at the sight of her, as much a prisoner of his hormones as she was of hers. “Try flossing,” she’d told him one morning by her locker. Now, she imagined weekend visits, maybe the promise of a furlough in twenty years, empty words breathed across circular holes cut in Plexiglass in the penitentiary visiting room. Bryce just kept smiling at her, however she abused him, leaning against her locker in the wine-colored corduroys he wore to school, his buck teeth protruding under a shag of blond hair. He kept smiling at her, even while she watched the beads of sweat spreading across his brow.

“Sylvie, could you speak up, please?” Greene cleared his throat, and a hush fell over the room. He wore a daffodil-colored shirt with chalk dust on the shoulders and the cuffs of the sleeves, and she had to keep from giggling at the white smudge under his nose. Bryce propped his face in his hands, as if he meant not to undress but to dissect her with his eyes, while Casey sat sideways, so he could pass notes to Gretchen Shannon, a redhead who wore Benneton shirts, played field hockey, and covered her braces when she smiled. Sunlight fell through the windows, and the shadows of the leaves on the oak on the lawn moved across the linoleum floor. Sylvie touched Greene’s desk, and she remembered that sensation more than anything, the way her fingernails glided across the laminated wood and the way that had brought her mother back to her, a steely lock of chestnut hair framing her mother’s cheekbone while she sat behind the wheel of their Saab. The smell of cleaning products lingered in the room. Greene spoke her name again, but gently, as if he sensed the girl was about to cry.

She thought she’d managed to blot the poem out of her mind, though she supposed it lingered somewhere. Sometimes, with the phone cradled under her ear while she talked to her best friend Margie in Pasadena, it appeared on the tip of her tongue. Only William Blake emerged instead—“Tyger, Tyger, burning bright”—while she scandalized Margie with the affair she’d broken off with a married lawyer that winter.

“You rely on me,” she’d told Margie, who’d run off to California with a truck driver the year they’d both graduated from UVM. Their freshman year remained fixed in Sylvie’s mind as one long vista of brick buildings buried like impacted molars in the snow, of bars that looked like ski lodges, and of the grating sound the radiator in the dorm made when she took some boy to bed. Margie had a third on the way, and neither she nor Sylvie had turned thirty. “You need me to have your fun for you,” Sylvie said.

Now she might perceive her mother’s profile, the side of the woman’s face framed like a marble bust by that graying lock of hair, in the cornice of a tenement glimpsed from the early train while Sylvie drummed her fingers on the glass and glanced at her watch, as if she could will the train to move faster out of sheer anxiety. One morning when she was seven, she’d woken to find the coal stove in the kitchen empty, the cinders burned to ash on the grate. Out the window lay fields of snow, powder white under a gray glare. In memory, she could see every jagged crystal. The tops of the apple trees, the seedlings her father had planted two summers ago, poked through the snow like fish nosing out of a stream. She reached for the pot-bellied stove in the kitchen. Her teeth chattered. Her knees knocked. She knew from the moment she heard her father crying what had happened and why.

“My mother drank herself to death,” she said, with a hearty shrug, with a shrill note of accusation she couldn’t keep out of her voice. “And my father died of grief.” She sipped her wine and watched herself replace the glass on the table, where the bits of cork and the stain the wine made on the cloth seemed as composed as a still life. She picked at the hem of her skirt, and she folded her arms across her chest. Some men put their hands over hers on the table. Others nodded, as if to say they’d been through the same. This one, a Harvard-trained psychologist who’d moved to Boston from San Francisco in the middle of a divorce, whom she’d met Zydeco dancing two weeks ago in Cambridge, who stood too close when he talked and closer still when he listened, so Sylvie wondered whether he was hard of hearing, leaned across the table, made a tent of his hands, and scrutinized her.

As the candlelight caught on the gold cross dangling from his ear, she imagined herself making love with the psychologist, imagined him saying, “Sylvie, tell me about your mother,” in a Viennese accent. In the restaurant, R.E.M.’s “Orange Crush” played on the stereo. Send your conscience overseas. Before he could say anything, Sylvie changed the subject: “I haven’t heard this song in years.” He licked his lips. He didn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. A waiter moved past the table, balancing an empty wine glass atop a stack of dirty plates. The snow banked against the picture windows in front of the restaurant made Sylvie feel as cozy as if she’d curled up on the sofa with a book she’d read fifty times. “You can’t wait forever,” a woman at the next table barked into her cell phone, and she stared in horror at her cuticles. Sylvie imagined the beads of sweat dripping from the end of the psychologist’s nose while he crooned to her, and the mahogany headboard she’d bought last Christmas smacked the wall. “It was the Quicksilver Messenger Service for me,” he offered, grinning at her over the remains of his double-cut pork chop. “They were this jam band,” he explained, and he laughed. His hand shook as he tipped the rest of the merlot into her glass. Sylvie watched a droplet of wine spread into the tablecloth, aware of what she could only assume was a maternal feeling spreading across her lap.

He ended up crying, sobbing into her chest while they parked in front of her building and ran the heater in his silver Tercel wagon. “Baby,” Sylvie called him, smoothing the hair from his temples and clutching him to her chest until he’d soaked her blouse. “It happens,” she told him, when he’d recovered sufficiently to apologize, wiping his eyes with the heels of his hands. It was December, and she’d just turned twenty-eight. That fact landed on her with utter clarity as she watched the fingerprints—his wife’s? his daughter’s?—surfacing on the windshield, and she reached up and drew a single fat line on the corner of the glass as he played with her breasts, pinching her nipples until they stood erect. Sylvie felt outside herself, outside her own desire, so the way his goatee prickled the corners of her mouth woke in her not longing, but the sensation of floating, of moving through her own life like the snow that drifted down past the corner of her building in the wind, and when she did take him to bed, it was more out of pity than drunkenness.


SHJ Issue 9
Spring 2014

Tom Andes

Writing by Tom Andes has most recently appeared in Harp & Altar, Cannibal, and Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He has interviewed musicians and writers including Todd Snider, Boots Riley, and Thomas E. Kennedy for The Rumpus and other publications. He lives in New Orleans.

[See also “Thomas E. Kennedy’s Dangerous Songs,” in SHJ-8.]

“...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