Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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4132 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Taking Notes

by Joann Smith

“You okay?” Don called from the living room.

That was his contribution to the packing of the suitcases, a call into Deb once in a while to ask if she was okay.


“Bullet-proof,” the man on Orchard Street where they bought the luggage had boasted. Deb had narrowed her eyes to understand. “Bullet-proof,” he repeated. She and Don looked at the fabric of the suitcase. They were buying luggage for their honeymoon—a week at an expensive resort in Puerto Rico. “That settles it,” Don decided. “We’ll take it. You never know, right?” He mocked the man without the man ever knowing it, and later he made a story of it for their friends. “If we get shot at, I might not make it but my shirts will.”

She was stuffing their underwear into the front pocket of the big suitcase when her fingers touched paper. Knowing exactly what she had discovered, she wedged her hand between the underwear and the inner fabric of the pocket and pulled out a folded piece of looseleaf and an envelopeless card with a kitty-cat on the front. She opened the card and there were the sickeningly familiar looping letters: “Don, you’re the best man I know. Someone should tell you that everyday and appreciate you. Love, Kathie,” with the “L” and the “K” embellished with curlicues.

Deb became aware of the pulse at her temples. Thimp. Thimp. Thimp. And of a coldness like fear squirting into her stomach. They could still do that to her. She unfolded the looseleaf and read hurriedly, though it was more like reciting at this point; she knew the lines so well. “Dear Don, I want you to know you have a fan; someone should tell you you’re such a good man. You’re thoughtful and kind; you’re such a good find. . .” She skimmed the couplets to the closing which was an “I Love You, Kathie,” with the same exaggerated script.

Deb sat on the bed amid the aqua and coral-colored summer clothes, and pressed her temples, a note in each hand.

“Did you call me?” Don inquired from the doorway.

Startled, Deb shoved the notes back into the suitcase pocket as if it were she who was guilty of something.

“You okay?” Don asked when she didn’t answer.

Deb picked up a shirt and lay it in the suitcase. She placed three more in without seeing any of them.

“You mad? What did I do?”

“You know what you did.”


She continued to put clothing into the bullet-proof suitcase, took a deep breath, and another, let a few moments pass, exhaled through pursed lips, which helped her begin to control her heartbeat and allow her rage to dissipate. She put the notes back in the suitcase. She and Don were leaving for Arizona—Phoenix and Sedona—the next morning, and she didn’t want the trip ruined.

“Who goes to the desert in July?” Don had asked, reducing all her planning to a joke. He asked it every time she told anyone where they were going on vacation. “Who goes to the desert in July?” But she was a teacher, and July and August were the only months she could travel, and Don knew that and he really didn’t mean to hurt her by mocking her choice; he just couldn’t let the opportunity to say something funny go by. And he did make her laugh no matter how much she didn’t want to. But desert or not, she wanted to enjoy this trip; they could fight when they came back. Until then, she could pretend she hadn’t found the letters; she could pretend, again, that she had thrown them out, as she promised she would.

“Did you want me to help you?” Don asked, coming and standing over the bed as though he might really assist her. “Is that what you’re mad about?”

“Without looking at him, she asked, “Do we have Advil?”

“You have a headache?”

“I’m getting one.” She heard her voice quaver. “Actually, I need some ginger ale. I’m a little nauseous.”

“Are you getting sick?”

She flicked her eyes up to him and then back down. “Can you just get me some ginger ale?”

“Okay. I’m going.”

Later when he suggested “a little pre-vacation fooling around,” she said, “If you get on top of me, I’ll vomit on you.”

“More ginger ale?” he asked.


The first time she found them, she was alone packing for both of them for a trip to California. They were flying to San Francisco, then renting a car and driving down route 1 to L.A. If he had been home, she might have confronted him immediately and angrily. But by the time he got back from work, she had decided to wait. She told herself that the notes were probably harmless; that they could be ancient history, mementos from a past relationship that had somehow made their way into their suitcase. She didn’t believe Don would cheat on her. And, she wanted to see California. She thought she could pretend she never saw them. Yet, she replaced them in the pocket of the suitcase, deciding to bring them along, knowing that taking them meant she’d bring them up at some point. And as it turned out, she couldn’t wait long. On the plane, after a Bloody Mary, she asked bluntly, “Would you ever have an affair?” Before he could decide whether he’d lie or not, she quoted, “‘I want you to know, you have a fan; someone should tell you you’re such a good man.’” He looked confused. Then she reminded him, “Kathie. The poet? Kathie with an i-e.” He said he didn’t know what she was talking about. She told him there were love letters in the front pocket of their suitcase from someone named K-a-t-h-i-e. She asked how they had gotten there, if he had taken a secret trip with K-a-t-h-i-e. He said “no,” and she believed him. She just couldn’t imagine him sleeping with another woman. He wouldn’t do that to her. He was annoying but he was loyal. He might flirt but that would be as far as he’d go. There was one golf weekend away with work friends, and she had heard the guys he went with talk about their shenanigans—so drunk at dinner, they were asked to leave the restaurant; so drunk on the golf course, one of them belly-flopped into the water to retrieve a ball. Other than that, he was never away without her. Still, the notes had come from somewhere. And then he seemed to remember. “I never looked at the letters. I stuffed them into the suitcase and forgot all about them. She gave them to me at the airport.”

“Who?” Deb learned that two women from the office had joined the men on the golf weekend.

“I guess Kathie gave them to me at the airport at the end of the trip.”

“You guess?” Deb pressed, angry but not frightened, still believing Don was incapable of cheating. This Kathie, she figured, must have had an infatuation; everyone loved Don. But then he told her. He got really drunk; she was really drunk. They did it on the golf course. It was nothing, he insisted. It never happened again, would never happen again. He vaguely remembered her giving him the notes at the airport; he must have slipped them into the suitcase and forgotten about them.


Deb thought about leaving him. She made him get tested for HIV. When she would have sex with him again, she made him wear condoms. At the nine-month mark, she worried about Kathie presenting him with a baby or with child-support demands and that reminded her of her anger. She was reminded again, when, a year-and-a-half after the incident, she was packing for their trip to Montreal when she found the notes again. The second time was no easier than the first. But she promised herself she wouldn’t bring it up again, but then there she was, half-drunk on red wine, reciting the poem. He had looked at her as though he didn’t know what she was talking about. She had to remind him. “Kathie. Kathie of the poems.” She hated him all over again, not just for fucking Kathie but because that poem was burned in her memory and he had never bothered to read it.


On the plane, seated at the window, she envisioned a string of elastic being pulled tauter and tauter as the plane lifted. At some point in this visualization, she wanted the elastic to snap, separating her from everything down below, allowing her to leave it all behind—her worries about the next class of third-graders she’d get in September; their aging parents; the house she and Don lived in and the repairs it needed; their arguments. His cheating. When it snapped, it would all be down there and she’d be up in the air, lofting away from it. But she couldn’t make it snap. The plane pulled and the string pulled. But no snap.

Don leaned in to share her view. “Vaaa-cation.” He gently elbowed her, saying, “Cheer up. It’s Vaa-cation.”

She shook her head but couldn’t help smiling. “You’re such a jerk.”

“But I’m your jerk.” He rested his almost still full head of auburn hair on her shoulder, the hair that had caught her attention and had attracted her to him the first time she saw him on the baseball field of their college. Her heart still sped a little at the sight of him from a distance. She kissed the top of his head.


Dry heat or not, at 114 degrees, Phoenix was too hot. As they walked to the parking lot for their rented car, Deb beat Don to the punch. “Who goes to the desert in July?”

Two enormous, caged parrots greeted them in the cavernous lobby of the hotel. It was a relief to find the air-conditioner in the room set to 68 degrees, and they stayed there for an hour, Don watching TV and Deb putting clothes in drawers.

That night they got drunk on Piña Coladas and were daring themselves to make love on the golf course when a line of one of the couplets popped into Deb’s head and out of her mouth: “‘Someone should tell you you’re such a good man.’”

“What?” Don was still smiling, impishly.

But Deb’s mood quickly soured as did her stomach. She made it upstairs to the bathroom in their room before she vomited.

They cut their time in Phoenix short. But that was not unusual for them. Curtailing vacations was a routine that began on their honeymoon. Then, they were booked in a resort in Puerto Rico for nine nights. After five days, Don mentioned the charity baseball game he’d wanted to play in at home. Bored with the beach and the resort and even Old San Juan, Deb decided to give him a wedding present. She called the airline and changed their flight, cutting three nights off their honeymoon and allowing him to get back for the game. As a thank-you, Don bought her a diamond bracelet in the jewelry store in the hotel, and that became a pattern—ending their vacations early and with jewelry.

“I don’t like vacations. I feel like I’m acting when I’m on a trip.” Don once justified their early exit as their plane tilted away from their vacation spot and toward home. “Do you know what I mean?”

She did know what he meant. On vacation when it was just the two of them, they seemed always to be trying to be a couple, doing the things they thought couples would do on vacations. At home, with work, errands, chores, and TV they seemed like a couple. And when they were out with friends laughing at and complaining about each other, they were comfortable as a couple. But on vacation, they were more like two people acting the role of a couple. Still, Deb wanted to travel, or rather, she felt that traveling was something couples should do. So she kept planning trips.


The drive to Sedona was challenging, all snaking roads through the Coconino National Forest, hairpin turns, and hills that seemed never to crest. Twice, in anticipation of a crash, Deb sucked in her breath so noisily that Don snapped at her that she was making him nervous. She tried to distract herself with the trees.

“Ponderosa Pine,” she remarked.

“Did you get that from the guidebook?” Don asked in a tone that suggested that repeating anything she read in the guidebook was somehow cheating.

“Afraid you’ll learn something?” she sniped at him.

And then they came around a curve, and the earth turned red.

“It’s otherworldly,” Deb enthused, employing another description from the guidebook and fully expecting Don to mock her for it.

Instead, he agreed. “Like Mars, or something.”

“I told you it’d be beautiful,” she reminded him.

She spoke animatedly for the rest of the drive, and when they found their motel, she suggested they drop their luggage off and go out exploring right away. Don would have preferred to switch on the TV and lie on the bed for a while but he let himself be persuaded.

Wandering down the main street—Sedona was all galleries, jewelry, Tarot Cards, and crystals shops—Deb spotted a sign for “Ancient Sites” jeep tours. “Let’s do it.”

“I’m hungry,” Don objected. “And we don’t have to do everything on the first day, you know.”

“By tomorrow, you’ll be looking for a golf course,” she predicted. She walked into the office and discovered that the next tour left in half an hour. “Enough time for you to eat something,” she placated him.

More than enough time, as it turned out. It was over an hour before Deb and Don climbed into a jeep. Back in the tour office, Don had been whispering, not so quietly, to Deb about how they were being kept waiting, about how they could have sat down to a real lunch and a beer instead of taking a taco a piece out and eating them as they walked. The manager explained that one of the jeeps had broken down, and he had had to send Deb’s and Don’s jeep to bring the people back. He kept promising, “Just a couple of minutes, now.”

Deb’s enthusiasm dampened, too. “But we’ve waited this long,” she rationalized.

When their jeep finally returned and the passengers—a couple Deb guessed was on their honeymoon—had finished thanking the guide, Deb climbed in up front and Don got in the back. The guide introduced herself as Lohanna, and Deb immediately decided it was a made-up name. When Lohanna leaned forward to shift gears, her small breast became clearly visible through the oversized armhole of her shirt. She was a painter, she told them. Artistic people were drawn to Sedona because it had a way of awakening creativity. “There are places in these mountains,” she said, “where the earth’s energy can be felt.”

“Vortexes,” Deb said. “I read about them in the guidebook.”

“I’ll show you one.”

Don leaned up from the back to give Deb’s shoulder a squeeze. She knew what he was thinking. One night, while she was still planning the trip and looking through the guidebook, she told Don about the vortexes. As she expected, he played obtuse. “The earth’s energy?” he asked. “You stand there, and what happens? A breeze blows up your pants? Really? How do you know it’s the earth’s energy and not a breeze? And isn’t a breeze the earth’s energy?” And the more she tried to explain, the more unlikely vortexes sounded, so she couldn’t help laughing with him. The vortexes became “divortexes.” “Places where wives take their husbands to divorce them.” She laughed at that, too. Theirs was one of those marriages in which the spouses joked about getting divorced.

But now she didn’t want to laugh; she wanted to believe in the vortexes and the “divorotex” jokes didn’t seem so funny now. Deb leaned away from him, away from his cynicism, toward Lohanna with her peek-a-boo breast, her veiny hands that maneuvered the jeep so confidently, and her belief in the earth’s energy.

Lohanna was saying that it was limestone, mud, and sandstone that created the terra cotta color of Sedona. “The color enhances creative thinking.”

Deb looked out at the landscape. “Seeing red,” she thought, and now, just that fast, she was seeing it literally and figuratively. “Someone should tell you you’re such a good man.” She wished she could get those stupid rhymes out of her head but she couldn’t. When she glanced back at Don, his head was tilted slightly to enhance his view into the armhole of Lohanna’s shirt. He raised his eyes to meet Deb’s and smiled, caught.

They got out of the jeep at a spot where Lohanna said a cliff-dwelling people had lived, and they hiked up to the shallow cave-like dwellings. Lohanna slid her hand along a rock wall. “Sometimes you can feel the energy of the people who lived here. Once I got an image of a little boy. Other people say they hear things up here. Singing. Chanting. I’ve never heard anything but every time I come up here, I listen.”

When Deb put her hand against the wall, Don made a sound behind her. “Woo-ouu.”

“You’re such an asshole.”

Lohanna laughed.

“See, she thought it was funny.” He cupped Deb’s shoulder; she shrugged him off again.

“Let me show you the vortexes,” Lohanna suggested.

“Go ahead,” Deb shooed him off with a wave of her hand. “I’ll catch up.”

“Come on,” Don urged. “The,” he whispered the first syllable, “di-vortex.”

“I said I’d catch up.”


When he and Lohanna had walked off, and Deb was sure Don wasn’t watching, she put her hand back on the rock wall and closed her eyes. She wanted the wall to tell her something—something about forgiveness, which she couldn’t fully embrace; something about how to stop punishing him and herself; that it was okay to love him even though he had betrayed her, that loving him didn’t mean she was betraying herself.

“Deb,” Don called from a short distance.

She palmed the wall one last time, but it didn’t instruct her, so she gave up on it and walked toward him.

“The vortex. It’s unbelievable. I really felt something.”

“What, divorced?”

“No. Seriously. Come on. Lohanna showed me. You stand on this spot, and it’s amazing. You really feel something.”

“A breeze up your shorts?”

“No. I know I didn’t believe it but it’s amazing. It feels like energy or something. Like a rush.” He hurried her over to an unremarkable spot where Lohanna was waiting. “Stand here.” He stood there first to demonstrate, danced his shoulders. “I got a tingle. It’s incredible,” he said to Lohanna.

Then he positioned Deb. She stood reverently, closed her eyes, breathed deeply. Felt nothing. “Here?” she asked.

“Right there. You don’t feel anything?”

She moved around a little, made a few adjustments. Waited. “How long should it take?”

“You don’t feel anything? I felt it right away. I can’t believe you don’t feel it. I thought you’d be the one to feel it.” He looked at Lohanna again. “I can’t believe she doesn’t feel anything.”

“Not everyone does.”

Deb glared at the two of them. “Not everyone does,” echoed in her head. “Not everyone does.” But he and Lohanna do, she thought. She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. She was hungry, she realized. That one taco she had eaten wasn’t enough. And she had forgotten to put on sunscreen and could feel the sun targeting her shoulders. She took another audible breath trying to clear her mind, deciding that the earth wouldn’t speak to her if she were thinking about such mundane things as SPF. She focused attention on her feet. Was that something she was feeling there? Just an ant, which had made its way onto her sandals and was traversing her big toe. She stamped her foot to shake it off.

“Do you feel it?” Don asked hopefully.

Deb glowered at him.

“I don’t think she feels anything.”

Oh, but she did feel something. “‘I want you to know,’” she said with her eyes fixed on Don, “‘You have a fan.’” She paused while Lohanna and Don looked quizzically at her. “‘Someone should tell you you’re such a good man.’”

Lohanna looked from Deb to Don and back to Deb. “Is the earth speaking to you?”

“‘You’re thoughtful and kind and always on my mind.’”

“Oh my God.” Don turned away from her, then back.

“‘You deserve only good things, and all the happiness that real love brings.’”

“Deb. . .”

“I can’t believe you did that to me. To us.”

Don puffed air from one cheek to the other, glanced away, looked back at Deb.

Lohanna, slowly coming to some kind of understanding, excused herself, “I’ll be over by the jeep.”

“It was nothing. I thought this was all over.”

“You fucked her!”

“Two years ago.”

“Have you been with her since?”


“Why should I believe you?”

“She got married.”

“So what? You were married.”

He looked away for several moments then looked back. “I don’t know what you want me to do. I don’t understand why you’re bringing this up, why you want to ruin our vacation.” He shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know what I can do.” He looked at her, waiting for an answer but then he raised his chin and kept raising it until he was looking at the sky. “Oh my God. You kept the notes, didn’t you. They’re still in the suitcase, aren’t they?” He grabbed at his hair with both hands. “You have to let this go. You have to let this go, or let me go. We can’t keep doing this.”

Deb felt the energy go out of her, as if the vortex was feeding on her, sucking the life out of her. “I want to go home.”


Lohanna spoke a little on the jeep ride back but neither Deb nor Don responded. Deb peeked in once at Lohanna’s breast. Actually, she wasn’t peeking. She was simply looking in Lohanna’s direction, and there it was presenting itself, demanding attention. Deb thought that maybe she’d complain about it to the manager. For the rest of the ride, she watched herself in the side-view mirror as though she might do something to surprise herself. She noted the distance growing between her and the mountains, the storm clouds that seemed to be trying to catch up to them.

Back in town, Don tipped Lohanna, and Deb heard him mumble an apology. Then when Lohanna was gone, he turned to Deb. “I’m sorry. I fucked up. But we can’t keep doing this.”

“I want to go home,” Deb repeated.

On the way back to the motel, he stopped and bought a six-pack at a convenience store, and once they were back in the room, they each took a beer and went out to sit on the small terrace.

“There’s a storm coming,” he said, looking at the sky. And then he asked, “Are you hungry?”

“How could you?” She cried.


He went out and got them hamburgers and while he was gone, she called the airlines and changed their flight. It cost $50 per ticket for the change.

When he came back, he took a small box out of his shorts pocket, handed it to her and said again, “I’m sorry.”

She opened it. Emerald earrings.

“Your favorite,” he reminded her.

She nodded.

“Please tear those letters up. Promise me.”

She thought of them in the pocket of the suitcase.

“I’m glad we’re going home,” Don continued. “No more vacations for us.”

After a while, Deb asked quietly, “What about Ireland? I thought you wanted to go to Ireland.”

Don studied her.

He looked so sad and so tired that had he stayed quiet for a moment longer, she would have succumbed and gone into the room and taken the letters from the suitcase and handed them to him to tear up.

“Ireland?” he asked, breaking the spell.

So, the notes would stay right where they were, for now. ‘Someone should tell you you’re such a good man.’ “It’s not the desert, though,” she said. “You won’t be able to make fun of us for going to Ireland in July.”

“That’s true.” He smiled, and as though he thought he were finally forgiven, he hugged her tightly. Then they stood at the railing of the terrace and watched for the next flash of lightning.



SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Joann Smith

has had stories published in Chagrin River Review, New York Stories, Literal Latte, Best of Writers at Work, Alternate Bridges, Image: A Journal of Art and Religion, So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, The Roanoke Review, The Greensboro Review, and The Texas Journal of Women and the Law.

One of her stories was selected by the editors of Best American Short Stories 2000 as one of the one-hundred notable stories of the year. Her novel When I Was Boudicca was published online in 2004 (before anyone was reading books online!). She has just completed a novel of contemporary fiction.

Smith lives, works, writes, and takes long walks in the Bronx, where she finds most of her stories.

“...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