This story is a runner-up in our 2019 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
The instructor was bent like a question mark, a corona of gray hair circling her face. Behind her, cell phones were beeping and feet were shuffling as she wrote feverishly on the board. She knew her night school students only too well. A few tattered housewives. Some laid-off construction workers. Most were dodging bill collectors and parole officers. All were fighting sleep. Her hand raced to finish the sentence, the graceful loops of the letters unraveling as she wrote. Then turning to face them, she read Dickinson’s words.
“My life closed twice before its close.”
Out of 20-odd students, two or three leaned forward in their seats, their fingers clasped, their eyes squinting. Maybe they were listening.
“Was she writing about death or heartache? A missed opportunity or a long-lost friend?”
Her glance swept from row to row hoping to make eye contact. That mousy girl in the back row, hiding in a hoodie, the one sucking on the ends of her long blond hair. She was wide awake now. Paying attention. Dropping the hair and grabbing the edges of her desk with both hands. Yes!
“How many doors in your life,” said the instructor, “have been opened only to be slammed shut?”
Outside it was January in upstate New York. Beyond the windows, the world was blanketed with snow. Her students, she imagined, would rather be anywhere else. Nursing a beer in a bar. Throwing in a load of wash and tucking in the kids. But then she remembered Dickinson, and those nights she sat curled by the fire with a Norton Anthology in her lap. Let them roll their eyes and hate me.
“You’ll find the rest of the poem in your handout. Read it and write a 500-word essay for next week.”
Then — amid the groans and smirks — she packed up her notepad and pencils, shoved her arms inside her winter coat, and promptly left.
The school parking lot was nearly deserted. Light poles stood like dead trees, sending amber shadows over the snow. If the temperature didn’t kill Rose, the wind surely would. She fumbled inside her purse for the car keys and prayed the door lock wasn’t frozen. Finally, after taking off her gloves, wincing as one gust after another froze her face, she found them. The car turned over twice before it started.
Next she waited for the heat to kick in. Sooner or later, she would have to leave the car and brush the snow off the windows. Her goal — if she could ever afford it — was to trade in her piece-of-crap Honda for something with defrosters that actually worked. But right now, she was perfectly content, sitting there, waiting for her fingers to thaw, enjoying the hot blasts of the air pumping from the vents.
If only she could stay cocooned in her car forever. There’d be no more dawn-to-dusk shifts at the diner, no more self-improvement plans. Two weeks into her first semester at night school and she might as well be back at the shrink’s. She took a strand of hair, licked the ends, and gently brushed her cheek. Screw that instructor. Screw Emily Dickinson. And screw the GED.
In front of her, the windshield was getting foggy. When she gazed in the rearview mirror, plumes of smoke rose from the exhaust. If only she had a rubber hose, a simple garden hose, wouldn’t that be nice. Something quick and quiet.
She had no idea how long she slept before the noise woke her. It was like a woodpecker pecking or a knuckle rapping. Rap! Rap Rap!
Bracing herself against the cold, she rolled down the window halfway. A vague recollection surfaced. A ski cap striped in red and white topped with a blue pom-pom. A spray of strawberry-blond peach fuzz covering his cheeks. About her age. Twentyish. Like her, he sat in the last row of the class.
“You okay?” he said.
His breath came out in cumulus clouds. Hugging himself, he sputtered.
“Jesus, they need to get snow plows in here.”
Rose lowered the window another inch and looked around. Everything was white. There was no distinguishing between the road and the sidewalk, the parking lot and the playground. “I’m peachy,” she said. “Just peachy.”
The poor guy looked miserable. Snot hung from his nose and froze. He wiped it with a mittened hand, shuffling back and forth, stomping his feet, mumbling Lord of Mercy, I gonna die out here! I’m gonna fricking die. Pathetic actually. The snotty mitten. The ridiculous hat. Two weeks into class and she’d already caught him napping, drool from his mouth spooling ever so gently over Emily Dickinson’s poems. Comical really. So when he asked her if she wanted to grab a cup of coffee, against her better judgment she said yes.
The Candlelight Inn, they both agreed, would be the best bet. After nine o’clock, the only other places in town were the bars, and each one was seedier than the next. She followed in the wake of his pickup truck, chasing his high beams, until they pulled up in the parking lot of the town’s sole motel. There were no moon and no stars, only a Vacancy sign winking and blinking in the darkness. When they walked through the front door, the tinkle of a bell woke up the desk clerk.
“Need a room?” he asked.
They buried their necks inside their coats and mumbled Just coffee at the same time. Then pushing their way past a set of double doors, they found the restaurant. Swinging Budweiser lamps. Leatherette booths. Somewhere a jukebox played.
She peeled off layer after layer of clothing, dumping the pile next to her, paring down to a flannel shirt and jeans, the too-big shirt and jeans swallowing her frame.
“I know you,” he said.
Close up, the girl thought he looked even bigger. Mittenless, his hands were huge and ropey as if they were chiseled from stone. Everything about him — his face, his neck, his hair — looked scrubbed raw. But those beautiful hands. Just the thought of those hands made her shiver.
“I’ve been working at the diner for around six months,” said Rose. “I’m the morning shift. The afternoon shift too most the time.”
He was good at talking, making her feel comfortable, helping the words ease out. They held their coffee mugs with both hands, taking small sips, leaning in. The jukebox music was surprisingly loud. Rose figured she heard every other word.
“Most people in this town have known each other since they were kids,” said Jackson.
“Is that a good thing?” said Rose.
“Good and bad. Everyone remembers everything. Things stick. You know? Your past. Your mistakes.”
She swirled the spoon, watching the cream in the coffee cup. When her mother got sick, she said they were lucky. Big cities have better hospitals. Better medical care. Imagine if they lived in one of those small towns, said her mother. In those small towns, folks don’t have a fighting chance.
“So,” he said. Then he lowered his voice like a game-show host, “whatever brings you into our neck of the woods?”
“I grew up around two hours from here. In Rochester.”
“Jesus,” he said. “You could have picked any place in the world,” said Jackson. “Why’d you pick here?”
The spoon spun in circles, the cream spiraling, a Milky Way in the palm of her hand. “I got sick. One day I was fine, well maybe not so fine. And the next day BOOM!”
She pounded her fist harder than she meant. Waves of coffee splashed on the table. She patted it with one two three napkins while the waitress shot her dirty looks.
“They diagnosed me with quote — clinical depression with paranoid schizoid features.” She rolled up her sleeves and showed him the scars on her wrists.
“And you picked this town to cheer you up?”
She snorted a laugh. “I’m supposed to revisualize my life. The therapists said it’s like writing a book. Except you’re the author and the main character both.”
Good Lord, she was talking a lot. Why was she talking so much to a perfect stranger? She brought the mug to her mouth and took another sip. Either the coffee was cold or her lips were numb. It was hard to tell.
“So one day I went driving. Endlessly driving. Driving for miles. And finally I saw farm silos and cow pastures and U-Pick-em fields. I figured this town was as good a place as any.”
Wasn’t there always a life derailed or a plan detoured? Rose glanced at the boy. Everyone had a story. Blah blah blah.
“Senior year in high school I was starting quarterback,” she heard him saying. “The colleges were offering full rides, you know what I mean? Buying stuff my family didn’t want and didn’t need. But the first game of the season — it wasn’t even halftime — I got tackled before the ball left my hand.”
Somewhere the jukebox was playing I’m gonna take it slow as fast as I can and Rose looked at Jackson’s hamburger meat of a face and bit her lip to keep from laughing. She squeezed her legs and pinched her thighs but nothing helped. She felt it coming. Any second a great big guffaw would just pop out. A laugh so inappropriate that the waitstaff would call the EMTs and Jackson would file her under Catastrophe. But the boy’s mouth kept on moving.
“I was zeroing in on the tight end, my arm’s back, my elbow’s out, when all of a sudden it’s like I’m hit by lightning. The next thing I know I’m on a stretcher with my leg pointing in a direction it shouldn’t be pointing.”
Another snort was about to surface. “And?” she said.
“And?” He sat back in the booth and white-knuckled the table. “In a town like this, it’s a big deal. A front page of the local newspaper kind of deal. Five months later, after all the rehab and physical therapy, the colleges backed out. Thank you but no thank you. You know what I mean?”
She waited for the words to penetrate, to strike a chord someplace deep. The guy was practically crying, for Pete’s sake! Instead she felt nothing. Then a voice replayed like a tape. Sharing is almost as good as caring, said the therapists.
“When I was in 11th grade,” said Rose, “my mother got breast cancer. They call the treatment slash, burn, and poison. After 12 months of torture, they told us she was cured.”
Jackson gripped the table harder. “And then what happened?” he whispered.
“Fast-forward three years. We’re minding our own business, picking up the pieces, I’m even thinking about going back to school. I was a good student. A really good student. Then all of a sudden Mom starts getting nosebleeds. They never tell you about the chemo. That the poison in your body can flip on leukemia like a switch. And you know what happens once you get leukemia? A sneeze, a scratch, anything can kill you.”
“Jesus,” said Jackson.
“Wherever is that waitress?” said Rose. “I think she lost our check.”
The following week, the instructor noticed the change in her two students right off. The blonde had washed her hair and wore a V-neck sweater, the hair traveling in a sinewy curve down her spine. Not only was the ski cap gone, but the boy had shaved. A startling thatch of auburn hair stood upright on his head, the cowlicks heading in all directions.
“Any volunteers to read last week’s assignment?”
The Dickinson poem was usually an icebreaker. People personalized it, and the older the student, the more interesting the history. For the next hour, they heard every possible sob story — from watching two buddies die in Afghanistan to the week Mary Sue’s washing machine and refrigerator both broke. Heartache is never graded on a curve.
Only the redhead in the back row surprised her. She knew Jackson Peters was college material — hell, the whole town knew about his disastrous football career — yet the boy could barely read. He had obviously plagiarized the newspaper articles. When he read his essay out loud, he stumbled and stuttered his way through.
At least he tried. The blonde, on the other hand, didn’t even attempt the assignment. But the instructor not only knew her way around Cummings and Carew but sized up people fairly well, too. Improvising lesson plans was part and parcel of her job. She thumbed through the large text on her desk, and promptly found what she was looking for.
“Next week’s assignment is on page 302. The love sonnets of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Read them.”
As soon as the class was over, the students began packing their bags and heading towards the door. The instructor cleared her throat and spoke again. “Miss Leesfield. Rose Leesfield. Do you mind if I speak to you for a moment?”
The girl walked over, staring at her shoes. “Yes?”
“To pass this class, Rose, you have to write. There’s no need to read your paper to the class. I respect your privacy if that’s an issue.”
When the girl looked up, the hatred in her eyes sucked the air clean out of the room. “I thought this was an English class. Tropes and alliteration and onomatopoeia. If I wanted group therapy, I’d steer my car to Strong Memorial and check myself back into the psych ward.”
Underneath the instructor’s feet, the floor wobbled. Still she held her ground.
“There are different ways to tell a story, Rose. Remember Dickinson. Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”
Then letting the lesson percolate, the instructor turned to the blackboard, eraser in hand.
It had always been just the two of them, Rose and her mother, Pearl. So nothing prepared her for Jackson’s family. They lived on 10 acres right outside of town. Snow spun like sugar on apple and pear trees. A crystalline horizon merged with the sky. Jackson’s truck flew down a long winding road then stopped short before a large wooden house.
Gingerbread shutters. Rocking chairs on the porch. The weather hovered near zero yet the walkway was swept, the porch clean.
“Prepare yourself,” said Jackson. “We’ve got two sets of grandparents, my sister and her kids, and my younger brother. And there’s usually a homeless person or two that the church sends our way.”
Even though it was February, it smelled like Christmas. A wreath of pine cones hung over the fireplace. Handmade throws lay on the couch. It wasn’t until they walked past the parlor that they heard people talking and children laughing. A cavernous family room with the world’s largest flat screen opened before them.
Bounding in their direction, a teenager was the first to say hello. Tall and good-looking. Like Jackson, a mop of unruly hair sat on his head. Only in his case, nature had readjusted the dials. Black hair and eyes as green as spring. He looked her over. Up down. Down up. Then a hand as large as an oven mitt shot forward.
“Well I’ll be. Numnuts actually brought somebody home.”
Two little girls giggled in the corner while a huge man hoisted himself up from the couch. The same coloring as Jackson’s brother only the pitch-black hair was threaded with silver.
“My name’s Butch. Excuse my son Roy. He leaves his manners at church on Sundays.”
Suddenly a whiff of vanilla wafted from the doorway. Another large person barged into the room, her chest covered with an apron, her hands carrying a tray loaded with food. Doris, Jackson’s mother. Ruddy skin. Red hair. There was no mistaking the resemblance. In one graceful maneuver, she placed the tray on a coffee table, wrapped her arms around Rose, and let loose a torrent of words.
“I’ve got cheese curds, cheese straws, cheese balls, cheese puffs. And for those of us with a sweet tooth, I’ve got custard tarts, lemon tarts, jam tarts, and pecan tarts.”
Rose blinked. For a few seconds, she just stood there. Her mother had always been slim. But as her illness progressed, she held her diet responsible. Toward the end, they only bought food at organic co-ops. Each meal was graced with candles and incense as if karma could provide a cure.
“Well?” asked Doris.
There wasn’t a napkin or plate in sight. Reaching forward, Rose grabbed a little hill of cheese and a gummy pastry. Then she looked at her hand. Within seconds, a pool of grease had leached from the tart while the cheese had started melting. She had little choice but to gulp them both.
“Good, right?” said Doris.
Rose ran her tongue over her teeth. My God. Was there anything more delicious than butter?
“Good,” said Rose.
The biggest surprise of all was Jackson’s room. It was the only place in the house with a padlock swinging from the door. First he looked down the hallway to his right and his left. Then fishing inside his shirt, he pulled out a chain with a key.
Rose had no idea what to expect. Handcuffs on the bedposts? A stash of porn magazines? Instead the place looked like a museum with Lego constructions on every shelf. The Death Star. The Millennium Falcon. The Statue of Liberty. The Eiffel Tower.
Jackson stood in front of his desk blocking the light. “I had lots of time on my hands after my surgery.”
Rose knew his nervous habits by now. Instead of looking at her, he gazed over her shoulder. His left eye began to twitch.
“I used to have trophies. Shelves and shelves of trophies. But one day I just tossed them out. Boy, was Mom mad. Dad wasn’t happy either.”
“What are you hiding, Jackson?”
“I had a lot of ribbons, too. Blue ribbons. Red ribbons. Gold ribbons.”
“I know something’s behind you. What are you hiding?”
Slowly he moved to the side, the heat rising to his face, the redness becoming even redder. Rose walked to the desk and felt her heart lurch. A perfect Lego replica of the City Hall was nearly finished. The Presbyterian Church with its steeple had a working bell. The old school house had a swing set and a real seesaw. And there, in the middle of it all, was the diner and a miniature version of herself.
“My desk isn’t nearly big enough. I’m running out of room.”
“You’re doing the whole town?” asked Rose.
He shrugged his shoulders. “If I move it to the family room, my nieces will think it’s a toy. If I move it to the basement, Roy will destroy it. He pretty much likes to destroy everything.”
Rose ran her fingers over the buildings and rang the little bell. “This is ingenious, Jackson. Do you realize that?” Then she looped her elbow around his while the two of them stared at his handiwork. “I have space in my apartment. Let’s put it there.”
With each passing week, Rose and Jackson moved up row by row in the classroom. By March, they sat front and center. It was obvious that the girl was writing the boy’s take-home assignments. To the instructor’s practiced eye, syntax and sentence construction were like fingerprints, each clearly pinpointing its source.
But it was also clear that the boy was thriving. His hand shot up in class. His eyes scanned the board. And afterwards, when class was through, they both lingered. The instructor always had a new paperback on hand, perhaps Millay one week or Bishop the next. And the girl would accept it like an offering, nodding her head and smiling.
By April, Jackson’s family considered her one of their own. And as the snow began to melt, the Peters began planning their Sunday excursions.
Jackson stood in Rose’s kitchen. Lately, he spent more time at her apartment than he did at home. Of course, Doris and Butch were mortified that their child was living in sin. But when he told his parents he was just sleeping over, Jackson was telling the truth. While she headed to the bedroom, he spent every night on her couch.
“Each weekend we head to another cemetery,” said Jackson. “Some families go bowling. We go looking for headstones.”
For as long as he could remember, it was their Sunday routine. Church and then a road trip to another small town. And sure enough, on the highest hill, they’d find a patch of gravesites.
“Most people use Google maps or tell Siri to find a cemetery. But my folks are stuck in the last century. Growing up, we just crowded into our old station wagon and started driving. We’ve been everywhere from Buffalo to the Shenandoah Valley.”
He supposed it started with his dad. Butch served in Desert Storm and never quite recuperated. To this day, his ears buzzed with the sound of shrapnel. He liked to comb the cemeteries for fallen veterans. They always brought with them a box of small American flags.
“My mom won’t talk about it. But once I had a baby sister. When she was five months old, Melinda died of crib death.”
Now he got Rose’s attention. No one would look at his mom and guess the buried pain inside. “So she looks for the old headstones engraved with empty chairs or carved with doves or lambs. That’s their way of telling you a child has died.”
Rose sat down. All the color had drained from her face. Jackson knew she was taking meds. One day he stole a peek inside her medicine cabinet and saw the shelves of pills. Though he couldn’t pronounce their names, he assumed what they were for. Depression or anxiety or whatever you call a nightmare you can’t wake up from. He supposed she cared for him. He knew she cared for him. But for Rose, love was an abstract noun that she could spell but not decipher.
“Mom figured I was dyslexic early on. But then a funny thing happened. When I fingered the names on those stones, the words suddenly clicked. Pretty soon I started rubbing.”
Together, with his parents, they’d clean a headstone. Then after taping a piece of paper to it, they’d show him how to run a crayon or a piece of charcoal straight across. It was like plumbing hieroglyphics or figuring out a puzzle. They made lists of initials: FLT, GAR, FCB, LOOM, IOOF. They parsed symbols for double meanings. A weeping willow. A broken vine.
“And the best thing of all are the epigraphs.” Once again he lowered his voice. “My dear departed brother Dave. He chased a bear into a cave. Here lies the body of Johnny Blake. Stepped on the gas instead of the brake.”
“Can you get me a drink of water, Jackson?”
What was he thinking? He looked hard into her eyes. “Rose, where’s your mother buried? I never asked you about your mother.”
Rose snorted. “Cemeteries?” she said. “My God. That’s what you do for fun? Go to cemeteries?”
Jackson softened his voice to a whisper. Then he tried again. “Where’s your mother, Rose?”
“They cremated her. There was some sort of a mix-up and they just handed me her ashes.”
It was his turn to sit. “Jesus. Did you put her in a mausoleum?
She finished the glass, walked to the tap and filled up another. “I’m not tucking my mother into a chifforobe … like she was some sort of sweater.”
“So where is she now?” asked Jackson.
Rose gulped the rest down. “The last time I checked, she was sitting in the trunk of my car.”
The following Sunday, the two of them huddled in the last row of his parents’ SUV. Jackson’s little nieces took the center seats while his mom and dad sat up front. Roy and his sister, as usual, were nowhere to be found.
Butch glanced in the rearview mirror. When he spoke, his voice boomed. “Where are we heading today, kids?”
Doris unfolded a map the size of a tablecloth. Cupping his head, Jackson moaned.
“Rose,” boomed Butch, “you are about to undertake a driving adventure.”
“Jesus,” said Jackson.
“It’s a win-win situation. If we run out of gas, Jackson walks. If we get lost, Jackson gets to figure out where we are.”
Rose gazed out the window. Clumps of snow still lay on the ground while blades of grass peeked their way through.
“Can we color?” said the nieces.
“Of course,” said Doris. “We take the crayons and make the rubbings. It’s like magic.”
The first place they pulled over was at a small deserted church. In a field behind it, an obelisk was surrounded by a white picket fence.
“This is an old one,” said Jackson. “You can tell a lot about a family by the choices they made. The position of the markers, the engravings. These folks were probably Masons. The Masons were into Egyptology, pyramids and stuff.”
On the ground beside it, some fallen headstones lay half buried.
“Limestone and sandstone were easy to carve,” said Butch. “But the slabs aged poorly. They almost always broke apart.”
Rose watched while Jackson brushed his hand over the freezing rock. The name was easy to read: Ezekial Wainwright. 1853-1892. But below it, the inscription was in smaller print.
“Stopping the wayside,” said Jackson, “… I can’t make out the rest.”
In the distance, rolling hills were covered with naked trees. Rose knelt down, took off her gloves, and ran her fingers over the depressions. “Stopping the wayside, the angels took him home.”
“Can we color! Can we color!” shouted the girls.
Under Rose’s feet were broken shards of rock. But a few yards off, she spotted another headstone. This one was nearly intact.
Remember reader as you pass by. As you are now so once was I. As I am now so you shall be. Prepare for death and follow me.
“It’s like poetry, ain’t it?” said Doris.
“It’s like pages in a book,” said Jackson. “Even though the stories end the same, the difference is what happens in between.”
The instructor agonized over her parting words. Outside, magnolia trees were blooming while tulips had come and gone. Some of her students already had their lives mapped out, but a handful always teetered on the cusp. A few clear-headed decisions and a glimpse into the possible often turned a life around.
“For your final paper, I’d like to discuss the work of Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood. … I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.’”
Here the instructor paused, looked up and down the rows, and waited for the class to quiet. “Consciously, or subconsciously, we all select our paths. Which road will you choose to take?”
By June, the town cemetery was overgrown with weeds and grass, and both Doris and Rose tended it together. They laid fresh flowers at Melinda’s feet. They swept the dust off the stone.
“I love this place,” said Doris. When it was quiet, you could hear the river rippling. Flowers blossomed in the most unexpected places. Beneath a tree. Under a rock.
“I think my mother would like it here, too,” said Rose. “She always liked maple and oak trees. And she wouldn’t feel quite so alone.”
Doris grinned. She was pleased with the girl’s progress. But like her daughter’s gravesite, Rose needed tending, too.
“Let’s go talk to the guy in charge. The Peters may be large people,” said Doris, “But I believe we can clear some space.”
Gently, she took Rose’s hand while her mind started racing. Roy was leaving for college in the fall, and there’d be a spare room. There was always the basement, but with new curtains and a fresh bedspread, that room could be mighty nice.
“I hear you two signed up for another class in the fall,” said Doris.
Rose glanced up. The sun was breaking through the clouds. Everything sparkled. Their hair. Their eyes. “Pre-calculus,” she answered. “We must both be crazy.”
Once again Doris grinned. “I know I look like the brains in the family, but Butch beat me in math. He’ll help. We’ll all help.”
The lists started piling in her head. Opportunities like this one, thought Doris, don’t fall in your lap every day. There was furniture to move and fabrics to ponder. Menus to plan and food to buy. Somehow she’d get a hold of a textbook. She’d better start studying soon.
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