Every Wednesday, I?m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I?ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one?s a prequel to the fifth story in the collection, ?An Uneven House?, originally published in Beloit Fiction Journal.
We open mid-scene, in medias res, as a party with all her aunts and lady cousins is wrapping up. The music has ended. The trash bins are full. The party?s at one of her aunts? houses, the one who?s the amplest and most full of love for the woman. Picture hearthstones and brooms and wooden stools and gas lighting. Everyone glows. During the final toasts and well-wishings the woman stands as the recipient of a room full of smiles. She?s in her overcoat, and she holds a plate of cake. One cousin says something like, ?And he?s so handsome!?, which drives everyone to laughter, and the woman feels her stomach tumble and vomit spits up and falls over her chin. She coughs and it sprays onto the floor, and quickly she turns and upheaves the whole contents of her belly next to the fireplace. The laughter?s turned to screaming and people rushing to her side. The woman waves them away, pleads forgiveness. The cake was the culprit, she explains. She had too much, though this will play strangefully owing to an earlier passing detail in the POV of an aunt which reveals that she hadn?t finished her single slice. Hence the leftovers she?d been given, which now lie on the ground, vomit-stained, and ensharded with pieces of broken plate.
Leap to the woman sitting alone at a vanity, in the velvety room she rents from a spinster cousin in the city, a Baptist with certain notions re chastity and cleanliness. No men in the house. Girlfriends received in the parlor, etc. The woman faces the mirror and takes the pins out of her black hair, which all night had held up perfectly, like a souffle. Without being too obvious/corny the story turns reflective. We learn about her late adoption by an aunt (mom = dead from pneumonia; dad = drunk –> drifter) and her job at the lunch counter a fifty-minute train ride from the room she rents. Here was where she met the man she?s meant to marry in the morning. He?d eat a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk every day and smile every time she?d look at him. After just a week of such lunches he asked her to a polka night, where during their third dance around the room he tripped her and she fell to the floor. She laughed but he didn?t. His face?earlier details will compare it to a bear?s face?fell and he knelt down and lifted her off the floor. ?Are you all right?? he kept asking. ?Are you okay?? He set her in her chair and kept her there the rest of the night, marking time on his thigh with a slap of his fat hand.
Handled, she?ll think at her mirror. From the beginning she?s felt handled, like an art object in a ramshackle crate. Then some details on the removal of makeup, its processes and unguents, which reverberate off the ?art object? image in ways let?s hope are subtle. The woman leaves all her clothes on the floor to take care of in the morning and puts herself to bed. As soon as the lamp is out there?s a tapping at the window. At once, she knows it?s the fiance. He?s jumped to her fire escape from a trash bin before, the apparent ease of which leads her in mild terror to always latch the windowlock, which now the silhouette of him backlit by the streetlamp is pointing to. She lets him in and he stumbles and speaks too loudly. His tie is untied and if he wore a hat that night it?s not with him. She?s in her nightgown. This is the most he?s ever seen of her. ?It?s bad luck to see me,? she says, and he reminds her it?s not the wedding day yet. His eyes roam over her like a spray can. In slurs and starts, he tells her of his idea: they?ll go to bed together. Tonight. Tomorrow, he says, they?ll be exhausted. He can?t wait any longer for her.
Story pushes inward on the POV here to reveal she wants this, too.
Then a knock on the bedroom door from the spinster cousin. ?Everything all right?? etc. The woman glares at the fiance. The cousin, turns out, has vast savings she?s planned to give as a wedding present, so long as her all Baptist notions are upheld. The fiance knows the plan and dives behind the bed, causing the whole floor to shake. This leads the cousin to throw open the door. ?I thought you?d fallen,? she says, looking purposefully around the room. It can get a little ?Three?s Company?ey for some comic relief before all the stuff that?s about to happen. The woman comes quickly up with an explanation: the clothes on the floor. She stumbled. She reprimands herself for not putting them away properly, and this pleases the cousin back out of the room. She sends the fiance back through the window without a kiss.
The trouble with getting out of a story like this is the trouble with getting out of any story: there?s not enough time. Think about the metaphor of ?wrapping things up??like the story is a gift that?s made (or bought) and now at the end requires some kind of box and bow. But what about the time needed to build the box and bow? What about the mostly dull, overly precious look of a perfectly wrapped box and bow? Better to give just the box. Let the bow itself be an allure. Then, at the end of a story, tell them to open it. Tell them to open the box.
She dreams of gifts and presents, and the next morning, at the chapel in a square on the south end of town, word comes to her through a chain of cousins that the fiance is pacing his room and saying things like, ?I?m not a man for her.? Everyone?s afraid of a jilting, but she knows he?ll be there. He will be there for the rest of her life now. At the altar she can barely see him through her veil, barely see the priest as he asks him his intentions. We won?t know what she?s lost to get here. All those times she spit in his milk. Then he says, ?I do,? and her heart stops.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.