Honorable Mention, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
The sun off the buildings cut sharply in places against her eyes. The corner of the city looked the same as it always did, boxy storefronts drained of vibrant color, cars below flowing by like metallic debris on a black river, the rigid shadows of stoic, high-rising towers. Yet something seemed different. It all seemed fresher, more promising. It was a familiar but old feeling. The urban walls pruned of their menace, loosened by loss. For years she had looked out over the city and regarded it with stony apathy, annoyance.
Julia glided across the room from the window to pull out a long, flowing silver coat tucked away in her closet. All these years, she thought, and now she can throw it on and set out and about. She slipped in each arm, reassured that the cloth was tailored just for her. The small hairs of the dark collar rubbed against her exposed neck beneath her wintered short hair. She stood up straight in front of a hinged oval mirror to see herself in full. Her eyes caught themselves as she did, bluer than she remembered. Why hadn’t she done this years ago? she wondered, but only for an instant. She could never have donned something like this without an amused glance or hoarse sigh. He would have thought she looked preposterous, an ostrich of a woman dressed in gaudy clothing to hide her frail body and wrinkled white skin with its splotchy purple. Forget him. She put her hands to her hips and bent away from her reflection to expose the back of the coat, a sheath of silver fabric. What a beautiful coat. It had been such a shame that it hung dormant in a dusty closet for so long. Well, not anymore.
She walked out to the hallway of her apartment, delighted, and stood in front of the elevator. She just missed it, but she had all the time in the world now. It was only late morning, and the day was just settling into its own. She saw a bright, green EXIT over another open door. “Plenty of time, Jules.” She said it to herself boldly. She walked through the door. Her hand clutched the banister and her feet took the steps one at a time. She picked up her pace as she neared the bottom, confident in her legs that now felt stronger. She always had such wonderful, bronzed legs. And it wasn’t only her legs, either. Her small nose folded square on her face, the way one dimple pinched her face when she smiled, her sleepy eyes that whispered with their lashes. She was beautiful. Of course, that was years ago. A day out, it must have been years since she even heard herself say such a thing. She said it out loud, twisting her lips at their corners into a triumphant grin as she did.
“Let me get that for you, ma’am,” said a young man in khakis and a long trench coat. He held a collection of groceries, a carton of eggs knifing out of the brown bag. He cradled the paper bag like a newborn and pushed open the door with his free hand.
“Thank you, sir. How nice of you.” She pushed out into the cold morning, pleased with the courtesy. The burst of air pricked her face like a swarm of pellets. She folded her arms and stood still for a moment. She breathed the inside warmth into the icy blue. It was cold, but no colder than any other New England winter. She had endured too many by now to complain. She had sworn to bury the complaining with him—both of them now buried, lifeless, and quiet. She walked on the sidewalk as pedestrians maneuvered around her.
If she thought about it long enough, the fact that she wasn’t all that upset was somewhat upsetting. She resented having to pretend for the sake of appearance, and at the funeral when her distant relatives, people as alien as the feral cats rummaging through trash on the street below her home, and her old friends, many of whom she hadn’t spoken to in over a decade, came up to her and offered words of consolation, she looked into their faces with palpable guilt, hoping it would pass as sorrow. Good grief. It was exhausting to nod at all of them intently and thank them for their hollow words of comfort. They didn’t even know her, but here they were bending over backwards to show they cared, that they had always cared despite their absence all these years.
The whole thing was so abrupt, and although she expected to feel something eventually, it never came. The closest she came was between the first and second readings at the funeral Mass. According to a member of the choir, whom she spoke with afterwards in the parish hall, the responsorial psalm (she forgot that’s what it was called) was offered up entirely for his poor soul. It upset her that what they offered up, those haunting streaks of sound cast out beyond space and time, were only for him. She would have appreciated a stanza or two. It was only during that responsorial psalm when she felt the desire to have an ache, a phantom limb. But as the days turned to weeks, she settled into comfortable acceptance that the window for tears had shut, slammed down to keep the chill of sorrow out for good. Any tenderness had slowly evanesced over the years, that shriveling of their dreams, passions and lives like blackened, overripe fruit. What she felt was relief.
White exhaust rose from cars huddled at traffic lights, a breathing mass of metal forged into a life of its own. She walked by the windowed stores and slowed to peer in at the mannequins adorned in warm, stylish coats and chic boots. They stared out from behind the smudged glass, beautiful prisoners encased in plastic. One had a forest green scarf draped over a fiery blouse, topped with a white, lace-knit fedora. Julia’s eyes roved over it. She loved to breath in the smell of new clothes, inhale that synthetic scent of luxury, comb the aisles of a store and let her imagination toy with a dozen wild scenarios of dress. She walked into one, a boutique store that sold purses and handbags. She wanted to rub her hands across the cool leather and drape a few expensive bags over her shoulder.
“Can I help you, miss?” A short man said. He tossed a small wallet on a pile of jackets, blouses and other store items on the counter.
“No thank you. I just wanted to take a look at your purses. See if I like anything.”
“Well, over here you can see our collection.” He swirled the air as if it was a cocktail with his spidery finger.
How lovely it was to be able to buy whatever she wanted. How wonderful it was to waste a whole late morning and not have to tell a soul. She reached for a periwinkle handbag, eager to sling it over her shoulder and find the closest mirror. The bell rang at the front of the store accompanied by a whoosh of cold air. Julia looked to see a tall woman in her mid twenties walk in. She had long caramel hair and a healthy brown glow, despite it being February. She wore a black pea coat over white tights and boots that reached high up her shins. The short man greeted her and asked if he could assist her. She said no thanks and started to meander the store. Julia watched the woman’s slender fingers fondle the peppered silver and gold of necklaces on display. They tinkled between her olive fingers. Her skin didn’t have a single blemish or crease, devoid of any clue that one day it would wear. The young woman grabbed a dress on a hanger and draped it over her chest as she checked a nearby mirror. Julia looked at the woman in the reflection and focused on her dreaming eyes. The woman’s phone began ringing. She returned the dress back to the line of clothing and answered it.
“Yes? Did you find out?” She glanced at Julia in the reflection. Julia looked away. “I’m trying to decide now, but I want something that’s lighter, sporty but elegant. You know? I don’t know. Do you have something?” She tucked her free hand under her other arm. “What about the dress Maribel was going to let you borrow?” She waited for the response on the other end. “Well, yes, that’s annoying, but sweetie you’ll look gorgeous. He will think so tomorrow too. I’m sure.”
She forgot how exciting a weekend could be, when Friday and Saturday had a sound all their own: dinner with friends, weddings, engagement parties, nights out where she could flirt and smile with dizzying guilt, dance. She loved to dance. At one time, it might have been all she lived for. She wanted to go up to the young lady and tell her to mind this time, and mind it well. She wanted to warn her. All that youth and life and potential, standing there gazing into her own gorgeous reflection. What would Julia have thought at that age if an old woman approached her? She would have laughed to herself, believing more than she believed in anything that someone as beautiful as her was destined for happiness. She knew it with the clarity only naiveté can bear.
She glanced around the store for something to stave off the empty feeling. It was no use. The time had passed long ago when what she wore actually mattered. It suddenly all seemed pointless. The short man didn’t notice her as she opened the door, or if he did, he acted as if he didn’t.
Richard always insisted that he accompany her when she went out to run the weekly errands: buying groceries, refilling prescriptions, dropping off and picking up the dry cleaning. He had chronic heart problems, but he was still able despite all that flesh slapped on his upper half. He didn’t like the idea of her being out without him. The city had changed, dumped head first into the twisting stream of a toilet. Who knew what kind of crazies wandered the street in broad daylight? She used to wonder if it was because he thought she wasn’t able to exist apart from a man. Later, though, she realized he never gave much thought to it; he just enjoyed telling her what was what. If he could see her now. She sighed. She imagined him peering out of their apartment window, cooking in a beefy stew of impatience, wondering when she would return with the fresh fruit and sourdough bread, or even if she would at all. Yes. She felt much better.
She decided to see a movie. It had been some time since she last went to the theater, smelled the candied air of popcorn and soda, heard the sound of muted crunching and slurping from the audience right as the lights darkened and the screen flickered to life. When she reached the theater she stopped to gaze up at the large posters on the wall. One displayed an attractive couple in an embrace at the base of a stairway. The stairway faded into a blackness that ran off the poster. The last time she went to the movies they walked out in the middle of it. He didn’t like it. It was too loud, for one.
“I can’t make sense of this stupid thing,” he said.
“Huh? Shhh, be quiet.” Julia said.
“It’s too damn loud and I can’t make sense of it. I don’t know what’s going on.”
“Ok, lower your voice.”
“No. We’re leaving. We’re asking for a refund,” he yelled. A mother and her son with a bowl twice the size of his head turned around to eye the party responsible for the distraction.
He got up and pulled on her arm. She wasn’t going anywhere. She hadn’t even opened her box of Raisinettes and he wanted to leave twenty minutes into the movie. As soon as he got up he lost his balance and spilled his Diet Coke all over the woman and her son in front of them, the black, sweetened stuff doused them with a splash and a shriek. Then, as he always did, he apologized halfheartedly in his combative tone that implied they were now equal, even though the woman and boy still sat drenched in liquefied sugar. What a scene. What an embarrassment. Of course, she obliged his request after that. She got up immediately, pinched the flab of skin dangling from his upper arm like a turkey’s neck and pushed him out of the aisle.
She looked at a couple other posters, a science fiction movie about a quarantined colony on the moon, a cryptic horror film with the visage of a porcelain doll. What had Hollywood come to these days? She shrugged and decided she wasn’t in the mood for a movie after all. Maybe she had only wanted a snack, something sweet.
She walked a few blocks past the theater and stopped at the glass doors of a large mall. The hypnotic spin of the doors baited her inside, shimmering tackle afloat on the water’s surface. She walked through the doors and breathed in the waxy, clean smell of the floor. Shoppers moved quickly inside, like solitary fish with their eyes fixed forward. She wasn’t there to buy anything, even look around (she’d already had her fill for the day), but she was hungry, and if memory served her right, there stood a delicious little cafe tucked in the corner of the food court. She passed several stores and kiosks. One man stood in the middle of the walkway. He extended his wiry arm out to couples and young men and women in an attempt to convince them to smell a strip of paper in his hand. How much of that perfume did he actually sell? She walked by his small kiosk in the middle of the floor, propped up between two stores. He looked up at her with a glance of blurred recognition, as if she had whispered his name unexpectedly, and then back down into the palm of his hand, the strip of white coiled on top.
She recognized the smell when she reached the food court, a mixture of cinnamon and baked dough, the sweet aroma of maple syrup. She went over to where the small cafe used to be only to see a massive cartoon head of a cow. The carnivalesque, wide eyes mocked her with feigned excitement. The place still served coffee, pastries and other things, but it wasn’t the same. She swallowed, as if the saliva could ameliorate the disappointment bubbling in her stomach. She ordered a banana nut muffin and a cappuccino and sat down. It was lunchtime, and it was relatively crowded, but she was glad for it. Something about the crowd restored a sense of safety that had started to slip at the movie theater. Directly in front of her a young couple sat at a table. She could make out what they were saying.
“I told you. I checked it before we left.” He wiped his fingers with a napkin over his empty plate.
“Ok, well, I don’t want her coming in and seeing it is all.” She said.
“I know. I know. Hurry up and finish your soup, we still have to get the couch.”
“Give me a minute. We’ve been running around all day. Let me sit without all the noise. I’m going to enjoy what I can of this twelve-dollar bread bowl. Ridiculous.” She lifted a creamy spoonful of white to her mouth. He started to flip through a brochure in his hand. The cover flashed an oak kitchen table in the middle of dining room. It shone with a plastic superficiality that couldn’t be resisted. He flipped through the pages too quickly to read anything.
Julia sipped her cappuccino. She wiped a soft dab of cream on the tip of her nose with a napkin. She looked out at the crowd. Two children waddled back and forth behind their distracted parents, a mall employee emptied a trash bin, a group of elderly women laughed in the distance. How strange to see all of these people, busied by their errands and agendas. She seemed to be the only one who saw any of them, everyone else too busy looking into their heads instead of out, trying not to forget anything, or perhaps, trying to forget everything. The man’s voice from the ornery couple pulled her back in. She couldn’t help herself. They were so loud.
“We’re not going to buy that. It’s way too expensive and we can’t afford it.” He stared at the open brochure on the table.
“We moved out here because you had a great job opportunity. Your words. As far as I’m concerned, we can afford whatever I want right now. I told you I need my own workspace, so stop being selfish and let me have it.” She plucked a stray hair from her sweater.
“Don’t do this. Enough with the move. We’re here so let’s just get on with it.”
“Yeah, that’s easy. I’ll just get on with it.” She tore off a morsel of soggy bread and shoved it into her mouth. She chewed it like it had some tangential involvement in the move. When she had swallowed it, she continued. “No, you know what, it’s still a big deal. This isn’t just something you get over in a few weeks. I left all of my friends and family to come out here for your job. I hate this city so you better at least let me buy what the hell I want.”
“Stop. You don’t hate this city. We agreed this was good for both of us. Come on.”
“You’re right. The winters are lovely. Real nice.” She said it so seriously it sounded like the season actually delighted her with its confining coldness.
“You keep pulling this. We got the espresso machine. We’re going back to visit your parents in—”
“Whoa. You are going to literally count the espresso machine as equal to me leaving Austin?”
“No, I’m just saying that I’m trying.”
“Oh, well, you’re right. I can have freshly brewed lattes as I sit all day at home with no friends waiting for you to get back from your fourteen-hour workday. Thank God for the espresso machine. What would I do without it, Darren? You’re so generous. Give me a break.”
“That’s enough. You want the desk then we’ll go and get it. Fine. But this has to stop.”
“Oh, no, the espresso machine is more than enough.”
“I’m done. Let’s go.”
“Look babe, I’m just saying that…”
Their voices faded as they walked away, a heap of white bags in tow, their argument consumed by the food court’s chatter. She lifted a piece of muffin to her mouth and thought about how arguments with him used to make her feel, the way the skin on her neck and arms rose, the pending silence that sucked the air out of her lungs as she waited for his reaction. His temper burned like iron heated in a nest of flame. She remembered that age. Although she wished they only argued about espresso machines and overpriced, glossy desks. It was their anniversary, and they were out at the same place they went every year, a steak place only fifteen minutes from their house. It was like the Ritz, all that red meat. At least one of them thought so.
“I know you are lying to me. I know it, Richard.” Julia said. She looked down her nose at an untouched salad.
“I told you dear. You’re panicking over nothing. Now go on and eat your salad. This place isn’t cheap.”
“You stop lying to me. Treat me like a woman and an adult. Don’t treat me like a child,” she said, her eyes boring into his.
“You’re being paranoid. Besides, she is barely of age, for goodness’ sake.” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger over his black mustache. “I’m telling you, she isn’t even there most of the time as a part-time worker. She’s an assistant. Who do you think I am? Dammit. She’s just a girl. You should know better, now, Julia!” He slammed the table with his hand, ushering in a horrible silence that stretched the whole of the restaurant.
She didn’t bring it up again the rest of the night. She had suspected something was going on a few weeks before. She attended his company’s Christmas party where she met the assistant, Bethany. Her droll face and obnoxious manner of speaking—everything she said to the men sounded like a whimper—made for a poor attempt at endearment. Plus, she hovered just a step above plain, quite average. She noticed the way Richard kept looking at her petite, oval mouth, the way she laughed at his every joke and brushed his arm with hers. Julia was left to the other wives, to listen to them talk about their ungrateful, difficult children. She had nothing to contribute. And there he stood, mingling with his male co-workers and female assistants, laughing through his drunk breath. She wasn’t stupid. How dare he think she was? It was almost worse than the act itself.
He never admitted it. A few months later Bethany moved away. Her father got a job in Jersey City and she moved with her family. Julia had her doubts before then, but the day Bethany moved away (Richard never told her when her last day was, but she called his office pretending to be someone else to find out), he came home and drank a whole bottle of wine and smoked two cigars. He didn’t say a word. After he sat in front of the radio well past midnight and stared out the window at the frozen mess of buildings and telephone wires, he got into bed next to her and fell asleep. They didn’t sleep together for three months. She never doubted again after that.
She thought having her greatest fear come true would have been more horrible, life shattering, even purifying. Instead, it felt like looking into the mirror for the first time without any makeup and realizing she was starting to look like everyone else. She had friends who had gone through the same thing. Some of them were so fiery, or tragically insecure (she wasn’t sure which), that they confronted their husbands repeatedly until they admitted it. After that there would be the tears, the broken wine glasses and plates, the rejected penitential affections, the children now awake in their bedrooms. She couldn’t imagine having to look into a child’s eyes, a little girl, and lie, tell her that Mommy and Daddy were just having a little fight and that they still loved each other, that they still loved her. God forbid if every word would have been a lie. Other women she talked to never talked about their doubts or concerns. Maybe it was because they had married good men. Julia chose to believe that wasn’t the case. If she could convince herself that all men led to same end, it would be easier on her marriage, easier on Richard.
The food court began to thin. It gave her an eerie feeling, as if she had outstayed her welcome. She looked at the clock. It was nearly 3pm, still somewhat early. She wasn’t sure what to do next, although she knew she couldn’t go back home just yet. It was too early, and home was still too familiar.
She decided to visit the bridge and look out over the river, let the wind off the water stream against her face, smell the city buried in it. It would be cold, but she could endure it for a few minutes, to be able to say to herself that she had undoubtedly been out and about. She made her way to the nearest bus stop and waited. A young man with headphones in his ears, his head socked with a black beanie, stood next to her. The tinny bass crept out from his headphones. He didn’t look in either direction, as if the headphones tethered his eyes forward like a bridle. The bus pulled up and exhausted a burst of hot air at her ankles, the harsh breath of downtown. The door whipped open and the young man sprung up the steps and took an open seat in the front. She went up the steps slowly, out of breath for the first time today. She reached the top and looked at the bus driver for a congratulatory nod. He looked past her at the open door. She paid the fee and made her way to a seat. She sat down and scooted over to the window. She felt the cold off the glass, like a block of ice. The sooty grey and white of the city dragged by as she stared out the window.
The bus stopped at a traffic light. People crossed the street in both directions, a congested merge of movement. On the corner a stout man with a blue scarf and a brown, bunchy jacket played a saxophone. She didn’t recognize the song, but the sonorous sound of charmed wind scratched at her. The man bent and bowed his body with each note, his eyes closed as his fingers worked the golden keys. An opened black case lay in front of him littered with crumpled green and a spray of brass and silver coins, pins of colored light against a miniature black sky. The bus started up again. The music weaved through the frozen air in search for ears to give it rest.
The last thing he said to her was the same thing he said every night before bed. That’s when he put on his favorite jazz album, at night before bed. He listened to the hounding brass, drank orange juice and chewed gum. It was better than whisky, which the doctor had finally convinced him to table only a few years before. He sat and listened to the same dozen records, while Julia did her best against the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. They didn’t talk, and he sat in the sofa that looked out past their old TV into the neighbor’s windows, cells locked in their own inimitable darkness. Apart from a few sighs and clicks of his tongue, he didn’t make any noises. She didn’t either. Sometimes she asked him for help on a clue if it had to do with the Civil War, cars or baseball. He would say that it would come to him, that he was sure of it. Then he wouldn’t say anything. She never asked twice. It was no surprise that it’s what they did his last night. He listened to Charlie Parker work miracles in midair, got up with a laborious grunt and said he was going to bed. Then he walked into the room and unintentionally slammed the door like he always did. An hour later she went to bed. She didn’t realize he was dead until the next morning. She wondered if he had died before she fell asleep that night. If he had, there would have been no way to know in the silent dark.
The orange blur of a jogger snapped her back into the moment. She looked past him and recognized an old police station.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” she said.
She’d missed her stop. She would have to get off now and wait for another bus.
She knew exactly where she was when she stepped back onto the sidewalk, only a couple blocks from the park. Since she was close, she decided to stop by there instead of the bridge. It wasn’t like going would remind her of anything she didn’t already remember.
A nervousness swept within her stomach as she started down the sidewalk. A line of leafless trees, a nest of brittle wood, blackened the horizon. A small frozen pond stamped the middle of the park in white. A single bench flagged at the top of the hill looked out over the pond and downtown at the urban thorns reaching up to pierce the frozen, colorless sky.
They had tried so hard, and for some reason losing the third one was the hardest to stomach. It was the closest they got. Twenty weeks. She came out to this park, filled with so much anger and sadness, a numbness that kept her tears locked behind the fleshy pink of her eyes. She rushed out of the house despite his cries for her to stay. She had to be alone. She went up to that bench and looked over the still pond, the mindless movements of the ducks gliding over its soft, mirrored surface. She hated it for its blatant apathy. What good had they done together? What good could they ever do? A few hours later, when the evening’s darkness started to grow and creep over her, he put his hand on her shoulder. He didn’t say anything. She wasn’t surprised that he knew where she was. It was always her spot. He kept it there, the heaviness of it. Eventually she got up and they went home. Neither of them talked about it, or the other two, ever again.
A young woman walked behind her two sons as they headed toward the frozen pond. Each time the young woman reigned one of her sons in, the other one lunged out into the snow bunched at the edge of the path. The two boys ran back and forth across the path freely, their rapid clouds of breath swirling in the air like untethered miniature steam boats. A middle-aged man with a pea coat and a newspaper under his arm walked past the boys, smiling at them. Aside from a few others passing through, the emptiness of the park made it seem larger than Julia remembered.
She walked up the hill and swallowed the cold with each heavy breath. It burned inside her chest. The bench breached into sight, a single plank of wood long enough for only two. She walked over to it and sat down. Clouds covered most of the watery blue sky, the sun buried beneath a billowy grey that rolled up from the horizon. Her chest rose and fell, and she looked down at the frozen pond and the grey buildings behind it in the distance. She felt calm. The breeze shuffled the wooden arms of leafless trees.
She put her hand out on the empty bench. She kept it on the cold wood. The deadness of it rose into the palm of her hand. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, in and out. The soft notes, the ones pleading for his soul during Mass those weeks ago bled out from within, like trickling water through a cracked vase. She listened with her mind’s ears to the words sung only for him. Against the familiar impulse to stay locked in silence, she whispered the words to herself, her breath set free in frosted flame. She whispered the words over and over again as she waited for someone to come up and let her know it was time to go home.
Chris Hazell is a Catholic writer living in San Diego. With a passion for sports, good food and drink, deep conversations with friends, funny stories and writing, he attributes all of the blessings in his life—health, family and friends—to nothing but God’s overabundant grace.