Still Literary Contest Fiction Winner: Jon Sealy
Jon Sealy's stories have appeared recently in The Sun, PANK, and drafthorse. A South Carolina native, he has an MFA from Purdue and is currently a freelance writer in Richmond, Virginia.
Fiction judge Charles Dodd White writes of Jon’s winning story: "'Issaqueena'" is a subtle story of heartbreak and remembrance as beautiful as its name, told in a fine, elegant prose so quiet in the heart and so relentless in its final truth. The author is a poet for the languid rhythms of regret and atonement. There is only so much one can take away from superlatives, to be sure. But beyond that, there is wisdom. We can learn from what this writer has to say."
Clayton Porter had been waiting on the letter—or a phone call, an email, some bit of news—for so long that its arrival could only be a disappointment, an intrusion from a life he’d long ago folded and tucked away in his memory. He was home now, settled, and no longer interested in the events this letter would set into motion. The letter itself traveled out of a small lakeshore town in Michigan, one day in early April, south through the cornfields of Indiana, the wide horse pastures and bluegrass of Kentucky. Farther south, over the Appalachian Mountains, their loaming rich soil and cedar forests, the letter settled in a cleft, where the toe of the Blue Ridge meets the gently sloping Carolina Piedmont. A town’s name was scrawled in illegible cursive, wide looping letters recorded in thick blue ink and slanted to the right: Issaqueena, named for a Cherokee woman whose tribe once lived up near Stumphouse Mountain. A truck carried the letter on Interstate 85 along the westward sprawl of Greenville-Spartanburg, then north into a small railroad and textile town, where it lay for three days, lost in a backlog of out-of-state mail. By the Saturday it reached Clayton, his wife was already off the plane in Michigan, sitting comfortably with her parents and weighing her options regarding Clayton and the children.
Not long after his wife, Rachel, had left him for Central America, he began experiencing panic attacks, felt claustrophobic in Chicago, a generalized anxiety about the flat and gloomy Midwest, and he needed to return to South Carolina, to this land he’d grown from like the cotton on old plantations. He bought a dilapidated farmhouse that rose out of the red, cotton-ruined soil because he’d known the day-to-day labor of repair would help him endure. And he did endure, until this Saturday when the mailman crawled along in his beat-up Grand Marquis, its paint flecked off, the undercarriage rusted and dirty. Clayton was out in the yard, raking grass clippings after the first spring’s mow. He’d begun early today, had the grass cut by eleven, the yard almost raked by one. He’d hoped to get a jump on pruning the trees this weekend, but the temperature had already risen into the eighties, the humidity thick. The car burped and clunked down Bluebird Lane, and squeaked to a stop in front of the house, then moved on. The stocky, grizzly-bearded driver waved, and Clayton waved back before returning to his work.
The front door opened, and Beth ran out in socks, a cross-stitch in one hand, the TV remote in the other, across the yard to the mailbox. Gangly, knobby-limbed, and still two inches taller than her older brother, she fumbled around the mailbox, both hands full, and seemed oblivious to the larger world, the neighbors’ houses closing in on them as the neighborhood grew, the town swelling like a sprained appendage as more and more industry moved into the upstate. She wore a small white t-shirt and bright red shorts with white letters on the back—“IQHS,” Issaqueena High School—and he knew her body was filling into those letters, but he refused to consider what that might mean. Both of his children were home this afternoon, a condition he was always grateful for. Now that they were both in high school, it seemed like one of them was always off somewhere. Maybe he would quit after raking and make something nice for dinner. Perhaps they could grill shish kabobs and eat on the patio. She came up with a handful of mail, and he said, “You’re going to ruin your socks.”
“You didn’t have to pay for them.”
“Daddy.” She rifled through the thick bundle of coupons, the weekly town newspaper, and pulled out two letters. Clayton had already turned back to his raking, and was kicking at a stubborn clump of grass stuck to one of the tines when she announced there was a letter from Michigan. In an instant, his pleasant spring Saturday crumbled away, and his daughter—this strange adolescent, her hair pinned in a bun with a pencil, the cross-stitch tucked neatly under her arm and the remote still in one hand—scrunched up her face and said, “I bet it’s from Grandma Catherine.”
“Does it have your name on it?”
“It’s addressed to you.”
“Well, don’t open it.”
“Our address isn’t typed. It’s a letter from someone.” She held in front of her, her fingers on the corner like she would tear into it the second he looked away.
“Give it to me.” Slowly, she handed it over, and he took it, recognized his mother-in-law’s handwriting, the crazy slant of its letters. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d written, these past twelve years a whir of activity and longing. Shouting on the phone, clipped words, threatened legal action on both sides, each party feeling the unearned scorch of Rachel’s abandonment.
Beth was still in front of him. “What?” he asked her.
“Aren’t you going to open it?”
“I will later. I want to get this yard cleaned up first.”
She stood a moment longer, her lips parted, and finally turned and started toward the house. The door closed, and he leaned against the rake and held the envelope. The sun burned on his neck and around the corners of his eyes. A car drove by on the highway, then another. He walked over and, pausing, crouched over to stare again at the blue ink, his name scribbled in big letters. He wedged the envelope under one of the mower’s tires. Heat blasted off the cement, the faint lines where the pavers had raked their squeegees across, the white yellowed in the years of sun. Now that afternoon was coming on, the gloom from the house crept into their driveway, had almost made its way to the mower. He trudged to the wheelbarrow, then made his way to the nearest pile of grass clippings. When was the last time he’d seen that handwriting? He’d first tried to puzzle over those letters a lifetime ago, when he and Rachel were still dating. He remembered how his future mother-in-law had signed off, the cursive bleeding so that it could have read Master as easily as it said Mrs.
He scooped a large clump of grass onto the fan of the rake and began a steady rotation of scrape and drop, scrape and drop. Sweat trickled into his eyes, and no matter how much he wiped his face the water seemed to cling to his skin, the humidity so thick that the line between sweat and air blurred like the handwriting on that letter. Three piles of clippings filled the wheelbarrow, and he left the rake in the grass and carted the load to the backyard. There he had a makeshift compost heap, a roux of woody trash from the yard and decaying plant matter that spread into the woods. Inside the strand of close-knit pin oaks and poplars, the musk scent of the windless air clotted. Farther in the woods, a fallen cedar lay rotting.
His mother-in-law was not a bad woman at heart, he believed, but she’d made him miserable for a time, as though it were his fault Rachel had left. They’d reached an uneasy stalemate, he’d thought. No contact for years now, as if both parties had finally agreed the best thing to do was to forget the other. He returned to the side yard and worked steadily through the height of the afternoon heat, the sun shifting lazily from one to three to four, the shadows lengthening on him. He moved the envelope to the garage before washing the mower and stowing his tools. Rather than going inside to see what she’d written, he took out the saw and clippers and attacked the drooping, winter-worn limbs of the water oaks in the side yard. Leaf buds were growing to leaves, dead limbs of soft wood pulling against the trunk. Sweat-drenched and bone-sore, he put down the saw in late afternoon and lay down on the dirty, cool floor of the garage, and stared at the envelope. Dusty, wrinkled in one corner, the blue script gazing at him.
They had been married twelve years on the night she left, and were the perfect match, he’d thought. They’d met in college, he studying advertising, she anthropology, and he’d thought they both felt a spark for each other that never went away, even after the newness of first love wore off, after they were married and had children, after their day to day lives were more about paying the car insurance or phone bill on time than Friday nights at Pizza Hut and then the movies. It wasn’t until she disappeared that he stepped back and reflected on who he was and what he was doing. He was success, he felt. All the way north to Chicago, his past in Issaqueena behind him, he had steady work, he made a good living, he provided for his family. He’d not felt anything particular for his job as an adman. He liked graphic design, had an eye for visual details, and he was happy to be in a position where he could do what he liked. But when she left, he did consider it unfortunate that even though his job was to read people and convince them, he was unable to read his wife, the woman closest to him. He’d felt like something of a fraud since then, but the prospect of starting again from the ground up made him tired. After he moved his children back to South Carolina, he found the same kind of work in an upstate office, and had spent eight years trucking along.
The night Rachel left, she asked him to take the kids to the movies so she could have the house to herself. She wanted to do some cleaning, she said, and he didn’t think anything of it. She wanted to be alone for the night, and that was fine. And though she wasn’t at home when the three of them returned, he saw the note on the counter and assumed she’d stepped out to the drug store. He calmly put the kids to bed, took off his shoes and splashed water on his face. He turned on the TV and waited almost twenty minutes—a Green Acres marathon was on, retro week for one of the cable stations—before he began to think it odd that she hadn’t come home. In the kitchen, he read her generic apology: I’m sorry, Clayton. I’m smothered and need space. She’d scratched her name, no love, no explanation, no hint at when or if she’d return. He made phone calls, first to her parents in Charleston, and then to her sister Sheryl in Indiana. Rachel didn’t work, and she’d lost touch with her old college friends, so whom could he call? After midnight, he called the police and was told they couldn’t do anything unless he suspected foul play. No one had broken in. There were no signs of a scuffle.
The wintry night dragged on. In the tenebrous living room light, he dwelled on the couch, jiggled his leg, believing he’d never really known her. A reel of images streamed through his mind: his wife talking low on the phone behind closed doors, his wife pausing over the kitchen sink to stare out the window, the water running over her reddening hands and her hair in her eyes, cryptic comments tossed out, like when he showed her his latest design—an advertisement for a powerful new brand of cough suppressant—she’d said, “You men. Always looking to control everything,” to which he’d laughed, perhaps even kissed her. They were still under forty. They were old enough, had been married too long, he thought, to have the kind of marital disputes they’d had in the early years, when she’d complained because he wouldn’t clip his fingernails over a trashcan in the bathroom—“Then I walk in and step on those little fragments, it’s disgusting”—and he’d chastised her for leaving her curling iron plugged in—“You’ll start a fire”—and they were too young, he thought, to have serious fights, the kind of midlife crisis debates that end marriages.
When she hadn’t returned by morning, he called his sister-in-law again, packed up the children and drove to her house in suburban Indiana. The plan was that she would watch them for a day or two while he drove back into the city to do more searching and to fill out a police report. But when he reached her apartment, she told him that Rachel had contacted her parents, explained how she’d joined a mission and was building churches in Costa Rica. She’d needed more than mere space from her family. She’d needed a new life altogether. With that news, he began to accept this as more than a temporary crisis, but for the abandonment it was. He was so angry that he quit his job and left the city, returned to Issaqueena and petitioned for divorce. Because of South Carolina’s laws about no-show parties in legal proceedings, he had the announcement published in The Greenville News every day for a week. But in this chilly kitchen, he was only vaguely aware that from here on, there would be a then and a now. He would one day look at the two images of himself and wonder if there was any way to synthesize them, to make sense of it all. By the time the world shifted back into focus, they would be living in Issaqueena, and he would have devoted his prime years to burying himself in his work, ignoring the burn on his heart.
The story goes that in the 1600s, the teenage daughter of the tribal elder fell in love with a white man in a settlement to the south. One day, the daughter, Issaqueena, overheard that her tribe was planning to attack the white village, so she stole away with a horse and rode ninety-six miles through South Carolina’s deciduous Piedmont to warn the settlers, and to find her way she named landmarks as she went: Six Mile, Twelve Mile, Twenty-Six. The settlers lived in what is now the town of Ninety-Six, a battered no-man’s land between Greenville and Columbia. She warned them, and they escaped. The Cherokees wanted to kill her for her betrayal, so she and her lover hid out for three days in what is now Stumphouse Tunnel. The tribe searched, and when they were close to finding the couple, she fled to lure them away. She ran to a waterfall and feigned suicide by climbing onto a rock ledge behind the falls, just below the lip of the cliff. Assuming she’d jumped, the tribe left, and at nightfall she slunk out into the pine-rich forest and found her lover. According to legend, they traveled west and lived happily ever after in the sunset.
Two hundred years later, following Reconstruction, the textile industry boomed in the upstate, and mill towns sprang up like weeds across the Piedmont. Struggling tenant farmers moved away from failing farms and cash crops—King Cotton, tobacco—off the mountains and into the mills. The town of Issaqueena was built along her trail, near Twelve Mile Creek, and marked the halfway point on the railroad line between Atlanta and Charlotte. The tracks bisect the town east-west along Highway 123, and shops along Main face them like an audience. In the 1970s, the local power company and the Army Corp of Engineers designed a system of lakes to funnel out of the mountains, into the Piedmont and south towards the coast. They dammed up rivers—the Jocassee, the Savannah—and lakes covered farms from Oconee County to Columbia. The suburbs of Greenville trickled west to Issaqueena, and upscale subdivisions stitched their way along the banks of these lakes. On breezy days in the warm season, the salt smell of fish and pines permeates the east side of town, the limits of which stretch across the tracks to the Porter house.
Clayton caught wafts of this smell as he finished his yard work and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Hard afternoon light lit the room orange. Twelve years, and they’d not managed to accumulate more than the bare essentials of furniture—a functional table, a busy entertainment center, game remotes sprawled out to the coffee table, bare white walls. Josh on the couch, watching a rerun of The Price Is Right. Big and shadowy and sullen, he was always watching TV if he was home, though during his senior year he’d gotten a girlfriend and joined a band, so he’d been out more and more, so that there were days when Clayton didn’t see his son. On weekends, he slept past noon and was usually out for the day by three or four.
Today was a rarity, and he thought perhaps, like a family, they could figure out why Grandma Catherine wanted to intrude on their lives all over again. He could see Josh and Beth laughing, making jokes at her expense while cool, spring air brought in the smell of wisteria and hyacinth. God, when had he gotten so sentimental that having both his children in the house for dinner could make him this lighthearted? Lately, spontaneous emotions flooded him. Was this what they meant by a mid-life crisis? Perhaps he should go out and buy that giant Delta 88 he’d wanted since high school, drive the kids all the way up to Michigan and square off with Rachel’s family in person.
Josh lay with his feet on the back of the couch. His skin was greasy and pale, and he had an indecisive growth of patchy stubble on his face. His hair in tangles and pushed up by a red bandana, his jeans with holes in the knees and frayed at the ankles. On his shirt, a screaming, blood-streaked clown face, some band reminiscent of Black Sabbath. For a moment, Clayton remembered his own youth, how his own father had been exasperated on Saturdays when he and his younger brother had lain around idle.
Josh grunted again.
“I’m surprised to see you’re still here.”
“Levi’s with his Dad this weekend, and Kaleb’s grounded. Who’s the letter from?”
“What did Kaleb do to get grounded?”
“Beth said it was from Michigan. Is it from Grandma Catherine?”
“And Levi’s father, where does he live?”
“Come on, did you open it?”
Clayton sighed, and the dream of the jokes, the dinner, slid away with each passing breath. “No, I haven’t opened it yet.”
Josh muted the TV and said, “Why not?”
Before he could answer, Beth shouted from upstairs, “I told you he wouldn’t open it.” His son stared from the couch, a challenge in those soft gray-blue eyes, still a child’s eyes despite the spatter of pimples on his face, hair that mushroomed over the bandana. The boy was delicate when it came right down to it, and for the first time in a long while, Clayton wondered how his son got on in school, if he was picked on, if he was falling into a crowd that would one day get him in trouble. How much of a father is passed to the son? Beth clopped against the floor upstairs, and Josh waited. Clayton still gripped the envelope, clenched his fingers to the stiff paper until it popped, and folded a vertical crease across the scrawl. Josh broke the silence and said, “Are you going to open it?”
“I will.” He turned, and moved to exit the room, said, “But I need a minute to cool off. It’s hot out there.” And with that he slipped down the hall to his bedroom, shut the door, and breezed to the bathroom. A pair of slacks and a plaid, short-sleeve button-down were draped neatly over the chair at his desk, a fresh pair of boxers and socks in the seat, items he’d set out this morning before going to work in the yard. Though the rest of his house had an unpolished, cluttered, feel to it—often because his kids left their junk lying around—he kept his room tidy, utilitarian. An empty desk, a clear dresser top, these things calmed him. He left the clothes on the chair, clicked on the bathroom light, and, still holding the letter, closed the door. There, he stripped from his yard clothes, damp with sweat, and sat down on the toilet, turned the envelope over and over, wearing only his boxers. His body: splotches and bumps and bulges of flesh that he didn’t recognize, couldn’t remember if they’d been there last year, or all his life, or were some malignant growth here to bring him home early. The dark, almost black mole on his calf, shaped like an ant and sprouting short hairs like eyelashes. The grooves in the skin that ran from his fingers toward his wrist, notches like knife scars. And most troubling, the strange, painless bulge behind his scrotum that stiffened when his bladder was full. He would go to the doctor soon, he kept telling himself. Perhaps his body had always had these lumps and stiff spots, and he’d simply never noticed them before, or recognized them as objects to take notice of. He tore open the letter.
Josh was gone when he got out of the shower. He came out of his bedroom after half an hour and found the television on, his son missing, but it took Beth coming down a few minutes later for him to accept that, yes, there would be no family dinner this evening, no mixed grill and no laughing at their grandmother’s folly.
“He went out with some of his friends right after you got in the shower,” she said from the middle of the stairs. She stretched her arms far out in front of her, and he thought of Gumby, Inspector Gadget, images from her childhood. It frightened him to see incarnations of her recent selves: at eleven, hitting a growth spurt so that her clothes no longer covered her knobby limbs; her period at thirteen, still a child, and that awkward moment where he brought her to his own mother’s house down near Columbia and asked for help in explaining things to her, things his mother had never had to explain as a parent to him or his brother; and now at sixteen, still bony, still a child, but with traces of Rachel in her, a curve on the side of her upper lip, her penchant for bizarre craft projects in her free time—cross-stitching, scrapbooking, rearranging furniture in her room at eleven on a Tuesday night. That kind of creative energy had been one of the things that had drawn him to Rachel when they were in college, how she could make even a dorm room a place where he felt at home, the lavender-to-plum fade she’d painted the walls, the fragrance of white amaryllis, the order of things. Beth was picking up that same spirit. His daughter seemed to have so much nervous energy, and she poured it all into these projects.
He said, “I guess he’s out for the evening. He didn’t want to stay long enough to hear what his grandmother had to say?”
“He said if you were going to be weird about it, he didn’t care. That it was probably nothing anyway.” She glided down the rest of the stairs and across the room to the couch, moving with the ease of youth.
“Do you have plans this evening?” he asked. “Do you want to go into town and get something to eat?”
“No, I’m not really hungry. I was planning to stay in tonight.” She turned on the TV and began flipping through channels, not pausing long enough for him to see what was actually on.
“Your mother’s coming back.” The words came out before he had time to process what he was saying. What would that mean for him and his children? He was conscious of a schism the night Rachel disappeared, how time had become an amorphous haze. In an instant, all those years had solidified and slammed into him like a train barreling out of his past.
It took a moment for Beth to answer, and when she did it was a word to buy more time for him: “Really?” She muted the TV and turned to him, her arm on the back of the couch.
“That’s what your grandmother says. She’s flying into Detroit later this month. You can read her note if you want. She didn’t say anything else, just broke the news and said she thought I might like to know.”
“Is she here for good?”
“I don’t know, Beth. She just said she’s flying back.”
“Well Jesus, is she coming down here? Or are we going to up to Michigan?” Beth shoved her hand to her chin, folded her middle fingers into her mouth, and bit on her nails, a habit leftover from childhood.
“Hey, slow down here. I don’t know if we’re going to see her right away.”
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t we?”
“She’s been gone a long time, you know. She might not want to see us.” He was trying to be the rational parent, but his words were clipped, patronizing.
“I think she would want to see us.”
“She might. I don’t know. But I think we should all keep in mind that she’s probably not the same person she used to be, so we need to be cautious, is all. We need to be on our guard.”
Instead of responding, she sat back in the couch and turned the volume back on. She seemed detached. She had her legs folded under her, and watching her, he saw that while her body was still as slender as always, she sat with poise, as if she’d developed a new kind of grace without his realizing. He felt a flash of heat in his gut. What was Rachel thinking? What right did she and her family have to reenter their lives, now that the children were nearly grown and he was a broken man?
He was restless as the evening descended. Outside in the gloaming, the last streak of sunlight seemed to be tugging in the darkness, and the heat from the day had blown west with the light or risen away from the earth toward the coldness of space. The joists and rafters creaked as the house shifted its weight. Wind scuttled across the yard, blew limbs and leaves into the screens. Cars sped by on the highway, to and from town, and somewhere in fields, cows were sitting down, a sign that spring rains were on their way. Wind blew harder out on the lake, chopped up the water and carried the smell of fish and slick moss in the cool air at the edge of town. Somewhere, Josh was with friends, doing God knows what, but here in the house, the drone of the television shut down, and lights pattered out one room at a time, until Clayton lay alone in a troubled sleep.
Clayton. Her voice makes him stir under the covers, half-conscious of leaves scratching at the house, of a faint thudding somewhere, shingles that need to be refastened, perhaps. Clayton. Soft, like the slow glide of a bow across fiddle strings tuned to A-minor. He turns to where Rachel sits in the chair at his desk, unchanged, in the same orange and blue flower-print dress she’s worn in his mind for twelve years, the same green eyes, a panther, the peridot, stone of August.
Long time, he says.
You’ve got a nice place here.
Been working on it for a decade, but it still feels like we just moved in. He hears himself slipping into the southern lilt he charmed her with in college, the voice of home.
Where are the kids tonight? You all alone?
Beth should be upstairs. Josh is out.
Out? Out where?
Who knows. Out with his friends somewhere. I got a note from your mother today.
I know it. She didn’t waste any time. You know, I really think she has it in for you.
Why are you here?
The blinds clack against the windowsill behind her. She tilts her head and brushes a skein of her wavy hair back from her face. Do you remember when we were dating, and you and your brother got into it one night at Tiger Town?
He was home from the Navy, so we took him out. He was supposed to stay at our place, but the two of you started arguing over something when I was in the restroom. He stormed out when he saw me.
I don’t remember that at all.
You never did tell me what it was about. I asked you, but you said he was going to stay with your parents. You looked at me and said, Don’t worry. I’ll tell you about it later. Later’s come and gone, Clayton, and you don’t even remember?
Then she was gone. Still half in his dream, he turned on the light by his bed and looked around the room. Where did she go? How did she leave? No door had opened. The window? The blinds were closed, and the cord waved gently in the air that blew up from the vent on the floor. Everything in the room was in place, the desk in the corner, the chair turned out to the bed, the basket on the dresser where he kept his wallet, watch, and cell phone, the phone plugged in, the green light blinking. He hadn’t heard anything. Rachel was here, and then Rachel was not, so he stood and peered under the bed, opened the closet, and paused in the center of the room, harsh ochre light stinging his eyes. Fully awake, but not far from his dream, he realized that she had never been here. She abandoned him years ago, went off to a different life in Central America. He clicked off the light but remained standing in the room for several moments, in the welcomed darkness, before returning to bed.
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